Emile Locoul was a third generation Louisiana plantation owner. He was considered a Creole, which in Louisiana meant a person’s whose ancestors came when Louisiana was a colony and who maintained the colonial traditions. Most Creoles were of French, Spanish, and/or African extraction, and their culture was a mixture of all three.
Locoul’s family owned a sugar plantation, and were noted for their violent temper. The first to come to Louisiana was Guillaume Gilles, a native of Caen. He was run off after killing his father’s friend in a duel. Guillaume took on the name “Duparc” and served in the French navy, seeing action in the American Revolution at Savannah, Pensacola, and Yorktown. He won a citation from King Charles III of Spain. After the war, Duparc entered Spanish service, commanding the post of Pointe Coupée in the Louisiana colony. He conned local Acadians (today’s Cajuns) out of property and suppressed the Pointe Coupée slave uprising with particularly brutal methods. He even kept cannons on his plantation in St. James Parrish in order to defend himself. When the Louisiana Purchase was signed, Thomas Jefferson granted Duparc land, due to his military service and pronounced Anglophobia.
The second generation on the plantation was marked by tragedy, including young deaths, murder, and a reputation for being strict slave-masters. Louis Raymond “Emile” Locoul, born in 1822, proved to be an exception. As a young boy he got along with the slaves, which horrified his mother Elisabeth. She was considered a great beauty but noted for her savvy, if ruthless, business sense. Locoul was by nature introspective and bookish. Elisabeth upheld Guillaume Gilles Duparc as the family ideal and she shipped Locoul off to a military academy in Boudreaux at age thirteen. Instead, Locoul took in the liberal ideals of the time and even befriended Victor Hugo. After a tour of Europe he returned to the plantation in 1855, aged thirty-three years old, with a full black beard. He befriended André Roman, a Louisiana judge and politician, who had earlier sponsored P.G.T. Beauregard’s appointment to West Point. Roman agreed to mentor Locoul in the law, but Elisabeth stopped him and threatened to disinherit him. Locoul would become a planter, not a lawyer.
Locoul rebelled by marrying Désirée Archinard, who shared his liberal ideals. The coupled lived on the plantation with Elisabeth. It was a tense relationship, with matters of money and slave management being a source of constant argument. Elisabeth was particularly upset when they had three children: George, Laura, and Noémie. Elisabeth referred to the two oldest as “the little robbers” since they would inherit part of the business.
Locoul was a man stuck between two worlds. He was still a Louisiana Creole, but was the first in his family to have American friends. He loved New Orleans and tried to visit it as often as work and family would allow. Locoul gambled, smoked local tobacco, drank fine wines, but he avoided his relatives’ sexual predilections. Most of all, he wanted to be a lawyer but found himself a plantation owner. It was a role he was unsuited to. He was a best an average businessman. He did not endorse Elisabeth’s use of harsh discipline and adhered to a paternalistic idea of slavery. Elisabeth called him and his wife “negro spoilers.” When Elisabeth tried to sell a slave girl named Anna, who just had a child named Toussaint, Locoul intervened at Désirée’s behest and stopped the sale. Désirée was herself holding the new born Laura and felt sympathy for Anna. In return, Anna became Laura’s nurse and stayed with her until 1892.
In 1861 Locoul raised a local defense unit known as Les Gardes de St. Jacques or St. James Guards. The unit became Company B of the 30th Louisiana, which was detailed to the defense of New Orleans. Locoul was made a captain and was popular with his men, but also strict. His commanding officer, Colonel Gustave Breaux was particularly impressed with his methods and the two became close friends.
With New Orleans in danger of falling, Locoul got a pass to return to St. James Parish with his men to guard the area and evacuate their families. No sooner had the family left than the USS Essex came up and shelled the plantation. The area became a Union camp, and many of the slaves eventually joined the Union army. A few fought at Port Hudson, the first major battle where black soldiers saw combat.
Locoul and his men took part in local defense, fighting a low key guerrilla war in St. James. Locoul kept with him a slave named Lucien, who was by his side until the war’s end. Together, they kept up as fine a camp as any during the war, which included three riding horses and a carriage. Lucien was an excellent cook and prepared meals, but even this relative luxury was not enough and Locoul spent part of the war ill. Once when Locoul was sick, Lucien saved him from a Union cavalry patrol by putting him on a horse and galloping away at full speed. Locoul’s most heroic moment came when he brought an ill Laure to Natchitoches. A patrol of drunken Union soldiers, not recognizing him as an officer, berated him, but Locoul brought Laure to the hospital without being caught or killing the Union cavalrymen.
By the end of 1863, with Port Hudson captured and Richard Taylor forced to fall back to western Louisiana, most of the company deserted. Breaux, who was transferred out of the 30th Louisiana when it was reduced to a battalion, worked on recruitment in 1864-1865 at Lake Charles. At some point, Locoul served with Breaux, likely in 1864. Still, Locoul’s efforts made him one of the most popular in men in the area. By contrast, Elisabeth took the oath of allegiance rather quickly, likely to avoid property confiscation.
Locoul did well enough after the war. He had managed to hide away $2,000 in a New Orleans bank. Furthermore, while Elisabeth’s New Orleans home was ransacked by the Union army, Désirée’s third floor apartment was not. As such, the family bounced back because most of the other plantations were in ruins. Despite Elisabeth’s cruelty, many of the former slaves returned to work and stayed on, including several Union veterans. As Laura wrote in her memoirs “The Civil War came and the Civil War left, and nothing changed on the place.”
Locoul’s postbellum career had its share of achievements. He served eight years in the Louisiana legislature. He prevented a duel between his relative, Ivan de Lobel, and his overseer Arnold LeBourgeois. Yet, in 1878 he had to take out a mortgage on the plantation, and mournfully declared “Here is my death warrant.” His health soon failed and he lingered for months in pain. Partially it was his fault because he postponed treatment until January 1, 1879. That day, he was laid on a stretcher and brought to the Mississippi River, as the servants pressed his hands and some cried. On March 24, 1879, surrounded by his family, Locoul died, smiling at Laura. He was placed in the Locoul tomb in St. Louis Cemetery Number 1. Elisabeth followed in 1884, Désirée in 1911, and Laura in 1963, having lived over 100 years. Today, the home were all of them lived is Laura Plantation, considered one of the best historic sites to visit in Louisiana.
There is a kind of pathos to Locoul’s story. Forced by his family to take part in a system he was uneasy with, Locoul’s life was one of dreams and hopes unrealized and arguably of wasted potential. Yet, his Civil War service was a success for the people of St. James, if not the Confederacy. He protected his friends and family, survived the carnage of war, and bounced back with surprising ease.