After Milliken’s Bend, Richard Taylor arrived in south Louisiana to oversee a drive on New Orleans. He found that Alfred Mouton, who he had left in command, had done little to prepare his force for offensive action. Taylor acknowledged Mouton’s bravery and combat prowess but reported he was “unequal to the task of handling and disposing of any large body of troops.”
Taylor next planned to strike at New Orleans or aid Port Hudson directly. To aid Port Hudson he ordered John P. Major to raid Pointe Coupée Parrish. To threaten New Orleans he would have to attack Brashear City (modern day Morgan City), a town that guarded the crossing of the Atchafalaya River. With John G. Walker’s Texas division in northeast Louisiana, Taylor would have to make do with his current forces, which numbered no more than 5,000 men.
Augustine Joseph Hinkley Duganne of the 176th New York commanded at Brashear City. He was a poet, novelist, and labor activist. Duganne though was the fifth commander in weeks. Three of his predecessors were sick and another thought Brashear City was a pesthole and left. Duganne’s tenure was also short. William Emory, who commanded the defenses of New Orleans, replaced him with Albert Stickney of the 47th Massachusetts. The twenty-three year old Stickney was haughty and had no field experience. He thought many of the sick were shirkers and declared “I have a mob, officered by fools.”
Meanwhile, Major scattered the Federals in Pointe Coupée. Taylor planned to swim cattle over to Port Hudson and if possible, send cavalry to bolster John Logan, then operating against Banks’ rear. Taylor though learned just how weak Emory was and believed after the June 14 attack that Port Hudson could hold its own. Taylor settled upon a daring plan. Major cut Stickney’s communications with New Orleans, then strike his rear. Green would seize Brashear City with amphibious landing.
On June 18 Major swept down, flushing out Federals and destroying supply depots. Stickney belatedly tried to defend Lafourche Crossing. These men lacked hard combat experience and were in low spirits. As such, Stickney’s men performed poorly, but they received more men as the day wore on. Stickney eventually outnumbered Major, who decided it would be wiser to strike for Breshear City directly.
Back at Brashear City, a “miraculously” recovered Duganne organized loafers and shirkers into a fighting force of 200. The freedmen begged for weapons but with few spares, they dug entrenchments. About 300 though, already armed and having undergone some drill, were on hand although lacking officers. There were perhaps 800 men at most under arms. Despite his inadequate numbers, on June 22 Duganne led a detachment to Bayou Boeuf, to buy time should that post come under a full attack by Major. Duganne left command to Robert C. Anthony of the 2nd Rhode Island Cavalry.
Green planned to distract Anthony’s garrison with some 1,500 men while over 300 volunteers from various commands landed in the rear. They were led by Sherod Hunter of the 2nd Arizona Cavalry, who had earlier led a company of Arizona Rangers on a foray that took them as far west as California.
While Hunter’s men landed, Green started his demonstration. The sounds of cannon caused many unarmed freedmen to flee, while Major moved his troopers to the sound of the guns. Thomas Cahill of the 9th Connecticut, now commanding at Lafourche Crossing, also moved towards Brashear City, hoping to catch Major between the garrison and his force. Cahill had done well at Baton Rouge and was among Banks’ best commanders.
Hunter, with about 200 men, surprised Anthony in the rear. At the same time, Green landed a force at Gibbon’s Point, northwest of the city. The Federal defense then collapsed. Green and Hunter took 1,000 prisoners, including hundreds of convalescents, along with vast stores. The Confederates, hungry and excited, went wild. Order was not restored until Mouton arrived with the infantry.
When Green and Major converged on Bayou Boeuf, Duganne’s men lost hope. On June 24 he surrendered to Major, who allowed him to keep his sword. Major was confidant, boasting “We shall meet in New Orleans colonel.” Duganne liked his pluck and good manners, writing “So opens our intercourse with Texans, of whom we conceived quite a favorable first impression.” Regardless, another officer demanded and received Duganne’s sword.
The fate of the black soldiers at Brashear City remains a mystery. There were no reports of massacres, although several groups of Corps d’Afrique fought to the death near the railroad. Many escaped to the forests and swamps. Although the sick were well cared for by Mouton’s medical staff, many were pressed into service while others were sold or claimed by their masters.
The capture of Brashear City was one of the Civil War’s most complex, daring, and successful offensives. Taylor’s victory had given his poorly armed, fed, and clothed force a plethora of supplies. It certainly showed that Taylor was among the Confederacy’s best commanders. He was now being dubbed “young Stonewall.”
Cahill abandoned Lafourche Crossing. In his wake, Taylor’s men swept northeast towards New Orleans. By June 24 Mouton was at Thibodaux. Hannibal H. Boone brought the 2nd and 13th Texas Cavalry to the Barataria Company Canal, a mere eight miles from New Orleans.
Taylor was called away to Alexandria. Mouton was in left in command and on June 26 ordered Boone to press towards New Orleans. Green was to take Donaldsonville and hamper Union river traffic. It was guarded by Fort Butler, named after the man Banks replaced in 1862. It was very well built and sited, with three heavy cannon. It was held by 200 men, mostly from the 28th Maine, but also detachments of the 16th New Hampshire,, survivors from Taylor’s sweep up the Laufouche, black laborers, levies for the Corps d’Afrique, and wounded from Port Hudson. They were led by Joseph D. Bullen of the 28th Maine. Bullen had the men strengthen the defenses while David Farragut sent gunboats to Donaldsonville. Emory sent about forty spare men and an order to “Make a good fight.”
Green was not eager to strike, but figured it would be better to do it at night. After some delay, he moved on Fort Butler with 1,800 troopers. Green asked Bullen to surrender and threatened to take no prisoners. Bullen was intent on standing firm. Pointing at the flag, Bullen declared “It shall hang there as long as there is a man of you left to defend it!” Green’s attack started after midnight on June 28. Samuel K. Savage of the 53rd Massachusetts recalled “They came with a yell of 1,000 Indians.” Regardless, Fort Butler held. Green’s men were pinned and running out of ammunition. To save his command, Green sent officers with white flags to discuss a truce to collect the dead and wounded. In the confusion, the Confederates retreated, having suffered some 260 casualties in total.
Taylor excused the defeat, noting “Like the Irishman at Donnybrook, Green’s rule was to strike an enemy wherever he saw him.” Taylor, who rarely praised the Federals, wrote that Bullen and his men “surpassed that of Leonidas and his Spartans.” As for Bullen, the ailing officer did not enjoy his new laurels. On July 6 he was murdered by Francis Scott of the 1st Louisiana.
Green spent the days after Fort Butler shelling transports. Farragut had to take ships away from Port Hudson and river traffic slowed, forcing Banks to reduce rations for his horses. Yet, supplies and soldiers got through. More troubling was the situation at New Orleans. Emory knew there were 10,000 men of fighting age in New Orleans, some willing to rise up should Taylor attack. When Emory called for New Orleans locals to volunteer to defend the city, barely anyone answered. On July 4 Emory told Banks “…you can only save this city by sending me re-enforcements immediately and at any cost. It is a choice between Port Hudson and New Orleans.”