Confederate Naval Memory on Lake Pontchartrain’s North Shore

You never quite know where you will run into artifacts, exhibits, and monuments related to the United States Civil War. The war’s memory penetrated across the nation, which is great because many areas have something to offer to those interested in learning more about the conflict. On a recent drive from Houston to New Orleans, I made a detour to Lake Pontchartrain’s north shore, where I had the chance to see some things tied to the Confederate Navy.

Let’s start with some history. Lake Pontchartrain, the body of water north of New Orleans, did indeed host some Confederate naval activity. In 1861 at the John Hughes shipyard on Bayou St. John, on Lake Pontchartrain’s southern shore, Confederate sailors outfitted the converted warships Florida, which later was renamed Selma and moved to Mobile, and Pamlico. Using designs made by Confederate naval constructor Sidney Porter, the same shipyard also constructed a pair of war steamers named Bienville and Carondelet, each small paddle-wheelers mounting a few heavy guns that became ready for service in March 1862. Cannons and soldiers loaned from the army garrison of New Orleans, which “was always willing and anxious to assist in every way,” helped man these two ships.[1] There was even early experimental submersible activity as a prototype submersible named Pioneer reportedly sank a test ship; there were also plans in 1862 for the Bayou St. John shipyard to being working on a Lake Pontchartrain ironclad.[2]

Map of southeast Louisiana with Lake Pontchartrain and its north shore on top. ORN, Ser. 1, Vol. 18, 130b.

When United States forces advanced on New Orleans in April of 1862, Confederate naval activity on Lake Pontchartrain briefly surged, then halted. After David Farragut’s squadron passed Forts Jackson and St. Philip and advanced to New Orleans itself, Carondelet, Bienville, and Pamlico, along with the small army gunboats Oregon and J.D. Swain, helped evacuate military forces from the Crescent City. They loaded soldiers and military stores from the city’s defenses for transport to Lake Pontchartrain’s north shore town of Mandeville, Louisiana. Over two days, it was estimated the Confederate ships evacuated 1,500 soldiers from New Orleans.[3]

After the evacuation was completed, artillery from the Confederate warships were offloaded and the vessels were scuttled, as were the submersible Pioneer and the under-construction Bayou St. John ironclad.[4] The soldiers and supplies proceeded to Camp Moore, Louisiana. United States forces occupied Lake Pontchartrain for the rest of the war. Warships patrolled the waters halting illegal trade with Confederates while simultaneously supporting military activity against Confederate partisans on Lake Pontchartrain’s north shore.

The original entrance gate to Bouge Falaya Wayside Park. Photo by Neil P. Chatelain.

There are two things Civil War enthusiasts can see on Lake Pontchartrain’s north shore that are related to Confederate naval activity, a monument in a park and a museum exhibit. The Bouge Falaya Wayside Park is not a Civil War site itself. Officially opened in 1909, it is owned by the City of Covington, Louisiana, and hosts a pavilion for activities, walking trails, scenic views of the Bogue Falaya River, picnic sites, and playgrounds.

The Civil War connection comes from the park’s original entrance gate. Erected in 1920 with funds raise by Dr. William Laurence Stevenson, a local Covington resident, the gate holds a small memorial. The gate’s brickwork holds a trio of small cannonballs and a small inscribed monument noting the gate honors “My Parents, Projectors of the Rebel Ram Manassas, Defender of Louisiana in the Civil War.” It also includes (a somewhat inaccurate) image of the Confederate ironclad Manassas.

The memorial inscription on the Bouge Falaya Wayside Park entrance gate. Photo by Neil P. Chatelain.

The parent mentioned in the monument is John A. Stevenson, the man who envisioned the idea for the ironclad Manassas, raised the funds for it, and oversaw the conversion of the Boston-built tug Enoch Train into what became the Confederacy’s first ironclad. Obtaining a letter of marque and reprisal from the Confederate government, Stevenson intended to use his small ironclad as a privateer.[5] Instead, Manassas was seized by the Confederate Navy, fought in the battle of the Head of Passes in October 1861, and was destroyed at the battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip in April 1862.[6]

Though Manassas never served on Lake Pontchartrain, the fact that Dr. Stevenson lived in Covington marked it as the place he wished to honor his father’s work. To my knowledge, it is the only known monument to the Confederacy’s (and all of North America’s) first ironclad warship.

The second Confederate naval artifact you can visit on the north shore is at Maritime Museum Louisiana, in Madisonville, Louisiana. Just a few miles from the Bogue Falaya Park, this museum lies just off Lake Pontchartrain itself. A modest $10 entry fee gains admittance to the museum halls, which include video histories of the area and exhibits and artifacts related to the maritime history of Lake Pontchartrain and Louisiana’s north shore.

Scale replica of the Confederate submersible Pioneer in Maritime Museum Louisiana. Photo by Neil P. Chatelain.

There is one exhibit that makes it worth a visit for Civil war enthusiasts. The museum contains a full-scale replica of the experimental Confederate submersible Pioneer. Using diagrams and drawings made during the war, the museum partnered with Southeastern Louisiana University to make the replica of the first prototype Confederate submersible made by James McClintock, Baxter Watson, and Horace Hunley, the same men who would ultimately create the submersible H.L. Hunley. The replica contains all external parts of the submersible including its propellor, attached powder keg, hatch, planes, and conning tower. A section of the hull is even cut open so visitors can enter the model to experience the cramped inside of the design. Aside from going to Charleston, South Carolina, to view the Confederate submersible H.L. Hunley, this is the only other place I know of with such an exhibit.[7]

The other side of the Pioneer scale replica. Photo by Neil P. Chatelain.

For any diehard fan of Civil War naval activity, a trip to the Bogue Falaya CSS Manassas monument gate and to the submersible Pioneer replica at Maritime Museum Louisiana are worth a visit. Any Civil War buff that lives on the Lake Pontchartrain north shore, or who happens to pass through the area, should not pass up the opportunity to see these unique artifacts tied to Confederate naval memory.

 

Endnotes

[1] Proceedings of the Court of Inquiry Relative to the Fall of New Orleans (Richmond, VA, 1864), 80; Andrew B. Booth, Records of Louisiana Confederate Soldiers and Louisiana Confederate Commands, (New Orleans, 1920), Vol. 1, 77, 218.

[2] Robert Barrow to Horace Hunley, April 19, 1863, Barrow Family Papers, mss. 654, Louisiana Research Collection, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University; William H. Shock to Gustavus Fox, January 21, 1864, January 1864 Papers, Vol. 2, , M148, Records Group 45, US National Archives; Application for Letter of Marque, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 2, Vol. 1, 399-400; John Mitchell to W.R. Howell, March 27, 1862, Subject File AC: Construction, Subject File of the Confederate States Navy, 1861-1865, M1091, RG 45, US National Archives.

[3] For more detailed information about Confederate naval activity on Lake Pontchartrain see Neil P. Chatelain, “The Confederacy’s Lake Pontchartrain Naval Squadron: A Cooperative Defense of the Coastal Approaches to New Orleans, 1861-1862,” Louisiana History, Vol. 49, No. 2, Spring 2018), 167-195.

[4] Testimony of Lieutenant Poindexter, The War of the Rebellion: The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Ser. 1, Vol. 6, 605.

[5] Register of Commissions issued to Applicants, September 13, 1861, Confederate States of America Records, Maritime 1861-1863, Box 19, Reel 12, Library of Congress; Privateer Manassas Articles of Agreement, September 12, 1861, Subject File SP: Privateering, Subject File of the Confederate States Navy, 1861-1865, M1091, RG 45, US National Archives.

[6] Neil P. Chatelain has previously written for Emerging Civil War about Manassas and its use as the Confederacy’s first ironclad.

[7] There is an intense debate as to what the submersible Pioneer looked like. A submersible that many claim to be Pioneer is in the possession of the Louisiana State Museum, and for a time was on display at the Cabildo Museum next door to the St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square of New Orleans. Though claimed to be Pioneer, this submersible looks nothing like the diagrams and drawings made of Pioneer during the war and most now believe it is another submersible craft from the 19th century. For details on this other submersible design, see Greg Lambousy, Monster of the Deep: The Louisiana State Museum’s Civil War Era-Submarine, (Lafayette, LA: Center For Louisiana Studies, 2006).



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