The Winter of 1864-1865 – Cenla’s Coldest

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As any resident of Central Louisiana can tell you, they can count the amount of substantial snows in our area on one or two hands, depending on your age.  Even when the white powder blanketed Cenla, it did not last very long. Whatever the cause, our weather has grown mostly fickle these days. Even in the third week of December, the weather here started out with lows in the mid 20s and the highs in the mid 70s.

The winter, during the last year of America’s horrible Civil War, 1864-1865, was notably harsh on the local populace. It was rainy, snowy and bitterly cold continuously over a few months. To compound the misery, the community was still suffering the aftereffects of a devastating fire which burned about one quarter of downtown Alexandria the previous May. Thousands of people – men, women and children – were, in a few short hours, driven from their comfortable homes into the street. Their shelter, their provisions, and their beds, were all consumed. The Yankee forces set fires in the area during their retreat to New Orleans. Federal Major General Andrew Jackson Smith even gleefully proclaimed, “Boys! This looks like war,” while riding among the burning houses. Luckily, at the request of several local women, a few Union officers valiantly tried to stop the needless reprisals upon the citizenry and halted some groups of soldiers in the midst of setting the fires.

Times were so hard by the winter’s beginning it caused Louisiana Governor Henry Watkins Allen to put an advertisement in the Shreveport newspaper imploring his area’s citizens to share provisions with their neighbors to the south. Chief Engineer Lieutenant Colonel Harry T. “Fred” Douglas, who was in overall charge of the construction of the Forts Randolph and Buhlow in Pineville (now a State Historic Site), placed his own notice in Alexandria’s newspaper (then the Louisiana Democrat) calling for donations of blankets for the slaves employed on the public defenses to help prevent sickness and death due to the cold. Many civilians of Alexandria started filling out sworn testimonies at the request of the governor pertaining to the deplorable conduct of the Federal troops during the disaster. The wanton arsonists did not care to who owned the buildings, with the property of Southern, free blacks and even Northern sympathizers all getting swept up in the flames. One uprooted lady fleeing the stricken area resorted to putting a notice in the Opelousas newspaper touting her background as a teacher as she had been “made homeless by the war.”

The monotony of the area’s residents in the winter was broken up in December, 1864 by a visit from none other than Raphael Semmes, former commander of the famed CSS Alabama. After his ship was sunk off of Cherbourg, France by the USS Kearsarge, Semmes swam to a nearby civilian vessel and then made his way through Texas to Shreveport and then south to Alexandria. Semmes’ mission in Cenla was to see his son, Oliver, who was a major of artillery and stationed at the forts, as he had not seen him since the war began. When the elder Semmes arrived, he was welcomed by General Simon Bolivar Buckner in his headquarters in Alexandria who immediately sent for Oliver Semmes from across the river. Father and son spent a week together in Alexandria and Pineville and Buckner even granted permission for Oliver to accompany his father to Mobile where the whole family was reunited.

Many descriptions survive from the winter of 1864-65 at Forts Randolph and Buhlow. Colonel Winchester Hall of the 26th Louisiana Infantry stationed at Fort Buhlow noted, “The men hastily constructed small cabins with pine boards. Chimneys were added, and these, with a good log fire, served to protect them from the severity of this hard winter. The ground was frozen from the 1st to the 10th of January, 1865. All suffered much from the cold.” The garrison of Fort Buhlow was made up of Louisiana troops who returned to duty after being exchanged following their capture at Vicksburg over a year before. The men manning the defenses at Fort Randolph were Louisiana veterans of the Red River Campaign. Interspersed among the two forts were also engineers, various artillery batteries and a Cavalry unit comprised of soldiers from states throughout the Trans-Mississippi Theater.

The war had grown exhaustive for the weary soldiers. Many looked for peace to end the suffering. Lieutenant Jared Young Sanders II, also of the 26th Louisiana Infantry (father of J. Y. Sanders III, the future Louisiana governor who had a running fistfight in the state capitol with Huey Long), was growing particularly disillusioned with the war. On January 16, 1865, he jotted down in his diary, “On duty at the forts (Randolph and Buhlow) – with a fatigue party. The forts are nearly completed. Have 4 or 5 guns mounted in each.” In a letter to his fiancée at that time, he shared some inner feelings to her when he wrote, “I find myself this evening sitting in a neat little cabin, which is one among a thousand built like a little city, for our winter quarters. They all look so neat, with their white faces turned up toward Heaven as if imploring God’s mercy upon their inmates – to stop this cruel war – to return to our homes and the loved ones there.”

Major Silas T. Grisamore and his unit, the 18th Louisiana Infantry, were camped at the Kelso Plantation located a mile below Alexandria on the Opelousas Road on January 22. He noted in his diary, “The rain fell in torrents all that night, and the next morning but little dry ground was to be seen. In four years service, I do not believe that I ever saw as mean and pitiable a camping place, and some of the troops expressed themselves more expressive than polite.” Two days later on January 24, in describing the icy front, H. T. Morgan of the 31st Louisiana Infantry wrote his wife, “Ellen, I stood guard last night and I liked to froze and I am very sleepy this morning. …I am so sleepy and cold that I can’t write a sentence.” A week later he noted, “We have had a bad spell of weather here, and it is raining today.” Some soldiers like Rapides Parish resident Jeremiah Duplissey of the 28th Louisiana Infantry were fortunate enough to have his wife make him a quilt (currently on display at the forts) for the chilly nights.

Augustus Ball and his comrades in McMahon’s Texas Battery fared no better than their Louisiana counterparts in the harsh weather. In a note to his wife on February 7, 1865, he lamented, “We have had 8 of the worst days that has been this winter, and it has rained every day and has sleeted some of the time, and it is very cold and rainy tonight and prospects are fare for a long wet spell.” Visuals are always more helpful when trying to imagine soldier’s descriptions of their surroundings. These remarks are augmented in a drawing by Sam Houston, Jr. (Yes, son of THAT Sam Houston of Texas fame) sketched on February 2, 1865. While the winter quarters for the artillery unit were roomy and spacious, they leaked badly and flooded frequently.

Fortunately for all involved, the war ended with the surrender of Alexandria/Pineville to Union authorities in June of 1865. Over time, the charred structures downtown were replaced by new buildings and the memory of the rough winter following the devastation was soon forgotten. Local citizens were able to get back to a peaceful living and Alexandria and Pineville continued to grow in to the fine cities they are today minus the lengthy frigid weather that visited in the winter of 1864-1865.