Alexandria burns

April 28 - May 13, 1864

Alexandria' Way Down In Dixie
Harry G. and Elizabeth Eskew

The Cities of Louisiana Book Services
P.O. Box 170
Alexandria, LA
Southern Publishing Company of New Orleans - 1950
Pages 65 - 72

  • "April 28, 1864. Night. A ring of fire surrounds Alex­andria tonight. 1t is said our forces are working in and burning everything as they come."

    General Banks' army, in full retreat and maddened by the disgraceful defeats at Mansfield and Spring Hill, was coming in to Alexandria to the protection of the gunboats on the river and the breastworks that had been thrown up. As the Union soldier's diary noted, Smith's torch corps was at its favorite handiwork learned with Sherman in Missis­sippi, falling back, fulfilling a promise that "the people will now be terribly scourged."

    All that night the town was filled with the sound of marching troops, creaking wagons, gun carriages and cais­sons. The next day smoke heaps stood lazily on the hot horizon marking the locations of plantations that had been fired. Those of the townspeople who ventured into the streets heard the men talking loudly of burning Alexandria the day they would evacuate.

    A regimental officer in General Smith's presence angrily told a citizen who mentioned the rumors that "they would proceed to the business at once, were it not for the sick and wounded in the hospitals."

    On arriving at Alexandria earlier in the spring Banks had told the people that his occupation of the country was permanent. He'd promised protection to all who would come forward and take the oath of allegiance, while those who would not were threatened with banishment and confiscation of property. He'd set up a recruiting office in Alexandria and over a thousand white men had been must­ered into the United States service. Many who came in to volunteer were of course Jay-Hawkers who'd been hiding out in the swamps and welcomed a chance to escape Con­federate vengeance so easily. But others had families living in and around Alexandria.

    Champions of the Union had promptly appeared. Alex­andria was never rabidly secessionist at heart and had been more or less dragged into the war by the arbitrary actions of the Secession Governor, Thomas O. Moore. Moore, in­cidentally, was a planter from just outside of town.

    James Madison Wells was a resident of Alexandria and always a strong pro-Union man. In the 1860 election he'd fought the secessionist platform. He was shortly to become the Governor of the State of Louisiana, by Federal dictate. Other Union men were William B. Hyman whom Wells would name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the State, C. W. Boyce who would soon be chosen the president pro-tern of the State Senate. Another was Judge Elgee who took the oath of allegiance during Banks's visit. The occasion was considered of such importance because of Elgee's prominence in Louisiana that it was marked by an impressive ceremony on the square with music by the United States army band.

    Still another rousing champion of emancipation, uncon­ditional Union, and the suppresion of the rebellion was an old lawyer named Luther F. Parker. Parker went about making fiery speeches wherever he could get together a crowd.

    Some of these men went to General Banks and told him what his troops were saying in the streets. They had other complaints that they felt justified in airing. The five thousand regular inhabitants of the town were mostly women, children and old men. Federals were entering homes, stealing food and destroying personal property and papers and carrying off anything of value they could lay hands on. The women of the town were in constant terror. What was more, the public records in the office of the Recorder and Clerk of the Court had been removed and scattered through the streets and burned. These outrages, and the burning of the town if that should happen, could be of no practical military value to the Federal cause.

    Banks listened to them, issued an order through Major-General Franklin offering "a reward of $500 ... for such evidence as will convict the accused of incendiarism before a general court martial" and turned his attention to the predicament of the fleet which was in the trap at the falls. Several were accused but no court martial was ever held and no reward was ever paid for evidence furnished to General Banks. The threats continued to be heard and the mischievousness went on.

    The hordes of revengeful ex-slaves and the professional in-cendiarists in the army but most of all the Jay-Hawkers terrorized the inhabitants. Many of these men had only recently been hunted fugitives, draft-dodgers and outlaws. Now they swore they'd never allow Alexandria to fall again into the hands of the Confederates. At last it appeared that the Federal fleet would either escape the river trap or be lost in the attempt, and prepara­tions got under way for the evacuation. Threats commenced anew to fly thick and fast. One said that General A. J. Smith himself had given verbal orders to his troops to bum and destroy Alexandria and that he would be court martialed for it.

    Two days before the scheduled evacuation-which of course was kept a secret from the townspeople-the 113th New York Regiment was assigned to guard the place. It soon became apparent that these Eastern troops meant business and things quieted down considerably. The resi­dents rested easier.

    The Jay-Hawk force left Alexandria before the main evacuation and with it went every able-bodied male resident not already in one of the armies, or just about every one. Then friction matches were issued to the troops still in the town, no doubt for use on the approaching march to Simmesport, and this alarmed the people as nothing before had done. Except for the presence of the 113th New Yorkers there is no telling what might have happened.

    Next morning, the morning of the evacuation, a Federal camp follower who stayed with a Mrs. Smith who kept a boarding house in the town said to that lady, "As soon as you have breakfast, close your doors, for we are going to have fun this morning."

    Dr. J. P, Dayidson who was above military age and who remained behind to look after the sick during the occupa-tion overheard this remark which was made in a hurried, suspicious manner.

    "What do you mean by having fun?" he asked.

    The man leered at him. "We are going to burn your d - d town, doctor!" Dr. Davidson went out into streets and discovered that the 113th New Yorkers had been withdrawn. Mounted in­fantry was now guarding the town. These were Smith's men!

    At that moment fire alarm bells commenced ringing in several different sections of the town.

    From a spot on the levee about eighty yards away Jacob Walker watched soldiers break into the store next to his own on Front Street. Nearby a building that the soldiers had occupied blazed. Several of the men pilfered the tobacco, sugar and lard which were the sole contents of the store. Others went upstairs. Immediately afterwards the building burst into flames.

    Torch parties, both white and black, spread out. If they were riot following direct orders at least their plan showed they had some general understanding, for fire was set to the place in nearly every part, almost simultaneously. There'd been a three- week-long draught. A stiff wind spread the flames rapidly.

    Giles C. Smith, a resident of Alexandria for eighteen years at that time, had just built a new brick home with tile roof on Second street, next door to the Episcopal church on one side and about 90 feet from the house of R. C. Hynson on the other. The Hynson house was set on fire. Smith took the window sashes which were made of wood out of his house; and hung wet blankets on the side next to the burning Hynson's.

    But his house soon attracted the attention of a party working that section. Several soldiers accompanied by officers entered and ordered the family out. Smith saw two men go upstairs and followed them. He told after­wards how one of the Yankees went into a bedroom and, spotting a mattress, "walked up to it and drawing his hand across it with a wide swoop, the mattress instantly caught fire and the room was in a blaze. I did not see anything in his hand, and do not know what it was he had but suppose it was turpentine that he threw upon the mattress which was ignited by a lucifer match."

    These soldiers left and Smith got the burning mattress out into the yard. He rushed back upstairs and put out the fire in the bedroom.

    "After this a Lieutenant and two privates (cavalry) came to my house and asked me roughly what I was doing there," Smith goes on to relate in an affidavit he made later. "On my answering it was my house, they ordered me away, but I would not go and they went in. Soon after they came out, an explosion was heard in the house, and the whole fabric tumbled down. It was blown up by this last party, doubtless, by a torpedo since it did not catch fire from the adjoining buildings, and that seemed the only means of destroying it." Smith had a part of the battery and jar used to set off the torpedo as evidence when he made the affidavit before Confederate officers investigating the fire.

    Giles Smith also saw a man set fire to the car house of the Ralph Smith-Smith railroad nearby.

    Other residents afterwards told how men entered their yards with tin buckets and mops and swabbed the fences and outbuildings with a mixture of turpentine and cam-phene, saying they were preparing the places for Hell. At points where the progress of the fire was arrested by brick buildings, as at Giles Smith's place, explosives were used. This was the case at the Court House.

    A party that approached the Catholic church to destroy if found Father J. B. Bellier barring their path. He stood at the front door, rapier in hand, and told them grimly that he'd kill the first soldier who should attempt to apply the torch. Father Bellier had been trained in the French army before studying for the priesthood and had reached the rank of Lieutenant of Cavalry. He was an expert swords­man. When the soldiers saw that they would have to kill the priest in order to set fire to the church, they left.

    Now fiery bedlam broke out inside the town. Great patches of burning roof would sail overhead to drop and start new fires. Cows ran bellowing through the streets. Chickens flew out from yards and fell in the streets with their feathers scorching on them. A dog with his bushy tail on fire ran howling through, turning to snap at the fire as he ran.

    Some of the Eastern troops already on the march just outside of town rushed back to try to help the stricken people. There was little anybody could do. There was no such thing as saving the buildings. The only thought, suddenly, was to get over the levee, to the only place where the heat did not reach and where there was nothing to burn. The mad rush began.

    Thousands of men, women and children carrying whatever they could of edibles and valuables ran choking, sobbing for the levee. Women with helpless babies in their arms frantically fought their way through the smoking, burning town and the crowds of excited citizens. Screaming chil­dren running hither and thither hunted for their mothers and fathers. Old men leaning on their staffs for support hobbled toward the river.

    While the fire was raging and the people fleeing in terror General A. J. Smith rode through town, sword in hand, exclaiming, "Hurrah, boys, this looks like war!"

    Thieves were everywhere, sacking and pillaging, and fell upon everything rescued by the women and children who were helpless to stop them. General Banks watching from his boat finally had a change of heart and sent soldiers to stop this wholesale robbery but it was rather late to do any good.

    All that part of the town north of the Southern Pacific railroad, then the site of Ralph Smith-Smith's rideaway, was swept from the face of the earth, not a building being left. All the fine residences, the Ice House Hotel which had cost over a hundred thousand dollars, the Court House, all the churches except the Catholic, a number of livery stables, and the entire front row of large and splendid business houses was destroyed. It is probably fitting to point out that no distinction was made between the property of Union men and Confederates.

    The line of retreat of the Federals was marked by the blackened chimney, a mute reminder of where a home had once stood. Mills, gins, barns, cabins, fences and all kinds of improvements, on farm and plantation, suffered a similar fate as Alexandria.

    The people were a destitute lot, without homes or food. The Confederates would bring some relief to the loyal. But the most pitiable among them were those who had changed sides during the Federal occupation. Their sad plight was described thus by a correspondent of the St. Louis "Re­publican" who was with Banks' expedition: "Everybody rushed to the river's edge, being protected there from the heat by the high banks of the river. The steamboats lying at the landing were subject to great annoyance, the heat being so great that the decks had to be flooded with water to prevent the boats from taking fire. Among those who thus crowded the river banks were the wives, daughters and children, helpless and now homeless, of the Union men who had joined the Federal Army since the occupation of Alexandria. Their husbands had already been marched off in the front towards Simmsport, leaving their families in their old homes, but to the tender mercies of the Con­federates.

    "The Federal torch had now destroyed their dwellings, their household goods and apparel, the last morsel of provisions, and left them starving and destitute. As might be expected, they desired to go along with the Federal army, where their husbands had gone. They were refused. They became frantic with excitement and rage. Their screams and piteous cries were heart rending. With tears streaming down their cheeks, women and children begged and implored the boats to take them on board. The officers of the boats were desirous of doing so, but there was the preemptory order from General Banks, not to allow any white citizens to go on board. A rush would have been made upon the boats, but there stood the guard with fixed bayonet, and none could mount the stage plank except they bore the special permit of the Commanding Gen­eral.

    "Cotton that had been loaded on transports to be shipped through the Quartermaster to New Orleans, under Banks' order, was thrown overboard to make room for negroes. But no room could be found for white women and children, whose husbands and brothers were in the Federal army, and whose houses had been burned by the Federal torch."

    Luther F. Parker, the old lawyer who'd gone about making speeches for the Union, was an object of real pity. Banks now refused to take him on board the ships. He could not stay, and hence feeble as he was, he went on foot with the army.

    Thus ended perhaps the darkest chapter in the history of Alexandria. The reporter who wrote the piece for the St. Louis newspaper remarked, "I challenge the records of all wars for acts of such perfidy and cruelty."

    Alexandrians would not get over this for another fifty years. It would be 1900 before the town would again reach the 5,000 population class. Indeed, the burning of the town would be felt even down in our times, for there was not left a deed, mortgage, judgment, marriage license, or succes­sion record, that had been filed before May 13, 1864. Truly, Banks had "spread fire across the rebel hearthstone."

    Alexandria National Cemetery - Rapides Parish, Louisiana (PDF file requires Adobe Reader)

    Civil War