THE FATE OF THE USS BARATARIA
Although New Orleans was occupied by Union forces relatively early in the American Civil War, the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain and the rivers and swamps around Lake Maurepas were not as easily subjugated. Firstly, there were the logistics of remote military operations outside of the city’s “Safe Zone” and perhaps the federals concluded that capturing, holding and managing the South’s largest city was a great enough accomplishment and a big enough problem all by itself. There were, however, nagging worries about smuggling in and out of the city. With the porous nature of the surrounding wetlands, this was usually done by boat. Vital supplies such as medicines could slip out and be of great service in other parts of the rebellious South. Goods like cotton, turpentine and foodstuffs could arrive for illicit trade. It was also aggravating that Confederate Calvary blatantly had the run of the north shore.
Union forces attempted to set up perimeter posts at strategic points like the Rigolets and Pass Manchac and maintained lake patrols to interdict smugglers. Patrols also went up winding waterways looking for trouble. The place name Union Landing Rd. up the Amite pretty much describes what must have happened there. Union gunboats were also known to take potshots at homes on the Lake Pontchartrain shore if their occupants were suspected of disloyal activities. Union troops sometimes marched to confront the enemy and raided helpless north shore communities. Because resources were drawn away to other parts of the South there weren’t enough Confederate troops to put up a good defense. Union troops lacked the resources to hold any ground, prevent harassing ambushes or mount effective counter-attacks. The poor civilians stuck in the middle suffered pillaged livestock, crops and goods and some had their farms burned. For all sides, it was a dismal, half-hearted part of the conflict. By the end of the war the North Shore was in a devastated and destitute condition.
Enter the Barataria. She was a 125 ft. stern-wheeler that had been in commercial service on local rivers and bayous and was captured by the Union Army. They gave the vessel a covering of light armor (these boats were called “tin clads”), armed her with a small, brass “bow-chaser” gun and pressed her into service in the U.S Navy as a patrol boat on area lakes. The vessel was in support of the Union raid on Ponchatoula when Major Edward Bacon of the 6th Michigan Infantry recorded a blow-by-blow account of what happened to the Barataria on Lake Maurepas in April of 1863 in his fascinating post war expose’ of Union chicanery “Among the Cotton Thieves.”*
Fort Stevens was a crude redoubt erected by the Union Army on the south side of Pass Manchac at Lake Maurepas (on the future Manchac Greenway). It stood next to the wrecked railroad bridge that formerly crossed the pass. Despite the recent construction of this ambitious work, completed at great expense, it was burned to remove its usefulness to forces on either side of the conflict. Its ruin was a fitting symbol of the extent of the hostilities.
The Barataria, which the men at the fort took to affectionately calling the “Bull Terrier,” left from this location for the mouth of Amite River, nine miles directly across the lake. There had been reports of possible smuggling in and out of this river but they found trouble of a different sort. As she tried to enter the river, the three and a half foot draft vessel ran on to a snag, probably a stump or log, was stuck fast and could not be freed.
The land subsidence we know today had not yet occurred and local rivers had healthy, high banks all the way to their mouths on which light cavalry could travel. Before the crew of the Barataria could do much to help themselves the vessel came under Confederate fire from the shore. The crew and troops aboard had to content themselves with listening to the “ding” of small arms fire on the boat’s armor plating. They stayed holed up this way until dark when the vessel’s captain, who had grown despondent from the situation and had taken to the drink, made a command decision to set the boat afire to prevent her capture and make an escape with his men under cover of darkness in the Barataria’s cutter.
Imagine the intense curiosity of those at the fort who watched the distant spectacle unfold after nightfall when they saw the huge fire mysteriously erupt on the inky black horizon and the explosion of the Barataria’s magazine. Finally, the cutter emerged from the darkness carrying the embarrassing story of the “heroic escape from a hopeless situation.” The embarrassment did not end, for the next morning a schooner was espied leaving the Amite. In plain view, the Confederate boat quickly visited the smoldering wreck of the Barataria, snatched one of the boat’s canons from the raised part of the hull and made way for the mouth of the neighboring Tickfaw River.
The Pass and the Amite are each about six and-a-half miles from the Tickfaw and the pursuing Union troops hastily took to the cutter and pulled on the oars as mightily as they could to cut off the schooner in the lake. They were slowly gaining on their target when the schooner suddenly dropped the canon into the lake to lighten her load and slipped into the Tickfaw just ahead of the cutter.
Also in hot pursuit was a third vessel, manned by an impetuous young Union Corporal who could not resist being a part of this compelling drama and was so anxious to get in on the action he went A.W.O.L., “borrowed” a canoe and became the only Union witness to what happened next.
The two vessels under Union command were immediately ambushed from cavalry hidden in the crowded trees on the river’s banks. All of the soldiers in the cutter were either killed or captured. The lone canoeist was also fired upon but was lucky to merely capsize and scramble for the safety of the tangled, swampy shore. There, the sole surviving Yankee managed to stay hidden and spent a terrifying night in the “evil” southern swamp. He found the canoe, improvised a paddle the next morning and reported back to the fort to tell of the aftermath of the Barataria’s demise before he was placed in chains.
The wreckage of the Barataria, particularly its heavy iron components, have been discovered in modern times. They are a little further offshore, as the mouth of the Amite River has receded inland in the intervening years. The high, ride-able banks of the Amite and the Tickfaw Rivers have long been washed away. It is not known if the little brass bow-chaser gun was ever recovered from the bottom of Lake Maurepas but, brass being what it is, it would probably be in pretty good shape if it is still out there. Several shallow graves of buried Union soldiers are rumored to be along side the old road from the Tickfaw River to Springfield, now the modern LA Hwy. 22.
*A copy of Col. Bacon's book can be seen at: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moa/ACK4755.0001.001?view=tocre.