December, 2019 – Natchitoches, Louisiana

When I started to make reservations for taking us south of Dallas, I noticed there was a National Park site in western Louisiana.  Especially since we had not spent much time in Louisiana south of I-20, it was not too surprising there was more to see in the state.  What did surprise me was the number of historical state parks in the same area around Natchitoches, Louisiana.  So we pulled the RV back out of Texas to Shreveport before heading south to Ajax County Livin’ RV Park north of Natchitoches.  The trip was easy as it was all along interstates with rest stops along the way.  We pulled into Country Livin’ early in the afternoon and had no problem getting set up on their pull through site.  All of the sites are grassy, which could be a problem after a heavy rain.  We had good TV reception and since we were less than a mile from the interstate the phone coverage was excellent.  Since we now have unlimited 4G access with my new IPad, I was able to stream both Mandalorian on our free year of Disney+ and Discovery on Jenny’s CBS Access.  We were also able to stream the Auburn basketball game using our new hotspot, so when we have good phone coverage there will be no limit to what we can stream.

After spending Tuesday doing laundry and cleaning, it was time to get out and explore the many historical locations.  Since our main reason for coming to Natchitoches was to explore the Cane River Creole National Historical Park, we headed south of Natchitoches to the location of two pre-Civil War plantations. Both Oakland and Magnolia Plantations began as land grants from the Spanish government in the late 1700s. Both families were long term Creole families, which only meant they were at least second generation colonists.  In this case they were both French, the Prud’hommes at Oakland and LeComte at Magnolia.  The cash crop at Oakland began with tobacco and indigo, but it was not until the early 1800s when they changed over to cotton that the plantation began to grow.  Magnolia was one of the first plantations in the area to grow cotton and soon increased in size and importance.  While the workforce was all enslaved people, this was a combination of those with African descent from the Caribbean Islands and Native Americans.  Rather than follow the harsh slavery laws of most of the south, they followed a more lenient set of laws deriving from the Code Noir of the Spanish.  These laws required the slaves be treated humanely and the owners had to care for them and their families.  There was also a pathway to freedom in the laws, so there were a number of skilled freemen living in the area.  Both plantations were very successful prior to the Civil War, often bringing over $1 million from the cotton crop each year.  However, the Civil War put an end to this.  Both plantations were damaged during the Red River campaign in 1864 with crops and some buildings, including the Magnolia plantation home, burned.  Following the war, most of the slaves continued to work the plantations as tenant farmers, however, the plantations never truly recovered.  The families continued to live and operate the farms into the 20th century, so when they were acquired by the National Park Service, they were both in very good condition.  They are the best preserved Creole Plantations from that time period with many outbuildings and artifacts still intact.  Both of the plantations are along the Cane River, which is one of the channels that make up the Red River.  They are close enough to each other that they can both be visited in a single day, so we spent the morning exploring Oakland before moving to Magnolia after lunch.  The plantation home and outbuildings at Oakland are in amazing condition.  Unfortunately, we had just missed the morning tour of the plantation home, but we were able to explore the grounds.  As with other plantations before the Civil War, they were mostly self-sufficient, so you see many buildings associated with skills such as blacksmithing, county store, cooking, and laundry, as well as, those associated with the farm including barns and homes for the slaves and overseer.  Most of these buildings had exhibits, along with the provided map, gave a good overview of life prior to the Civil War.  The most surprising building was the pigeonnier where they raised pigeons, a southern delicacy that denotes wealth.

The outbuildings at Magnolia were even more impressive.  Unfortunately, the plantation home was burned during the Civil War, but the family did rebuild it.  However, the new building is not part of the park.  However, there is a nice country store, overseer/hospital home, barns, and slave quarters.  The slave quarters were unusual as they were constructed of brick instead of wood. It is believed this was to display their wealth to the steamships on the Cane River.  It certainly was not for the benefits of the slaves which still lived in small structures with dirt floors and a single room.  After the Civil War, the tenant farmers were allowed to open up the wall between the duplex thus increasing their living space to two rooms.  The last family moved out in the 1960s.  Most amazing was the large barn that housed the steam operated cotton gin and baler.  They even had the largest baler still surviving that predated steam engines.  This 30 foot tall wooden structure was nothing more than a huge press that would be filled with cotton and then compressed using a huge screw operated by horses or mules.  It was something worth seeing.

Thursday was wet with the threat of more rain for most of the day so we headed north to the Horseshoe Casino in Bossier City.  For a change, we both did well and just about broke even for the afternoon.  After a nice early dinner we headed back to the campgrounds for the evening.

For Friday, it was back to exploring the other historical state parks in the area.  We started with Fort St Jean Baptiste State Historic Site in Natchitoches.  Back in the early 1700s, this area was the border between the French and Spanish.  To stop Spanish encroachment from Mexico and Texas, the French constructed and garrisoned a fort on the Cane River, which at the time was the main channel of the Red River, in 1716.  As the French were all about trading and befriending the local Indians, the fort became a major trade center and the town of Natchitoches grew up along the river.  The fort continued to serve as a military outpost until 1762, when the territory was ceded to Spain following the French and Indian Wars.  While the fort never saw any direct action, it continued to support a thriving trade business along the river.  Today they have reconstructed the fort according to surviving plans for the fort.  Unfortunately, the reconstructed fort is not exactly the location of the original fort.  Due partly to the changing river course and mostly to the fact they built a bridge over the original site.  It is always interesting to actually be able to see the forts, especially to how small they were.  The palisade surrounding the fort is barely big enough to house a couple of barracks, a guardhouse, quartermaster, commandant house, church, and a couple of storage sheds.  It was obviously not intended to house the garrison on a long term basis, especially since most of the soldiers, including the commandant, lived in houses in Natchitoches.

Since it only took a bit over an hour to explore the reconstructed fort, for the afternoon we drove about 15 miles to the Spanish counterpart: Los Adeas State Historic Site.  Los Adeas was the Spanish answer to Fort St. Jean Baptiste located close to their Mission.  For the French, the primary interest was trade with the Indians, whereas, the Spanish were more into converting them to Catholicism.  Thus the many missions throughout the southwest along with presido, or forts to protect them.  Unfortunately, the site chosen for the mission and fort were very poor for agriculture.  There was a constant shortage of food and other supplies as crops routinely failed on the poor soils.  Thus there was a constant stream of trade with the French at Natchitoches even though it was illegal as all supplies were to come from Spain.  However, since Mexico City was over 800 miles away, what else could they do?  Los Adeas was important enough to the Spanish that in 1729, it became the administrative seat for the entire province for the next 44 years.  Thus, within the fort were the administrative offices and residences.  Today there is nothing left of Los Adeas, however, archeologists have discovered the original layout of the fort and most of the buildings which are marked out with timbers.  There is also a nice hiking trail that begins at the fort and winds its way through the woods to the site of the nearby mission.  It was a nice walk on a cool winter afternoon.

We spent Saturday in the campground, however, on Sunday we ventured forth again to the site of the Mansfield State Historic Site, one of the last major battles of the Civil War.  In 1863, the Union had captured Vicksburg and was in control of the entire Mississippi River, cutting the Confederacy in two.  The Civil War in the West then moved to isolate Texas beginning with the capture of Shreveport.  General Banks brought 13,000 soldiers up the Red River by gunboat to Natchitoches where they disembarked to make the march to Shreveport.  Not expecting any engagement until they were close to Shreveport, he allowed his army to get strung out for miles along the road.  However, General Taylor selected a site 4 miles south of Mansfield, still 20 miles from Shreveport, to position his 10,500 Confederate troops across the road.  He used his cavalry to harass and slow down the Union advance on April 7, 1864 in a number of small skirmishes.  On April 8, the two armies formed up against each other.  However, General Banks was still strung out for miles and was only able to form up about 6500 soldiers by 4:00 in the afternoon when General Taylor ordered the charge.  The Confederates took terrible casualties in the initial charge, but especially since these soldiers were defending their home, they did not stop the charge and overran the Union lines.  The Union army broke and ran with the Confederates in hot pursuit for the next two miles.  Finally, most of the rest of the Union army had formed a defensive line and stopped several attempts by the Confederates before darkness fell.  Over night the Union withdrew to Pleasant Hill, where on April 9 there was another terrific battle and heavy casualties.  Once again, the Union withdrew during the night and kept moving all the way back to New Orleans.  Thus the Red River Campaign ended after two days of fierce fighting, this time with a Confederate victory.  Since the Civil War ended just a few months later, the Union never again attempted to seize Shreveport or invade Texas.  The Mansfield State Historic Site is not very large and protects only a small part of the initial battlefield south of Mansfield.  The Visitor Center has a excellent set of exhibits about the Civil War, the Mansfield and Pleasant Hill Battles, and the aftermath.  There is also a short hike around this piece of the battlefield with a brochure explaining the disposition of forces prior to the Confederate advance.  The battlefield is certainly worth visiting for anyone interested in the Civil War, especially if you are not familiar with the Red River Campaign, which we had never heard of.

 

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