Polecat
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"PRINCE POLECAT:"
A SKETCH OF GENERAL CAMILLE ARMAND DE POLIGNAC AT THE BATTLE OF MANSFIELD, LOUISIANA

By W. T. Block

Many years ago while attending a history conference, the writer heard a lady ask: "Does anyone know who a Confederate general nicknamed 'Prince Polecat' was? I have 4 letters written in 1864 by my great grandfather, and he consistently referred to his commanding officer as 'Prince Polecat,' a fearless Confederate officer, who was 'a soldier's soldier.'" The writer had the pleasure of informing the lady that 'Prince Polecat' was indeed a nickname of respect, not of derision, for General Camille Armand Jules Marie, Prince de Polignac, a debonnaire French aristocrat.

Indeed the world might never have heard of 'Prince Polecat,' except that whenever the first frontal assault on the Union line at the Battle of Sabine Crossroads (Mansfield) was handed to Mouton's division on April 8, 1864, the gallant General Alfred Mouton was one of the first Confederates to fall in the fighting. His place in the front line was immediately handed to his brigadier, General de Polignac, whose upraised sword waved the soldiers onward up the hill. Later, a Union prisoner described Polignac's Confederates as "charging demons," moving forward "like a cyclone" as they bellowed their Rebel yells, and scorned every minie ball that whined around them.

General Mouton was a West Point-trained veteran of the Battle of Shiloh and of the Union campaign along the Bayou Teche in 1863, but he was dead within the first five minutes after the Battle of Mansfield began. Despite how beloved and respected General de Polignac became to the men of Mouton's divison, they could not cope with his long French name, and they soon bestowed upon him the shorter sobriquet of 'Prince Polecat.'[1]

Just as Generals Pulaski, Von Steuben, and other Europeans chose to fight for the American Continentals during the American Revolution, General de Polignac, a nobleman who had commanded French troops in the Crimean War, for some unknown reason chose to fight for the Confederate States. General DePolignac was a handsome man, who sported a well-trimmed beard and a spiked mustache. W. P. Doran, a war correspondent for the Houston Telegraph, who wrote under the pseudonym of 'Sioux,' stayed with DePolignac's division throughout the Red River campaign, and in 1882 'Sioux' wrote of the general in his biography of DePolignac, as follows:

Polignac was a true type of a Frenchman. He was about forty-five years of age, medium size with a long sharp nose, and he resembled Napoleon Bonaparte's portraits. He spoke the French and English languages fluently, and when in camp, was no better dressed than one of his orderlies. Those not knowing him would take him for a common soldier. At one point in the woods, the Federals made a determined stand, and the writer ('Sioux') was near Polignac when he gave orders to the different commanders under him... He ordered battalions and regiments to the different points specified on his map with the ease of a chess player.

Polignac was every inch a soldier, and although a (French) volunteer on the Southern side, he went at it with a vim, and throughout that memorable campaign, displayed great heroism and great soldierly qualities. Before the troops became acquainted with him, they daily ridiculed him; but when they saw his skill as an officer, commanding in the field, admiration of (Gen.) Polignac soon followed. If the leaders of the Confederacy had placed a few similar men in command of its armies, the lives of 10,000 brave men would not have been sacrificed by unskilled generalship.[2]

The Red River campaign of March-April, 1864 was the handiwork of two rather incompetent Union commanders, Generals Nathaniel P. Banks and William B. Franklin of New Orleans. Both were still smarting from the defeat of their projected Texas invasion in September, 1863, at the hands of 47 Irish cannoneers at Sabine Pass. They soon envisioned a second attempt to invade Texas via the Red River, which would also include a fleet of gunboats on the river, and an army of 20,000 cavalry and infantry, accompanied by a baggage train of about 700 wagons. An army of about 9,000 Confederates, under General Richard Taylor, had carefully retreated in the direction of Shreveport, as Taylor sought to dictate the time and place that he would engage the Union army. About March 7, 1864, Taylor decided that the ideal location was where four dirt roads forked ('Sabine Crossroads'), three miles east of Mansfield.

By noon of April 8th, Gens. J. G. Walker's and Alfred Mouton's divisions of 7,000 Confederate infantry had taken up positions at the edge of a clearing near a small hill in front of them. Their flanks were guarded by about 2,500 Confederate cavalry under Gens. Tom Green and H. P. Bee and Colonel James Major. At 4:00 PM of the same day, Gen. Taylor ordered Mouton's division into battle, and the "blood-thirsty graybacks" charged up the hill into the right flank of the Union line. Within another five minutes, Gen. Mouton was dead, and Gen. DePolignac continued the charge, his sword waving a call to advance as the famed Rebel yell rang out in back of him. Gen. Taylor then ordered Gen. Walker's infantry and Gen. Tom Green's cavalry to attack the left flank as the melee progressed, after which the Union line broke and their infantry fled pellmell to the rear. Banks rode up and down the Union ranks during the panic, begging his men to turn around and fight, but utterly to no avail.

By nightfall, the 12,000 Union soldiers engaged in the battle had lost 2,200 killed, wounded, and missing, while Taylor's army lost about 1,300, most of the casualties having been born by DePolignac's division. The captured booty included twenty Union cannons and 200 wagons, loaded with ammunition, provisions, and food. The next day, his army having been reinforced by 4,000 troops under Gen. T. J. Churchill, Taylor renewed the attack on the Union line at Pleasant Hill, La. At first, the Union line broke, the Confederates recaptured Pleasant Hill, and during the advance, Gen. Walker had been shot in the abdomen. Later two Union divisions under Gen. A. J. Smith held the line and broke the Confederate advance, who in turn fled to the rear at Pleasant Hill, much as their enemies had done the day before. Nevertheless, Gen. Banks continued the slow retreat toward Alexandria, to the disgust of his officers and troops, who sang Banks a little 'ditty' as he rode by: "In eighteen sixty-four, we all skedaddled to Grand Ecore - under Napoleon P. Banks!"[3]

DePolignac's division had been "bled down" to about 2,000 able-bodied and effective troops, and were at first held in reserve as the Union soldiers retreated. Near Alexandria, the Union fleet encountered low water, and an engineer supervised the building of a coffer dam, which raised the river's water level sufficiently to allow the gunboats to escape. A few miles below Alexandria, Gen. Tom Green's cavalry brigade captured the gunboat Ohio Belle, which had $10,000 in Federal "greenbacks" in its quartermaster safe. And for some time thereafter, the Union "greenbacks" floated about quite plentifully in Green's brigade. A day or so later, Gen. Green was killed at Blair's Landing during an exchange of gun fire with the Union fleet.

The last engagement, a Confederate disaster, occurred during the Union retreat at the Battle of Yellow Bayou, near Simmesport, after which the retreating army was allowed to return to New Orleans. The survivors of DePolignac's division engaged in numerous battles and skirmishes along the way, capturing wagons and many straggling soldiers, and always their commander had led his men with brilliant generalship. The war correspondent 'Sioux' also bemoaned the incompetent leadership elsewhere in the Red River Confederate ranks, which he blamed on an unnamed Texas general. One of the latter's imprudent commands resulted in the slaughter of Gen. Augustus Buchel and a hundred men of Buchel's Texas Brigade, who were ordered to attack a 'cul de sac' at Pleasant Hill, where they were surrounded on three sides. Hundreds more Confederates were slaughtered at Yellow Bayou in an attack on a strongly fortified position reminiscent of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg.[4]

Nevertheless, the Battle of Sabine Crossroads was a brilliant Confederate victory, if only because it broke the back of an invasion attempt and despite its high cost in blood and slain Confederate generals. One source reported the total casualties at Sabine Crossroads and Pleasant Hill as 4,000 killed, wounded, and missing for Gen. Banks' army, and 3,500 for the Confederates, plus several generals.[5] After the war, Prince Camille Armand de Polignac returned to his native France, his role in American history having ended. But his memory lived on in the hearts of his former Louisiana Confederate soldiers, particularly those of Mouton's Division and the Calcasieu Regiment, who remembered their 'Prince Polecat' with a certain fondness throughout the remainder of their lives. (The writer's great uncle by marriage, Private Isaac Bonsall, Sr. of Grand Chenier (husband of Eliz. Sweeney) and Mouton's division, was killed at the Battle of Mansfield, Louisiana. Another great uncle by marriage, Lt. Bill McCall of Grand Chenier (husband of Harriet Sweeney), died of pneumonia at Mansfield one day before the battle was fought.)

Endnotes

1. Shelby Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative: Red River To Appomattox (New York: 1974), p. 44.

2. W. P. Doran, "Biography of Major-General de Polignac," Galveston Weekly News, Dec. 14, 1882.

3. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative, pp. 40-51.

4. Galveston Weekly News, Dec. 14, 1882.

5. B. J. Lossing et al, Matthew Brady's Illustrated History of The Civil War (New York: 1962), p. 352.

Copyright 1998-2012 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
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