Author's research reveals her family’s connection to Johnson’s Special Battalion in Civil War
A previously unknown roster of men in one of five companies of militiamen from Avoyelles who served during the Civil War was recently found. Carol Siess Mills-Nichol of Madisonville, an author who has written history books about Avoyelles Parish, accidentally -- and fortunately -- came across the roster while doing book research.
“I was working on my recent book, "A Guide to the French and American Claims Commission 1880-1885," she said. "I ordered a folder from the National Archives of one of the claimants from Avoyelles Parish, Louis Paul Cayer. When I opened the folder, there was a copy of the original muster roll for Company B of Johnson’s Special Battalion.”
The company’s name was Chasseurs-a-Pied -- or “foot soldiers.” The French Army designated its rapid deployment infantry and cavalry as “chasseurs.” The unit adopted that French military designation.
The unit was made up primarily of French Avoyelleans. About 40 of the 71 men were French citizens living in Avoyelles. Most of those had not become naturalized U.S. citizens. Most of the other militiamen in Company B were American-born men of French descent.
She found a personal connection to the Chasseurs when she found the names of two of her ancestors on that roster -- David Siess and his half-brother Isaac Lehmann. The other four units were Co. A, Avoyelles Fencibles; Co. C, Creole Rebels; Co. D, Marksville Guards; and Co. E, Mansura Guards.
Mills-Nichol shared her experience recently in an article published in the "LaRaconteur" magazine.
She said the battalion’s existence was known, “but nobody now knew who served in that battalion.”
About 15 years after the war, the U.S. government entertained claims by French citizens living in the South who sustained property loss due to the war. Many of those were in Louisiana and several were in Avoyelles. Conditions of eligibility included they had to have been a French citizen at the time of the war, were still a French citizen at the time of the hearing and had not compromised their neutrality during the conflict.
Cayer and several other Avoyelleans in Company B were denied claims for restitution of losses in the war based on their service in a Rebel military unit. The others were Joseph Ferry, Georges Neck, Fereol Regard and Philibert Rogay
Cayer told the commission he was forced to enlist, served against his will and was only the unit’s baker.
Johnson’s Battalion was pressed into Confederate service in 1862 when Gov. Thomas Overton Moore ordered Maj. Gen. Mansfield Lovell to activate three brigades of militia into active duty to defend New Orleans.
Lovell sent 11 independent regiments and two battalions to New Orleans in April 1862.
Johnson’s Battalion was assigned to the 2nd Brigade of Volunteer Troops under Brig. Gen. E.L. Tracey, who commanded 1,848 men.
When Adm. David G. Farragut’s fleet was approaching New Orleans, the unit was sent to Chalmette to face the Northern invaders -- armed only with the shotguns they brought with them from home.
When the Union forces overran Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip, Johnson’s men were told to scatter, go back home “and disappear as best they could,” Mills-Nichol said. Records indicate the men were paid for their time in the CSA Army from April 10 - June 30, 1862. These pay records were used as proof positive of the Frenchmen’s “non-neutrality” during the Civil War.
WILLIAM W. JOHNSON
Mills-Nichol did additional research to learn more about the man who raised those five companies of Avoyelleans. William Wilson Johnson was born in 1818 in South Carolina and moved to Avoyelles Parish. His first wife was Elizabeth Fisher, with whom he had six sons -- Sheldon (b. 1842), David (b. 1844), William Wilson II (b. 1849), Lawrence (b. 1856), Richard (b. 1856), and William (b. 1860).
Mills-Nichol said it is unusual, but not unheard of, for there to be two children with the same first name. In researching other books, she has come across a man who named all of his children Jacques.
She theorizes the youngest son had a middle name by which he was known.
When his first wife died, Johnson married Mary Henriette Masters in 1866. They had one child, Frank Lee Johnson, born later that year.
In yet another personal twist, Mills-Nichol noted that Mary Masters was the daughter of Avoyelles Union guerrilla leader Capt. Frederick William Masters.
While two of her ancestors served with Johnson’s Confederate unit, another of the brothers, Leopold Siess, was a lieutenant in Master’s “Home Guard,” conducting guerrilla attacks on Rebel positions and supply routes.
A report from the U.S. Steamship Argosy referred to the unit as being “Creole citizens,” meaning 1st or 2nd generation Frenchmen living in Avoyelles.
“Leopold deserted the Confederate Army in 1864 and joined Masters,” Mills-Nichol said.
The Argosy letter, printed in the May 5, 1864 edition of the True Delta newspaper, said Siess had taken about 22 men -- with only 12 muskets among them -- to locate members of the Home Guard that had taken to hiding in the woods to avoid the “barbarities of the guerrillas,” referring to Southern soldiers in the area.
The group took shelter in an abandoned home. Among the group was Siess’ half-brother, Isaac Lehmann.
“Isaac heard Leopold would be in that area and went to the house to see his brother,” Mills-Nichol said.
The Argosy letter said that a group of 40-50 rebels surprised the Home Guard unit and “without scarcely a struggle, 12 of them were taken prisoners.”
Siess was the only one who managed to fire a shot and was able to escape.
Besides Lehmann, there were also two young boys among the 12 captured. The rebels released the two boys after a neighbor who happened to be present vouched for them. There was no such witness for Lehmann, who was taken out with eight other men, “stripped to the skin and at 9 o’clock drawn up in a line and deliberately shot. This outrage has cast a gloom over everyone here, and the citizens loudly call for vengeance,” the report noted.
The article called the killing of the prisoners “one of the most barbarous acts which has happened during the rebellion.”
The story of how the life of William W. Johnson and his family entwined with that of a Jewish immigrant family is an example of how interconnected people are in a community such as Avoyelles Parish -- not only in the 1860s, but also today.