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The Fort Butler Mitigation

Updated: 6 days ago

As much as we love our pets and we love our fishermen, it’s time to get back to what we do best. That’s right Xplorers, we’re back with our fourth mitigation! This week we are uncovering the Union-held fortress of the Civil War known as Fort Butler. Let’s get to mitigating!

The Structure, the People, the ‘Beast’ Behind the Fort

Located in Ascension Parish, Louisiana (a parish we have become quite familiar with), Fort Butler is made up of a total of five star-shaped bastions (three pointed south and west, and two pointed east) and a levee along Bayou Lafourche.

Old black and white photo of General Benjamin Franklin Butler dressed in a formal suit and looking haughty.

The fort, engineered by West Point, was built in 1863 during the Civil War and did not hold the best reputation from its namesake. Union General, General Benjamin Franklin Butler, for whom the fort was named, invited the residents of Donaldsonville, Louisiana to attend the dedication of the fort with a prompt warning — anyone who was to even attempt to remove the Union Flag, which flew proudly at the top of the fort, would be shot on the spot! For this, and other such brutish orders, General Butler was given the name “The Beast” by the Donaldsonville townsville people. (I mean just look at that face…) More significantly, the Fort was known for the Battle of Fort Butler. (Time for a History lesson!)

The Battle of Fort Butler

Old black and white photo of the construction of Fort Butler

The Battle of Fort Butler was critical in preventing the Confederates from regaining ground in Louisiana. In the spring of 1863, (for some background) the only two remaining Confederate strongholds along the Mississippi River were Port Hudson and Vicksburg. To draw Union troops away from these locations and attempt to retake New Orleans, an attack by the Confederate soldiers on Fort Butler was planned for 2 AM on June 28th, 1863. The battle lasted for hours and was led by General Richard Taylor with 800-1,000 Confederate troops and Major Joseph Bullen with only 180-200 Union troops — including White soldiers from the 28th Maine and Black troops from the Louisiana Native Guard who built the fort in the first place!

But lo and behold — can you guess what was waiting for the Confederate soldiers on the south bank of the Mississippi River at the terminus of Bayou LaFourche? If you guessed a brick-lined moat and army surrounding the fort levee with seven 24-pound siege guns, two siege carriages, and two field guns, you’d be miraculously accurate. Although the Union soldiers were greatly outnumbered, and many were still recovering from previous battles, the Confederates were defeated by 6 AM — thanks to faulty intelligence and the sharp obstacles barricading the front of the fort. Respectfully, the fallen Confederate soldiers were placed in a mass grave adjacent to the fort, and throughout the rest of the war, Donaldsonville remained under Union occupation and was used as the headquarters for the Union Provost Marshall and later as a school.

Aerial view of an archaeological test pit with a partially excavated feature

In 1902, the fort’s remains were leveled with a dam at the Bayou Lafourche and then completely covered during levee construction in the 1930s. “Unfortunately,” adds TerraX Senior Archaeologist Paul Jackson, the Principle Investigator, these kinds of “massive alterations to the landform and adjacent bayou” were initially found when the mitigation process first began — namely that the bayou was “filled by flood (distilled water) and man (cement)” over time and the area was eventually converted into the parking lot of a Tastee Freez (Um… what is the unfortunate part here?) All jokes aside, it was then our job to get into the nitty gritty and uncover this historic site from what was known as the Reconstruction Era. (In the name of history!)

Like Layers of a Cake

To determine the condition of the remaining land (the nitty gritty), TerraX performed additional 1-x-2 meter unit excavations (to clear away previously excavated areas) followed by mechanical stripping — the process of using heavy equipment to strip back land while monitoring for significant features and artifacts — for further delineation or defining boundaries of the site. (Big words for a big project area.)

Graphic showing the layers of soil and an excavated trench on the Fort Butler mitigation

“Excavations are currently ongoing and only focus on a small portion of the site, just outside the eastern edge of the main fort complex,” says Paul. “We hoped to definitively define the landform and bayou's edge and understand whether the depositional episodes were natural or manmade.

Paul simplifies this examination of ‘depositional episodes’ for us saying, “It’s like peeling back the layers of cake. Every time there was a flood at the site, it would lay more sediment in the pond/bayou and create layers of soil to be distinguished — AKA historic deposits.” Every time TerraX would then peel back the soil, we would determine if it was natural or altered by people” — AKA whether the land was filled by flooding or cement parking lots. Fort Butler is a particular example; although it looked to be flat, our team knew that a bayou had previously run through the project area, giving the land many more layers than what was seen on the surface.

So, you may be asking yourself, What is the point of all this layered digging? Paul explains, “To understand the people we have to understand the land.” Remember our post about Scars on the Land? We had a similar situation here. Understanding the dispositional history of the land can tell us not just about what the land was used for but what the people were up to as well! Whether the land was used for water, agriculture, or even trash we can have “a better idea of the inhabitants' cultural material and lifeways during even a tumultuous time.” While findings like flood deposits aren't exactly the most riveting, they can still tell us a lot about humans' relationships with the environment at a place like Fort Butler.

Digging for the Sake of Culture

Graphic showing an aerial perspective of features excavated at Fort Butler, including brick scatter and faunal bones.

After all that digging and excavation, what did we find? “We know that the bayou was dammed in the early 1900s and the area became a shallow pond, but it appears, based on current findings, that the landform might have been extended when the Fort was constructed.” Paul says, “In earlier investigations for the construction of the new Bayou Lafourche Pump Station, several shallow posts, a large cooking midden, and a chimney base were uncovered.

Additionally, “new posts, all associated with a layer of Civil War material, have been recorded in small pockets of the investigation and a long row of brick rubble was recorded along the western edge of the investigations, just outside a previous pipe right-of-way for an old pump station.”

But what do these findings reveal? The mitigation team speculated at the time that these findings of scattered posts represented a small portion of encampments (Contraband Camps — Union-occupied communities made up of previously enslaved African American men, women, and children) that had settled outside the fort and along the adjacent Bayou Lafourche during the Civil War. Through Union protection and payable labor, both the fort and the people within the camp benefited from this arrangement. “We believe,” Paul says, “the area we tested, particularly the cooking area and hearth base, was likely similar to this example from Virginia.” (Seen here.)

Aerial image with GIS graphics depicting the overlap between the entrance of Fort Butler and Sally Port

After further investigation by overlaying the fort map onto a current aerial (as we typically do to survey for previous properties within our project areas), the excavations were found to overlap with the entrance of Fort Butler at the previous location of the Sally Port! — a passage within a fort used for issuing troops on the defense. (Shout out to our killer GIS team!)

Aerial view of a large excavated space within the Fort Butler mitigation site

By joining forces with our in-field, lab, and GIS teams, we determined that the brick rubble could possibly be remnants of the Sally Port, “which was shoved into this area and the bayou after the Fort was decommissioned and mostly destroyed,” adds Paul. Additionally, hollow point bullets were found on site with very distinct screwed out material, “confirming the general timeline of the battle.”

Paul continues excitedly to explain, “During battle, the gun heats up, causing the lead to melt and stick in place.” To avoid this from happening, the soldiers would “screw the lead out when loading another shot.” Although this kind of bullet would cause more damage, this made for a slow firing round, and eventually, bullets were traded for bricks! (Desperate times call for desperate brick throwing.)

A collection of artifacts collected at Fort Butler, including bullets, fragments of a broken pipe, and part of a glass bottle

“All materials collected from the horizon (a distinctive soil strata determined during mitigation) date to the Civil War period,” Paul says, “and many of the bullets [that we] found represent a mixture of Northern and Southern shots, some of which were smashed on contact.” (Bullets sure can last a long time before degrading!) It’s amazing what an architectural structure, a simple brick, or even a single bullet can tell you about our past. And beyond the bricks and bullets, we recovered a number of other domestic artifacts — the presence of material culture such as pipes and alcohol bottles provide brief glimpses into the social activities taking place within these specific places.

Excavate Everything

In the end, Paul says, “Our true understanding of the project area and the exterior of the Fort should come as we complete the mechanical stripping of this area and excavate all features uncovered.” At TerraX, our work is never done until we know everything about everything.

Wow, sometimes we are just amazed at what our work can do . To be able to learn so much about such an important and historical place and to uncover even more about what took place there — this is why we do what we do at TerraX. By defining a type of landform or identifying the placement of a single brick, we can rediscover our nation's history, more concretely define the events which have occurred there, and continue educating the present by teaching them about our past.

We hope you enjoyed our mitigation series as much as we did. We loved sharing even the smallest details in our findings with all of you. If you still have any lingering questions or just want to know more, we’d love to hear from you! Find us on Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn for all the nitty gritty details on all future excavations and mitigations!

Keep digging Xplorers. That’s a wrap!

— The TerraX Team


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