While sitting on the front steps of a very modest home in the small Cajun community of Church Point in Louisiana, Nolan Lavergne talked to his son about the happiness and hardships of growing up on a tenant farm in rural St. Landry Parish. His son was a rookie high school American History teacher who asked a seemingly simple question: "Who was your grandfather?" The father did not know.
"Well, Daddy, I'm going to find out for you," said the son.
Thus began a fourteen-year-long project culminating in Lives of Quiet Desperation, a look at the ancestry of Gary M. Lavergne, a Louisianian of French descent. In addition to a substantial genealogy with over 1,200 names, Lavergne includes a series of concise essays placing generations in historical context. Special treatment is given to the forces that helped to determine the migrations of various groups of French-speaking people, and the pioneers who helped to build new worlds in Canada and French Louisiana. Particular emphasis is placed upon defining and describing the differences between Cajuns, Creoles, and other Louisiana French cultures.
The vast majority of the ancestors were simple, poor, tenant farmers with large cohesive families. the uncommon were pioneers of note. they all faced considerable odds and led lives of quiet desperation.
THE CIVIL WAR AND RECONSTRUCTION: Amnesty for Eugene Lavergne
From Lives of Quiet Desperation by Gary M. Lavergne
The Civil War was America's nightmare. The single Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania killed more Americans than some of America's wars. For many, Reconstruction, or the rebuilding of the American infrastructure, was even more traumatic than the war itself. It reached all parts of the South, even those remote areas barely scarred by military clashes. Action in the Opelousas area, for example, was pretty much limited to the Battles of Buzzard's Prairie, near the Chreitien Plantation on 15 October 1863, Opelousas on 21 October 1863, and Bayou Borbeaux on 3 November 1863, in a rural area between present day Church Point and Sunset, Louisiana. The clash of the forces of Union General Nathaniel Banks and small, but effective bands of mounted Texas and Louisiana guerillas made life very uncomfortable for the residents of the area. While the battles were little more than large skirmishes, the presence of Union forces brought fear and even terror. The troops needed supplies and were determined to get it from area stores and farms. As the Federal troops approached Opelousas an exhausted lone Confederate rider in tattered clothes, in much the same tradition as the Revolutionary Patriot Paul Revere, dashed through the streets of Opelousas shouting the ominous message: "Les Federaux sont sur le Carencro!" ("The Yankees are on the Carencro [River]).
David C. Edmonds, author of Yankee Autumn in Acadiana, points out that few places suffered more from invasion, occupation and confiscation than Opelousas. Colonel Thomas E. Chickering of the 41st Massachusetts Infantry and General Bank's military governor, spent almost two months in Opelousas area "collecting the valuable products of the country." Every house, farm and store in Imperial St. Landry Parish (St. Landry, Acadia and Evangeline Parishes) from Plaquemine Brulee (Church Point) to Barre's Landing (Port Barre) had been "virtually denuded by Chickering's efficient foraging teams." Foreigners, Confederates, free men of color, Acadians and other Frenchmen saw their valuables taken, including cotton, sugar, fodder, corn, livestock, implements, wagons, slaves and anything else of value. The wanton confiscation and senseless destruction of valuable property inflicted upon civilians by undisciplined Union soldiers motivated the area's young men and their families to search for convincing behaviors of neutrality. It was all for naught; the jayhawking and marauding continued unabated.
Unlike the Civil War itself, the war in Louisiana was relatively quick and decisive. Once Admiral David Farragut captured New Orleans -- Louisiana, as a Confederate state was no more. The subsequent "Battles of the Bayou Country" were more attempts to prevent an invasion of Texas than a defense of the Bayou State. By living in between Texas and New Orleans, Cajuns and other French Louisianians were caught in the middle; geography brought the Civil War to Acadiana. As a young man of 19 at the end of the war, Eugene Lavergne had witnessed the military struggle as an adolescent, and was forced to deal with Reconstruction as a young adult. The Lavergnes were never wealthy owners of vast tracts of land, and not likely to ever have owned more than one or two, if any, slaves. They were simple tenant farmers and never part of the opulence of the Antebellum South.
In July, 1862, Congress passed an act providing for the confiscation of the property of disloyal persons. It allowed sixty days for these persons to return to their proper loyalty to the United States. Normally, this was done through a "Loyalty Oath." In September, General Benjamin Butler, the commanding Union officer in New Orleans ordered all persons who refused to take the loyalty oath to be registered as enemies and to provide a list of their property. About 4,000 people registered as enemies, but more than 61,000 swore a loyalty oath. By war's end in 1865 many young men, including Eugene Lavergne, were appearing in courthouses to receive amnesty and to solemnly swear to:
1. faithfully defend the Constitution of the United States;
2. support the Union of States; and
3. support the Proclamations and laws passed by Congress during the war.
Union officials were interested in having the men of the area renounce the institution of slavery, and more specifically, to accept Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in Confederate-held lands as of 1 January 1863.
On 19 August 1865, less that a month before his marriage to Marie Hermine Bourgeois, Eugene Lavergne appeared before L.V. Chachere, a St. Landry Parish clerk, and swore a loyalty oath. He might have done so in order to secure a marriage license, or to protect whatever property he did own, or just to get the whole messy affair over with.
Lives of Quiet Desperation