A Swiss Immigrant’s View of the War

By Cliff McCarthy

We were recently tipped off by a Comment on our webpage about a journal article recounting the experiences of a Swiss immigrant to America who served in the 31st Massachusetts, named Andrew Hanselmann. Hanselmann had come to New Orleans in 1860 and at the outbreak of hostilities joined with a small group of other Swiss to fight for the Confederacy. However, with the withdrawal of Rebel forces from New Orleans, Hanselmann switched allegiance and enlisted in Co. A of the 31st Massachusetts. His view of the war, written many years later near the end of his life, is both enlightening and humorous. He notes with fascination the technological innovations, such as pontoon bridges and the use of cotton “bags” as a protective barrier.  It should be noted that, while his subjective view is interesting, Hanselmann is not careful with his facts and dates, which are frequently corrected in the footnotes of the article. We reproduce some excerpts here, but for the full article describing many more adventures in California after the war, see “Adventures in North America According to My Own Experiences” in the Swiss-American Historical Society Review, Vol. 47, No. 3, November 2011. Hanselmann’s recollections are NOT part of the 31st Massachusetts Infantry Collection at the Wood Museum of Springfield History.

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“When I arrived in the city of New Orleans, there was a slave market. yet not in the open street as earlier, but in enclosed places. There, people were traded the same way as cattle in our region; men were sold away from their wives, children from their mother’s arms. For a young Negro one paid up to 5000 francs, for a female slave about half, more or less, depending on her looks. I was working on a railroad 40 miles north, and I saw daily how these poor devils were treated. One among them was made slave driver. He had a whip with a short handle, walked slowly behind the workers and drove them on to work. His superior was a supervisor on horseback, armed with gun and revolver. The slave driver had to obey him unconditionally and to carry out any order, even if he felt sorry about it. If the supervisor arrived on horseback and saw one of the laborers not working to his liking, he gave an order to the negro-driver to mete out a number of lashes. How painful it must have been to hurt one’s slave brother in such a horrid way. But today, this shameful slavery is abolished.”

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“The newly-elected southern president of the Confederacy issued a proclamation that all residents living in the South were requested and obliged to participate actively in he war or to leave the country immediately. This was difficult for many who where bound to the place for business reasons. What should Andreas do? Should he leave or should he take part in the war against the North that had his sympathy as an enemy of slavery? Now the town of New Orleans set up a military brigade in order to keep order and prevent murder, theft, and arson. Like many others who were also not of the Southern mind, I joined the brigade. We hoped thereby to avoid being assigned to the field army and, since we did military service, we would thus not be obliged to leave the country. We also wanted to do something that was right and to bring honor to our home country. Therefore I joined four other Swiss to establish a Company of Swiss Sharp Shooters since I had been a sharp shooter in the Swiss military. Now, we needed to be drilled. From a company of Italians we borrowed wooden rifles. When the Italians finished their exercises, they gave us the wooden shooting beaters and things went quite well. There was the advantage that we did not loose time with loading the rifle and did not endanger our hearing!”

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“Suddenly the rumor spread that the Northerners were coming, and it was indeed true. Admiral Faraguth [Farragut] had arrived with 15 warships and 300 cannons down at the mouth of the Mississippi close to Fort Jackson behind which there is a huge forest. There is a bend in the river. Faraguth put a small boat with one man to water who had a flag and paddled towards the bend where, protected by bushes, he could well see the fort.

Now the spectacle was to start. The man in the boat observed how the bullets fell on the fort since the gunners could not see the target. But when they got the right target by the flag signal, they fired many shots because with 20 such ‘may-pipes’ one could achieve quite a lot. There was only one ship in action; if all cannons had fired, the whole state of Louisiana including the ship Mississippi would have had to sink. The troops in the fort were in a difficult position; they could not see the enemy ships because of the forest, and yes, the fort was completely leveled. When the battleships moved in front of the fort about one hundred cannons were positioned on the ramparts, it ‘smelled’ some time more, but the dance did not last much longer. Soon the garrison surrendered; the white flag was set up and Admiral Faraguth was master of the place. He ordered the commander of the fort to fall in line. Faraguth told the men that they were now his prisoners; but if they would swear never to use arms against the Union, he would bring them to New Orleans and everyone could go as a free citizen to wherever he pleased. Those however who wanted to join the army of the Union could decide freely to do so, a ship was ready soon to depart.

When in New Orleans, where the bombardment had been heard, the capitulation of the fort became known, the commander of the town
proclaimed that all habitants were allowed to carry off all goods stored on the wharf. He himself fled from the Yankees. How the citizens ran to the place! Some smashed the bottoms of the sugar barrels and filled the sugar in bags, some others did things more simply and the smart way, they rolled the full barrels away, while a third group rushed to the coffee bags and the smoked meat; there was plenty of all the goods. Those living nearby had an advantage and were quickly back at the place. It was like at a race, everything was stolen. This was permitted or even ordered. The empty ships were burnt, or sank in the waters of the Mississippi.”

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“Now the first ship of the Union arrived in New Orleans. General Butler entered with the 31st Regiment, Massachusetts Infantry. I was enlisted in this regiment and from now on I was a soldier of the North. On a low carriage they brought a cannon to the town that was positioned in front of the houses where the flag of the confederates was still flying. The flag was lowered and replaced by that of the Union. This aroused ill feelings among the rebels, but they had to accept it. New Orleans, Charleston and Baltimore were among the worst rebel cities. Our Swiss Sharpshooters Company was dissolved and we were assigned to different companies. My company took quarter in a pharmacy; the two other companies were never with the regiment, but served at the sea in Fort Peig [Pickens].

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“Once, when I was on guard duty from 12 to 2 o’clock and just released, a flock of screaming women and children came towards me. Nearby was the post office with a jail in the basement. A Swiss soldier was guarding the entrance. I joined him and said: ‘Peter, what are these women and children doing here at night, and why are they screaming?’ Peter answered: ‘There are six prisoners here, they will be executed by tomorrow, and these women and children might be relatives.’ Those men had been taken prisoner in Fort Jackson and had sworn to the admiral never again to take the arms against the North. But then they tried to desert to the Confederates but were arrested by the guards, and now they were condemned to death according to martial law. There was a night of full moon, bright as daylight, and because I was not on duty I had time to observe the matter. Soon two carriages arrived, on each of them were a priest and three coffins. The condemned persons were brought out; they mounted the carriages and sat on the coffins. Two companies escorted the carriages, followed by the crying wives and children. It was a heartbreaking spectacle and many soldiers who faced fire with courage had to hold back their tears. The ride out of town took about two miles. There the carriages stopped on the left side of an open field. The wives and children were kept back and not allowed to enter the place of execution. The condemned stepped down and put the coffins side by side a step apart. Then they had to sit down on the coffins, open their shirts, and take off their headgear. Now the two priests approached. Each of them had to take care of three of the condemned. They said a prayer that the crowd around could not understand. In some distance were 24 riflemen under the command of a lieutenant and waited for the order ‘fire’. In this frightening atmosphere a sudden movement came into the crowd. The lieutenant saw an officer on horseback with a white flag approaching the place of execution, giving the order ‘cock at rest’. The officer rode in front of the soldiers with rifles and explained that General Butler had reprieved the deserters by sentencing them to prison. As soon as they heard the word ‘reprieves’, they jumped from the coffins and stamped the ground and shouted: ‘We don’t want to be reprieved.’ The officer replied that they had nothing to say here; other people were giving orders. The coffins were again loaded on the carts and the party went back to town. The wives and children were astonished and also happy when they saw their men coming back alive.”

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“One day, when I was in New Orleans, I saw a wagon with two policemen and a prisoner between them. ‘What had this fellow done,’ I thought and I followed the wagon. It drove toward the mint, where money is manufactured and where there is a large court. I entered it and saw that they brought the prisoner into the house. Soon he appeared with an officer on the balcony of the second floor. Now I understood what was to happen because I saw a trapdoor and above it a rope. The man was standing on the trapdoor of the balcony. Then his hands were tied on his back and his feet with a leather strap. In his right hand he received a white handkerchief. Now he raised his voice and asked the officer whether he could say some words. This the officer allowed. He mentioned his name, his year of birth, and his home state North Carolina. Then he told with a trembling voice that a citizen from New Orleans had promised him a thousand dollars if he were to take down the Union flag from the mint and, without having known or being aware
that this was such a great crime, he had taken down the flag. But this time no savior appeared. The hangman pulled the black cap over the delinquent’s head down to his shoulders, put the rope around his neck, and pulled the trap board from under his feet – I had to turn away.”
[Hanselmann refers to the execution of William Bruce Mumford, 26 April 1862.]

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“Now I will talk again about Fort Port Hudson. Without having been ordered, we crawled up the five-meter high slope and saw how the garrison troops had dug long and two-meter deep trenches on the shoveled-up ground. At times a shot was fired, but we couldn’t see anyone. Now 2,000 cotton bags were delivered. I guessed the weight of such a bag to be about 30 pounds. Every soldier of the 31st Regiment had to carry two of those bags. We did not debate long how best and most comfortably to carry them. We cut sticks in the bushes, sharpened them at both ends, and pierced two bags each with them. We carried the bags on our shoulder, one in front, and one in the back while the rifle dangled around the neck. The kind reader now may imagine how strange our regiment looked with such armament. On that day we also could get schnapps, which hadn’t been the case until today, and it was placed before us in buckets. There must have been a reason for this. The night passed quietly. At dawn we marched toward the fort. We came to soft, muddy ground. We now had to put our bags down and make a path for our artillery with them. Suddenly the bullets of the rebels covered us like dense hail. We pulled the bags up again, piled them one upon the other and sought cover behind them. We crouched behind them like earthworms. The bullets could not pierce the bags, but some found their way between them.

This was the 24th of July. [Actually, Port Hudson surrendered on 8 July 1863.] No one who was there will ever forget this day. Due to heat and exhaustion, I fell asleep behind the protective wall of cotton. Before the war there had been a forest around the fort. At that time the garrison had felled trees crisscrossed, one on top of the other, and it was nearly impossible to come dose to the fort. Our leader Emmeric, we were told, got the ‘cannon fever’ and ran away. Penn, his deputy, had to suffer in his place since he caught a bullet in his leg. Nearby was our ensign who shot with great courage at the fort. A bullet pierced his car. He rolled around on the ground and cried out loudly for water. This woke me from my blackout-sleep. Then another comrade cried and shouted at my side. ‘What happened to you?’ I asked. ‘I lost my foot,’ he answered. I had a look, but kept my head nicely lowered, and I saw that he had received a bullet through the shoe sole, but the foot was only grazed. I still could tell many things that this day in July had brought. In the evening our Negro cooks cheered us up. They brought hot coffee. Oh, how good it tasted!”

[Note: there were no officers named Emmerich or Penn in the 31st Massachusetts. Hanselman did serve in other units during the war and may have gotten some names confused. It is possible they were officers in another unit to which the 31st was attached during the attack on Port Hudson.]

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[Red River Campaign]

“In the evening the ambulances came and took the wounded and dead away. We crossed a deep creek and got wet from top to bottom. A cold night followed, and we waited in a cornfield for the morning; this time none of us was sweating and we were also standing in deep mud. The order arrived to assault the fort. A dense thorny hedge had been made around it. We crept under it and pulled our rifles after us. The knees of most of us might have trembled when we reached tile earthworks. We climbed slowly onto them and raised our heads cautiously. One soldier was ahead. With one jump he was on the top and could see into the fort. ‘All are gone,’ he shouted. The garrison had left the fort by a secret exit. Soon we discovered the soldiers’ tracks and pursued them. They had already crossed the Red River [Bayou Teche] and had destroyed the bridge. Our artillery arrived and the engineers erected a temporary bridge. We, the foot soldiers, carried the ammunition across; the gunners pulled their cannons through the water. We worked with great effort. We stopped the pursuit and marched far upstream on the left bank of the river. In order to make the connection to the right bank, intersecting bridges were established that I had never seen before. We got a large number of wooden boxes. These contained rubber bags that could be filled with air, so they looked like mattresses. Then they were tied together, put into the river, and fixed with ropes on the two banks so they could not swim away. Along this huge ‘air pillow,’ two beams were put on to these, one board after another.

The bridge was finished. An officer gave the order: ‘Muster!’ Soon we were ready to march in single row. The drummers beat their drums, each in his own way: they didn’t beat a march, and we were not to move in step so that the bridge wouldn’t sway. Such were the orders. We tripped like a herd of sheep over the rubber bridge — it was quite ridiculous. We crossed the river on this ‘air bridge’ in good humor without accident. The ‘mattresses’ were pulled on land, emptied. and packed together with the other material. One had to experience it, otherwise one wouldn’t believe it. Our way went up to Franklin. Here we met our artillery and our cavalry.

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In the morning at dawn the ‘hiking’ continued. We marched a longtime in almost unbearable heat. Finally we had a two-hour rest in a forest. How good we felt! We could sit and lie and smoke a pipe in the cool shade. Suddenly an officer startled us. There was a farmer with him. He protested like a madman because a pair if his boots had been stolen. The officer asked him whether he would recognize the boots-thief if he would see him. ‘I think so,’ he replied, ‘for it had been a drummer.’ So all the drummers were gathered and scrutinized. But the boots did not show up. After this funny intermezzo, the musicians wanted to play a tune, but they didn’t get one single note out. Their instruments were full of dust and they had first to be washed. Now the drummers were ordered to play a march. They formed a circle and lustily beat the drum skins that the forest resounded. An officer
was marching along the drummers and asked one of them:

‘What’s the matter with your drum? It doesn’t have a real sound.’ ‘Yes I know,’ he replied. ‘I’ve the boots in it that the farmer was looking for and couldn’t find.’ The officer broke into a laugh and gave the drummer a pat on the back.”

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[Back in New Orleans]

The people in the government of this town were a gang of rogues. They let it happen that everyone could print and pass out false money. They themselves gave a bad example and put four million false banknotes in circulation. There were two clever artisans, a tailor and a shoemaker, who also printed false notes. They even put their artisan symbol on the paper, the one a pair of scissors, the other a shoe-last. A commercial business issued, of course without any guarantee, 300,000 dollars of invalid bills. It would have been quite a good business if it had continued for a longer period. General Butler, however, quickly ‘put an end to this joy.’ He had all the false money collected, declared it as worthless, and in one day had four million false notes burnt on the open street. He had the members of the government apprehended and imprisoned in the fortress Jackson. With his troops he now had full control over New Orleans. But due to his just and impartial action, he was soon liked, and the people loved him like a father. His task was
huge. No other man could have kept a town of 300,000 inhabitants, who through pressure, roguishness, and unemployment had come close to desperation, in such good public order as he did.

How well he cared for the working class showed one of his proclamations that forbid landlords to give notice to those who couldn’t pay the rent on time or to turn them out to the street. This led to great anger, and the cold-bloodedness, energy, and reputation of a Butler were needed to contain the fires that were to flare up again and again.”

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