Part 2 — Boston to Ship Island

By Larry Lowenthal

According to their writings, several of the 31st Mass. soldiers knew that their destination was Ship Island, a sandbar off the Mississippi coast, and in the way of armies since the beginning of time, we have to assume that if one soldier knew they all did. [Young recollections, 8; Underwood diary, Feb. 21, 1862; Shaftoe diary, Feb. 21; Tupper letters Dec. 24, 1861, Feb. 2, 1862] Tupper may have had greater access because he was serving as a clerk, but if he had the further knowledge that their ultimate objective was to seize New Orleans, it is likely that the information was widely diffused.

Like everything else in the Civil War, the decision to attack New Orleans was tangled in politics and personal rivalry. True to Napoleon’s maxim that victory has a thousand fathers, many later claimed credit for originating the idea. After the other major protagonists were dead, Navy Commander David D. Porter grabbed an expanding amount of credit, including the selection of the commanding officer. Horace Greeley attributed it to Butler, though the general himself apparently never made that claim. In the view of an historian who studied this campaign, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus V. Fox deserves most of the credit. [Dufour, 135]  Lincoln, needing a victory, soon adopted the plan. After the capture of Port Royal, SC, November 7, 1861, and the Hatteras forts earlier in the year, taking New Orleans seemed to lie within Union capabilities. Butler indirectly figured in the decision because he had led the army portion of the joint attack on Hatteras. These offensives indicated that steam-powered vessels could run past fortified positions in a style that would have been unacceptably risky for sailing ships.

It is not entirely clear when Butler was selected to lead the army portion of the expedition. Probably it was in November, when Captain David Glasgow Farragut was chosen to lead the naval force, though formal orders did not come through until later. Gustavus Fox, who was an ally and informant of Butler, may have made the suggestion. [Nolan, 113] On October 11, 1861, in one of his strained communications with Governor Andrew, Butler had written that he was “most anxious to get his division organized so as to start upon an expedition already planned in the service of his country.” [Marshall, I:251] It is not known what he had in mind when he made that remark, probably another move against the Virginia coast, rather than New Orleans; but in any case he would not have disclosed this information to Andrew. Once the expedition was approved, Butler stood out as a logical candidate to command it. He was in process of assembling a large independent force that had not been assigned to a particular objective. Not the least of the considerations in Washington political circles was that this offered an almost heaven-sent opportunity to remove Butler to some remote place where he would be able to exert his overflowing energy and ambition and also less likely to stir up controversy. The first of Butler’s recruits to be sent out of New England, the 26th Mass. and the 9th Conn., under Brigadier General John Phelps of Vermont, arrived at Ship Island December 3, 1861. True, that was only a staging area and did not guarantee that they would be sent against New Orleans.

George B. McClellan (Image from Library of Congress)

George B. McClellan (Image from Library of Congress)

Even with 1900 of his troops on Ship Island and more on the way, there remained many obstacles on the path to New Orleans other than the Confederate forts that guarded it. The administration, looking for another Napoleon, had named youthful George B. McClellan commanding general, replacing “Old Fuss and Feathers” Winfield Scott. McClellan at first seemed to favor the New Orleans campaign, but around the turn of the year began having doubts. Fearful both that Butler would not have enough men to complete the task and that he could not afford to lose that many men from the defenses of Washington (although Butler’s recruits had never been assigned there), on January 1 he ordered Butler to “remain where you are” and then ordered troops that were on their way to Ship Island to be diverted to Washington and Fortress Monroe. [Marshall I:310, 318-320]

It is striking that, although Butler may never have met McClellan, he formed a quick assessment of his character, telling his wife “Either McClellan has got to advance or he will be superseded.” [Marshall, I:330] This was written January 26, 1862, when McClellan was still widely seen as the savior of the Union. Although both were Democrats, Butler had no illusions. McClellan would not move until he had amassed overpowering strength, but in what a later generation would call a “Catch-22,” that was almost impossible because he extravagantly overestimated enemy numbers.

Butler was saved when Edwin Stanton replaced Simon Cameron as Secretary of War, and the new secretary supported the New Orleans expedition. McClellan had no choice but to comply, although he eventually did so with good will, adding three Midwestern regiments to Butler’s complement and holding out the prospect that other forces might be diverted to him. Adding the three regiments was surprisingly generous, as they were already in the Washington-Baltimore area. McClellan also contributed an officer who was to prove extremely valuable, Engineer Lt. Godfrey Weitzel. On February 23, 1862, McClellan formally created the Department of the Gulf, with Butler in command, and issued full orders.

“You are assigned to the command of the land forces destined to co-operate with the Navy in the attack upon New Orleans,” began the instructions. “You will use every means to keep your destination a profound secret, even from your own staff officers, with the exception of your Chief of Staff and Lt. Weitzel . . . .” McClellan, emphasizing that “The object is one of vital importance,” listed the force elements of all arms, which totaled 18,000 men. He expected that the Navy could reduce the two forts guarding the city, but if not, they would have to be carried by assault. If New Orleans fell, Butler was to occupy Algiers, across the river. He added “It may be necessary to place some troops in the city to preserve order, though if there appears sufficient Union sentiment to control the city, it may be best for purposes of discipline to keep your men out of the city.”

The commanding general then let his imagination roam: after obtaining possession of New Orleans, “Baton Rouge, Burwick [sic: Berwick] Bay, and Fort Livingston will next claim your attention . . . . A feint on Galveston may facilitate the objects we have in view.” Beyond Baton Rouge, Butler was instructed to aim for Jackson, Miss., then consider combined force attacks on Mobile, Pensacola and Galveston. McClellan had to admit that “It is probable that by the time New Orleans is reduced, it will be in the power of the Government to reinforce the land forces sufficiently to accomplish all these objects.” [McClellan to Butler, Feb. 23, 1862, Marshall, I:360-61, emphasis in original] McClellan had laid out an agenda far more ambitious than anything he himself would be likely to attempt. Certainly he was not seeking to build up a rival, and since he had once asserted that it might take 50,000 men to reduce the forts below New Orleans, perhaps he was trying to set Butler up for failure. [Hearn, 46]


On board the Mississippi the first day, February 21, was relatively quiet, but on the following day the sea grew rougher, with predictable effects on the men. Most had never been at sea and soon, as one soldier phrased it, began “to cast up their accounts.” [Wheeler diary, Feb. 21, 1862] Another charmingly observed that “some of them are looking at the bottom of their shoes to see if there is anything more they can throw up” [Shaftoe diary, Feb. 22, 1862]  Thomas Norris, a 16 year-old who had signed up as a drummer boy, added his voice to the deep-throated chorus, reporting “When we got out [of] sight of the land I began to feel dizzy and got sick, but I could not vomit, but that night when I drank some of the tea they had I let every thing up that I had ate for the last week.” [letter, Feb. 24, 1862] J.W. Hawkes surely delighted the folks at home by informing them “I would like to picture to you a scene where we were all spewing over the rail . . . .”

After delays due to fog and the lack of a pilot, the Mississippi docked at Fortress Monroe on February 24. Butler, who had arrived earlier at the familiar fort, came on board with his wife, and the ship departed on the evening of the 25th. Initially “We had a beautiful sail, calm and warm.” It had been cold when they arrived, but now the men “were all out on deck, smoking, talking and laughing and having a good time generally.” [Knight diary, Feb. 25, 1862] It was a deceptive interlude before catastrophe once more threatened the 31st Mass.

Off Hatteras, the steamer encountered a terrific storm, which the people on board described in apocalyptic nautical language: “only a plank between us and eternity.” [Shaftoe diary, Feb. 26, 1862]   Mrs. Butler, who had a talent for colorful prose, wrote that “The seas roaring, phosphorescent, gleaming as serpents’ backs, struck the quivering ship like heavy artillery.” [Marshall, I:364. The churning sea obviously mixed her metaphors.]  Mountainous waves smashed over the deck, and many times it seemed doubtful that the ship would rise out of the troughs. “Among it all it was amusing to hear the men; some were praying, others heaving up Jonah and a few were stealing sugar and others were bailing water that came down the hatches,” but they were hard-pressed to keep up with the water pouring in. [Underwood diary, Feb. 27, 1862]  The captain swung the ship northward to ride before the storm, and that may have helped save her.

The next day was utterly different, with the benign sun trying to banish memories of the dreadful night they had endured. As if rejoicing in her salvation, the Mississippi ran rapidly down the Carolina coast, making up time lost to the storm. Alas, this calm, bright phase proved to be only a lulling overture to another brush with disaster. In a sudden interruption to this reverie, “there came a surging, grating sound from the bottom of the vessel — a pause, a hush of dread throughout the ship — it worked again — the engine stopped — began again, another heavy lurching, and quivering of the ship — again the engine stopped,” as Mrs. Butler described it. [Marshall, I:365]  Due to a gross navigational error by the captain, the ship had run aground on Frying Pan Shoals, ten or 15 miles east of Point Lookout, North Carolina. The adjacent coast was in rebel hands, and although they lacked a fleet, if the Mississippi began to break up, its crew would be forced into boats to make for the shore. There they, along with General and Mrs. Butler, would be likely to fall into enemy hands.

Efforts to free the ship with the engine failed, and lightening it by throwing overboard provisions, baggage, and even valuable ammunition were to no avail. To compound its distress, during the night the ship sprung a leak. Amazingly, this was caused by the captain throwing over an anchor, although, as Mrs. Butler succinctly observed, “One would have thought we were fast enough without the anchor.” [Marshall, I:367]  As the wounded vessel lurched about, it struck the anchor, which punched a hole in the hull. On the following day, February 28, a ship was spotted in the distance. Fortunately, it proved to be the federal gunboat Mount Vernon, engaged in blockading duty. Just as the process of transferring soldiers to the Mount Vernon in small boats was beginning, the Mississippi, perhaps lifted by rising tide, came free. She was still down at the bow, where the anchor had punctured, so pumps had to be kept working constantly. That she survived at all was largely due to the fact that she was constructed with compartments, so that although the forward compartment was flooded so much that the pumps could barely keep up, the other compartments kept her afloat. At Butler’s request, the Mount Vernon escorted the damaged steamer, pumps straining, to Port Royal, South Carolina, with a brief intermission to chase down a blockade-runner. So much provision had been tossed overboard that the men were reduced to a diet of “salt junk and hard bread” with a few boiled potatoes. [Hawkes letters, Mar. 7, 1862]  Port Royal had been captured by federal forces less than four months earlier; otherwise the expedition might have had to turn back to Hatteras Inlet or risk another passage of Cape Hatteras to return to Fort Monroe.

On March 3, eleven eventful days out of Boston, the Mississippi landed at Hilton Head, outside Port Royal. Even though the men did not find this land attractive, we can hardly imagine the relief they felt when they first set foot on it after the ordeals they had experienced: “Wasn’t I glad to get off ship on to terra firma once more, though my legs were so weak I could hardly stand.” [Hawkes letter, Mar. 7, 1862]  Here, barely 60 straight-line miles from Charleston — the incubator of secession — most of them made their first contact with the South and its plantation system. Mrs. Butler was unimpressed: “Level fields, yellow pine trees, in the distance, a ditch or two, here and there a scattering palmetto, stunted looking things, with a few leaves clustered at the top, rattling away like sticks. How can one think them comely?” [Marshall, I:364]  Some of the men, however, enjoyed the warm days — like June in New England — and the orange and peach blossoms.

Formerly enslaved people of Hilton Head, SC (Image from Library of Congress)

Formerly enslaved people of Hilton Head, SC (Image from Library of Congress)

As far as the men of the 31st knew, the entire island was one plantation, owned by James Seabrook. For this reason, the temporary post was called Camp Seabrook. The master, however, had gone off to serve as a Confederate officer, leaving the plantation and its slaves unmanaged, apparently another unforeseen consequence of launching the rebellion. The first Union troops to arrive had mistreated the slaves, so initially they were fearful, but “Our soldiers have always paid them for whatever they took, so they are quite familiar now.” [Hawkes letter, Mar. 7, 1862]  Almost as soon as they landed, the men went down to the Negro huts to vary their shipboard diet with hoe cakes and oysters. Indeed, when not drilling or working the pumps on the ship, the men spent much of their idle time capturing and consuming oysters and sweet potatoes. One soldier observed that “The negroes still live here with no one to make them work when they don’t want to.” [Ibid.]  Without supervision, they worked to meet their needs, but it was reported that they had also begun plowing for the year’s cotton crop. One can speculate that seeing this gave Butler the idea for the “free labor” plantations he later established in Louisiana.

Pumping out the water and repairing the Mississippi was a slow business, and Butler and his officers fretted that Farragut’s armada had already entered the Mississippi River and was cursing the Army for delaying them. Being held responsible for fouling Navy plans was hardly an enticing prospect. In the next century, Hilton Head would flourish as a prestigious resort, but the men of the 31st remained largely immune to its charms. Although the days were generally pleasant, nights were uncomfortably chilly, and a couple of nights actually had frost. Most of the men, while reluctant to reacquaint themselves with a ship they considered unlucky, were happy to leave the island.

But even departure was no simple affair. On March 10, with some of the 31st on board and others being brought out by tugs, the Mississippi ran aground on a dense oyster bed. It was necessary to tie hawsers from the mast to a tree on land to keep the ship from tipping over at low tide. [Shaftoe diary, Mar. 10, 1862]  Men and cargo were loaded and unloaded in cold, rainy weather while tugs snapped several ropes trying to pull the vessel free. Four steamers working together could not free her, and it was mainly rising tide that finally floated the luckless ship. [Underwood diary, Mar. 12, 1862]  Even then, fog delayed sailing until the 13th. By then, Captain A. H. Fulton of the Mississippi had been placed under arrest. Many of the men suspected that he was a rebel sympathizer and had deliberately placed the ship in a position where it could be destroyed or captured. Of course, this would have entailed putting his own life at risk long before suicide bombing became fashionable. Butler may not have shared these suspicions, but with ample reason to question the captain’s ability, he informed him “that through your neglect or incompetency the lives of fourteen hundred men had thrice been in peril, that the important interests of the Government in the speed of this voyage had been greatly injured, and its objects much delayed and perhaps thwarted . . . .” [Marshall, I:373]  When the ship finally sailed on March 13, it was under a new captain, a Navy officer.

Compared to the earlier part of the voyage, the journey to Ship Island was relatively uneventful. Pleasant days at sea were occasionally interrupted by showers and storms. On a warm night the men were sleeping on deck “and everything was tranquil until about eleven o’clock when a shower came up which soon drove us to our Quarters, where it was so hot we almost suffocated.” [Shaftoe diary, Mar. 17, 1862]  After some men were suspected of breaking into the cargo, the entire regiment was assembled on deck for an inspection of knapsacks and equipment. “A madder set of men I never saw.” [Ibid., Mar. 18, 1862]  This search confiscated assorted knives, pistols, and tobacco. There were interludes of enjoyment, unknowingly anticipating the pleasure cruises of the next century. On one such balmy night, Mrs. Butler observed “The officers, a little apart, were singing. The swift moving ship, the dancing glittering waters, and the deep-toned music were in exquisite harmony.” Yet she could not avoid reflecting “How free and careless they felt, with no spot for the sole of the foot but that they must win by the sword.” [Marshall, I:380]

Even the end of the long journey confirmed the fears of those who considered the Mississippi an unlucky ship. She reached Ship Island on March 20 but had to go back out to sea because of a storm. Later attempts to land at the flimsy pier failed when the ship crashed into other vessels or tangled in their rigging. Only half-jokingly Mrs. Butler noted “She might be said to have ‘run amuck’.” [Marshall, I:383]  It was only on March 25 that most of the troops came ashore, landed from a tug while the larger ship stayed offshore. Thirty-three adventurous days had passed since they had boarded the Mississippi in Boston and more than five months since Ben Butler received his authorization to raise troops. The men from Western Massachusetts, few of whom were acquainted with the sea, underwent great stress and hardship long before they saw combat. Low-level attrition continued, as two members of the regiment died at sea and another was buried on Hilton Head, probably in a sandy grave now long-forgotten. It was said of this soldier, a man from Rutland, MA, that “his father came to see him at Camp Chase and told him that if he would not go to war that he would give him a deed of his property.” [Knight diary, Mar. 8, 1862]

On reaching land, Col. Whelden’s horse bolted and galloped a long way down the beach until it ran out of steam or the colonel regained control. If this was an expression of joy at surviving, there was good reason, as Tupper noted that of 200 horses loaded at Boston, only 100 survived the journey. [letter, Mar. 26, 1862] This was a portent of a wartime catastrophe of immense proportions, though few at that time could have suspected it. For the soldiers, after their trying and tiresome adventure at sea, Whelden’s discomfiture provided a welcome source of amusement.

The Gulf beaches, another future tourist paradise, held little attraction to the men of Butler’s division. On first seeing the island, one soldier expressed the opinion that it was “only a barren sand waste.” [Hawkes letter, Mar. 20, 1862] Another dismissed the future National Seashore as “a dismal looking place; not a tree to be seen; not a spear of grass meets the eye; and as it appears to us now, it is but a bed of white sand, over which the sun glistens as on a pane of glass.” [Shaftoe diary, Mar. 20, 1862]  Mrs. Butler, always more poetic, perceived some beauty: “The island is attractive seen from the ship; a long curving line of smooth beach, where the surf rolls in and breaks gaily on the white sands. The tents, whitest of all, rise just beyond, and seem to cover half the Island, the center of which is not much higher than the beach, and you might easily think it was all floating.” [Marshall, I;382]  The lady, however, did not have to work on the island, where the loose sand made the ordinary operations of drilling and fetching wood an exhausting struggle. Picturesque at a distance, the insidious sand soon worked its way into every bite of food and every item of clothing and gear. Tupper summarizes the men’s feelings, writing that “The sand is very troublesome. It is getting on our clothes when we sit down & you get your cup of coffee & sit down to drink it & somebody brushes along & about a pint of sand gets into your cup.” [letter, Mar. 26, 1862]

In addition to the grit that infiltrated everything, the troops complained about the quality and quantity of their food. Because so much provision had been thrown overboard to lighten the ship during its various ordeals, the regiment probably arrived with a severe shortage. Norris described the dismal fare the on which the men had to sustain themselves: “We got the first week fresh Beef, but after that we had to live on salt junk, or horse as we call it, and Hard bread and coffee or chips and scraps, such stuf [sic] as you would not keep in the house.” [letter Mar. 24, 1862] Initially neighboring regiments such as the 6th Mich. and the 26th Ind. displayed their sympathy by bringing ham and coffee, but that was only a temporary expedient. [Ibid.] The simmering discontent came to a head when the men of Company K decided not to fall in for drill until their meals improved. Many were promptly placed under arrest. In the regular army that kind of insubordination probably would have been considered mutiny and led to court martial and severe punishment, but once again the officers realized that they had to treat volunteer soldiers differently. After condemning their conduct, the colonel told the men that if they turned out immediately he would forgive their behavior and look into their grievances. By then, the men were happy to reconsider their rash move, and so an incident that could have had disastrous repercussions passed by harmlessly. [Young recollections, 14]

Confederates had occupied Ship Island for a couple of months in 1861, but withdrew the small garrison in mid-September. [Dufour, 53, 66]  Probably it was a wise decision since, lacking a seagoing navy, they could not have protected the isolated troops. At most they might have fought a brief delaying action before being captured. Thus, when the first elements of Butler’s force arrived in early December, they faced no opposition. From a strategic viewpoint, the island was a good choice, as it could have been used as a base for an attack on Mobile or Pensacola, as well as New Orleans. Even after New Orleans had been selected as the objective, Butler tried to keep the enemy off balance by talking up Mobile. [Butler’s Book, 324]  It was only when Navy ships entered the lower Mississippi that New Orleans was confirmed irreversibly as the goal.

Ship Island, Mississippi (Image from Harper's Weekly)

Ship Island, Mississippi (Image from Harper’s Weekly)

Entering the main channel of the river proved more trying than expected. Whereas Butler had feared delaying the Navy, the opposite occurred. Naval authorities had failed to provide all the supplies Farragut needed, so Butler, ignoring regulations, gave him coal and other material. Hauling the larger warships over the bar that blocked the main channel of the Mississippi consumed more time than anticipated. These delays freed days for drilling, sometimes in larger units, and on one occasion Butler conducted a review of his entire command. In early April the regiment for the first time was given cartridges to practice with, but only blanks. [Underwood diary, Apr. 3, 1862; Tupper letter, Apr. 1, 1862]  Although it was due to necessity more than choice, this extended drilling in the resistant sand had the effect of working Butler’s troops into fine physical condition. Tupper observed that a neighboring Michigan regiment, probably the 6th, had exchanged their Springfield guns for Austrian rifles, which would hardly seem to be an improvement, and that “our men have been fixing up their guns, changing them, & getting ready.” [letter Apr. 11, 1862]

Caledonian (St. Johnsbury, VT), 9 May 1862

Caledonian (St. Johnsbury, VT), 9 May 1862

Two tragedies marred the regiment’s sojourn on Ship Island, beyond the routine discomfort of their situation. Dr. Eben K. Sanborn of Rutland, Vermont, the regimental surgeon, suddenly became deranged. A watch was kept to prevent suicide, but he died on April 4. [Mrs. Butler to Mrs. Heard, Apr. 4, 1862; Marshall, I:402.] There may be some organic cause to account for the sudden onset of his distress; on the other hand, if he wished to commit suicide, he had access to various compounds that could accomplish that. Tupper, who seemed familiar with the situation, had a somewhat different slant, writing that Sanborn “has been insane since we came here. He came on board with our regiment, & they say his instruments, medicine, etc., were all thrown overboard while we were aground, & to come on here with no medicine, etc. worked on him so, that he lost his reason.” [letter Apr. 1, 1862] Tupper added “He refused to eat anything, & starved himself to death as much as anything.” [Ibid., Apr. 4]

Mrs. Butler assumed that the physician would be buried alongside eight other recent graves, but instead the body was shipped home in a barrel of whiskey. [Knight diary, Apr. 4, 1862; Mrs. Butler letter Apr. 4, 1862, Marshall, I:402] The eight burials were enlisted men, three of whom had died of disease and five drowned while bathing. Two of the drowned men were from the 30th Mass., but none from the 31st. [Wheeler diary, Apr. 5, 1862. Tupper says that two of the drowned men were from the 26th Mass. and the other three from a Maine regiment (letter, Apr. 6, 1862)] In a melancholy observation, Tupper wrote that “several graves have a pine board at the head with the name of the deceased, age, etc., painted on it, but many have no memorial & the sand heap only shows the resting place of a soldier.” [letter, Apr. 6, 1862] This was an oppressive thought to have on one’s mind as a landing in enemy territory approached.

Tupper felt considerable admiration for Dr. Sanborn, describing him as “a scholar & a man respected & esteemed by the Regt.” [letter, Apr. 4, 1862] He was less  impressed by Sanborn’s replacement, former Assistant Surgeon E.C. Bidwell: “I never have consulted him, & I hope I never shall have to. The boys complain of him, & I should think from the way he treats cases, he didn’t know anything. If a man has the dysentery, he gives him a pill. For a cold, fever, or anything else, the remedy is the same . . . He won’t excuse anyone if he is able to stand.” [Ibid., Mar. 29] Bidwell, himself a cultured man, went on to have a long history with the regiment, and it is unknown whether Tupper’s opinion of him changed during the remainder of his time in the 31st Mass. Other comments indicate that Tupper was a skeptic toward most medical practitioners and may have espoused a version of naturopathic treatment. [In a later letter Tupper elaborated on his unorthodox attitude toward conventional medical treatment: “You speak about the good effects of quinine to take now & then. Quinine may be very good. I never tasted it to see & never want to. Now I don’t believe in putting medicine into a man’s system & doctoring for this & doctoring for that. . . . It may be a peculiar notion of mine, but I would rely more on some old woman remedy than all the Calomel, quinine & ‘pizen’ in the Union.” After medicine did not cure a persistent cough, “I got an old negroe woman, Julia, who hangs around the ships to do some act of kindness to the suffering sailors or soldiers, to give up some stuff, mutton tallow & molasses, & it cured me right up.” (letter, July 5, 1862)]

A powerful thunderstorm passed over the island on the night of April 7-8, with torrential rain followed by a gale of wind, driving sand into every crevice and leveling tents. Most of the men had never experienced such a violent storm, but it was exceeded by another only five days later. “The thunder peals reverberated from cloud to cloud, while streams of glaring lightning glittered amid the rain, which fell thick and fast, with a clamor more terrible than that of the approaching thunder gust.” [Wheeler diary, Apr. 11, 1862]  Whether inside or out, everything and every man was thoroughly soaked. This was not a passing storm, but continued with unabated ferocity for hours.

Pittsfield Sun, 5 June 1862

Pittsfield Sun, 5 June 1862

At the height of the fury, around 2 a.m., a bolt of lightning struck the 31st Mass. guard tent, instantly killing three men and knocking several others unconscious. A. P. Wheeler described how he gradually came back to life: as his blood commenced to circulate again “it seems as though 10,000 needles were sticking in me all at once.” [Wheeler diary, Apr. 11-12, 1862]  George Young related that he had been asked to replace someone who was not present for guard duty, and although he was utterly drenched at his post, he returned to find that the man for whom he had substituted had been killed by lightning. [Young recollections, 14-17]

Next morning, as streams of rushing water threatened to subdivide the island into smaller parcels, soldiers milled around gradually finding out what had happened and trying to make sense of it. It was a somber experience for the soldiers to enter the blackened tent and see the twisted muskets and “all that was left of three young men who a few hours before were full of life and hope.” [Young recollections, 20]  As Young’s experience showed, a large element of fate was involved. Lacking other options, officers and preachers fell back on conventional statements to the effect that “it has pleased God to pick out from our great numbers these three young men to be offered up as a sacrifice to the honour of our common country.” [Ibid.] That afternoon the entire regiment turned out for a military funeral. Two of the dead men were Roman Catholic, “and the Catholic chaplain sprinkled holy water and sand on the coffins three times.” [Underwood diary, Apr. 13, 1862]  This was the most memorable incident of continuing attrition, as the regiment saw 26 men discharged while on Ship Island and three other deaths. One who was sent home was Horace Weeks, a farmer from Huntington serving in Company H. One imagines he had tried to serve his country as a private, but his 51 year-old body had failed him. Another man was listed as deserting, though one wonders how anyone could be certain that the man had deserted rather than being drowned, or where he could desert to; at best he might have stowed away on a ship returning north.

Soon the men had other matters to occupy them. On April 7, Farragut had informed Butler that he had been able to bring his ships over the bar and that final preparations were being made for the attack on the forts. A new sense of urgency rippled over the assembled troops on Ship Island. On April 14, the men were issued 40 ball cartridges and three day’s cooked rations and, on the afternoon of the 15th, smaller steamers brought them out to the familiar quarters of the Mississippi. True to form, the yard of the Mississippi knocked down both smokestacks of the other ship. One unintended positive effect on the 31st Mass. was that relief at leaving the “God forsaken Island” overcame some of the fear of what they were about to enter. [Shaftoe diary, Apr. 14, 1862]

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