By Larry Lowenthal
Nathaniel P. Banks was a much handsomer fellow than Butler and a better orator as well. To a large extent it was his unexpected talent for public speaking that propelled the former bobbin boy up the political ladder. Like any executive succeeding a controversial and strongly defined predecessor, he sought to establish a separate identity by stressing points of difference in style and policy. By temperament he was milder and smoother than Butler, and his initial impulse was to rule less harshly. In time, however, he was compelled to restore some of Butler’s practices. Banks hoped not to enlist any more Negro troops, but in this too he had to adjust his policy. He retained and expanded the “free-labor” plantations his predecessor had inaugurated.
Some of the soldiers missed Butler. Hawkes, for example, wrote “I wish Gen. Butler would come back, for Banks does not seem to know how to run New Orleans. He is disposed to make friends with the rich, while Butler was no respecter of persons.” [letter, Feb. 27, 1863; emphasis in original.] Norris, who expressed mature opinions for one his age, agreed: “all of the soldiers who came out with Butler much regret his removal, and besides the soldiers the citizens think it is rough, for they do find no such man in Banks as they did in Butler, and there is a great deal more secesh shown in the city now than there has been for a long time.” [letter, Feb. 24, 1863; emphasis in original] Tupper voiced similar sentiments, though with his usual individualistic slant: “I’ve nothing against Banks, but this policy of changing officers, Quartermaster’s, Commissaries, etc. is a bad thing. I suppose Butler has made money & been guilty of extortion, but no Union man has anything to complain of. I approve of taking property from Rebels & if they get off with losing nothing but their property they ought to be glad.” [letter, Dec. 22, 1862]
Having brought a large contingent with him, Banks found himself in command of more than 42,000 troops, nearly three times as many as Butler had controlled on any occasion. Of the 56 infantry regiments in his department, 22 were nine-month men, who had been recruited locally in the northern states, much like calling up the National Guard in later conflicts. By the time they disembarked in Louisiana, these men had used up nearly two months of their term in processing, transit, and rudimentary training, so there was unmistakable pressure to put them to use in some operation that could be concluded before their discharge date. Once the federals had established a base in Louisiana, there was persistent temptation to gain a foothold in Texas, opening that vast area to northern settlers who would form a free-state government. Competing political considerations, primarily discontent in the Midwest that threatened Republican control, made it imperative to open the Mississippi instead. [Johnson 21-23] The last two Confederate strongholds on the river were Vicksburg, Miss., and Port Hudson, La.. General Grant was experimenting with various methods to subdue Vicksburg, leaving it to Banks to remove the obstacle at Port Hudson, 110 miles downriver.
In sharp contrast to Butler, Banks had no military experience and had never displayed much interest in the subject. Propelling him instantaneously into a position of high command was an inexcusable mistake by the Lincoln administration, one that almost certainly caused the unnecessary death and maiming of hundreds of young men. If he had been made a colonel, in charge of a single regiment, or even a brigadier, Banks might have had a chance to absorb the profession gradually. As a major-general, he was immediately thrust into the command of armies. With his shiny new commission, he outranked all but three men in the entire army and was thereby placed above officers who in peacetime had stagnated for years as lieutenants and captains before creeping up the ladder. The appointment was certain to have a corrosive effect on an officer corps that was simultaneously close-knit and jealous. These men had little incentive to do anything that would enhance the career of such a flagrantly political officer. Banks’s senior rank made it difficult for subordinates to offer advice even if they had wanted to; while a major-general could hardly request instruction in seemingly routine matters. The most regrettable aspect of the situation is that there is every reason to believe that Banks would have made an excellent cabinet member and that he would have performed at least as effectively as anyone else in the cabinet. Moreover, it would seem that whichever faction Lincoln was trying to appease by elevating Banks to a lofty position would have been satisfied to see him in the cabinet. By all accounts Banks made a fine appearance in uniform, but placing him in that role was indefensible.
Chief General Henry W. Halleck, nicknamed “Old Brains,” was Regular Army all the way, and he expressed himself on the subject of political generals with much greater decisiveness than he customarily employed in issuing orders: “It seems but little better than murder, to give important commands to such men as Banks, Butler, McClernand, Sigel and Lew. Wallace, and yet it seems impossible to prevent it.” [to Gen. Sherman, May 3, 1864] Of course, Halleck was as far from an impartial observer as one could find, and his scathing remark conveniently overlooks countless examples of lives squandered by professional officers, of which it suffices to mention Grant at Cold Harbor, Burnside (reluctantly) at Fredericksburg, Pope on several occasions, Bragg customarily, and “Pickett’s Charge” on the third day at Gettysburg. Butler was actually a contrary example, since he sometimes overcompensated by using his fertile imagination to do everything possible to avoid a ruinous frontal assault.
Butler had not fretted excessively over military organization, perhaps his way of showing contempt for military hierarchy, as well as keeping everything under tighter personal control. With his larger and more diverse force, Banks could not afford that casual approach and formed a regular military structure, with brigades and divisions. This affected the 31st Mass. Under Banks’s organizational table it formed part of the Third Brigade of the Third Division, commanded by General William H. Emory. Collectively, Banks’s troops were organized as the 19th Corps. Col. Gooding was given command of the brigade, performing the duties of a brigadier but not yet promoted. Organizational arrangements were frequently adjusted, and as best as can be determined, in January 1863 he was in charge of the 31st Mass. and three other regiments, the 38th Mass. and the 116th and 156th N.Y. [according to Tupper (letter Jan. 27, 1863).] Considering how much strife had accompanied the position, it is somewhat ironic that Gooding spent very little time in sole and exclusive command of the 31st Mass.
Capt. William S. B. Hopkins was jumped to Lieut. Col. and placed in command of the 31st, skipping the rank of major entirely. Tupper, although detached as a quartermaster clerk, followed affairs of the 31st and knew Hopkins well, called it “a surprise to everybody, though he was rather expected to get the Majorship.” [letter, Feb. 5, 1863] Hopkins had been elected captain by the men of his company, many of whom he had recruited and were his townspeople from Ware. His advance to the command of the regiment had been decided by his superiors, in which Col. Gooding must have had a strong voice, though there may have been outside intervention. This could not avoid the appearance of an affront to Maj. Robert Bache of Pittsfield, who had filled that position since Camp Seward. It seemed so to J. W. Hawkes, who was becoming increasingly disillusioned and outspoken (in his letters): “We were rather ‘taken down’ on learning that Capt. Hopkins had been commissioned a Lt. Col., for Maj. Bache is a good fellow and we had supposed he was sure of the place.” [Feb. 9, 1863] Though not as stormy as before, a persistent cloud of discord hung over the regiment.
Because of his detached duty, Pvt. Tupper was probably one of the few men in the 31st Mass. who had occasion to see Gen. Emory in person, and his description makes it evident that affection was not one of the feelings the Maryland general inspired: “[Emory] is a stern, soldierly looking man. It don’t do for any soldier to speak to him. If they have a message to communicate, they must do it through the General’s orderly, who is always outside of the room, or when the General is out, rides behind him on horseback.” [letter Jan. 18, 1863] On another occasion he described Emory as “a fierce looking fellow—has a red mustache & gray eyes & looked savage enough.” [letter, Mar. 5, 1863]
On January 22, 1863 the five companies of the 31st Mass. at Fort Jackson were recalled, rejoining the two companies from Kennerville; but the three detached at Fort Pike remained there. At that time Company D reported only 32 men for duty, likely the least of any company; though some of the shrinkage was due to transfers to other units. [Tupper letter, Jan. 18, 1863] The Fort Jackson contingent arrived in New Orleans the next day and at Carrollton on the 24th. [Fairbank diary] They were replaced at Fort Jackson by the 2nd Louisiana Native Guards, a Negro regiment. Negro troops were still a novelty, and white soldiers were curious about their behavior, but in this case they did not overlap long enough to allow much observation. Contact was further limited because the Native Guards camped in tents, rather than entering the fort.
Especially in Louisiana, where the subject had been brought to the fore, it seems that every northerner in uniform had an opinion about the suitability of African Americans to become soldiers. Often these feelings were mixed or contradictory. With time on their hands in July 1862, Fairbank noted that his mates held lengthy discussions of “the negro question.” At that time, with manpower pressure not yet severe, his personal feeling was that “if we can’t whip them without arming the negroes we had better give under.” [diary, July 28, 29, 1862] On seeing the 2nd Louisiana Native Guards, Hawkes termed them “a good looking set of men. Several of the Capts. are colored and nearly all of the Lieuts. Chaplain Barnes [formerly of the 31st Mass., Company F] says there are not more than forty men in the whole Reg’t but that can read and write.” He then added “I confess to some feelings akin to those of contempt that the occupation of a soldier should be filled by negroes, yet I know that is not a right spirit.” [Letter, Jan. 26, 1863]
Howell voiced similar contradictions. At Fort Jackson in August 1862 he was in charge of 180 “contrabands” and informed his sister “I believe it will take years of independence to make them soldiers who will not cower like a whipped spaniel at sight of a white mans eye.” But while concluding “I don’t believe that they are brave enough to fight,” he added “yet as soldiers we can’t afford to throw away any arms.” [Letter, Aug. 30, 1862] As an educated man, the issue clearly weighed on his mind, and he had earlier written “Never a peace shall we have until the nigger question by some means is disposed of.” [Letter, Aug. 10, 1862] Lt. Rice disagreed with Howell’s assessment, saying simply “I am not one of those who think the darks won’t fight.” [letter, Mar. 15, 1863] Rice was able to keep an open mind on the subject, and on another occasion he wrote of the black troops at Fort Pike: “Of their qualifications as soldiers, I can’t give a very strong opinion, as they have never been tried, and I have never seen them except at one or two Parades and Inspections. I will say however they execute the Manual of Arms very creditably and march better than the majority of white troops that I have seen.” [Letter, Mar. 29, 1863]
Writing soon after the publication of the Emancipation Proclamation, James Tupper, another collegiate soldier, adopted a more thoughtful approach. Drawing on his experience in the quartermaster corps, he brought out aspects of the situation that were usually overlooked:
About Emancipating the niggers. I think it is a good thing as it takes the property away from the Rebels & will ruin the South for this generation, but as far as its benefitting the blacks, I don’t think it will unless they are taken away from the Army & sent off together somewhere where someone can look out for them. I see how it is here when only a few, comparatively speaking, are with the Army. It is worse than slavery. Instead of having one master, every soldier thinks he has an interest in a government nigger & they abuse them out of pure malice. I never hear a soldier speak a good word for a nigger. If there is any work to be done, they are worked night and day. I know one case where a lot of them worked unloading a steamboat all day & didn’t have anything to eat from 6 in the morning till after dark. Somehow the soldiers hate the negroes. One time when the 21st Indiana Regiment went off on board a boat, several darkies who had been living with the Regiment went aboard to go, too. The soldiers drove them off & one had a cane which he would beat over the poor negro enough to shock any one. So I don’t think their condition will be much improved & I guess many a negro wishes he was with his master. They have now got a system of hiring them & paying them $10.00 a month for their labor. They then take out of that what their clothes come to & if anything is lost they say the nigger stole it & take it out of their pay, so they don’t get much. Two of the Quartermaster’s niggers got 50 cents for last month’s work. When they are sick nobody cares whether they live or not & sometimes they are kept to work till they are taken to the Hospital & then their bodies are almost cold in death. One negro was taken around in an ambulance the other day to all the Hospitals . . . and had to be taken back to where they started because, as I said, the hospitals were for white folks. [letter, Nov. 13, 1862]
Tupper, as a quartermaster clerk, might have been in a position to employ ex-slaves but adopted a fixed policy against doing so: “I won’t have anything to do with contrabands. It is more bother to watch them and keep them to work than they are worth.” [letter, June 30, 1863] This preceding selection of opinions happens to be neutral or unenthusiastic about the subject of Negro soldiers, but other members of the regiment who did not leave written accounts must have been much more supportive, since they later left the 31st Mass. to accept commissions in “colored” regiments that were being formed.
When the Emancipation Proclamation was first published in New Orleans, Tupper was enthusiastic, though in a subtly shaded way; and his dispassionate lack of reverence for the Constitution is startling in an age that has come to venerate it:
There is something to fight for now. The idea of restoring the union as it was under the Old Constitution was not worth fighting for. In the first place, I considered it impossible & even if it could be done, what object would be gained if they should come together to wrangle & fight over the inconsistencies of the Constitution. That document is a dead letter—adapted to the exigencies of 75 years ago, but utterly powerless to save the country now. [letter, Oct. 8, 1862]
While supportive of emancipation in principle, Tupper thought the process would be more prolonged and tortured than many expected:
You’ll see from the Plaquemine paper, Banks’ order returning slaves to their plantations — good thing. Some think the slaveholders are running over Banks, but he knows what his business is. He is a statesman. Slavery is doomed, but it is so connected with the civilization of this country, so deep-rooted, that it will take the rest of this century to obliterate it. In the meantime any disposition of the poor miserable blacks so they can have any kind of care till their status is clearly defined is preferable to their flocking around the camps, impeding military operations, demoralizing the Army, and suffering as much & more than in a state of servitude. I am still an abolitionist, but a little reflection will show that 3 million blacks cannot be emancipated at once without producing a great calamity to the class it intends to benefit. [letter, Feb. 25, 1863]
Gen. Butler had occupied Baton Rouge largely at the behest of Farragut, and when he abandoned the town he asserted that it was “of no possible military importance.” [Butler’s Book, 484]. Whether or not that was true at the time is debatable, but when Port Hudson became the objective, Baton Rouge regained the value it had lost. One of Banks’s first acts on taking over the department was to reoccupy the town, though much of it was in ruins. In a straight line, Baton Rouge was only about 15 miles from Port Hudson, but there was no direct land or water route and no clear military path. Banks decided to pursue an indirect strategy, cutting the fort off from support, especially supplies from Texas. In January he sent a force under Gen. Weitzel to clear Bayou Teche. Coming up from the Gulf, Weitzel pushed back the Confederates and accomplished the destruction of an enemy gunboat, though the impact on Port Hudson was questionable.
This provided the background for the first offensive move involving the 31st Mass., an obscure foray mentioned in two summaries of the regiment’s service and several personal accounts. According to these sources, the seven companies of the 31st set off with the rest of Emory’s division on February 12, 1863 to follow a water route and seize a place called Butte a′ la Rose, where the Confederates had a fortified outpost at the head of the Atchafalaya River. If Weitzel had pressed further, he would have come to the same point. Banks’s strategy, as he tried to explain later, was grounded in the fact that garrisoning the widespread posts for which he was responsible would spare him only 12-14,000 troops for an offensive against Port Hudson. According to all the precepts of military science, this was far too few to invest or assault the fort, whose garrison at that time outnumbered the force Banks considered he had available. Since an attacking army would have to occupy a longer line, it would be vulnerable to penetration at any point. Banks therefore turned his attention to opening an interior route of attack and communication via the Atchafalaya River, which entered the Mississippi between Port Hudson and the Red River. In theory, this would enable him to establish contact with Farragut and Grant and block the supply line down the Red River to Port Hudson. [Red River Expedition, 307] The inspiration for this approach is unclear, but it may have been suggested by Weitzel, given his familiarity with the region. From Banks’s perspective, Butte ′a la Rose, which was barely able to raise its head above the flooded country around it, was a place “of considerable strength, and is intended to defend the country above, including the capital of the State [now at Shreveport] and the Red River . . . . This post reduced, the way to the Red River is believed to be substantially clear.” [to Halleck, Feb. 12, 1863, OR, Ser. I, v. XV, 240]
The expedition set off on board the steamer Kepper, which Fairbank described as “one of the slowest old coaches on the river.” [Feb. 12, 1863] It brought them from their base in Carrollton to the town of Plaquemine, some 15 miles from Baton Rouge, but only after the pilots struck for higher wages, some of the crew refused to venture into dangerous territory, and the replacements ran aground in dense fog. When the larger steamer Iberville attempted to pull the vessel free, it damaged the stern and almost knocked over the boiler, which could have set off a ruinous fire. Once again the 31st Mass. had narrowly escaped disaster on the waters. [Fairbank diary, Feb. 14, 1863; Norris letter, Feb. 19, 1863] [Tupper letter, Feb. 13, 1863] From Plaquemine, at least according to the maps, Bayou Plaquemine would connect through a series of shallow waterways to the Atchafalaya. The whole venture was meant to be a quick surprise raid. Baggage and tents were left behind, and even officers were not informed of the objective. A puzzled Lt. Howell observed “How far and for what purpose are questions that you can answer quite as well as I can, for it is a profound secret.” [letter, Feb. 15, 1863] Tupper, who observed the expedition as it departed, made a shrewd assessment of its purpose: “as the boats are of the lightest draft, it is expected they will ascend some of the bayous this side of Port Hudson & make a dash on the rear of the enemy or cut off some important line of communication.” [letter, Feb. 13, 1863] Such was the haste that some ten or eleven men of the 31st Mass. were absent when the regiment left and were arrested when they reported back. [Ibid.]
Companies D and E were detached southward and marched nine miles through knee-deep mud to a place called Indian Village, which consisted of a sugar mill and three houses on Grand Lake. [Fairbank diary, Feb. 17, 1863] In the end, the expedition returned after a week without accomplishing anything. No enemy troops were encountered; the geography itself proved sufficient to thwart Banks. As he explained afterward, “This attempt failed on account of the complete stoppage of Bayou Plaquemine by three years’ accumulation of drift logs and snags, filling the bayou from the bed of the stream to the surface, rendering it impenetrable to our boats, and requiring the labor of months to open it to navigation.” [Red River Expedition, 307] One might well question why Banks could not have determined this condition without risking the lives and health of an entire division. Throughout his military career, one of the consequences of his inexperience was his inability to gather and employ intelligence.
Two men of the 31st fell overboard in the Mississippi on the first night and were drowned on this fruitless venture. One was a man with a German name who had signed up in New Orleans, and other accounts confirm that a number of the locals who filled out the ranks of the 31st were of foreign origin, especially Germans. One of the victims was drunk, but the other was knocked over by a rope and sank from the weight of his uniform and equipment. [Fairbank, Feb. 13, 1863; Hawkes letter, Feb. 17, 1863. Though not identified by name, a process of elimination reveals that the drunk man was the German. The other was reportedly a member of Company K, but the roster does not show anyone from that company dying on that date.]
The confusion inherent in following Civil War movements is compounded in the case of Port Hudson, where Banks launched two separate campaigns. His first was not intended to seize the fortified town but to create a diversion that would help Farragut run past the place with his fleet. The soldiers may not have understood this and so were baffled and resentful at the way the maneuver was conducted. Loosely coordinated with Farragut, Banks marched out of Baton Rouge on March 13, 1863 with 12,000 men, leaving 5000 behind to guard the town. Five companies of the 31st Mass. had departed Carrollton on March 6 on the steamer Algerine, while Companies B and C were aboard the Sallie Robinson, described by Hawkes as “one of the fastest of the river steamers.” [letter, Mar. 12, 1863] They arrived the following evening and set up at what they called Camp Magnolia, near Baton Rouge. A few days later they moved off with the rest of Banks’s expedition, forming part of Gooding’s brigade, which also included the 38th and 53rd Mass. and the 156th and 175th N.Y.
At first the troops were in a festive mood, captured in J. L. Hallett’s recollections: “How the blood tingled, how excited the brain, how elastic the step when the bugle’s clear and sharp notes sounded the advance. The 31st was there with seven days rations in knapsack, equipment bright as silver dollars and all eager to meet the enemy.” [“Feint on Port Hudson”] Thrilled to be released from the deadening routine of camp life and the prospect of going into battle at last, they burst out with songs and cheers. They were also encumbered by an excessive burden of equipment and personal gear, supplemented in some cases by domestic fowl they had killed along the road. As the day wore on, oppressive heat built up. There was no thought of singing, and even breathing became difficult for the profusely sweating men. Soon the road was littered with discarded equipment and clothing, as well as dead birds. Even Luther Fairbank, no dummy, confessed to throwing away his overcoat, drawers, and socks. Only two days before, he had observed that the morning was “cold as Greenland.” [Mar. 11, 1863] Banks and his subordinates were culpable for not having prepared their troops with practice marches. The nine-month regiments had probably never experienced a forced march with full equipment, while even a relatively veteran regiment like the 31st Mass. had spent many months in stationary duty at Fort Jackson and Kennerville. Mounted on glossy, well-rested horses, the officers apparently had not thought about training and soon lost control of the straggling army.
Banks bivouacked several miles below Port Hudson, ready to feign an attack. On the night of March 14 the troops were treated to a terrific display as Farragut launched his epic but agonizingly slow run upstream past the fort. Becoming impatient, as he had before Fort Jackson, he began his attack earlier than he had led Banks to expect, so the general was not in position to create a diversion. [Cunningham, 22. Banks informed Halleck that “Up to this moment it had been understood that the passage of the fleet was to be made in the gray of the morning and not at night, but at 5 o’clock I received a dispatch from the admiral stating that he should commence his movement at 8 o’clock in the evening.” (Mar. 21, 1863, OR, Ser. I, v. XV, 253). The message from Banks to Farragut was carried by J. L. Hallett of the 31st, then detached to the Signal Corps.] Only two of Farragut’s warships, their decks splattered with gore and body parts, made it past the defenses. If his other employments of this tactic had produced similar results, he probably would not have been honored with a magnificent statue. His last ship, the old side-wheeler Mississippi (a naval vessel, not the privately owned ship that had brought the 31st to Ship Island) was disabled by Confederate fire and exploded in the river with an enormous blast of sound and flame. However, even the two warships above Port Hudson were able to disrupt Confederate traffic on the Red River and block supplies to the fort.
Once he learned that Farragut had succeeded in passing Port Hudson, Banks began to withdraw. There was no reason for him to remain, and he was justified in fearing that the Confederates might turn on him. Some of the forward units, having witnessed the explosion of the Mississippi, thought the Confederates were attacking and began to panic, but their flight was contained by later units. One night the troops were caught in a soaking downpour. A New Hampshire officer wrote “There is no doubt that scores of our regiment never after that mud march knew a well day.” [quoted in Hewitt, 101] When they returned to Baton Rouge on the 21st, many of the men had lost confidence in Banks. On the outward march, the troops cheered when he rode past; on the return, he passed through silent ranks. These clues apparently passed unnoticed, and in his report at the end of the expedition, Banks informed Halleck “My troops are in good health and in the best spirit and condition.” [Mar. 21, 1863, OR, Ser. I, v. XV, 255] In a general order, he asserted that the expedition had been a success, but he was trapped in a situation in which he could not explain to the troops that they were only conducting a diversion without simultaneously alerting the enemy, so it seemed to many that he was retreating without having fought a battle. Fairbank, always a realist, wrote “Here we shall rest until Gen. Banks wants another grand move on Port Hudson,” and Lt. Bond, who usually held to the official line, acknowledged that they returned to their old camp “a disheartened lot.” [Fairbank diary, Mar. 20, 1863; Bond diary, Mar. 18, 1863] Hawkes concluded “I forbear criticism. Though by a bold dash I think the place might have been taken.” [letter, Mar. 25, 1863] This is doubtful, since the same guns with which the Confederates had caused so much damage to the Union fleet could have been directed with effect against Banks, and at that time the Port Hudson garrison had approximately the same strength as Banks’s force. The time to seize Port Hudson might have been the year before, when the Confederates were in disarray, but at that time it did not seem to figure in anyone’s strategic calculation.
Corp. Hawkes was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the whole enterprise. After noting how unhealthy the water supply was in the camp at Baton Rouge and observing that 17 men had died in hospital there on a single day, he concluded,
“I will say I wish the show was out. Our being here seems simply to amount to getting us into unhealthy places, feeding us no meat but pork and drinking stagnant water then wondering why so many have the diarrhoea [sic] and mad because you are sick. Many of these officers have no more regard for a man than a mule. This is particularly the case with some of these petty lieutenants. There are several that the boys say there is a question as to whether God made them or they God.” [letter, Apr. 3, 1863; emphasis in original]
By then Hawkes was ready to admit “I was never made for a soldier . . .” and expressed unrestrained longing to be home, asking on one occasion “Has the present been much of a sugar season?” referring to maple sugar. He was in an area famous for sugar plantations, but it was not the same thing. His growing discouragement may have affected his health, as he developed chronic digestive ailments that never left until he was discharged in a gravely weakened state.
Hawkes’ feeling toward some officers was by no means an isolated case. It is striking that even in a regiment like the 31st Mass., in which the officers and men came from similar backgrounds and often knew each other in civilian life, the traditional resentment many enlisted men felt toward officers flourished. Fairbank, a carpenter by trade, was asked to do many small projects for officers and became well acquainted with them. On one occasion he built a partition in the guard house “so that the Off’rs w’d not be obligd to mingle with the Privates. What a pity! I suppose we are not good enough for retired lawyers, shoemakers and teamsters.” [diary, Jan. 6, 1863 (while still at Fort Jackson)]
In marked contrast to the disdain he felt toward many officers, Fairbank was devoted to Lt. Nelson F. Bond. When that officer was transferred in December 1862, Fairbank wrote “Our loved and honored Second Lieut., N.F. Bond, has been taken from us and promoted to First Lieut, Co. K. He took leave of us tonight, and bid us farewell at roll call.” One might think that Bond’s replacement, Sgt. Milton Sagendorph, would be pleasing to Fairbank, as they were both “mechanics” as the term was then used (Sagendorph a painter and Fairbank a carpenter); both from Ware and almost the exact same age (21). Nevertheless, Fairbank reported “The company are all downhearted at the change.” [diary, Dec. 2, 1862]
In his purposeful wanderings around New Orleans, James Tupper was constantly sniffing out clues as to the outlook for the war. He understood the importance of morale and was sensitive to shifts in public opinion, but in early 1863 the signs remained disconcertingly mixed. Attending a lively Unionist meeting was so heartening that “it almost shakes the faith which for the last few months has been growing stronger & stronger in my mind that a separation would be the ultimate result of the struggle.” [letter, Jan. 18, 1863] A few weeks later this hopeful impression was counterbalanced when Tupper watched Confederate prisoners being exchanged:
I went down to the levee to see the rebel prisoners off. The steamer Empire Parish was waiting with the white flag raised above the Stars & Stripes. I haven’t seen so much Secesh feeling exhibited since the first day or two of our coming into the city, the prisoners were walking freely among the crowd, dressed very handsomely in the gray uniform of the Confederates. Some were very handsome fellows & no doubt belong to the first families of the state. The women were perfectly wild, waving their handkerchiefs & saying “God bless you.” I heard one woman say, “How good it does me to see this gray. I am perfectly sick of the Yankee Blue.” [letter, Feb. 25, 1863]
The continued resistance of Port Hudson and Vicksburg was bound to encourage such sentiments.
By April 1863, the 31st Mass. (what remained of the original contingent) had been in service nearly a year and a half, roughly one-half of its total commitment. In that span they had seen only minor combat and few wearying marches, but that was about to change. Over the next four months they grew hardened by long marches through unfamiliar country, punctuated by frequent skirmishing and several major battles before they settled back into camp routine in the final months of the year. First-person accounts by members of the regiment are thin for this period, which is understandable: only seven companies participated, and they probably retained only about half of their original contingent. It does not appear that the Louisiana replacements left personal documentation, or at least it was not solicited at the time Rice and others were compiling the regimental history. (Andrew Hanselman, a Swiss immigrant who joined the 31st Mass. in May 1862, left an account many years later, probably around the turn of the 20th Century, but it is so confused and garbled that it cannot be considered reliable.) The men were constantly on the move, often under arduous conditions, which did not encourage writing. Fortunately, the main source is the diary of Luther Fairbank, a shrewd and bluntly honest observer who did not hesitate to express trenchant opinions. It might not be correct to describe him as disillusioned, but he was by then encumbered by few illusions and did not resort to the cloying religiosity or other sentimentalism that one often encounters. His concerns were the typical ones of a soldier, primarily relating to food, sleeping conditions, and weather. However, his carpentry work gave him opportunities to mingle with officers and men in other companies. The tasks he was given were simple construction jobs like laying a floor in a tent, not fine carpentry, which suggests that the impression of rural Yankees as being competent jacks-of-all trades may be somewhat overdrawn. It would be interesting to know what Fairbank used for tools, as it is unlikely he had carried his tool chest from home.
On paper at least, Banks mounted one of the more impressive formations in the Union army, with most of its members relatively fresh and well-equipped. It is surprising, therefore, that he was given so little by way of direct commands or strong suggestions by Stanton, Halleck, or Grant as to how to employ his formidable force. Basically, there were three possibilities: march into interior Louisiana to try to destroy the Confederates under the command of Gen. Richard Taylor; reduce Port Hudson; or assist Grant at Vicksburg either in person or by dispatching troops. Each of these presented opportunities and risks: if he pursued Taylor it would have only an indirect effect on opening the Mississippi; if he concentrated on Port Hudson or Vicksburg, it would free Taylor to cause mischief in Louisiana; if he did not invest Port Hudson, it would give the Confederates time to strengthen its defenses.
Banks was probably not as hopeless a strategist as is sometimes depicted. Some politicians in high office have the ability to encompass the totality of a problem, even if they cannot always devise a means of solving it. His difficulties as a commander lay not so much in assessing objectives and consequences as in the mechanics of moving troops—determining how much space they occupied, how much supply they required, and deploying them effectively on a battlefield or a line of march. When he decided to move into central Louisiana, he was not necessarily misguided in believing that it would contribute to subduing Port Hudson. By pushing Taylor back, he would prevent the Confederates from reinforcing the fort with men or supplies. At the same time, it would protect the scattered garrisons he had left at New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and lesser points, which might be vulnerable if the Confederates were able to concentrate.
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If Banks’s ultimate objective was Port Hudson, he approached it in a roundabout way. Portions of his corps began moving out in the last days of March, and on the 31st Col. Gooding conducted a full review and inspection of his brigade. On April 1 the brigade left camp on various transport vessels and arrived at Algiers early the following morning, where it set up camp. Orders came down to be ready to depart, but the brigade did not leave until the ninth. In an odd incident on the previous day, a cavalryman in the 1st Louisiana attempted to shoot Col. Gooding and another officer, but either missed or didn’t get the shots off. He was promptly arrested. [Bond diary]
Finally on the morning of April 9, 1863, the troops boarded railroad cars and traveled to Brashear City (now Morgan City), where they arrived about 5 p.m. Fairbank, who observed that “the first Port Hudson march taught me to go light,” reported that the rail journey passed through swamps “lined with snakes and alligators” for roughly 80 miles. [Apr. 9, 1863] It is surprising that the rail system was still in good enough condition and had enough equipment to transport so many men and their gear efficiently. Pvt. Tupper was not with the 31st but later spent some time at Brashear City after the quartermasters set up a temporary headquarters there. Probably he resented being hauled away from his cozy place in New Orleans, and this feeling soured his perception of the town: “Brashear City is the worst place I’ve been in since I left Hardwick & I don’t know but I should prefer to live in Hardwick, even. Ship Island is much preferable. A little village of half a dozen houses, hot, full of mosquitoes, bay water to drink, no women or children to amuse yourself with, the situation of a fellow is rough indeed.” [letter, Apr. 26, 1863]
For a long while after they left Algiers, every day took the corps further from Port Hudson and the river it guarded. On the first night, the regiment crossed the Atchafalaya River to Berwick City. Fairbank resorted to sarcasm when he wrote that the two towns were “large cities about the size of Ware centre.” From there on, they encountered rebel skirmishers and heard occasional gunfire almost every day as they ventured deeper into the country. Supported by naval gunboats, they reached Pattersonville on April 11. They were now approaching a Confederate earthwork defense known as Fort Bisland, which might have to be taken by assault.
Most accounts imply that the name Fort Bisland was more impressive than the reality. The earthwork stretched across a narrow neck of land that extended on both sides of Bayou Teche. Beyond this strip of land lay swamps that were considered impassable, though a pontoon bridge enabled Banks to shift troops across the waterway as the situation demanded. The site presented some defensive advantages, but also held the possibility of becoming a trap for its defenders. Banks had perceived this potential and sent Gen. Cuvier Grover’s division on a flanking movement up the Atchafalaya River toward Franklin to block the Confederates. Grover’s advance was so dilatory that even Banks, no dynamo himself, became impatient and began probing the defenses.
At that point Banks still held hopes of eliminating the entire Army of Western Louisiana that opposed him. That little army was commanded by Major General Richard Taylor, a favorite son of Louisiana and also a son of former president Zachary Taylor. As commander of a Louisiana brigade, he had opposed Banks in the Shenandoah Valley the previous year, an encounter that had not generated overwhelming respect for Banks’s military ability. A brilliant intellectual, Taylor was at the same time a bold and active commander. He had never attended a military academy, but had educated himself by exhaustive study of military history and by serving as his father’s aide during the Mexican War. As a Democrat, he had attended the disastrous Charleston convention and, like Butler, had sought to prevent the party from splitting. Probably the two men were acquainted. Taylor was also closely associated with Jefferson Davis, whose first wife was one of Taylor’s sisters.
Official reports by Gen. Emory, Col. Gooding and Lt. Col. Hopkins together present a reasonably coherent account of the battle, extending over three days. [OR, Ser. I, v. XV, 330-31. 346-350] Gooding’s brigade, including the 31st Mass., engaged Confederate cavalry skirmishers on April 12, and in the afternoon the 31st was sent across the bayou to aid the 175th N.Y. on the east side. That night the entire Union force pulled back out of artillery range and bivouacked along the bayou.
On the next day Lt. Nelson Bond, who was then attached to brigade headquarters, recorded that “The first salutation this morning early was a few shots from the rebel artillery.” Bond carried orders from Banks to Emory to bring the remainder of Gooding’s brigade, consisting of the 38th Mass., the 53rd Mass., the 156th N.Y. and a section of a Maine battery, to support the 31st Mass. and the 175th N.Y. on the east side of the bayou. By noon skirmishing on both sides of the bayou was “very lively” in Bond’s words. Gooding ordered Hopkins to detach two companies of the 31st as skirmishers on the extreme right flank. Hopkins selected Companies A and K, and after a “sharp skirmish along the woods,” these were joined by the rest of the regiment. Emory ordered Gooding to move forward to knock out a field battery that was supposedly firing into Gen. Paine’s brigade across the bayou. The 31st Mass. was one of the elements leading this advance, and as Gooding reported, the attack was “hotly contested.” After about three hours, the 31st Mass. had used up its ammunition and was replaced in the line by the 38th Mass. By then it had become apparent that the supposed enemy battery did not exist. During the final stage of that day’s fighting, in which the northerners pushed the rebels back into prepared positions, the 31st Mass. supported the 156th N.Y. A charge by the New Yorkers captured an outlying breastwork, and the 31st Mass. was close enough behind “to receive some of the last shots of the retreating enemy,” as Hopkins put it. Scattered firing continued until dark, and that night the brigade once again slept on the ground in proximity to the enemy, with tents and campfires prohibited.
General Taylor now faced a difficult decision. By nature an aggressive fighter, his normal tendency would be to attack and try to maul the Union Army sufficiently to stop its advance. In fact, he had actually ordered an attack on the morning of the 13th, but Gen. Henry H. Sibley failed to carry it out. However, Taylor was greatly outnumbered, and the reports brought in by his cavalry kept him well informed of Grover’s threat to cut off an escape route. On the morning of the 14th, with Grover finally in position, Banks was prepared to assault the Confederate lines. The 31st Mass. expected to be heavily engaged, and by then they had seen enough fighting to understand that even crude and incomplete earthworks like Fort Bisland gave the defenders an enormous advantage.
As they were nerving themselves for the attack, word came back from advance parties that the Confederates had abandoned the position—“done skedaddled” in the night, as they would say. On the extreme left of the enemy position, Capt. W. I. Allen of Company D “entered a redoubt, palisaded in rear, capable of mounting three guns, with a ditch of five feet of water in front, and from which some of the best sharpshooting against us had been done on the previous day.” [Hopkins report] But this time the redoubt was abandoned, and Allen found only “25 bodies of the enemy’s dead and 1 wounded, some 20 dead horses, and 40 pieces of small arms.” [ibid.] Hopkins reported that he had captured 33 men during the engagement, presumably included in the total of 130 listed by Gooding. Taylor had decided that it was more important to preserve his army, the only organized mobile force the Confederates had in Louisiana (since the larger body of troops at Port Hudson was committed to holding a static position). As the 31st entered the abandoned works, Fairbank observed that “Everything showed marks of the late action, and dead men and horses lay all around.” [Diary, Apr. 14, 1863] In all the action around Fort Bisland, the 31st had lost only one man killed and five wounded. It was another fortunate escape. The man killed was William Hickey, a farmer from Easthampton, who was 42 when he enlisted in late 1861.
During the battle the Confederates had been actively supported by the captured gunboat Diana, placed under command of Capt. Oliver J. Semmes. He was the son of the Confederate naval officer Raphael Semmes, captain of the famed commerce raider Alabama, regarded by many Union men as a pirate. Oliver, however, was an artillery officer, a West Point graduate, and had no particular acquaintance with naval matters. Little seamanship was required in the narrow waters of the Teche, where the Diana served essentially as a floating battery. It performed admirably, while suffering heavy damage and loss of life. After covering the retreat of Taylor’s forces, Semmes followed orders to blow it up at Franklin. With surviving crewmen, he was among the last to depart and was soon captured by federal cavalry. [Horace J. Beach, “The Last Moments of the Gunboat Diana, and Her Almost Final Resting Place,” 2010, www.youngsanders.org/Thearticle.pdf] The fiery General Taylor was infuriated by the conduct of the battle at Fort Bisland and arrested Gen. Sibley and brought charges against him, blaming him for failing to attack on the morning of the 13th and for the loss of the Diana. A court-martial agreed that Sibley had performed poorly but determined that he had not deliberately disobeyed orders, so he was released. [OR, Ser. I, v. XV, 1093-96. The trial was held in September 1863. The luckless Sibley’s middle name was Hopkins, his grandmother’s family name, and the family appears to have originated in Massachusetts, so he might have been distantly related to the commander of the 31st Mass.]
Meanwhile Capt. Semmes was put in prison in New Orleans, where his days were brightened by visits from a stream of “high-toned” Secesh ladies. As he was departing the prison, he supposedly left behind some diary pages which were picked up by Pvt. James M. Allen of Company C, 31st Mass., a resident of Rowe. [Semmes diary. Pvt. Allen provides the only direct connection between Semmes and the 31st Mass., and it is unclear why he was in New Orleans, unless he was assigned light duties while hospitalized there.] An accompanying note says that Semmes was being exchanged, although Winters writes that Gen. Weitzel “a former classmate and friend of Semmes at West Point, placed a nominal guard over his prisoner, and subsequently Semmes managed to escape.” 
Still hoping to capture the entire enemy army, Banks set off in pursuit of Taylor on the morning of the 14th. Meanwhile, part of the Confederate force had engaged Grover in a fairly substantial battle, generally known as the battle of Irish Bend, near Franklin. With a smaller and less encumbered army, Taylor had some advantage of speed and was able to slow the Union pursuit by burning bridges and creating other obstacles. Still, the pace told, and Taylor experienced a steady trickle of desertions and stragglers who fell into federal hands. Many of the Louisiana troops seized the opportunity to take unauthorized leave at home, creating some danger that the retreating army would melt away.
As they pursued Taylor, generally following the course of Bayou Teche, the 31st Mass. encountered a previously unfamiliar and not altogether unpleasant portion of Louisiana. Moving steadily after the fall of Fort Bisland, they passed through Centerville, which Bond described as “a thrifty looking town for La.,” and Franklin, which he called “a very beautiful town” on April 14. Lt. Bond’s experience as a staff officer on horseback was much different than foot soldier Fairbank. As the troops got ready to move out on the 15th, the infantryman reported that they were given two day’s rations of raw salt pork “(pretty stuff to give a man) and no time to cook it.” After marching all day, the men slept in the mud with nothing to eat but the pork cooked on a stick. Moreover, it was “western pork that would all melt away.” Nevertheless, they were up early the next morning for another day’s hard marching that brought them to New Iberia. Just as they were settling in for supper and a supply of rum, orders came to move on, and they marched another mile and a half to camp outside the town. The next day’s effort brought them beyond St. Martinsville.
Although the Confederates burned bridges to slow the Union advance, they remained in contact with their pursuers, and the federals often caught sight of rebel cavalrymen. On one occasion there was an artillery exchange. Taylor seemed intent on preserving opportunities to harass Banks’s army even at the risk of losing more stragglers. On April 16 the federals came upon the smoldering remains of the unfinished Confederate gunboat E. R. Hart, which the rebels had been forced to destroy to keep it from falling to the enemy. The inability of the South to complete advanced warships that might have radically altered the course of the river battles is a recurring theme of the warfare in Louisiana, going back to the passage of the New Orleans forts. Whether this devastating failure was due to poor management, the inadequate capacity of Confederate industry, or both, remains debatable.
After passing through Lafayette and rebuilding burned bridges, Banks’s army reached Opelousas on April 20. This town had surrendered and welcomed the Union forces, to their enormous relief and delight. The band played “Yankee Doodle” as they marched up the main street of the town, which Fairbank described as “the first place where they seemed glad to see us.” On the same day Union forces finally captured Butte a la Rose, taking with it 60 men and two large guns. Banks boasted that “These works constituted the key of the Atchafalaya, and being in our possession, opened the way to Red river.” [Red River Expedition, 309; emphasis in original] In a triumphant mood, Banks staged a dress parade and used the anniversary of Lexington and Concord, which was also the second anniversary of the attack on federal troops in Baltimore, to issue a proclamation praising the bravery of his troops, though Fairbank, ever practical, observed “if he had sent up something to eat we would have appreciated it better.” [diary, Apr. 20, Apr. 22, 1863]
The army now rested and regrouped for several days, implying that Banks’s main objective was no longer the active pursuit of Taylor; but he seemed uncertain what direction to take. From April 25 to May 1, he traveled to New Orleans to deal with administrative matters. Like Butler, he was responsible for the civil administration of the captured territory, but he placed higher priority on commanding troops in the field. Of course, Butler had never had a large enough mobile force to justify the presence of the commanding general. Unexpectedly idle in Opelousas on May 1, Fairbank meditated, “How different the day has seemed from some of the May Days I have seen in my home in New England, when I have strolled off to the fields to gather the first flowers of Spring . . .” Howell used the unaccustomed free time to describe the recent campaign to his sister: “The worst & most pitiable sight was the unburied dead of the enemy.” One was looking up “with the most serene expression I ever saw on a human countenance.” [Opelousas, Apr. 25, 1863] His letter shows that, after a year and a half in service, the consequences of warfare were still startling to men of the 31st Mass.; but that would soon change.
While the men might have been happy to extend their period of recuperation in Opelousas, it made no sense strategically to remain there. By Lt. Bond’s calculation, they had marched 104 miles from Berwick City, but all that distance had brought Banks no closer to resolving his basic dilemma. At Opelousas he faced the same choices he had when he began the campaign. When he visited New Orleans, he may have hoped that some message waiting there would give him guidance, but apparently none was present. Regular mail came to his corps at intervals, so that the troops were informed of events in the war, though belatedly. Because of intervening Confederate territory, it was difficult for Banks to communicate with Grant, who was operating against Vicksburg. By the time messages arrived they were outdated, and ambiguous phrasing left each commander uncertain as to how they should interact. Each seemed to hope, or expect, that the other would come to their assistance. Should they combine against Vicksburg, or deal with Port Hudson simultaneously?
Banks sent one brigade ahead to seize Washington, Louisiana, but this did nothing to resolve his dilemma. Other units were sent out into the countryside to capture cotton and other valuables, as well as to supplement the food supply. Howell recorded that the army was transporting wagon loads of cotton to New Orleans. [letter from Opelousas, May 1, 1863] Although orders were given to be ready to march on May 1, Emory’s division did not actually set off until the 5th. On that day they passed through Washington in the morning and covered 20 miles before halting at 5:30 p.m. Fairbank described the following day as a hard march “as my feet were all blistered,” so that he had to cut the tops off his shoes. [diary, May 6, 1863] Worse was to come. On May 7, the 31st brought up the rear, behind the wagon trains and artillery, which meant that they absorbed great clouds of dust raised by the men and horses ahead of them. By day’s end, uniforms and facial hair were the color of the terrain they were passing through. Fairbank declared, “It was the hardest days march we have had yet,” and added “If we stopped to rest, which we seldom did, our legs were more like a couple of sticks than a travelling concern for man.” [diary, May 7, 1863] Even Lt. Bond, on horseback, affirmed that “the dust has been almost intolerable.” [diary, May 7, 1863] Nevertheless, they covered 20 miles, after moving 22 on the previous day. By then they were only a few miles from Alexandria, which they reached on May 8, 1863. They paused at the fine plantation Governor Moore had been forced to flee, yet another example of how the men who promoted secession somehow believed that the resultant war would be conducted without threatening their property, including their human chattels.
Independent of its immediate military impact, Banks’s campaign severely disrupted the plantation economy of the areas he invaded. Many of the owners fled, and large numbers of slaves deserted their plantations and entrusted themselves to the protection of the federal army. For weary Union soldiers there was pleasant relief in having these “contrabands,” seeking to justify their presence, bearing their loads like the personal servants officers often confiscated; but these individually appealing benefits came at the price of destroying a cash crop that might have supported the region and taking on responsibility for thousands of dependents. Army doctrine maintained that the needs of the troops would be furnished by the regular supply chain, but in the field this ideal was seldom achieved. Technically forbidden, foraging was accepted in practice as a necessity. Caring for escaped slaves would have added an unsupportable burden on an already stressed supply system, so on the march they expanded the ranks of foragers, which meant that the resultant ravages were spread over a wider area and conducted more thoroughly.
The self-liberation of slaves had emerged as a significant issue during Butler’s command at Fortress Monroe, and it overtook him and his successor Banks on a vastly larger scale in Louisiana. While the Lincoln administration in Washington displayed a propensity for debating the great questions of slavery and emancipation interminably, the slaves often resolved the matter on the ground. Once they had fled the plantation, it would have been very difficult to restore them to the previous state of bondage. Although many returned to their plantations for the greater security and familiarity they offered, the conditions of labor were permanently altered, and they usually did not revert to their former submissiveness. [Roland, Louisiana Sugar Plantations (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1997), Chap. VIII, discusses the effects of federal invasions on plantation labor.] A handful of northern officers, such as Phelps, abetted the self-liberation, but few members of the officer corps shared his attitudes. For most the contrabands, while sometimes, useful, were more commonly seen as a nuisance. One of the strongest expressions of this was provided by Weitzel, a man who was probably not sympathetic to slavery as an institution. During his incursion into the Lafourche country in October 1862, the first substantial northern offensive since the seizure of New Orleans, he vented his feelings to Butler:
What shall I do about the negroes? . . . My train was larger than an army train for 25,000 men. Every soldier had a negro marching in the flanks, carrying his knapsack. Plantation carts, filled with negro women and children, with their effects; and of course compelled to pillage for their subsistence, as I have no rations to issue to them. I have a great many more negroes in my camp now than I have whites. . . . These negroes are a perfect nuisance. [Oct. 29, 1862; James Parton, General Butler in New Orleans (New York, 1864), 580. The letter is not included in Butler’s Private and Official Correspondence. Weitzel sent a similar letter a few days later, after capturing Berwick Bay. The enemy left “in such a hurry,” he wrote “that they left over 400 wagon loads of negroes behind at Brashear City. To substantiate this report the negroes are already returning. Now, what shall I do with them? I have already twice as many negroes in and around my camp as I have soldiers within. I cannot feed them; as a consequence they must feed themselves.” (to Butler, Nov. 1, 1862; OR, Ser. I, v. XV, 170.)]
The cavalrymen who entered Alexandria were surprised to find Porter’s river fleet already there. Porter disliked Banks almost as much as he did Butler, which is not surprising since he had little regard for anyone but himself. After Banks settled in, Porter soon took his vessels back down the Red River and then toward Vicksburg. At Alexandria on May 12, Banks finally received a recent message from Grant, who asked him to join him in the campaign against Vicksburg. This meant that Grant, having moved to the west side of the Mississippi, had withdrawn his earlier offer to reinforce Banks. Banks responded with a long explanation of why he could not comply, citing his lack of boats and the risk to undefended portions of Louisiana. General-in-Chief Halleck was singularly unimpressed by what he called Banks’s “eccentric movements” and stressed the importance of opening the Mississippi. [Hollandsworth, 117. Perhaps it revealed a characteristic lack of imagination, but Halleck failed to see any connection between what Banks had been doing and the reduction of Port Hudson.] After further dithering, Banks resolved to focus on Port Hudson. Yet even then he could not completely abandon his hopes of overtaking Taylor and sent Gen. William Dwight Jr.’s brigade after him in the direction of Shreveport. [Winters, 235-40]
Lt. Bond calculated that through May 8 the troops had performed “the very best of marching,” covering 85 miles in four days, but halting at 3:30 each day. [diary May 9, 1863] From the somewhat different perspective of those who had worn out shoe leather, Fairbank would have welcomed a long period of rest. At Alexandria he wrote “We are in the best place that we have been in since we left Algiers, and I hope that we can stay here awhile.” [diary May 9, 1863] The duration of their stay was determined by the plans bubbling and bursting in the brain of General Banks. When he at last decided on May 14 to begin the move against Port Hudson, he planned to send part of his force by river and the larger portion overland. The 31st Mass. was in the overland segment and set off on the road again before dawn on the 15th. They were reversing the route they had taken to Alexandria, and on the first night camped in the same location they had used on May 7. General Emory had taken ill and returned to New Orleans, leaving General Paine in command of the division. Dwight’s brigade, which had pursued Taylor more than 40 miles beyond Alexandria, had to retrace its steps to catch up with the rest of the corps. On May 16, several miles south of Cheneyville, Paine’s division swung off the road they had been using and turned eastward toward Simmesport. As most of the men must have realized, they were now irrevocably committed to Port Hudson.
The march of May 17 brought the division within nine miles of Simmesport, and on the 19th they crossed the Atchafalaya River on the ferry Laurel Hill. This tour of duty had elements of a tour in the other sense, as Lt. Bond remarked that their course on the 17th had been “mostly through a new country, where clearing the land by girdling the trees and burning them is the method pursued.” Moreauville was the only village they encountered during the entire day’s march. [diary, May 17, 1863] Observations like this remind us that the Union troops were constantly encountering unfamiliar parts of Louisiana and that in some respects it was still a young state, with large portions of the interior only recently settled. After crossing the Atchafalaya, the 31st followed generally the “Old River,” (a former channel of the Mississippi) to Morganza. There they boarded ships that brought them several miles downriver to Bayou Sara, a formerly thriving little river port that had been destroyed by naval gunnery in retaliation for irregulars sniping at naval vessels.
On May 18 Lt. Bond acquired a horse from among those that had been confiscated in the countryside (“spoils of war” was the accepted euphemism). Later in the day an order showed up at headquarters relieving him of staff duty and returning him to the 31st Mass. “in accordance with the request of the commander of my regiment on account of the scarcity of officers to command the Companies.” [diary, May 18, 1863] He was assigned to Company K and immediately occupied himself issuing clothing to the men of his new company, “of which they were sadly in need.” He was also trying to arrange care for his brother, 2nd Lt. Sylvester Bond of Company G, who was ill. Lt. Nelson Bond returned his horse after only a day. It was clear that a fight for Port Hudson was approaching, and, as he said, he would have no need for it. He must have been heartened by the return on parole of the five men who had been captured under his command at Desert Station. [diary, May 19, 1863] They arrived just in time to participate in the regiment’s most severe test. On the night of May 23, the 31st was sent out to protect the Union batteries that were being emplaced, and heavy gunfire could be heard nearby.
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A great irony of the battle for Port Hudson is that it was almost not necessary. Earlier, President Davis had ordered the commander at that post, Major General Franklin Gardner, a Confederate general born in New York City, to “hold it to the last.” Thinking among the southern high command subsequently shifted to concentrate on saving Vicksburg, and on May 19, 1863 the departmental commander Joseph Johnston ordered Gardner to evacuate Port Hudson “forthwith”. This message did not arrive until the 21st, and by then it was too late; Banks had begun moving into position, and it would have been impossible for Gardner to evacuate his entire garrison, with artillery and supplies, under those conditions. [Cunningham 40; Hewitt 127] Banks had gone off on his diversion to the Teche for nearly two months, with only indirect effect on Port Hudson; and he had dithered several more days before resolving to focus on that objective, so it is ironic that he moved with such alacrity at the end that the Confederates were forced to defend their post. Gardner’s force would have made a difference in the contest for Vicksburg; but on the other hand, Banks would likely have joined Grant or detached part of his corps to help him, so the overall balance might not have changed much. Moreover, Halleck was apparently contemplating placing Banks in overall command, above Grant, which could have had incalculable consequences on the conduct of the war. [Winters, 240]
During the preliminary maneuvers as Banks closed the circle around Port Hudson, two regiments of Massachusetts nine-month troops panicked and fled. This must have been unsettling to the longer-term volunteers — who might have to depend on their steadiness in battle — and highlighted the complex relationship between the two classes of troops. The nine-month men were drawn from the same population, and when they arrived, men in the older regiments like the 30th and 31st often took great trouble to look up hometown friends. Lt. Bond found time to visit acquaintances in the 52nd Mass. and caught up on Amherst news. [diary, June 2, 1863] Yet a fundamental difference in character remained, and the short-term regiments, who could count off the days to a foreseeable end of their service, always seemed like civilians in uniform rather than real soldiers, much as regulars disdained all volunteers. Back in February, before any of them had seen combat, Norris noted that the nine-month men “are all complaining here so quick and they are glad that they have not very long time to serve. This shows that there is not much patriotism in them, but I guess they will see a great deal harder times before they get home.” [letter, Feb. 24, 1863]
Hawkes observed that, “In going into any of the ‘nine months’ Regt’s I am struck with the familiarity with which the officers associate with the men, as a natural consequence the men respect them.” With surprising asperity he added, “The officers of our Reg’t are seemingly a superior race of beings from the men, rarely speaking to them except to command.” He excepted his own Capt. Lee, noting that other officers “have remarked that [he] is altogether too intimate with his men,” but concluded with the shocking assertion that “I know several men who declare they will shoot certain officers the first favourable opportunity — and they are men who will remember their word too.” [letter Apr. 26, 1863, emphasis in original] In both the three-year and nine-month regiments most of the company-grade officers had been elected by their men, but in the 31st Mass. some of those officers had been replaced due to the Andrew-Butler controversy. Furthermore, the nine-month regiments were usually not commanded by regular officers who could provide an example of harsh discipline and social separation.
By the close of May 22, 1863, Banks had largely completed his investment of Port Hudson, marking the commencement of the siege. In the course of the war the Confederates fared poorly when trying to hold strong points through a siege. It would be difficult to find examples in which they were successful at this (Charleston repelled several combined-force attacks but was never actually besieged). The Confederacy seemed to lack the manpower to relieve a determined siege and also lacked the economic resources to prepare a garrison to hold out for an extended period. Its armies might have done better maneuvering in the field, as Taylor did, but that would have prevented them from deploying the heavy guns needed to contest the passage of Union naval vessels. It was the Confederacy’s insoluble dilemma in trying to defend the Mississippi River system.
Part of the 31st Mass. was engaged in a minor action in advance of the main fighting. Gen. Paine on May 25 ordered Col. Edward Prince of the 7th Illinois Cavalry, who had participated in Col. Benjamin Grierson’s daring raid through Mississippi, to Thompson’s Creek to destroy Confederate ships. Prince’s force was composed of 200 men of his own regiment, two guns of a Maine battery, and Companies D and H of the 31st Mass., the only infantrymen in the detachment. After a march of eight miles, the little expedition captured two rebel steamboats, Starlight and Red Chief, and their crews. With acceptable impudence, Col. Prince wrote that “I took the liberty of disobeying the instructions of the department commander as to the destruction of the boats, as I found I could place them where a light guard would be sufficient.” [May 30, 1863; OS: Ser. I, v. XXVI, Part I, 159]Company D went on the boats and guarded the crews, while Company H remained on shore as pickets. Though not a major engagement, this action further disabled the already shaky Confederate transportation system. No casualties were reported among the 31st. On the contrary, the participants were well rewarded for their successful foray. Fairbank reported that “We got plenty of tobacco and whiskey, and some of the boys got leave and went out and got some sheep and baked them, and had plenty of hoe cake.” [diary, May 25, 1863] While these men were savoring the fruits of their victory, heavy fighting had broken out around Port Hudson, and the companies of the 31st were ordered to rejoin their regiment. Leaving the captured boats in the charge of the cavalry, they marched overland, “thereby missing an order telling us to stay,” according to Fairbank. “After much tramping thro’ the woods, running over reg’ts that were lying down,” the companies found their way back to their regiment just in time for the great battle of May 27.
While the two companies were detached on the foray to Thompson’s Creek, Company A was assigned to guard an important ravine. The Union forces engaged in wide-ranging combat on May 25, as Banks tested and tried to push back the Confederate lines. In this fighting the remaining four companies of the 31st participated in continuous skirmishing until dark. The regimental loss in this day’s action was three killed and 16 wounded. [Bond diary, May 25, 1863] At the end of the day, the defenders were generally forced back into their prepared positions, so that siege warfare was truly underway. One historian of the battle believes that “if Banks had attacked the garrison in full force” on the 26th he probably “would have won a victory.” [Cunningham, 48] Although the Confederates had had many weeks to prepare their defenses while Banks was chasing Taylor and contemplating strategy, they had recently discovered weaknesses in their positions. They used the 26th to patch up these defects, while Banks conferred with his officers. He issued commands for attack that seem not to have been entirely clear, though none of the high-ranking officers asked for clarification, perhaps believing they could do better on their own.
Banks’s line extended from its two anchors on the Mississippi some six miles through rough country, hemming in the Confederate garrison. He had taken pains to place his troops in position for a siege, yet he refused to allow siege tactics to play out against the Confederates, who would gradually consume their supply of food and ammunition with no means of replenishment. Perhaps worried that Grant would take Vicksburg and win an excessive share of the glory, Banks decided to launch a direct assault on the besieged Confederates. Back in February, before beginning his highly indirect move against Port Hudson, Banks had advised Halleck that the works at Port Hudson were “too strong for a direct attack by men who have never fired a gun. Such an attempt would result as at Fredericksburg and Vicksburg.” [Feb. 12, 1863; OR: Ser. I, v. XV, 240] In May, after the Confederates had had three additional months to strengthen their defenses, Banks had changed his mind. True, most of his men had “fired a gun” in the interim, but Fort Bisland was hardly comparable to Port Hudson.
Port Hudson was selected to be a stronghold with good reason. It sits on a bluff overlooking a sharp bend of the Mississippi. The area is cut by numerous ravines, many filled with dense undergrowth. To these natural advantages the defenders had added felled trees and other obstructions, as well as carefully planned gun and rifle emplacements. All in all, it was poor country for an infantry attack, despite the great Union advantage in numbers and weaponry. Banks’s army numbered some 25-27,000 effectives. [Cunningham, 70. Winters (248) puts Banks’s total strength in this period at 30-40,000, but that may have included the detached garrisons.] After sending infantry reinforcements to Vicksburg, Gardner opposed this with about 7000 men, although experts calculated it would require more than twice as many to properly defend his lines. [Winters, 248] Moreover, Gardner was outgunned something on the order of ten to one, including naval guns, and many of his pieces were light or obsolete. Despite the usual tendency of Banks and other Union commanders to overestimate enemy strength, the federals had reason for optimism as they readied their attack.
Banks had planned a coordinated attack on the Confederate perimeter, and if that had occurred, it might have overwhelmed the defenders with sheer numbers and firepower. In actuality, the Union divisions were sent in piecemeal, either through misunderstanding or faulty communications, allowing the Confederates to shift their beleaguered forces to the most directly threatened portion of their line. Deadly small-arms fire pinned down the federals, forcing them to seek whatever meagre cover was offered by trees or irregularities of terrain. Initially heroic charges by massed regiments quickly degenerated into a continuous sniper battle.
Generally speaking, that was the experience of the 31st Mass., except that it did not actually charge an enemy position. Early in the morning of the 27th Weitzel and Paine sent their divisions forward without being sure what the other was doing. After hard fighting, Weitzel succeeded in driving back the enemy skirmishers, but his men were stopped well short of their objective by murderous Confederate fire. When these attacks had been stalled, Paine sent Gooding’s brigade forward in two waves. The 31st Mass. was held in reserve and did not advance. Later uncoordinated Union attacks, including one by two Negro regiments, said to be the first major combat between black and white troops, were snuffed out with considerable loss. By late afternoon the federal offensives had spent themselves, and an informal truce allowed both sides to collect their wounded, while many northerners took the opportunity to crawl away from exposed positions.
The 31st Mass. could neither advance nor retreat, and like many of the other Union regiments, found scanty cover behind trees and logs. Occasionally they might try to get off a shot, but raising one’s head was a risky affair. The air above was filled with a deadly storm of projectiles. Lacking sufficient conventional artillery ammunition, the Confederates fired loads of scrap iron and, as Lt. Bond reported, “pieces of railroad track iron 18 inches in length,” the screeching of which “as it went through the tree tops over our heads was more to be dreaded from the noise it made than from the execution that resulted.” [diary, May 27, 1863] It is difficult to see how such missiles could be fired without damaging the guns, but Bond was present as a witness.
One historian of the battle, Lawrence Lee Hewitt, notes that seven of 19 federal regiments “did not actively participate in the assault,” and adds that “virtually none of the casualties occurred in the 31st Mass.” He concludes that the “failure to breach the Confederate defenses, coupled with a loss of only 8 per cent of the attacking force, strongly indicates that the Federals who entered ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ clearly lacked the determination to achieve victory.” This seems to be a grossly unfair judgment, since many northern soldiers advanced bravely into ruinous fire. If there is fault to be found, it is more readily placed on the overall management of the battle. In speaking of “widespread Yankee shirking” immediately after noting that the 31st Mass. did not advance, Hewitt implies that this regiment was among the conspicuous shirkers, although there is no evidence that it was ever ordered to advance. Hewitt then makes the remarkable conclusion that “One can only speculate about the consequences if that regiment had participated in the final advance.” [Hewitt, 152-55] At that time the seven companies of the 31st present at Port Hudson amassed a total strength of about 300 men. After thousands of well-equipped Union infantrymen had failed to penetrate the Confederate defenses, it is hard to imagine that this last 300 would have been decisive. The “8 per cent” Hewitt refers to amounted in numbers to more than 2000 casualties, a devastating price to pay for a few yards of tangled woods that left the federal army still outside the Confederate entrenchments.
For more than two weeks after the violent repulse of May 27, Banks did not attempt another major assault. The battlefield was hardly quiet during this period, however, as almost constant sniping and probing kept the soldiers on edge. Banks had requested the navy to fire its mortars at night to disrupt the Confederates’ rest, though, even if they were perfectly aimed, it is hard to see how the Union troops would be shielded from the noise. Vastly outgunned, the Confederates fired their artillery sparingly, so as not to give away their positions. Units were rotated in and out of the front lines, a wise practice, though in many locations standing up in daylight was a dangerous act. There was one ghastly interval of quiet on the day after the battle, when a truce extending 11 hours allowed both sides to bring in their dead and wounded. At 7 p.m., as Fairbank put it, “the ball opened again.” [diary, May 28, 1863] “Pretty spiteful,” he added, but by then the war had its own logic.
With each passing day, Confederate provisions diminished until eventually men in local units who might have been accustomed to the rich cuisine of prewar New Orleans learned to savor mule meat. Though the besiegers talked about starving out the enemy, their own situation seemed hardly better. On June 9 Fairbank complained, “The fresh meat, as they called it, was all maggots and stunk like carrion.” Anger over this miserable fare quickly spilled over into resentment of the supposedly pampered treatment of the nine-month units. “Talk of starving the rebs out of Port Hudson!” Fairbank sputtered. “We shall get starved out first at this rate . . . but the nine months men are having their potatoes, beans, &c. They are of more concern than the 3 year-men. Yes, the babies should have something to eat — so they should!” [diary, June 10, 1863] Finally, after “the boys began to make so much fuss about our rations,” the officers went to Gen. Paine, who “gave the Commissaries fits” and brought at least temporary improvement. All this took place against a background of ever-increasing stench from thousands of men confined in a small space using shallow “sinks,” with added seasoning provided by unburied men and horses, all mingled in a broth of the country’s excessive heat and humidity. Older units like the 31st had had a year to adapt to the climate (or be thinned by death or discharge), but the nine-month troops would never have time for this process to take effect.
Confederate cavalry harassed the eastern fringes of Banks’s corps, capturing supplies and prisoners and generally embarrassing the federal forces. During an interval of relative quiet at Port Hudson, Banks resolved to eliminate this nuisance by destroying their base at Clinton, in his mind something like clearing out a nest of pirates. Grierson’s cavalry was already in the vicinity, and on June 5 Banks dispatched six infantry regiments (besides the 31st Mass., the 38th, 52nd, and 53rd Mass., 8th New Hampshire, and 91st New York), aided by a battery of regular artillery. This comprised a formidable force of some 4000 men, but one can question how well suited it was to pursue tough, hard-riding cavalry units.
Clinton lay about 20 miles away, at the terminus of a railroad line from Port Hudson. Even after the rigorous marching in the Teche country, the Clinton expedition became memorable in the annals of the 31st Mass. because of the misfortune that it was conducted in temperatures that were extreme even by the standards of the region. The men were ready to set off in the cool of the morning, at 4 a.m., but after the usual delays did not get on the way until 8. [Bond diary, June 5, 1863] Bailey recalled that they passed a running stream early in the march (adding the comment “the only one I think we ever saw in Louisiana,” a poignant contrast with the multitude of fresh brooks that sparkle through the New England woods). The troops were told to take as much water as they could carry, because they might not come upon another source. [Bailey, “Port Hudson to Clinton”] The march halted for about an hour around midday, but when it resumed in even more oppressive heat, the men began to drop out by the dozens. Several cases of sunstroke were reported. Finally, the brigade surgeon recommended a halt, an extraordinary intervention that confirmed the severity of the conditions. [Fairbank diary; Bond diary, June 5, 1863. The official reports of Paine and Maj. J. P. Richardson, commanding the 38th Mass., agree that “The excessive heat prostrated a large number of officers and men, who were sent back to headquarters in the evening,” but do not mention intervention by the surgeon. OR: Ser. I, v. XXVI, Part I, 126-28.]
When the expedition had been announced, the men were probably thrilled at the prospect of escaping from the monotony and danger of the rifle pits, but any joy was quickly smothered by the stifling heat. It seemed to confirm that military service offered only a choice between different forms of misery, and it took great effort of imagination to recall whatever feelings of patriotism or adventure had motivated them in faraway Massachusetts. On June 6 the weather was no more tolerable, and though the detachment started off at 6 a.m., the exhausted men dragged along at a slow pace and halted at ten. At that point they were on the Comite River, still eight miles from Clinton. Banks’s admonition to Paine “it is essential that the object shall be accomplished as speedily and as thoroughly as possible” had turned into a curdled joke. [Order June 5, 1863; OR Ser. I, v. XXVI, Part I, 127] One consolation was that they were camped in an area with a great abundance of blackberries, ripe weeks earlier than they would have been in New England. “We ate them all day & I cannot see as we have thinned them out any,” Fairbank declared in amazement. [diary, June 6, 1863] The northern soldiers seemed at last to have found a resource that could withstand their plundering, though one has to wonder about the impact on their already fragile digestive apparatus.
On June 7 the temperature had not abated. The expedition started out not long after midnight, but even a forced march during the relatively cool hours left them two miles short of Clinton. There scouts from Grierson’s cavalry informed them that the rebels had departed Clinton, leaving it to be burned by the federal horsemen, which must have been something like throwing coal on the fires of Hell. Paine’s expedition halted for breakfast and then turned back toward Port Hudson. At 9 a.m. they reached the previous night’s camp where they remained through the heat of the afternoon. In the evening they marched to the first night’s camp near Redwood Bayou, some five miles from their starting point. Lt. Bond described it as “another terribly hot day” in which “the men suffered very much.” [diary, June 7, 1863] They started out at 4 a.m. the next day, taking a different and shorter route, but even then the intense heat kept them from finishing the march until 6:30 p.m., utterly exhausted. Their commanders allowed them to rest in the shade through the next day, and, as Bond noted, “hardly a man has gone out of the woods.” [diary June 9, 1863] So ended the Clinton march, an ordeal that scorched the memory of all who participated. The expedition had little to show for the agony that accompanied it, returning with a few sick Confederates who had been left behind. [Cunningham, 77] The rebel cavalry lost some supplies but remained free to annoy Banks.
By then the troops were in wretched condition, indescribably filthy. Clad in the remains of their heavy wool uniforms, the soldiers had no opportunity to wash, shave, change clothes or wash their clothing during the duration of the siege, and probably the hard marching that preceded it. The only slight relief was provided by occasional rain showers. Howell summarized by writing “I am perfectly well but ragged dirty & Lousy. I presume three long weeks in the trench when one can hardly stir without getting a bullet fired at him is quite sufficient to make one feel that he is of the earth . . . .” [letter, June 17, 1863] The only small consolation was that, although they were disturbed by snakes and lizards, mosquitoes were less troublesome than they had been around New Orleans.
Understandably, memories like this remained vivid when George Young set down his recollections more than 20 years later:
aside from the hard work of using picks and shovels, which to many of us was bad enough, the condition of the place was something terrible. Day after day and week after week gangs of men had been going there working, eating sleeping and in other ways complying with the just demands of nature until now everything and everybody seemed to be covered with filth and alive with vermin. At all hours of the day officers and men alike would be seen with their shirts or drawers or perhaps both off ridding themselves of those most troublesome pests (I may as well say it, it was lice), they would throw them into the sand where they would be taken up by the man who should come next, he in his turn would in like manner pass them along with their increased numbers, and so on and on, until I believe about every man in the camp was literally alive. Add to this the scarcity of proper food and the miserable water, and then wonder if you can that there were so many taken to the rear sick. [Recollections, 68]
Meanwhile Banks was relying on time-tested siege tactics to push his line laboriously forward. It was work that required immense mental and physical concentration, and the commander may not have been temperamentally suited to this painstaking process. His intelligence was bringing mixed signals from Confederate captives and deserters, but there was no doubt that they were facing increasing hardship as food, medical supplies, and ammunition dwindled. A couple of regiments had come close to mutiny; yet morale remained high among most of the defenders. Despite their privations, they were heartened by their success in beating back the vastly more numerous enemy. Matters apparently were not moving to a conclusion quickly enough to suit Banks, so he decided on another assault. It seemed not to have occurred to him that he might have already largely achieved the supposed strategic goal of the campaign. With many guns disabled, ammunition in short supply, and reluctant to fire the remaining guns because doing so would reveal their position to the enormously superior Union firepower, the Confederates’ ability to interfere with the federal navy must have been seriously degraded. There would have been risk in trying to pass the fort, but it must have been greatly reduced from Farragut’s initial run. Communication between army and navy was something short of intensive, and this kind of strategic analysis appears never to have taken place.
This time Banks conceived a more elaborate plan than he had for the May 27 attack, when he had tried simply to overpower the outnumbered defenders. He now understood something of the difficulty of cracking fixed defensive positions, however inadequately manned. A poorly managed and inconsequential reconnaissance in force on June 11 did not discourage the Union commander, and he went ahead with plans for a major assault on June 14. This attack would be conducted in waves, each with a specific function, and if all went according to plan, the final waves would breach the defenses. For a couple of days before the attack, units and individuals were assigned specific tasks and given an opportunity to practice. This was particularly true of the 31st Mass., which was given the unaccustomed task of carrying bags of cotton into position.
On the day before the battle, Union guns, including naval vessels, opened a prolonged bombardment of the Confederate enclave. During a pause Banks formally requested Gardner to surrender, and Gardner responded with a formal refusal. Before dawn on the 14th, Banks’s plan began to unfold. After a heavy artillery bombardment, parties of pioneers went forward carrying tools that would be used first to remove obstacles and then to open up Confederate earthworks to the guns. They were followed by the storming party, each man carrying a bag of cotton that would enable him to climb over the defensive wall. Behind them came skirmishers, followed by the 4th Mass., armed with improvised hand grenades that were supposed to cause the defenders to take shelter while the other units did their work. Then came the 31st Mass., carrying bags of cotton that they were supposed to lay down to provide a surface for the artillery to cross over a ravine (the ravine was shallow enough for men to cross, but the guns would not have been able to surmount the terrain). Finally came the main force, consisting of two full brigades and part of Gooding’s. All of this was under the command of Gen. Grover, but he had chosen Brig. Gen. Halbert E. Paine, an abolitionist lawyer from Wisconsin, to lead the assault. George Young recalled that, in place of coffee, each man in the storming party was issued a half-pint cup half-filled with whiskey, and the portions of those who refused were gladly consumed by others. [Recollections, 63, and although Young, writing at a 20-year remove, has a tendency to conflate events, the association with the cotton bags makes this account credible.]
Paine, who had previously commanded the 4th Wisconsin, believed in leading from the front. Standing at the head of his men, he roared the order to advance over the crash of artillery. Despite the careful preparation, the plan of attack quickly disintegrated. The regiment carrying grenades was not known for aggressiveness; they had cut the fuses too long or threw them too soon, so that the Confederates were able to toss them back with at least equal effect. Neither the artillery barrage nor any other Union tactic dismayed the defenders sufficiently to make them stay down. They rose up from behind their parapet and fired searing volleys at the attackers, often using rifles captured on May 27. Subsequent charges by the other Union divisions were not well coordinated, so that the Confederates could deal with them in detail. A scattering of northern troops reached and attempted to scale the earthworks, but they were shot down or taken prisoner. The attackers were pinned down until nightfall when they were able to trickle back into their original positions, having suffered another 1800 casualties.
At that point in its service, the 31st Mass. had seen men slain or horribly wounded in battle and worn down by miserable diseases. They had endured a stunning variety of hardship and discomfort, and they had observed entirely too much of the waste, destruction and mismanagement of war. Yet until June 14, 1863, they had never had occasion to charge an enemy position against resolute defenders (and it is well to remember that even this experience was shared by only the remnant of seven companies). They had not yet “seen the elephant” in the slang of rustic soldiers, originating in the experience of boys who saw the footprints left by traveling circus elephants on country roads but refused to believe that such a creature existed until they saw it in person. On June 14, in addition to the usual weight of uniform and equipment, they were burdened by bags of cotton that weighed 30 pounds or more. Whether they succeeded in depositing these bags in the intended location is uncertain. As they advanced into increasingly heavy fire they were driven to ground, taking shelter behind what little protection the sacks of cotton or ripples in the terrain provided. They were in a part of the battlefield that was not wooded, so they lay all day in the scorching sun, unable to fire back, or even reach for a canteen. Rebel sharpshooters fired at any target that presented itself, and the prone men were liable to be struck at any instant by a random chunk of flying metal. When the men dragged back from the front lines in the evening they were dealt a ration of whiskey, and, as Fairbank said drily, “I was willing to drink mine.” [diary June 15, 1863]
“The death missiles have flown thick and fast all day” wrote Fairbank. [diary, June 14, 1863] Many found their mark, and losses among the officers were especially heavy. Rallying his men for a second charge, Gen. Paine went down with a leg wound, and after that the Union drive deflated. The severely wounded general lay on the open field, slightly sheltered by cotton bales. Several Union soldiers lost their lives attempting to aid him, among them Sgt. Edward P. Woods of Company E, 31st Mass., a 25 year-old resident of Chicopee Falls who listed his occupation as gunsmith. Eventually Pvt. Patrick Cohen of the 131st NY was able to throw a canteen of water to Paine, which may have saved his life. [Cunningham, 92. He identifies Woods as Pvt. J. B. Woods] He was taken off the field after dark, survived the amputation of his leg, and returned to the army and later to Wisconsin politics.
During the Teche campaign Lt. Nelson F. Bond noted that “Several of the prisoners recognize the writer as the man on the gray horse in the fight at Bisland last Monday, and relate how hard they tried to bring both rider and horse to the ground.” [diary, Apr. 18, 1863] This may indicate that Bond was one of those officers who try to make a conspicuous show of bravery. On June 14 he was not mounted, but he may have been in an exposed position when he was shot through the right breast, the bullet passing through his lung and almost coming out his back. To anyone familiar with wounds it appeared mortal. He turned over his money, watch, and other valuables to the quartermaster, but fortunately he was in a position from which he could be carried to the rear, where Dr. Bidwell picked out the ball and showed it to him. Bidwell’s personal intervention was probably critical, as he decided not to send Bond to the hospital at Baton Rouge, fearing, with good reason that the journey by wagon to Springfield Landing “some twelve miles over a road by no means of the best . . . might deprive him of his last slender chance of recovery.” After consulting with the wounded man’s brother Sylvester, who had recently discharged himself from the hospital and offered to serve as a nurse, Bidwell decided to keep Lt. Bond “in camp under my own observation. Accordingly, a bunk or cot was constructed of such materials as we could command, a tent made of a few shelter tents, and the ordeal inaugurated with but a trembling hope of ultimate success.” [Bidwell “Remarkable Case of Capt. N. F. Bond”] Unable to breathe normally, Bond wrote that he “could only pant in breathing like a dog,” which further drained his strength. [diary, June 14-16, 1863] Yet under the care of Dr. Bidwell, brother Sylvester and Lts. Howell and Rust, he gradually recovered. His informative diary comes to an end when he was sent to a hospital at New Orleans on July 1, as he “shall know nothing of the doings of the regiment for a while at least.”
Bond’s absence was deeply felt throughout the regiment, as he seems to have been highly regarded and was familiar to most of the men due to his recent details in command of different companies. At almost the same time, Capt. Washington Irving Allen was wounded in the shoulder blade by a stray piece of shrapnel from a Union gun, but he too eventually recovered. Pvt. John Williams in the ambulance corps was killed, and George Marsh of Ware, “had a musket ball hit him in the upper jaw while looking to see some of our men go over the breast works, prisoners. ‘My God,’ he said, ‘I guess I’m a goner,’ and ran to the rear.” [Fairbank diary, June 14, 1863] Marsh survived, but never returned to service; he was eventually discharged in December.
A grievous loss to the regiment was the death of Color Sergeant Francis A. Clary of Conway, a classmate of Lts. Howell and Bond at Amherst College. Back at Camp Seward, Howell had written: “Clary is a grand fellow, six feet tall, good looking, intelligent and brave as a lion. He has been chosen Color Sergeant — a very responsible [position] and one full of danger, but he’ll ‘bear the stars and stripes aloft and bear them till he dies’ without a single flinch.” [Howell letter, Jan. 22, 1862] This proved to be startlingly prophetic, though it is hard to see how Clary could have given evidence of bravery at that time. Clary was deeply, almost ostentatiously, religious and had planned to labor as a missionary in China before the war broke out. Like Howell and several other classmates, he signed up immediately after Fort Sumter, but the authorities decided not to organize a unit at that time.
Clary had an element of fatalism in his makeup. In letters to his family he observed that his position as color sergeant placed him in exceptional danger, and he told friends that he expected to perish in the first severe engagement. [For example, Hawkes letter, June 26, 1863] There are divergent reports of how Clary died. Probably the most accurate was one provided by Col. Hopkins, who said he died clutching the colors, but not aloft, since he was taking cover on the ground with the rest of the regiment. In that position he was shot in the neck and died within minutes. [“The Color Bearer,” 89, 96-97] His body was recovered after dark and buried with Williams. [Fairbank diary, June 15, 1863] The sergeant’s life was regarded as so exemplary that an inspirational biography was published by the American Tract Society. [“The Color Bearer,” 1864] As the odors of decomposition became unbearable, a truce was agreed on June 17 so that search parties could recover the dead. Two men were found alive, and Sgt. Wood’s body was brought back. [Fairbank diary, June 17, 1863]
One man who perished almost anonymously in the ranks of the 31st Mass. on June 14 was Charles Knackfuss, a “poor little German” who had enlisted at New Orleans. Doubly a foreigner, Knackfuss was probably known to few others in the regiment. One who was acquainted with him was George Young of Company K, who related that “He used to make us laugh at his broken English, and often when in conversation with him he used to tell me about his folks and what a good time he intended to have when he got back to Yarminy.” On June 14, when the regiment was pinned down by incessant fire, soldiers were periodically designated to make a dash for water. Eventually Knackfuss’s name was called.
“We cautioned him not to jump up until he was ready to run and then to run as fast as he could (some of the fellows who always wanted to be funny said run as fast as the Devil will let you). Anyhow the poor fellow put his head up over his cotton bag to see if the way was clear, and no sooner had he done so than I heard the yip of a bullet and at the same moment I saw poor Knackfuss put his hand up to his head. He held it there for a minute and then fell down alongside of me,–a most horrible sight. The ball had struck him in the forehead and knocked the top of his head off, or nearly so, for he put both his hands up again and seemed to make a grab for the wounded place, and when he took them away they were filled with flesh—blood, and I believe a part of his brains that came from the gaping hole that the bullet had made We that were near enough to him did what we could to soothe his agony. We plucked up handsful of stunted grass and having made it wet with water that at that time was worth more than its weight in gold, we put it on his head, then having cut off the tail of a blouse we threw that over him and had to lie there and hear him groan and see him die. Besides this the sun was pouring down on our own heads most terrible.” [Recollections, 66-67]
Despite two costly defeats, Banks still hoped to crack the Confederate defenses by assault. He now conceived the idea of a “Forlorn Hope,” in which a thousand volunteers would storm one part of the enemy line. He had used similar tactics at Cedar Mountain, VA, in August 1862, resulting in unnecessary losses. Why he expected this would succeed when attacks by much larger numbers against most of the perimeter had failed is a mystery. By then his troops had learned from hard experience even if he had not, and nowhere near a thousand raised their hands to volunteer. Among them, however, were Capt. Hollister, Capt. Hovey, Lt. Howell, and Lt. Stewart of the 31st Mass. [Fairbank diary, June 15, 1863. Eight enlisted men volunteered: Privates Chester Bevens, Patrick Carnes, Frank Fitch, William Thorington, Peter Valun, Ethan H. Cowles, William J. Coleman, and Maurice Lee. Except for Cowles, these men were all members of Companies A and K (OR: Ser. I, v. XXVI, Part I, 62. Banks’s order was contained in General Orders No. 49, June 15, 1863.] This offensive never took place in the form Banks had envisioned, but several other assaults were launched, all futile.
Tupper by then was stationed at the quartermaster depot at Springfield Landing. He retained his contacts in the 31st Mass. and reported that a superstitious dread had overtaken the army:
Many expressed fears yesterday that General Banks would take another Sunday to attack Port Hudson, but the Sabbath has passed by & no more fighting has been going on than the usual skirmishing & firing of sharpshooters & pickets. There is a general feeling in the Army among officers & men against an attack on Sunday. The disastrous results which have followed engagements on that day have had the effect of creating a sort of superstition that that is an unlucky day among those who are not governed by motives of religion. There is an instinctive dread, distinct from any moral or religious view of the question, & it was generally felt through the whole army that if an attack was made today we should be defeated. But our general, governed by motives of prudence if no loftier principal, has wisely deferred the next great assault which we all feel confident is imminent. [letter, June 28, 1863]
Independence Day 1863 arrived and the Port Hudson stalemate continued. In a reminiscent mood, Fairbank reflected “how different it has been spent from what those at home have probably done. There the old iron cannon called them, and fire crackers and picnics were the order of the day. Here we have had cannon roaring enough, but no boy’s play or blank cartridges fired.” [diary, July 4, 1863] It was hard to see what would bring the ordeal to an end. The Confederates were nearing the last extremity, with men and supplies approaching the final stages of exhaustion. Although they were better fed, the Union forces were in only slightly better condition and morale appeared to be collapsing. Most of them had little confidence in Banks, and some of the nine-month regiments had mutinied. Part of the 31st Mass. was detailed to guard the 4th Mass., “who had laid down their arms and refused to do duty because their time was up.” Fairbank, though increasingly disenchanted, retained enough patriotism to declare “They have always been a disgrace to Mass., and Mass. soldiers were always ashamed of them.” [diary, June 30, 1863]
Adversity revived the politically-based discord that had always afflicted the Army of the Gulf. One historian of the battle observed that
There apparently were two political cliques in the Federal army, the first being the old Butler group, consisting of the officers who had come to Louisiana with Butler and were closely associated with him. Weitzel was the most prominent example. The second clique consisted of Banks’s men—those who had come to Louisiana with the general in December, 1862, and who were considered loyal to him. The Banks clique was split by a division between the volunteer and regular officers . . . . [Cunningham, 111]
In the end, outside events determined the fate of Port Hudson. On July 8 news arrived that Vicksburg had surrendered (on July 4). After a truce while Gen. Gardner confirmed this unwelcome information, he began negotiations to surrender. Port Hudson might have held out for a few days longer, but with the fall of the upriver stronghold, further resistance seemed pointless. In any case, the soldiers determined the issue by ceasing hostilities and mingling on the battlefield. With this placid anti-climax the longest siege of the Civil War crept to a close. Official casualty figures for the 31st Mass. in the period May 23 to July 8, 1863, were 13 enlisted men killed, two officers and 47 men wounded. [OR: Ser. I, v. XXVI, Part I, 69] The combatants soon learned that on the day Vicksburg fell, Robert E. Lee had begun his retreat from Gettysburg. These simultaneous defeats seemed to spell the downfall of the Confederacy, but the war ground on for nearly two more years, characterized by increasing ferocity and ruthlessness.
A week or so after Port Hudson surrendered, Tupper visited the site. Men from both armies were still mingling freely, and a great deal of coarse joshing took place. One Confederate officer told him that “mule steak was good & palatable food, but rat meat was far superior.” Tupper, however, was dismayed to see that:
The rebel officers are treated with great attention by our officers. They ride around on fine horses which they are allowed to retain, are seen eating & drinking with our officers, & spending with apparent liberality greenbacks which no doubt were plundered from the bodies of our dead & wounded heroes of the battles of May 27th & June 14th. A Confederate told me that one man got $600 from one of our colonels left on the field & another got $60 from the body of the captain of a negro company. After the hardships endured & the loss of life sustained in taking this place, it makes our soldiers indignant at attention shown the rebel officers. One would think they were our guests. [letter, July 17, 1863]
This display must have reinforced the widespread feeling that the West Pointers felt more affinity for one another than for whichever side they were fighting for. Around this time Tupper received notification that he had been discharged from the army and given a position as civilian clerk in the Navy Department, probably through the intervention of Navy Secretary Welles. The history of the 31st Mass. was thereafter deprived of his informative and thoughtful commentary.