Part 6 — Port Hudson to the Red River Campaign

By Larry Lowenthal

At Port Hudson, suddenly quiet, the 31st Mass. had been chosen to participate in the surrender ceremony, but before that occurred the regiment was called away to face a new threat. While Banks’s army was engaged at Port Hudson, active Confederate officers under the general supervision of Dick Taylor took advantage of their absence to administer some stinging defeats on the outlying Union forces. They returned to the country Banks had supposedly subdued before he turned his attention to Port Hudson, capturing Brashear City, taking many Union prisoners, returning blacks who had worked for the Union to slavery, and resupplying their army at the expense of the federal government. For a time the Confederates seemed to threaten New Orleans, then held by only a few hundred Union troops. Instead they turned their attention to the strategic river port of Donaldsonville. Union forces held them off, gaining Banks time to send a large part of his army to defend the town. At first, the victors at Port Hudson under the command of Weitzel and Grover were mauled by a much smaller force, but eventually the Confederates had to withdraw in the face of superior numbers.

Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks (Image Harper's Weekly, via Wikimedia Commons)

Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks (Image Harper’s Weekly, via Wikimedia Commons)

Banks was compelled to perform a major reorganization and restructuring of his army, not due to strategic considerations but because of the departure of the nine-month regiments. These regiments had given Banks an impressive numerical advantage, at least on paper. In the field much of this advantage was negated by their lackluster performance. With their short and finite term of service, they were often more interested in marking days off on the calendar than in conducting military operations. Young relates that one of these regiments (undoubtedly a reference to the 4th Mass.) was arrested for refusing to do duty after reaching what the men thought was the end of their enlistment. They were sent to prison in Baton Rouge, where Young “saw them looking out of the Prison windows. They were laughing and joking and having a good time generally, and we believed . . . that they were making fun of our tired and shabby appearance as we marched past them.” It must have seemed politically unacceptable to court-martial most of a regiment, so they were discharged, and, as Young concludes with understandable acerbity, “when they arrived in Boston they were received with unbounded demonstrations of enthusiasm, and each man being counted a hero in himself was presented with a miniature American flag—quite different . . . was that given to our Regiment when they returned after serving faithfully for three years and four months.” [Recollections, 74-75] Thomas Norris, not yet 18 years old, voiced similar sentiments: “You tell me all about the reception of the nine months men at home. I wonder if they will receive the soldiers in the same manner. The folks at home seem to think more of the big Bounty Men than anybody else.” [letter, July 25, 1863; emphasis in original]

Banks had no hesitation in blaming the repulse of his assaults at Port Hudson on the convenient target of the nine-month troops:

 The reduction of Port Hudson has required a longer time than at first supposed, First, because it is a stronger position. Secondly, because a large part of my force consists of nine-months’ men, who openly say they do not consider themselves bound to any perilous service. It is this wholly unexpected defection that has prevented our success . . . . [to Halleck, June 18, 1863; OR: Ser. I, v. XXVI, Part I, 565. Halleck’s advice, easy to give from his big desk in Washington, was to place guns loaded with grapeshot behind the reluctant warriors.]

Lt. Rice was almost irrationally hostile toward the unsatisfactory troops. Speaking of the nine-month soldiers as they returned home, he concluded:

. . . last, least, meanest, and most despicable, come the only regiments that to my knowledge have ever disgraced the old Bay State. The 4th and 48th, the last of which has on three occasions ignominiously and disgracefully lost its colors, and had them retaken and saved for them by other regiments, and the first, which enjoys the proud celebrity of laying down their arms and refusing to do duty in the very midst of the Siege of Port Hudson, when the order for storming was daily expected, because forsooth, “their time had expired,” their paltry nine months for which the people of Massachusetts were so foolish as to give them from 150 to 250 dollars bounty. For your sake I won’t swear about them, but only term them cowardly, mercenary sneaks . . . . [letter, July 26, 1863]

 There is no record that any former members of the 31st served in the ranks of the 48th Mass., but the 49th Mass. included four men who had originally enlisted in the 31st. Contrary to some of Rice’s suppositions, this unit suffered sizable casualties, losing 56% as many men in its nine months as the 31st eventually did in 34 months of service.

Perhaps as a result of reading too much literature in college (although he was an engineering student), Rice remained imbued with the romantic idea of war as a proving ground—an attitude that led to the premature death of many a young lieutenant. Earlier he had written that he would not consider a furlough “till the 31st Reg. of Mass. Volunteers, is heard of beyond the narrow circle of those who have friends in it. When we have a few honorable holes in our flag and perhaps in our bodies, then I could, without feeling ashamed, try to get a chance to see you all for a little while . . . .” [letter, Jan. 4, 1863]

With the nine-month regiments the Lincoln administration bridged a period of scarce manpower but at the price of reviving the problems associated with the short-term militia call-ups of the War for Independence and the War of 1812. Banks lost 21 regiments when the nine-month men returned home, but, with Vicksburg subdued, Grant replaced them with the 13th Corps, comprised of 14, 712 officers and men. [Winters, 293] Banks gave command of the 19th Corps to Major General William B. Franklin (1823-1903), who had never quite fulfilled the brilliant promise of his cadet days at West Point. Within this organization, Weitzel commanded the first division, Emory the third, and Grover the fourth (there was no second). The 31st Mass. became part of the third brigade of Weitzel’s division under command of Col. Gooding. [Under a reorganization of the Department of the Gulf, effective August 31, 1863, the 31st Mass. was listed as part of the Second Brigade (OR: Ser. I, v. XXVI, Part I, 711) but commanders seemed to enjoy the game of frequent reorganization.]

Texas continued to exert a fascination on the Union leadership, and Halleck ordered Banks to establish a base in that state. The initial efforts were unrewarding but form a backdrop to the more famous Red River campaign of 1864. After an  amphibious operation against Sabine City was humiliatingly repulsed, Franklin was sent back into the Teche country. Retracing much of Banks’s earlier campaign, he penetrated as far as Opelousas before deciding that low water and oncoming Winter rendered an invasion of Texas by that route unpromising. He began a slow retreat, with Confederates following closely on his trail, and reached New Iberia in mid-November. Meanwhile, the 13th Corps had finally grasped a weak hold on Brownsville and adjacent points in Texas.

Thus we have a tableau of almost continuous operations after the capture of Port Hudson, though no major battles occurred (even if the entire available Confederate force was engaged, their numbers were so small that it is questionable if any contest could be termed a major battle). Other than placing troops within the boundary of Texas, as directed by Halleck, Banks seemed to lack any unifying strategic concept; but his practice of dividing his forces kept the much weaker enemy on the defensive. While portions of Banks’s corps were spread over several hundred miles, the 31st Mass. remained relatively inactive, not participating in any of the far-flung movements. After the fighting moved away from Donaldsonville, which Fairbank referred to as “the region of chimney stacks,” due to the destruction inflicted by the Navy, the regiment returned to Camp Magnolia at Baton Rouge on August 3, 1863. [diary, Aug. 1, 1863]


While the seven active companies of the 31st Mass. plodded hundreds of endless miles absorbing the dust of central Louisiana and finally engaging in the grinding, squalid siege of Port Hudson, the three companies detached at Fort Pike continued their uneventful life. Organizationally, they were separate from the rest of the regiment, being part of the Defenses of New Orleans. Their duties followed a repetitious cycle of raids, patrols, and drills. Mosquitoes returned in full ferocity in March. Rich reports an unpleasant incident on January 31, when some members of Co. I refused to do guard duty. One was struck with a sword by Sgt. Henry S. Stearns of Co. G, and others were thrown in jail. [Rich diary, Jan. 31, 1863] A potentially serious confrontation was smoothed over somehow, and Rich does not mention it again. [Lt. Rice, who was at Fort Pike, does not mention the incident in his letters, though it is the sort of thing he might be reluctant to discuss.]

Complex interaction with the wide spectrum of residents inserted some spice in the monotonous routine. At least one boat came up from New Orleans every day, and the post sutler had his own boat to make deliveries. As a result, men in the Fort Pike garrison had closer relations with many locals than with men in their seven fellow companies. There was little opportunity for physical interaction between the two parts of the regiment, and mail would have been a circuitous process. Moreover, since most of the companies had been recruited in specific areas, the men would always have had stronger connections with comrades in their own company than with others. Occasional accounts of visits between the detached portions of the regiment bear a curious resemblance to reports of calls by relatives that filled the local news columns of papers back home. While hospitalized at St. James, Wheeler got a pass on February 20, 1863, to visit friends in the 31st at Carrollton, among them Sgt. Clary. [Wheeler diary, Feb. 20, 1863] Underwood obtained a pass and with his friend William Stockwell looked up acquaintances in the 26th Mass. and the 53rd Mass., a nine-month regiment. He visited his own regiment’s camp at Carrollton but found that most of the men had gone off on the Plaquemine expedition, leaving only a few sick behind. [diary] Capt. Rockwell of I Company came down to Algiers to visit friends in the 31st after they returned from the first expedition against Port Hudson. [Bond diary, Apr. 3, 1863] War reports reached Fort Pike from New Orleans quickly, but 90% of them were wrong or exaggerated. Meanwhile, news from the rest of the 31st Mass. arrived slowly and irregularly. Men at Fort Pike learned of the capture of Vicksburg on July 8, the same as those at Port Hudson, but word of the fall of Port Hudson itself did not arrive until July 10, two days after the event. [Rich diary]

The Fort Pike garrison not only welcomed but sought out diversions that would crack the prevailing monotony. Underwood describes forays into the countryside to shoot semi-wild hogs and occasional brushes with supposed guerillas. On the theory that “we would occasionally volunteer to endure the torment of the mosquitoes, rather than stay at the fort all the time,” he joined a picket guard at Pleasanton Island Light House, even though the mosquitoes were more avid there. They took five day’s rations and went on board the Firmeza, better known as the Green Sloop, for a pleasant sail of seven miles. [diary, Feb. 22, 1863] On a later occasion he was detailed to accompany the paymaster to Ship Island. After a stormy and dangerous voyage, he passed a night there. It became an exercise in premature nostalgia, as Underwood found the island greatly changed. It was garrisoned only by seven companies of a colored regiment, and there were quite a number of prisoners who had been sentenced to hard labor working on the fort. By then the masonry work was nearly finished, but no guns were mounted inside. Underwood found that in the year since he had last seen Ship Island:

 [T]he city of tents was gone. The village on the lower end had increased wonderfully. And several batteries had been built on the sand hills around the lower end, and the barren sand, where our camps were formerly situated, was covered with a thin but tall growth of coarse grass. I had some difficulty in finding our former camping ground, which I had the curiosity to visit. I went to the grave yard where a few of the 31st boys lie sleeping. Sad feelings took possession of my fancy. I picked up a few simple shells to keep as a memorial of the place. [diary Apr. 23, 1863]

Ordinarily the post sutler would provide a welcome link to the outside world and its delights, but many in the Fort Pike garrison had hard feelings toward the merchant, a man named Fabacher. They voiced the common complaint that he was charging exorbitant prices. One day in April the 128th New York regiment appeared, giving men in the 31st Mass. an opportunity to vent their animosity toward the sutler by goading the New Yorkers to raid his establishment, “frightening him considerably and taking some of his goods, a dozen or two hats, some tobacco and other things.” A short time after the New York regiment departed, some members of the 31st conducted their own raid, “battering in his door and window with the boom of an old schooner, bricks, etc. The next day, the Sutler moved his goods into one of the casemates, and that night the boys took a boat and went around into the moat, up the port hole, where they climbed in and stole two hundred dollars worth of Sutler’s goods, which they hid in the marsh, and wherever they could find a good place.” [Underwood diary, Apr. 18, 1863. The raid took place on April 14 (Rich diary. Rich voiced no sympathy for the sutler, concluding “Wish they had tore all down.”)] This was not the regiment’s first pillage of the sutler, as a few months before, some members of Company I had stolen nine barrels of ale that he had stored in the sally-port of the fort. In consequence of the latest attack, the 31st was assigned to guard the sutler’s shanty, and this unwelcome extra duty forestalled further brigandage. It does not appear that any soldiers were punished for these raids, and there is no mention of reimbursing the sutler for his losses; nor do we learn of agents knocking on the sutler’s door to offer inventory insurance.

The human craving for novelty in the midst of tedium may be partly responsible for another unfortunate episode that marred the 31st Mass. record at Fort Pike:

 One day in May, our Sutler came in from the city, bringing four or five ladies in his sloop. They stayed in the Citadel all night and Capt. [W.W.] Rockwell used our flag for a mosquito bar, so the Serg’t of the guard could not get it to raise over the fort until nine o’clock, and then it hung lifeless a half day as though aware of the disgraceful use that it had been put to. In the morning, Captain B[ridgman]. had dress parade for the gratification of the women, as it was the only time we ever had dress parade in the morning. In the forenoon, the officers took the ladies out to ride in the Polly, giving the men that manned the boat a ration of whiskey for their services. The ladies went back to New Orleans in the afternoon in the Lelia, or Sutler’s boat. [Underwood diary, May 1863]

 A similar troubling incident occurred a few weeks later:

 There was at this time in New Orleans a class of inhabitants styled “registered enemies” because they wouldn’t take the oath of allegiance. They consisted of men, women and children, and numbered ten thousand; and Gen. N. P. Banks . . .  sent forth a decree that all such persons should, within a given time, leave our lines and go over to the enemy. Free transportation was also furnished, and about twenty loads of them passed Fort Pike on their way to Biloxi and Mississippi City . . . . As soon as landed, the able bodied men were conscripted by confederate officers waiting for the purpose, so in fact, we helped to fill their ranks. Two or three loads of the registered enemies were taken out on the Steamer J. M. Brown, and one afternoon as she came along, the Commander of the Fort, Capt. Bridgman, allowed them to land at the wharf, and a dozen or more of them to land, showing them about the outer works, and allowed some of the ladies to go inside to dress parade, setting chairs for them upon the barbettes, and we could see as we went through the ceremony of dress parade, their scornful looks at us Yankees, and more than one had a book, taking notes of the guns, etc.; and as we marched out by the rebel gentlemen, they looked with scorn on us as we passed. This made us angry, for they had no business to land at the fort. [ibid., June 1863]

 One who was especially disturbed by these proceedings was Corp. Marcus M. Thompson, a farmer from Dana. Thirty-six when he enlisted, he was older than most privates and retained a strict New England sense of duty. Thus he reported the incidents to higher authority, and in due course “an officer belonging to the General’s Staff came to the Fort to examine the facts of the case.” This development must have been extremely worrisome and irritating to Capt. Bridgman, as it would have brought back memories of an unpleasant inspection in January, in which Gen. Sherman berated the officers “pretty severely” after observing their bumbling handling of the troops. [Underwood diary, Jan. 22, 1863. The general in question was Thomas W. Sherman, then in charge of the defenses of New Orleans, rather than the better-known William T. Sherman.] As it emerged, Bridgman’s fears were unfounded. The investigating officer heard Thompson’s testimony but was evidently in cover-up mode and did not attempt to collect additional evidence. Thompson damaged his case by failing to bring in anyone to corroborate his statements. As Underwood concludes, “it was fixed up some way.”

The rewards of a whistleblower are ever uncertain. Soon after the staff officer departed, Bridgman reduced Corp. Thompson to the ranks. “This ending of the case worried Thompson considerably, and with some other causes, it turned him crazy.” He was kept at the fort a few days, “until he had become a raving maniac, tearing his clothes, shrieking, gibbering, and acting in a horrible manner, until we could do nothing with him. He was then taken to New Orleans by his cousins, Chas. and Harry Horr, and admitted to the Charity Hospital at that city, where he remained for a few days, until he got so bad they could not manage him. He was then taken to the Parish prison, where he was chained up in one of the cells and died in that place a few weeks after.” (Official records show that he died of disease at New Orleans October 21, 1863.) [Underwood diary, June, Aug., 1863]

After nearly a year at Fort Pike, the garrison made a valiant effort to overcome the feeling of loneliness with festivities on Independence Day. This turned out to be the day on which Vicksburg fell, which would have inspired a real celebration, but the men at Fort Pike had no way of knowing that. As Lt. Rice noted, the men could not obtain fireworks, and there was little point in creating a disturbance with no one else to witness it, so they had to invent their own amusement. Funding for the celebration had been saved from the “company fund,” deducted from rations. [Underwood diary, July 4, 1863] The resulting holiday had a more conspicuous military tone than the celebrations back home in New England:

9 ½ A.M. Non-commissioned officers drill. 3 prizes, copy of tactics, Corp. [Patrick J.] Dinan of Comp. I win the first. Corporals [Frederick] Blauss and [Chauncey W.] Smith of Comp. I the second and third. 10 ½ Privates drill, 3 prizes. Copy of Tactics. Hanchet [Henry Hanchett] Comp. G win the first, [Benjamin] Taylor and [Charles F.] Clark Comp. I the second and third. 11 ½ A.M. Lemonade with a stick in it. 12 Dinner. After target shooting. Sergt. [Charles L.] Moody comp. G win the prize, a silver goblet, also hunting the gold. Contrabands, wheel-barrow race, sack race, climbing the greesed [sic] poles and other amusements winding up with a tatoo [sic] and three cheers for the officers and three more for the Union. [Rich diary, July 4, 1862. Underwood reports that the greased pole contest was won by a drummer from Co. F (diary)]

One of these improvised activities,“Hunting the Gold,” exploited the blacks in the camp, although the victims seemed to participate willingly. (These were not soldiers, but “contrabands,” the former slaves who had come into the Union lines and been put to work):

about half a bushel of flour was put in a small tub and a silver quarter dollar put down at the bottom of the Flour. I then arranged all my male darkies (nearly thirty) in a line, and drawing lots for the turn set them at work with their hands tied behind them, diving for the quarter. The one who found it and picked it out with his teeth was to have it and a three dollar greenback. You can imagine the effect of a darky of such intense blackness as is never seen at the North, covered with perspiration, going to the bottom of eight or nine inches of flour and rooting about there as long as his breath lasts, and you can perhaps form some estimate of the ap­pearance created by twenty seven of these interesting creatures, who, having been unsuccessful in extracting the money from the flour, were, without allowing their faces to be washed, put down on their hands and feet, and then, on all fours, required to run about 250 feet and back again, the money being given to the winner in the race. If you don’t think this makes fun try it sometime. [Rice letter, July 12, 1863]

Many of the contests in which the white soldiers were engaged were physically embarrassing, but they lacked the demeaning racial aspect.

The companies at Fort Pike contained men of German origin who had been recruited at New Orleans, and Lt. Rice had an unusual relationship with them:

Something in my appearance gave them the idea that I was German, either by birth or parentage. So strong was this belief that, though they never heard me speak the language, or give any evidence of understanding it when I heard it, they were always very guarded in their conversation when they saw me about. Of course I did not seek to dispel the illusion, but used occasionally to look wise, and smile slightly when I heard a remark that made the others laugh. [Rice letter, July 8, 1863]

Rice had hauled up an old barge or launch that had sunk in the fort’s moat and had it reconditioned. He did not report this endeavor in his letters home, as it reflected poorly on his engineering abilities:

[i]t was hauled up and the barnacles scraped from its bottom, the seams calked with oakum, and the whole of it painted. Then the Lieut. had some paddle wheels made and fitted to the boat and turned by long levers fixed to the crank of each. It took thirty-two men to man the boat, & as many more could ride in the boat. Lieut. Rice then had a carriage built and one of our two small mountain howitzers (12 pounders) mounted in the bow. It was very hard work to propel this boat, and it was of no great use, so the men here gave it two names: one, The Mankiller, the other, Rice’s Folly. [Underwood diary, May 1863]

 The split of the regiment, a relic of the controversy that had surrounded it in its formative period, finally came to an end on September 5, when Companies F, G, and I departed Fort Pike on the steamer Savory. They spent the night in New Orleans, where even sleeping in a cotton press, a warehouse-like building, “seemed to the men a paradise, because they didn’t have to put up mosquitoes bars.” [Rice letter, Sep. 27, 1863] In a highly telling comment, Fairbank observed that “They number more men than the other six companies.” [Fairbank diary, Sep. 10, 1863] Rice uses similar terminology, saying “Our three companies came with[in] a dozen of numbering as many men as the other six.” (Six and three add to only nine, but Company H was then on provost duty in New Orleans and apparently not included in the calculation.) Underwood ignores this factor and simply states that the three Fort Pike companies had as many men as the other seven. [diary, Sep. 5, 1863]

It remains debatable why the regiment had not been reunited earlier. One could speculate that Banks was suspicious of the 31st, which he might have regarded as one of Butler’s pets; but it would seem that Gooding could have exerted influence to bring the awkward schism to an end. On September 9 the reunited regiment headed off to Baton Rouge under command of Maj. Bache. Five enlisted men of Company F, accompanied by Capt. Bridgman, remained behind at Fort Pike to take commissions in the Corps d’Afrique, the body of troops that was being formed from the local black population. [Rich diary, Sep. 5, 1863; Underwood diary, Aug. 1863] Bridgman was commissioned as a colonel, and he commanded the Corps d’Afrique regiment that replaced the 31st Mass. Since many white officers considered it degrading or detrimental to their careers to command black troops, it created opportunity for those who felt otherwise to make a rapid jump from enlisted to officer status. Judging by the results, the subject must have been analyzed intensively within the Fort Pike companies. An astonishing total of 24 men of all enlisted ranks took commissions in the “colored” regiments—9 from Company F, 6 from G, 7 from I, and 2 from the regimental staff.

A revealing example of the perceived difference in status occurred in the 31st Mass. On an occasion in early 1864 Fairbank reported that “Lt. E. Sagendorph made us a visit and was merry as could be. Milt told him to leave the tent. Ed says Milt turned him a shoul colder [sic] because he is in a negro regiment.” [Fairbank diary, Jan. 3, 1864] Here the issue came as close to home as could be, for “Milt” is undoubtedly Lt. Milton Sagendorph, and Edwin Sagendorph, then a private, had been discharged September 2, 1863 to become an officer in a Negro regiment. The two were almost certainly brothers, as both were painters from Ware who were mustered on the same day, and their name is not a common one. Edwin was actually older by two years.

Rice had reported earlier that “Mr. Hepworth has resigned his position as Chaplain in the 47th . . . and taken a lieutenancy in a darky regiment. I think he might have done better, though I am not one of those who think the darks won’t fight.” [Rice letter, Mar. 15, 1863. The 47th was a nine-month regiment nearing the end of its service.] If a report by Tupper is correct (and it seems to be supported by orders issued at the time), the quality of recruiting for the later Negro regiments had declined dramatically: “Hodge Negro regiment is full. There was no volunteering about it, but they forced every nigger they got hold of right into it.” [letter, Apr. 19, 1863. The reference is probably to Col. Justin Hodge of Connecticut, who was authorized to recruit the 1st Regiment of Louisiana Engineers.]

The Union commander at Baton Rouge, Brig. Gen. Philip St. George Cooke (1809-1895), professed to believe that the town was threatened by Confederate attack. He placed a line of artillery in front of the camp and set soldiers and black laborers to work strengthening breastworks and clearing fields of view. [Underwood diary, Nov. 1863] Whether he genuinely feared an attack or was primarily concerned with keeping the men busy and disciplined is a matter of conjecture. In any event, he made sure that during a generally quiet period the men were not allowed to forget that they were still in the army.

Joseph L. Hallett (Image courtesy Special Collections & Archives, Frost Library, Amherst College)

Joseph L. Hallett
(Image courtesy Special Collections & Archives, Frost Library, Amherst College)

Lt. J. L. Hallett, formerly of Company F, had transferred to the Signal Corps, which gave him a much different experience than the rest of the 31st Mass. He and two others from Company F and a man from a Maine regiment were captured by a party of Confederates at their isolated and unprotected post six miles from Vermilionville on the night of October 20. Col. W.G. Vincent, commanding the 2nd Louisiana Cavalry, allowed the prisoners to ride at the head of the column with his staff. Later the colonel invited them to join with his staff in a gratifyingly substantial dinner. On the following day, however:

we were corralled and taken in charge by as rough looking fellow as we had ever seen. His attire was a red flannel shirt, leather trousers, slouched hat, top boots and physique of the roughest sort, and wore a leather belt filled with cartridges, two pistols and a bowie knife. His principal business was to hunt refugees for the Confederate service and had shot and killed fifteen men in one week because they refused to join the Rebel army. His men were well mounted and kept a keen eye on us while we walked.

This was a case study of the kind of psychopath who was able to flourish when war shattered the customary restraints of civilization. As they marched, Hallett and his men were examined intently by people who had never seen a Yankee. Eventually they reached the Confederate prison at Tyler, TX, but were exchanged on December 25 after negotiations revealed that each side had accumulated a similar number of prisoners. [Hallett, “Incidents of Prison Life”]


Another important category of men who were detached from the main body of the regiment were those who were hospitalized. Even in March 1863, after almost a year in Louisiana, Hawkes reported that half the regiment had diarrhea. [Hawkes letter, Mar. 29, 1863] It is commonplace to acknowledge that more Civil War soldiers died of disease than from battle injuries, but the actual experience of hospitalized men is utterly unromantic and is seldom described in detail. In the nature of things, these were generally short periods of absence, but the 31st Mass. preserves two accounts of long-term convalescence, and there may have been others who did not leave a written record.

Except insofar as rest allowed the organism to recuperate on its own, extended hospitalization did not contribute to a cure, since the medical profession was unaware of the true cause of most diseases. It would have made sense to discharge most chronically ill men at the earliest opportunity, but there was tremendous pressure to keep them on the rolls in the faint hope that they might return to active service. Corp. Hawkes sometimes feared that Capt. Lee was too lenient, but that apparently did not extend to ill soldiers, and Hawkes informed his mother that “it is against Capt. Lee’s principles to discharge any of his men. Had rather they would die here, as in the case of Hathaway.” [Hawkes letter, Apr. 17, 1863; emphasis in original. Chandler Hathaway, a farmer from Charlemont, was 36 when he enlisted in Oct. 1861 and died Mar. 12, 1863 at Baton Rouge.] Fairbank made a similar bitter remark, noting that “John Parker died today. He was not excused from duty until unable to stand.” [Fairbank diary, Jan. 8, 1863.] Parker, a farmer from Hardwick, was 19 or 20 when he died at Fort Jackson. Tupper, from the same home town, eulogized him as “a quiet fellow, but kind & the boys all liked him.” [Tupper letter, Jan. 18, 1863] When John Woodis died of consumption on July 14, 1862, Fairbank noted that he had been sick most of the time since leaving Massachusetts and classed him as “Another victim to the red-tape policy of military law.” [Fairbank diary] Woodis, a shoemaker from Ware, was 45 at the time of his death, one of the oldest men in the regiment. He had been discharged for disability a month earlier and thus might not even be counted as a war death.

Capt. Lee himself took ill. Hawkes reported that he was in hospital with typhoid fever. [Hawkes letter, June 13, 1863] Although already on furlough, Lee was still in New Orleans awaiting transport as of July 23. This prompted Hawkes to remark maliciously “It seems to me were I an officer I could afford to pay my passage on a Mail Steamer rather than lay around in this enervating climate.” [Hawkes letter, July 23, 1863] Perhaps to take his mind off the climate, Hawkes occupied himself reading Dr. Elisha Kane’s account of his Arctic explorations. [letter, June 26, 1863] Around this time Charlie Wright of Conway was discharged and sent home, probably none too soon. Hawkes wrote that “He has got the consumption, and I am afraid would not live many months in this climate. He is a good hearted fellow, always cheerful with a joke ready, so that as regards my selfish enjoyment I am rather sorry to have him go.” [letter July 18, 1863]

Hawkes himself acknowledged that he had a melancholy disposition, not often able to see a bright side to things. His recovery was not advanced by the experience of seeing the wounded brought down to St. James Hospital after the May 27 assault on Port Hudson. Many had arms or legs amputated or other dreadful injuries, and the sensitive Hawkes could not help thinking “that only a few days ago these men were in their full vigor, now—many, such is the heat of the climate, will soon die, while others after long days of pain will recover, but not to mingle in the busy scenes of life, as once.” [letter, June 4, 1863] He reported that the army took over the former Hotel St. Louis to use as a hospital for the wounded. [letter, June 23, 1863] Hawkes fluctuated, sometimes seeming to recover, but in his last preserved letter on July 23, 1863, he reported that his diarrhea and heart palpitations had returned. Probably to his surprise, he was discharged the following day.

Asa Wheeler was in St. James hospital during much of the same period as Hawkes. When his condition permitted, he tried to relieve the monotony of the convalescent routine. He visited friends in his regiment at Carrollton and found friends in the 53rd Mass., a nine-month regiment. On walks around New Orleans he observed:

Flowers of every hue will greet him at every turn — those with which he has ever been accustomed to see in his distant Northern Home, others which he is not acquainted with, or that are not found on New England’s hilly sides. The Magnolia with its verdure of living green, interspersed with large single flowers here and there over all its outer surface, is the most beautiful, the most fragrant — nothing so much so as this beautiful tree just after a shower, when the air has been cleansed and so is free from dirt and dust.

His customary religious perspective may have been rendered more morbid by illness, and he concluded:

“But I will no more attempt to paint the beauties that will ever attract one who has cultivated his taste for this great, this wonderful blessing, bestowed upon us worms of the dust by our kind and very indulgent Heavenly Father, but will leave it to those who are better able to express their minds and in more expressive language, and return to the Hospital, to think and reflect on what was seen in a few hours of recreation, spent on the Banks of the Old Mississippi.” [diary, Feb. 20, 1863]

Wheeler’s religious feeling did not find a satisfactory outlet in whatever services were provided in the hospital or in his regiment, and he began the practice of attending Sunday services at a “Colored” church, St. Paul’s. It is interesting that he felt more congenial in this setting than in any of the white churches he might have attended. Still, although he enjoyed the experience and at times found it moving, he remained a detached observer:

Much pleasure was derived by attending this place of worship. To those who had ever in the past attended quietly, from Sabbath to Sabbath, those quiet God-like places of worship and noted the heaving bosom or starting tear spring from eyes that had from early infancy watched over us, such would criticize the proceedings, even condemn their form, and call it all excitement. But charity must be allowed even to them. They are different by Nature, different in practice, their surroundings have been altogether different. And so sincerity must be allowed in all their acts. If they go to extremes, we must allow that ignorance has been their Master.

But politeness is a virtue, so far as strangers are concerned, who care to visit at their Church. One does not have to stand at the Door stone or at the entrance, waiting for the Sexton to show him a seat, till patience becomes a virtue, but are politely shown a seat up in front of the desk reserved for their especial use while staying with them. Their singing was old-fashioned — the Pastor reading 2 lines, and then old and young joined in singing the song of praise, with a zest almost unimaginable, or impossible to be conceived. [diary, Feb. 22, 1863]

Wheeler remains essentially an outsider, regarding the church and its black congregation as something of a stage set. He does not report any conversations with his fellow worshippers, nor does he seem aware of the effect his mere presence might have had on them. For the black congregation the sight of a white soldier on the benches was a jolting reminder of the immense upheaval that had disrupted the seemingly eternal prewar social structure and was sweeping them into an era of vast uncertainty.

Underwood similarly reported attending a “negro dance and meeting” one evening, but it seems to have been an isolated venture. [diary, Dec. 31, 1862] When they were not actively campaigning, there was always an element of tourism in the daily existence of northern soldiers stationed in the Deep South. They were endlessly intrigued, puzzled and amazed by the alien culture and climate they encountered, and the black inhabitants were a primary feature that lent the region its exotic quality. Most of the northerners probably modeled themselves on the white explorers who were probing the steadily shrinking unknown areas of the globe, and their letters home resemble the dispatches sent back by these intrepid pioneers. Conditioned to look at the black residents as “natives,” most northern soldiers lacked Wheeler’s relative ability to recognize them as fellow humans, shaped by their history and environment. Curiosity led young Norris to attend a Negro church service, and his reaction is probably typical of the blue-coated invaders: “one of the most comicle [sic] sights I ever saw is a nigger meeting. Such hollering you never heard. It beats the Methodist prayer meeting. When the minister is praying the rest of them set up to yelling and groaning. When we first heard them we burst out laughing.” [letter Oct. 10, 1862, emphasis in original]]

Wheeler visited St. Paul’s on other occasions, and there is no telling where this experiment might have led, except that his stay in New Orleans came to a sudden end when a physician finally decided to discharge him on disability and send him home. After about seven months in the hospital, he boarded a steamer for New York on June 18, 1863. As he perceived all too clearly, “They have kept me till life has about ebbed in these old bones,” and the sea journey itself extended his ordeal. Still, he retained the ability to marvel at phenomena such as the sharp boundary between fresh and salt water in the Gulf and to describe some of the hard characters who were deposited at Key West to be imprisoned at the isolated outpost of the Dry Tortugas. He kept a death watch for one profane man, observed storms and sunrises at sea. On June 26 they were approaching New York, and Wheeler reported that of the 75 soldiers who had been discharged from St. James, six had died in the previous eight days. There is little doubt that he was correct when he observed that “Had I remained much longer, such would have been my condition.” [diary, June 18, June 26, 1863]

Rev. Chubbuck was going to New York on the same ship, and it was he who asked Wheeler to watch over the dying man. Wheeler had little respect for the chaplain, regarding him basically as a southern sympathizer. That accusation may be unfair, but it appears that most of the soldiers had a poor opinion of Chubbuck, yet another source of dissension in the troubled regiment. In addition to disparaging comments noted earlier, Hawkes commented that “Chaplain Chubbuck is married and gone North. ‘Twill make very little difference here I am thinking if he should not come back.” [letter, July 3, 1863] One who had a different opinion was Dr. Bidwell, who was not concerned with Chubbuck’s ministerial abilities but was impressed with his handsome appearance, his handling of fast horses, and his general charm. Bidwell stated that before the war the chaplain “had been a teacher in the Maplewood Institute, a high-toned seminary for young ladies at Pittsfield.” Chubbuck was obviously more at ease in the company of women than the typical hilltown soldier in the 31st, which may explain the possibly envious complaint about his “running around with the women.” As recounted by Dr. Bidwell, the chaplain made the acquaintance of two women, originally from the North, who ran a female seminary in Baton Rouge and through them met and fell in love with a pupil-assistant. [Bidwell, “Our Chaplain: His work at New Orleans, and His Little Romance”] Bidwell gave her name as Emma Wrotnoska (more likely, Wrotnowska), the Polish origin of which was confirmed when they named their first son Stanislaus. Contrary to some expectations, Chubbuck did return to Louisiana. No longer confined to the 31st Mass., he conducted general services as late as October 9, 1864. [Rich diary] He was mustered out on November 26 of that year and later became a minister in southern New Jersey, where he died January 2, 1872, at the age of only 35.

Even death sometimes only prolonged the anguish. Tupper and Frank Knight had been friends in Hardwick, and most of Tupper’s letters home contain some mention of Knight, who was about three years older. Knight came up from Fort Jackson to spend a night with Tupper in early December 1862, and when he left Tupper reported “He is running down under the influence of the Malaria of these swamps & couldn’t walk around much.” [letter, Dec. 3, 1862] Frank Knight returned directly to the hospital and died there January 10, 1863.

Because Knight’s body was readily accessible and his family had sufficient means, he was shipped home for burial. In a letter of January 27, Tupper wrote “I suppose poor Frank’s body has reached home & been buried before this. We all miss him & mourn for him.” By the time it reached home, the body was not in condition to be viewed, as Tupper confirmed:

I was sorry but not much disappointed to learn that the remains of Frank Knight were not in a condition to be exposed. I was in hopes his friends & relatives would have the privilege of seeing the features of the boy before consigning it forever to the gloomy home of the dead, but still knowing the difficulty of preserving a body stricken down by the disease he died of, I thought it only a chance if it remained fresh for so long a time as it would take to get it home.” [letter, Mar. 2, 1863]

It was Pvt. Tupper’s father who conducted Knight’s funeral service.

A similar melancholy scene played out with the remains of Sgt. Henry S. Church of Company F, who died at Fort Pike May 31, 1863. According to Underwood, he died of typhus after an illness of only two days. “The next day,” as described by Underwood,

Serg’t [Charles H.] Horr was sent to New Orleans to procure a metallic coffin, for we decided to send the remains home to his wife in Deerfield. The remains were placed in one of the casemates and a watch kept over them, in which I took my share. But the coffin did not arrive until sunset on the second day, when it was found that the body had bloated so that it was impossible to get it into the coffin. So, at nine o’clock at night, he was placed in a wooden coffin, silently and without a funeral procession was taken to the lone graveyard in the marsh, and there buried in sorrow. He was the third man that had died in Co. F. He will rest as well there as in his native place in Mass. There he lies in the swamps of Louisiana, one of the many sacrifices offered on the altar of his country. Peace be to his remains. [Underwood records this in his retroactive diary for August.]


From their base in Baton Rouge, the 31st Mass. fell into a relatively calm routine of drilling, camp duties, and occasional forays into the surrounding country to seize contraband. Casualties from these activities were minimal, but losses continued from disease and disability. During the second half of 1863, the 31st Mass. suffered no combat casualties (two men deserted). In this generally quiet time, 29 members of the regiment died of disease, including a couple who died of wounds received at Port Hudson. Another 48 were discharged, almost all for health reasons. (This figure does not include men who transferred to other military organizations.) Although these totals include a few men who enlisted locally, the great majority were part of the original, but shrinking, Massachusetts contingent. Many men who were discharged on disability died on their way home or soon after and were thus not tallied as war casualties. Others survived a few years but died prematurely as a result of war-related wounds or chronic illness. A facile argument is sometimes made that a certain number of them would have died at home in the normal course of events, but there can be little doubt that the mortality rate of men in the prime of life was much higher among those who had served in war than it would have been otherwise. This may be one of the few aspects of the Civil War that has not received as much study as it should. In a recent effort to rectify that deficiency, Brian M. Jordan observes:

 In 1892, John Shaw Billings, who served as an army medical inspector, concluded “the exertions, privations, and anxieties of military service . . . must necessarily have lowered the vitality and diminished the power of resistance to subsequent exposure and causes of disease.” After years of hoarding extant vital statistics, Billings demonstrated what he knew intrinsically—that veterans were significantly more likely than non-veterans to suffer from chronic illnesses and disease. (Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War. NY: Liveright, 2014, 127.)

The severe losses to disease were not always permanent. After a period of recuperation, many men who had been discharged found that whatever factors had motivated them to volunteer still applied, and they enlisted in different regiments. One man, Amos Davis of Pownal, VT, discharged for disability November 13, 1863, actually re-enlisted in the 31st Mass. on August 30, 1864 and served til the regiment was mustered out a year later. In addition to the eight men who joined nine-month regiments, at least 24 reentered Union service. Six of these signed up in the 60th Mass., a regiment organized in August 1864 to serve only 100 days during another manpower crisis. This special regiment did not see action, but even so lost 11 men to disease in its brief service. Six former members of the 31st who enlisted in the 57th Mass. had quite a different experience. This regiment was organized in Worcester, so it covered some of the same region as the original 31st. It was sent to Virginia to participate in the bloody fighting that closed out the war and suffered considerably more losses in its 15 months of service than the 31st Mass. did in a period more than twice as long. Another 44 men who had been discharged from the 31st were transferred to the Veterans Reserve Corps, containing men who were no longer considered fit for combat but who could perform guard, hospital, and administrative duties. In sum, assuming no duplication, 76 former members of the 31st continued to serve in some form.

Two respected officers died during this period: 1st Lt. F. A. Cook (Company K) of Springfield on August 6, and Capt. W. W. Rockwell of Pittsfield of typhoid fever on December 3, 1863. The melancholy assignment of writing to “the girl [Cook] left behind him” fell to Lt. Rice. [letter, Aug. 21, 1863] Cook’s passing created an opening for Lt. Milton Sagendorph to be named 1st Lt. of Company K. Fairbank, with his usual bluntness, observed that “We are not sorry to get rid of him.” [Fairbank diary, Oct. 1, 1863] Fairbank was one of the escorts at Capt. Rockwell’s funeral on December 5: “He was conveyd to the Church on a caisson covered with the stars and stripes, — and, after the funeral services were over, we escorted him to the boat. Somewhat different from a Private’s burial, where they nail them in a box and dump him into the first grave they come to, — but he is Judge Rockwell’s son.” [Fairbank diary, Dec. 5, 1863]

Lieut. Nelson F. Bond of Ware

Lieut. Nelson F. Bond of Ware

Several officers, among them Capt. Hollister, and Lts. Howell and Morse, were dispatched to Massachusetts on recruiting duty to restore the depleted ranks. They returned on Oct. 20. [Fairbank diary] In early November the regiment was cheered by the return of Lt. Nelson Bond, who improbably had survived his terrible wound and gone home for a brief furlough. Fairbank was pleased to observe that “He looks tough and hardy.” [Fairbank diary, Nov. 3, 1863] He was pretty well recovered before leaving on his furlough, though Rice said “it makes him squirm a little to laugh heartily,” an early appearance of the timeworn comic line “it only hurts when I laugh.” [letter, July 26, 1863] Bond was assigned as an aide to Col. Gooding, who, Fairbank said approvingly, “knows a good officer.”

The other officer wounded at Port Hudson, Capt. Allen, had also largely recovered, though with some medically interesting effects:

The shell came from one of our guns, and struck with sufficient force to tear through his coat, vest, and shirt, but didn’t break the skin. The blow was sufficient, however, to kill the flesh beneath, so that it rotted out, leaving him with a hole in his back nearly four inches in diameter and over half an inch deep, which although not now painful, must fill up before he can return to active duty. [Rice letter, July 26, 1863]

For the soldiers, the last months of 1863 in Baton Rouge form a relaxing, almost pleasant, interlude. While on picket duty, Fairbank reported that “The yellow and mulatto girls made good company most of the night.” [diary, Sep. 4, 1863] On another occasion he visited a cemetery “and fell in with some handsome girls, and they invited us home, — but we waited until after Dress Parade, then went over and made an evening visit.” [diary, Nov. 8, 1863] One can speculate that this sort of interaction was quite common but that most of the men were not as willing as Fairbank to acknowledge it openly. Even he was forced to add the codicil “What would the Queen at home say?” [Nov. 8, 1863.]

Fairbank was lucky or shrewd enough to avoid the fate of two men of I Company at Fort Pike, who “went across the Rigolets [the strait between Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf] on a pass, and, following the example of certain Brigadier Generals and others, their superior in rank, allowed themselves to be decoyed three or four miles back into the country to visit certain she seceshers.” These luckless men were duped into emptying their revolvers in a marksmanship dare, after which “up jump two scalawags from behind a bush, who presenting double barreled shot guns and other convincing arguments, persuade them to accompany them a little further back into the country.” Capt. Rockwell led a party in pursuit the following morning, but by then the captives were part of an involuntary tour group well up-country. [Rice letter, July 8, 1863.] Sgt. Rich, who was in the same company, identifies the men as Cook and Bradburn, presumably Albert Cook, a laborer from Lenox, age about 27; and Charles E. Bradburn, a farmer from Great Barrington (both towns in Berkshire County) who was then about 20. Rich  surmised that guerillas had taken them to Confederate Camp Moore. [diary, July 9, 1863. The roster for Company I does not show any men who were captured on that date, but those records are mainly concerned with dates of enlistment and discharge.] Underwood’s diary reports the event as taking place in June and adds “In a few weeks however, they returned and reported that they . . . had good treatment and were then paroled.”

A partial exception to the theme of tranquility in late 1863 was a report of a huge brawl on Thanksgiving between Wisconsin and Massachusetts soldiers. Norris is the only source for this event, and according to his account it stemmed from an earlier incident in which the 38th Mass. had supposedly fired on Wisconsin men. Underwood  believed that the quarrel with the 4th Wisconsin originated over “the possession of a boarding house for frail fair ones.” [diary, Oct. 21, 1863] The battle resumed at night as Norris described: “Our company, which is composed for the most part of Irishmen, a great many of whom were drunk, fell out at night with their guns and said they were going to clean out the whole of the Wisconsin regt. They went out and fired two or three guns and then were driven back to camp by the Provost Guard.” [letter, Dec. 2, 1863; emphasis in original] Underwood attributed the original clash to “roughs” from Company K, another way of saying the same thing as Norris.


A major shift in the fortunes of the 31st Mass. was the announcement in December 1863 that it would be converted to cavalry . There is no doubt that cavalry units were sorely needed in Banks’s army, given the large distances involved and the proliferation of mounted irregulars and bandits, in addition to the regular cavalry, mostly Texans, in the Confederate forces. Butler had perceived this early in his regime and requested a colonel in Baton Rouge to “capture horses enough to enable me to mount another Cavalry Co.” [to Col. D.W. McMillan, July 26, 1862; Marshall, II, 111. It does not appear that this request was carried out.] During the Teche campaign, only three months into his administration, Banks had already recognized the need for cavalry: “The want of cavalry, which I so frequently and so strongly represented, is felt almost hourly in every movement . . . . I cannot but regret that any consideration of economy should have prevented the Government from sending to this department all the cavalry which it could control.” [to Halleck, Mar. 27, 1863; OR; Ser. I, v. XV, 259] Looking ahead to the Red River campaign, Banks again pleaded with Halleck that “The want of cavalry is the greatest deficiency we suffer. It is indispensable in any movement in Texas that we should be strong in that arm. All the Texan troops are mounted men; their movements are rapid and their concentration effective and powerful. We must meet them in the same way. I earnestly urge upon the government the necessity of strengthening us in that arm.” [Aug. 17, 1863, in Red River Expedition, 106] Despite the undeniable need, the Union high command remained reluctant to convert infantry to cavalry, and it was rarely done. It was difficult enough to provide food, shelter, and medical care to men; adding horses only compounded the problem. Cavalrymen required an expanded inventory of weapons and equipment, bringing increased demands on the supply departments. It was mainly due to Banks’s insistence that his cavalry arm was strengthened, and much of that was achieved by converting infantrymen. It is questionable to what extent the cavalry expansion was accomplished with Washington’s support, or primarily on Banks’s initiative. Whatever the source, Banks was able to inform Halleck at the end of 1863, as the 31st Mass. knew from personal experience, that “From the nature of the country in which we operate, a strong cavalry force is indispensable, and I am endeavoring to convert infantry regiments into cavalry as rapidly as possible.” [to Halleck, Dec. 30, 1863; ibid., 132]

Cavalry General Albert L. Lee (Image courtesy Archives & Special Collections, Amherst College)

Cavalry General Albert L. Lee
(Image courtesy Archives & Special Collections, Amherst College)

As a cavalry unit, the 31st was sometimes referred to as the 6th Mass. Cavalry, but this was unofficial. Horses gave the mobility needed for the campaigning they engaged in, much as motor vehicles were employed in 20th Century wars. Organizationally they were reassigned to join the 4th brigade of the cavalry division, commanded by Col. Dudley of the 30th Mass. Gen. Albert Lindley Lee (1834-1907) was in overall command of the cavalry. Capt. Howell described Lee as “a western man but much esteemed by his command.” [letter, Mar. 31, 1864] He was actually born in Fulton, NY, and had moved to Kansas only in 1858. At the start of the war he was serving as a justice on the Kansas Supreme Court.

On December 9, 1863, the regiment returned to its old campground at Carrollton to begin the transformation to mounted troops. They camped in “A” tents, so named because of their shape, and which they soon improved by building floors and bunks with lumber salvaged from a nearby ruined plantation. [Underwood diary, Nov. 1863] Over the next several weeks, deliveries of horses gradually arrived, and sabers and revolvers were issued to the newly-minted riders. The horses that were acquired from a large territory varied greatly in appearance and temperament. Some of them, said Sgt. Rich, “are inclined to be a little ugly, and some three or four men have been kicked pretty badly but no limbs broken yet.” [diary, Dec. 17, 1863] In early January he described another shipment as “very small and poor.” [diary, Jan. 2, 1864]

Early Winter proved to be harsh, with exceptional cold and much rain. Locals blamed it on the Yankee influence. [Howell letter, Jan. 17, 1864] A dispirited Underwood wrote “This old year went out dreary enough to us. The mud in our camp was six inches deep, and looked like a hog pen, and we had no boots, so our shoes were full of mud and our feet wet and cold all the time, and the year ended in a cold storm.” On New Year’s Day Fairbank complained “It has been the coldest day I have seen south. It is impossible to keep warm unless one was over the fire.” Next day he reported “I did manage to sleep warm last night by using every rag of clothing and using horse blankets . . . .” [diary, Jan. 1, Jan. 2, 1864] The foul weather persisted well into the month. On January 5 Fairbank wrote “I can hardly stir out without getting all covered with mud from head to foot and wet through,” and he reported that trees were covered with ice on the 8th. With good reason he said “I pity the horses.”[diary, Jan. 5, Jan. 8, 1864] Rich confirmed these observations, noting that “The going is worse than I ever saw.” [Rich diary, Jan. 11, 1864] Lacking shelter for the newly-arrived horses, the men had to slog through mud and chilled water to care for the animals. It was said that many men became chronically ill as a result and added to the list of those discharged for health reasons. Under these conditions, it was fortunate in a way that the full complement of horses had not yet arrived.

Fairbank’s misery was intensified by resentment of privilege: “Col. Hopkins can go to Orleans and ride up here in a hack. What does he care about how we are situated? He has good dry quarters.” [Fairbank diary, Jan. 5, 1864] On another occasion, when detailed to help clean out a brickyard for quarters, his feelings might have been expressed by GI Joe 80 years later: “We got wet through going down, but we went to work with a will and had the sheds nearly cleaned when one of Gen. Lee’s staff came and told us we were in the wrong place, so we started for camp mad as wild cats because we had worked all day for nothing. Just the style of the 31st, always ass end to.” [Fairbank diary, Jan. 4, 1864] On the other hand, Fairbank had access to sources of warmth and comfort of which his mates seemed unable to avail themselves. On several occasions he spoke of an unidentified “Leana,” and on January 18, by which time the weather was easing, he entered into his record “We had a bully time all last evening, and it is useless to tell where I slept, suffice to say I slept well.” [diary, Jan. 18, 1864]

After almost two years in Louisiana, the men of the 31st remained baffled and conflicted in their attitude toward the climate, partly because they could not help comparing it to what they were familiar with in New England. There were probably very few days in which Louisiana was actually colder than Massachusetts, but the men were ambushed by their expectations and preconceptions. One February day Capt. Howell put down his thoughts about Spring in a letter to his sister: “We have none of it here. May and June are only names for horrid heat and smothering dust. We have regular May weather here now so far as temperature is concerned but it lacks all the freshness which we love so. Give me a northern spring once more and I’ll give you warm winters and hot summers if you like them.” [Feb. 9, 1864] At one point Lt. Rice, trying to persuade female members of his family to visit, lauded the abundant fruit of Louisiana. There were fresh figs, and berries earlier than they would have been available in New England. From Fort Jackson and for 50 miles above, he said the river was lined with orange trees. They cost a dollar or $1.50 a barrel, and the men ate them in such quantities that they grew tired of them. Still, Rice said that he missed and preferred the North. [Rice letter, Jan. 4, 1863]

Several troublesome incidents, humorous in retrospect, took place as the men adjusted to being mounted warriors. Most of the men from the farms and villages of western Massachusetts had some acquaintance with handling horses, but this by no means made them troopers. Still, their situation was enormously better than their colleagues in Company K, workingmen recruited mostly in Boston and surrounding urban areas, and who had minimal experience with horses. George Young, a member of this company, remembered:

Many of their fellows had never been on a horses back in their lives, that is not since when they were little boys when they rode on wooden rocking-horses in their own happy homes. But whatever they learned from riding them . . . was forgotten by this time, and they were just as much out of place on the back of a horse as the horse would have been if he could have been put on their backs. Especially was this true for the first few days, and when we had to take our horses down to the river to water, at these times we were only allowed a halter, and when we were made to trot our horses, as was the case quite often, it was quite funny to see what tricks the fellows would resort to to keep from falling off. Many was the good tumble we had, and how sore we did get to be sure . . . . [Recollections, 83]

Adelbert Bailey described another unforgettable scene:

The first lot of horses we drew did not supply all of the men. What few men in C Co. that got them were ordered to saddle up and go to New Orleans for more. Some of those horses were green, some of the men more so. Private [Marcus E.] Austin had a colt that had never seen service. Austin saddled him and mounted with all of the equipments. The horse stood like a statue. One of the boys asked him if his horse would stand the spur. “Of course he will, if he won’t he has got to” and suiting the action to the word he gave both spurs to his horse. The boys will remember how we had those A tents set up on boxes, about ten feet from him was one with four boys sitting on the floor playing cards. The first thing they knew there was a game of pitch and Austin was trump. His horse didn’t stir his fore feet at all, but his hind ones, what a circle they described, and Austin had gone over his horse’s head with sabre, revolver and everything else he could take with him, and landed on top of the tent where the card players were. Of course that tent went down, and wasn’t there music in the air for a minute as they came crawling out from under that tent and Austin. It was some time after that before that horse had any spurs in him. [“December 1863, Organization as Cavalry.”]

Howell reported a memorable incident of this sort, which is worth recording although it did not take place in the 31st Mass.:

A few days ago a trooper in the 1st New Hampshire Regt had an unmanageable horse & getting into trouble with him he started to curse & swear fearfully. When the chaplain of his Regt, being anxious to discharge his duty & reprove such wickedness, stepped up & said “Sir — can you tell me who died to save sinners?” Go away with your d —-d conundrums, I’ve got all I can tend to here, said the trooper. [Letter, Feb. 24, 1864; emphasis in original. There is some confusion about the identity or numbering of this unit. The original 1st New Hampshire Cavalry was formed in 1861 but was later incorporated into the 1st Rhode Island. It was detached in 1864, brought up to strength, and sent to Washington, DC. It never served in the Gulf. Meanwhile, the 8th NH Infantry, which had been part of Butler’s expedition, was converted to cavalry in December 1863, like the 31st Mass. Until the 1st NH Cavalry was re-formed, it may have been considered to be the 1st but later was regarded as the 2nd NH. During this interval, members of the 31st Mass., such as Howell and Rich, wrote of it as the 1st NH Cavalry. Although they had shared many experiences, the two regiments may not have been closely acquainted. As if encountering them for the first time, Rich on January 13, 1864, dismissed the 1st NH Cavalry as “a dirty looking set.” (diary)]

With the start of the new year, 1864, the third year of intensive fighting, the 31st Mass. moved down to New Orleans, where it was quartered in the Levee Steam Cotton Press. Howell termed it “a vast improvement on the mud of our former camp.” [Letter, Jan. 17, 1864] No one doubted that a serious campaign lay ahead, and now that the regiment had nearly a full complement of horses and better ground conditions, the days were spent in arduous training. It must have recalled the early days of military service for the veteran soldiers, but even if they felt like academy students taking elementary arithmetic, they understood the need to master their new role. They had been in uniform long enough to know that war had very little resemblance to a game or a sport, and they had learned that complaining served no useful purpose except to purge their systems. By January 17, a Sunday, they were considered proficient enough to be paraded through the streets of the city. [Howell letter, Jan. 17, 1864] In February the training was intensified, and they began to practice firing their revolvers from horseback and jumping a three-foot barrier. [Rich diary, Feb. 23, 1863] Gen. Cooke, the commander at Baton Rouge, may have had some influence on the training, as he was an old cavalryman and had written a manual on the subject. Cooke’s own military performance was undistinguished, and he is probably best remembered as the father-in-law of the illustrious Confederate cavalry leader Jeb Stuart.

Despite everything they had experienced, most of the men remained devoted to the cause, or at least to their comrades and their unit. Evidence of this is that a substantial majority accepted Banks’s offer to enlist for three more years in return for a bounty and a home furlough of 30 days. As explained by Rich, “The Government offers $462 bounty to every man who reenlists. Term of service three years, or during the war unless honorably discharged.” [Rich diary, Sep. 26, 1863] As he understood it, if a majority of the regiment reenlisted, it would be mounted. Howell calculated that about a third of the men did not re-enlist, confirming Rich who estimates that two-thirds did. [Howell letter, Feb. 24, 1864; Rich diary Feb. 16, 1864] Rice, characteristically, vowed that “I intend to see it through if it takes ten years.” He took the occasion to fire another blast at the nine-month troops. Those who accepted the government offer “will be Veterans rather more worthy of the name than those weak kneed, white hearted, homesick, two-hundred-dollar-bounty-bought nine-month babies.” [Rice letter, Aug. 21, 1863] Seeming to display some inconsistency, Luther Fairbank reenlisted on February 13, even though the day before he had been forced to wear a “wooden overcoat” (barrel) for the petty infraction of missing a formation. [diary, Feb. 12, Feb. 13, 1864] There may have been an infusion of patriotic feeling when a group of Massachusetts ladies then living in New Orleans presented a battle flag to the 31st on February 5. Gen. Banks’s daughter Binney made the presentation on that occasion. [Fairbank diary, Feb. 5, 1864]

For Norris the decision as to re-enlisting was so agonizing that he can be taken to personify the entire debate. He carried out his duties with generally good spirit, supported the purposes of the war, and was not particularly given to questioning the way it was conducted; yet he was by no means enthralled by military life. In no uncertain terms he advised his mother not to allow his younger brother to enlist: “Don’t you give your consent to Willie’s enlisting in the army. It is enough go have me here. Mother, I have learned more & seen more during the two years of my service than I would in ten years if I had stayed at home, but if you wish to give Willie up to all the evils & vices of the world let him go into the army.” [letter Dec. 2, 1863; emphasis in original] He admitted being “in a ‘pickle’ over whether to re-enlist, but his initial inclination was to resist: “One thing I know they will never get me, that is if I don’t change my mind greatly.” [letters, Jan. 26; Feb. 4, 1864] What finally changed his mind was money; he calculated that his combined federal, state, and local bounties would amount to approximately $700, considerably more than a skilled worker could expect to earn in a year. With something of an understatement he informed his mother “You will perhaps be quite surprised to hear that I have ‘re-enlisted’ after all I have said against it.” [letter, Feb. 19, 1864] Norris seemed to have forgotten the scorn he had directed at the nine-month volunteers as “$200 men,” although it is true he had enlisted for a term four times as long.

Norris’s problem was compounded by an odd family situation: because he was so young, his father must have been a comparatively young man. Several of his business ventures had failed, and although he might have been exempt from conscription, the bounties that were being offered appeared enticing. This set up the unusual situation in which the father asked his son’s advice about joining the army. The son showed no hesitation in responding “No, not by any means. That is if you can possibly help it.” He then added “Don’t let the big bounties lure you into the trap, for such you will find it. Although Uncle Sam would do the fair thing by you, the ‘hirelings’ & Things under him would abuse you most shamefully.” The latter was a reference to the former drummer boy’s feeling that he had been betrayed by a captain who had promised to make him an orderly if he enlisted as a soldier but then reneged on that promise. Finally, young Thomas recommended “if you should enlist, I would advise you to go into the ‘Artillery,’ for I think that is the easiest arm of the service, and give up the idea of trying to get with me, for I shall be home before this year is out.” [letter, Jan. 26, 1864] As we have seen, the young man changed course about enlisting. His feelings about the artillery may be based on limited exposure, perhaps mainly at Port Hudson. While that arm might have a slightly better existence when not in combat, in battle guns and their crews were singled out to be destroyed by counter-fire or being overrun. However, it is understandable that even that might seem preferable to being the one charging into the guns. There are apparent cases in which fathers and sons enlisted in the 31st Mass, but individual genealogical research would be required to confirm that.

As if all the regular, predictable, hazards of military service were not sufficient, a really singular accident occurred on February 2, when a sink house (privy) occupied by many men fell 20 feet into the river. [Rich diary, Feb. 2, 1864] Recalling the rustic boyhood practice of tipping over outhouses, this incident might have seemed humorous at first but had serious consequences. Some of the men suffered broken arms and other injuries. As might be expected, estimates of the number of men inside the flimsy structure ranged from 25 (Fairbank) to 50 (Rich). In addition to the more serious injuries, Fairbank reported “most of all took a cold bath.” [diary, Feb. 2, 1864] (Incidentally, this event confirms how little concerned military authorities were about sanitation and water pollution.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s