By Larry Lowenthal
Texas retained its almost magical allure in the high councils of the Union. The more unattainable it seemed, the more it came to resemble the sort of mythical lands Odysseus might have encountered. Yet the administration’s reasons for wanting to occupy part of that vast land were utterly mundane. Some hope may have lingered that, under the protection of the army, a flood of northern settlers could convert Texas into a free state that could return to the old Union on those terms. Blocking transportation routes could deprive a portion of the Confederacy of vital supplies of beef. More to the point, Texas and western Louisiana produced large quantities of cotton, the market value of which was greatly enhanced as supplies from the rest of the South were cut off. This prospect appealed to the avarice of David Dixon Porter, now an acting rear-admiral, who might be able to seize the cotton as a prize of war; and Banks, though he might not profit personally, would be able to boast that his campaign had more than paid for itself. (Butler had enjoyed making this sort of claim when he was in charge at New Orleans). Banks, of course, was keenly aware of the desperate demand of Massachusetts textile manufacturers for cotton. These domestic considerations, however pressing, were perhaps outweighed by concern about a French expedition that had installed Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian as emperor of Mexico and seized Mexico City on June 7, 1863. Since the Southern Confederacy lived in hopes that French Emperor Napoleon III would grant recognition, the presence of a French army across the border represented a grave threat in the minds of some members of Lincoln’s cabinet, in particular Secretary of State William Seward. With ample justification, they suspected that the French would never have embarked on such a bizarre adventure if the two North American nations had not been at war.
General-in-Chief Halleck was a persistent supporter of a drive on Texas, though, as usual, he avoided issuing definite instructions that would make him personally responsible. Banks, for his part, supported the idea of invading Texas, but he had long argued against the Red River route as impractical. Probably the fact that 1864 was an election year figured in his calculations; while a military campaign might remove him from the political campaign, a signal victory would boost his prospects. So, despite some reluctance, the general finally endorsed the Red River route in January 1864. [Johnson, 45] This acceptance was, however, conditional, predicated on having a corps transferred from Sherman’s army, and full cooperation from Gen. Frederick Steele in Arkansas and Porter’s river fleet.
Preparations complete at last, the campaign was launched on February 29, when the regiment crossed the Mississippi by ferry to Algiers and set off for Berwick City, via Donaldsonville, the La Fourche bayou, and Thibodaux. Organizationally the 31st Mass remained part of the 4th Brigade of the Cavalry Division, commanded by Brig. Gen. Albert L. Lee, and in the 19th Army Corps under Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin. Col. Nathan A. M. Dudley commanded the brigade, which also included the 3rd Mass. Cavalry, the 8th New Hampshire Cavalry, and seven companies of the 3rd Illinois Cavalry. [OR Ser. I, v. XXXIV, Part III, 196: Troop order, Jan. 31, 1864] The 31st Mass. mustered a total of 340 men on February 23, 1864, presumably including both those who had re-enlisted for three years and those who had not. Since they were mounted, they rode overland the entire distance, while the infantry took a shorter route by rail. The last 50 miles were covered in a day, as Gen. Lee had ordered Col. Dudley to have at least two regiments in Brashear City on March 8. The 31st was one of those chosen, along with the 2nd Ill., and as Rice remarked wryly, it was “a compliment to our marching capabilities, but as it entailed on us a march of from 45 to 50 miles before sleeping, one hardly desirable.” [journal, Mar. 8, 1864] They finally reached Brashear City about midnight and lay down in an open field without waiting to pitch tents or eat. In an understatement, Rich said they arrived “pretty tired.” [diary, Mar. 9, 1864] It commenced to rain, but men and horses were too exhausted to mind it much. Capt. Rice, Lt. Pelton, and the two Lts. Bond “stretched ourselves on the piazza of a negro cabin, with our saddles for pillows, and thus, partially protected from the rain, slept till morning.” [Rice journal, Mar. 9, 1864] They crossed the bay by ferry during the afternoon of March 9 from Brashear to Berwick City, which Rice observed “has at present but three houses, and but few signs of there ever having been any more.” [ibid., Mar. 9, 1864]
During a brief rest on March 9, the regiment found a sutler with a New York regiment who offered “a barrel of very good claret,” which Rice termed “very acceptable after our hot and dusty march.” Somewhat wistfully, he added, “I wish it could be obtained nearly every day. It would invigorate the men without producing the disorder that whiskey brings with it.” [Ibid., Mar. 9, 1864] The wisdom of this observation was confirmed a few days later, during a halt beyond Franklin, where “The Lt. Col. & Adjt. [Hopkins and Stewart respectively] we left drunk beside the road.” By then Rice had developed a deep loathing of Hopkins for his betrayal of the regiment, his duty, and the honor of the officers, and he added: “Pleasant thing to be noised abroad. Therefore I consistently proceed to noise it.” [Ibid., Mar. 13, 1864]
Beyond Berwick the regiment generally retraced the route of the previous year’s march, passing the Bisland battlefield, where Rich observed “Everything is in ruins and we could see the cannon balls lying around.” [diary, Mar. 10, 1864. Fairbank said “The works have all been levelled down.” (diary, Mar. 10, 1864)] Near Franklin they joined up with the infantry of the 19th Corps. Rice thought that Franklin was “the prettiest place, excepting Pass Christian, that I have seen in Louisiana. It is more like a New England village than any other that I have yet seen.” [journal, Mar. 12, 1864]
While halted at Centerville a sad accident occurred when Corp. Alfred Fisherdick of Company D, a resident of Ware, was shot by a comrade, Pvt. Eugene Fletcher of Ware, who was cleaning his carbine. Shot in the head, Fisherdick lingered several hours before expiring. [Fairbank diary, Mar. 13, 1864.] Ever onward, the brigade reached New Iberia March 14. There, “Cabel, the Sutler, came on with his stores, and was warmly greeted.” Probably also influenced by encountering the sutler with claret, Rice conceded “I begin to look upon Sutlers with a much greater degree of toleration than heretofore.” [Rice journal, March 14, 1864] Sutlers form an under-valued feature of the Civil War landscape. There are copious references in soldier writings to resentment of the supposedly high prices sutlers charged, but this needs to be put in perspective. Since soldiers were paid so little ($13 a month for privates), any price would seem high. Undoubtedly, unless they had been merchants, they had insufficient appreciation for the immense effort and risk required to succeed as a sutler. Sutlers were essentially peddlers with a wagon, and they had to anticipate what soldiers would want, acquire it, and keep pace with the army, which entailed making sure their horse was properly fed and cared for. At all times they were subject to being looted by the men they were supposedly serving, as well as by enemy raids. This must have been especially true on the Red River campaign, with its exceptional reliance on mounted troops. It is amazing to contemplate how sutlers could manage to keep up with a fast-moving army and also replenish their inventory. Soldiers could maintain themselves by foraging over the countryside, but sutlers did not have that option.
As the brigade passed beyond St. Martinsville toward Opelousas, the dust became worse, so that Rice “couldn’t tell whether the men were white or black.” [journal, Mar. 16, 1864] Advance parties now began to encounter rebel soldiers on horseback more frequently, and there were occasional skirmishes. Somewhere between Washington and the hamlet of Holmesville, Rice enjoyed a wistful interval of relaxation, in which he “Passed the time very pleasantly talking with a pretty widow who lived in a house near by.” [Ibid., Mar. 18, 1864] Six miles below Alexandria, the regiment camped in the sprawling front yard of the plantation of former Governor Moore, who had fled to Texas a week earlier. The governor’s wife was still present, and she invited Col. Hopkins to spend the night in the house. One hopes he did nothing to disgrace the 31st Mass. Thanks to the governor’s unintended largesse, the troops “riddled the hen coops and bee hives and got just all we could eat.” [Fairbank diary, Mar. 19, 1864] Rice enjoyed “a good breakfast of fried liver, broiled chicken, griddle cakes and honey. The honey was the involuntary contribution of Mrs. Moore, having been borrowed, without leave from her hives, as was shown by several swelled faces in the Company.” [journal, Mar. 20, 1864] This, the first combat of the campaign, reversed the overused metaphor of minie balls buzzing like hornets.
After marching more than 300 miles in three weeks, the men anticipated a well-deserved rest at when they went into camp along Bayou Rapides, a few miles beyond Alexandria. Instead, they were roused early on the morning of March 21 and ordered to dash 20 miles through a severe storm to support the attack on an enemy detachment at Henderson Hill. Led by Gen. Joseph A. Mower (1827-1870), a native of Woodstock, VT, the Union troops achieved surprise and captured 250 members of the 2nd Louisiana Cavalry. The 31st did not see combat, but detachments were deployed to guard bridges so that Mower’s force would not be cut off. At Alexandria, Andrew Jackson Smith’s corps of some 10,000 hard-bitten westerners, which Grant had loaned from Sherman’s army, had already arrived. On their way up the Red River they had taken the small Confederate post of Fort DeRussy with its garrison. The Confederates may have intended to make DeRussy a stronghold that would block the entire Red River valley, but as usual this effort remained incomplete. From the Confederate perspective, that was probably just as well, as a more developed defensive work would have become simply a larger trap, like Port Hudson. Gen. Taylor was a staunch advocate of maneuver in the open field and resisted being tied to fixed positions.
Banks himself arrived at Alexandria by boat on March 24. Over the next two days the infantry of the 13th and 19th Corps under Franklin joined the cavalry that was already on the scene. The infantry was about a week behind the original schedule, due in part to muddy roads. This was well within the bounds of normality for large military operations; and the delay became controversial only in retrospect, when there was a bombardment of recriminations of every caliber. Despite the delay, the aggregation of Banks’s army, the capture of Fort DeRussy, and the brilliant action against Henderson Hill seemed to have set the campaign off to a promising, vigorous start. Porter’s gunboat flotilla had also reached Alexandria, and one reason Banks said his delay did not matter was that low water made it impossible for the boats to pass the rapids at Alexandria. Banks was dismayed to find that Porter was busy confiscating cotton as fast as his sailors could haul it in. Under naval regulations, which now governed his fleet, Porter and his officers believed they were entitled to the proceeds, as “prizes,” much as a privateer might have taken. Having the advantage of greater manpower, Banks hastened to send wagons into the countryside to seize cotton, presumably for the general account, before the sailors could find it.
In failing to release its normal Spring flood, it almost seemed that the river was punishing Banks for going against the general flow of the war. (Banks and Porter did not realize that the low water was not entirely a natural phenomenon, as Confederate engineers had succeeded in diverting some of the flow below Shreveport. [Joiner, 67]) As 1864 unfolded, it became clear that the war would be decided far east of the Mississippi. Lincoln’s patience with Halleck had finally become exhausted, and he replaced him with Grant, given the rank of lieutenant-general, on March 12, 1864. This move might have benefited the overall war effort, but it introduced confusion in a campaign like the Red River that had already been launched. Now in charge of all Union armies, Grant moved to Virginia and adopted a strategy in which he, together with Sherman in Georgia, would hammer the depleted South relentlessly until their superior manpower reserves wore out the enemy. Under this policy, anything that happened in Louisiana and Texas was little more than a distraction.
From Alexandria the true Red River campaign commenced. After taking several days to rest and regroup, the troops marched out on the 26th, heading relentlessly northwest toward Shreveport, more than 125 miles upriver. Only eight companies of the 31st Mass. participated in the ranks, as Company D was detached for duty at brigade and Company I at division headquarters. With Smith’s contingent, Banks had a total strength of about 30,000 effectives, a large army by the standards of this theater, of which Lee’s mounted troops comprised perhaps 4000. Banks also anticipated being joined by Gen. Steele from Arkansas, which might increase his overwhelming superiority by another 10,000 men. These figures did not include the guns and sailors in Porter’s flotilla, which would accompany the army. The naval vessels brought 210 heavy guns to bear. [Joiner, 63. He gives a figure of 32,500 for Banks’s total strength and says that Lee commanded 4653 officers and troopers at the outset of the campaign.]
Taylor’s opposing force now became more visible, and occasionally the federals were startled to see a dead rebel, toes up, on the side of the road. When the Confederates showed signs of contesting the crossing of the Cane River on March 29, a detail of 100 men under Capt. Fordham and Lieuts. Nelson Bond and Sagendorph joined a detachment that attempted to cut off the enemy’s retreat. A trying march of 120 miles in 60 hours produced no more results than to make this party even more exhausted than the general run of the expedition. Another sharp skirmish took place on the 31st, when it looked like the Confederates would contest a second crossing of the Cane River (really a discontinued former channel of the Red River) near Cloutierville. The cavalry brigade generally led the advance, sometimes pausing for the wagons and infantry to catch up, with enemy troopers almost always in sight and sometimes making contact. Despite the brief interlude of renewal at Alexandria, the stress of hard marching and the need to be constantly ready for combat was beginning to tell. Many of the horses, fresh and spirited when the expedition began, were worn out and had to be replaced with mules and ponies seized in the vicinity. When a Texas trooper blundered into the 31st’s lines he was sent to the rear, “but his horse never got further than my Comp’y being a timely relief to one of my nearly worn out horses.” [Rice journal, Apr. 7, 1864]
On the road from Alexandria to the considerable town of Natchitoches, the army marched through a haze of infernal smoke, caused by the Confederates burning cotton, almost their last source of wealth, to keep it from falling into Union hands. One Union soldier wrote “From the day we started on the Red River expedition, we were like the Israelites of old, accompanied by a cloud (of smoke) by day, and a pillar of fire by night.” [quoted in Winters, 335] The inhabitants, who had hoped to sell some of the cotton, were undoubtedly embittered. When assigned to guard a plantation, Fairbank was unable to apply his usual charm: “Such crabbed secesh I never saw. They even refused to let us take cups to drink coffee.” [diary, Apr. 4, 1864]
For a few days in the beginning of April the pace slowed, allowing the troops to rest and supplement their diet by active foraging. On April 4 Rice savored a “nice breakfast of steak and fine mutton,” and the following day was made memorable by a “big turkey for breakfast and dinner.” [journal, April 4, 5, 1864] Beyond Natchitoches the troops, following an interior road, entered a dismal stretch of gloomy, almost uninhabited, pine barrens, where, as Rice lamented, they “were unable to obtain fresh meat of any description.” [Ibid., Apr. 6, 1864] Constant skirmishing, and sending out pickets and scouts meant that any respite from the interlude of partial recuperation was soon dissipated. Weary cavalrymen were forced to dismount and lead their horses because they fell asleep in the saddle. When the vanguard reached the village of Pleasant Hill on April 7, they desperately needed rest, but they had barely settled in when the bugle called them out to march further in a cold rain. Finally halted at 9 PM, the men collapsed on the ground, sleeping without food or shelter in the pouring rain.
As Capt. Fordham recalled, “This 7th of April was a raw, chilly day — just one of the sort to make one long for “a little something” to warm one’s self up — and it most unfortunately happened that our Regimental Commander [Lt. Col. Hopkins] was overcome . . . .” Rice gives a more detailed and unsparing description:
Lt. Col. Hopkins took this opportunity to indulge his appetite for whiskey to such an extent that he became very drunk, and arriving at camp gave several absurd orders in so maudlin a tone as to excite the mirth of most of the Reg. and did not cease his performances till after falling at full length upon the floor of Brigade H’d Q’rs, he was conveyed in a stupefied state to his own. [Rice journal, Apr. 7, 1864]
On the morning of April 8, which proved to be the decisive day of the Red River campaign, “several of the Officers, feeling that the Reg. had been sufficiently disgraced by the repeated acts of public intoxication of Lt. Col. Hopkins, and that he was not a safe man to have charge of us in the presence of an enemy, went to Col. Dudley, who, at our request, placed Col. Hopkins under arrest.” [Rice journal, Apr. 8, 1864] These officers apparently attributed the regiment’s leadership problems entirely to Hopkins and were therefore willing to see Maj. Bache assume command. Bache had been with the regiment since its earliest days and had commanded on occasion, though never in battle.
Week after week the Confederates had fallen back before Banks’s stronger force, maintaining contact but never risking a large battle. A daily trickle of deserters and stragglers came into the Union lines, raising hopes that the enemy would melt away. Rich described them as “a rather hard looking set.” [diary, Mar. 27, 1864] Men were killed and wounded in obscure clashes that were often not dignified by a name. The endless retreats must have preyed on morale, but perhaps the men had confidence that Dick Taylor hated retreat as much as they did and would someday turn the tables. Time and distance were growing short, however: as they approached Mansfield the federals were only about 35 miles from Shreveport; and beyond that there was not much left of Louisiana. When not arguing with Kirby Smith, Taylor studied his scouting reports and waited for an opportunity, skirmishing constantly to buy time.
Approaching Mansfield, Banks’s army followed a narrow road through dense pine forests. Lee’s cavalry spearheaded the advance, which made sense, but behind them stretched the cavalry wagon train extending several miles. Lucas’s 1st Cavalry Brigade was in the lead, followed by Dudley’s 4th Brigade, which included the 31st Mass. With the 3rd Mass. Cavalry, the 31st (commonly referred to as the 6th Mass. Cavalry), was placed in the woods guarding the flanks. [Report of Gen. A.L. Lee, OR, Ser. I, v.XXXIV, Part I, 456] Lee was disturbed by signs of stronger resistance on the part of Confederate cavalry and had been given some infantry support, but the main body of infantry was stuck miles behind the wagons. Taylor, reinforced by both cavalry and infantry, saw the moment for which he had waited and positioned his forces on advantageous ground behind a large opening in the woods. The battle commenced late morning on April 8, 1864, but remained inconclusive for several hours as the two sides maneuvered. Late in the afternoon, Taylor, growing impatient, launched an all-out attack. Though outnumbered overall, he enjoyed nearly a two-to-one advantage at the point of contact.
Few regiments have ever been placed in more dire circumstances than was the 31st Mass. on that disastrous day. At the critical time when the unfavorable military situation threatened the survival of the regiment, its two highest-ranking officers behaved shamefully, leaving it without effective leadership. Though written for the 25th anniversary of the battle, the fullest description of those dramatic events remains the one presented by Capt. Fordham:
We bivouacked in partial order of battle during the night, and the following day, Friday, April 8th, made ready for that which seemed to the Commanding General inevitable: a serious battle ‘ere the day should end. With this view, carbines and pistols were overhauled and freshly charged. Cartridge boxes were replenished, with an extra supply in our saddlebags. In some pockets, little packages of lint and linen were placed in the event of need, while upon my own part withal, apprehending of what value it might be to some poor fellow, I placed a pint flask of whiskey in one of the holsters of my saddle; and besides the lint and linen, I also placed in my saddlebags all the handkerchiefs I had, a couple of pairs of socks, tooth brush and a few other essentials, in case it chanced I were taken a prisoner.
About 9 a.m., our Brigade marched out and took position next in rear of that of Col. Lucas, which was still in front, and the advance was resumed. At all points, the Enemy contested our advance most stubbornly, until the early afternoon, when we came to an extensive clearing, surrounded on all four sides by thick woods. And in this clearing, line of battle was formed diagonally from the right hand lower corner across to very nearly the left hand upper corner, somewhat as follows:
Lucas’ Cavalry Brigade was on the right, ours next on his left, while our own Regiment was on the extreme left, in the woods beyond the clearing. Directly in rear of the Cavalry, were some five or six batteries of light artillery under General Arnold. I remember Nim’s and the 18th N.Y. In the woods behind the Artillery were a portion of the 13th Army Corps under command of General Ransom. Some six or eight miles in rear of all these, were the 19th Army Corps, Brig. Gen. William H. Emory, and on the road between them and us the Cavalry train of 125 wagons or more.
The disposition of our forces at the front had barely been effected, when it was evident the enemy designed giving us immediate battle. By order of Maj. Bache, our Regiment had been dismounted, and we were formed in two lines of single rank, of which lines Capt. Edward P. Nettleton of Co. E. commanded the front, while I commanded the rear one, while yet a small detachment was sent further into the woods on our left and rear to protect our left flank, and guard against the Enemy’s getting in our rear. Looking out of the woods and across the upper left hand corner of the clearing, Maj. Bache, Nettleton, and I could see the enemy marching through the woods to come around the clearing and descend upon us, with the view to turn the left flank of our line.
The suspense, ‘ere the battle opened was certainly appalling, and I regret to say that in the case of our Regimental Commander it made him seek courage in drink. And I very well remember how, as we field officers sat upon our horses awaiting the onslaught of the Enemy, Maj. Bache rode towards me, and tipping me a wink, invited me to join him in a tipple. And I very well remember how I said to him, “Maj. Bache, not a drop for me at such a time and place as this in the very face of the enemy, and I advise you not to let a drop pass your lips.” In that old jolly, easy way of his, he answered, “Well! I’m going to take a little, all the same” and he did, with the result of his fleeing the field like a coward at the very first shot of the Enemy.
. . . almost immediately after my parting with the Major, the battle began, first by the Enemy’s left upon the extreme right of our line, quickly followed by a general engagement along the whole line. An entire Brigade of the Enemy, ample to annihilate us, came down in splendid form upon our little Regiment, and sent a volley into us which killed and wounded many in both Nettleton’s line and my own, and so far shook and broke us up that it was impossible to maintain the two lines. Looking around for our Regimental Commander, he was no where to be seen, and I shall never forget the look of supreme contempt on Nettleton’s face as he rode up to me shouting, “Capt. Fordham! Maj. Bache has fled the field like a coward. I assume command of this Regiment and wish you to assist me in the command.” After a hurried council, we decided to form the Regiment into single line and did so. The Enemy were pressing us hard, but the nearer they came the more effective our short range Carbines became. These being breechloaders, we could load and fire much more rapidly than the Enemy, no doubt giving them the impression of our being in larger force than we actually were, and that was only some 210 Officers and men all told.
For every volley the Enemy gave us from their larger force, we returned them two or three from our little number, holding them in check until a moment when Nettleton and I saw the line of battle of our forces on the right giving way before an onslaught of a vastly superior number of the rebels. For our own safety and because of the uselessness of an attempt to hold our position, we gave directions for our Regiment to retire, through the woods, as slowly as possible, keeping on a line with the troops on our right, as they were forced to yield ground; in the meantime, taking advantage of all possible cover of trees, stumps and logs to shield our men and check the speed of the Enemy’s advance. This order of things, our gradual losing, the Enemy’s gradual gaining ground, continued for an hour or so until we had been forced back through the woods to the lower edge of the clearing, abreast the remnant of the 13th Army Corps. At this point, Nettleton, from whom with a part of the command I had become temporarily separated, came upon a small body of our Regt. who were holding the horses, some 30 or 40, of those who had been fighting dismounted. Nettleton immediately ordered these horses remounted, and himself at the head, made a charge upon our pursuers, with Capt. N. F. Bond, Lieuts. Sagendorph and Pelton at his side. This charge, I doubt not, was one of the most daring and brilliant ever attempted — a little troop of 40 into the ranks of perhaps twenty times that number. For a moment, it looked as if it might break the Enemy’s line, but only for a moment, for seeing the insignificance of Nettleton’s little force, the Rebs gathered themselves and poured volley after volley into them, compelling their retreat, which retreat was done in good order.
Rice witnessed the desperate charge, a true “forlorn hope.” Capts. Nettleton and Morse, and Lieuts. N. F. Bond and Pelton went in, “and every one came out on foot, Bond, sabre still in hand, but his horse bleeding and tottering from his wounds.” This wholly unexpected charge stunned the rebels, but only temporarily. Earlier, Rice had encountered Sgt. Danforth Converse, “lying on his face, or nearly so, looking very pale and speaking but faintly. I told him that we had to fall back then, but that if we regained the ground, I would come to him.” [Rice journal, Apr. 8, 1864] But there was little chance of returning; indeed, the Union Army never got closer to Mansfield than it was at that moment, as Fordham relates:
The Enemy now renewed their advance, which our troops were doing their utmost to check, when all of a sudden one of those unaccountable things occurred as if by a common impulse — a possible fear or dread of being overwhelmed, took possession of our army, and in an instant Cavalry, Infantry, and Artillery were in a mad, wild race to the rear. At this moment, Nettleton rode up to me to council and, seeing the futility of any attempt to stay the tide, we decided to order a retreat, as we then did. I remember that at just the instant of our turning our backs finally upon the Enemy, Pete McCrory of Co. G., who was mounted, was struck in the back by a bullet, the thud of which I can hear even at this late day, as well as McCrory’s cry of, “My God! I’m shot.” A couple of our men lifted him from his horse and laid him down to die. Again at this same moment, I remember seeing Lieut. Sagendorph sitting under cover of a tree, with a wound in the top of his head, evidently stunned, and wholly indifferent to the fact of his probable capture by the Enemy; and how others with myself, lifted him from the ground into his own or another’s saddle and helped him on to the rear.
The hour was now about six o’clock. Our troops were in full retreat, the Enemy pursuing and close upon us, which continued until about 7 p.m., when we came upon Gen. William K. Emory’s Division, 19th Army Corps, some four miles back, formed in line to meet the Enemy, and through whose lines we passed a short distance in the rear. As I rode along, I saw Gen. Banks riding up and down in front of the 19th A. C., charging them to hold steadfast the line against the on-coming Rebels. On these came in multitudes, screaming and yelling with such fiendish yells as fairly made the woods ring; on, on, exultant, sure of still larger victory, when all at once some 5000 of the bravest of brave boys in blue rose to their feet. . . . At the word of command, from 5000 rifles and half a dozen cannon belched forth a volley of Union shot and shell which made the wood tremble and which sent such havoc into the Rebel ranks that, in the next instant of perfect stillness, one could almost have heard a pin drop.
Thus ended the battle of Sabine Cross Roads.
Directly after the first contact was made, Dr. Bidwell of the 31st Mass. hastily set up a field hospital in a rural church:
But my possession was very brief. Very soon shot and shell began to fall around us. Our wounded were replaced in the ambulance from which they had just been taken, and forthwith we found ourselves participants in a general movement to the rear. The road was narrow through heavy timber and soon became blocked so that it was impossible to get out the wagons or the artillery. One of my ambulances with a load of wounded, by the skill and pluck of the driver did get out, very much to my surprise. All the rest were lost. [Bidwell, “The Battle of Sabine Cross Roads as I saw it”]
Fairbank’s company had been assigned to brigade headquarters. During the rout, taking care to protect the flag, “we kept up a steady fire, and falling back, the rebs on both flanks and rear.” [diary, Apr. 8, 1864] Once they passed through the firm lines of the 19th Corps, most of the scattered and panicky infantry and cavalry that had borne the shock of the attack managed to reassemble. The men of the 31st Mass., who had become separated during the scramble, gradually found each other and regrouped. It is a testimony to their underlying dedication, a solid residue of the Puritan sense of duty, that they remained a cohesive and determined fighting force after a stunning defeat, accompanied by the shameful behavior of their highest-ranking officers.
Howell and others back up the account of shocking dereliction of duty by the regiment’s presumed leaders. It is safe to assume that soldiers in their letters suppressed reports of alcohol abuse so as not to disturb the home folks. Even in their diaries they might hesitate, fearing discovery. Therefore, the few mentions of excessive drinking that pass through this self-censorship can be accepted as illustrative of a larger problem. The army supported a culture of alcohol abuse, as later college fraternities have been accused of doing. Away from the constraints of home, confronted with the constant uncertainty of military life with its convoluted personal and hierarchical relationships, it was difficult to resist the social pressure to drink. The boundless boredom of army life made alcohol a tempting refuge, and their much higher pay made it easy for officers to purchase liquor. A contributing factor may be that the beverages that were both preferred and easiest to obtain were those, like whiskey, with a high alcohol content.
Scattered references to excessive drinking become significant in total. They began on the stressful voyage to Ship Island (where the resort to strong liquor would have been defensible if it was ever going to be). In New Orleans, Hawkes reported that a lieutenant who had departed because the governor did not confirm his commission was replaced by Lt. John W. Cushing, “who was a military man, and quite a man when free from the influence of liquor.” [letter, June 30, 1862] Little is known about Cushing, who resigned soon after. [Hawkes letter, Aug. 7, 1862. He also did not have a commission from the governor, and presumably resigned for that reason.] With customary lack of awe for superiors, Fairbank commented that “We drilled in the forenoon, but the officers have got out of whiskey or something else, for they undertook to have battalion drill.” [diary, Nov. 10, 1862] In March 1863 it was reported that Maj. Bache was court-martialed, and although the reason is not given, one suspects it was related to alcohol. [Bond diary, Mar. 27, 1863] None of this should be taken to indicate that the drinking problem in the 31st Mass. was more severe than in other regiments. Temperance advocates had been waging a vocal campaign in New England for 30 years, and it is likely that alcohol abuse was less common among soldiers from that region.
Coming closer to home and to the humiliation of Sabine Cross Roads, Fairbank makes no effort to conceal his disgust in describing an incident in which “The line officers had a regular drunken frolic, and made the night hideous. They have disgraced themselves in the eyes of the men, and who can respect them now? They even used up the hospital bread, and the sick came to the Companies for bread this a.m.” [diary, Sept. 3, 1863] A couple of months later, Fairbank reported that Lt.Col. Hopkins and Adjutant [James M.] Stewart were under arrest for drunkenness, though the outcome is unknown. [diary, Nov. 20, 1863] Then, in an extraordinary stroke of prescience, Fairbank described Hopkins as “a miserable commander, brave in camp, but a coward in the field.” [diary, Jan. 5, 1864]
Since Hopkins had been inserted into the position for which Bache thought he was entitled, it is unlikely that they were drinking buddies. Each must have succumbed to the influence on his own account. The documentation does not reveal whether their drinking problem developed in the army or was pre-existing. Hopkins seemed to have commanded effectively at Fort Bisland a year earlier and produced a coherent account of his part in the battle. Bache was apparently a jolly fellow, and alcohol must have fueled that image. In Hopkins’s case, illness may have been a contributing factor, as whiskey was regularly issued even to enlisted men to combat various kinds of fever. Hopkins took sick while still at Camp Seward, although in that he had plenty of company. In New Orleans Tupper reported that the captain’s “health is not good,” and in June he was sent home on a 60-day furlough. Tupper opined that “we never expect to see him here again & the company think he ought to resign.” [letter, June 16, 1862] This was scarcely a gleaming endorsement, but Tupper seems ambiguous as to whether his attitude was due to concern for Hopkins’s health or a generalized feeling that the company would do better if he were replaced. Perhaps to Tupper’s dismay, Hopkins returned on August 18. [Fairbank diary] The fact that Hopkins drank to stupefaction on the Red River expedition without knowing that a major battle was soon to take place indicates that he was by then a chronic alcoholic, not one who takes a drink to fortify his courage. Bache might fit in the latter category, but if so, the prescription did not work.
* * *
As Fordham described, the Confederate forces, thrilled at seeing the blue backs of their enemies for the first time in months, pressed onward after a brief pause to examine the wagons. As happened in many Civil War battles, the attackers, having smashed the enemy line, lost their own organization and rolled forward on momentum until they encountered the first opposing line that retained its integrity. Gen. Emory’s infantry remained firm and halted the wild Confederate advance, ending the day’s fighting. Casualties had been heavy on both sides. Nevertheless, this battle, known either as Mansfield or Sabine Cross Roads, was a stunning victory for the South. They had captured many men and guns and seized the cavalry wagon train, enabling Taylor to resupply himself again at the expense of the federal government. More important, the contest had completely reversed the course of the campaign, shattering the morale of the Union while restoring that of the Confederates to unparalleled heights. Fordham’s narrative resumes on the confused retreat to Pleasant Hill:
As for myself, personally, when the signal of retreat was given, Nettleton and I rode to the rear with but some ten or twelve of our men, who were near us, and in doing this, Nettleton became separate from me with part of these, owing to the heavy growth of timber through which we passed. . . . After our separation, as I moved along with the fragment of the Regt., here and there I picked up, one after another, some of these wounded, until I finally had collected some forty or more, representing about every Company in our Regiment, and I had also gathered together perhaps thirty others representing about every Reg’t in the Command. I have said that on the morning of this day, I put a pint flask of whiskey in one of the holsters of my saddle. During this night’s march, that same whiskey served the purpose for which it had been put there — contributing to the relief of the wounded whom I had picked up, and in sustaining others who had become all but prostrated by the severity of the day’s work coupled with lack of food and drink. Upon our reaching Pleasant Hill at about 3 a.m. of the 9th., Col. Gooding — whose Brigade of Cavalry was there despatched and ordered to hunt us up — had ordered out all the cooks of his headquarters command to make coffee and cook rations for the famished officers and men of both our own Reg’t and others, and as far as possible, provide us with blankets.
. . . I laid down to sleep, under the shadow of Pleasant Hill, having seen my men made as comfortable as I could, my feet toward a big log fire, and for a pillow a long log, which was shared by two or three other officers. Aroused about 8 a.m. by the bang! bang! bang! of a skirmish line, I rose to find the enemy again close at hand and being engaged by Col. Gooding’s Cavalry. . . .
Banks’s shaken army was back at Pleasant Hill, which it had left the previous day secure in the belief that Shreveport was within its grasp. Flushed with his stunning victory at Mansfield, Taylor was eager to renew the contest. He may have had visions that one more battle could crush the invaders, overlooking the fact that his victory had been gained over only a small portion of Banks’s total force. After considerable maneuvering and shifting of position by both sides, the heavy fighting again commenced well into the afternoon of April 9. At first, it looked like a repeat of the previous engagement, as the Confederates, though sustaining heavy losses, smashed the Union left, throwing it back in disorder. Though conducted on a smaller scale than the immortal battles in the East, Pleasant Hill was replete with the same confusion, poor communication, command errors, incidents of firing on one’s own troops, and surprise when unsuspected regiments leaped out of concealment and delivered deadly barrages. As the day wore on, the Confederate attack broke down, and by the time it became too dark to continue, the North had pushed the enemy back beyond their original lines. Confederate losses were severe—greater in absolute numbers than the federals, which meant even higher proportionally. The 31st Mass. had been assigned to guard the wagon train and thus did not participate in this costly battle, in which Col. Gooding had a rebel bullet pass through his hat. [Fordham narrative]
The sudden reversal of fortunes, in addition to their heavy losses, must have damaged morale in Taylor’s army. After Pleasant Hill, Banks could have pressed forward and perhaps taken Shreveport after all, and there are indications that he wished to do so. But, in council after the second battle, Generals Franklin, Emory and Dwight all advised discontinuing the offensive. Only A. J. Smith argued to press ahead, although he was under a deadline, since Grant had requested that his division be returned as soon as possible. From a military standpoint, there were cogent reasons for abandoning the campaign: water in the Red River was much lower than normal for the time of year; Porter had encountered trouble bringing his vessels as far as Alexandria. It was questionable whether they could ascend to Shreveport, and more doubtful that they would be able to return. Without their participation, Banks could not supply his army far in the interior. Then there was the question of what to do with Shreveport even if they captured it. Banks had already had to leave 3600 men to guard Alexandria; Shreveport would require even a larger garrison, but setting aside enough of a force to defend such a distant place might not leave Banks with enough troops to conduct meaningful operations. It can be seen that many of these arguments were not specific to the circumstances of April 9, but challenged the entire concept of the expedition up the Red River. Pleasant Hill was a larger and more costly battle than Sabine Cross Roads, but the fight before Mansfield is now better remembered and more consequential: Defeat at Sabine Cross Roads knocked Banks stumbling backward, while victory at Pleasant Hill did not inspire him to resume the advance.
A forced march brought Banks’s army to Grand Ecore, the landing for Natchitoches and a strong defensive position, on the night of April 10. The troops were weary from days of incessant marching and fighting, made more acute by lack of water, and many could not keep up the pace. These unfortunates were scooped up by Confederate cavalry following close behind and reached Texas under different circumstances than they had anticipated. At Grand Ecore the army rejoined Porter’s fleet, and both took time to recuperate. Fordham’s narrative relates typical experiences on the hurried retreat, which
. . . so far as related to our Regiment, was without incident, save in that we were very short of rations, and from this cause there was much suffering in our command. For the first and only time in my life, I ate raw pork, being part of a bone which Lieut. Sagendorph had procured somewhere, and came to share it with one or two other officers and myself. Besides this, I feasted (?) upon some leaf tobacco which our soldiers had scooped from a deserted tobacco warehouse along our route, by chewing which and drinking water, I managed to exist until we reached Grand Ecore . . . . Starved though we then were, we were so completely worn out with our trying march, we laid right down to sleep, from which I did not awake until about 8 a.m. next morning, when I was aroused by some of the soldiers of my own Co. B. shoving a frying pan of freshly cooked mutton under my nose. That I was immediately wide awake needs no saying and I enjoyed a hearty breakfast. During this last march, I begot the greatest craving for some pork and beans and felt that if I might only have my fill of these, I would gladly part with all my earthly possessions. So immediately after breakfasting I directed my colored servant to saddle our horses and we rode to the Commissary’s, where I laid in a stock of pork and beans and all other necessary stores, and sent him back to camp to get up a dinner to be ready at 2 p.m., to which I invited several other officers: Sagendorph, Adjutant Stewart, and Lieut. F. A. Rust being among these. I don’t know how it was with them, but for myself, suffice to say, I ate so hearty of the pork and beans it was two or three weeks before I could endure the taste of them.
Various figures are given for the number of wagons lost when the cavalry train was overrun on April 8. Howell, who was in a position to know best, puts the figure at 176. [letter, Apr. 11, 1864] Many of the wagons contained forage for the horses, but others held personal effects and spare clothing, particularly of the officers. Howell lost everything and had to plead with his family to replace his clothing. Fordham had a similar experience: “While en route to the Commissary’s, I fell in with Capt. Peter French, A. I. G., on the Staff of General Emory, who was one of my own townsmen (from Sag Harbor, N. Y.), who knowing my destitute condition in the matter of clothing etc., because of the loss of all our effects in the capture of our wagon train . . . kindly provided me with such as he could spare in the way of shirts, socks etc., for which I felt more than grateful to him.”
“Who is to blame for this disaster?” asked Capt. Howell, anticipating the Congressional inquiry that would begin later in the year. “I can’t certainly say, but one would naturally say Franklin since he made out the order of march, & Banks, although he was on the ground, only arrived the same morning and had hardly assumed the direction of things.” [letter, Apr. 11, 1864] The later investigation brought out information to support Howell’s surmise. Analyses of the battle often stress that the cavalry train was placed directly behind the cavalry, with no infantry support for several miles, and the entire army was stretched over 20 miles. An important factor is not simply the placement of the wagon train, but the fact that it had been allowed to approach so close to the cavalry, and thus to the enemy, once the battle commenced. Apparently the train had continued advancing for some time after the cavalry halted to skirmish and reconnoiter when it encountered the enemy. It is true that the narrowness of the road made it difficult for the advance force to retreat and for reinforcements to come forward, but having the wagons bunched so close contributed to the confusion.
At Grand Ecore, Banks did not consider that he was entirely safe and began to construct defensive works as if threatened by a mighty host. Rice reports building gun platforms and rifle pits, activities that must have had detrimental effects on both the morale and physical condition of the men. The commander also used this interlude to make personnel changes, replacing Dudley and Albert Lee, who he blamed, perhaps unfairly, for the debacle at Mansfield. Lee was replaced temporarily by Gen. Richard Arnold (1828-1882), a native of Rhode Island; and Dudley by Col. Edmund J. Davis (1827-1883), a Texas Unionist. [Field Order, Dept. of the Gulf, Grand Ecore, Apr. 18, 1864; OR, Ser. I, v.XXXIV, Part III, 211.]Arnold had been in charge of the artillery and seems an odd choice to assume command of the cavalry; Davis, at least, had been in command of the 1st Texas (USA) Cavalry. Fairbank reports being present, probably reluctantly, at Dudley’s farewell speech on April 18.
Banks took care to avoid discrediting General Lee completely by assigning him “to assume charge of the Cavalry Depot in N. 0. for the purpose of reorganizing the Cavalry of the Dep’t.” [Field Order, Dept. of the Gulf, Grand Ecore, LA, Apr. 18, 1864; OR, Ser. I, v. XXXIV, Part III, 211] This fabricated assignment barely qualified as face-saving, but it had the effect of showing that Banks retained confidence in Lee and implied that it was the other generals, namely Dwight, Emory, and Franklin, who were clamoring to remove him. Lee left with a rather touching farewell message: “Common perils, shared alike by Officers and Men of the Cav’y Div’n, thro’ a march of near 500 miles–a march brightened by victories and saddened by graves–have cemented attachments that I know must last life long.” Before wishing them Godspeed, he concluded: “As while I have been with you, so when I am gone, I entreat you, by your bravery, your endurance, your self-denying devotion to the cause you have espoused, to make the full record of the Cav’y Div’n a continuance of that for which I have no cause to blush–one of brightness and glory.” [Grand Ecore, LA, Apr. 18, 1864; Nettleton “Index”] Lee tried to defend his reputation, pleading with Banks to release his report on Sabine Crossroads “as the people and press of the country are doing me an injustice.” [Lee to Banks, May 5, 1864; OR, Ser. I, v.XXXIV, Part III,452] There is no evidence that Banks complied: scapegoats generally have to await vindication by historians.
A similar, though more localized, upheaval took place in the 31st Mass. As soon as they regrouped after the battle, the officers resolved to draw up charges against both Hopkins and Bache. Capt. Rice, who had long despised Hopkins, had the satisfaction of preparing this statement. [journal, Apr. 11, 1864] (There must have been a document, but it has not been found. Since Rice both wrote it and was in charge of assembling the regimental history after the war, this gap is explainable.) Under unforgiving pressure, the two officers immediately resigned and their resignations were accepted just as rapidly (effective April 14), avoiding the public embarrassment of a court-martial. [Special Order 89, Nettleton “Index”] The disgraced officers, responsible for the performance of a regiment, were given honorable discharges, whereas an enlisted man guilty of the same behavior, though responsible only for himself, would likely have been court-martialed. Since he had little regard for this prominent resident of Ware, it is surprising that Fairbank scarcely mentions and does not gloat over Hopkins’s downfall. It made a difference in his duties, as his squadron (D) was relieved from headquarters duty. [diary, Apr. 15, 1864] At this time Capt. Allen was given a staff job in the brigade.
At the unanimous request of the other officers, the vacant positions were filled temporarily by Capts. Nettleton and Fordham, who had performed admirably under adverse circumstances during the battle. Col. Gooding formally endorsed the recommendations only on May 2, and one wonders, if he had indeed been an advocate for Hopkins, whether this caused him any distress. Massachusetts commissions for the two officers were not issued until June 4, though made effective to April 15. [Special Order 625, Nettleton “Index”] Fordham was moved by the expression of confidence: “In all my army experience I recall nothing which touched me so profoundly as this assurance of the regard and confidence of my Command.” [narrative] Any stain on the regiment’s reputation thus faded rapidly, but the awkwardness lasted far into the future, straining personal relations after the survivors returned to civilian life. Hopkins and Bache were now civilians, and no one seems to have left a record of what became of them. Having earned universal contempt, they could hardly remain with the army; yet traveling through a countryside infested with brigands and enemy cavalry would have been dangerous. If they could have reached Alexandria, there might have been enough shipping left on the Red River for them to make it back to New Orleans and at least temporary oblivion.
Admiral Porter had professed to believe that the water level in the Red River would soon rise to normal levels, but after several days he watched it drop still further. This, along with his growing conviction that Steele in Arkansas would not join him in time to do any good, reinforced Banks’s desire to return downriver. On April 21 he began the withdrawal, which more resembled a panicky flight than an orderly movement. This presented the extraordinary, and essentially unnecessary, spectacle of a smaller and more poorly equipped army pursuing a stronger one and at times almost besieging it. Despite having been compelled by Kirby Smith to transfer some of his troops to other commands, Taylor apparently still hoped, aided by the increasing impassibility of the river, to destroy Banks’s army. If one of the major Union armies had been under the command of someone like Dick Taylor at the start of 1862, the war might have ended in two years. There was no objective reason for Banks to retreat in such a precipitous fashion, but the result was that “this march was the severest of the campaign for Banks’s men.” [Johnson, 222] With food and water becoming scarce, the men were pushed to the limits of endurance, and their spirit sank lower.
One of Walt Whitman’s wartime vignettes, “A March in the Ranks, Hard-Prest,” though set in Virginia, captures some of the feeling of Banks’s hasty withdrawal from Grand Ecore, when he retreated through the night of April 21. By any rational calculation, his behavior could not be justified. Logically, one would have expected Banks to be pursing the Confederates, or at least setting a trap in which their audacity would cost them dearly. Taylor was like a terrier chasing a bear, except that in this case the terrier expected to kill the bear, or at least force it to surrender. Part of the problem was that Banks, like many another Civil War commander, persistently overestimated enemy strength. However, commanders who genuinely wanted to win — Lee, Grant, Stonewall Jackson, Forrest, and, yes, Richard Taylor — were not afflicted with this mental condition, or learned to ignore the symptoms. In Banks’s defense we must remember that he was not a domineering commander and that any of his generals (other than A.J. Smith, who he regarded as belonging to another command) could have challenged his decisions and perhaps persuaded him to change his mind. A general like Franklin pushed his men ruthlessly, as if he could not get away from Banks and the Red River fast enough. [Winters, 362]
Barber said that during the movement from Grand Ecore, the regiment had its horses unsaddled but one night. [diary, Apr. 28, 1864] During this punishing retreat, which would have been exhausting even if unopposed, the 31st Mass. was almost continually engaged, either in front or as the rear guard. As a unit of the cavalry division, it performed the typical functions of mounted troops. Taylor had hoped to head off the Union force at a place called Monett’s Crossing and prevent its crossing the Cane River. One of his subordinates got there before the federals and took up a strong position. The Union army spent all day on the 23rd of April looking for a way around this obstacle and finally resorted to a frontal attack which dislodged the Confederates, but with considerable loss. In this battle of Cane River the 31st Mass. participated mainly as scouts and skirmishers and suffered only one man killed.
Yet, amid the general grimness and hardship of a forced retreat, a few bright rays penetrated; and who better to enjoy such blissful moments than Pvt. Luther Fairbank? “I am on guard to a plantation where there is a fine young lady and she invited me in and I had such a supper as soldiers seldom get,” he reported on April 25. This time he even provides her name: “I sat up with Annie until the small hours of the night and for one to have seen us he would not have taken us for anything but friends.” According to Fairbank, “she had a beau in the rebel army, a Lt.,” but it is not clear whether he is using the present or past tense in referring to him.
An historical novelist could have made this encounter the foundation for an epic romance, a struggle toward fulfillment that mirrored the South’s struggle for independence. In the cruel glare of reality, there is no evidence that Luther and Annie ever saw each other or had any contact after this one episode. Still, it presents a near-perfect illustration of how the fickle currents of war—or the whims of the gods, as the ancients would have said—create unforeseen and unlikely combinations. No wonder that for those who were fortunate enough to survive in good health, the incidents and sensations of war proved unforgettable. They compare to the mundane course of prewar life as paintings stand out on the bland walls of a gallery.
The retreat continued, interrupted by repeated clashes, until Banks reached Alexandria on April 29. During the last miles the 31st was pushed back by another Confederate attack until it gained the support of the 13th Corps. That corps itself continued to fall back, leaving behind some of its camp equipage. [N.F. Bond chronology of Red River Campaign; Nettleton Papers] As the season advanced, the weather became more of a factor, and Rich uses terms such as “a dreadfully hot day” and “terrible dusty.” [diary, Apr. 28, Apr. 30, 1864] Instead of turning on his weaker foe, which he might easily have done, Banks continued to behave as if he was fleeing for his life. Once secure in Alexandria, the expedition settled in for an extended stay while it recuperated. There was little choice in the matter, since Porter’s fleet was still trapped by low water above the falls. Some vessels had already been lost to fire from the shore, and it was feared that the entire flotilla might have to be sacrificed. An engineer officer from Wisconsin devised an ingenious scheme to block the river with a wing dam and float the vessels free. This required tremendous labor by the troops and conscripted blacks, who had little choice in the matter.
Soon after arriving at Alexandria, the 31st Mass. formed part of a detachment sent on an arduous push to search for the enemy and destroy Bynum’s mill, which had been grinding meal for them. They started off on the wrong road, so as Rice said, they rode 25 miles to cover 19. [journal, Apr. 30, 1864] On the return leg on May 1, enemy cavalry attacked at Hudnot’s Plantation but were repulsed. In the closing stage Nettleton led a spirited charge, which captured some Confederate soldiers and drove the enemy back a quarter of a mile. This engagement cost the regiment one killed and eight wounded, one of whom was Capt. Nettleton.
I shall never forget him as I saw him after his column had rejoined mine on the hill, sitting straight upon his horse as he was, the fire of battle still in his eye, but pale as a ghost and all but ready to fall from his saddle from loss of blood. I had ridden up to him to congratulate him upon the gallantry of his “charge” upon the Rebs, and upon his safe return, when I noticed the pallor upon his face…. I said “My God! Nettleton, what’s the matter?” And he answered, “I’m wounded, Fordham.” Asking him where, “In the leg,” he replied. I bade him to dismount at once, but he was loth to do so, wishing still to remain with his command. But I insisted upon it, in the meantime despatching an orderly for a surgeon and an ambulance, both of which were close at hand. I assisted him from his saddle and aided the surgeon in getting him into an ambulance, and then returned to my command. [Fordham narrative]
It is conceivable that Nettleton, who had been acting commanding officer for only two weeks, was overcompensating for the cowardice of his predecessor. He was succeeded by Fordham, who thus advanced from commanding a company to a regiment in the same length of time. On May 3 Fordham was in charge of a foraging expedition, which led to another brush with the enemy, in which Fordham’s horse was shot from under him. The regiment held off a larger force, accompanied by artillery, at a cost of two more killed and four wounded. Gen. Mower, in command of the detachment, reported that “I have seldom seen cavalry do as well — never better.” Fairbank reported that his horse had a leg broken, probably in this engagement; and with some sorrow he wrote “As poor old Ned has gone to rest I have no horse to feed.” [diary, May 3, 4, 1864] Following that encounter, the regiment occupied a post on the Opelousas road seven miles from Alexandria, doing picket duty and participating in several major foraging expeditions until the general withdrawal from that town began.
“Poor old Ned,” one of the few horses whose name is recorded (another was Capt. Fordham’s “Dolly,” destroyed on the same day), can stand as a symbol of a larger catastrophe. There are numerous accounts of officers and men having horses shot out from under them. Many other horses died of disease and poor treatment, or simply wore out. Injuries such as a broken leg, which were treatable in a man, were fatal to a horse. George Goodwin, who had been troubled by inferior mounts from the start of the expedition, reported that “When we reached Alexandria, my horse with many other was condemned and shot and for a while I was dismounted.” In the fighting on May 14 the regiment captured some mules, and he secured one. “The mule proved very docile and gentle and, after my former tribulations, I appreciated him and almost cherished a brotherly feeling for him.” [recollections] The number of horses that were destroyed on the Red River expedition, as for the Civil War as a whole, is incalculable. Even if it were possible to derive a figure for the number of horses purchased by the two governments, it would not tell the entire story, as many were confiscated by one means or another along the route. One of the astonishing aspects of the war, and one that has not been sufficiently appreciated, is how the country was able to supply the quantity of horses that was employed and wasted during the conflict.
On May 6 all or part of the 31st Mass., along with other mounted troops, was sent off on an unexpected, unusual, and rather doleful assignment. On the previous day the transport John Warner, accompanied by two escorts known as “tinclads” because of their light armor, was attacked by Confederates at Dunn’s Bayou, some 20 miles below Alexandria. The Warner was carrying men of the 56th Ohio, heading home down the river on their veterans’ furlough. Confederate artillery disabled the vessels so they could not be maneuvered and then pounded them steadily into rubble, causing heavy casualties. Eventually the helpless ships were compelled to surrender, and many of the surviving crewmen and members of the 56th Ohio were taken prisoner. The mounted detachment including the 31st Mass. was dispatched to locate and recover these men. Many in the 31st , looking forward to their own furlough, would have felt great sympathy for the Ohio regiment, but although they set out less than a day after the battle, the prisoners had already been taken out of reach. Most wound up in the Confederate prison camp at Tyler, Texas. [Rice Journal; Johnson, 255-57; Joiner, 161-62].
Although suffering some losses, the fleet passed over the falls by May 13, after which there was little reason for the army to remain in Alexandria, and Banks pulled out that day. Rice and his company were ready to move in light order at 6:30 AM and were ordered out at 7:30. Then they were sent back to pack in heavy order. Even the usually dedicated captain became annoyed: “Then we unsaddled. Then we saddled up again. Then we unsaddled once more.” [journal, May 13, 1864] So Banks’s army evacuated Alexandria. According to his later testimony, he had tried to protect the city, not least because fires would reveal to the enemy that his army was moving out; but much of Alexandria was burned. Indeed, the entire route of the army, from Mansfield back to the Mississippi, was marked by devastation. Gov. Moore’s fine plantation, which figured significantly in accounts of the campaign, was burning as Lt. Barber rode past on May 14. Soldiers broke into homes, wantonly vandalizing private property and leaving little of value standing. Thousands of blacks followed in the wake of the army, plundering and destroying anything the soldiers had missed. Most of the damage was attributed to A.J. Smith’s troops, who tolerated, if not cultivated, a reputation for wildness. New England soldiers were appalled by this behavior, and Gen. Franklin described it as “disgraceful to the army of a civilized nation.” [Winters, 366; Johnson, 224] He offered a $500 reward for conviction of “Incendiaries,” but it seemed to have little effect. Weary, bitter, and resentful of both Banks and the Confederates, Smith’s men relieved their frustrations on the defenseless population, foreshadowing if not inspiring Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas. John D. Winters’s standard history of the war in Louisiana, estimates that more than half the wealth of the state was destroyed in the conflict.  Yankee soldiers, with good reason, frequently referred to being in “the Land of Sugar,” but Louisiana sugar production plummeted from 459,410 hogsheads in the good year of 1861-62 to around 10,000 in 1864-65. The value of the sugar industry was calculated at $194 million in 1861 but in 1865 had dropped to between $25 and $30 million. Sugar production did not regain the 1862 level for 30 years, with a much smaller number of plantations. [John David Smith, introduction to Roland, Louisiana Sugar Plantations, xiii.]
It became impossible to maintain the pretense that the army could be supplied from its base. To a large extent it sustained itself only by active foraging, in which cavalrymen enjoyed an advantage:
The retreat from Alexandria, until we crossed Yellow Bayou, was a busy time for us. As rear guard and flankers we found out what cross-country riding was. Most of the sleep we got, we took in the saddle. The Enemy seldom allowed us fifteen minutes for refreshments. During our short halts, the pigs suffered when we could find them, each man skinning out what he could use and laying it on the fat pine fire, before it had done quivering, to cook a little and smoke a good deal. I remember being lucky enough to get a ham from a good sized pig one day and it lasted all day. The Enemy seemed determined that we should eat our meat rare that day, and although I improved every halt to toast it, and between halts I would gnaw it till it bled, still I had enough left for supper. It tasted pretty good, but a little salt would have improved it. I imagined I knew something how it would seem to be a Cannibal. I do not remember of going hungry much on the retreat, but I did often get terribly thirsty, sleepy and tired. [Goodwin recollection]
Taylor’s hopes of trapping Banks at Alexandria, perhaps unrealistic from the outset, had slipped away, but he continued his pursuit of the retreating army. There was almost continuous contact and several small battles along the route, some named and others little more than background noise except for those who became casualties. The 31st Mass. participated in most of these actions, and in one of them Assistant-Surgeon Elisha P. Clarke was taken prisoner while attending to the wounded. May 14th proved to be an active day for the regiment, as the rebels swarmed around like hornets. The cavalry formed a rear guard while the infantry straightened itself out along the river road.
We halted at a bridge. The Rebs attacked us about noon and we stood them off for an hour. We then fell back a little to a new position. The Rebs followed and we had a smart fight lasting until 3 o’clock. My horse was shot, under me; [George H.] Munsell was wounded. We then fell back through the 3rd. Mass, to the river road. Marched all night with two or three halts, the last one being of four or five hours duration. [Rice journal, May 14, 1864]
This kind of continuous skirmishing and hard marching continued through the next two days and nights as the regiment passed over the prairie through Marksville to Moreauville, moving overland rather than following a northward sweep of the Red River. On May 16 Taylor drew up his forces at the village of Mansura. According to contemporary accounts, it presented an impressive spectacle as the two massed armies confronted each other on an open, elevated plateau. Whatever spurious grandeur warfare possessed was on display that day, with flags fluttering and horsemen galloping purposefully. Even more gratifying to the artist, there were few casualties, as the battle developed into mainly a long-range artillery duel. Taylor saw that his numbers would not allow him to challenge on the open field a Union force three times his size and withdrew behind the shield of his guns.
Because of the named battles of Mansura on May 16 and Yellow Bayou on the 18th, sharp fighting that took place on the 17th has generally been neglected. Barber, who had been an officer for only about a month (previously he had been sergeant-major, the highest enlisted rank), provides a full description of that day’s action from the perspective of the 31st Mass:
On the morning of the 17th the Regiment together with the 2d Ill. Cav’y found itself sharply attacked while still on the Bluff, the balance of the Brig, have passed into the bottom below. A line was formed about half way between the Bluffs and the Bayou, behind which the Regiment followed by the 2d Ill. retreated. Just as we were passing this line we found that the enemy was already in force on the opposite side of the Bayou, and the Regiment was immediately ordered forward to clear the way.
This was done handsomely and presuming that we were being followed by the balance of the Brigade the Regiment pushed on until we reached the head of the causeway (corduroyed) up which we had proceeded near a half mile when we received orders to return. It seems as the balance of the Brigade was following us, the head of the next Regiment was, just before reaching the causeway, struck by a heavy force of the enemy issuing from the woods in their front, our right rear. They also opened with some eight or ten guns. Col. Davis, not understanding the ground, allowed himself to be pushed back into the bend of the Bayou. Our Regiment rejoined the Brigade here. Here we remained cut off from the Army until reinforcements, consisting of 12 guns, supported I think by our Infantry Brigade and the 5th Cavalry B[atter]y under Col. Gooding reached us when matters were straightened out and we set on the causeway. The 4th Brig. was now relieved by Col. Gooding with the 5th Brig., who not feeling strong enough was reinforced by his own Regiment, the 31st. Our position during the day was the right of the Brigade, nearly a mile most of the time during the retreat to the right of the road. After dusk, the retreat having ceased, we rejoined the Brig. at Yellow Bayou, Capt. Fordham being detailed to take charge of the picket.
The bigger picture, as presented in the official reports, indicates that Taylor, unable to take on the entire Union force, sent some of his cavalry units to ambush and attempt to cut off the enemy rear guard, in which they nearly succeeded. At day’s end the 31st Mass. reached Yellow Bayou about 10 PM “unsaddling our horses and cooking a square meal for the first time since leaving Alexandria last Saturday A. M.” (May 14). [Rice journal, May 17, 1864]
By the morning of May 18 the Union army was collected at the ruins of Simmesport, ready to cross the steep-banked channel of the Atchafalaya. Taylor by then held little hope of destroying Banks’s army, but, determined to inflict punishment to the last moment, continued to press its rear guard with his hard-fighting cavalry. At length Banks ordered A.J. Smith to push back the troublesome Confederates, and Smith dispatched Gen. Mower with three brigades. This brought about the last major clash of the campaign, the battle of Yellow Bayou, which in its conduct resembled an accordion, as the two sides alternately pushed forward and fell back. As part of Mower’s force, the 31st Mass. was heavily engaged. Lt. Barber describes the beginning of the action as Mower advanced early on the morning of the 18th:
…quite early in the day [we] recrossed the Bayou and, proceeding about half of a mile to the rear, formed line behind a large hedge. While this was transpiring, however, the enemy [was] beginning to show considerable strength along the picket line. Capt. Fordham had asked for his regiment, which had accordingly been ordered to the support of the picket line. The regiment was divided, a portion under, I think, Capt. Rice, being stationed on the road at the right, the balance was stationed across a wood road leading up to the left centre of the picket line. I was with the left. About 9 A.M., the picket, support and all mostly off their horses and asleep was surprised by a sudden advance of the enemy who developed three quite strong columns on the right, centre, and left. The picket almost to a man leaped to horse and galloped to the rear, leaving Fordham, who was reported asleep under a tree, to gallop after his picket. I think, however, that the entire picket was rallyed before reaching the Infantry line. We immediately turned upon them and drove them back to the woods. We were assisted in this by the fire of the Infantry to a considerable extent. [diary]
Having succeeded in pushing back the Confederates, Mower advanced some distance, but, fearing he was entering a trap, retired to his original lines. Barber recounts his experience of these maneuvers:
We passed to the woods, through them and into the field beyond nearly a half mile when, a line having been formed in the edge of the woods to our rear, we were ordered back. We were stationed on the left flank of the forces in the woods. We remained in this position for some time, in the meanwhile the Infantry line, without notice to us, being moved to the rear edge of the woods. We are unable to tell at this late day whether this was intentional on the part of Mower to draw on the enemy or was a mistake of a staff officer. In any event, the regiment suffered severely, for on the advance of the enemy we received the brunt of their blow. [ibid.]
As Barber indicates, the Confederates responded with a fierce attack. Capt. Fordham’s report describes the intense action from his perspective:
When the line of battle was formed my regiment was posted on the extreme left and rear, to prevent a flank attack. I threw out a line of skirmishers, H and D squadrons [companies], under Lieutenants N.F. Bond and W.H. Pelton, connecting on the right with the infantry line of skirmishers. The enemy soon advanced in large force, and almost instantly the skirmishers of the regiment on my right began falling back. In a few minutes the regiment itself, without firing a shot, went to the rear, out of my sight. This movement left my right exposed, so that the enemy got in rear of the right of my skirmishers, when Lieutenant Bond, commanding the skirmish line, ordered his men to retire slowly, firing. As the enemy came on, by direction of Captain Allen, acting assistant adjutant-general, I moved the regiment about fifty yards to the left, wheeled into line, and commenced firing. The enemy outnumbering us at least five to one, I was compelled to fall back, which I did slowly, in good order, and firing constantly until I reached the opening behind the woods, where I formed on the left of a battery, which was supported by a regiment of infantry. The fire of the latter temporarily checked the advance of the enemy. I improved the opportunity to draw sabers and ordered a charge. I completed routing the enemy, killing and wounding many, and capturing 28 prisoners, among them two captains and one lieutenant. The prisoners represented six different regiments of mounted infantry. [OR, Ser. I, v. XXXIV, Part I, 465-67]
Fordham’s phrase “improved the opportunity” is characteristic of New England and represents the lingering Puritan attitude that it is sinful to waste time in idleness.
During this phase, the regiment was divided nearly in half and served on both flanks. Capt. Rice’s F Company was stationed on the far right of the regimental line. As it fell back, the company “retired only to the bounds of the enclosure around the buildings, where it made a stand, which it maintained until the arrival of infantry re-enforcements.” At this point what Rice called “some of the briskest fighting of the campaign” occurred. [journal, May 18, 1864] The Confederates employed a portion of Nim’s Battery, which they had captured at Sabine Crossroads. After this attack was repulsed, Co. F rejoined the regiment, which was not relieved until 8:30 PM. Later the brigade returned across Yellow Bayou to the Atchafalaya. Not surprisingly, casualties were significant, with the 31st Mass. suffering eight killed and 24 wounded, a substantial toll considering the small remaining strength of the regiment. (Fordham’s report indicates that the seven companies he commanded on the left presented a strength of only 125 officers and men.) In Co. B Sgt. Henry Talmadge was killed and John W. Babcock was “shot through the mouth, severing his tongue, and he had to starve to death.” [Frary recollection. Written many years after the event, this account confuses casualties from the Port Hudson and Red River campaigns, but it is probably correct as to the details of Babcock’s injury, as the official roster shows that he was injured May 18 and died of his wounds May 31, 1864.] Another loss on that day was John Broze, one of the Louisiana recruits in Co. D. As a French speaker, he had often been mentioned by Fairbank as invaluable in negotiating for food with the inhabitants.
Accounts of the battle from other sources note that “Much of the fighting took place in a thicket of undergrowth and dead trees, which eventually caught fire and sent up sheets of flame and clouds of smoke, adding to the already scorching heat of the sun.” [Johnson, 275] Overall, the regiment, engaged in the heat of battle throughout a long day, had performed effectively, highlighted by Fordham’s unexpected and impetuous charge. Barber gives credit to Fordham for this bold action, but in other instances slips in snide remarks about his performance, noting, for example, that he had been asleep when the enemy attacked. On a later occasion he seemed to delight in reporting an incident in which Fordham chased his own advance guard. [diary, June 19, 1864]
Yellow Bayou, also known as Norwood’s Plantation, was one of the major battles of the campaign, with significant losses; yet it has received little recognition, mainly because it appeared to have no great strategic effect. In reality, the clash was consequential, for if the Confederates had broken through, they could have disrupted the crossing of the Atchafalaya and caused heavy damage while the Union army was vulnerable. Instead, Taylor was punished severely for this final, desperate but ill-conceived thrust to destroy Banks’s army. In a puzzling aspect of the day’s events, Gen. Arnold proposed to send the cavalry division to “cut off” the enemy, but “General Smith refused to permit the brigade to move to this side of Yellow Bayou through his lines.” [Arnold to Headquarters, May 18, 1865; OR, Ser. I, v.XXXIV, Part III, 647] It is difficult to understand what Arnold expected to accomplish, since the enemy, though repulsed, was by no means fleeing and had a strong artillery complement. Furthermore, in his message, Arnold forwarded a request from Gen. Davis of the Fourth Brigade:
that my command be relieved from duty and allowed to return to camp for the following reason: For five days and nights my men have been almost constantly in the saddle, and during that time the horses have had but one ration of forage. Since daylight this morning we have been in the saddle and engaging enemy, and both men and horses are exhausted and actually suffering.
As Fordham’s account confirms, the 31st Mass., with the rest of the 4th Division, had been intensely engaged on May 18th and for many weeks before and was in poor condition to undertake further heavy action. There may have been some misunderstanding between Arnold and Davis, or between Arnold and his superiors, and that may account for the fact that Arnold resigned his command on June 24, to be replaced by Brig. Gen. J.W. Davidson. [Special Order No. 47, Military Division of West Mississippi, OR, Ser. I, v. XXXIV, Part III, 531, 545.]
The 4th Brigade remained on the west bank until the rest of the army had crossed. [Field Order No. 45, Dept. of the Gulf, May 18, 1864; OR, Ser. I, v.XXXIV, Part III, 645]. The men were ferried over the river, while wagons and artillery crossed on a pontoon bridge, another ingenious contrivance of Lt.Col. Joseph Bailey of Wisconsin, the officer who had conceived the dams that saved the navy at Alexandria. As part of the rear guard, the 31st Mass. may not have crossed the Atchafalaya until May 20, when the movement was finally completed. [ibid., 680] Soon after, A.J. Smith’s command, having been detained longer than Grant and Sherman intended, departed. Grant also pulled two divisions of the 19th Corps away from the Gulf to replace the enormous losses in the Wilderness of Virginia (though they ended up fighting in the last Shenandoah campaign).
On May 22nd the 31st Mass. arrived at Morganza, which most of the soldiers wrote as Morganzia. They continued to be assigned to the 4th Brigade, commanded by Col. Davis, rather than to Col. Gooding’s 5th Brigade. Even then the cavalry was sent out as scouts almost daily and remained in contact with the enemy, sometimes bringing in a few prisoners, though there was no heavy fighting. This continued into early June. Rice tells of a mildly amusing incident on June 1st, in which he was part of a considerable detachment consisting of a cavalry regiment, an infantry brigade, and an artillery battery. The artillery came in handy, as the battery fired at a mill across the Atchafalaya, causing a “grand skedaddle” of rebels who had taken cover in it, much as hens scattered during raids by soldiers of both armies. While this was going on, the rest of the men were busy picking and eating blackberries. [Rice Journal.] He is not specific as to the location of this encounter but elsewhere notes that his company at least was camped along Bayou Fordoche (which he writes Fordoce). [ibid., May 31, June 1 The incident is apparently described in a June 5 report by Davis (OR, Ser. I, v. XXXIV, Part I, 963-64)] This would place them several miles south of Morganza. The cavalry division finally collected on the bank of the Mississippi, at a place called Lobdell’s Landing, on June 3. With scouting reports in, Col. Davis reported that “I do not believe there is now a force exceeding 300 or 400 on this side of the Atchafalaya. These are lying around in small parties.” [ibid.]
On the 8th the 3d Maryland Cavalry, an outfit of which the 31st Mass. had a poor opinion, reported that it was in trouble. A hundred men under Capt. Howell, were detailed, with Lts. N.F. and S.B. Bond, to go to its assistance. “No enemy or trouble was discovered,” but the detachment was ordered to remain overnight “to picket strongly a certain road to prevent a flank movement upon Gen. Nickerson, who was on a Scout towards Simmesport.” [N.F. Bond chronology of Red River Campaign; Nettleton Papers] From June 18 to 21 some or all of the regiment set off on an expedition up the river under Gen. Grover, during which they penetrated about 15 miles into Mississippi. [ibid.]
Taylor did not attempt pursuit across the Atchafalaya with the remnants of his army. As he summarized, “The limits of human and equine endurance have been reached.” [Winters, 377] He had suffered over 600 casualties at Yellow Bayou, a larger absolute number than the Union losses, which meant even higher proportionally. Almost until the end he had genuinely believed that he could eliminate Banks’s army, and he blamed department commander Edmund Kirby Smith for the failure. Relations between the two had been strained at the start of the campaign, and at the end they broke down entirely. Nevertheless, Kirby Smith and others had defeated Frederick Steele and pushed him back to Little Rock, though they failed to destroy his army, much as Taylor had been disappointed by the escape of Banks. Earlier in the year a federal incursion into Florida had been repelled at the battle of Olustee, and on June 10 Nathan Bedford Forrest won his greatest victory at Brice’s Crossroads, MS, a battle which in broad outline resembled Sabine Crossroads; so it looked as though the Confederacy might be able to defend its periphery even after major cities were lost. Tying up A.J. Smith’s corps in the Red River adventure had delayed the projected attack on Mobile. All these developments sustained the spirit of resistance in the increasingly careworn South, but whether they would win recognition from Britain or France or convince the North to accept southern independence remained problematic.
For the North there were no redeeming features of the Red River expedition, which had absorbed a considerable levy in lives and resources. More of Louisiana was under Confederate control at the end of the campaign than at the beginning, and Union vandalism had hardened the attitude of the remaining population. For Banks personally the outcome was more catastrophic, though he may not have perceived the full implications until later. Upon returning to Simmesport he learned that a new military commander, Maj. Gen. E.R.S. Canby, had been appointed above him. (Canby’s message notifying Banks was dated May 14, 1864 but took time to reach Banks [OR, Ser. I, v. XXXIV, Part III, 583].) Though he remained in nominal control of the Department of the Gulf, it was clear that he would no longer exercise military command. Once again, Capt. Howell of the 31st Mass. had anticipated this, writing as early as April 26 “Banks is used up in my opinion & I think we shall have a new Department commander before long.” [letter to brother, Apr. 26, 1864]
Everything was aligned to portray Banks as responsible for the disastrous outcome of the expedition. The wily Halleck, whose most prominent military attribute was the resolute defense of his reputation, twisted the record to make it appear that Banks had been an active proponent of the Red River route. Regular army officers, however much they had concurred in Banks’s decisions, had no interest in defending a prominent example of the despised category of “political generals.” Banks had undoubtedly made grievous mistakes at many points of the campaign, but, seemingly aware of his deficiencies in handling troops, his policy was to leave much of this detailed management to his subordinates. A notable example was the order of march on the road to Mansfield.
After the campaign a pre-existing Congressional committee, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, conducted a lengthy politically-motivated investigation. This gave participating officers an irresistible opportunity to defend their performance; but whatever their other differences, it remained convenient to retain Banks in his role of scapegoat. Despite the self-serving nature of most of the testimony before the committee, it remains valuable to historians and contributes greatly to our understanding of the expedition. Even the formal nature of the proceedings cannot entirely suppress the personalities of the leading figures. Virtually all of them assigned blame somewhere else, beginning with Banks, who attributed the fiasco to Halleck’s persistent advocacy of an expedition up the Red River. Halleck, for his part, made his customary argument that the distance of the field armies from Washington rendered it impractical to issue absolute orders and that he had allowed Banks broad discretion in directing the campaign. Banks provided copious documentation showing that, being familiar with the territory from the 1863 campaign, he had always opposed repeating the march up the Red River. He was fully supportive of invading Texas, but he favored approaching it from the coast.
The testimony makes officer alignments clear. Banks and Franklin are mutually critical, while Dwight defends Franklin. Gen. Dwight, by then serving in Virginia with the 19th Corps, in effect accuses Gen. A.J. Smith of insubordination. He describes Smith as “a man who would take as much licence as he could get” and concludes that “General Banks did not exercise that authority and control over him which a superior officer should exercise over an inferior.” [Red River Expedition, 190 (testimony Jan. 30, 1865)] Banks confirms that he did not consider he was in command of Smith. [ibid., 339] Porter, meanwhile, regards Smith as the only competent army commander on the expedition. The sharp criticism of the various officers for one another, in which Dwight was an active participant, confirms his summary that “The infantry force was a peculiar one. It was composed of three different bodies of troops, having great jealousy of each other, the commanders not being thoroughly in harmony.” [ibid., 187] According to Dwight, Banks was also not on good terms with his chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Charles Pomeroy Stone. Again defending Franklin, Dwight also claimed that Stone (1824-1887) was the most conspicuous exponent of the belief that the Confederates would not stand until Shreveport. [ibid., 190] Any ill-feeling between Banks and Stone is somewhat difficult to understand, since they shared certain similarities, leaving aside the fact that Stone was a career officer. Stone was also from Massachusetts (Greenfield), and had earlier been caught up in a nasty dispute with Governor Andrew, due in part to the governor’s feeling that Stone, a Democrat, was insufficiently abolitionist. Stone had also run afoul of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which may explain why he was not asked to testify for the Red River investigation.
That level of discord alone created a poor outlook for the expedition, but even more critical is the one area in which the commanders seem to have been in agreement, which is that the whole concept was unwise. While busy criticizing one another, none of them rose to defend the strategy or purpose of the Red River campaign. Even Halleck’s support is no more than tepid (although his style was not to issue decisive statements or orders on any subject in which he might be held responsible for the outcome). Typical is Dwight’s view that the expedition “should never have been undertaken at all. There was nothing to be gained by operations on the west bank of the Mississippi as soon as the river was held by us.” [ibid., 191] Banks, as noted, made a persuasive case that he had always opposed going up the Red River. Moreover, he believed that even if he was able to seize Shreveport he could not have held it a month. [ibid., 20, 340] This is one area, and perhaps the only one, in which he, Dwight, Franklin and cavalry commander Lee are in accord. During his testimony Lee went further and asserted “I never supposed we could get to Shreveport.” [ibid., 63 (testimony Jan. 11, 1865)]
The men, though tired from hard marching and worried about uncertain rations, seem to have maintained reasonably good spirits; but the general defeatism seeped down through the officer corps, as evidenced by a letter Capt. Howell sent to his brother as the campaign neared its end: “Let me say that I deem this expedition a most foolish one ever undertaken . . . for had we succeeded in getting to Shreveport we should have been out of supplies, & the Red River is so low that it is with difficulty we could get transports back from Grand Ecore, & some of the gunboats have been dismantled and blown up . . . .” [letter, Apr. 26, 1864] History and personal experience teach us that any demanding, risky endeavor like the Red River campaign is unlikely to succeed unless its leaders believe in it wholeheartedly. To a large extent, the disappointing outcome was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Gen. William B. Franklin’s testimony before the committee on January 6, 1865 was significant and sometimes startling. His personality broke through the curtain of formality, and he comes across as unpleasant and arrogant, with an unjustifiably high regard for his own abilities. In giving his opinion of Banks, he unintentionally confirmed the discord that crippled the high command: “From what I had seen of General Banks’s ability to command in the field, I was certain that an operation dependent upon plenty of troops, rather than upon skill in handling them, was the only one which would have probability of success in his hands . . . .” [Red River Expedition, 35] When asked whether the disposition of his force at the start of the Sabine Cross Roads battle was a good one, he answered simply “Not at all.” The follow-up question, naturally, inquired who was responsible. “I suppose to a certain extent I am responsible,” replied Franklin. This was virtually the only example of an officer being willing to accept some degree of blame, but Franklin quickly shifted the cause of the failure to Gen. Lee: “the cavalry general had always been asking me to put his train behind the infantry troops, and let it march in front of the infantry train. I had always refused to do that . . . .”
Succeeding remarks by and about Franklin reveal that he had a strange perspective on his cavalry, seeming to regard it as an alien body rather than a vital component of his force with specific functions to perform. He admits telling Lee “it was his business to take care of his own train.” [ibid., 32] Lee affirmed that “General Franklin used to send me word that the cavalry was in the way.” [ibid., 64] Col. John S. Clark, an aide to Banks, testified that Franklin refused to send reinforcements to Lee, saying “he must fight them alone—that was what he was there for.” [ibid., 194] After the battle of Pleasant Hill, when Gen. Emory suggested sending in the cavalry, “I think it was General Franklin who told me that the cavalry were gone, and anticipated that we could get nothing out of them.” [ibid., 219 (testimony Feb. 7, 1865)] One of the elemental tragedies of the Civil War is that it inflated multitudes of officers rapidly to high rank, where they held life and death authority over thousands of men; but seldom did their competence or personal attributes expand to fill their new responsibilities. [Although it addresses later wars, it is instructive in this regard to read Thomas E. Ricks, The Generals (2012).]
Franklin’s animosity toward his cavalry commander, evident in the preceding quotes, may have deeper roots. As Banks and others noted, Franklin, with his usual smug certainty, regularly assured everyone that the Confederates would not make a stand until Shreveport. [ibid., 11 (Banks testimony)] (During his appearance, Franklin said that he expected a fight between Mansfield and Shreveport but wanted it the next day [April 9, the day after the actual battle of Sabine Crossroads], which may be true but does not address the same question.) Lee, who was in daily contact with the enemy, reached a much different conclusion, insisting that they would have to fight prior to reaching Shreveport and warning persistently that the order of march was not suited for an engagement that could occur at any time. As he told the committee, “I am very certain that the parties to whom my remonstrances were made . . . began to think I was getting panicky, as they say, and I had to stop it.” [ibid., 63] Given the prevailing culture of the officer corps, one can sympathize with his predicament. His repeated warnings could be taken to indicate not only that he was worried but also fearful–“old-womanish” in the stock phrase—a reputation that would be a death sentence to any military career.
Dwight, who at the time was Franklin’s subordinate and later his strong defender, voiced a far more sweeping condemnation of the cavalry operation: “For the work of cavalry proper it was utterly unfit. The men were not good riders, and did not understand how to take care of their horses properly. They were infantry soldiers who had been put on horseback; they were not properly cavalry.” He went on to say that the disposition of this force was “perfectly proper,” as the enemy was “similarly situated, only in greater numbers.” As he viewed it, “Their Texan troops were almost wholly mounted, and armed with Enfield rifles. It was a mounted infantry force, to which it was eminently proper we should oppose a mounted infantry force.” The trouble, in his opinion, was that “our force of cavalry, mounted infantry, etc., was badly commanded; that the officer commanding it did not well understand the manner of leading an advance, of obtaining proper information concerning the enemy, or of penetrating any little curtain that the enemy might throw in front of him . . . .” In summary he declared that “The cavalry force of that army was a very bad one; ill drilled, ill instructed, and very badly organized. But it was quite well mounted for the objects it had in view, and it was thoroughly equipped.” [ibid., 185-187]
Dwight’s savage criticism of the cavalry division is important in the history of the 31st Mass., which was part of the body he found so deficient. He regarded the cavalry as a mass and made no effort to distinguish individual regiments (in fact, particular regiments are rarely if ever cited anywhere in the hearings.) It is reasonable to accept that Dwight’s assertions contain some validity. It was only in December and early January that horses were issued, and the quality of the mounts was wildly inconsistent. The weather in much of January was atrocious, which rendered it difficult to care for the horses, much less train on them. Fairbank once wrote that “My horse knew more than I did about the drill.” [diary, Jan. 24, 1864] However, as the writings of many men in the 31st reveal, there was intensive training for at least a month and a half, culminating in saber exercises, jumping, and firing pistols on horseback. Col. Dudley, wearing white gloves, liked to parade the men through the streets of the city on Sundays, but their training went deeper than that. During the campaign itself, the cavalry carried out the duties assigned to it with little or no difficulty, and in their frequent clashes with the enemy almost invariably held their own or better. The one conspicuous exception, of course, was Sabine Crossroads, where the Union force was overwhelmed by sheer numbers, and the cavalry was swept back with the rout of the small infantry support.
Banks by nature shied away from confrontation. When pressured by some of his generals — Franklin and Dwight must have been prominent among them—he dumped Lee. Later he came to regret this hasty action:
General Lee was relieved from the command of the cavalry subsequent to this affair at Sabine Crossroads, but it was not on account of this action. It was because the general officers expressed to me so positively their want of confidence in the organization and condition of the cavalry, and advised so earnestly a change. That was an act which I afterwards regretted. It was done because of the demoralized condition in which the cavalry found itself after this affair, and he very important part it must have in our subsequent movements. I have no complaint to make of General Lee’s general conduct. He was active, willing, and brave, and suffered, more or less unjustly, as all of us did, for being connected with that affair. [ibid., 17]
By December 14, 1864, when he voiced these telling remarks, Banks had endured the consequences of being made the goat for the failure of the expedition, and that realization made him more sympathetic toward Lee’s plight. Lee remained a general and remained in the Department of the Gulf, but his military reputation was permanently damaged. Not being a military careerist, he resigned at the end of the war and returned to civilian life, though apparently not to Kansas, where he had been living when the war began.
In criticizing the performance of the mounted infantry, Dwight was taking an indirect swipe at Banks, who had created it, leaving aside the question of how else cavalry could have been obtained. It can also be questioned whether the condition of the cavalry was as desperate as depicted by Banks, Dwight, and Franklin. The various accounts by members of the 31st Mass. do not indicate catastrophic disintegration or irretrievable damage to morale; in fact, there are many examples of the cavalry being sent out on sensitive and dangerous missions. Once they regrouped after Sabine Crossroads their spirit seemed good and they performed effectively. Gen. Mower’s praise of the 31st carries great weight, as he seems to have been an officer who was devoted primarily to carrying out his duties and was less concerned with career infighting and political maneuvering. Dwight also ignored the fact that the cavalry fought many of its battles dismounted, in which they functioned basically as infantry skirmishers, regardless of how they got to the field.
One officer who was deeply offended by the shabby treatment of Lee was Capt. Howell of the 31st Mass. Just a few days before the encounter at Sabine Cross Roads, Howell had written to his brother that “Gen. Lee is my beaux [sic] ideal of a soldier, calm under all circumstances & a fine looking fellow as one would see in a thousand miles travel. I don’t know how he will fight the division but I think he must do it well. No Red Tape arrangements about the man.” [from Natchitoches, Apr. 5, 1864; emphasis in original.] Given that sterling endorsement, it is not surprising to find Howell three weeks later say “Banks is trying to make a scapegoat of General Lee and has relieved him of his command much to the disgust of the whole cavalry Division, but I fear it will not work. We know that no blame can justly be attached to Gen. Lee’s management of the cavalry, & so we blame Banks all the more for this unjustifiable step.” [from Alexandria, Apr. 26, 1864; emphasis in original.] It was the victimization of Lee, not the course of the action, which threatened Howell’s morale: “Now I feel like leaving the army and country to work out its own salvation & go home to see a little comfort. It may be that my patriotism will again rise but I must say it is now at a low stage.” [ibid.]
The appearance of Adm. Porter, representing the Navy perspective on the contentious campaign, was eagerly awaited. When he testified on March 7, 1865 the hearings had been in session periodically for almost three months, giving Porter ample time to study evidence and prepare his position. To accompany his presentation, he submitted several documents, notably some of his correspondence with Navy Secretary Gideon Welles. These letters establish that Porter was preparing a case to blame Banks in the event it became necessary to abandon his flotilla if low water made it impossible to bring it over the falls at Alexandria. In a letter of April 28, 1864, Porter told the secretary “I still have confidence . . . that the nation will not permit this fleet to be sacrificed when it has so well performed its part in what should have been a complete success.” In a separate confidential message of the same date, Porter was more explicit: “Unless instructed by the government, I do not think that General Banks will make the least effort to save the navy blockaded here” (Alexandria). [ibid., 250-51]
As portrayed by Banks and other officers, Porter showed a strange indifference toward the fate of his fleet. He either believed or hoped the river would rise (against the advice of many who were more familiar with it), but beyond that he had no plan to rescue his vessels. When first presented with the idea of building a dam to float the boats free, he scorned it. Banks, Dwight and Franklin might not have agreed on much else, but they were in accord on this, and Franklin said that Porter viewed the dam plan “with derision.” [ibid., 22, 34, 190] Nearly all the labor of constructing the dam was performed by army personnel, often standing waist-deep in the current while doing this dangerous work. At the start of the expedition, Porter had boasted “that wherever the sand was damp he could run his boats.” [Banks testimony; ibid., 13] Obviously that was hyperbole, but it was a sign of his over-confidence and an indication that he never expected to have to depend on the army to rescue him.
Once most of his fleet had been freed, Porter, in a rare unselfish gesture, publicly praised Banks: “To General Banks personally I am much indebted for the happy manner in which he has forwarded this enterprise, giving it his whole attention night and day, scarcely sleeping while the work was going on, attending personally to see that all the requirements of Colonel Bailey were complied with on the instant.” [ibid., 266] This limited endorsement probably had no bearing on Porter’s appraisal of Banks’s overall ability, as stated in a p.s. to his confidential message to Welles: “The only man here who possesses the entire confidence of the troops is General A.J. Smith, and if he were placed in command of this army he would, I am convinced, retrieve all its disasters.” [ibid., 253] Smith and Porter had worked together in a previous campaign, and this general must have been one of the few army officers who Porter got along with and respected.
At the start of his testimony, Porter referred to the Red River expedition as a “cotton speculation” or a “cotton raid.” [ibid., 270, 272] This, as he well knew from following the course of the investigation, was like throwing meat to lions. The committee members had doggedly pressed the inquiry about cotton, trying to show that seizing it had taken precedence over military concerns, or that officers and politically-connected individuals had profited illegally from cotton transactions. A large body of testimony affirmed that Porter, and perhaps other naval officers, had confiscated cotton on their own account and sent parties ranging several miles in from the river to seize it before the army arrived on the scene. [ibid., 18 (Banks testimony)] With astonishing boldness, Porter simply denied or dismissed these accusations. In doing so, he also denied the corollary, which is that the Confederates, who had hoped to sell their cotton, commenced destroying it only after the navy began to seize it without payment. [ibid., 224 (Dwight testimony)]
Banks was generally restrained and mild-mannered in his official conduct. It is therefore extraordinary that he was so angered by Porter’s testimony that he felt compelled to insert into the record a formal rebuttal, an uncompromising rebuke in which he flatly accused the admiral of lying:
Any statement, from whatever source, that the army contemplated moving from Grand Ecore towards Alexandria against the advice, or without the approval of, the naval officers in command, or until after the departure of every vessel on the river, is without the slightest color of truth. [ibid., 330]
In view of the published despatches of Admiral Porter, it is proper for me to say, that every position of difficulty in which the army was placed in this campaign was the immediate and direct consequence of delay in the operations of the navy. . . . I feel it to be a solemn duty to say, in this official and formal manner, that Admiral Porter’s published official statements relating to the Red river campaign are at variance with the truth, of which there are many thousand living witnesses, and do foul injustice to the officers and soldiers of the army, living and dead, to whom the Navy Department owes exclusively the preservation and honor of its fleet. [ibid., 338]
The general also was firm in asserting that “The construction of the dam was exclusively the work of the army. But little aid or encouragement was rendered by the officers of the navy,” with one exception. [ibid., 333]
The committee members asked nearly every officer who appeared what they knew about cotton transactions, but they were never able to amass evidence that Banks had given any speculators preferential treatment. Most of the officers were wise enough to avoid becoming entangled in the fibers of corrupt cotton, but even if they knew something, it was in their career interest to maintain that they had devoted full attention to their military duties. In a similar vein, many of the members inquired whether Banks’s progress had been delayed because he was attending to the building of a unionist government in the state. By this means the radicals were attempting to show that Banks was carrying out Lincoln’s plans for reconstruction at the expense of the army and to the detriment of their own harsher schemes.
Almost exactly a year before the momentous battle of Sabine Cross Roads, while engaged in the Teche campaign, Lt. Howell made the prescient assessment: “I dont think much of Banks, he dont seem to have any pluck or dash about him.” [letter from “Brashier City” Apr. 11, 1863] Personally brave, Banks managed his army cautiously and methodically. It is easy to analyze this behavior as attributable to self-doubt when surrounded by cocky professional officers who made little effort to conceal their contempt for him as a “political general.” Despite the often unwarranted self-assurance they displayed, generals like Franklin, Emory, and Dwight revealed no more imagination than Banks, creating a climate in which initiative would quickly wither. Banks was almost certainly truthful when he said he wanted to advance after the fight at Pleasant Hill and gave orders to that effect; nor is it surprising that his three subordinates talked him out of it. Afterwards they could fall back on the excuse that they gave this advice because they lacked confidence in Banks.
The one general who strongly favored resuming the advance was the crusty A.J. Smith; but his own corps was not sufficient to defeat the Confederates, and the other corps commanders would hardly consent to being led by him. In this instance Porter’s lavish praise of Smith is probably justified, and left to himself he might have destroyed Taylor’s army. Banks did not attach enough importance to the steady stream of Confederate deserters who came over earlier in the campaign when the Union army was advancing. This indicates waning commitment to the cause, and some of them said that “there are a great many more who are only waiting for a chance to get away.” [Rich diary, Mar. 27, 1864] After the reverse at Pleasant Hill, a strong counter-thrust might well have shattered Confederate resistance. It is true, as the three cautious generals counseled, that the navy would not have been able to support an advance and that there was no ready source of supply on the road to Shreveport; however, if the opposing army was demolished, much of the incentive for continuing to Shreveport would have been removed. After Sabine Crossroads, the rapid retreat of the Union army made desertion a less tempting prospect for the Confederates and one that would have been difficult to accomplish. Meanwhile, Banks continued to overestimate the strength and condition of his foes, and the steady retreat made it difficult for his cavalry to gather accurate intelligence by the usual means. If Banks had placed more importance on obtaining and exploiting intelligence, he might have developed a different conception of the forces opposing him. In summarizing the Red River campaign, it may well be that Banks is most culpable not for his conduct of the battle at Sabine Crossroads but for his failure to turn on the Confederates at some opportune time in the succeeding weeks. Except for Sabine Crossroads, Banks’s army had prevailed in almost every encounter with the enemy, but that exception was so conspicuous that the campaign (and Banks’s reputation) could never be redeemed.
Gen. Grant maintained an almost obsessive drive to rid himself of Banks, and the futile Red River campaign gave him the opportunity. Writing from Culpeper Court House, Virginia, where it seemed he would have been fully absorbed in fighting Lee, Grant found time to inform Halleck, who by then had been superseded by Grant and was serving as his chief-of-staff, “I have just received two private letters, one from New Orleans and one anonymous, from the 13th corps, giving deplorable accounts of General Banks’s mismanagement. His own report and these letters clearly show all his disasters to be attributable to his incompetency.” [letter, Apr. 25, 1864, in Red River Expedition, 167] It is hard to know whether to be more amazed that Grant relied on sources of that kind to form his opinion at a distance, or that he freely acknowledged such reliance. In writing to Halleck, however, he was addressing a personage who shared his feelings.
Grant’s dominant characteristic was persistence, and he applied it to Banks just as he did against Lee. Three days later, overlooking his own approval (though conditional) of the expedition, Grant told Halleck “General Banks, by his failure, has absorbed ten thousand veteran troops that should now be with General Sherman, and thirty thousand of his own, that would have been moving toward Mobile, and this without accomplishing any good result.” [Apr. 28, 1864; ibid., 169] As if frustrated by the lack of immediate action, he followed up a few days later with a more severe condemnation: “I do think it is a waste of strength to trust General Banks with a large command or an important expedition.” [to Halleck, May 3, 1864; ibid., 171] Although Halleck was now subordinate to Grant, he was physically in Washington, and Grant may have believed he still possessed potent political influence. Finally, if there was any remaining doubt of his intentions, Grant reiterated: “Private letters and official statements from the department of the Gulf show such a state of affairs there as to demand, in my opinion, the immediate removal of General Banks. The army has undoubtedly lost confidence in him.” This was written from “near Spotsylvania Court House,” where Grant was engaged in desperate combat with Lee’s army. [to Halleck, May 17, 1864; ibid., 173]
On the same day Grant had the satisfaction of learning from Halleck that “Nearly all your wishes in this matter have been anticipated.” [May 17, 1864; ibid., 174] In typical style, the administration had not actually relieved Banks but had rendered him militarily powerless by inserting another layer of command (Canby) above him. As Halleck informed Grant “Canby has full authority to make any changes in commanders he may desire.” The congressional testimony that might have explained or exonerated Banks to some degree would not be assembled until many months later and almost certainly would not have altered Grant’s resolute determination to remove him. Nor would Canby’s surprised report on taking command that “This army is in better condition than I had supposed from the accounts that had reached me, and will soon be ready for offensive operations” altered the unswerving judgment. [from “Mouth of the Red River” to Halleck, May 18, 1864; ibid., 174. Canby had used the same language in his report to Halleck on May 18, 1864. (OR, Ser. I, v. XXXIV, Part III, 644) In another letter to Halleck a few days later, Canby was more restrained, writing that the troops “although in better state than I had supposed, are not in a condition to take the field.” (May 24, 1864, OR, Ser. I, v. XXXIV, Part IV, 16)] Somewhat ironically, Grant was then dealing with a similar problem in the person of none other than Benjamin F. Butler and had to repeat much the same procedure. It is curious that Banks’s military failure largely demolished his political aspirations, whereas a politician like Andrew, who had not chosen the military route to inflate his prospects, remained politically viable (though ultimately impeded by other character flaws). Banks’s career, and later Butler’s, seemed to illustrate in a perverse way the adage that he who lives by the sword perishes by the sword.
Banks had been thoroughly discredited by the congressional testimony and by his removal from active command, but his humiliation was not yet concluded. In late November he had been authorized “to communicate to the President any matters relating to the civil administration of your department which you may deem it important to the public service for him to be appraised of by direct communication with him.” Banks apparently wrote or approved an article in a Washington paper that the administration found embarrassing, which brought down a stinging and unmitigated reprimand from Secretary Stanton: “you have henceforth no leave or permission from this Department to correspond or communicate with any authority, civil or military, except in accordance with the rules and regulations of the military service.” [Stanton to Banks, Dec. 6, 1864; OR: Ser. I, v. XLI, Part IV, 779] So here was Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, who had commanded up to 50,000 heavily armed men, accompanied by the full panoply of prancing horses and rumbling caissons, being dressed down like a junior lieutenant, which he had never been.
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After the battle of Sabine Cross Roads, more than 1500 federal soldiers were listed as missing. Some found their way back to their units in succeeding days, but most were hauled in as prisoners. During the rest of the campaign, each side brought in a steady flow of prisoners, perhaps roughly equal in numbers. The Confederates held some advantage in this, since they were able to pick up Union soldiers who could not keep pace with the rapid retreat. The experience of these captives contrasted radically with that of their free-ranging comrades.
Banks’s decision to withdraw after the repulse of the Confederates at Pleasant Hill meant that the wounded had to be left on the battlefield. A.J. Smith protested passionately against this, pleading for a delay until the wounded could be recovered and the dead buried. In this instance Banks was adamant, showing a firmness and willingness to command Smith that had not been displayed on other occasions. In defending his stance he argued that wagons were no longer available and that the enemy held the only source of water in the vicinity. [Hollandsworth 193-94] Abandoning the wounded created a scandal that provided ammunition to critics of Banks during the congressional investigation. One surgeon, asked how it happened that the wounded were left in the hands of the enemy, replied “This is a great mystery to me.” [Red River Expedition, 175] Most of the wounded men became prisoners, though many died along the way due to inferior medical care and the hardships of being moved to prison houses and camps.
One of the most harrowing experiences was recounted by Sgt. Danforth Converse. As noted previously, Capt. Rice had found him wounded on the battlefield and reluctantly left him, as “I did not then feel that I had a right to take two or three well men from the Co. to take care of this one, and therefore decided to abandon him, as I hoped, temporarily.” Rice removed the sergeant’s carbine “as I was determined that the Rebs shouldn’t have that, anyhow.” [journal, Apr. 8, 1864] Converse himself saw this from a different perspective. Severely wounded by a gunshot in the thigh, he fainted from loss of blood.
I soon recovered consciousness, however, and was fully aware of everything around me, but unable to move a muscle or even open my eyes. While in this condition, our Army was obliged to fall back before the superior and overwhelming numbers of the Enemies’ forces, and I remember distinctly how Capt. Rice and Orderly Sergt. Chas. H. Horr came to my side, and hearing them both pronounce me dead. Oh God! How I struggled to open my eyes to speak; to make even a sign of life. But there was no time to loiter by the side of the dead, and they passed on, leaving me there to be buried by stranger hands.
He lay helpless on the battlefield for four days, during the nights listening to wild hogs devouring the dead and perhaps some who were not quite dead. Finally, on April 12 Confederates found him and brought him to Mansfield. During all that time he had nothing to eat or drink except a sip of brandy that one of his captors gave him. At first local women visited the prisoners and brought them food; but later that was prohibited, and an old black woman who disobeyed was “stripped of her clothing, tied to a tree, and severely whipped.” Converse learned that Sgt. Geo. B. Canterbury of Co. D and Corp. Edward Regan of Co. F were being held in the local jail and visited them. He took credit for keeping Canterbury alive by giving him wine that he had managed to obtain through one of the guards. Converse was probably moved to Texas eventually, but he does not say that.
John W. Gibbs was one who became well acquainted with the prison camp in Texas. Captured at Bynum’s Mills, he was interrogated intensively by Gen. Taylor and, assembled with other prisoners, sent on the arduous march to Texas. When they passed through Shreveport, the goal that Banks never obtained, Gibbs observed “That town was not such a place as I expected to see at the head of the Red River. It was in a dilapitated [sic] condition. One of the prisoners expressed the idea of the company when he said, ‘What Banks will want of this God forsaken place I don’t see’.” Gibbs’s description of the prison camp at Tyler, TX, makes it resemble on a smaller scale the infamous Andersonville in Georgia, (and since he was writing many years later, he might have been influenced by accounts of the Georgia facility):
The stockade was situated on the side of the hill facing south, containing about four acres. On the lower side, was the spring, which was near the fence, and across that end of the pen was a swamp place that we could not occupy. We were marched inside and divided into detachments of sixtys and given a number. Each 60 had given them an iron kettle that would hold six quarts, a skillet with a cover, (or what we would call a Dutch oven) and a wooden bucket. We stood there in line with a line of guards about us and looked at that crowd of men, many of them without a single rag of clothing upon them and others with the remains of a pair of pants, or a shirt or a few rags was all that many had. Men that had been there two years had had most that they had at the time they went there taken from them, and had nothing in the way of clothing since. Forty-five hundred men in that space would leave but little room for each. I saw in the crowd one of my company and I was allowed, as were others, to join detachments in which were men of the Reg. to which they belonged and there I found thirty-eight of our Reg’t. We had a little spot that we claimed as our own and had to watch it that others did not crowd us out. The stockade was built in the side of the forest and the trees inside and around it were used in its construction. About 12 or 14 ft. high on the inside, logs split in two and set close together with the split side in and the bark on the outside, high enough for the guards to be head and shoulders above it. The “Dead Line” was an imaginary line said to be 15 ft. from it but it was not safe to go as near as that to it.
During strenuous action on May 3, Sgt. Charles B. Jackson of Co. F, a Belchertown resident, seized a moment to sleep beside the road, but the column moved on without awakening him. When he woke up, as Capt. Rice put it succinctly, “the Johnnies had him.” [Rice journal] Later in the month, in the clash at Marksville on May 17, the regiment’s assistant surgeon, Dr. Elisha P. Clark of Milford, found himself surrounded by enemy cavalry and was compelled to surrender. According to Rice, he had joined the regiment only on April 5 and may not have known his way around well. Clarke’s account suggests that the rebels who captured them may have been irregulars: “When we came opposite the house from which the shots had been fired, upon the piazza were two men clothed in grey homespun, and two bare-footed women with uncombed hair, and dressed in what I judged to be white sheeting which had been colored with some kind of bark. They were altogether a bad-looking mess.” [Clarke recollection] After that, being a physician, he was well-treated and met Generals Taylor and Poligniac, a French prince who had volunteered in the Confederacy. He was allowed to treat Union prisoners and was paroled to rejoin his unit, which he reached on June 17. The prisoner interlude had deleted only a month from his regular routine and may have compensated with novel sensations.
Sgt. Converse was also paroled on June 17, but not before another trying experience:
The night before our parole, one of the surgeons, Dr. Hess . . . came quietly through on his round, and informed each of us that a squad of rebel thieves would make a raid on us before morning, and if we had any money, watches or jewelry, if we would give it to him he would preserve it for us. How the man ever managed to walk off under his weight of watches, jewelry and money, I don’t understand, for we had to march about eight miles before reaching the boat. After we were aboard, he returned every man his property, true to his word. And when the searchers went through us that night, they labored in vain, for they found naught but empty pockets.
Gibbs was finally exchanged, though as he relates it was a near thing: the guards found that they lacked 39 men, and “Capt. Hall suggested that there was just that number inside, all of one Reg’t (which was ours). Well, as we are ready to start, we will take them if they have just the number.” [recollection.] The figure for 31st Mass. captives given by Gibbs seems large but lies within the bounds of credibility, based on the official roster. If accurate, it represents more than 10% of the regiment’s strength. They set off on a difficult march to Shreveport, followed by a long boat trip down the Red River, during which they had very little to eat. William H. Rich, then at Baton Rouge, confirms that a boat came down on June 17 carrying 400 paroled prisoners. He lists several of the other sergeants he recognized: George B. Canterbury (Co. D), Converse (F), Elliot Durkee (G) and William Kayhoo (K). The first three had been left for dead on the battlefield and made amazing recoveries.
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