Part 9 — The Final Chapter

By Larry Lowenthal

Cmdr. David G. Farragut

Cmdr. David G. Farragut

At last the Union was ready to complete the conquest of Mobile. In August 1864, Admiral David G. Farragut had led a naval attack on the city, in cooperation with the army. During the course of the fight, the admiral supposedly exclaimed “Damn the torpedoes [mines], full speed ahead!” thereby coining another of the Navy’s unforgettable battle slogans. Whether he really uttered something resembling those words cannot be confirmed, but the widespread belief that he had did wonders to expand his reputation. In the battle, Farragut destroyed the small Confederate naval force that was defending the city, and  subsequently the army captured the forts that protected the outer harbor. Part of the 31st Mass. was performing provost marshal duties in New Orleans, where they took charge of enemy soldiers captured at the forts and processed 300 of them to be sent to the sprawling prison facility at Elmira, NY. [Howell Letters, Sep. 12, 1864]  These actions accomplished the main strategic purpose of the campaign, which was to close off Mobile as a haven for blockade-runners. The Confederacy now had no open ports in the Gulf east of Texas, but Union planners still deemed it important to seize the city itself.

The resulting operation is little known either to the general public or to Civil War scholars, as it is completely overshadowed by the climax of the grand campaign around Richmond and Petersburg. In preparation, the Army conducted its usual reorganization, combining the 1st Louisiana, 2nd Illinois, and 2nd New York cavalry regiments with the 31st Mass. mounted infantry into a “Separate Cavalry Brigade” to be commanded by Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Lucas of Indiana. [Special Orders No. 39, Division of West Mississippi, Feb. 8, 1865; OR: Ser. I, v. XLVIII, Part I, 772.] Lucas, a volunteer officer, had performed well on the Red River expedition. Lt. Col. Nettleton requested to be relieved of his general court-martial duty so that he could resume command of his battalion, and this request was granted. In early March Lucas’s cavalry brigade assembled at Carrollton.

Army strategists had determined that this portion of the attack would be conducted from Pensacola, Fla., rather than by marching overland from Louisiana. Pensacola was considerably closer to Mobile, though it turned out that the country between was rather barren and unable to support men and horses. The plan was for Gen. Frederick Steele to lead a force consisting of two infantry divisions (one colored), three artillery batteries, and the cavalry to attack Mobile’s defenses from the rear while department commander Gen. Canby approached from the front. One of the batteries was Nims’, which had been reconstituted with new guns after being overrun at Sabine Crossroads. There was some potential for discord here, as Canby had been responsible for having Steele removed from command of the Department of Arkansas the previous November. In contrast to Grant’s relentless vendettas against generals such as Banks, Butler, and William Rosecrans, he supported Steele and tried to secure another field command for him.

In this campaign, Canby commanded 45,200 troops, including A. J. Smith’s 16th Corps. Steele’s force totaled 13,200 of this, of which Lucas’s cavalry comprised 2500. [Canby report, June 1, 1865; OR: Ser. I, v. XLIX, Part 1, 92] In addition, he was supported by the navy in the abundant navigable waterways around Mobile. This powerful aggregation far outweighed anything the Confederates could bring to bear in the area. Canby had spent the preceding months accumulating information about his objective from prisoners, deserters, and scouts. One such report, by Elliot Bridgman, a former officer in the 31st Mass. addressed “the geographical, military, political, and social conditions of the country lying on the coast between the Mississippi and Apalachiola [sic] Rivers.” In addition to presenting a wealth of other data, Bridgman observed that “The political status of this section of country is favorable to the Union. The people generally are tired of the war, and, in fact, many of them were never in favor of it.” [Oct. 31, 1864; OR: Ser. I, v. XLI, Part IV, 337-39. It is not clear in what capacity Bridgman prepared this report. He had been discharged from the 31st Mass. Oct. 9, 1863, to become an officer of colored troops. Since he prepared his report at Canby’s request, he was probably on the general’s staff.]

On March 6 two sections of the battalion, among them Fairbank’s company with their horses, embarked on the Warrior for Fort Barrancas at Pensacola (now within the grounds of the naval air station), arriving on the 10th and 11th. [diary, Mar. 8, 1865. Special Orders No. 18, Special Cavalry Brigade, Mar. 7, 1865, directed that “The commanding officer of the Thirty-first Massachusetts (mounted) Infantry will move with his command remaining at Carrollton (including recruits) from his present camp at 7 a.m. 8th instant, with all transportation, baggage, &c., pertaining to his regiment, as allowed by existing orders, and with three days’ cooked rations and forage, to Hickok Landing, when he will proceed to embark for Pensacola on board steamers assigned to him upon reaching that point.” (OR: Ser. I, v. XLIX, Part I, 859)]  Some men managed to get drunk on these journeys. [Rich diary, Mar. 10, 1865]  The final companies of the 31st Mass. sailed on the steamer General Banks on March 9. In addition to the reminiscent name of the ship, the troops passed Fort Pike and stopped at Ship Island, symbolically unwinding their career in the Gulf. [Rich diary, Mar. 10, 1865]

Already much reduced in numbers, the regiment lost three more men to desertion at Barrancas. These fellows had joined only two months earlier. Two gave their residence as Philadelphia and the other New Haven, so that although they listed the Massachusetts towns of Dudley (Worcester County) and Monson (Hampden County) as temporary locations, they may have had only a limited commitment to Massachusetts. They may have had only a limited commitment to serving at all once they had collected their $325 bounty. There is no way to determine whether they belonged to the despised category of bounty jumpers, who enlisted and deserted repeatedly to grab the generous bounties. Desertion in Barrancas offered poor prospects for following this pursuit, as they were hundreds of miles from any point where they could enlist in a Northern unit with any degree of credibility. The only realistic mode of traveling to the North was by ship, which would have raised unwelcome questions as to why men of military age were on the loose. Bounty-jumping in the late months of the war could be a rewarding criminal activity but was also risky, as the usual penalty was death and such men were granted little sympathy. So perhaps the approaching smell of gunpowder was more of a factor in the desertion than visions of further gain from nefarious enterprise.

During several days encamped at Barrancas making final preparations, Fairbank, who seems to have been skilled as a tailor as well as a carpenter, was kept busy repairing and adjusting clothing. “All government clothing needs to be sewed over again before wearing.” [diary, Mar. 17, 1865]  He did not bother to observe that contractors were becoming wealthy supplying this defective clothing to the government. Steele’s column started off late in the afternoon of March 19 and crossed a bay to Pensacola by fording. The mounted troops had been ordered to be ready at 8 a.m., but in typical army “hurry up and wait” fashion the order to move did not come until 5 p.m. Rice reported that “in the forenoon when the darky troops crossed, the water was hardly knee deep, but where our time came, the tide was in, and the darkness preventing the men from seeing precisely where they ought to go, some of them had to swim for it, and two lost their horses and nearly drowned themselves.” [letter Apr. 8, 1865]

Plans for the campaign called for Steele’s force to move almost due north, generally following the Escambia River, into Alabama before turning west toward Mobile, rather than taking the shortest route. This would allow them to protect Canby’s flank and to disrupt the vital rail line from Montgomery to Mobile. Roads in the region, poor under the best of circumstances, had been made much worse by persistent rains. Canby informed Halleck that “For the last forty days we have had but seven of favorable weather. During all the rest of this time heavy easterly and southeasterly gales and dense fog have prevailed, rendering the transportation of troops and supplies both tedious and dangerous . . . .” [Mar. 7, 1865; OR: Ser. I, v. XLIX, Part I, 856] Once the troops got under way, almost one whole day was spent waiting for roads to be corduroyed (a rough surface of logs laid at right angles to the course of the road).

Contact with the enemy began on March 23, and a more substantial encounter took place a few miles inside the Florida border on the 25th. This battle, commonly identified as Bluff Springs, but sometimes as Canoe Creek, is almost unknown except to the most dedicated Civil War enthusiasts; yet it was the largest clash on the march to Mobile and had a decisive effect on the campaign. It appears that the battle was fought entirely by cavalry, with no infantry engaged. If Lucas had faced a more formidable force, he might have been in trouble, but he was opposed by two Alabama cavalry regiments which, judging by the course of the battle, were well past their fighting prime. One powerful charge by Lucas’s horsemen smashed the Confederates and scattered them in all directions. Probably trying to rally his fleeing troops, General James Holt Clanton was severely wounded and fell into Union hands. At the time it was thought that his wounds were mortal, but he survived, only to be murdered in Tennessee in 1871.

The 31st Mass. was not heavily engaged in this fight, which was mainly borne by the Louisiana (federal) cavalry. In a later stage, when some of the Confederates attempted to form a new line on the Escambia River, they were driven out by Lucas’s artillery. Then the 31st Mass. charged across the river, seized the enemy positions, and held them until infantry support reached the scene. It was a satisfying little action for the 31st, cited in Lucas’s report, and, better yet, cost no casualties. Clanton’s cavalry had been unable to make a successful defense of their home state. Lucas reported that “The enemy was demoralized to such a degree by the resistless force with which I pressed them, that arms, clothing, and everything that impeded their flight was thrown away and scattered along the road and through the woods.” [Lucas “In the field near Escambia River,” OR: Ser. I, v. XLIX, Part I, 302] He reported capturing 18 officers and 111 enlisted men out of a force estimated at 600 and boasted that his foes were “completely disorganized and scattered.” [Lucas “four miles west of head of Perdido River, Ala.”, to Canby, Mar. 28, 1865, OR, Ser. I, v. XLIX, Part II, 119-20] Steele’s troops destroyed part of the Montgomery railroad and captured two trains and their crews, a ruinous blow to the flimsy Confederate supply system. On March 28 the expedition continued its march toward Blakely over “roads worse than any we have yet travelled” and made about 12 miles.

Further on, the main problem became finding food for the men and forage for the horses. This was not a surprise, as at the outset of the campaign Steele had informed Canby that “From all the information I can obtain, it is probable that we shall find neither forage nor provisions between here and Pollard [Alabama], except that the cavalry may find some on by-roads.” [Steele, from Pensacola, Mar. 20, 1865; OR, Ser. I, v. XLIX, Part II, 41] Lt. Sagendorph’s company was sent off on a scout and brought back news that supply ships from Pensacola were not able to ascend the Escambia River. As a result, the troops were immediately put on half rations, and Howell described the consequences:

We were two weeks in the most barren pine forest you ever saw—not a house for many miles. We only took forage for two days for the horses and rations for 5 days for the men, so that we came very near starving. Half rations made our hard tack hold out ten days; after that we had only fresh meat and that of the poorest quality. The men were so hungry that they would beg for an ear of corn and would knock down a pig, cut out a portion and eat it raw and warm; and the horses became almost shadows by their total abstinence from all food for so long a time. [Howell letters, Apr. 4, 1865]

Norris added that they traveled five days “before we came to a single habitation.” [letter, Apr. 4, 1865]  Except in northern Maine, New England soldiers were unaccustomed to such extensive desolate territory.

In his message reporting the victory of March 25, Lucas also observed that “Our forage is entirely exhausted, and the country affords but an insufficient supply. Our rations also are nearly consumed . . . .” [Lucas “four miles west of head of Perdido River, Ala.”, to Canby, Mar. 28, 1865, OR, Ser. I, v. XLIX, Part II, 119-20] No rations were issued on March 30, and “The men shared with their horses the few ears of corn dealt out.” [Nettleton report]  Nevertheless, morale remained generally good, and the expedition covered ten miles. Scouts were sent out looking for corn in this dismal region, and finally on March 31 a party under Capt. Rice came upon a grist mill at Stockton on the Tensas River and ground enough corn to keep them going. Temporary relief for some of the men arrived from an unexpected source when they drove away two regiments of rebs who had been cooking supper. “They left it and our boys eat [sic] it for them,” Rich wrote with apparent glee. [diary, Apr. 1, 1865]  It was testimony to how hungry they must have been if even meager Confederate provisions seemed appetizing. For the remainder, the famine ended on April 3 when regular rations were delivered, and Fairbank rejoiced with customary sarcasm: “Hurrah, our rations came today and once more I can taste good salt pork and hard tack and coffee for supper.” [diary]

There was almost constant skirmishing as the army approached Mobile, and Rich reported that one man was killed and six or seven wounded on April 1. [diary, Apr. 2, 1865]  Still, the inescapable impression is that Confederate fighting spirit, which has sustained them against great odds for four years, was fading. In individual clashes they were often not greatly outnumbered, if at all—in one encounter Rich thought that the rebels were 1000 strong against 500–; they maintained an adequate complement of artillery, and they knew that they could always fall back into strong fortifications. [Rich diary, Mar. 25, 1865]  Yet their resistance seemed perfunctory, carried out for appearance’s sake, rather than in any hope of success. By then the quality of southern soldiery had undoubtedly declined. The most dedicated and high-spirited fighting men lay dead at Malvern Hill, Gettysburg, Shiloh, Perryville, and countless other battlefields. Probably the same could be said of the Union, but the North had much larger reserves to draw from and could compensate with the weight of numbers.

On the approach to Mobile, the Union army encountered another distressing obstacle—“torpedoes” as they called them, which today would be classified as land mines. Rich described them as shells four to 16 inches long, filled with bullets, etc. [diary, Apr. 2, 1865]  An indignant Thomas Norris referred to them as “barbarous and murderous actions.” [letter, Apr. 3, 1865]  It was one more way in which this war anticipated subsequent conflicts in Europe. Considering the declining state of the Confederate military machine, these devilish devices worked surprisingly well, wounding men and destroying horses. Norris reports that “a man had his head blown off by one,” [ibid.] and Nettleton’s report of April 2 confirms that a man was killed by a torpedo. In addition to exercising still greater caution, the Yankees responded by setting enemy prisoners to remove the torpedoes—a clever tactic, though it would probably have been in violation of the Geneva Convention, had it existed in 1865. [ibid., Apr. 1, 1865]

Lucas’s cavalry had succeeded in driving the Confederates into their works at Blakely on the east shore of Mobile Bay. (Once a thriving place, curiously enough established by New Englanders, Blakeley is now a ghost town, administered as a state park. Blakely was the spelling used by Union forces during the war.) The job of the cavalry was done, and it was up to the infantry and artillery to dislodge them. In an unusual case of excellent timing, Steele arrived only a day after the cavalry, April 2, 1865. That evening the Confederates began the evacuation of Richmond, though no one in Alabama would have been aware of that. Even lacking that knowledge, the Confederacy seemed to be crumbling, fighting fitfully but without the former zeal. (The first Union forces to enter Richmond were under the command of Gen. Weitzel, well-known to the 31st Mass.)

Soon after arriving, Lucas advised Canby of the poor condition of his forces: “Our horses have suffered very severely from overwork and a lack of forage, the country through which we have been operating having furnished an insufficient supply.” He recommended that “about 300 horses will be required to fully supply the deficiency existing and remount my command.” [April 3, 1865, OR, Ser. I, v. XLIX, Part II, 211.] Perhaps before receiving this report, Canby ordered Lucas’s weary horsemen to the northeast to guard “all the main avenues by land and river to Blakely.” Those, he wrote, “must be permanently and strongly guarded, and zealous and effective parties must scour the country along the front of the guard.” [April 3, 1865, OR, Ser. I, v. XLIX, Part II, 212.]

At Mobile, the Confederates were bottled up in their strongholds of Blakely and Spanish Fort. Howell believed that there were 4000 men in the Blakely garrison, probably an exaggeration. Remembering former encounters, he feared that “We shall doubtless take it in due time, but when I remember how long we were taking Port Hudson I cannot be so sanguine about our immediate success.” [Howell letter, Apr. 4, 1865] General Canby shared this attitude and spent days collecting heavy guns in preparation for a long siege. Contributing to this caution was a report from the doomed city of Richmond, passed on to Secretary Stanton, that “The preparations for the defense of Mobile are very complete. Provisions for a six-month’s siege have been accumulated. General Taylor has done everything for the successful defense of the city.” [From Augusta, GA, Mar. 25, 1865, OR, Ser. I, v. XLIX, Part II, 120] Grant also subscribed to this line of reasoning, telling Stanton that “I have good reasons to believe orders have gone from Richmond to hold Mobile at all costs.” [Feb. 22, 1865; OR: Ser. I, v. XLIX, Part I, 754] By this point of the war the most potent weapon in the Confederacy’s arsenal was not its actual military capability but the embedded memory of its former strength. Military strategists are often accused of fighting the last war; in this case they were still influenced by an earlier stage of the current war. They did not yet understand that the Confederate army of 1865 was a pale shadow of what it had been two years earlier.

The South had never had much success holding fixed places, and in the waning days of the Confederacy there was much less chance. After putting up a show of resistance, the forts surrendered on April 8 and 9. Union troops attacked two outlying posts, Batteries Tracy and Huger, on the night of the 11th but found them unoccupied. Throughout the war the Confederates had never been able to resolve the problem of holding besieged positions, though in this instance experience had taught them to let most of the garrison flee before the surrender. (The 9th was also the day Lee surrendered at Appomattox, but the two events were unrelated except as signs of general collapse.) Thomas Norris, though only a young private, made a perceptive observation when he commented “The whole Rebel army that occupied this place have skedaddled in dismay, leaving behind them one of the strongest fortified places in the whole Confederacy, not excepting Richmond.” [letter, Apr. 17, 1865]  Fairbank noted that the 8th was also the anniversary of “our skedaddle from Sabine.” A tangible reminder of how much things had changed in that year was the discovery that one of the brass artillery pieces captured at Blakely had been taken from Nims’s Battery during the rout at Sabine Crossroads. [Rich diary, Apr. 13, 1865]

Siege of Mobile (Harper's Weekly Magazine)

Landing Troops near Mobile, 12 April 1865
(Harper’s Weekly Magazine)

With its defenses vanquished, Mobile formally surrendered on April 12, thereby avoiding destruction. A week earlier Gen. Canby had assigned the 31st Mass. to headquarters and provost marshal duties, which gave it responsibility for handling the prisoners that were taken. More prisoners were brought in each day. On April 10 the 31st took charge of 2500 captives, and the eventual total may have reached 7000. [Fairbank diary Apr. 10, 12, 1865. Canby’s official report says 4400 prisoners and 103 pieces of artillery were captured, but this figure applies only to the “east side.” (OR Ser. I, v. XLIX, Part II, 334)]  In carrying out these duties, Fairbank witnessed an ugly but revealing incident. As black Union troops went to take control of some prisoners, “A nigger bayoneted one of them for saying they would come Fort Pillow on them again.” (This was a reference to the battle of Fort Pillow, on the Mississippi River in Tennessee, almost exactly a year before. Although the issue continues to be disputed among historians, many in the North believe that federal troops who had surrendered were massacred by the Confederates, with black soldiers in particular being slaughtered. This is borne out by the disproportionate ratio of deaths between black and white troops. If some Confederate prisoner at Mobile made the statement attributed to him, it would be tantamount to admitting that the action had constituted a massacre.) As depicted by Fairbank, the response of the northern soldiers was telling and foreshadowed the racial tensions of Reconstruction: “Our men were going to fire into the nigger troops to prevent them killing the rebs after surrendering in the Fort.” [diary, Apr. 11, 1865. None of the other surviving writings of men in the 31st Mass. mention this incident, and it does not seem to be noted in the Official Records.]

The battalion moved into camp on Church Street in Mobile on April 14, the night on which Lincoln was shot in Washington. Sgt. Rich called the location “a beautiful pine grove” not far from the river. [diary, Apr. 15, 1865]  When the 31st entered Mobile, the remaining veterans must have thought of their arrival at New Orleans nearly three years before, even if they were unaware that Butler had had hopes of adding Mobile to his string of conquests. This time there were no howling hostile mobs to greet the northern army. Instead, Norris noted that “everyone seemed glad to see us, although they were a little frightened, but they soon got over that.” [letter, Apr. 17, 1865]  The spirit of defiance had faded, to be replaced by dull resignation. Most southerners still supported the dream of independence and hated those responsible for crushing it–perhaps more passionately than ever after the enormous sacrifices they had made; but the ability to achieve their goal had been drained by repeated defeat and hopeless impoverishment. Never had the feelings of the two nations, which were now about to be hammered into one by unforeseen methods, been farther apart. The North was riding a cresting wave of success that finally dashed against the horror of Lincoln’s assassination, which brought about an emotional overload that was impossible to fathom at the time and is beyond our ability to comprehend now. The South, empty of much of its hope, manpower, and wealth, had descended into a pervasive despondency. Flowers bloomed in that overwrought Spring as they had in 1860, but both sides knew that they were entering a different and uncertain world.

News of Lincoln’s death reached the troops at Mobile on April 20, which meant that they learned of his shooting and death simultaneously and did not experience the agonized hopeless waiting of people in Washington. Everywhere the tragic news brought a mixture of sorrow and anger. Conspiracy theories flourished—with good reason as it turned out, but not for those involving Jefferson Davis that were originally voiced. Luther Howell said that “I hardly care whether the war stops now or not if its continuance could have the effect of bringing to justice those who are guilty of this terrible crime.” [letters, May 1, 1865; emphasis in original]  Later he added “I have done nothing but think of it and talk of it for weeks, and I almost wish I could forget it.” [letters, May 9, 1865]  Perhaps he succeeded in forgetting, as his surviving letters make no further mention of Lincoln. Whatever they may have thought of him in the beginning, Lincoln had become a revered figure at the time of his death. Howell wrote that “Only one such a man lives in a century.” [letters, May 1, 1865]  Most of the soldiers had come to see Lincoln as a comrade in arms, a fellow sufferer in the war. After the sacrifices they had made, both he and they were so deeply invested in pursuing the war to a finish that they could not dare contemplate that it might have been avoidable.

Though surrounded by widespread misery, the remaining members of the 31st Mass. entered a halcyon period. As recently as their last campaign, the dismal march from Pensacola, they had undergone serious deprivation and danger. Now, safely encamped in Mobile, they could at last enjoy the benefits of being soldiers. Duties were light and inconsequential, at times even pleasurable, though the officers, concerned with maintaining military order, continued to hold daily drills. In contrast to their experience elsewhere in the South, the northern soldiers were favorably impressed by Mobile. Rich described it as “a very pretty city” and added that the inhabitants, seemingly relieved that the war and its privations were coming to an end, “appear to like the change very well.” Norris agreed with this assessment, writing that “It is very nicely laid out, has very pretty buildings and parks,” and added that he had met several Union families. [letter, Apr. 17, 1865]  At one point he fancied that he might be courting a young woman in one of these homes: “She is in the room at the present time, which will account for the looks of this as my mind is anywhere but to writing.” [letter, May 7, 1865]  This fleeting romance apparently took an unexpected turn when the young lady “won the good graces of one of our boys”—Jim Galletty; and according to Norris, he was going to bring her home with him. [letter Aug. 21, 1865]  On his first night in town, Fairbank reported “I am all right, for I am in with a yaller girl, so have plenty of grub.” [diary, Apr. 14, 1865]  The unpleasant racial incident of a couple of days previous had not left any lasting scars on this buoyant person, and, after recording many visits to the theater, he went so far as to assert “I would live south if all was like this gay city.” [diary, Apr. 24, 1865]

Yet the war sputtered along on its own energy, like an abandoned campfire. Rich reported a skirmish as late as April 15, in which the rebels came out badly. [diary]  Only a day later news arrived that Lee had surrendered the remnants of the once seemingly invincible Army of Northern Virginia. “The blows fall thick and fast upon the sinking Confederate army,” summarized Fairbank. [diary Apr. 16, 1865] Combined with the taking of Mobile, these stunning triumphs had predictable effects on morale, and Norris confided “Most of the boys here are beginning to be taken down with the home fever.” [letter, Apr. 17, 1865]  Even after that a few spasmodic twitches remained in the war. Rich estimated that Maj. Gen. Dabney Herndon Maury, Confederate commander of the District of the Gulf, still had 5000 troops under his control. Probably this was an exaggeration, and in any case the number was shrinking steadily as Rich reported that “The Rebs are deserting by companies every day.” [diary, Apr. 19, 1865]

At that time there were thousands of Confederate soldiers, militiamen, and guerillas scattered throughout the South. If they had been assembled in one place, they might have composed a formidable force, though their support services would have been rickety; but there was no longer a central command structure to direct such a concentration. More to the point, the fight had gone out of most of these men, and their main desire was to go home. They had evidently concluded that if the revered Lee could not keep up the fight, nothing that transpired in the backwaters of Alabama could make much difference. The final proof of how far the tattered Confederacy had sunk came on April 20, when the two sides attempted a prisoner exchange. Out of the prisoners the Union held, two hundred could not be found who wanted to return to the Confederate Army. As Rich summed up: “They are sick of fighting.” [diary, Apr. 20, 1865]  It was a long descent from the scene in which the belles of New Orleans gathered in their finery and waved perfumed handkerchiefs as they sent off exchanged Confederate prisoners. By 1865 the Confederacy had been hollowed out to a shell that did not take much effort to push over, a collapse that foreshadowed the fall of the empires in 1918.

Once cracks appeared in the southern edifice, disintegration proceeded rapidly. Much of what is commonly termed “war weariness” in the South may have been sheer physical debility. The civilian population had made immense sacrifices to support the armies; by 1865 a large portion of both segments of the populace lacked adequate food, clothing and medical care. They had plunged enthusiastically into a cavalier war, but the ceaseless demands of industrial warfare had ground them down. The visible decay of the Confederacy emboldened the unionist element that had been present in most of the states but which had been suppressed by Confederate authorities. In the twilight of the Confederacy, they came forward to assist the federal invaders in various ways. Where opportunities presented themselves, white unionists had formed regiments in the Union armies. Many in the North (commonly branded with the derogatory label “copperheads”) were sympathetic to the South, or at least opposed the war, but they did not form units in the Confederate Army. There was no 1st Pennsylvania or 2nd Indiana, CSA, though before the war some southerners professed to believe that northern states outside New England would support them or remain neutral.

Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor, C.S.A. (Image Library of Congress)

Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor, C.S.A.
(Image Library of Congress)

Thirteen recruits from Massachusetts arrived belatedly on April 20, and these lucky fellows stumbled into a blissfully atypical experience of military life. Still, simply being in the army was risky, and a man from Ware, Philo Shumway, who enlisted in March 1865, died of disease on May 14. The small remaining strength of the 31st Mass. gave it little weight as a military force, but this reduced size, coupled with long and varied experience, made it attractive for special assignments. As noted previously, it had been detailed for duty at Canby’s headquarters on April 4. It was thus left behind when Lucas’s horsemen were sent far upcountry to support Gen. A. J. Smith. A detail accompanied Gen. Canby on May 4, when he accepted the surrender of Gen. Richard Taylor. The opposing generals had established a trusting relationship and agreed to the same terms Grant had offered Lee at Appomattox. Numbers are uncertain, but Taylor must have had few troops under his command at the end. He had never again commanded as many men as he had at Pleasant Hill.

With Lincoln dead and fighting ended in this sector, the administration no longer had reason to worry about General Banks’s sensibilities, so he was subjected to the final thrust of humiliation. On May 17 the War Department abolished the Military Division of West Mississippi, which had been formed to wedge Canby in above Banks. The command was reconstituted as the Department of the Gulf, with Canby in command. With this department having recovered its former authority, Banks was relieved of its command and offered nothing in return. [War Dept., General Order No. 95; OR, Ser. I, v. XLIX, Part II, 825; also in v. XLVIII, Part II, 475] He thus suffered the same treatment Butler had received in late 1862, but this time there was no hope that a continuing war would offer hope of redemption.

By mid-May the streets of Mobile were full of former Confederate soldiers and officers, but as Rich said, “they keep pretty straight.” [diary, May 13, 1865]  It probably helped that the occupiers had ordered citizens to turn in arms on April 17, and Rich observed that “Some very nice double-barrel shot guns” were brought in. This confiscation of weapons was a wise precaution, as racial friction continued. As late as September 3, in its last week in the city, the regiment had to break up a “row between colored soldiers and white citizens.” [Rich diary]  Well before the formal surrender, Fairbank observed “Go where you will, you will see the Union and rebel soldiers locked in arms enjoying themselves. One would hardly believe that but a few days ago we were trying to kill each other.” [diary, Apr. 24, 1865]  Again, this anticipated the course of Reconstruction, in which the former enemies achieved a convenient reconciliation. In the pose of generous victor, the North inhaled the camellia-scented myth of the Lost Cause and abandoned the freedmen to a bleak future.

Canby moved his headquarters to New Orleans on May 29, but the 31st Mass. continued to perform headquarters duty in Mobile, now for Major-General Gordon Granger, a career army officer from New York State, commanding the 13th Corps. It seems that there was  confusion in the higher levels of command as to how best to employ the 31st Mass. An order issued by one element of the 13th Army Corps on June 9 directed it to “proceed as soon as practicable by steamer to New Orleans” and report to cavalry commander Gen. Grierson. [Special Order No. 71, 13th Army Corps; OR: Ser. I, v. XLIX, 976] That order was issued from a headquarters in Galveston, TX, and three days later another headquarters of the 13th Corps, in Mobile, confirmed that the 31st would remain attached to the newly defined Post and District of Mobile under command of Brig. Gen. T. Kilby Smith. [Gen. Order No. 12, June 12, 1865; OR: Ser. I, v. XLIX, 987] Still expecting the 31st to appear, the commander of cavalry in New Orleans wrote that the unit was “ordered to this point from Mobile on the 9th instant, and have not yet arrived, owing to the failure of the quartermaster at Mobile to furnish transportation. They were ordered here for the purpose of being dismounted that their horses might be used for the equipment of the troops for Texas.” [June 23, 1865; ibid., 977]

Federal commanders expected that a campaign in Texas would be necessary to subdue Confederate forces under Kirby Smith in the Trans-Mississippi. President Davis and other die-hards had hoped to prolong the struggle in Texas, but there too the Confederate forces disintegrated. Though not appropriate to the climate of Mobile, which had turned sultry by then, the process would have reminded the Massachusetts soldiers of snow melting in the Spring sunshine. Soldiers in the 31st surely would not have complained about an arrangement in which their horses served in Texas while they remained in Mobile or New Orleans, but Kirby Smith’s surrender made even that unnecessary, so they retained their mounts for a while longer.

Still in Mobile, members of the 31st Mass. witnessed a terrible catastrophe on May 25, when an ordnance depot containing about 200 tons of ammunition exploded. It was as though some implacable demon, unsatisfied by the slaughter that had already occurred, demanded more sacrifice. If it had happened before the surrenders it might have been attributed to sabotage, but as it was, most people accepted it as a dreadful accident. The precise total of deaths will never be known, but contemporary estimates placed it at 300. Most were crushed in collapsing buildings, but after the initial blast body parts rained down with other wreckage. Fires soon broke out, committing many who were trapped in fallen buildings to horrible death by roasting. Many of the dead were Union soldiers, but none from the 31st Mass., who were stationed in another part of the city. Some eight city blocks were destroyed, and the bombardment sank ships in the river. It was profoundly ironic, as the city had been surrendered to avert this kind of devastation.


Artist’s rendering from Frank Leslie’s Magazine.

Even though there was no prospect of further fighting, promotions in June rewarded successful officers. Nettleton became a full colonel, Allen advanced to lieutenant-colonel, and Rice was promoted to major. Rice had been reluctantly drafted to serve on Gen. Lucas’s staff and for better than two months had accompanied the cavalry brigade on an expedition far upcountry into eastern Alabama, while the rest of his battalion continued to perform headquarters duty in the relaxed atmosphere of Mobile. On mounts that were probably weak to start with, they ranged more than 200 miles in a straight line from Mobile but covered far more in the saddle. Beyond the military objective, this thrust had an exploratory aspect that, as described by Rice, resembled the probes that ventured into unknown regions of Africa. Rice was finally released in Columbus, Georgia, and made his way back to rejoin his company. Nettleton was later appointed provost marshal-general of the Department of Alabama, leaving Col. Allen in command of the 31st Mass. Luther Howell, now a captain, was detached and appointed commissary of musters for the District of Mobile. In addition, 1st Lieuts. James M. Stewart and Sylvester Bond were promoted to captains, replaced as 1st Lieuts. by 2nd Lieuts. Patrick Dinan and George W. Sears. Two more sergeants, Master Sgt. Egbert I. Clapp and 1st Sgt. George B. Oaks were accordingly commissioned second lieutenants.

Meanwhile, enlistments of the men who had joined the regiment in New Orleans were expiring; and since this came at a time when it was obvious that the war was winding down, there was no incentive to offer them bonuses or, indeed, to keep them in the service at all. They were discharged routinely at the expiration of their three-year terms, sometimes even earlier, and left to make their way home. The last two in that category in Rich’s company departed on August 4. [diary]  Muster records show that 147 Louisiana men served in the 31st Mass., amounting to more than 15% of the number of Massachusetts men who joined when the regiment was formed. Of this total, 83 (56%) served out their term and were discharged. Seven others died of disease; seven were killed in action or died of wounds; one died of an unspecified cause; 19 were discharged for disability; 20 deserted; three were released to accept commissions or join the regular army; and seven were transferred to the Veterans’ Reserve Corps. These figures compare favorably with the record of Massachusetts men in the regiment, with perhaps a somewhat higher proportion of deserters and lower proportion of discharges for disability. This could be the result of local men being more acclimated to conditions in the Gulf States, though many of the Louisiana recruits may not have been long-term residents of that state. It appears that only four of the Louisiana men advanced to corporal and four others to sergeant, while none rose to become commissioned officers in the 31st Mass. One example was Frederic Forester, a 34 year-old confectioner, who enlisted in Company D May 16, 1862 and was mustered out as sergeant.

The total of Louisiana troops includes 12 “colored cooks,” but the record does not reveal whether these men had previously been free or enslaved. Seven of these served their full term and were mustered out; four deserted; and one died of disease. Where civilian occupations are listed, only four had prior experience as cooks, but mastery of haute cuisine was hardly necessary to boil copious kettles of victuals for hungry soldiers. Often the greatest challenge was getting food to the men while it was still warm. This had been a risky operation at places such as Port Hudson, where the troops were pinned down by enemy fire.

Many men from the original contingent and later replacements who were in questionable health were now discharged on disability, as there was little reason to keep them even in the unlikely event that they recovered fully. By late June there were probably only 5000 Union troops in Mobile, out of some 50,000 who had initially occupied the area. Many of the rest had gone off to Texas when it was expected to be the final theater of the war. If Norris is correct, in late July the 31st Mass. was the last white regiment left in the city. [letter, July 26, 1865]

Despite their extended experience in the Gulf, the northern men continued to suffer from the enervating heat. Writing to his mother, Norris informed her “the heat is so intense here that it breaks out on all parts of our body. It is called prickly heat. It feels just as if you had needles sticking into you all the time. It has broken out on me from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet.” [letter, July 28, 1865] Nevertheless, he concluded that “My health is exceedingly good.” Weather may have been a contributing factor in the insanity of Pvt. John Brewster of Co. E (originally D), who shot himself in the head. [Rich diary, Aug. 22, 1865]

Considering that the North had won a great victory at immense cost, one might have expected that July 4th would have been celebrated enthusiastically, but at least according to Rich this was not the case. In his rather sour and disturbing account, only African-Americans conducted a display: “The niggers turn out rigged up in great shape. They had the public Square all to themselves. They have some speaking.” Undoubtedly recalling previous festivities, he concluded “I never want to see the Fourth celebrated in such a way again.” [diary]  He seemed to be unaware that “a masquerade and fancy ball” was held that night, which Thomas Norris, who was on guard, took the liberty to invite himself into. [Letter, July 28, 1865]  Capt. Rice’s impressions were similar to Rich’s: “The Fourth amounted to nothing; here the secesh seem to consider all the old national celebrations, etc. as Yankee and so will have nothing to do with them. So the only demonstration was by the darkies who went in on there [sic] own hook with all the more gusto as they never before had any hooks of their own.” He then added a highly prescient observation: “As the rebs no longer dare to do anything but quietly snarl at the Yanks, they vent their spite by abusing the darkies all they can without being detected. Murders of “niggers” are quite common, and the country being so thinly settled quite difficult as yet to punish or prevent.” [letter, July 31, 1865]  This anticipated postwar developments, in which the federal government was unable or unwilling to suppress KKK outrages because to do so would have effectively entailed re-mobilization and another invasion of the South.

Another army reorganization created the Department of Alabama under Maj.-Gen. Charles W. Roods, added to the military division of West Tennessee, under command of Maj.-Gen. Thomas. This rearrangement did nothing to relieve the pressing question of when the 31st Mass. would be discharged. For a long time the outlook seemed unpromising, so that in late July Howell expressed the fear that “The govt has come to the wise conclusion that the 31st Regt is so valuable that they cannot possibly be spared.” [letters, July 20, 1865]  The terms of those who had re-enlisted in late 1864 would not expire until 1867, and some recruits had signed up still later, leaving it possible that their service would extend to a remote date. Some of the men considered sending a delegation to the colonel about being mustered out but, probably wisely, thought better of it. [Rich diary, Aug. 21, 1865]  Norris expressed a suspicion that must have been circulating among the troops that the delay was due to a self-serving intrigue: “It has been currently reported that our Col. [Nettleton] has been the cause of it, all backed up by several other little ambitious officers who know they could never earn so good a living at home as they do now.” [letter, Aug. 21, 1865]

When it finally came, the end was sudden, almost tumultuous. Financial, as well as political, factors favored rapid demobilization. Its assignment to headquarters placed the 31st Mass. in a position to detect the latest news and rumors of discharge. On August 23, only two days after some of the more restless soldiers had dropped their plans to send a delegation to the colonel, thrilling orders came down to have the battalion mustered out by October 1. The troops began turning in their horses and equipment soon after, though formal mustering out did not take place until September 9. On that day, Rich made no effort to suppress his joy and wrote “I was a free man again. Do not catch me in the army very soon again if I can help it.” [diary]  Despite long association, the men seemed to feel little sentiment toward their mounts, and Rich said bluntly they were “glad to get rid of them.” [diary, Aug. 28, 1865]  The sergeant left Mobile on the steamer Francis on September 10, while most of the regiment departed on the transport Warrior the following day and arrived in New Orleans two days later. There was no time for exploring the city they had come to know so well, as they embarked almost immediately on the steamship Concordia. A leisurely and seemingly uneventful journey brought them to Boston Harbor on the 24th. Their last days in the service were passed on Gallops Island awaiting final pay and mustering out, which occurred on September 30, 1865. Rich, and perhaps others who had had their fill of military life, spent $50 of his own money to book passage on the steamship Atlanta, arriving in New York at 5 p.m. on September 20. He completed his journey to Pittsfield by rail the next day, three days before the bulk of the regiment reached Boston. Others who had traveled separately or been delayed did not arrive home until October 3rd or 4th. [Rich diary]

With no other ceremonies or speeches, the soldiers dispersed to the scattered towns and farms from which they had come. They reverted at the end to what they had been at the outset: the Western Bay State Regiment, volunteers from interior New England who had responded to their country’s call. Their motives, though generally similar, varied in balance within each individual. Though some, such as Nettleton, had advanced through the officer ranks, most remained volunteers at heart. Howell, who had been successful as an officer, wrote “The longer I stay in the service the more distasteful and offensive become the ceremonies and Regulations and by contrast the more desirable and endearing the society of home friends.” [letters, Mar. 17, 1865, written from Barrancas, before the start of the Mobile expedition]  In his last surviving letter home, Norris shunned lofty rhetoric about liberty and union and instead concluded “Mother, it is true that the army has ruined a great many young fellows, and I was not in the army many years before I had foresight enough to see what a demoralized people must be thrown upon this once happy country. At the end of the rebellion, alas, it has proved to be too true . . . .” [letter, Aug. 21, 1865]  Even after steady recruiting, there were less than half as many present at the final muster as at the first in distant 1861, when recruits shuffled in awkward formation at Camp Seward. Many of them—the fortunate ones—were greeted by overwhelming effusions of relief and love when they crossed a familiar threshold. Yet, because of what they had experienced together, some of their closest bonds would be with their fellow veterans, bound by unbreakable chains of memory that would finally rust away to nothingness only as each man’s Civil War marker was placed above his grave.