Affair at Des Sair [Desert] Station — Lieut. Nelson F. Bond Letter

BondNF

Nelson Freeman Bond
Residence: Ware, Mass.
He was a a 22 year-old Student when he enlisted on 10/9/1861 as a 1st Sergeant. On 11/20/1861 he mustered into “D” Co. MA 31st Infantry He was Mustered Out on 9/9/1865 at Mobile, AL. He was wounded 6/14/1863 Port Hudson, LA. He received a promotion to 1st Lieut. on 2/20/1862, to Capt. on 4/15/1864, and to Major 3/13/1865 by Brevet. Intra-Regimental Company Transfers from company D to company A on 9/8/1864.
(Image used with permission from the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS).)

Bonnet Carre, La., Sunday, Dec. 14th., 1862

When last I wrote, I told you I was soon to proceed to Kennar, as 1st. Lieut. of Capt. Allen’s Co. (K). I arrived there in the night (Dec. 5th.) one week ago last Friday. My first duty in my new position was the inspection of the company Sabbath Afternoon, (Dec. 7th.) which I had to do, as Capt. Allen was away.

Monday (Dec. 8.) we broke camp and prepared to go twenty miles farther up the river, in accordance with orders from Headquarters. We waited for a boat till 3 P. M., and then, as none came, we started on foot in heavy marching order. That day we made seven miles and halted at a plantation where all were provided with good quarters. The next morning (Dec.9) at 9 o’clock, we resumed our march and reached this station that night, but as camp was not ready for us, we lodged as best we could, in a sugar mill. I had no dinner that day, and but a little supper which I ate in a hurry. Slept on the floor that night. The next morning (Dec. 10th., Wednesday) early, I was sent with a detail of 24 men from our two companies H & K, a distance of 12 miles. Nearly half this distance was through a swamp, and for three miles the mud was nearly knee deep. After wading through this mud, we found two small row boats in the bayou, into which we piled, loading them to the water’s edge. After proceeding in this manner a few minutes, one of the boats suddenly dipped, filled, and sank, but the water was not deep enough to drown the occupants. Their knapsacks, haversacks, and rifles all went into the water, but were all recovered, though in an unserviceable condition, and we proceeded till we came to a bridge, the Jackson R. R., over this bayou. We were 5 miles from our destination, and here we met the officer and squad of men we had been ordered to relieve and here received the instructions that were to guide us when once at our new post. At this bridge, a small car was turned over to us just large enough to take all our baggage which was to be pushed along by the men, and in this manner we proceeded till we reached Des Sair [Desert] Station, where we were to do picket duty, about 4 P. M., a tired, hungry, foot-sore pack, not having halted for dinner in our anxiety to get to our station before dark. Here were most excellent quarters for us, and I at once dismissed the detail with orders to prepare a supper as soon as possible, and went to the room assigned me to get off my new boots and get on my slippers, as the three days marching had made me very foot-sore. The men divested themselves of their equipments and quickly set to work, some to build fires, some to bring water, etc., etc.

Just as my boots were off, the man who lived there said, “Have you more men coming?” I replied “no”. “See”, he says, “here’s more a-coming.” I looked, and could see distinctly the glistening of bayonets, but the bushes were so tall I could not see the men. I mistrusted all was not right, and rushing from my room gave orders to “fall in” under arms immediately.

Before half my men were ready, I could see plainly the grey uniform of those approaching. I hurried my men into line, and marched them on to the railroad in front of the station. Before I had formed my line, the rebels fired two volleys, for there were two squads of them, one on each side of the track, and they came at a double quick, but halted as soon as I began to lead my men out, and fired as I have stated.

I immediately gave orders to fire, which all did who could, but half of my guns had been wet by the upsetting of that boat. As soon as my men began firing, the enemy took to the bushes on each side of the track, and were under cover. I then gave orders to fall back upon the station platform, and continued firing. My Sergeant Wade was wounded (mortally I fear) just before the above order was given, and one of my men (McCarthy) also. While firing from the station platform, another man, by name Drach, was instantly killed by my side, just as he was aiming his own weapon at the enemy. At this juncture, realizing that my mens’ guns were unserviceable, that three men were killed or either mortally wounded, while two others had received slight wounds, and discovering that the rebels were attempting to surround and capture all of us, I ordered the residue to take to the woods, and look out for themselves. I then looked in upon the wounded, but all who were able to had gone. The Sergeant says “I cannot go, but will take my chances” and both he and McCarthy urged me to leave them and go with my command before I should be captured.  Accordingly, I bade them good-bye and betook myself to the woods, or rather to the swamp, as it proved, where I very soon came upon five of my men. We walked along, we knew not where.

Presently, we came to a wide, deep bayou, which I endeavored to cross, but found it so deep that I dared not continue in my attempt, and had the men assist me to get out of the water, which I had found to be neck deep even at the edge of the stream. While pondering what course to take, We heard the rebels in pursuit of us. Four of the men could swim. I told them to go on regardless of me, and they swam the bayou and disappeared, leaving young Hogan and myself to our fate. We knew not which way to turn. On came our pursuers, and we could hear distinctly their splashing through the water, their shouts, and frequent shots. I concealed myself in a clump of bushes. Hogan did the same, and here we remained in breathless silence for sometime. They were approaching; night was approaching, we longed to meet the latter first. Presently, before they quite reached us, although near enough for us to hear their voices, at a given signal they turned about and retreated towards the station. As soon as we dared to stir, we got together and lay down to rest, but our couch was in the water. I was in stocking feet having left my slippers in the mud upon entering the swamp. My overcoat and blanket were left at Des Sair Station, my blouse was a thin one, and there I lay and shook with cold, napping briefly, for I was tired and hungry, but hearing every sound that was made during the night, and each time springing to my feet.

The next morning (Dec. 11th.) we started early for camp as we thought. We found a shallow place in the bayou and crossed it. On we roamed, trying to find the path that should
take us to camp. At 1 p.m., we saw an opening in the woods and made for it. Judge of our feelings, if you can, when we beheld the very place where [the] fight had occurred the previous day. We then resolved to keep along parallel with the railroad (not daring to get upon it, as we could hear sounds from there frequently) until we should come to the bayou where we had used the boats in coming from camp. We followed on, and came to a bayou, which at first, we thought was the one desired, but after following it a while, concluded it was not, yet thought we had better keep along as it might lead us to somebody’s plantation and we could then find our way back to camp.

But we were doomed to dire disappointment and one of the narrowest escapes on record. We followed the bayou out, expecting we were at the river end of it. As we came out the woods it was just dark, and we walked along suspecting nothing. We soon came upon the embers of a camp fire, and a few steps beyond was a small building to which we noiselessly went in quest of rations. We knew this was a picket station, but could not find the commissary part of it. We soon discovered out upon the placid lake a boat with four or five men in it, approaching this point. We fell back a few steps into the woods and breathlessly awaited their coming. They proved to be rebels and we were near enough to hear their conversation.  We remained here all night, and could distinctly hear them as they relieved the sentinel each two hours during the night. It was a very rainy night, but we slept not withstanding the rain and the proximity to the enemy. Thus ended that day in the swamp.

The next morning (Dec. 12th. Friday), we started back into the swamp before it was fairly light, in order that the picket might not discover us. We were lost in less than half an hour, and found no light till nearly 9 a.m. when we pushed for an opening, which we hoped would prove to be dry land. But no, that same lake again confronted us from a different point of view. What to do next we hardly knew, but set out again to look for the bayou where the boats were that we had used the previous Wednesday. About noon we came to one as wide as the Ware river. We concluded to follow this and see where such a course might take us. After 1-1/2 hours in this direction, we discovered light ahead and made for it. It was swamp, but grown high with rank coarse grasses without bush or tree. It looked far preferable to the dismal woods we so longed to leave, and we decided to enter and try it. Here also was water everywhere, varying in depth from one to three feet, the grass so tall that we could hardly see over it, and often times matted together so as to he almost impenetrable. For the first time during our wanderings, the sun appeared and we were thus reassured that we were pursuing the right course to extricate ourselves, sometime, if strength held out.

About 2 p.m., our hopes were further strengthened by hearing a whistle of some river steamboat, so on we went though the walking was so difficult that in our faint condition we could not proceed more than six rods without halting. Blind, misguided wanderers! We thought to prefer this to the woods: we thought to reach the Mississippi river, when in fact, we were going directly from it, as subsequent events demonstrated. At 5 p.m., we concluded that we had had enough of that kind of walking and so turned to the left and re-entered the woods. Once fairly in, and with nothing but the density of the swamp forest before us, we again bivouacked for our third night, encouraged by the occurrences of the afternoon to feel certain that the next morning would bring us out. We made as fine a bed as possible from the small palms growing in abundance about us, but the mosquitoes were so large and plenty and it rained so, that our sleep was greatly interfered with. We were thoroughly wet through, our feet and hands were very sore from the cutting the rank grass had given them the day before (I was in my stocking feet, you will remember) and oh! what wouldn’t either of us have given for the mouldiest, sourest crust of bread mother ever sent to the swill kettle?

Saturday morning (Dec. 13th.) about 6-1/2 o’clock, we started light of heart at the prospect of early reaching the river. The sun shone brightly; we took our bearings and made for the river, kept making for the river, imagined we heard the paddling of the steamboats’ wheels etc.,etc., but still we didn’t “get out the wilderness”. Hogan had become so exhausted he could not walk over ten minutes without sitting down to rest and I was planning how and where to leave him in such a way that I could return and rescue him if fortunate enough to get out myself. Well, this is the result. We wandered on, and on, still on, till about 1 o’clock seeing no opening whatever. At this time we crossed a bayou and came upon mens’ tracks. These aroused us and upon looking about us, we recognized the path which took us to the boats that we used in reaching the railroad bridge the Wednesday before instead of the river we had so carefully arranged our course to reach. We were now four miles from camp, and two from a sugar cane field, which we reached as soon as the exhausted condition of Hogan would allow, and began to chew the stalks of cane for our first nourishment since Wednesday’s breakfast. We took dinner at the first negro hut we came to, and paid them one dollar in water soaked currency for it. We reached camp at 4-1/2 p.m. (Saturday, Dec. 15th.) having been eighty consecutive hours without a morsel of food, and seventy-two of it lost in a swamp.

We found eight men had reached camp on Thursday morning (11th.) and reported that I must have been captured and an official despatch was forwarded to Gen. T. W. [sic] Sherman to that effect. Capt. Allen started on Thursday for the scene with his company (K) and some of Co. H. He has reported back that the force that attacked us were Alabama troops, who came across the lake in two schooners at night unnoticed by the gunboat which is on duty there; that they were about two hundred in number; that the advance that attacked numbered about forty with the rest in reserve at a near point; that they fully intended to surround the station and bag every man of us; and that they returned as they had come during Thursday night, with four prisoners, who are probably the four men who left Hogan and myself at the bayou the first (Wednesday) night. The man living at Desert Station says he buried six bodies the next day, one a sergeant, which must have been Wade, and another, private Drach, possibly McCarthy may have been a third. The other three must have been rebels, unless they captured and killed some after we left, which cannot be if our reports from there are correct, for we have nine men safe in camp. Capt. Allen has eight with him, two certainly, are buried there. Four are captured, leaving only McCarthy, whom we left badly wounded, not accounted for.

My feet are so swollen, there is not a shoe in camp that I can wear, and I am travelling about in a huge pair of socks that were sent in one of the boxes from Hardwick to our company. They were made and put in the box just for a joke, I doubt not, but are serving me a good turn, nevertheless. Of the stockings I wore during those days, nothing was left but the legs, and these had to be cut from my ankles, the feet were cut and torn off in that tall grass, last Friday. My feet and hands were badly cut up. Both were soaked in salt water about an hour after reaching camp, then bandaged, and I was put to bed with a watcher over me, to prevent my sleeping too soundly or too long at a time. I have quite a cold, and of course, am very lame, but feel quite comfortably otherwise.

Well, I have told my story, and at great length, but I have written this while everything is fresh in my memory, detailing circumstances thus minutely for purposes of my own in future, should I live to get home again. I want this letter kept as choice as you keep the deed of your farm, for I mean to read it again sometime. — Nelson F. Bond

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