When the soldiers of the Thirty-First reached New Orleans their surroundings and conditions were wholly unlike any previous experience since the day of enlistment.
At the north and up to the time of landing, they breathed the pure air of hill and sea, and it is not strange that the change to a miasmatic country should suddenly take hold of the system and put hundreds on the sick list. It is questionable if there was a more critical period, affecting the health and life of the “boys” than during the first few weeks of their sojourn in the Crescent City.
On arrival of the Union forces, the St. James Hotel, then new and elegantly furnished, with marble floors and modern appointments, was confiscated for hospital uses. It was a large building, but none too large, for within a few days nearly every Ward was filled with the sick.
On the 5th of May, 1862, when on duty as officer of the Guard, and making the usual rounds at night, at and in the vicinity of the St. Charles Hotel, a strange feeling of weakness crept upon me. And at dawn, reporting to the Surgeon, he gave me a significant “Oh! Yes,” and an hour later, I was duly “registered” at the “Saint James.”
My experience there was anything but agreeable — for days, I lay on a cot in one of the Wards, oblivious to the scenes about me, not knowing the friends who came to enquire after my welfare, or in fact, knowing anything.
Chaplain Chubbuck was kind in his solicitations, but as there was little hope of recovery, he wrote to friends at home apprising them of my danger. By a kind interposition of Providence and as good care as it was possible under the circumstances for the surgeons and their attendants to give, at the end of three weeks I began to rally, and soon gained my feet. June 2nd, [I] was discharged from the books, and joined the regiment, then under command of Lt. Col. C. M. Whelden, at Camp Moorewood.
The surroundings of the hospital were not conducive to a rapid building up. In every ward and room lay strong men reduced to skeletons, with not a vestige of color in their faces, and wild cries of those in delirium rang through the corridors. The percentage of deaths must have been large. Every day, the dead were carried out preceded by the Corporal’s Guard as escort. There was an indescribable sadness in their measured tread and the dull roll of the muffled drums as they passed down the street to the lone burial ground.
It was at the St. James that Sergeant William Patch of G company, in a moment of delirium, jumped from the fourth-story to the court below and was instantly killed. Patch was a bright fellow and his unnatural death a great affliction to his parents, who are honored residents of the City of Homes [Springfield].
Among the incidents of hospital life was one that many comrades cannot fail to remember. Two angels in mortal form and habiliments made daily visits to the hospital, dispensing without favor, wine, jellies, fruit and other delicacies. I refer to Mrs. Augusta M. Richards and her daughter Carol. They were northern ladies from Massachusetts, long residents of the south, and among the few who welcomed the Union forces to New Orleans. These two women, doing angel’s work, were constant in their attention to the federal sick. They sat by the dying, bathed his brow, read and spoke words of cheer, took the last message of love and affection to wife, mother, sister or friend, and finally closed the eyes of the patriot dead. They wrote hundreds of “last messages” from which they received grateful answers. One day, they appeared with unusually bright and smiling faces bearing a large sized bundle containing handkerchiefs, knit stockings and other useful articles donated by fair ladies at the north, for distribution among the soldiers. Attached to the articles were happily worded missives, signed by the loyal souls who wished they could fight with sword and gun instead of thread and needle.
Mrs. Richards was not a woman of wealth and it is gratifying to know that the Government, hearing of her work and usefulness, bestowed on her a pension, which was of great help in her declining years. She died at Malden, Mass., November, 1888.
Three weeks after rejoining the regiment the following order was placed in my hands:
Head Quarters 31st Reg. Mass. Volunteers
Camp Moorewood N. O. June 26th, 1862
You are hereby detailed for Special duty and will report to Lieut. Russell at the engineer’s office for duty.
By order Lt. Col. C. M. Whelden, Comdg.,
Signed, E. H. Fordham,
1st Lt. & Adjt.
To Lieut. J. L. Hallett.
This closed my official connection with the 31st, then better known as the Western Bay State Regiment. Thereafter, my labors were with the Signal Corps, but my interest in the members and career of the 31st were none the less then or since.
— J. L. Hallett, Springfield, Sept. 13, 1889