(Note: This narrative by Joseph L. Hallett I is currently in the possession of Joseph Hallett III. He has graciously provided a copy for use in this project and all inquiries about the original narrative should be directed to Mr. Hallett.)
REMINISCENCES OF THE CIVIL WAR, PART II
June 26th., 1862 I was detailed for service in the Signal Corps and reported to Captain Edmund H. Russell, Chief Signal Officer of the Department of the Gulf I was loath to leave the regiment and the men of my Company whom I had enlisted and whose fortunes I had hoped to share, but was in part compensated by having some of my men detailed with me. Our head-quarters were in the top loft of a deserted warehouse in the business district of the city; there we ate, drank and slept while learning the secret code, and method of signalling; each officer was equipped with a kit of flags to signal by day, and torches by night, a fieldglass and telescope, also had assigned to him three enlisted men to manipulate the flags and torches. The flagmen were taught the signals, which were by numbers, but only the officers knew their significance. When we became proficient out doors stations were established for practicing, preparatory to taking the field.
From the roof of the Custom House messages were exchanged with stations at Algiers and Carrolton; the latter five miles south-west of the city was my first station. The country being level it was necessary to secure an elevation in order to see over the intervening trees and houses. We built a box of a house in the branches of a tall tree on the levee, it was twenty-five feet above the ground and was reached by ladder; when signalling the men stood on the roof, and, holding a ten foot pole made the signals show over forty feet above the level of the river; when not busy the men sat on the first floor of the house where they could watch for signals from the other stations and were protected from the rays of the sun.
Our lodgings were in a brick house across the street situated in a grove of orange trees laden with large sweet oranges, and there were also pomegranite [sic], fig trees, palms, ferns, shrubs, and a variety of flowers; a delightful change in contrast with the ice-clad hills of New England, sands of Ship Island and hospital experiences; bushels of fruit were gathered and sent to our less fortunate comrades with whom we were glad to share our good luck. Frigates Hartford and Richmond were anchored in the river opposite the station and we had no special fears from the enemy, though it would have been an easy matter to have taken us prisoners had they pounced upon us.
There were plantations all about; some were deserted by their owners leaving their slaves to provide for themselves. They were also a refuge for negroes that had run away from their masters. It was their first taste of freedom and they were jovial, happy and independent as kings and queens. Often during the week, and always on the Sabbath they met for dancing and it was a past time for the soldiers to watch them from the open doors and windows.
The cabins were small and the floor space restricted, as were the number engaged in the dance. A fiddle and a pair of bones made up the orchestra; the playing was lively and set the dancers a merry round, their broad feet came down with a ring like an ax on an empty barrel head and the faster and louder the music the more they enjoyed it and danced for half an hour, then rested only long enough to wipe the perspiration from their faces. Sunday was the Negroes’ holiday and there was no distinction with them between sermon and dancing.
In a few weeks of practice we became fully competent for all requirements in our line of service. In the meantime the city had become orderly, business had resumed normal conditions, thousands of citizens that ran away on the approach of the federals returned and took the oath of allegiance to the government; ships and steamers from home and foreign ports came and departed. Our troops had made slight advantages into the rebel country but new plans were perfected for an aggressive campaign. We were furnished with horses and a team of mules to carry provisions, tents and other equipments. My horse was a superior animal, dark chestnut color, with four white feet, long black tail and bushy mane, a beautiful creature confiscated from some gentleman’s stable. Billy, as I named him, had been trained to several gaits, was intelligent, appeared to understand English; was easily guided by motion of the hand or rein, and when I was on foot would follow his master through woods, across trenches, or anywhere; and we became great friends.
The rebels destroyed or had run away with so many river steam boats that General Banks found it necessary in the transportation of stores and troops on the Mississippi to employ ocean steam ships for that purpose, and always at considerable risk as the river bottom had many snags and there was much drift wood.
We left New Orleans January 11th for Baton Rouge on the steam ship Che Kiang, which had brought troops from New York. It was a fine new steamer recently from China, and was chartered by our government for war purposes.
The river was rising and masses of logs and trees were floating down the stream, and it was with difficulty that the pilot could steer clear of them; a large log got fastened into one of the sidewheels and gave much trouble before it was dislodged. The passengers all felt more or less anxiety and were somewhat nervous and did not retire until a late hour. Near mid-night we were aroused from sleep by the cry of fire — fire — fire. My state room door was opened and a man shouted “the ship is on fire.” I was soon in my boots and, running on deck, found a lively blaze which threatened the doom of the ship. There were several hundred bales of hay and thirty tons of ammunition on board, sparks had ignited the hay and it looked as if we must leave the ship by boat or the aerial route; should it be by boat there was certainty at falling into the hands of the guerrillas and there was not much choice which route we took. Desperate efforts were made by all hands to subdue the flames; the steamers pumps were brought into action and after a struggle the fire was put out. Doubling the watch we returned to our state rooms. We arrived at our destination at eight o’clock the next morning, glorying over our victories of fire and water.
Baton Rouge, situated on a bluff, was the first hill we had seen for eleven months and it was a treat to see even so diminutive a reminder of our New England home.
It was but a few weeks since the battle where so many were killed, and nearly every dwelling in town was akin to a hospital and the inhabitants wore the badge of mourning.
The battle was fought close to the town and included the cemetery. Trees were imbedded with shot and some were cut in to [sic]; monuments and tomb stones shattered and graves opened by shot and shell, and the entire surroundings told of the fierceness of the battle. My station was on one of the towers of the State House which had stood intact after the building was burned. This I held but a few days and then went to Plaquemine a town fifteen miles distant down the river. To get an unobstructed view I was obliged to locate on a sugar plantation, on the out-skirts of the town. Major Slaughter, the owner. held a commission in the Confederate Army, and was home on pretense of ill health; he raised no objection to our coming, in fact was pleased, as he deemed our presence a protection to his property against raids of our soldiers foraging for cattle, chickens, sweet potatoes and other vegetables, not included in regular rations. The Major seemed to be solicitous for our comfort. Most of the family were away leaving a large number of negro servants and field hands. I was invited to occupy a room in the house, and a seat at his table; it was very kind of him, and of course I didn’t say “No.” It was a kind of hospitality for which southerners were noted, and to refuse the invitation would have caused offence. It may seem rash that I accepted these courtesies, but I could not resist the luxury of a real bed, of which I had long been deprived and might not again enjoy for an indefinite period. I rested well oblivious of the fact that I was in the enemies’ country. Coffee was served before rising, and many civilities shown in keeping with the customs of the land. Mine host had been North and knew the yankees were not as bad a people as they were sometimes pictured to the poor white trash and slaves in the south. He dilated [sic] on the cuisine of the hotels in Boston, and spoke particularly of the waffles, for which the Massasoit House in Springfield was noted.
The plantation covered a large territory, bordering half a mile on the river, and a mile or more in depth; besides the large colonial mansion there were long rows of huts for the slaves, barns and presses for grinding and storing sugar-cane, with a variety of other buildings; all brilliant with white-wash. For entertainment the slaves were assembled for song and dance, and they were apparently a happy lot of beings. In return for these hospitalities it was my privilege to furnish the house with flour, coffee, pickles and other provisions from the Commissary. The long blockade had deprived the family of these staples and reduced their living to corn meal, corn coffee, in fact corn was their chief diet.
Major Slaughter gladly accepted the provisions but there were two young ladies of the over-seers family who resented, and absolutely refused to eat any of the groceries, not even a pickle brought from the horrid North. The ladies had lovers in the Confederate Army and they were thoroughly in sympathy with the rebel cause. It was an amusing situation; but I could but admire their loyalty, and stubborn grit.
October 28th I was attached to an expedition bound for Galveston. Infantry and artillery were put on all the steamers and steam-boats that were available, some were boats of light draft and wholly unsuitable for sea. The boat I was on was loaded with stores, mules and horses. All went well until the 30th, we were then far down the coast when a storm arose, the boat pitched and tossed fearfully, and it looked as if we might all be thrown into the sea and the boat go to the bottom. Mental calculations were made as to the distance we would have to swim to reach shore; for as the storm increased it became evident we must soon don life preservers and escape the best we could. The government ought never to have sent such a frail craft to sea periling the lives of those on board. In our dilemma the animals were cast over board, likewise much of the cargo. It was piteous to see the poor beasts struggling with the waves and following the boat for rescue until they were exhausted and the sea swallowed them. Lightening of the boat was our only hope and it saved us from foundering. It then floated like a cork on the water and was headed for the Mississippi which was reached much to our relief after hours of buffeting.
The expedition was a failure; the troops that reached Galveston were taken prisoners within twenty-four hours after they arrived; some of our boats were captured and others disabled by shot from the rebel batteries; men, animals and supplies were sacrificed. Andrew P. Cobb, a native of Hyannis, a flagman of the signal corps was killed by escaping steam on the gun-boat Sachem, a shot from the rebel fort having passed through the boilers.
Plans were now made for an aggressive campaign to rid the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas of the rebels who had largely adopted a guerrilla war-fare and were strongly entrenched at Port Hudson obstructing the river by their fort and water batteries. Early in the month of March our forces were mobelized [sic] at Baton Rouge for a feint on Port Hudson. the object was to draw the rebel forces from the river front while our war ships passed the fort, and cut off the sources of confederate supplies.
The assembling of ten thousand soldiers at one camp for drill and manoeuvers was an inspiring scene and when orders were given to move there was great enthusiasm as there had been weeks of inactivity, and now there was a feeling that something would be done.
On the morning of April 12th the bugle call to assemble was heard through the camp. Orderlies were rushing with messages from the commanding general; regiments of infantry were forming, artillery and cavalry in line, these with ambulances , and an indefinite number of army wagons loaded with camp equipments and rations, each drawn by four mules, made up the cortege. When the order to march was given the music of bands and drum corps filled the air and the column started with elastic tread. All were under way by eight o’clock. I had been assigned to the staff of General C. C. Grover whose division led the advance.
Cavalry preceeded [sic] at some distance and pickets were thrown out on both sides of the wooded road to give warning should the enemy question with bullets our rights to the country. After six hours tramp the army halted and went into camp for the night not having met any opposing forces, or incidents of special note. The march was resumed at an early hour the next day, and at eleven o’clock arrived in the rear of Port Hudson where the several divisions were given their positions. Tents were pitched and the soldiers proceeded to make themselves at home and to await developements [sic]. The situation was as follows: – the rebel fort lay one mile along the river front and to guard against attack from the rear a clearing was made an equal distance back and fortified by earthworks and trenches; they extended about three miles from river to river. Our lines covered four to five miles. As before stated our plan was to divert the rebels from their guns on the river-front while an attempt was being made by our fleet to pass the fort, there being no intention of a prolonged engagement by General Banks’ forces at that time. As the army and navy were to co-operate it was necessary to reach Admiral Farragut to advise him of our position and settle upon the hour of attack.
About noon I was directed to report to General Banks for orders. The general said he desired to get in communication with Admiral Farragut as speedily as possible, and wrote the following message to be sent by signals, or in person as circumstances would permit. “Admiral Farragut, Ship Hartford. My command is at Barnes Cross Roads and occupies the road to Cross Landing on the flank and rear of the rebel batteries. When will you open fire? Shall be ready this evening. N. P. Banks. Maj. General Commanding.”
Owing to dense woods it was impossible to signal the fleet from where we were and I must get to the river and sight the flag ship and signal to Lieutenant Eaton who had been detailed aboard. To get to the river we must go four miles over a country road of which I had no map or instructions other than to “get there” without delay, and as quickly as our horses could travel and to remain with the fleet until I was recalled. In war we assume under such circumstances, what we don’t know and go forward. In this case one thing was evident, we were on the flank of the rebel lines with more than an even chance that we would be intercepted, shot or made prisoners, but go we must at all hazard.
For escort we were given a detail from Grearsons Tenth Illinois Cavalry comprising a sergeant and ten picked men and immediately were off on a wild ride. Discovering a road that “pointed” in the direction we should go, its terminus we knew not, we started at a full galop [sic], the horses fairly flew and the rattle of sabers made a noise that is still ringing in my ears. Keeping a sharp lookout for obstructions in the form of gray coats, and anticipating the crack of confederate rifles at every turn of the road, our minds were in constant anxiety to reach our destination. Several times we observed movements in the direction of’ the fort and were sure that we were discovered, but we pushed on till we came to a wide bayou. Nothing daunted the animals were urged through to the opposite bank and about a mile farther on we came to Springfield Landing on the banks of the Mississippi; opposite was Poplar Island which totally obstructed the ships from our view. To reach an opening we must get in close proximity to the fort, which meant certain failure of our mission, and, while deliberating what course to take, a steamboat hove in sight coming from a bend in the river at the lower end of the island. As it drew near I saw it was the Saint Maurice, a friendly craft, in fact it had been pre-arranged to meet us, though I had not been so advised, probably through forgetfulness. The Captain of the boat had been on the lookout for us all the morning, and when he saw our blue coats, came nearer and shoved the nose of the boat into the bank; planks were run out and in an incredibly short time our party, including the sweltering animals, hustled on board, and the boat was headed for the Hartford. We were soon alongside, and reaching the deck I was shown to the Admiral’s cabin and delivered the despatch. He arose as I entered the door and received me cordially, said he had been waiting impatiently to hear from the army, and after reading the message, said, “Tell General Banks I am ready, and shall open on the fort at twelve o’clock tonight.”
We had never before been thrown together in quite such close range. He spoke cheeringly and evidently had no thought of failure, as among the possibilities of the empending [sic] battle. In his short roundabout coat and cap without any visor, and with his full and smoothly shaven face, he looked more like a school boy than the grand old Admiral that he was. He was sixty-two years old, of medium height, stoutly built with a finely proportioned head, with an expression of iron-will and invincible determination, and eyes that could flash fire and fury.
I returned to the Saint Maurice and back to the landing, wrote a note embodying Admiral Farragut’s words, and sent it to General Banks by the best man the sergeant could pick from his squad, with the injunction that if he was captured on the way to destroy the message to prevent it from getting to the rebel Commander, General Gardner.
We remained on the boat, in the neighborhood of the fleet. to wait further developements [sic]. They came that night at the hour appointed. The fleet consisted of the flagship Hartford, Monongahela, Richmond, Mississippi, Genessee, Albatros; iron-clads Essex, Sachem, and six mortar boats. The rebels were alert and their batteries opened fire upon the leading ship, and was returned by the fleet with terrific energy until one o’clock in the morning. A hundred, and probably more, cannon from each side were firing shot and shell at the same time, lighting the heavens by the blaze from the cannon and a large brush fire the rebels had burning on the shore, altogether it was the most brilliant fireworks I had ever seen, and most costly too, with the exception of the engagement at Forts Jackson and St. Phillip.
The passage was only partially successful. The Hartford, with Admiral Farragut aboard and the Albatros ran the gauntlet successfully. The Monongahela reached the center batteries when she was disabled by an accident to her machinery and fell back to her former position. The Richmond was disabled by a shot through her steam drum and followed the Monongahela; the Mississippi ran aground, and after sustaining the concentrated fire of the batteries for half an hour, and removing the sick and wounded, she was fired and abandoned. When partly burned the ship floated and drifted downstream presenting a wonderful spectacle of burning masts, bursting shells, and as the flames reached the magazine the ship blew up with stupendous force. At break of day I boarded the Richmond and from Captain Alden secured details of the fight and reported to General Banks by carrier as before.
It is impossible to picture the scenes of that morning. Hulls pierced by shot, splintered woodwork, ropes severed, and devastation everywhere. The decks had been white-washed before the battle and were now stained with blood; the wounded were being cared for and the dead prepared for burial. The sight was sickening beyond the power of words to portray. The old expression “the scuppers’ running blood” — “the slippery deck,” etc., give but the faintest idea of the spectacle of that early morning scene. Farragut had succeeded, on his part, but at a fearful cost of life and damage to the fleet. Perhaps it was all that might have been expected, considering that the ships must pass a mile of strongly fortified shore. Upon receipt of my despatch a company of cavalry was sent to escort me back to camp where we arrived about noon; my little party were the heroes of the hour. The soldiers had heard the loud cannonading of the previous night, and the blowing up of the ship, Mississippi, but were ignorant of the meaning and were eagerly awaiting particulars.
Immediately after reporting to headquarters General Banks issued an order saying “The object of the expedition having been accomplished the troops would return to Baton Rouge.” A general hustling followed, regiments wheeled into line, and the return march began. I am not sure but that there was disappointment among the soldiers that they were not permitted to take a more active part in the affray; surely they had a surfeit of fighting a few weeks later on these same grounds. For myself I could willingly have closed my eyes and ears to further scenes of hostilities, the worst was to come. While visiting the library in the War Department Building forty-seven years after the above mentioned events, I was surprised to read in the official records series I, vol. 15 a detail account of my work-orders — messages and reports — one item of particular interest and which I there learned for the first time, was the report of the Chief Signal Officer, bearing date of March 22, 1863. The report closed by saying, “All my officers did their duty with alacrity and fidelity. First Lieutenant J. L. Hallett is deserving of particular commendation for the manner in which he held communication with the fleet for more than eighteen hours in a position very much exposed to an attack from the enemy, he having but a small squad of cavalry.” Words of commendation appear superfluous to the soldier, sailor or artisan who has only done his duty under trying circumstances.
Operations were next transferred to Western Louisiana where the Confederate Army in command of General Dick Taylor was engaged in a guerrilla war-fare, and incidentally supplying the garrison at Port Hudson with beef, corn, and other supplies.
Several divisions under General Franklin were sent in one direction, while General Grover’s division went another way with the ultimate purpose of connecting at point inland. I was with General Grover as his signal officer, and remained with him throughout the expedition. Our course was along the bayous and low swamp lands; two small gun boats, tin clads they were called, accompanying the division of about three thousand men. Besides the annoyances from sharp shooters, we had skirmishing with the rebels until April 12th., when the enemy made a stand and there was a trial of strength. The battle waged fierce and determined for several hours. We were aided by the gun-boats, their fire being directed by our signal, which were effective in deciding the battle. Infantry and artillery kept up a continuous fire, the noise was deafening, and smoke from discharged cannon filled the air making it difficult to see far ahead, but we could hear the whiz and humming of bullets, and screech of cannon balls as they flew through the air. General Grover sat erect on his black horse while he rode from one point to another on the firing line, fearless of the rain of shot and bursting shell; artillery horses were killed and fell one on the other, and casions [sic: caissons] were wrecked. The rebel assaults were repulsed and they finally fled. When firing ceased and the end came the field was strewn with dead and wounded. It seemed marvelous that any should have escaped.
The rebel losses must have been large. Our loss was 49 killed and 274 wounded. Continuing our march we were not again hampered by the rebels for several days, they kept well ahead and out of reach of the fire of our guns. Our route lay through a productive country; there were large sugar plantations, the chief features were the streets of negro huts, imposing mansion at the entrance to the estate, surrounded by tropical trees, hedges and shrubbery. The houses were of colonial architecture with broad verandas supported by stone and brick columns built from the ground to an over-hanging roof. The inhabitants were in a state of frenzy from the troops both Union and Confederate, dispoiling [sic] their premises of chickens, lambs, beef and garden truck, a natural sequence of war, and always to be counted on where there are soldiers. In truth foraging was considered a religious duty by the company’s cook and his assistants or helpers whenever there was opportunity, nor was it unusual when on the march to hear cackling hens and crowing roosters perched on the army wagons and the squealing of pigs as they were jostled over the rough roads.
One disagreeable feature of our journey was the damp and wet ground upon which our beds were made at night, the alternative a Virginia rail fence, and there was very little choice. Looting of houses was strictly prohibited and I never knew of any personal belongings being taken by our soldiers excepting edibles as before mentioned. To illustrate, one day after a fatiguing march of twenty miles in the hot sun we camped for the night under the usual conditions of swamp land and rail fences. Nearby I spied a small house with a piazza extending across the front. It occurred to me that the piazza boards might make a dry and luxurious bed as compared to the damp ground.
I rode to the cottage and was met at the door by a Frenchman with brown and shrivelled face and from looks might be an hundred years old; he was extremely nervous at the coming of the Yankees, the first he had ever seen. Observing that I was an officer quieted him and when I begged the privilege of lodging on his piazza he said surely, but I was welcomed to a bed in the house. This I hesitated about accepting, thinking the piazza was good enough, but he importuned the more emphasizing that my presence would be a protection to his house; seeing that the man was much troubled in mind I consented and was shown to a neatly furnished room. We sat and chatted awhile and then I went to the officers’ mess for supper, congratulating myself upon my good luck.
As evening came on I returned to the Frenchman’s cottage, thankful for shelter, and indulged in the hope of a restful night. Had Uncle Sam provided his soldiers with feather beds and downy quilts there would have been no lack of volunteers at any stage of the war; one drawback to the outfit would have been over-sleeping, at least that was my experience as I was not awakened by the bugle call nor did I arise with the morning sun; when I did leave my room the old man appeared in a high state of excitement, wringing his hands, and with tears in his eyes exclaimed Oh! my money is gone. I have lost my money, somebody has stolen it. Inquiring into the matter he said that on approach of the army he put six hundred dollars in gold, all the money he possessed, into a tin box and buried it in his garden for he was sure his house would be luted [sic]. Our soldiers did not draw lines on chickens and hogs and had over-run the old man’s garden in search for yams, cabbage, sweet potatoes and onions, for there was no written law or orders prohibiting foraging, nor could I hinder them if I would. They had dug up the box containing the gold and taken it away with the yams and other vegetables and my friend concluded that I was a poor protection to his property. I said I would investigate but gave little hope of recovering the plunder. It was too glittering a treasure to come to the light again, and to [sic] tempting for a thirteen dollar a month salaried man to give up. However our soldiers were not thieves and robbers, they adhered to the eighth commandment according to their liberal interpretation in time of war. The treasure box had been taken to headquarters and upon satisfactory evidence of ownership was returned to the owner, who was elated and profuse with thanks; filled my blouse pockets with choice perique tobacco of hie own raising, an article for which I had no use, but was prized by my brother officers.
We continued the march, meeting with no hindrance except an occasional exchange of shot and skirmishes but not serious enough to be called a battle. In a few days we came to a junction with the other divisions and rested.
The next month found us again at Baton Rouge. More troops had arrived from the north and with the divisions that had recrossed the Mississippi the Union forces numbered fourteen thousand. While the fleet controlled the river above and below Port Hudson the fortress had not surrendered and must now be reduced for free navigation to Vicksburg where General Grant and Admiral Porter were vigorously pounding the enemy to open the river at that point. It was a clear morning in May 1863 that in response to call of bugles and the beating of drums, our army was marshalled as on a previous date; but now it was not a feint, but for a determined attack upon Port Hudson. The gathering of so many presented an exciting and busy time, the more as it was generally known that a battle was impending with all the uncertainties of a conflict. Our troops were now hardened soldiers used to long marches, the discomforts of camp life, and had had a baptism of fire on the field of battle.
There was unrest and eager ear for the word “forward march” and when the command was given it was responded to with a will.
General Grover’s division as before led the column. I had been appointed chief signal officer April 29th with six signal officers under my orders and they were assigned to the several divisions. Cavalry scouts preceeded [sic] the column and the routine of march was similar to the one previously described; shots were exchanged between our pickets and the rebel pickets but we met with no serious resistance until after we reached our destination. Disposition of the troops was made as they arrived. Tents were pitched, fires built, and the boys made themselves as comfortable as they could, and thus began a long and tedious seige [sic] lasting forty-three days. The rebel entrenchments covered a distance of four miles from shore to shore and our lines extended about seven miles from end to end.
The rebel earthworks were crowned with bags of sand and in front were deep trenches full of water, and felled trees obstructed the approach for a considerable distance. To take the fort by storm would seem impracticable as was shortly proven. Owing to heavy woods and the peculiar position of the enemy’s works in and around Port Hudson we were obliged to build our stations in trees, and within easy range of the rebel batteries. Some times this was not practicable owing to the woods, and one of my officers was put in charge of a field telegraph line, a part of our equipment, and wires were strung on trees connecting with stations at division head-quarters, and thus communicating by wire when it was not practicable to do so by flags and torches. My station was with General Grover on the left center. Here was built a wide platform of boards thirty feet from the ground in the branches of a magnificent Magnolia tree, which was filled with large and fragrant blossoms.
It was a sightly position and commanded an extensive view of’ our lines, and overlooking the rebel fortifications so that with the aid of field glasses we could detect all their movements, and could direct the fire of our big guns to points within the rebel enclosure. This annoyed Johnny Reb greatly, and he soon found resentment and tried to dislodge us by planting a long range rifle cannon in line of our station. The firing began with shot and canister, whizzing and singing, at the platform on which we stood. It was music without charm. The shot either fell short or passed beyond, and we held our ground until a shot struck the tree a foot below the platform, and we saw they were getting close to their object. We thought it sacrilegious to destroy the beautiful tree with the thousands of fragrant white blossoms and speedily scurried down the ladder. However we did not abandon the station very long; our guns soon got a bead on them and they were forced to quit, and we returned. Thereafter we were seldom annoyed. Shells ten to eighteen inches in length, and three to six inches in diameter, that failed to hit the tree or explode lay on the ground where they fell burrowed out of sight.
There were assaults on the fort on May 27, and June 14, but all attempts to capture the enemy’s stronghold were unsuccessful. Of these assaults little may be written; that there was misunderstanding regarding time and orders we must believe. Captain E. H. Russell, Signal Officer, stationed with the storming party on the left wing, in his report of the second assault said, “The gallant Colonel Holcomb had rushed up the side of the ravine before the rebel works, demanding of his regiment whether they expected him to make the charge alone, only to fall, shot through, left his life blood on the field.
Five times during the latter part of that fight the infantry at this point told their officers, point blank, they would make no more charges on this part of the works; they said the walls were too nearly perpendicular, and they had already vainly, tried to scale them, with heavy loss more than once, and it was no use to try impossibilities. What a painful thing it was to take again and yet again imperative orders from general officers, that the place absolutely must be carried by storm at this point, and have only the hissing reply, “We just won’t do it” to take back, you can well surmise. No wonder Colonel Holcomb’s great heart could no longer bear it, and turning round in the true spirit of martyrdom he rushed, a hero, upon certain death.
There was a very unexpected delay, which was never understood afterward by some of us who would have been glad to have had it cleared up. When the left moved upon the works it did so gallantly, and was led by its general, who lost a leg in the charge, but then it was too long after daylight, and the rebels, as the sun burned up the heavy fog, could see the entire disposition of the troops, except such of the infantry as lay in the ditch where they had fallen, just what we did not wish them to know.
General Banks was too magnamous [sic: magnanimous] to lay the blame for the delay where he thought it belonged, and bore it on his own shoulders, in consideration of the good conduct of those most interested, after they began their work, although too late to do real good. The Union loss during the siege was 707 killed, 3336 wounded, 319 missing. I should fail in the attempt to picture the scenes of those hours of human courage, artists have tried to put the scenes of battle upon canvass but they all lack the flash of fire; roar of cannon and musket and cries of the wounded. They could better picture the burial of the dead, or those rude unsheltered hospitals under the trees where lay rows of the wounded; conscious, unconscious, some dying awaiting their turns for help from the busy surgeon.
General Sherman’s definition of war as “Hell” has never been disputed. In the interim between these assaults our men lay in the trenches, hidden in brush and behind felled trees, where through peep holes they could see the enemy when his head showed above the parapet. It was a waiting game and became awfully monotonous. Casualties were occurring every day as the rebels were also on the alert to fire whenever there was a chance to shoot. The firing was almost continuous, though it is probable that not one shot in a thousand did any harm and but for careless exposure there would have been less loss of life and injury. Through carelessness and indifference of our men surgeons were busy most of the time, and the ambulances were continually in use conveying the sick and wounded to the boats, thence to the hospitals in New Orleans.
All through the night at intervals the artillery threw shot and shell into the fort, and their fire was returned with vigor. We became accustomed to the cannonade, as we would to the noise of elevated trains, and street cars, under our window in the city, and the firing did not affect our sleeping.
We took the precaution however to lie with the head protected by the trunk of a tree, of as large girth as we could find. In this position there was no danger, unless a stray shot go clear through, but we did not count on that alternative and felt safe and reasonably certain of the next morning’s rations of bacon, hard-tack and coffee.
One day in riding over an open field I spied a bush filled with ripe blackberries, they were too tempting to leave, so I got off the saddle and began picking, soon was heard the familiar notes of whizzing bullets, all too close, and I speedily lost appetite for the fruit, and said to Billy who was quietly grazing, “the berries are fine, but we seem to be intruding and we had better go,” and we did get under cover of the woods as fast as the horse could travel.
At the second assault on the fort I met a squad of men carrying a wounded comrad [sic] to the rear and paused to see who it was. It proved to be Colonel Paine, who lost a leg in the charge, he was in great agony and was hollering like a lunatic from suffering. The dust in the road was an inch thick. The rebels recognized me as an officer and sent a fuselade of shot raising the dust on every side , but did not happen to hit their intended victim, but wounded my horse.
These incidents come to mind after a lapse of’ many years and cause feelings of gratitude that I was not numbered with the great army of’ young fellows who thereafter went through life with the loss of one arm, leg, or both.
The Confederates made a strong resistance, fought bravely in defense of the flag with a single star, and their cause to the last. Their supplies had been cut off and they were reduced to parched corn and meal for sustenance. Word reached the garrison on July 7th., of the fall of Vicksburg on the 4th of July and immediately there was raised a flag of truce and negotiations began between General Banks and the rebel General Gardner for the surrender of Port Hudson. Hostilities ceased while negotiations were pending. The soldiers on both sides met, swapped stories, and our generous boys divided their rations with the hungry and half-starved rebels. Arrangements were made for the formal surrender on the next day. It was a glad hour for our army when they rode into Port Hudson. Colonel Birge as commander of those who had volunteered for the forlorn hope, was at the head of the column. Yankee Doodle never had sounded quite so inspiring and the flag never before had looked so bright as it swung free that day over all that wreck and ruin. Our men and officers behaved towards the paroled rebels with the noblest generosity; shared with them everything they had, or could get, and treated them like brothers. They were destitute and almost famished for want of food, and all showed the terrible ordeal the six weeks fighting had wrought.
The terms were unconditional surrender. The officers were allowed to retain their side arms, all were given a liberal supply of provisions and they scattered to their homes and loved ones. Besides 6340 paroled prisoners the confederate loss was 700 killed and wounded and five hundred deserted. Twenty mounted guns, thirty-one field pieces and 7500 muskets were surrendered with the garrison.