Within the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society’s collections are a number of artifacts that bring to light local involvement in the Civil War. These objects range from weapons and medals to the more mundane accoutrements the soldiers carried with them. One object in particular helps tell the story of one soldier from Duxbury, James Downey, who, thanks to happenstance and a simple canteen, lived to tell about his experiences.
James Downey served as corporal of the 38th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The 38th was comprised of roughly 1,000 men, mostly from the Boston area but also from Plymouth County. A total of 37 Duxbury men enlisted in the regiment. In late August 1862, Downey’s regiment left Boston and traveled by rail and steamship to Baltimore. After being armed and equipped, their first orders were to set up a garrison camp outside of Baltimore by the town of Powhattan where they remained until November. In December, was transferred to the Army of the Gulf, becoming part of the Nineteenth Corps and embarked for New Orleans by ship.
As Gen. Nathaniel Banks organized his Army of the Gulf that winter for a movement up the Mississippi River, the 38th spent months in minor operations around their camp south of Baton Rouge. By late March 1863, the regiment was seriously weakened by disease. Protracted rains worsened their morale and the men were forced to break camp and move on to Baton Rouge. What awaited them would do little to lift their spirits.
The regiment remained in Baton Rouge until early April, joining expeditions to drive away Confederate forces near New Orleans and the Red River in preparation for operations against Port Hudson, Louisiana—one of the last Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi River. After minor skirmishes around the mouth of the Red River, the 38th joined the large expedition against Port Hudson on May 27. The Siege of Port Hudson lasted 48 days. Banks launched several assaults against the city which were unsuccessful and resulted in high casualties. The 38th Massachusetts was in the thick of the assault on June 13, 1863. After this action, the regiment was removed from the siege lines to rest and took no further part in the siege until the Confederates surrendered Port Hudson on July 9, 1863.
In the time they spent on the siege lines, the 38th was confronted by relentless fire from Confederate sharpshooters. It may well have been in front of Port Hudson that Corporal James Downey of Duxbury narrowly avoided death. According to Ellen Devney, his daughter, he might have been killed by one of these sharpshooter’s bullets if it weren’t for his canteen.
In 1963 when Devney donated the canteen to the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society, she did so along with a story, one that her father was probably used to telling. While Downey stooped over to fill the canteen with water, a sharpshooter’s bullet went over his head and killed a comrade in front of him.
We don’t know where or when Downey experienced this brush with death, and it may not have been the only time he felt he might not return to Duxbury. But it seems likely that the episode occurred near the trenches outside Port Hudson.
After the siege of Port Hudson, the regiment traveled to Harper’s Ferry in the summer of 1864 and participated in the Shenandoah Valley campaign under Gen. Philip Sheridan. The 38th took part in the battles of Opequan Creek, Fisher’s Hill, and Cedar Creek. In December 1864, they were shipped to Georgia and joined General William T. Sherman’s army. They ended their service in Savannah in the spring of 1865, and were discharged in July.