Duxbury Soldiers in the Bayous

"Bayou Plaquemines" by Joseph Rusling Meeker. While a paymaster in the army, Meeker made sketches of scenes along the Mississippi River which he would later inspire paintings. The 38th Massachusetts marched through and camped in this region in March 1863 (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

“Bayou Plaquemines” by Joseph Rusling Meeker. While a paymaster in the Union Army, Meeker made sketches of scenes along the Mississippi River from which he would later create paintings. The 38th Massachusetts marched through and camped in this region in March 1863 (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

By March 1863, 150 years ago this month, about 162 men from Duxbury had enlisted to serve in the Union Army. We have, in this blog, frequently discussed the Duxbury men who belonged to the 18th Massachusetts Infantry (originally about 55 in number) who served with the Army of the Potomac. Being engaged in the Virginia theater since the early days of conflict, these men were involved in some of the best-known battles of the Civil War.

However, by late winter 1863, a new wave of recruits had taken the field. No longer were the majority of Duxbury soldiers serving in Virginia. About 85 green soldiers, or 52% of those serving from Duxbury at the time, had been shipped to Louisiana to become part of the Army of the Gulf. Now Duxbury residents would be reading of campaigns in and around places with such strange names as Bayou Teche, Brashear City, Vermilion Bayou, Plaquemine and Bayou Goula.

Duxbury’s soldiers in the Army of the Gulf belonged to the 4th Massachusetts Infantry (about 51 Duxbury men making up half of Company I) and the 38th Massachusetts Infantry (about 34 men making up a large portion of Company D). These new regiments arrived piecemeal in New Orleans over the course of January and February 1863.

Their journey up the Mississippi River to the Crescent City gave these Yankee soldiers a glimpse of the Louisiana landscape. To most (if not all) it was a foreign world. Elegant plantation houses stood close by the river surrounded by sugar cane fields, orange trees laden with fruit, and everywhere the grey Spanish moss. Roses were in bloom in the midst of winter. Perhaps most striking to these men from Massachusetts were the rows upon rows of white-washed slave quarters and African-Americans working the fields in large numbers.[1]

Both regiments, along with a portion of the Army of the Gulf, camped for several weeks at Carrollton, Louisiana, then a suburb of New Orleans, but now a part of that city. Early on, they admired the novelty of  the “Sunny South” and all seemed pleasant.

By remarkable coincidence, the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society has just acquired a small collection of five letters written by Private Henry Barstow of the 4th Massachusetts. Three of these letters were written while in camp at Carrollton during this very period. Their acquisition occurred during the last week in February, the same week they were written 150 years earlier.

Letter by Private Henry Barstow, February 20, 1863

Letter by Private Henry Barstow, February 20, 1863

I am on shore in Carrollton 7 miles from New Orleans. We are encamped in tents in a pleasant place. I am very well and good appetite….We shall stay here a good time I expect. I don’t see as it looks much like war here—all the boys are well. The 38th Regt is here near to us—shall see the boys soon [referring to Duxbury friends in the 38th Massachusetts]. We have found all our boys here…The view of New Orleans City as viewed from the cross trees of the ship yesterday as we came up the river was splendid—I staid up loft all the afternoon and had a splendid time…It is a warm day like July here. The nights are damp and cold…We have now entered in to camp life in tents—we have a board flooring to our tents—and everything is in good order…You will be glad to know that we are well here and enjoy health…I am not home sick in the least. It is very hot here in camp and I will stop writing for the present.[2]

In just a short time, however, a series of drenching rain storms changed the pleasant scene as Barstow describes in a letter eight days later:

It rained yesterday tough enough. Thundered and lightning. The mud here is ankle deep. Still our boots must be blackened, guns polished, and clothes all washed, all nice. If anything goes wrong you are obliged to dig mud all day…George Torrey is sick. Some 20 of our company report sick today…I am glad that I have kept well and mean to if I can…We have just been out on dress parade and we were dismissed as a hard rain came on and got wet pretty well…I had rather spend 6 months on board of a ship than 3 here. Mud ankle deep and drill, drill all the time. I am sick of such proceedings…[3]

In the ensuing weeks, the dampness of that lowland camp along the Mississippi River, and the poor quality of the water supply, resulted in rampant ailments. The sick lists grew longer and longer. During February and March four Duxbury men died of disease: Private Charles J. Chandler and Private William Bailey of the 38th Massachusetts; and Private Charles E. Alden and Private Daniel W. Delano of the 4th Massachusetts. These represented Duxbury’s first casualties in Louisiana.

During the second week in March, preparations began for a campaign against Port Hudson, Louisiana, one of the last Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi River. The 38th Massachusetts left their camp at Carrollton on March 6, boarded a steamer through “a very carnival of mud,” were shipped up river to Baton Rouge and camped there for about a week.[4] The 4th Massachusetts followed on March 13.[5]

Control of the Mississippi River was a key goal of the Federal war effort. While General Ulysses Grant dealt with the Confederate forces entrenched in Vicksburg, Mississippi, the task fell to General Nathaniel Banks (former Governor of Massachusetts and commander of the Army of the Gulf) and Rear Admiral David Farragut to deal with Port Hudson. Farragut was the driving force in commencing action against Port Hudson. He intended to run a fleet of warships past the heavily fortified heights at Port Hudson. Once north of the town, he could isolate Port Hudson by blockading the river.

To do this effectively, he needed Army support. Farragut urged Banks to move his Army of the Gulf north and press the entrenchments at Port Hudson as a diversion. This might distract the Confederates enough to allow Farragut’s fleet to slip north along the Mississippi. Banks reluctantly agreed, but dragged his feet about it. Farragut eventually announced to a subordinate, “The time has come, there can be no more delay. I must go—army or no army.”[6]

As Farragut prepared to run past Port Hudson with his fleet, Banks eventually got his troops moving during the second week of March 1863. Fully three divisions of the Army of the Gulf moved against Port Hudson, including the 4th Massachusetts and the 38th Massachusetts. After an exhausting march through the mud from Plaquemine (the bayous around which are pictured above), Banks’s divisions arrived near the Confederate entrenchments just a few miles outside Port Hudson.

There was no great assault on the part of Banks’s forces, but they were successful in providing a diversion while Farragut’s fleet battled its way past Port Hudson on the Mississippi River. As remembered by the regimental historian, the 38th Massachusetts, at a distance of some miles, could hear the pitched battle taking place on the river:

Toward night, the sound of heavy guns was heard in the vicinity of Port Hudson, and the cannonading continued through the night, while the shells from the gun-boats could be plainly seen bursting over the fort. The reveille was beaten at four o’clock…It was the general opinion that there would be a brush with the enemy, if not a pitched battle…But the morning wore away without an alarm; and, at ten o’clock, the line was formed, and the column headed for Baton Rouge…The troops were in ill-humor, the whole movement seeming incomprehensible to them. Soon an aide from the commander-in-chief rode up…to announce that the Hartford and the Albatross had passed the batteries of Port Hudson, and that “the object of the expedition had been accomplished.” Gradually, the men recovered their accustomed spirits…[7]

And so the Duxbury men, along with thousands of soldiers, marched away from Port Hudson to go back to their Carrollton camp. But they would eventually return to Port Hudson. And their second expedition would by no means be so uneventful.

[1] George W. Powers, The Story of the Thirty Eighth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers, (1866), p. 33.
[2] Henry Barstow to parents, February 20, 1863, Drew Archives of the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society.
[3] Barstow to parents, February 28, 1863, Drew Archives.
[4] Powers, p. 46.
[5] Henry B. Maglathlin, Company I, Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, (1863), p. 27.
[6] Lawrence L. Hewitt, Port Hudson, Confederate Bastion on the Mississippi, (1994), p. 59.
[7] Powers, p. 55.

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