A Union Officer's Personal Account of the Siege
This very interesting personal account of the Port Hudson siege was written by Union Captain John William Deforest, and was published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in August, 1867. Captain Deforest was the commander of Company D, 12th Connecticut Infantry Regiment at Port Hudson. This unit attacked the left flank of Fort Desperate during the May 27th attack, and participated in the June 14th attack on the Priest Cap.
I. IN THE TRENCHES.
If you want to know how a hero feels in the trenches get behind a tree not quite big enough to cover you, and let two or three persons, who would just as lieve hit you as not, throw stones at you. Like every thing else in the way of fighting it is frankly uncomfortable, and nothing makes one put up with it but a sense of right and duty and honor. This is not the poetical view of battle, as you find it in Charles O'Malley and Guy Livingstone; but the author of Charles was never under fire, and the creator of Guy is reported to have run like an assistant-company-cook at Antietam. Rather than trust to these theorists, take the word of one who has fought often enough to know the truth, and respectably well enough to dare tell it.
Before describing minutely how it went in the trenches let me explain rapidly how I came there. Having beaten Mouton at Camp Beaseland, and chased him at full speed into the Piney Woods beyond Alexandria, Banks turned short, descended the Red River and Mississippi in transports, landed north of Port Hudson, and immediately surrounded it, caging Gardner just as he was on the point of evacuating for the purpose of reinforcing Vicksburg. On the morning after the last brigade of the besieging force got into position took place the general assault of the 27th of May. Over hillocks and ravines tangled with forest, through roaring, shrieking, whistling storms of great guns and musketry, amidst the crash of gigantic beeches and magnolias cut asunder by shot, Weitzel’s division drove in the enemy's skirmishers, slackened its speed under the friction of obstacle after obstacle, passed in dribblets through a vast abatis of felled trees, and spent itself in reaching the base of the earth-works.
Look at a wave rushing up a sloping beach against a line of rocks, and you will see the history of an assaulting column directed against fortifications. At a distance the billow seems irresistible; near at hand the under-current has deprived it of half its force; at last merely a little spray dashes upon the final impediment. Just so slaughter, misdirection, dispersion, and skulking enfeeble the column until only hundreds out of thousands reach the point of hand-to-hand fighting. On reflection it is a wonder that any assault succeeds. The attacking force must do what is very difficult in the open field; it must advance without firing against a line which is firing at it; it must do this in spite of difficulties of ground which inevitably break up its organization; and after long-continued slaughter it must scale defenses fringed with bayonets. We were expected that day to charge a mile in face of cannon and musketry, and then to carry earth-works defended by men of our own race. It was right to try the experiment, but it is not surprising that it failed.
My regiment was not pushed across that valley of death where lay the acres of abatis, but was ordered to an isolated position on the left, with instructions to throw out skirmishers and silence artillery. It halted on a knoll shaded by grand magnolias, six or seven hundred yards from the fortifications, and in face of three barbette pieces. Our skirmishers had been sent to the front during our movement to this point, and had already driven the cannoneers from their guns. During the rest of the day we had a quiet and pleasant bout of sharp-shooting. The reserve sprawled at ease under the magnolias, rarely disturbed by bullets bearing wounds and death. Once or twice in an hour a victim sent forth his shriek and was borne away to the surgeon, who had established his field-hospital in a secure neighboring gully. But in the main we could smoke our pipes and discuss the chances of the combat with a fair sense of enjoyment. Meantime the men of the skirmishing companies spread out over a front of nearly half a mile, and, sheltered behind stumps and fallen trees, popped away at the gunners whenever they tried to reload the barbette pieces, at the tents inside of the earthworks, and at every visible creature of the garrison.
At last an unpleasant moment, not unlike that in which you take your seat in a dentists chair, came to the author of this history. When the Colonel said, "Captain, take out your company and relieve Company G", I felt that heavy heart within me which man is almost always conscious of as he deliberately approaches the confines of visible death. With a smile of simulated gayety I turned to my men and shouted, "Fall in!" Five minutes thereafter, the ice of suspense broken, the blood heated with advancing and fighting, that gayety became real. Skirmishing is not nearly so trying as charging or line-fighting. In the first place, you generally have cover; in the second, if you are shot at you can also shoot. Now to fire at a person who is firing at you is somehow wonderfully consolatory and sustaining; more than that, it is exciting, and produces in you the savage but nevertheless natural and unaffected joy of battle. I was presently shouting with enthusiasm, cheering my men with jokes and laughter, jumping over fallen trees instead of crawling under them, and running about regardless of exposure. Then the close whistle of bullets, or their loud whack as they buried themselves in the stumps near me, would drive me temporarily to shelter. Such is skirmishing when it goes nicely, or, in other words, when the enemy is not too numerous. As to being slaughtered and driven back and scared to death, you can not make it pleasant under any circumstances.
Port Hudson, as I saw it, was an immense knoll or bluff, two miles in diameter, with a rolling surface, a forest, a church, a few scattered houses, and two or three encampments of tents or shanties. The edge of the bluff was marked by a zigzag earth-work, rough in construction, and by no means lofty; and from this line the ground sank on all sides into a valley which in some places was a ravine choked with felled trees.
There was a moment when it seemed as if Port Hudson was taken. A white flag showed over the rampart, and on every hand the firing died away, while a large body of men, apparently a regiment, filed through a sally-port, stacked arms outside of the entrenchments, and sat down behind the stacks. To those of our skirmishers who had become intermingled with them and asked what their movement meant the Butternuts replied, sullenly, “We suppose that we have surrendered”. Had we had on the spot an officer promptly intelligent enough to order this force to move into the valley the fate of the place would have been decided; for the abandoned works could have been occupied by own skirmish line, which had already reached the ditch, and the example of surrender would doubtless have been quickly followed by other regiments. Company A of the 12th was at the right point, but under the command of a sergeant, its only officer, Captain Brennan, having been just taken to the rear wounded. And thus this propitious moment, this chance which might have saved a long investment and thousands of men, slipped by unimproved. While both armies stood gaping, down came a mounted Confederate officer, supposed to be General Gardner, placed the surrendering colonel under arrest, and sent the surrendered regiment inside the entrenchments. In an instant cannonade and musketry flamed forth with renewed fury, and we recommenced the siege, which was now to last six weeks instead of a single day.
It was not till after the surrender that I learned the inside history of this singular incident. It seems, according to the rebel officers, that the colonel of a New York regiment pushed his way up to an apron which projected from the main works and fought desperately for a while, but finally found himself in a bad box, most of the men who followed him having been disabled and the remainder driven to cover behind logs and stumps. Unable to combat longer he would have been glad to get away, but could not without exposing himself to almost certain death. In this extremity he hoisted a white handkerchief on a stick, and came to a parley with that part of the garrison immediately opposed to him. The rebel colonel in front of us saw this symbol of distress, but, deceived by the distance and the lay of the ground, supposed that it was raised by his comrades of the apron, and being a regular-minded gentleman, disposed to do what was proper, immediately got out his own handkerchief. My informants added that he was still under arrest, and would be tried by court-martial as soon as exchanged. They also stated that the New Yorker eventually escaped from them unhurt.
About two hours after this blundering interlude came the charge of the 12th Maine. A single regiment, four hundred strong, stepped forth, by whose orders I know not, to do what would have been hard labor for a brigade. Under a fire from half a mile of hostile rampart it rushed with a prolonged yell through the abatis of felled trees, diminishing in numbers at every step until not a hundred reached the ditch. One nameless hero sprang upon the earth-works, bayoneted two of the garrison, and fell pierced with three bullets. Thirty or forty of his comrades seized an old shell of a building at the base of the fortifications, and held it amidst a furious spitting of musketry, until slaughtered or driven out by an overpowering fire. It was an ill-advised, unsupported, heroic, and hopeless effort. To draw attention from it I advanced my company, but with no result beyond losing a man or two, who might otherwise have escaped.
I have already intimated that skirmishing is not dangerous. Two men mortally and two severely wounded constituted my whole loss in something like three hours fighting out of a company of forty-one muskets. Four hours after I was relieved the wide-spread, straggling, wavering combat died into silence and night. The day had been a defeat: Sherman had been repulsed even more bloodily than Weitzel and Grover; seventeen hundred brave men had fallen uselessly.
With my rubber-blanket for a bed, and my blouse thrown over me for a coverlet, I slept at the foot of a huge magnolia scarred by bullets. The next day there was an armistice, demanded by Banks to bury the dead. In the afternoon we received orders to leave our position in charge of the 24th Connecticut, and to rejoin our brigade a mile or so to the right. Through some mistake, and contrary to the rules of war, we moved before the armistice ended, thus making the little march in perfect tranquillity circumstance which might not have happened had our route been in sight of the garrison. Threading ravines and thickets, and passing regiment after regiment concealed by the forest, we arrived an hour before sundown in a short and broad gully, faintly resembling in shape an oblong wooden bowl with one end broken out. Here, under the shade of beeches and ashes, lounged the 8th Vermont and the 91st New York. Climbing the steepest side of the gully, and looking over a solid turfy knoll which served the purpose of a rampart, I saw a deep ravine a hundred and twenty yards across, and on the other brink of it the low earth-work of an apron occupied by the 2d Alabama and the 4th Arkansas. Sallow, darkly sunburnt men, in dirty reddish homespun, and broad-brimmed wool hats, stared back at me in grim silence. To the left, and a little below me, the flag of the 75th New York waved on another knoll, behind which lay the regiment. Still farther to the left, across a rugged valley and nearly half a mile distant, rose the bluff of Port Hudson, crowned with yellow earthworks, dirty tents, ragged shanties, and a forest. We were in a broad obtuse angle, between the main fortress and the projecting apron, and evidently exposed to a cross-fire.
Our basin was crammed with the blue uniforms and bright rifles of the three regiments. The men of the 91st sat on their knapsacks, ready to move to another position on the conclusion of the armistice. Prepared to open fire at the same instant, four companies of the 12th, relieving four of the 8th Vermont, were ranged along the edge of the basin nearest the enemy, under cover of the bank. There was nothing cheerful about the armistice; it was merely a funereal pause in the slaughter.
A little after sunset, just as dusk was stealing into our wood, a signal-gun solemnly terminated the truce. In an instant a sheet of red flashes lit up the dimness, followed by crashes of musketry and the yells of combatants. Then came the roar of artillery, the crackling of shells, and the whistling of grape. We could hear the humming, shrieking, and hissing of the projectiles as they passed over our heads; we could feel the shuddering of the trees against which we leaned, as they were struck; we were conscious of a falling of severed leaves and branches. The order was passed along to lie down, and down we dropped, wherever we might be. As yet none of us knew our exact position with regard to that of the enemy; and, astounded by the unexpectedness and violence of the explosion, we supposed that the rebels had attacked. Gazing steadily at the spitting stream of flashes above me, I expected every moment to be called on to fight with the bayonet. All this, it must be remembered, was in darkness; for the Louisiana summer-day dies almost instantaneously, and in five minutes from the opening of the musketry it was our only light.
Presently an order reached me to move my company forward. Now for close-quarters, I thought, with a gravity becoming the moment, and picked my way toward the firing over the bodies of prostrate men. But I was halted at the foot of the bank, and directed to remain there as a reserve. Meantime we had begun to find out that nobody was getting hit, that the missiles were all unquestionably passing over our heads, and that the affair was only terrible considered as a racket. Presently Colonel Thomas of the 8th Vermont, our brigade commander, called to me.
“Captain, said he, I don’t want this sort of thing at all. I only want the men to fire as sharp-shooters. This blazing away and yelling like madmen is all nonsense. I wish you would step up there and stop it.”
So I stepped up there and stopped it. Thus terminated one of the most dreadful-looking skirmishes that I ever witnessed. It was sublime, until I discovered that nobody was hurt, and that probably nobody would be hurt if it should last all night. We were sheltered behind fifty feet of solid earth, and the rebels were equally safe on the other side of the ravine. In justice to our men I must observe that they wasted their breath and ammunition under the instructions of a passing staff-officer of division, to pitch in lively as soon as the armistice terminated.
Now came forty days and nights in the wilderness of death. Before we left that diminutive gully fifty or sixty men of the regiment had stained it with their blood, and several of the trees, which filled it with shade, had been cut asunder by cannon-shot, While others were dying under the scars of innumerable bullets. The nuisance of trench duty does not consist in the overwhelming amount of danger at any particular moment, but in the fact that danger is perpetually present. The spring is always bent; the nerves never have a chance to recuperate; the elasticity of courage is slowly worn out. Every morning I was awakened by the popping of rifles and the whistling of balls; hardly a day passed that I did not hear the loud exclamations of the wounded, or see corpses borne to the rear; and the gamut of my good-night lullaby varied all the way from Minie rifles to sixty-eight ponders.
In one respect our gully was detestable. Well covered in front, it was open at one end, and this end was exposed to the enemy. I often wished that I could turn the wretched hole around. From a distance of nearly half a mile the rebel sharp-shooters drew a bead on us with a precision which deserved the highest commendation of their officers, but which made us curse the day they were born. One incident proves, I think, that they were able to hit an object farther off than they could distinguish its nature. A rubber blanket, hung over the stump of a sapling five feet high, which stood in the centre of our bivouac, was pierced by a bullet from this quarter. A minute later a second bullet passed directly over the object and lodged in a tree behind it. I ordered the blanket to be taken down, and then the firing ceased. Evidently the invisible marksman, eight hundred yards away, had mistaken it for a Yankee. Several men were hit upon this same hillock, or immediately in rear of it; and I for one never crossed it without wondering whether I should get safely to the other side.
Another fatal spot was an exposed corner in the narrow terrace which our men had made in the bank, as a standing-place whence to fire over the knoll.
"Don’t go there, Captain", a soldier said to me, when I first approached the place. "That’s Dead Man’s Corner. Five men have been killed there already."
I understood that Hubbard and Rodonowski of Weitzel's staff both received their death-shots at Dead Mans Corner, on the 27th of May. Early on my first day in the gully, just as I had risen, smirched and damp, from my bed on the brick-colored earth, a still breathing corpse was brought down from this spot of sacrifice. A brave, handsome boy of our Company D, gay and smiling with the excitement of fighting, disdaining to cover himself, was reloading his rifle when a ball traversed his head, leaving two ghastly orifices through which the blood and brains exuded, mingling with his auburn curls. He uttered strong, loud gaspings; it seemed possible, listening to them, that he might yet live; but his eyes were fast closed and his ruddy cheek paling; in a few minutes he was dead. We lost eight or ten men during that first day, partly from not knowing these dangerous localities, and partly from excess of zeal. Our fellows attempted to advance the position, leaped the knoll without orders, and took to the trees on the outer slope, and were only driven back after sharp fighting.
Served me right. I'd no business there, said a suddenly enlightened Irishman, as he came in with a hole through his shoulder. As the siege drew on, and we found that there was plenty of danger without running after it, we all became more or less illuminated by this philosophy. It is a remark as old as sieges, that trench duty has a tendency to unfit men for close fighting. The habit of taking cover becomes stronger than the habit of moving in unison; and, moreover, the health is enfeebled by confinement, and the nervous system shaken by incessant peril.
The 8th Vermont was soon moved farther to the right, and we of the 12th Connecticut had the gully to ourselves. Our life in it fell into military routine; the rule was, one day at the parapet and two days off. On duty days we popped away at the enemy, or worked at strengthening our natural rampart. We laid a line of logs along the crest of the knoll, cut notches in them and then put on another tier of logs, thus providing ourselves with port-holes. With the patience of cats watching for mice the men would pear for hours through the port-holes waiting a chance to shoot a rebel; and the faintest show of the crown of a hat above the hostile fortification, not distinguishable to the inexperienced eye, would draw a bullet. By dint of continual practice many of our fellows became admirable marksmen. During one of the traces the Confederates called to us, Aha, you have some sharp-shooters over there! After the surrender an officer of the 2d Alabama told me that most of their casualties were cases of shots between the brim of the hat and the top of the head; and that having once held up a hoe handle to test our marksmanship, it was struck by no less than three bullets in as many minutes. The distance from parapet to parapet was not great; our men sighted it on their Enfields as one hundred and fifty yards; but it did not look so far, and we often exchanged taunts and challenges. Any eye not absolutely short-sighted could distinguish the effect of our bullets in knocking splinters from the port-holes or dust from the top of the earth-works.
The garrison gave us full as good as we sent. Several of our men were shot in the face through the port-holes as they were taking aim. One of these unfortunates, I remember, drew his rifle back, set the butt on the ground, leaned the muzzle against the parapet, turned around, and fell lifeless. He had fired at the moment he was hit, and two or three eye-witnesses asserted that his bullet shivered the edge of the opposite port-hole, so that in all probability he and his antagonist died together. It must be understood that these openings were but just large enough to protrude the barrel of a musket and take sight along it.
During our relief days we were quite as much shot at, without the comforting excitement of shooting. There was but one spot in the hollow, and that only a few yards square, where bullets never struck; and by some awkward providence it rarely fell to the lot of my company, no matter when we came off duty. I used to look with envy and longing at this nasty but wholesome patch of gutter. It was a land of peace, a city of refuge, 30 feet long by 10 feet broad. Turning my back on its charmed tranquillity, where the dying never gasped and the wounded never groaned, I spread my rubber blanket in the mud or the sun according to the weather, lighted my pipe, and wondered when my bullet would come. It must be stated that, excepting the canopy of the heavens, there was not a tent in the regiment. I do admit, however, on recollection, that for two weeks or more I enjoyed the shelter of a white bed coverlet, abstracted by my colored henchman George from I know not whose shanty or palace, and which, being spread cunningly, kept off much sun and some rain. But on the 14th of June, while I was engaged in the storming party, certain vagrants from another regiment caused this improvised shelter-tent to disappear. Little by little we built in the treeless portions of the gully huts of branches just high enough to admit us in a sitting posture. Over these we threw our rubber blankets during the showers, and tried to imagine that we were thereby the drier. Being about to occupy the bivouac of Company F, which was going up to the parapet to relieve my company, I said to the commandant, Lieutenant Clark, What a palace you have left me! It looks nice, replied Clark, smiling doubtfully at the newly-built green shanty which he was about quitting. But it isn’t all my fancy painted it. I had scarcely got comfortably settled in it and commenced reading a newspaper when a bullet went through the leading editorial.
As I was sitting at dinner beside this same domicile a large tree, fifteen feet in rear of it, flew asunder under the blow of a cannon-shot, the top plunging harmlessly across the bivouac of Company K, and scaring the first sergeant out of a sound sleep, while a splinter weighing ten pounds hissed over my head and fell between the feet of one of my own sergeants, Charles Collins. A minute afterward Collins was struck by a fatal bullet; which came from very nearly the opposite direction of the cannon-shot. So much for the advantages of the shanty which Lieutenant Clark had put up, after due thought as to selecting a safe location. Our brigade commander met with similar tribulations in his search after a quiet residence. A large and comfortable-looking arbor of boughs had just been erected for him, when screech came a 12-pounder ball, and down came a great oak, smashing the dwelling into uninhabitability.
To escape this all-searching fire one of our officers dug for himself a gopher-hole in a little bank, and was much laughed at for his pains when a bullet went slap into it shortly after he had finished it. He was absent at the moment; but I came very near suffering in his place, for I was just then surveying and envying his housekeeping arrangements. Two soldiers who were standing at the mouth of the hole had a still narrower escape, the shot passing between their heads not six inches from either. When the owner returned and heard my jolly story he looked slightly disgusted, but nevertheless refused to sell out, and crawled in upon his blanket with a smile of desperate resignation.
About ten o’clock one evening, when profound peace had fallen from night upon Port Hudson and all its surroundings, we were startled from our slumbers by a tremendous explosion, succeeded a few seconds afterward by another. Mighty vibrations seemed to spread outward through the atmosphere, as ripples circle over the surface of water from the plunge of a stone. In a moment our gully swarmed with men muttering and questioning in astonishment. Running up the steep bank of the rampart I beheld a meteor of war. Out of the black line of forest which crowned the hostile bluff came a fiery spark, flying straight toward us in silent swiftness. Then followed a sonorous, majestic basso-profondo pu----m which made night tremble. As the spark rose above us, as we turned our eyes upward to see it, it burst with a broad glare and was gone. Now came another report, a crashing pa----m, sharper, angrier than the first, but also grand, vibrating, stunning. This was a 68-pounder. The first explosion was that of the gun, and the second that of the projectile. In either case the flash was visible some seconds before the detonation became audible; and that brief interval, during which we awaited possible death, was a suspense of superhuman grandeur. Six shots to our left; six directly over us; six to our right; then silence. Night after night for a week or more we were bombarded in this magnificent fashion. At first it was trying; but we soon found that the gunners could not depress the piece sufficiently to hit us, and after that we did not care a hard-tack for their 68-pounder except as a spectacle. It did some little damage to our second line, we understood; but that was rather an agreeable piece of information than otherwise. Men in the front are always disposed to chuckle when their comrades in the rear get a share of the slaughtering.
Once we were pounded a little by our own artillery. On the last day of June the regiment was mustered for pay in the gully, the companies being brought one by one before the commanding officer (Lieutenant-Colonel Peck), and the whole ceremony made as simple as possible in order not to attract the attention of the enemy. The last company had been reached; the men stood in line silent and statue-like with supported arms; the Colonel was at the front with muster-roll in his hand, and Lieutenant commanding by his side. As each man’s name was called he answered "Here"; came to a shoulder, and then an order. The roll was half finished when suddenly there was a whisk, whisk in the air, and a spent 12-pounder shot passed over the muskets and dropped twenty feet in rear. A slight dip, a kind of courtesy, wavered through the line of arms; then they returned to their military level, while a grin glanced along the war-worn faces. The Colonel turned his head, gave one stare of calm surprise, and resumed his reading. Whisk, whisk once more; another shot whispered in the track of the first; but this time the men were prepared, and the arms were steady; this time, too, the projectile flew higher, and fell in the bivouac of the next regiment. Deliberately and calmly the roll was called to the end. The company shouldered arms, faced to the right, ported arms, broke ranks, and went to its quarters.
No more shots; but still we were uneasy, for this fire came direct into the open mouth of our gully; and if it should be resumed with spirit our position would be hard to hold. The next day we learned that one of our own batteries, a mile and a half distant, had been our assailant. Aiming at a projecting angle of the rebel works, it had elevated too high and sent its missiles clean over the mark into our quarters. Oddly enough the only person injured was the regimental coward of the 114th New York, a man who had shirked every fight, and who had dug for himself a gopher-hole unattainable by the fire of the garrison. The second ball found him out in his retreat, took off a leg and sent him into the other world. Poltroons being regarded with violent disfavor in the army, this tragedy was looked upon as little less than a special providence, and diffused a general sense of satisfaction. One man offered to show the commandant of the battery two or three more gopher-holes, which he thought ought to be cleaned out.
Meantime the rebels were as much worried by constant exposure to fire as ourselves. Not only did our artillery search every corner of the fortress, but our bullets sowed it, and even went clean over it into the Mississippi. On the very summit of the bluff, within a few rods of the river batteries, a man was putting a mug of beer to his lips when he was killed by a Minie ball which must have come at least a mile to find him. In front of us an officer had finished his tour of duty at the parapet and retired to the grove in its rear to rest, when he was shot through the body with a ramrod which one of our men discharged by accident. A little to our right an 8-inch shell from one of our mortar batteries fell just inside of the earth-work. A rebel jumped over the mound, lay on the outer slope until the huge projectile exploded, and then dodged back again. Our men, instead of firing at him, gave him a hurrah in recognition of his coolness and dexterity.
Here I am reminded of an adventure of Andrew Bartram, a private of my company. Far to the left of our gully, and nearly in front of the position which we had occupied on the 27th of May, the siege-works had been pushed so near the rampart that the fatigue party, of which this man was one, could hear the voices of the defenders in conversation. Naturally curious and adventurous, he determined to risk his skin for the sake of obtaining a close look at his antagonists; and, taking advantage of the quiet of night and a fine moonlight, he left the covered way, scaled a slope, and found himself at the base of the earth-work. here, as the reader may suppose, he paused, lay low and considered. The men inside would certainly shoot him if they saw him; and the men outside might also make a mark of him, supposing him to be a rebel. The result was that he resumed his hazardous journey, climbed the sloping mound on his hands and knees and cautiously peeped over it. There they were, immediately under his nose and almost within reach of his hand, a score or so of men in dirty gray or butternut, some lounging and others apparently sleeping. The scene was remarkable, but not altogether delightful, and he was soon satisfied with it. Sliding quietly down the face of the mound he made a run of it, reached the covered way unseen, hurried to the nearest battery and reported the position of the rebels. A couple of shells were pitched nicely into the spot indicated; and the shrieks which answered bore witness that they had done their pitiless duty. For this feat Bartram was made lieutenant in a negro regiment.
Such are some of my experiences and observations in the matter of duty in the trenches. The thoughtful among my readers, those who care less for objective incidents than for their effect upon the human soul, will ask me if I liked the business. With a courage which entitles me to honorable mention at the headquarters of the veracities, I reply that I did not like it, except in some expansive moments when this or that stirring success filled me with excitement. Certain military authors who never heard a bullet whistle have written copiously for the marines, to the general effect that fighting is delightful. It is not; it is just tolerable; you can put up with it; but you can’t honestly praise it. Bating a few flashes of elation which come in moments of triumph or in the height of a breathless charge, when the air is all a yell and the earth is all a flame, it is much like being in a rich cholera district in the height of the season.
Profoundly, infinitely true, true of every species and of every individual, is the copy-book maxim, “Self-preservation is the first law of nature”. The man who does not dread to die or be mutilated is a lunatic. The man who, dreading these things, still faces them for the sake of duty and honor is a hero.
II. A NIGHT ATTACK.
Our fighting at Port Hudson was not without its spice of variety. From time to time, as a relief to the monotony of being shot at every day a little, we made an attack and were shot at a good deal. On the 10th of June General Banks ordered a nocturnal reconnoissance on a grand scale, with the object, as I understood, of discovering where the enemy’s artillery was posted, so that it might be knocked out of position by our own batteries previous to delivering a general assault. The whole line, six or eight miles in length, advanced sharp-shooters, with instructions to be in position by midnight and then to open violently.
I had noticed premonitions of mischief during the day. A cavalry orderly from division headquarters had passed through our gully with dispatches for the brigade commander. And here I will honestly clear my breast of the confession that I dreaded the sight of these orderlies for the reason that they hardly ever made their appearance among us but we were shortly engaged in some unusual high cockolorum of heroism. It must be understood that by this time we had seen as much fighting as human nature can easily absorb inside of a month. Next after the orderly came another somewhat unwelcome personage, the adjutant, going from shanty to shanty with the message, “The colonel wishes to see the company commandants.” I distinctly remember the faces of the ten men who listened to the orders for the reconnoissance. They were grave, composed, businesslike; they were entirely and noticeably without any expression of excitement; they manifested neither gloom nor exultation. When the colonel had ceased speaking three or four purely practical questions were asked, and then the officers, separating without further conversation, returned quietly to their companies.
The orders which we received were singular, and to us at the time incomprehensible. Seven companies were to be formed at midnight behind the parapet, ready to advance at a moments notice. Three companies were to pass over the knoll, cross the ravine, carry the enemy’s works, and report their success, upon which they were to be supported by the others. The companies selected for the assault were the ones whose turn it would be to mount guard the next morning.
Knowing nothing then of General Banks's purpose to make the rebels unmask their artillery, and remembering that our companies did not average thirty men apiece while the apron to be attacked was held by two regiments, we looked upon our instructions as simple madness. Of course, however, we prepared to obey them, ordering the cartridge-boxes to be replenished, the canteens and haversacks filled, and the blankets slung. That is to say, we got ready to occupy the enemy’s position precisely as if we expected to carry it.
The night was warm, damp, cloudy, and almost perfectly dark. A little before the hour appointed for the attack the seven reserve companies formed line in perfect silence along the inner slope of our natural parapet. No one spoke aloud; there was a very little whispering; the suspense was sombre, heavy, and hateful. Then, as quietly as possible, but nevertheless with a tell-tale clicking of canteens against bayonets, the fighting companies climbed upon the knoll and commenced to file over it. Suddenly there was a screech of musketry from across the ravine, a hissing of bullets in flights over our heads, a crash of cannon to our right, whistling of grape, bursting of shells, shouts of officers, and groans of wounded. The rebels in front had caught the sound of the advance, and had opened upon it instantaneously with all their power. My lieutenant, leaning against a sapling, felt it struck by six bullets in something like as many minutes, so thickly did the fusillade fill the air with its messengers. Now, flowing with alarming rapidity considering the small force advanced, commenced the backward stream of wounded, a halting procession of haggard men climbing painfully over the parapet, and sliding down the steep bank to lie till morning upon the hard earth of the basin. In the darkness our surgeon could do nothing more than lay a little dressing upon the hurts and saturate them with water.
The clouds had by this time gathered into storm, and gleams of lightning showed me the sufferers. A group of two brothers, one eighteen the other sixteen, the elder supporting the younger, was imprinted upon my memory by this electric photography. The wounded boy was a character well known in the regiment, a fellow of infinite mischief, perpetually in the guard-house for petty rascalities, noisy, restless, overflowing with animal spirits, and like many such, a headlong, heroic fighter. Young Porter, as every body called him, was firing and yelling with his usual gayety when a bullet struck him in the groin. Turning to his brother he said, Bill, the d--d rebs have hit me; help me in. As he came over the rampart one of my men, not knowing that he was wounded, laughed out, Aha, Porter, you’ve come back early! D--n you, he replied, you go out there and you’ll come back early. Walking down the bank he groaned, Oh, my God! don’t walk so fast. I can't walk so fast. This d--d thing pains me clear up to my shoulder.
On examination it was found that a second ball had actually passed through his shoulder. So severe were this lads injuries that it was not supposed possible that he could live; but six weeks afterward, as we lay at Donelsonville, he rejoined the regiment, having run away from hospital and stolen a tent and a boat.
Within ten minutes from the commencement of the attack the three captains of the advancing companies were brought in disabled. I was leaning against the bank near the edge of the gully, thinking, I suppose, how disagreeable it was to be there, and how much better it was than to be outside, when, behold! that undesired messenger, the sergeant-major.
“Captain, he said, the Colonel directs that you take command of the skirmishers and push them across the ravine.”
Dreading it like a toothache, but nevertheless facing it as though I liked it, I ran a little to the left in search of a spot where the bullets were not flying too thick, and went over the parapet with a light step and a heavy heart. My first adventure in the blinding darkness was to roll into a rain-gulch, twenty feet deep, through the branches of a felled tree, tearing off my sword-belt and losing my sabre. I groped a moment for the last-named encumbrance, deemed so essential to an officers honor; but could not find it, and did not see it again until the end of the siege gave me a chance to seek it in safety. Parenthetically I will state that it is now hanging beside me, restored by sand-paper to something like its original brightness, but deeply pock-marked with the rust incurred in its four weeks of unprotected bivouac.
I had my revolver in my hand when I fell, and I still held fast to it at the close of my descent, as I have seen a child cling to a plaything while performing somersaults down stairs. Clambering out of the gulch, and directing my steps toward a spitting of musketry, I came upon Lieutenant Smith and six men of our Company D, who had established themselves in another of the many rainways which seamed the face of the hill-side.
“Forward, boys! I shouted. We must carry the works. Forward!”
I remember distinctly the desperate look -- seen by a lightning flash -- which the brave boys cast at me before they charged out of their cover. It seemed to say, “Are you, too, mad? Well, if it must be—“. In answer to our hurrah the enemy’s musketry howled and the air hissed with bullets. The first who reached the edge of our gulch fell groaning; and I had five men left with whom to storm Port Hudson. Satisfied that the attempt would be futile unless I could have at least one more soldier, I allowed the survivors to take cover, and wondered what General Banks would do if he were in my place.
“I don’t believe the men can be led any farther,” observed the Lieutenant.
“This is a new thing in our regiment, flinching from fire,” I remarked.
“Yes, but it has been pretty bad out here. It was tremendous when we first came over.”
“Where is the rest of the storming party?” I asked.
“God knows. A great many have been carried in. The rest, I suppose, are scattered all over the hill-side, fighting behind stumps.”
An occasional shot from the darkness around us corroborated this supposition. Evidently our storming column of six officers and ninety men had gone to pieces, some disabled and others having taken cover as skirmishers, while many no doubt had drifted back into the regimental bivouac. There is always a great deal of skulking in night fighting -- first, because darkness renders the danger doubly terrific; and second, because the officers can not watch the line.
“Stay where you are, Lieutenant, I said. I will report matters to the Colonel and be out again with orders.”
On my way in I found two men, each behind a tree with rifle ready, waiting for a flash from the hostile rampart as a target. I had not far to go to reach our head-quarters, for the skirmishers had only advanced a few yards down the hill-side. I felt decidedly ticklish about the legs, knowing that the muskets of our reserve were on a level with them, and not being sure that they might not break out with a volley. It was as ugly a little promenade as I ever undertook.
“Captain, the orders are explicit, said the Colonel in reply to my statement. Advance, take the enemy’s works, and report the fact.”
Thinks I to myself, I wish the person who gave the order had to execute it. Back I stumbled through the midnight to my tatter of a skirmish line, pondering over my task in despair. If any other man ever had so much to do, and so little to do it with, I should like to hear his story. To charge again was out of the question; my seven men had had all they wanted of that. Accordingly I gave orders to separate, take such cover as could be found, crawl ahead, and fire as skirmishers. It was all done except the crawling ahead. The men were willing enough to crawl, but not toward the enemy. I did not blame them. If any one advanced he was liable to be shot in the darkness, not only by the rebels but by his own comrades. I don’t believe that King David’s first three mighty ones would have made much progress under the circumstances. What added to our discouragement was the fact that no other regiment was firing. All around Port Hudson, at least as far as we could hear, there was dumb silence, except in front of the 12th Connecticut. Why this was I never knew, and can only guess a diversity of orders, or perhaps a wide-spread influenza of self-preservation.
Presently a storm of rain burst, and both sides ceased firing. I sat on a stump with my rubber blanket over my head, suffocating under the heat of it, and conscious of much moistness in the way of drippings. After an hour or so the rain stopped, and we renewed our musketry. So wore on the most uncomfortable, disgusting, irrational night that I can remember. At last daylight appeared: not sunrise, be it understood, but faint, dusky, misty dawn: a grayish imitation of light robed in fog. Lieutenant Allen of Company K now arrived from farther down the ravine, and went into the lines after the stragglers of his command. Reappearing in the course of a few minutes with a dozen men, he had to expose himself recklessly in order to shame certain demoralized ones into advancing over the fatal knoll behind us. He was admirable, as he walked slowly to and fro at his full height, saying, calmly, “Come along, men; you see there is no danger.” Old Putnam, galloping up and down Charlestown Neck to encourage the Provincials through the ricochetting of the British army, was not finer.
Now we recommenced firing with spirit and kept it up until after sunrise, thinking all the time how absurd it was, and wondering that we were not recalled. Just as the fog lifted and exposed us to the view of the enemy we heard from behind our rampart a shout, “Skirmishers, retire.” It was a good thing to hear; but it was easier said than obeyed. The 2d Alabama had a clean sweep into the gulch where we had collected, and it took all the stumps and jutting banks which we could find there to cover us. We were much in the condition of the Irishman in the runaway coach, who did not jump off because he had as much as he could do to hold on. But it was necessary to be lively; the fire was growing hotter every moment; the bullets were spatting closer and closer to our lurking-places. I claim some merit for superintending the evacuation so successfully as to have only one man hit in the process; although whether the men would not have got off just as well if left to themselves is of course an open question. I ordered one fellow up an almost invisible gutter, another through a thicket of blackberry-bushes, another along some tufts of high grass, and, in short, put my people on as many lines of retreat as the ground would admit. I had about fifteen soldiers, and I sent them in thirty different directions. One fine lad, the clerk of D Company, anxious to save the ordnance stores, for which his captain was responsible, undertook to carry off the muskets of five wounded men, and thereby drew upon himself an unusual amount of attention from the enemy. I ground my teeth with helpless rage and anxiety as I heard the balls strike like axes wielded by demons in the ground near him, he was lying upon his face, crawling slowly and pulling the muskets after him by a gun-strap. He had nearly reached the little log parapet when he gave a cry, They have hit me! Hands were extended to help him, and he was dragged over with no other harm than a flesh wound through the thigh, but without his precious charge of ordnance-stores. When I got in he was hopping about cheerfully and telling the adventures of the night to his comrades of the reserve companies. Poor, brave little Nash! Twenty months later, at Cedar Creek, he died on the field of honor.
I was now left alone with Lieutenants Allen and Smith. "Gentlemen, I said, you are officers; you are supposed to know enough to look out for yourselves; the devil take the hindmost.”
Smith disappeared among the blackberries, or perhaps went under ground, for I never saw him again till I got inside. Allen, over six feet high, bounded across the knoll with a length of stride which the rebel officers remembered after the surrender as having set them a laughing. I surveyed the ground before me, and pondered to the following purpose: “Here I am, a tolerably instructed man, having read The Book of the Indians, all of Coopers novels, and some of the works of Captain Mayne Reid. If I can’t he as cunning as a savage or a backwoodsman I ought to be shot.”
For my road of retreat I selected a faint grassy hollow, perhaps six inches deep, which wound nearly to the top of the knoll before it disappeared. From the stump which sheltered me, and which had already received one bullet and been barely missed by others, I made a spring to the foot of this hollow and dropped in it on my face at full length. I suspect that the grass completely sheltered me from the view of the rebels, for not a shot struck near me during my tedious creep to the summit of the hillock. And yet it was very short grass; I thought it contemptibly short as I scratched through it; an alderman would have found it no protection. I feel certain that my escape was owing entirely to the caution and dexterity with which I effected this to me memorable change of base; and even to this day I chuckle over my good management, believing that if the last of the Mohicans had been present he would have paid me his most emphatic compliments. I did not properly creep, knowing that it would not do to raise my back; I rather swam upon the ground, catching hold of bunches of grass and dragging myself along. My ideas meanwhile were perfectly sane and calm, but very various in character, ranging from an expectation of a ball through the spine to a recollection of Cooper’s most celebrated Indians. About a rod from the parapet the hollow disappeared and the herbage became diminutive. Here was the ticklish point; the moment I rose I would be seen. I sprang to my feet, shouted, “Out of the way!” thought of the bayonets inside, wondered if I should be impaled, made three leaps and was safe. I have seldom felt more victorious than at that instant when I became conscious that I had done the rebels. The repulse of the night seemed insignificant compared with the broad-day triumph of my escape from scores of practiced marksmen who were on the watch to finish me.
I immediately went to the Colonel and reported the skirmishing party all in. In this, however, I was mistaken, for about half an hour afterward an anxious voice outside informed us that another straggler had returned thus far from his adventurings in the ravine. A canteen of water and haversack of biscuit were thrown out to him, and he remained all day behind a stump, coming in safe at nightfall Of the hundred or so of officers and men engaged in this attack thirty-eight, or nearly two-fifths, were killed or wounded. The affair injured the morale of the regiment, for the men thought they had been slaughtered uselessly, and naturally concluded that there was a person above them somewhere who did not know what orders were good to issue. Even old soldiers rarely see the sense of being pushed out merely to draw the enemy’s fire. Our artillery now went to work upon the two pieces which had been unmasked to grape us, and soon had them silenced, with their wheels in the air and their muzzles pointing backward. The next day General Banks obtained another armistice to collect the dead and wounded of his skirmishing emprise. The rebels in our front crowded their parapet, pointing out where one of our men lay lifeless at the bottom of the ravine, and demanding news of our three wounded captains. They had learned their names during the attack from Mullen, our sergeant-major, a brave little fellow who had bean sent out with orders to the officers, and who, being unable to find them in the darkness, had shouted for them all over the hill-side. The dead man who was brought in to us was a horrible spectacle, swollen and perfectly black with putrefaction, filling our bivouac with an insupportable odor.
As the 14th of June has been well described by Captain Fitts I shall skip it, merely remarking that I would have been pleased to skip it at the time. This is the only fight that I ever went into with a presentiment that I should be hit; and perhaps the cause of the presentiment may be regarded as philosophically worthy of notice. Two days before the assault, as I was passing over a dangerous hillock immediately in rear of our bivouac, I heard the buzz of a Minie among the higher branches of the trees on my right, then heard it strike a fallen log close at hand, and then felt my right leg knocked from under me. The mind is capable of running several trains of thought at once. I was distinctly aware of the bullet singing on its way as merrily as a humble-bee in a flower-garden, and conscious of sending a hurried wish of spite after it, while I was desperately eager to pull up the leg of my trowsers and see if the bone was broken, remembering in a moment what a bad thing it was to have an amputation in such hot weather. Great was my gratification when I found that no permanent harm had been done. A hole in my dirty trowsers, a slight abrasion on the shin from which a few drops of blood flowed, and a large bruise which soon bloomed into blue and saffron, were the only physical results. My main feeling so far was exultation at the escape; the cause of the presentiment of evil was yet to come. When the accident became known in my company an old soldier, a German by birth, who had served in our regular army and in his own country, observed, “It is a warning!”
“What is that, Weber?” I asked.
“Oh, it is a foolish saying, Captain. But we used to say when a bullet merely drew blood that it was a forerunner of another that would kill.”
I am as little superstitious as a human being can well be, but Weber’s speech made me very uncomfortable until the 14th of June was over. I went into the assault with a gloomy expectation of the bullet that would kill, and hardly forgot it for a quarter of an hour together during the whole day. And when at night, after fifteen hours of exposure to fire, the regiment moved into the covered way and through it and beyond the reach of hostile musketry, I experienced a singular sense of elation at having balked my evil destiny. Yet I had contrived to behave about as well as usual, and had been honorably reported for gallantry at division head-quarters.
After the assault came twenty-four days more of sharp-shooting. We grew weak and nervous under the influences of summer heat, confinement, bad food, and constant exposure to danger. Men who had done well enough in battle broke down under the monotonous worry, and went to the rear invalided. From rain, perspiration, sleeping on the ground, and lack of water for washing, our clothing became stiffened and caked with inground mud. Lice appeared, increased, swarmed, infesting the entire gully, dropping upon us from the dry leaves of our bough-built shanties, and making life a disgrace as well as a nuisance. Excepting a three-days raid into our rear to cover foragers and hunt rebel raiders, the brigade had no relief for six weeks from the close musketry of the trenches. Nor did we have any of those irregular truces, those mutual understandings not to fire, which were known along other portions of the line. Every day we shot at each other across the ravine from morning to night. It was a lazy, monotonous, sickening, murderous, unnatural, uncivilized mode of being. We passed our time like Comanches and New Zealanders; when we were not fighting we ate, lounged, smoked, and slept. Some of the officers tried sharp-shooting as an amusement, but I could never bring myself to what seemed like taking human life in pure gayety, and I had not as yet learned to play euchre. Thus I had no amusement beyond occasional old newspapers and rare walks to the position of some neighboring battery or regiment. Meantime General Banks was preparing for another assault, and offering various glories volunteers for the forlorn-hope. I observed the regiments which had suffered most severely hitherto sent up very few names for the “Roll of honor”. For instance the 8th, one the most gallant organizations that I ever knew but which had already lost more than two-thirds of its numbers in our unhappy assaults, did not furnish a single officer or soldier. The thirty or forty who went from my regiment were a curious medley as to character, some of them being our very best and bravest men, while others were mere rapscallions, whose only object was, probably, to get the whisky ration issued to the forlorn-hope. I did not volunteer; our only field-officer was wounded, and I was the senior captain present; and I naturally preferred the chance of leading a regiment to the certainty of leading a company. There was no doubt that the brigade would be put in; on what occasion had it ever been left out? Once we were marched back to corps headquarters, formed in a hollow square, and treated to an encouraging speech from General Banks. One Colonel, who admired the discourse, remarked that it was fit to be pronounced in the United States Senate. Another Colonel, who did not admire it, replied that it was just fit. At the conclusion of the oratory our brigade commander called out, “Three cheers for General Banks!” whereupon the officers hurrahed loyally while the men looked on in sullen silence. Volunteers can not easily be brought to believe that any body but their Commander is to blame when they are beaten, and will not make a show of enthusiasm if they do not feel it.
Finally came news that Vicksburg had surrendered, and then a mighty hurrah ran around Port Hudson, like the prophetic uproar of rams horns around Jericho. “What are you yelling about?” an Alabamian called to us from across the ravine. “Vicksburg has gone up!” a score of voices shouted. “ Hell!” was the compendious reply, reminding one of Cambronne at Waterloo, as told by Victor Hugo. Then came quiet, flags of truce, treatings for terms, and capitulation. Grand officials at head-quarters got mellow together, while the lower sort mingled and prattled all along the lines. Bowie-knives were exchanged for tobacco and Confederate buttons for spoonfuls of coffee. It was, “How are you, reb?” and, “How are you, Yank?” and, “Bully for you, old boy!” and, “Now you’ve got us!” all through the a hot summers day. Never were fellows more friendly than the very fellows who but a few hours before were aiming bullets at each others craniums.
I soon discovered that the rebel officers, not without good reason, were exceedingly proud of their obstinate defense. They often alluded to the fact that they had held out until they were at the point of starvation, reduced to an ear of corn a day, and such rats and mule meat as the sharpest foraging might furnish. They had surrendered, they said, because Vicksburg had; yes, they bragged not a little of having outlasted Pendleton; at the same time their roll provisions would have been quite gone in three days more; and then they would have had to come down, Vicksburg or no Vicksburg. One of our captains accepted an invitation to dine with these gentlemen, and found broiled rat a better dish than he had expected.
“Well, you have cut the Confederacy in two,” said one officer to me. “But we shall not give up the contest, and I think we shall tire you out at last.”
Is he living now, I wonder, to see the fate of his prophecy?
The defense of Port Hudson was gallant, but the siege, I affirm, was no less so. On the day of the surrender we had ten thousand four hundred men for duty to watch and fight over a line of nearly eight miles in extent. We had at least four thousand killed and wounded, and not far from as many more rendered unserviceable by sickness. The total number of prisoners, able and disabled, combatants and non-combatants, amounted, as we are informed, I believe, by General Banks, to six thousand. Our victory had been no easy achievement, but it was no inconsiderable victory.
(Source: The Library of Congress, American Memory Collection - http://memory.loc.gov/)
| Port Hudson Home |