Recollections of Captain Joel A. Stratton


Captain Joel A. Stratton

The following personal account of experiences at Port Hudson was written by Union Captain Joel A. Stratton, commander of Company C, 53rd Massachusetts Volunteers.  It was extracted from "Recollections of a Soldier in the Civil War", which was presented at a reunion of the 53rd Regiment in 1919.  It is believed that it was written a few years after the war ended.

The 53rd Massachusetts Regiment was part of General Paine's division and participated in the May 27th attack on the Confederate left-center, and the June 14th assault on the Priest Cap, where both General Paine and Captain Stratton were wounded.


    We arrived at Alexandria May 8, went into camp, and remained there until May 15, when we resumed the march, going to Simmesport, a distance of 75 miles, where we arrived May 18.  On the 21st both divisions left for Bayou Sara.  Our regiment was left at Simmesport for guard until the evening of the 22d, when we embarked on the Laurel Hill and proceeded to Bayou Sara, thence marching some twelve miles to join the division which had arrived in front of Port Hudson.  The whole regiment was placed on picket duty for the night.

    Our march from Bayou Sara to Port Hudson was through St. Francisville, where we halted for a few moments.  The court house was entered and the mail bags brought out, opened, and distributed among the boys.  The mail was mostly composed of letters from the Rebs defending Port Hudson, some from their loved ones, etc., some idea of the strength of Port Hudson and some news impotance.  But "Forward, march!" was sounded down the lines and on we went through the town.  The women of that town will ever be fresh in my memory.  Such faces, such threats, with a shake of a broom and with the wish that not one of us would ever return alive! I suppose the cause of such unladylike expressions was unknown by me, but in return the soldiers complimented them with the most flattering words that they could think of, such as "Oh, what a pretty women, and isn't she handsome?" and many others too numerous to mention.

    May 24 the army moved for Port Hudson.  The Fifty-third was ordered by General Paine as guard for the engineer corps and led the columns.  After marching about two miles and entering the wood the scouts reported the enemy skirmishers in our front.  The regiment was at once moved forward.  Three companies were detailed or thrown out as skirmishers and soon drove them back.  Company C was one of the three.  We came up to a stream or creek and were ordered to cross it and drive them still further back, but we found them to much for us and fell back into the bed of the stream so that the artillery could give them a little grape.  Then we drove them up the hill but received orders to fall back, as this point was to be abandoned for another a little to the east, for which the march was renewed.  Camped for the night with five companies on picket at the top of the hill.  I had the pleasure of posting the picket.  It was one of the worst places I ever saw, just at the top of the hill, in a woods.  The canebrake and underbrush was so thick it took a long time to get located, but all were stationed.  On top of the hill or bluff was a clear space for forty or fifty rods, then a dense woods appeared.  General banks and some of his staff, with twenty cavalrymen, rode up and General Banks, addressing me, said, "Have you see any Rebs up here?" I told him I thought there might be some the other side of the clearing in the edge of the woods, so a dozen or so of the cavalrymen were sent across to the woods to see what was in there.  They no sooner disappeared in the woods than crack! crack! went the rifles and galloped, gallop back came Mr. Cavalryman saying the woods were full of Rebs.  General Banks turned his horse and said, "I shall penetrate Port Hudson in this direction in the morning," and disappeared with the rest of his party down the steep hill.  Well, I felt that we should see a pretty good chance to see a little fighting before the next night, if not before morning.  There we were up at the top of a steep bluff, the rest of the regiment half a mile away at the foot of the hill.  But all was quiet except the loud yell of the chaplain's horse, about midnight, which brought us all a standing for a few moments.  The thought was the yell of the enemy on a charge, but all was quiet again.  I don't know whether all chaplain's horses were allowed such privileges, knowing that he was the horse that carried the parson that fetched the mail that lightened the hearts of Jack and me.

    But very early in the morning the troops came pouring up the bluff.  When all were up, we were ordered to join our brigade, the Third, and moved forward about 1 o'clock to the front.  The Fifty-third formed a line of battle in support of the Ninth New York, which was the front line.  At dark we relieved them, deploying six companies, holding two in reserve.  Here was where we got into a tight place, or close one, call it which you please.  We were on the ground occupied by the Ninty-first New York regiment.  There was some misunderstanding about the deploying-one company deployed forward and the others by the right and left flank; the one that went forward was in the enemy's lines, or nearly so.  The adjutant and I went in pursuit of them and found Mr.  Johnny was there awaiting us.

    Our strides to the rear were long and quick.  Did you ever see a soldier that couldn't run? But it was dark and we knew the company was in front of us somewhere, and as they were right on the Rebs they opened fire upon us.  The 173d and 174th New York regiments just in our rear, opened also, bringing us between two fires.  It created a little commotion for a while, but we held the line for the night.  In the morning just at daylight we saw a regiment of the enemy deploy in the edge of the woods some twenty rods in front of us and they were ordered to advance.  We all lay low; gave the orders for the men not to fire until they could see the whites of their eyes.  On they came, and did not discover us until within a few yards of us when we gave them our compliments in the shape of cold lead.  Some of them returned theirs and retreated in hot haste, double quick.  Our orders were not to advance but to defend and hold the position, so we let them run.  Our company took in one of them for a sample and sent him to headquarters.  Soon after the attack we were relieved by the 131st New York.

    May 27, a general attack was made on Port Hudson.  Our regiment was ordered forward at 5;30 a. m., moving in line of battle in the rear of the Thirty-eighth Massaachusetts under fire of shot and shell.  At 7:30 a. m. we were ordered to the front to support the First Maine and Bainbridge batteries; we held this position for two hours.  It was a splendid place to see what was going on; the shot and shell and grape came whizzing through the air, cutting the trees and limbs off, and they were falling this way and that among the men and horses.  I think nearly every horse belonging to these batteries was killed or wounded.  The shells came among us; one struck in front of Company G on our left, burying itself in the ground and covering the men with dirt.  One man in Company C was struck in the wrist by a grade shot.  He took a double quick to the rear, in search of a surgeon, I suppose, and we never saw him again until we started for home, but we all knew he was not killed by the way he travelled.

    From this point we were ordered to the front line of skirmishers to relieve the Ninety-first New York.  Our course was over the ground that the batteries had just cleared.  We stepped light and often, as we were under a raking fire from the rifle-pits.  We halted within fifty yards of the Rebel fortifications.  All that were there remember the position at this place; Whiting shot in the neck; Foster as he sat by the stump at the top of the bluff, and Palmer, the ball in his side and the lifeblood running like a river down his leg.  Palmer said to me, "Do get a stretcher and send me to the rear befor I bleed to death." I said to him, "Let's see how badly you are hurt." We looked and found that the ball had passed between the canteen and body, burning the skin on his side and tearing all to pieces the inside of his canteen, the contents of which furnished an usual quantity of fluid supposed to be blood.  I said to Palmer, "It won't be safe to move you until the flow of blood ceases, and as soon as that id stopped we think your immediate recovery will be assured." Thus the imaginary powers of man are baffled sometimes.  We lost several men at this point.  The flag staff was shot off, but was soon repaired by the ingenuity of the color bearer.  A small green pole was cut about the size of the staff, a piece of bark about a foot in length was taken from it and slipped on to the staff, wound with cord, making it strong as new, and thus it hangs today in the State House in Boston, with the same bark and cord that was fixed around it on the battlefield in front of Port Hudson.  Then there was one other location at this point that I will leave Lieutenant Hall to describe.  All that were there will remember the gallant commands and heroic display of men and officers.

    Our regiment held this position until next day.  The loss to the eight companies of our regiment was thirty killed and wounded.  May 28 at 6 0'clock p. m.  we joined our brigade a half mile or so to the right, remaining till June 1, on picket duty and building fortifications.  Here we were camped in a little hallow.  We were shelled by day and by night and many of the tents were pierced by musket balls.

    June 1 our regiment was ordered to relieve the Fourth Wisconsin regiment occupying rifle-pits at the front.  It was accomplished, without the loss of a man at 8 o'clock p.m.  Remained till June 4, losing five men.  This location was not pleasant, the surroundings were very objectionable to me, crouched down in rifle-pits about two and one half feet deep.  If one showed his head about it was shot at; if he went for water or moved in anyway by daylight he was reminded of the danger of his position by the zip of a dozen bullets more or less.  Here at this ever-memorable fortification was where I receieved a little piece of paper which I will read.  Whether this was the means of saving my life or not I am unable to say; you can judge for yourself; but here it is in a good state of preservation.*

    On the morning of June 14, 1863, was the general assult on Port Hudson.  The orders were received on the day before, the 13th to be ready to move at 2:30 o'clock in the morning upon the works.  This was Saturday night; all were busy arranging for this, that, and the other thing, some writing letters to loved loves at home, giving them an inkling of the morrow's work, as the orders had been promulgated giving each regiment its location and the part they were to perform.  The night was beautiful and the stars shone forth with unusual brightness as we lay in our camp.  I will remember the bed I occupied that night.  Surgeon McCollester and myself laid our weary heads at the trunk of a large tree, the roots for our pillow, the ground for resting-place, without blankets, the starry heavens our only covering, thinking of the coming day.  We talked of the morrow-we well knew that a hard day was before us, for their strong and well-fortified works stared us in the face.  They were well guarded on every side, with all their men behind strong fortifications, and we were to cross the uneven ground between us.  And then over some portion of the way were fallen trees, felled toward us, with the twigs cut off, leaving the sharp-pointed limbs for us to crawl through.  But two o'clock came and at 2;30 were were in line ready to move.  It was a beautiful Sunday morning.  Just as the sky was reddening in the east the iron monsters belched forth the fiery shot and shell.  Our position was to advance just in front of the marine battery of 100 ponders.  These guns were taken from a gunboat and brought here to batter against this strong point.  You can well imagine our position, these hundred-pound shots coming over our heads and in return, the shot, shell, grape, and canister; grape and minnie balls rattled and zipped like hail.  Oh! how the earth shook! The heavens were lighted by the flash of all this confusion, but "forward" was the order from our gallant General Paine.

    Four regiments were deployed as skirmishers to lead the charge, the Thirty-eighth Massachusetts, the Eighth New Hampshire, the Four Wisconsin, and the Fifty-third Massachusetts.  When one hundred yards from the works they made charge.  All moved forward with great cheering, at double quick, until close to the works, but we were not strong enough to carry them; a few entered but the main body fell back.  At this point General Paine, Captain Washburn and myself were severly wounded and Lieutenants Glover and Vose were killed.  Of the three hundred officers and men (being but eight companies) who went into battle seven officers and seventy-nine men were killed and wounded.  It was a hot old fight and the percentage of loss was heavy, not only to the Fifty-third but to the three other regiments.  General Paine and I were talking just at this time and most of the men were killed and wounded at this spot within a very few minutes.  I was assisted back to a little sink in the ground by Lieutenant Priest and somebody else.  Then I called for a drink, as I was very thirty.  I felt for my canteen and found it was gone; a bullet had cut the strap and also a gash about eight inches long on my left shoulder.  Captain Fordham was there; he said, "Take mine." I took it and I drank and drank.  I never was so thirty before in all my life.  It seemed that what I drank was whiskey.  I think I drank about a quart, for when I handed it back it was nearly empty; but it was this whiskey that saved my life, for it made me sick and brought up all the blood which had run down my throat.

    Harriman Longley and Ed. C. Little, fifer and dummer boys of Company D, Shirley, afterwards told me that I was left on the field for dead and that they picked me up and put me on a stretcher and carried me to the rear, where they turned me over to Dr. J. Q. A. McCollester, surgeon of the regiment, who, after examining me, ordered them to take me to a temporary hospital under a tree where I lay all day.  I was gathered up by the ambulance corps just before dark and no one knew where I was taken; not even the doctor could account for my whereabouts.  The next morning, Colonel Kimball ordered Henry S. Treadwell to start out on a search for me with orders if he found me alive to stay with me as long as I lived.  He found me about five miles in the rear at an old sugar house, used as a hospital for the time being, in the care of an old schoolmate from my home town by the name of Wilder, who had helped take me out of the ambulance when brought there, he being a hospital steward of the Thirty-eighth Massachusetts.  He stayed by me all night, not thinking I would live till morning.  He turned me over to Henry Treadwell as per orders from the colonel.  An ambulance train was formed that morning to take the wounded down to Springfield Landing below Port Hudson on the Mississippi river, from which point there loaded on river boats and taken down the river to New Orleans.

    After being placed in the ambulances the procession moved slowly through the woods, over roots, stumps, and mudholes drawn by wild mules.  It was a long-drawn-out procession winding its way to the river.  We were in the ambulances all that day and the following night and the following night and arrived at the landing about noon the second day.  A naval surgeon who looked me over told Treadwell that I was in bad shape and should not be put on the boat until he had fixed me up a little, saying there was a bunch of maggots under my ear as large as a hen's egg and that they were crawling out of the opening of the wound between my eyes.  He twisted a rag, soaked it in turpentine, ran it through the wound and cleaned it out, and I was put on board the boat with a clean bill of lading.  We arrived at New Orleans next day.  The lieutenant colonel of the Fifty-third was at the landing and saw them bring me off the boat and helped put me aboard an ambulance.  As soon as I was aboard he got in and told the driver to drive to the hospital.  When we arrived there Dr. Barrett, Assistant Surgeon of the Fifty-third, helped take me out and loacated me in a front room of the second floor of the hospital.  This was the old, historic St. Louis Hotel, which has been torn down to make room for a modern structure.  I was in awful shape, clothes all covered with blood and dirt, after four days of rough riding; but I was stripped and washed and put in a clean bed and I have never since seen the uniform that I then wore.  I remained in the hospital until August 10, when I went aboard the steamer Meteor for Baton Rouge, where the regiment was.  We left for Cairo August 12 and arrived at Fitchburg, Mass., on August 24, where a public reception was given the regiment, which was then furloughed one week to report at Camp Stevens August 31.

    The regiment assembled at Camp Stevens according to orders, where the making out of muster-out and pay rolls occupied the time until September 2, 1863, when the regiment was duly mustered out of the United States service by Captain J. R. Lawrence.

* The following footnote regarding the "piece of paper" was in the original version presented at the reunion:  "This article was written about fifty years ago and since that time the piece of paper above referred to has become misplaced or lost and cannot here be reproduced."


Source:, contributed by Tom Stratton

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