Civil War Louisiana (CWLA)

Civil War Louisiana (CWLA)
CWLA seeks to provide an online resource of any and all material of the Civil War relating to Louisiana with a special interest in the war in Acadiana in southwest Louisiana.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

12th Connecticut at Port Hudson, Part II

We continue the account of Captain John W. Deforest of Co. D, 12th Connecticut Infantry at Port Hudson. Deforest's account of his regiment at Port Hudson was printed in the Harper's New Monthly Magazine in August of 1867.


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 atWaterloo, 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.

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Coppens' Zouave Battalion

Coppens' Zouave Battalion
Lt. Colonel George Coppens (seated) and brother, Captain Marie Alfred Coppens.Image sold at auction on Cowan Auctions, for $14,375