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.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Massachusetts' Captain Tour in Louisiana Pt. I

Captain Joel A. Stratton, Co. A, 53rd Massachusetts

Captain Joel A. Stratton of the 53rd Massachusetts made an address in 1919 that recounted his experience in Louisiana in 1863. Stratton participated in the Teche Campaign of April-May 1863 and the Siege of Port Hudson where he was wounded. He has left behind an interesting perception of life in south Louisiana-especially while his regiment was camped around Opelousas in April. I found Stratton's account at The Patriot Files: Dedicated to the Preservation of Military History.

...We marched back to camp, thence to New York, where we were quartered in the Franklin street barracks. Here we were hived up until December 17, went we went on board the steamer Mississippi to embark for New Orleans. I presume you are all familiar with the way of stowing away such a cargo; on decks, between-decks, and in the hold, laid up on shelves, etc. We lay in the harbor till the 20th, when scarlatina appeared to an alarming extent. We went back to the old quarters, where we remained till January 17, 1863, when we went aboard the steamer Continental bound for New Orleans. The first day's sail was beautiful. The rest of the way was rough; my desire for a storm at seas soon vanished. The storm was terrible, waves like mountains appeared fore and aft and the thing I most desired was land. We passed the Bahama Islands and stopped for coal at Key West. It was Sunday and we all "coaled"-had our own vessels filled to the brim or all they could carry in fair smooth weather. As the storm came on we were uneasy, loath to part with anything obtained at the sunny isle, but, as the storm raged, to tell the truth we fell kinder sick and over went the cargo to save the ship from sinking, as most had a sinking feeling.

But on we go; the mouth of the Mississippi river is in view; we enter Southwest Pass and steam on for New Orleans; arrived January 30, landed at Carrolton, five miles above the city, and camped on the shell road. The first night I was very much annoyed by two things; the barking of dogs and a thundershower. I never have been able to decide which was worse of the two. It rained and the water was about four inches deep all over the field; where I lay I guess there was two feet-or at least two wet feet-etc., up along, but we have dried off since. Here we drilled, fired at targets, and sometimes hit them. By the way, there was a fellow connected with the regiment at this time that did a heavy business in "gun oil." I presume those that were there will remember the quality.

But the time has come for the troops to move; up the river to Baton Rouge, camped there a few days, then on to Port Hudson. March 6, we broke camp, embarked on board the steamer Crescent City for Baton Rouge, arrived there next day, and camped three miles below the city at Magnolia Grove, a beautiful place, trees in full bloom; you know not their beauty except you see them. This beautiful brings to mind a little trip with Colonel O. P. Goodwin of the Thirty-first Massachusetts Volunteers; he was our brigade commander, Third Brigade. It was past ten o'clock at night, all was still except the tread of the guard when Martin Falan of Company E sang out, "Halt! Who comes there?" Col. Goodwin-"Just let me pass." Falan-"Dismount and give the countersign." Colonel-"Why, let me pass. Don't you know who I am?" Falan-"Dismount, sir, and give the countersign." Colonel-"Let me pass. I am Colonel Goodwin! commander of the brigade." Falan-"Faith, and I am happy to make your acquaintance, but dismount and give the countersign." Thus the talk went on for a few moments. The sergeant of the guard was called before the brigade commander could pass, but as soon as he was over the line he ordered poor Martin arrested for doing his duty.

On Mar. 12 the regiment was ordered up the river on a reconnaissance. It embarked on two steamers under the escort of the gunboat Albatross, went up about five miles, landed, and with an escort of a few cavalry scoured the country and returned the same night with a few fat cattle. On the evening of the 13th we marched with the division in the expedition to Port Hudson till near midnight, when we filed right into an old cornfield and camped. This makes the best of campgrounds. Just lie between two cornrows and you are all right. On the afternoon of the 14th we arrived within three miles of Port Hudson. This was the night of the bombardment and passage of part of the fleet past the batteries. We slept on our arms expecting an attack at any moment. A general order from General Banks was promulgated in the morning, stating that the object of the expedition had been accomplished. I presume it was, but we could not see the point. We changed front to rear of Baton Rouge our division halted in a swamp and remained until the 20th. This was a lovely spot. Mud, water, stumps, rattlesnakes, and everything the nature of the place was heir to, enough of everything that was disagreeable and nothing to eat except sugar. I sent a darkey out for sugar and he brought in his hat full. I should judge from the appearance of the hat that it had been worn for the last twenty years, but I presume the sugar did not hurt the hat any and I don't know as it hurt me, but presumed it didn't do me any good. The first night we were here it rained and I should judge the water was less than a foot deep where I lay, but not much less-it was hard to judge the exact depth because the ground was soft.

On the 20th we returned to our old camp and remained till April 1, when we left for Algiers, where we arrived on the 2d. Here we had bread and to spare. We had a sulter here and a fellow bought a loaf of soft bread to him every morning but would not sell to us. One morning his horse stopped-some of the boys took a few loaves from the hind end of his cart and he went for them. While he was at the back end they picked out of the front end and so they kept it up till all was gone; then he went. That was the last we saw of him. On the 9th we went to Brashear City by rail to join in the movement through the Teche country. From Algiers to this point it was swampy most of the way and plenty of alligators.

April 11 the army began to move up through the Teche country; we marched to Pattersonville, about eight miles. At 12 o'clock next day moved a little further up-about two miles. There was music ahead, we could hear it-the enemy's pickets were falling back-and we pushed on. The batteries and earthworks were in sight and they were sending shot, shell, and railroad iron among us. We were in a sweet potato field and that railroad iron dug potatoes in a hurry, but was very careless with the dirt. It was nearly dark, so we were moved back a little out of the way of the dirt, the firing ceased for the night, and we squatted right there on our arms; but next morning things opened up lively from both sides. The first thing was to support a battery and in the afternoon we skirmished towards the enemy; we were under heavy fire for five hours. Perhaps it might be well to give a little description of the field and earthworks. The Rebs had fortifications on both sides of the bayou. Our Brigade was ordered over on the North side early in the morning. Here we found a plain field for one hundred yards or so, then a long line of catalpa trees so thick they concealed nearly everything in front. Here by the sides of these trees we left our haversacks, blankets, and chaplain, then moved through a thick cornfield. As we came out, on the other side was one of our batteries sending its compliments in full force and quick time. The bayou was on our left. A level field was in front between us and the fort with ditches running across every few yards. We took advantage of them and advanced from one ditch to another in quick time. In these ditches was where the blackberries grew-they were lined with them, all ripe and delicious. Of course we ate and enjoyed them very much, with one exception-the shot and shell came ploughing through the earth that was thrown from the ditches and scattered it all over the berries. It was very vexing to be so intruded upon while picking berries. But it was our turn to the front to release the Thirty-eighth Massachusetts and they fell back. Now we had it face to face-it was tit for tat. We drove them all inside the works and were within 100 yards of their earthworks when darkness gathered around us and all was still, except now and then a stray shot from either side to remind us that they were there; some even fired at shadows. We were ordered to fall back a few yards to a ditch and to stay and hold this point for the night. It was a long, weary, and dark one without supper or blanket. Nothing but the sky above, enemy in front and earth beneath and a bright prospect of an early attack on the morrow.

But as the darkness lifted and the eastern light shone in upon us our gallant colonel came along the line with he usual "Good morning." "Take ten men and advance on the works." (Fort Bisland). This seemed to me like a small army to take the fort with. I wondered what the rest of the army was going to do if ten of us were enough to do this little job. They were counted off from the right of Company C and told that we were ordered to take the fort. Forward we went, expecting every moment to see the Rebs running with such a formidable force coming. But on we went, mounted the works, captured the fort, and looked for other fields to conquer. The regiment advanced and the flag of the Fifty-third was planted upon the works; of course while the regiment was coming up we did the cheering the best we could. But the inside showed that our batteries had made sad work with them. Horses were piled up one upon the another. Everything indicated it had been a hot place; cold and deserted now. The relics were few; I believe that a jack-knife, a few Confederate postage stamps and the like were found and I have them here.

But the orders were "Forward!" after the retreating foe. Our company and one other were detailed to scour the country and drive in all the cattle, mules, horses, etc., we could find. We came into Franklin that night driving in the cows and they were all guarded and stall fed. At this point I will say that marching had been wearisome and as the cows were all in, I thought I would try my hand at milking just to have milk for the coffee. I milked some and was kicked over a few times by the wild steers, but the cows were what I was after and I finally got about a quart of the precious liquid for family use. I treasured it as gold, yea, more precious, and guarded it anticipating a delightful cup of coffee with milk, but alas how soon our bright prospects are blasted! As we awaited the boiling of the coffee we gathered around that dish of milk with get expectations of the delicious beverage, but alas! Lieut. Hall spilt the milk all in the sugar and as we had more sugar than milk it was lost. The sugar consumed the milk and called for more, and so did we, with all the bitter thoughts you could imagine toward our gallant Hall, who spilt the milk, spoiled our sugar, blasted our hopes, and broke our rest as we did his. But silent and sad we ate our supper and nothing was said except to sift out our vengeance on that d--d Hall. But what is the use of crying for spilt milk now? Oh, never did I again try to imagine how milk would taste.

On the morrow onward was the command; day after day we marched. On the 15th we marched in pursuit of the retreating enemy and reached Opelousas the 20th. As we approached the town or city the authorities sent out the white flag for protection. As we halted just before entering the town, supposing we were going into camp there, there were some fine-looking cattle just a little ways from us and we were all hungering and thirsting. One of our sergeants and one man were detailed to provide meat for supper. They attended to that duty, but while so doing we were ordered to march, went through the town, and camped about two miles from the place where the beef was last seen. Here we were in an old cornfield, dark and all worn out with the long marching, and nothing to eat. Most of the men lay down where they were. I was a little worried about the sergeant and the one man, but about 10 o'clock I heard a sound. I harked, it sounded a little like the puffing of a locomotive going upgrade with a heavy train, but it seemed to grow nearer and nearer till lo and behold! The sergeant and the one man and a hindquarter of beef appeared. The beef stopped but the men disappeared for the night. They had swung it on a pole, one at one end and one at the other, and had brought it some two miles in this way and they thought the beef was worth $1.00 per pound sure. I did not believe it was, so thought I would try it. So for a knife to cut it with I found a common case knife and went at it. The meat was still warm, the knife dull, but my courage was good and with much difficulty I sawed off a few chucks. For a spider I took an old till plate. So I had one knife, one spider, and three chucks of beef, no salt and a little fire. I stewed and fried and brunt the three chucks, no salt to add, but it all went down. Then for the rest so sweet, with the soft earth for a bed between two corn rows, so you see there was not much chance to fall out of bed and my covering was large as the east is from the west, the beautiful blue shy; but I never rested better on downy feathers or hair mattress. I have often thought since if I had not eaten those three chucks the cornrows would have squeezed me to death before morning; but the morning dawned upon us and we regulated our camp and remained for two weeks at this point.

Most of the duties were drill and picket duty. Had plenty of cracked corn and onions that added to our regular bill of fare. There were one or two little incidents that occurred while here that I will speak of. One morning a corporal came in from the picket and said he was ordered to report himself as under arrest. He said Lieut. So-and-so, officer of the picket of a certain New York regiment, would call and see me about it soon. I questioned him in regard to the cause, etc., and the facts, as near as I can recollect, are these. Said corporal had charge of the post. They were dressing a nice little porker about mid-day, had him hung to a limb of a tree and had just got him nicely dressed. They were looking the property over and thinking what a nice fellow he was, also discussing the best plan for dividing the spoils, when the colonel commanding the brigade, and his staff rode what. The brigade commander says, "Who killed that hog?" Nobody knew. The corporal was called, asked his duty and instructions, which he gave all right. Brigade commander says, "You know your duty. Why disobey in this way?" The corporal says, "My orders were to let nothing pass the picket line. This hog was bound to go over and I just charged bayonets on him and let him come on, but he did not go over and there he is." But the explanation not being satisfactory the corporal was ordered to report to the commander of the picket as under arrest; he obeyed and the commander and corporal both gave me the facts. The corporal wanted to know what he should do. I told him to go on duty and if I did not hear anything from headquarters about it, it was dismissed, and that the end of the arrest and also the pig.

One bright, pleasant morning while at this point, about sunrise we saw coming in the distance a long train of six or eight teams, moving fast. As they neared us we observed they were mule teams and colored people. They came right into our lines with their beds and crockery and all their fixin's and the old people in the carts. They had left the plantations about twenty miles away, taking all they could fetch with them, and come to see Marse Lincoln's men. You never saw a happier set of people anywhere. They felt as soon as they were within our lines that they were free. I asked one of them how they got away. "Oh," he said, "we comed away in the night and the dogs didn't bark and the cocks didn't crow," and he threw his old hat in the air about twenty feet and went up half way after it with three cheers for Marse Lincoln. In fact, everywhere on the whole line of march from Brashear City to Alexandria they came in the same way and with the same expressions on their faces and the same songs in their mouths; "Three cheers for Marse Lincoln." They felt that Marse Lincoln was a Moses to them and that the Union army came to bring deliverance. No wonder they had not words to express their feelings, to be delivered from bondage and to feel that they were free. No one could imagine their joy unless they saw it. The emancipation proclamation of Abraham Lincoln is one of the greatest and grandest proclamations that was ever written in this country or any other. It liberated five million people, and I thank God that it came in our day, and that we lived it to see it fulfilled. There is a feeling in our innermost hearts that we have done something to help carry out that proclamation. It is worth something living for, yes, dying for, but I must hasten.

The march from Opelousas to Alexandria was one of those hot, quick ones of a hundred miles in less than four days through the dirt, mud, and mire, with the lines of the roads and fences well stocked with the colored aristocracy of the South sending up cheer after cheer for Marse Lincoln and with the genuine expression of joy gushing forth from their very souls. You could see it in their eyes, their faces, and in their very walk. They expressed themselves all over; there was no more work for poor old Uncle Ned, for Marse had gone away. None could imagine the joy and satisfaction of these fellows except he saw it; it was real, genuine, unadulterated, simon pure; they were willing to leave all and follow the army wherever it might go. I presume they would have followed us till this time if they could, nut they did their part as best they could and were willing to do anything-give three cheers for marsa Lincoln, fight, dig, or draw rations. Some noted officers in the Rebel army lived in this section-Dixk Taylor, Governor Moore, and many others. Mrs. Governor Moore said the Yanks would steal all she had, but I don't think they did. I presume she had less after the army passed by, as I feel sure that most of them did not gain much, excepting a more extensive acquaintance with us and our comrades, as we did call and take something, but I don't think we took anything that we could get along without. Some preferred milk, others eggs, other the mothers or father of the eggs; some turned the hives of bees so that their exit was more easily observed by those that followed after, while others, like myself, marched quietly by with slow and steady tread except now and then a halt to rest our weary little feet, as we all had them that walked a-foot.

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 courthouse was entered and the mailbags 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 importance. 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, anit she handsome?" and many others too numerous to mention.

May 24 the army moved for Port Hudson...

To be continued...


  1. WOW, I have a letter from one of my ancestors Carlos Dwight Freeman that detail the same rough voyage on the Continental. His letter was dated January 24th 1863. He died on the attack on port Hudson. Many of his letters are similar to these. Love to talk more.

  2. Jason, that is neat. Did Freeman write any letters while in Louisiana? If so, would you be interested in putting together a little bio on Freeman and include some of his letters while in Louisiana?


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