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, June 27, 2011

Van Alystne's Diary, Part V

This is the first part of Chapter VIII: Port Hudson. It is a very large chapter of Alystne's book so I have broken it up into several parts. This section covers May 21 - 28, 1863, the beginning of the Siege of Port Hudson.

Hudson, La.

Good-bye Camp Parapet—Going up the river—Stop at Springfield— Landing—Before the works—Capt. Gifford missing—The first assault Stealing honey—Scared by a snake—The second assault—The " Forlorn Hope"—Captain Gifford comes back—Vicksburg surrenders—Port Hudsonfollows suit—The laying down of arms.

May 21, 1863.

WE left Camp Parapet about eight last night and marched to Carrolton, only a mile or two below camp, where we stopped in the street. Getting no further orders we, one after another, sat down and finally lay down on the cobblestone pavements and slept till morning. We then went on board a steamer, the United States, lying at the dock and found it crammed full of soldiers. We soon cut loose and started up stream, and as we passed Camp Parapet, I wondered if it would ever be our home again. Lieutenant Pierce is in command, and says Captain B. has left us to become major for a negro regiment. Some are glad and some are sorry, but all are indignant at his way of going off. Never as much as said good-bye. Sneaked off in the night, it is said, and it looks like it. Maybe he feared we would remind him of his many voluntary promises that he would never leave Company B as long as a man was left in it.

At noon I asked one of the boat crew if it was possible to buy or beg a cup of coffee and he took me to the forecastle and gave me a full dinner. Up the river we went until night and then began to look for a spot big enough to lie down on.

May 22, 1863.

Friday morning. We awoke from the little sleep we were able to get and found ourselves at anchor opposite Baton Rouge. The dropping of the anchor nearly scared the life out of me. I slept under a built up portion of the deck where the anchor chain lay coiled and when it went out it made a terrible racket. I wonder none of us were hit by it, for every space around it was occupied by a sleeping soldier. The city lies on high ground, which gave us a pretty good view of it. There seems to be a few fine buildings, but the most are small and not over two or three stories high. About 9 A. M.we went alongside the steamer Creole and got some rations, which we needed badly. We soon started, still going up stream and felt certain Port Hudson would be our next stopping-place. We stopped finally and landed in the woods. Not a foot of cleared land in sight. There are four regiments here with ours. The Sixth Michigan, Fifteenth New Hampshire and a negro regiment. Boats kept coming and unloading all the afternoon. The Indiana Mule Battery is here and it appeared to be a gathering-place for all sorts of troops. It rained most of the afternoon, but it rained warm water, so we didn't mind it. The troops all moved forward during the night, leaving only a guard for the commissary and quartermaster's stores.

May 23, 1863.

In the morning Isaac Mitchell and I set out to find the I28th. We followed the road, which was now a quagmire, but were met by an ambulance with wounded men and a cavalry guard, who told us that only an armed force could get through and that it was eight miles to where our brigade was then. We decided to wait. The wounded were put on the Sallie Robinson, to be taken to some hospital. About midnight the mortar fleet, which is farther up stream, began firing and made a noise worse than several Fourths of July. We could follow the shells by the burning fuse, which looks like a shooting star. This we see first, then hear the boom of the mortar, then the hiss of the shell through the air and last the explosion when it strikes the ground.

Sunday night. A team for the quartermaster's stores came early and we were all day getting through to the regiment. Soldiers covered the ground. I have no idea how many there were. We were near the breastworks, but a belt of timber hid our view of them. We were in a clearing maybe one-half mile square, with woods on all sides. There was a house near us, the only building in sight.

May 25, 1863.

Monday morning. We had orders to advance last night and our brigade formed in column, where we remained all night, and where we are yet. One by one we dropped down and went to sleep on the grass, where the dew soon soaked one side while the wet ground soaked the other. A man lying near me jumped up and raved around like a crazy man; he kept pawing at his ear as if in great pain. A doctor sleeping near was soon at him and found a bug had crawled into his ear. After the sun had dried us off we began to look for rations. The mail soon after came, and I had two letters. One of them contained a photograph of my dear old father and mother. I won't try to tell how rejoiced I am to have this with me. I don't think either of them ever had one taken before. Dear old couple, how glad I am they cannot see their boy and his surroundings just now!

Night. Lots of powder has been burned to-day, but Port Hudson is still there. Our brigade has been skirmishing and one of the Sixth Michigan is wounded. Roads are being cut through the woods, and everything looks and acts as if busi~ ness would soon begin. It does no good to ask questions, no one seems to know any more than I do, and I only know what goes on right close by me. Generals with their staffs are racing about, and everything is in a whirl. Evidently something is going to happen. All sorts of rumors are in the air. Human nature shows even here. Some news gatherers seem to know all about it, but I notice that what happens rarely agrees with their predictions. One of Company B, I won't write his name, is nearly scared to death. The doctor says he will die of fright if kept in the ranks. Another is nearly as badly off, and he has been the biggest brag of all; has hungered and thirsted for a chance to fight and now that he has it, has wilted. I hope he will be kept at it. I have often envied him his courage, but I shall never do it again. I don't deny that I am a coward, but I have so far succeeded in keeping it to myself. The I28th is nearest the point where the road enters the woods in the direction of the biggest noise. The skirmishers that have been down this road say it soon reaches the corner of another open field; that a house and outbuildings are on the side next the fortifications and only a short distance from them; that rebel sharpshooters are in those buildings and it is they who are picking off every man that sticks his nose out of the woods on that side. From one of the Sixth Michigan who was on the skirmish line I have such a vivid description I have mapped out what he says is about the thing.

Every now and then a shell comes tearing through the woods, and so far, in the direction of the I28th. None of them have yet burst, but from an examination I made of one, they are intended to. This one was perfectly round and painted black. A big screw head shows on one side, and is turned off smooth with the shell. It is about six inches in diameter. It hit the ground beyond us and rolled up against the foundation of the house I have mentioned and stopped. It was then I examined it.

Later. Just as I had written the above, one did burst right over Company B. The pieces, however, kept on in the same direction the shell was going and no one was hit or hurt. Such dodging though I never saw, and I didn't see all of it at that. Myself and two others were filling our canteens from a kettle of coffee which sat on the ground near a big tree. When we heard the shell coming through the tree tops we expected it would go past as all the others had done. But it burst when right over us. We all jumped for the tree, and our heads came together with a bang. The first thing I saw was stars, and the next was men all over the field dodging in every direction. This was our first experience under fire. One could not laugh at another, for so far as I could see all acted alike.

Later. They keep coming, and we dodge less and less. If they keep at it long enough I suppose we shall get used to it, as we have to a great many other things. A cavalryman went down the road marked with an arrow, and his horse has just come back without him.

Night. About 5 P. M. a detachment from another regiment and Companies A, C, H and I from ours, went down this same road, and soon the most infernal racket began. They drove the rebels out of the "Slaughter House," and set fire to every building there. (The man who owned the house is named Slaughter). Only one man was wounded, but Captain Gifford of Company A has not returned, and we fear the Rebs got him. The house near us has been taken for a hospital. From appearances we will need it. Our brigade remains where first halted, but troops of all kinds are constantly on the move about us, some going one way and some another. It is plain that a general movement is soon going to be made. It seems to me as if all of Uncle Sam's army must be here, there are so many. The I28th is only .a small affair just now. We have thought our brigade was about all there was of it, and that that was largely composed of the I28th New York. I will put up my diary, and get what sleep I can with all this confusion about me.

May 27, 1863.

Was awake early. In fact was often awake all night long. No news of Captain Gifford yet. His men have searched everywhere it is possible to go, and we think he must have been captured, just how, none of his company can imagine, for he was with them all through the squabble at the Slaughter house, and himself gave the order to fall back. Heavy firing is heard to the right and left of us. This must keep the Rebs in our front busy, for no shot or shell have yet come our way. Commissary sergeants have orders to be ready with rations all the time. It looks as if the fight would be over and the I28th have no hand in the taking of Port Hudson.

Later. The noise grows louder all the time. A general assault on Port Hudson must be what is going on, and Dow's Brigade seems to be forgotten. On the right and left, as far as sound can be heard, there is heavy artillery firing, and now and then the rattle of musket firing gets through the noise of the bigger guns.

May 28, 1863.

There was too much going on yesterday for me to write any more. Dow's Brigade was not forgotten. Soon after noon it went through the woods to the open space beyond, and was soon in the thickest of the fight. The guns in our front, that had sent us no message all the forenoon, soon began to send them rattling through the tree tops again. We noncombatants were in a terrible suspense. Finally my curiosity got the better of my fears and I started after them, for I wanted to see what a real battle was like. When I got to the cleared space I saw very little but smoke. I met a wagon with a wounded man on the seat with the driver, his face covered with blood, which ran over it from a wound on his head. He was mad clear through, and swore vengeance on the Rebs, when he got at them again. In the wagon, lying on his back, was another who was groaning terribly, but so far as I could see was not likely to die from his wounds, for only a little finger was gone from one hand, which he tenderly held up with the other. I was glad to note he did not belong to the 128th. I ventured on and came upon Sergeant Bell of Company G standing beside the dead body of Colonel


Cowles. Bell said the colonel was killed when the Rebs first opened on them, his uniform making him a marked man. Bell said he was near him when he fell and helped him to a sitting position, turning him about, as he said he wanted to die facing the enemy. Captain Keese of Company C was also near when the colonel was hit and was directed to take command. Several others lay around where they had fallen. Venturing on I came to the magnolia grove in which the Slaughter mansion stood. Company B was here, in support of a section of the Indiana Mule Battery. Having nothing to do but defend the battery, if an attempt was made to capture it, they were lying close to the ground behind the big trees. The battery was shelling the Rebs, and the Rebs were shelling the battery, and the shot or shells had furrowed the ground. The boys said Philip Allen and Sergeant Kniffin were both badly wounded, and had been taken off the field. Riley Burdick, our orderly sergeant, was missing, as were several others. I could see nothing of the rebel works for the smoke, but the noise was deafening. As it might be an all-night job, I decided to go back and try and get something for them to eat. I got back as fast as I could and with the cooks started with a big kettle of coffee and some hard-tack. We kept in the edge of the woods to a point nearest the company and at right angles to the line of fire and then I scuttled across with the coffee. After passing it around I returned for the hard-tack, and was giving them out when a shell came through, hitting the ground and throwing dirt all over us. Soon another one came, hitting a big tree a glancing blow, and went on into the woods beyond. The sergeant of the battery said he could see the flash and would sing out, which would give me time to fall before the shell got there, and I legged it for all I was worth. About halfway across he yelled, and I tried to fall, but before I hit the ground the thing was beyond me. In fact it didn't come very near me. I was going at right angles to the line of fire, and might have known they couldn't see me for the smoke, and would not waste a big shell on one man. The musket firing was on lower ground and nearer the breastworks, but I only knew by the popping of the rifles and what the boys told me, for the smoke hid everything. We got back just in time to see the doctors fix up a shattered shin bone for General Sherman. He lay on a stretcher and was talking constantly, though the doctors said he knew nothing and felt nothing. From the hole in his leg, something bigger than a bullet had gone through it. They pulled out the loose pieces of bone with pincers, taking hold and yanking at every end that showed. Then they ran their fingers in and felt for more. Finally they stuffed it full of cotton to stop the blood and then bound it up with long strips of muslin. The firing grew less and less, but the wounded came faster and faster. Colonel Cowles's body was sent under a guard to the landing, on its way to New Orleans, where it will be made ready to send home. Sergeant Bell went with it, taking his sword, watch, and other personal effects, also his dying message, "Tell my mother I died with my face to the enemy." General Dow, our brigadier, was shot in the foot and taken to the house right by us. George Story is detailed for his bodyguard. One of the boys said the Rebs began at the wrong end of the general. The dead soldiers were left where they fell. After we got settled down and the excitement began to wear off the question of something to eat came up. The boys on duty at the front would be hungry by morning, and we wondered if we couldn't find something more filling than hard-tack. John Pitcher had found out that not far away some Irish potatoes were growing and big enough to eat; also that directly behind the house where General Dow was nursing his foot was a yard with a high board fence around it, with two bloodhounds on guard inside, and that along one side of it was a bench upon which were several hives of bees, and that a gate or door in the fence opened out, and only a little way from the end of the bench. We got a rope from the quartermaster sergeant and set out. The potatoes were easy — simply had to crawl into the patch and dig with our fingers until our haversacks were full. The bees, however, were not so easy on account of the dogs. As they had barked pretty much all the time since we landed in the neighborhood, no one came from the house to see about it. We found they would follow on their side of the fence wherever we went on ours. John then went along the fence, and the dogs followed, leaving me at the gate. When they were at the farthest side, I opened the gate and having made a slipnoose in the rope, I had just time to slip it over the nearest beehive and get out before they were there. I kept still and soon John had them on his side of the yard again, when by quick work I yanked the hive through the gate and closed it before they got to me. The hive had landed on its top, and the bees and honey were all smashed together. But enough of them could crawl to make it lively for us before we got the mixture into a mess pan. We were stung several times before we got home, but we got there and all hands had a feast of hard-tack and honey. We had no way to strain the bees out, so we spread bees and honey on the hard-tack and then picked the bees off as well as we could. As it was, I got a stinger in my tongue, which soon began to swell. It kept on until I was afraid I would need a doctor and in that way give the whole thing away. But it finally stopped and by morning I was all right again. This brings us up to this morning, May 29th.

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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