A New Yorker at Port Hudson

Robert Richford Roberts Dumars was born January 28, 1820 and died of Bright’s disease August 5, 1888 in Elmira, New York. Dumars was the editor of the Elmira Daily Press when he raised Co. C of the 161st New York Volunteers for service in 1862. Before leaving Elmira, Captain Dumars was presented with an engraved Model 1850 foot officers’ sword which was sold through the Horse Soldier in Gettysburg recently. The 161st New York was raised as part of General Nathaniel P. Banks' army to drive north up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, and arrived in Louisiana in December 1862.
Captain Robert R.R. Dumars

Co. C, 161st New York Volunteers
Captain Dumars and the 161st New York took part in the siege of Port Hudson and the battle of Donaldsonville, Louisiana before Dumars became ill and was placed on detached duty at the Elmira prison camp in New York. Captain Dumars served the rest of the war at Elmira, mustering out September 20, 1865. As mentioned in a history of theElmira Camp, “he was one of the first officers to be detailed for duty at the prison camp and remained during its entire existence. He was naturally a quiet and modest gentleman, and as an officer faithful but never overbearing.”
The following account was written by Captain Dumars to his brother James as his regiment was taking part in the siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana. The siege was in its tenth day and Dumars wrote his account while sitting behind a tree outside the Confederate works as bullets and shells whizzed by him. James Dumars was the editor of the Mahoning Register in Youngstown, Ohio and published the letter on the first page of his June 25, 1863 issue.

On picket opposite Rebel fortifications at Port Hudson, Louisiana
June 2, 1863
My dear brother,

          As I have a few moments this afternoon, perhaps I cannot put in the time better than by writing you a letter. My company is out on picket duty within 400 yards of the Rebel entrenchments, but a portion of them have ventured still nearer and as I write are doing their best to pick off the Rebel sharpshooters as they venture to show themselves from behind their entrenchments. We have been out on this kind a business almost every other day since our arrival here and my men have made many a Rebel sharpshooter bite the dust in the meantime.
Inscription on Captain Dumars' sword
Courtesy of the Horse Soldier

          I have squatted myself behind a tree to enable myself to write with some show of safety, but as I ply my pen, huge cannon to the back of me and on the right and left of me are belching with deafening roars, hurling shot and shell into the works of the enemy. The sharpshooters all around the fortifications for a distance of three miles are industriously at work. The enemy, too, are busy, and not a minute passes but some of their bullets come whizzing by me and semi-occasionally a shell explodes near me, or a solid shot comes tearing and crashing through the woods where I sit. Under such circumstances, you will not expect a very connected letter.

          It is just three weeks today since our brigade left Baton Rouge and moved in the direction of this Rebel stronghold. We spent eight or ten days in reconnoitering the country and with the assistance of the 6th and 7th Illinois Cavalry succeeded in driving back all of the enemy’s pickets. We encamped on Merritt’s plantation some four miles below Port Hudson and there waited for reinforcements. On Thursday May 21st our reinforcements arrived and were met at Plain’s Store about four miles to the rear of Port Hudson by nine regiments of Confederate troops and several sections of artillery. A sharp artillery engagement ensued which lasted almost without intermission for about nine hours.

          Our regiment was engaged during this time in supporting Battery G of the 5th U.S. Light Artillery and in skirmishing and although frequently much exposed, escaped without a man being injured. To our left however, the 116th New York, 48th Massachusetts, and 49th Massachusetts did not fare so well. They were attacked in full force by the Rebels but made a gallant stand- the 116th New York charging upon the enemy and driving them pell-mell into Port Hudson. The 2nd Louisiana, 30th Massachusetts, and 21st Maine were also engaged in another quarter and suffered some, particularly the first named regiment. Our total loss in killed and wounded did not exceed 100. The enemy was driven from every position and finally abandoned the field to us. Their loss must have been much greater than ours as we buried 15 of their killed and took about 100 of them prisoners.
Private William Lindsey
Co. I, 161st New York Volunteers

New York State Military Museum

          We bivouacked that night and the following ones upon the battlefield and early Sunday morning May 24th we took up our line of march once more for this Confederate Gibraltar. While halting on the way, General Banks and staff passed along our lines and we gave the hero-statesman three tremendous cheers. He is very popular with the army for all have confidence in him. His recent successes in this state have won for him a proud name as one of the most skillful generals of the war.

          Sunday afternoon our batteries began to get in position and a few shots were fired but not much execution was done. On Monday, Generals [Cuvier] Grover and [Godfrey] Weitzel came down the river from the Red River country and took their position on our right. When within about two miles of the upper batteries of Port Hudson, they were attacked by the enemy but after a sharp fight of several hours succeeded in driving the enemy before them and into their works, bivouacking the same night upon the hills which overlooked the rebel fortifications. Our brigade, the Third Brigade of General [Christopher C.] Augur’s division went to their assistance in the afternoon but were not called into action.

          Next morning, the artillery on both sides commenced a brisk cannonade and General [Thomas W.] Sherman and Weitzel made several spirited infantry charges upon the enemy during the day. On Wednesday morning, several new batteries having been placed in position, a general cannonading was ordered while the infantry was advancing still closer to the fort. Our brigade was ordered to move to the support of General Grover which we did and advanced within half a mile of the fortifications. The engagement was quite animated on our right and left during the greater part of the day and the most terrific cannonading of the siege, thus far, occurred at noon. Great damage was done to the works inside the entrenchments and many Rebels were killed and wounded. The forces of Generals Grover, Weitzel, and Sherman also suffered considerably.
Adjutant William Baker Kinsey
161st New York Volunteers
New York State Military Museum

          A general charge upon the fortifications had been ordered by General Banks at noon on Wednesday but through some misunderstanding, General Sherman’s command did not advance at the proper time. It was believed that the works on that day could have been carried by storm as the enemy was not prepared for an attack of that kind and it is to be regretted that General Sherman failed to connect. He was at once relieved of command but next day it was restored to him again and during an advance on that day he was slightly wounded.

          During the charge on Wednesday, three full Negro regiments were actively engaged. The one on the left under the command of Colonel [John A.] Nelson [3rd Louisiana Native Guards] fought desperately and lost 150 killed and 300-400 wounded. The regiment was officered by white men, two-thirds of whom were either killed or wounded. The other two were on the right and also fought gallantly, losing heavily in killed and wounded. They stayed their ground bravely and never faltered under the steady fire which was poured into them by the Rebels. I mention these facts in regard to the Negro troops to dissipate in measure the fears of the Northern Copperheads in regard to their fighting qualities. We have but four negro regiments as yet in the Department of the Gulf, but General Ullman is busily at work and will soon have an entire division of black troops in the field. They learn to drill readily and are just the men to do the hard work in the extreme South.

          The cannonading was continued without cessation all Wednesday night and up until 10 o’clock the next morning when a flag of truce was sent by General [Franklin] Gardner, in command of the Rebel forces, to General Banks with a request that hostilities might be suspended on both sides until 7 p.m. to enable each to bury their dead. General Banks only desired two hours but finally consented to the proposition of the Rebel general. From the tree tops in the vicinity of our camp, a good view can be had of the ground inside the Rebel fortifications and our lookouts reported that during the nine hours’ armistice large details of men were constantly employed in burying the Rebel dead.

          At precisely 7 o’clock, the engagement was renewed with great vigor- the sharpshooters on both sides firing with great rapidity and precision. The artillery also kept up a lively firing and the gun and mortar boats on the river vied with each other in throwing shot and shell into the works. Between dodging huge shells and 30-lb solid shots and keeping out of the way of the shower of bullets which every minute for over two hours came whizzing about my ears, I was kept pretty busy I assure you. It was fearfully grand as well as dangerous, and I shall never forget that night. About 9 o’clock the firing on all sides began to slacken some and after midnight, with occasional interruptions, ceased entirely.
Major General Nathaniel P. Banks
Library of Congress

          For the past four days the bombardment has been continued night and day and additional batteries are being placed daily. We are getting a better range each day on their works and each day’s business on our side must be telling seriously upon the enemy. They still hold out vigorously, however, and it may be a number of days yet before we succeed in reducing the place. It is unquestionably a position of great strength, much stronger than has been generally supposed. But when I tell you that we have enough artillery here, when all in position, to fire 160 shots per minute, you will agree with me that the reduction of the place is only a question of time.

          From what we can learn from contrabands and deserters, their entire force does not exceed 8,000 men while their artillery and mounted forces do not amount to a third of ours. Our force is about 25,000 men including infantry, cavalry, and artillery- all well-drilled and eager to do anything that may tend to bring about the great purpose for which they are here, the reduction of Port Hudson and the opening of the Mississippi to navigation once more. General Banks says he can take the place any day on an hour’s notice by storming the works, but it would cost many valuable lives amongst all his brigades which he can save by being patient and letting the batteries go on with their present good work. By the way, the artillery practice here is said to be very superior, and old artillerymen say they have never seen it equaled.

          As it is during the ten days’ siege, we have lost in killed and wounded about 1,500 men. Not more than one-fifth of that number are among the killed. It is next to impossible to get anything reliable in regard to our general operations here as the God of Silence seems to sit immovable upon the lips of the higher officers. Outside of my own regiment and brigade, I know nothing reliably and what statements I have written you I have picked up by dint of inquiry.

          So far I have escaped unhurt but last Wednesday evening one of my best sergeants was shot through the heart while out on picket duty. His name was George G. Bingham. He was a printer and worked for me for two years previous to enlisting in my company. He volunteered with 14 others to approach with 15 yards of the Rebel breastworks for the purpose of picking off the gunners at one of their batteries when he was shot down. He was a noble youth, and no braver soldier has offered up his life for his country than he. In our regiment, so far, we have lost four killed and six wounded.

          The works are surrounded on all sides- in the front by the gun and mortar boats, and on the two flanks and rear by the land forces. The enemy are cut off from all their supplies and all their chances of being reinforced and we are assured they are already suffering for water and provisions. How then can they hold out longer?


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