It Was Death to Stir: The 4th Wisconsin's Fatal Charge at Port Hudson

    There was a story that often made the rounds among the infantry during the Civil War, and the story was that no one ever saw a dead cavalryman. That story no doubt brought a chuckle but was not likely spoken with any seriousness by any of the troops besieging Port Hudson in the summer of 1863, at least after the actions of the 4th Wisconsin Cavalry during the June 14, 1863 assault. The parapets of Port Hudson were literally covered with the bodies of wounded and dying cavalrymen of the 4th Wisconsin Cavalry, the regiment having lost 140 of the 220 men who made the charge.

    Among the survivors was Sergeant Leon C. Bartlett of Co. C, no rookie when it came to the business of being knocked around by life. A great grandson of Josiah Bartlett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the grandson of a Revolutionary war soldier and the son of a War of 1812 veteran, Bartlett was born in 1833 in New York. His mother soon died, leaving him an orphan who was adopted by a family of recent French immigrants. Within a few years, that family also broke apart and young Bartlett was cast into the world to make his way. 

    The outbreak of the Civil War found him working in Lyndon, Wisconsin as a farmer. He enlisted in Co. C of the 4th Wisconsin Infantry and was appointed Corporal. The 4th Wisconsin had an interesting history, being first assigned to the eastern theater where it was attached to General Benjamin Butler's expedition to take New Orleans. The 4th, along with the 31st Massachusetts, were the first Federal troops to move into New Orleans in April 1862; the regiment knocked around Louisiana for the remainder of the year before being converted to cavalry in the spring of 1863. It soon found itself besieging Port Hudson with General Nathaniel Banks' army. 

    The 4th Wisconsin troopers found themselves deployed as skirmishers during the assault of June 14th and while they did their best to reach the parapets, heavy Confederate fire pinned them down within yards of the works. Bartlett was horrified to see that the supporting infantry were cowering hundreds of yards behind the 4th, leaving the regiment in a perilous position where it took casualties by the bushel. Bartlett's account was published in the July 15, 1863 edition of the Mineral Point Weekly Tribune in Wisconsin. 

Veteran's badge that belonged to Marion Davison of Co. K of the 4th Wisconsin Cavalry. 


Headquarters, Department of the Gulf near Port Hudson, Louisiana

June 16, 1863

          It is with a heavy heart that I attempt to record the scenes and doings of the past two weeks. My heart recoils and I shrink from the task. In my last, I informed you of the pitiful condition in which the 4th Wisconsin was placed; of its heroic actions on the well fought field of May 27th. On June 4th, the regiment was relieved from its position in the front after holding their post in advance of the rest of the line for six days and nights. June 5th they again mounted and accompanied Colonel Benjamin Grierson with his Illinois cavalry to Clinton 25 miles distant where they fought a desperate battle, losing several men and two good officers. They were driven back by superior numbers and on the 7th General Halbert E. Paine started with his whole brigade and marched to Clinton when the Rebels skedaddled. The regiment remained under the command of Colonel Grierson until the 13th when it was again ordered to the front and June 14th commenced the grand assault.

Private Frank Gerard
Co K, 4th Wisconsin Cavalry


          The 4th Wisconsin (226 men) and the 8th New Hampshire (217 men) were deployed as skirmishers in front of Paine’s division. The second line consisted of the 110th, 133rd, and 173rd New York along with the 4th Massachusetts carrying hand grenades. The third line comprised the remainder of the division who were to roll up cotton bales for protection and advanced in line of battle. The two regiments of skirmishers advanced under a murderous fire of grape, shell, and canister to within short rifle range without looking behind, supposing that our supports were close behind. But upon looking back, what was their dismay to find themselves unsupported, the remainder of the division having faltered and halted, seeking shelter where they could find it. Only the 133rd and 173rd continued to advance when Colonel Leonard Currie of the 133rd was wounded in both arms and Major A. Power Galloway, the commander of the 173rd, fell dead. They, too, halted, leaving the skirmishers within a few yards of the parapet exposed to one of the most murderous fires ever showered on man.

The Rebel infantry was formed in four lines behind their works, each firing in succession, keeping up a constant sheet of flame and a terrific shower of bullets, while the artillery poured in the grape, canister, shell, railroad iron, etc. with amazing rapidity; then to crown the whole, the enemy opened on them with the guns situated at the angles of the parapet, cross firing and raking them terribly. Worst of all, the troops which were to have their support, opened a fire in their rear, galling them fearfully. If that was not enough to make the stoutest hearts quail, I think it beyond the ingenuity of man to invent anything that will do it. But those men never knew what it was to retreat without orders, so they rushed on to certain destruction. Only six commissioned officers started with them in the morning two of them were badly wounded. The other companies were led by their ranking sergeants, most of whom were killed or disabled, and the men falling at every step. It seemed as though a frenzy had seized those men, rendering them desperate, for they rushed on, leaped the ditch, climbed the parapet, and what remained of them went over the works in sight of the whole army to be slain or taken prisoners.

Private Nathan Burton, Co F, 4th Wisconsin
Wounded in the June 14th assault at Port Hudson

General Paine, in trying to urge the cowardly poltroons in the rear to follow him to the rescue, was severely wounded in the leg about 10 a.m. he fell crying ‘Forward! Forward!” but not a step would they go. It is said he wept bitterly when he saw those brave men hewn to pieces, powerless to aid them, and those cowardly whelps in the rear hiding for shelter. There he lay in fair view between two fires and our troops were unable to rescue him. Two faithful negroes belonging to the 4th Wisconsin volunteered to go and bring him off but were killed in the attempt. Four of the hospital corps, for carrying off the wounded, then attempted the feat but three of them fell; the remaining one reached him, tied up his leg as best he could, gave him some water, and crawled off in safety. The General told him to tell the men to keep away from him and not sacrifice any more lives in trying to save him; that it was no use, he could remain there till they could take him off with more safety. The man got away and reported to Captain Durgin, the adjutant general. He dispatched a messenger to Colonel Hawkes Fearing of the 8th New Hampshire, asking him to devise some means of rescue. The Colonel sent to General Cuvier Grover, who commanded the right wing, asking for orders. The General said nothing could be done, they would have to wait until night and take him away under the cover of darkness which was accordingly done.

After the destruction of the line of skirmishers, the Rebel officers mounted the parapet and called out to the wounded who were lying about in all directions, telling them they were brave men; that they hated to shoot them, that if they would give themselves up, they would bring them inside the fort and care for them and parole them. But if they attempted to stir to get away, they would shoot time. A few who were badly wounded and who were suffering for water and nearly dead from long exposure to the sun acceded to the proposals and gave themselves up, but the greater part chose suffering rather than surrender.

This Burnside carbine was carried Sergeant Leroy W. Kingsbury of Co. K of the 4th Wisconsin Cavalry. This particular weapon, one of over 55,000 Burnside carbines produced during the war, is a Fifth Model variant that was produced in late 1863 or early 1864, so it did not see action at Port Hudson.
This image courtesy of the Horse Soldier in Gettysburg. 

When one of them moved hand or foot, the Rebels would fire a volley at him. So it was death to stir. They suffered awfully for the want of water and the burning heat of a Southern summer’s sun. A few crawled off in safety. When night came, those that were able got away and the hospital corps searched the ground and brought off all they could find. Some were taken in by the Rebels. The dead lie unburied so we can only estimate our losses by counting those that returned which can be easily done, they are so few. The eight companies that participated in the late battles can now only muster 46 effective men. Twice have those men assaulted the fortifications, each time carrying the works, and twice have they been left unsupported by the cowards in the rear who dared not follow them after they had cleared the way. Twice have they been cut to pieces, gallantly leading the advance of the 19th Army Corps. General Banks has duly recognized their merit and acknowledges their heroism.

Another assault is to be made immediately by a volunteer storming party. A force is coming in our rear and something desperate must be done immediately.

A distant relative? Maybe; the forehead, the cast of the eyes, and the facial expression all definitely remind me of my grandfather. Private Elbert H. Masters served in Co. B of the 4th Wisconsin Cavalry and was among the wounded during the June 14th assault at Port Hudson. In 1864, he was commissioned a lieutenant in the 81st U.S. Colored Troops and eventually became regimental quartermaster. 

Source:

First Sergeant Leon C. Bartlett, Co. C, 4th Wisconsin Volunteer Cavalry, Mineral Point Weekly Tribune (Wisconsin), July 15, 1863, pg. 2

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