A Diary of the Voyage of the Banks’ Expedition to Louisiana

Three days out of the port of New York, Second Lieutenant George Philander Davis of the 18th New York Independent Battery found himself aboard the transport Illinois hundreds of miles from land in the middle of a shrieking gale. 

    "I found the men beginning to look pale and vomiting; I felt well; wind continued to rise; sides of the vessel full of men sick; the rest laughing at those that were sick, which made it very amusing," he wrote. "I felt well until about noon; went down in the cabin with the rest of the officers, where I soon got very dizzy and sick; came up on deck; wished I could have some good friend hold my head; could not vomit; drank warm salt water; all to no purpose, only to make me feel worse; the wind continued to rise; I felt as though I didn’t care much whether it rose or stopped blowing."

    Lieutenant Davis and his battery were making a sea voyage as part of General Nathaniel P. Banks' expedition to the Department of the Gulf. Departing from New York Harbor on December 2, 1862,  thousands of newly raised troops (predominantly from New York and New England) made the long sea voyage along the Atlantic coast, arriving at New Orleans, Louisiana roughly two weeks later. Despite suffering from sea sickness, Davis alleviated the tedium of the endless days at sea by keeping a diary of the voyage which he later sent back to New York for publication in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

    Davis would never see action with the battery. After months of training in Louisiana, Davis contracted a virulent case of typhoid fever such that he resigned his commission on May 4, 1863. In extremely poor health, he returned to his hometown of Rochester, New York but it took several years for him to recover. He went into the business of making dental goods and became quite successful- he died August 8, 1915 in Rochester at the age of 77 and is buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester. 

    Davis' account appears courtesy of the New York Military History and Veterans' Museum. 

Second Lieutenant George Philander Davis of the 18th New York Independent Battery served only about eight months in the army before a bout of typhoid fever forced the New Hampshire native to resign his commission. Davis's experience was not uncommon as the warm and humid climate of semi-tropical New Orleans proved to be a tough adjustment for New Englanders used to the milder Northern climate. His battery was also known as the "Black Horse Artillery" or the "Billinghurst Battery" and saw service in the Department of the Gulf, taking part in several engagements at Port Hudson. In late 1864, it was consolidated with the 25th New York Battery and later took part of General Canby's operations against Mobile, Alabama. 

Transport Illinois, New York Harbor

Tuesday, December 2 1862

Dear Democrat

We weighed anchor and left the harbor of East River at 3:30 p.m. today. The wind was blowing quite a gale when we left, but we found it quite calm when leaving the Bay. We passed four very large forts on our way out, which it would be impossible for any fleet to pass. Nothing of note transpired until we were out of sight of land. I went to bed about 9 o'clock in my cozy little state room, with the Captain and my boy Mike.

Wednesday, the 3d—Rose about 6 this morning; sea calm and all was pleasant. There was a general complaint among the privates of not enough to eat. About 3 p.m. we passed Hatteras; sailed 215 miles in the last 24 hours. The moon rose pleasant in the evening.

Thursday, the 4th—I found myself on deck about 6 o'clock this morning; the sun rose beautifully. One of the grandest sights I ever saw is the sun rising at sea. We are sailing a due south-west course: sea calm; took breakfast at 8 a.m.; begin to feel a little tired of sea life. We have about 40 officers on board, most of them Massachusetts men; some from Texas. Very good company, but not much but war to talk about; passed one sail vessel today; all quiet on board; not at all home-sick; last 24 hours sailed 350 miles.

Friday the 5th—Got out on deck about 6 this morning and found quite a gale blowing and the sea quite rough; upon deck I found the men beginning to look pale and vomiting; I felt well; wind continued to rise; sides of the vessel full of men sick; the rest laughing at those that were sick, which made it very amusing. I felt well until about noon; went down in the cabin with the rest of the officers, where I soon got very dizzy and sick; came up on deck; wished I could have some good friend hold my head; could not vomit; drank warm salt water; all to no purpose, only to make me feel worse; the wind continued to rise; I felt as though I didn’t care much whether it rose or stopped blowing.

I went up and sat all the afternoon and late in the evening, on the deck, with the Captain. He and Lieutenant George C. Curtis were very sick, the waves swept over us. until we were soaked. When the sun went down in the evening, the wind seemed to rise heavier than ever, and every time the old vessel plunged it seemed as though it were her last, and then you might hear some poor fellow say "there we go." I didn’t say much, I felt so bad I was glad to keep still, but I hope never to see another such a day. The old sailors that evening, said it looked squally, and our chances were much better in the old Illinois than in any other vessel. She pitched like an eggshell. I thought then, if ever I got off this pond, I would not soon get on another, and I have not changed my mind much now, I notice. About 8 in the evening I ran down and threw myself on my bunk, completely tired out, but thought very likely never to go on deck again.

    I was soon sound asleep in my wet clothes dreaming of my pleasant home, and only awoke to find myself tossed on the mighty deep.

Saturday, 6th.—The wind has very much subsided, but the old ocean is rolling in large heavy swells, causing the steamer to rock, anything but pleasant to me. I am up on deck all day and am liable to stay here the rest of the voyage, unless it is smoother. Yesterday we made no time, which is almost one day lost to us, but the Captain thinks we can make it in eight days. Sealed orders opened, we are to go to Ship Island, in the Gulf, 50 miles below New Orleans, as a rendezvous there to stay 10 days, for the rest of the fleet to come up, when we expect to move into Texas. Very likely, part will go up the river to Mobile, at any rate those who go into Texas will move very rapidly into the interior, and I think will not stay there long. Nothing of note transpired during the day.

SUNDAY, 7th. This is one of the pleasantest mornings we have had, and last night was one of the poorest nights I ever spent. The boat tipped one side all night, so as to make my head about a foot lower than my feet, and by the movement of the boat I did not know it. I thought my head would split and felt very bad all day. In the evening I took supper, the first good meal for three days, and sat on deck and read my Bible during the day. In sight of the coast of Florida, for two hours this morning; about 10 a.m., ran on a shoal, which gave the boat a big jar, and scared the Captain much. A man died last night of brain fever, and was buried in the deep about noon, to feed the sharks. The weather is as warm as our June, and water 78 degrees.

MONDAY, 8th. I do not find it as pleasant laying abed until seven or eight o'clock in the morning, as I used to at home, but rise early and take the morning air. I feel very well today and have a ferocious appetite. We have been sailing along the Florida coast all day, which is very pleasant to us, to be in sight of land. Passed three of the blockade fleet, left them some of the latest papers we had, but could not let them know our destination.

TUESDAY, 9th. Passed Key West this morning about 3 o'clock. It was very warm. The wind is a little heavier this morning, making it quite rough. At 12 a.m., passed Fort Taylor, on the Tortugas Isle, one of the largest forts in the United States, and entered the Gulf, sailed along very pleasantly with a little heavier wind towards night, but avoided being sick. Since we left the Tortugas Isle, we have sailed in a due northwest course, which will bring us to Ship Island, as the next spot of land we see. There is but very little difference to be seen between the Gulf and ocean, except the water is darker in the Gulf, on account of being much deeper, and as a general thing, the storms are much more frequent than here.

The Che-Kiang, depicted above, carried 1,400 troops as part of the expedition and arrived at Ship Island, Louisiana on December 12th. 

WEDNESDAY, 10th. Weather very warm and sultry this morning. Rose about 7 a.m.; am feeling very well; very busy all forenoon, contriving so as to get the two best Sergeants in my section. I have succeeded. I have under my command two sergeants, four corporals and 48 men, and have succeeded in getting the best in the company. This is our eighth day out. We are sailing about 10 miles an hour. Nothing of note transpired.

THURSDAY, 11th. There is but very little air stirring this morning, yet everyone agrees the signs are of a big storm. At 7 a.m. we are 100 miles from Ship Island, which we expect to make before night. For the last few days, we have been very much concerned for the safety of our horses, they will very likely be about twelve days on the ship, and even if the sea is smooth, it will be pretty hard for them. I do not know as I have mentioned the fact, that we expect, in ten days from the time we land at the Island, either to go to Texas and take a rapid move into the interior, or to go up the river and take Mobile; in either case we will not stay here long but will move farther North.

We have 150 men, many more than we expected to bring off, and they are as well pleased with the prospect as ourselves. We arrived at the beautiful little Isle at 3:30 p.m., this day, and at another such place I hope it will never be my lot to spend a week. It is very low, with no soil but the whitest of sand, where no living thing can grow; width varies from one to one and a quarter of a mile, length between five and six miles. When we came into the harbor there were three gunboats and two men-of-war, anchored a quarter of a mile from shore. The boys were very glad to think they had arrived at the long-looked for Island, but were very much disappointed in the prospect.

Soon after casting anchor, Captain Albert G. Mack, Lieutenants George H. Mumford and Curtis and myself, found a small boat and went on shore. We there found two companies of Rhode Island troops who had been there since last March. The officers took us round and showed us a large fort that is building, barracks in process of erection and the building now occupied. About 100 laborers are employed. They say there has been about 25,000 troops encamped on the Island. This rendezvous is under the control of General Benjamin Butler, and most of the troops that have been sent into the Gulf have met here.

They say we will not disembark unless it becomes necessary to clean the ship, and then only for a short time, hence we will in all probability spend our time aboard ship while here. We stayed on the Island about two hours. While there the Captain engaged 400 oysters, to be cooked for us next Saturday afternoon. Won’t we have a big 100 a piece?

FRIDAY, 12th. Weather much cooler this morning, wind blowing heavy from the North. The captain proposed a hunting excursion on the Island—procured of Captain Babcock, one of the ship boats, and the Captain, Lieutenant Curtis and Mumford and myself, with four of our best oarsmen as rowers. We went up the Island and landed. Curtis had his double-barreled shotgun, we had our revolvers. We soon got sight of a large flock of geese, but Lieutenant Curtis’ nerves were not steady enough to tame them. It is said there is a great deal of game here. We saw some ducks. There are coons, possums and, a great many alligators on the Island, of which the natives have great fear. We did not succeed in making a great haul of game, but lost our dinners, and were very much fatigued. Captain Mack and myself got quite a number of fine shells, which we will box up and send home when the ship returns, if we get enough to make a package.

Last night, about 6 o’clock, the transport steamer Che Kiang arrived with 1,400 troops, and this morning, the steamer Spaulding from Fortress Monroe, arrived with 1,000 troops, and the New Brunswick with 1,200 troops and some horses. The horses looked well which is encouraging to us as we think very likely ours will arrive here safe. We expect them here Sunday or Monday. The main shore (state of Louisiana) is only 12 miles off and in sight. Oysters, clams, oranges, lemons, sweet potatoes, and a great many other luxuries are brought to the Island, but the officers on the Island say they dare not visit on the mainland, as the country is filled with guerrillas, who are sacking the country and taking everything, they can find. I am feeling pretty well this evening with the exception of being pretty tired. I think the climate will agree with me and I will enjoy it if my horse only arrives safely here. Just now I am more concerned about him than anything else.

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, pictured here with his wife Mary who accompanied him to New Orleans, was a political general par excellence. General Banks owed his high rank to his Republican Party bonafides as Speaker of the House of Representatives and Governor of Massachusetts. Considered a close ally of President Lincoln, Banks proved to be a failure in command, losing campaigns against Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley in 1862 and against Richard Taylor in Louisiana in 1864. Banks, however, proved quite popular with the Confederate troops he faced, earning the sobriquet of "Commissary" Banks as the Confederates generally became well-supplied with captured Yankee rations and equipment after a fight with Banks' troops. 

SATURDAY, 13th. Much warmer and more pleasant than yesterday. Went on deck and found everything astir at 8.30. Arrived at 8.30 this morning the propeller Mary E. Boardman, with 1,000 troops, then the North Star which is the Flagship, and had on board General Nathaniel P. Banks and staff, General Christopher C. Augur and staff, Gen. Cuvier Grover and staff. Governor Hamilton, the newly-appointed Military Governor of Texas and his private Secretary, then the Northern Light, all with the decks crowded, and their bands playing. Cheer after cheer arose and floated upon the waters of the Gulf as they came up. At 11:30 the United States ship Arago arrived with 1,500 troops.—This is the only vessel as large as ours. Everything is excitement as the mail leaves this evening. About 9,000 troops have arrived in all. Some talk of our sailing today.

11.30 a.m. The propeller North Star arrived with 1,200 troops.

12 M.—The steamers Baltic and Atlantic, and another steamer in sight. Name not known. In all, I think, 15,000 troops.

 STEAMER ILLINOIS, December 13, 1862

Off Ship Island, Louisiana

Arrived noon one Man of War and one transport. Weighed anchor and left harbor at 3 p.m. as to our destination everyone seemed to be in ignorance, four of the transports left ahead of us.

FRIDAY, Dec. 12th. Awoke early this morning and found we were lying off the entrance to the Mississippi. Pilots were signaled, for whom we did not long have to wait, this was evidence that we were going to New Orleans at last. The river has three outlets, we entered the center pass, which is very narrow. The river and amount of low land usually covered by water is about ten miles in width for a number of miles, it is 128 miles to New Orleans from the mouth of the river. After sailing about 40 miles, we arrived opposite Forts Jackson and Phillip, which appear like very strong fortifications. This is where General Benjamin Butler fought one of the hardest contested naval battles of the rebellion, and only gained the victory by part of his fleet running the gauntlet between the crossfire of both forts, which were both heavily manned and well served at the time passing. Above there we came into a section of country lying higher where we found large plantations, with orange orchards where the trees were loaded with the ripe and luscious fruit almost within our reach, yet out of our power to obtain, the sight was tempting to the appetite.

We saw lemons, figs and palmetto, cypress, sycamore, elm and oak in abundance. Also saw large fields of the growing sugar cane, at which they are now busy gathering and converting into sugar, this is the season of the planters’ harvest, the richest section of the South. Where the wealthiest planters reside is about 20 miles above the forts.

    We passed the plantation of Attorney General Judah P. Benjamin, now a General in the Rebel army at Richmond. He has a splendid plantation of about 3,000 acres with about 200 slaves, all of which has been confiscated and is now worked by Uncle Sam in obedience to the orders of General Butler. The majority of the planters are loyal.

On our way up we overtook the transport Mary E. Boardman who tried hard to prevent us from passing, but of no avail, quite a spirited race was the consequence, and as we passed the plantations, hundreds of colored people of both sizes and all ages would line the banks, and of all the uncouth cheers, gestures, noises, they could make the worst which caused even the most melancholy to press their sides with laughter. The weather to-day has been very warm much like our July weather, Thermometer stands from 80 to 90 degrees, arrived at New Orleans 7 p.m. and cast anchor opposite Marine Hospital.

Soldiers of the 41st Massachusetts are busily engaged in writing letters home upon the hurricane deck of the steamer North Star, Banks' flagship. The vessel arrived at Ship Island, Louisiana around midday on December 13, 1862; hundreds of miles to the northeast outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia, the Army of the Potomac limped away from one of its bloodiest defeats of the war. 

Monday, December 15. At 9 a.m. we moved about a mile farther up the river and cast anchor in the center of the stream. About 5 p.m. we moved alongside of the wharf where we now are, for the purpose of taking in coal. General Banks has taken his quarters at the St. Charles Hotel. The city presents a very deserted appearance, although considerable business is done. Merchants are busy shipping cotton, sugar and molasses. The new Custom House not yet completed, will be the largest building of the kind in the United States; there are other very large buildings. There are lying near us four or five large Men-of-War, also about a dozen transports loaded with troops. Paid today our board bill on the boat of some $1 per day, for 15 days. I take this as an indication that we will soon disembark; the news this evening is that General Banks supersedes General Butler. We also understand we are to move early tomorrow morning, about seven miles up the river to Carrolltown Race Course, and then go into camp of instruction. The indications are now that we will remain here during the winter, or else we are to be brigaded and move farther up the river. There is now about 40,000 up the river to operate against Vicksburg which is the strongest position the rebels hold upon the Mississippi.

Tuesday, December 16. Weather cold to-day; heavy wind from the North. Weighed anchor at noon and commenced moving up the river; fine country on both sides; before we had gone far we got word that part of our fleet had been fired on by the enemy. About 8 p.m.., my servant, half scared to death, awoke me, saying, a gunboat had just come down the river and notified us that we would soon be attacked by the Rebels, and also that the Colonel had ordered every man to have his gun loaded. The boat was then standing still, but I was too sleepy, and felt too bad to listen to him, so I turned over and went to sleep.

May Day 1863 in the City Park of New Orleans

Wednesday, December 17—At 4:30 a.m. my servant woke me up. I found the officers of the regiment were up. I got up and found that the fleet had come to a halt, and all was excitement; they soon commenced running again. I went up on deck and found there were four gunboats along with us; were soon ready to start. We commenced getting our battery from the lower hold of the vessel. At 8:30 a.m.. I heard the report of a cannon, hurried on deck and found we were opposite Baton Rouge, the capitol of Louisiana. The city is very pleasantly situated on slightly rising ground, on the east side of the river. Population about 5,000. The first gun fired by our gunboats, was rapidly followed by others, which would burst in the air on the other side of the town. They had not fired a great many rounds before the White Flag and the Stars and Stripes were brought down to the shore. Our troops then commenced landing during this time.

We had our men busily employed looking all over among the stores of the vessel for our ammunition, which we soon found was not on board, but was back at New Orleans on board some other vessel. Captain Mack notified the general (General Graves) of the fact. He ordered us to remain on board until further orders. This afternoon I went over and went through the city, finding it very nearly deserted. This morning our first gun drove 1,000 rebels out of the city, and most of the inhabitants. He, however, found quite a number to give us information as we wished. We went through a number of very large fine houses, besides the State House, all deserted, and any amount of fine furniture with pianos, melodeons, glasses, and everything that one might wish to furnish a first-class residence in style.

The people here are nearly starved. They say they have seen no flour for nearly six months. Corn in the ear is worth $2.50 per bushel. I told my servant to get me a horse as soon as we arrived. He went off about a mile and got a fine little horse; but before he got down to the boat an officer took the animal from him. He said he found him in a stable, with a negro watching him. The girls in the house, three of them were nearly starved. He gave them some of our hard tack, and they ate it like hogs.

Thursday December 18, 1862.—Though quite late in the season, we have warm June-like days, and cold and damp nights. No frost as yet. January is the coldest month they have here; yet, they say it is now as cold weather as they ever have.

    I have spent most of my time this day visiting the city. Went through many public buildings, among others, the State House. It is a much larger and finer building than our Court House. It has been pretty thoroughly ransacked lately. The vaults are broken open and the furniture destroyed. The building is surrounded by as fine a yard as I ever saw.

    There is now on shore about 5,000 infantry, and one battery of artillery, which arrived from New Orleans today. Last night the troops slept on their arms, expecting a night attack; but were gladly disappointed. There is about three miles of earthworks around the town, and such sights of grape shot, cannister and shells as can be found in the streets, it never was my lot to behold. There was a very heavy battle here about a month since. Lieutenant Curtiss arrived here from New Orleans this morning, where we left him to wait for the horses. This morning we had not heard from them, but we think they are all right, as they are aboard a sailing vessel, which takes from 15 to 29 days to make the trip. This evening throat some better, but quite sore. A lady told me to-day that she paid $75 for a barrel of flour a few days since.


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