Knocking at Port Hudson's Door: Ducking Shells with the 161st New York

    Just a few days before sailing to attack the Confederate bastion at Port Hudson, Louisiana, Second Lieutenant T. Scott DeWolfe of the 161st New York described the electric effect of his regiment getting paid for the first time in months. 

    "Just imagine 500-600 starving pigs turned loose in a nice big potato patch and you may form some idea of it," he wrote. "A very notable feature of the transaction was the settlement of all the "old scores" among the officers and men. After receiving our pay, we began and paid every man we met during the next half day sums varying from $5 to $20, and at the close of business hours, called the transaction ended and ourselves square with each other and the rest of the world. The allotment checks did not come to hand, and indeed, have not yet, but the boys did remarkably well in sending money home, most of them retaining but very little for their own use. The allotment system may do well enough for regiments composed of men incapable of transacting their own business, but ours is not of that sort, and, thus far, it has been a curse rather than a benefit to us. We now hope to receive our pay more nearly on time hereafter." 

    Within a week, DeWolfe had traded the quiet sounds of camp with the roar of the battlefield. "Since the breaking out of the rebellion, I have read many descriptions of the sounds produced by shot and shell in their flight through the air, but none of them seem to do the subject justice. I will not attempt the task myself, for it is useless: the thing can't be did. If you can imagine a threshing machine, a freight train, a Mississippi steamboat, two blacksmith shops, and a hardware store, on a grand old "bust," the whole superintended by a legion of devils, you may get some sort of an idea of it, but it will be only a poor one." DeWolfe concluded. 

    Lieutenant DeWolfe's letter describing the opening stages of the siege of Port Hudson appears courtesy of the New York State Military History and Veterans Museum.

   


Knocking at the door of Port Hudson, Louisiana

Sunday, May 31, 1863

In the last one of my letters published in the Courier, I promised not to bore the public with any more,—first because the weather was too hot to write, and second, because I presume, that, without incident, nothing which I could write would be of sufficient interest to repay a perusal. But "things have changed since Henry died," and I am once more at it. From the time of my last writing, up to the 12th of May, our brigade lay in camp, in Baton Rouge, with nothing to do except, fight mosquitoes, until we were furnished with mosquito bars, when that source of employment failed us; only one notable circumstance transpired during the time, viz. the payment of the regiment.

I need not attempt a description of the effect produced upon the men by the appearance of the "greenbacks." Just imagine 500-600 starving pigs turned loose in a nice big potato patch and you may form some idea of it. A very notable feature of the transaction was the settlement of all the "old scores" among the officers and men. After receiving our pay, we began and paid every man we met during the next half day sums varying from $5 to $20, and at the close of business hours, called the transaction ended and ourselves square with each other and the rest of the world. The allotment checks did not come to hand, and indeed, have not yet, but the boys did remarkably well in sending money home, most of them retaining but very little for their own use. The allotment system may do well enough for regiments composed of men incapable of transacting their own business, but ours is not of that sort, and, thus far, it has been a curse rather than a benefit to us. We now hope to receive our pay more nearly on time hereafter.

An 1863 $1 U.S. "Greenback"

But we are no longer in Baton Rouge and I presume many of you may have some curiosity to know how we came where we are, what we are doing, &c., &c.

First, then: We left our old camp, on the morning of the 12th and started, for where, the Lord, and General Dudley only knew, but after marching towards our picket lines a short time, we struck into the Clinton road, which we followed until about 2 p.m., when we bivouacked, in the woods, on Merritt's Plantation, about five miles from Port Hudson. We were all quite sure that we were only going up to destroy the railroad between Port Hudson and Clinton, and thus cut off the Rebel supplies.

Here we lay until the next day, when we moved up about two miles, to a large plain, where we were placed in position for a fight, but as no enemy appeared, we lay around a while and again started for our bivouac. Here we remained until Chapin's brigade came up, and then started once more up the road. We came again to the plain and, there being no one to hinder, crossed, moved on up through the woods, to the rebel picket lines, appropriated the pickets, and then kept on until we arrived at the point where the road emerges from the woods into the next plain, which is quite small, and entirely surrounded by dense forest.

It would take General Banks' army until July 9th to secure the surrender of Port Hudson. 


As our battery, which headed the column, came in sight, we were greeted by a shot from the rebel batteries, at very short range. This was sufficient inducement for us to put ourselves in fighting trim, which was only the work of a moment. Our regiment was ordered to support the battery upon the right, and were formed in line of battle, and lay flat upon the ground, our left resting on the battery. Here we lay, for an hour and a half, under about as lively a shower of grape, canister and shell, as is often met with. The boys could not have behaved better, nor the officers been more cool, were they born salamanders, but, at first, as the shot and shell went ripping and tearing through the trees over our heads, I noticed a general ducking of heads and shortening of necks, altogether so as to provoke a smile throughout the entire line. Many of our men have pieces of shell, &c., which fell among our ranks during this part of the engagement. The artillery practice thus far was beautiful on both sides.

Since the breaking out of the rebellion, I have read many descriptions of the sounds produced by shot and shell in their flight through the air, but none of them seem to do the subject justice. I will not attempt the task myself, for it is useless: the thing can't be did. If you can imagine a threshing machine, a freight train, a Mississippi steamboat, two blacksmith shops, and a hardware store, on a grand old "bust," the whole superintended by a legion of devils, you may get some sort of an idea of it, but it will be only a poor one.

The fight here lasted only about an hour and a half, when the enemy's force, consisting of eight pieces of artillery, and 3,000 infantry, were driven from their position, and we were occupying his ground. Just in rear of where their batteries stood, is a white building formerly used as a store.

    After remaining here until nearly night we were again opened upon by the enemy, who supposed we were only Dudley's brigade with the amiable intention of gobbling us up. We again drove them away, this time polishing them off, "secundem artem," in just two hours and a half.

    Our loss in this fight was not large, being only about 150 in killed and wounded in both brigades. Our regiment was peculiarly fortunate, not losing but one wounded and he by the accidental discharge of one of our own gun. This fight occurred on Thursday, and we held the place until the following Sunday morning, when General Banks made his appearance with his army and immediately moved down to our present position, viz: the back door of Port Hudson and commenced knocking, and have done so ever since—about eight days.

Major Charles Strawn
161st N.Y.

They don't invite us to walk in, but we know they are at home, and intend to go in, notwithstanding their exclusiveness. Port Hudson is a big thing, and no mistake. I cannot undertake to write particulars, but only give you one or two hints. The Rebel fortifications in the rear are about three miles long, and are mounted at intervals with light and heavy artillery, which they know well how to use. They have also some mortars, from which we receive an occasional compliment in the shape of a big shell. There is a force inside variously estimated at from 5,000-15,000. At all events, enough are there to make it dangerous to attempt to storm the works. On the other hand, we have not far from 30,000 men, and artillery in any quantity. We have them surrounded, our forces reaching from river round to river again.

They try occasionally to break through our lines, but we go to work and drive them in again. It is of no use, we've got them, and we intend to hold fast. It beats all how they hold out. Since last Sunday morning we have been plugging it into them continually, and still they return u shot for shot. On Thursday last there was a cessation of hostilities, to allow them to take care of the dead and wounded. This was to last until 7 p.m. When the hour arrived, it seemed as though every gunner and soldier had stood with lanyard in hand and finger upon trigger, ready to pull. The air was literally full of bullets.

    Our loss thus far is estimated at 2,000 killed and wounded, mostly by sharpshooters. We are within rifle range of their works. Our regiment has stood fire like veterans. General Dudley has the confidence in us to keep us continually in the front. We are quartered right under the fire of the enemy, and as I write, the bullets from the rifles go whizzing over our heads at a rate more or less suggestive. We are now so accustomed to it, however, that it don't disturb us much. Our loss thus far has been remarkably small, only three killed and eight wounded.

You need look for nothing but a good report from us. There are many little incidents, which I know would be interesting to those having friends in the regiment, but which I cannot pretend to give. I am writing in the woods, sitting on the ground, with but very few conveniences, and very little time. Indeed, I could not have written this much, only I am sitting in the shade, waiting for my shirt, which I have worn about a month, to dry. Captain Biles, and Lieutenant Faucett, are again with us. Faucett, not very well. Captain Stocum is the same. We have not a man in the regiment who has shown fear. As soon as we get inside I will try and give some particulars. Stop now for want of time, &c.

 

Yours truly,

T.S. DeWolfe

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