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Date Posted: 11:34:48 11/30/06 Thu
Author: Fred Baker
Subject: Campaigning in Louisiana
This same material will be added to the main event page soon as I feel that it should almost be "required reading" for folks anticipating the event.
I want to thank Geoff Lehmann for recommending this work as well as for providing me with a copy of the chapter, from which I have taken a number of excerpts. It is taken from the chapter entitled “Forced Marches” from Captain William DeForest’s fine narrative. DeForest, a line officer in Company D, 12th Connecticut Infantry, penned these memories from his time in Louisiana during the spring and summer of 1863. Though a year before the Red River Campaign was fought, DeForest’s observations are universal in nature and give great insight into the suffering of the men.
This, as well as accounts such as "A Pot of Hominy" (also posted on this board, courtesy of Terre Lawson and Vicki Betts), provide as good or better background material as any regimental history can. Knowing what campaigning was like offers far more insight than a bland list of points of engagements, etc, at least in my opinion.
A Volunteer’s Adventures:
A Union Captain’s Record of the Civil War
By John William DeForest
“Oh, the horrors of marching on blistered feet! It is an incessant bastinado applied by one’s own self, from morning to night. I do not mean a single blister, as big as a pea, but a series of blisters, each as large as a dollar, or, to judge by one’s sensations, as large as a cartwheel. I have had them one under the other, on the heel, behind the heel, on the ball of the foot, on every toe, a network, a labyrinth, an archipelago of agony. Heat, hunger, thirst, and fatigue are nothing compared with this torment. When you stand, you seem to be on red-hot iron plates; when you walk, you make grimaces at every step. In the morning the whole regiment starts limping, and by noon the best soldiers become nearly mutinous with suffering. They snarl and swear at each other; they curse the general for ordering such marching; they curse the enemy for running away instead of fighting; they fling themselves down in the dust, refusing to move a step further. Fevered with fatigue and pain, they are actually not themselves. Meantime, the company officers, as sore-footed as anyone, must run about from straggler to straggler, coaxing, arguing, ordering, and perhaps, using the flat of the sabre. Instead of marching in front of my company, I followed immediately in the rear, so that I could see and at once pounce upon everyone who fell out…”
“When we bivouacked at night came the severest trial. Our regiment was on the left of the brigade, and as we always slept in line of battle, this threw us a half mile from the bayou, along which we marched, and which was our only source of water. It was necessary to order a squad of the blistered and bloody-footed men to bring water for the company’s coffee. The first sergeant takes out his books and reads off the fatigue detail: ‘Corporal Smith, Privates Brown, Jones, Robinson, and Brown second, fall in with canteens to get water.’
Now ensues a piteous groaning, pleading, and showing of bloody heels or blistered soles, on the part of the most fagged or least manly of the victims of rotation in labor. The first sergeant feels that he has no discretion in the matter, and he knows, moreover, that the other men are fully as incapable of marching as these. He stands firm on his detail, and the opposition grumblingly yields. Slowly and sadly Messrs. Brown, Jones, Robinson, and Brown second take up the canteens of the company, each backing six or eight, and limp away to the river, returning, an hour later, wet, muddy, dragged out, and savage.
Somewhat similar scenes happened on the march. Aides passed down the length of the trailing column with the order, ‘Water half a mile in front; details will be sent forward with canteens.’ Under these circumstances, roguish soldiers would sometimes use the chance to forage, falling in an hour later with a load of chickens as well as of fluid.
Having tried various alleviations for the hardships of marching, without much benefit, I conclude that man was not made to foot it at the rate of thirty miles a day. Soaping the inside of the stockings does some good, by diminishing the friction and, as a consequence, the blistering. It is also advisable to wash the feet before starting, always providing you have sufficient time and water. Beware of washing them at night; it cracks the heated skin and increases the misery. Beware, too, of trying to march on the strength of whiskey; you go better for a few minutes, and then you are worse off than ever. Opium is far superior as a temporary tonic, if I may judge by a single day’s experience. I started out sick, took four grains of opium, marched better and better every hour, and at the end of twenty-two miles came in as fresh as a lark. [Note- we are working on an opium issuance at Banks’ Grand Retreat. There’s a few forms to be filled out but that shouldn’t cause us too much worry.]
It must be understood by the non-military reader that company officers of infantry are not permitted to mount horses, whether by borrowing or stealing, but must foot it alongside of their men, for the double purpose of keeping them in good order and of settle them an example of hardihood. On this march, General Banks impounded, at a certain point on the road, more than a dozen infantry officers who were found astride of animals, causing each to rejoin his command as it passed, placing some under arrest, and summarily dismissing one from the service. They looked exceedingly crestfallen as they stood there, cooped up in a barnyard under charge of the provost guard. The passing soldiers grinned at them, hooted a little, and marched on, much cheered by the spectacle.
If it had not been for the counter irritant of blistered feet, we should have heard a mutinous deal of grumbling on account of thirst. A man strapped up as a soldier is, and weighted with forty rounds of ammunition, knapsack, three days’ rations, canteen containing three pints, and rifle, perspires profusely. I have seen the sweat standing on the woolly fibres of their flannel sacks like dew. To supply this waste of moisture they pour down the warm water of their canteens, and are soon begging for leave to fall out of the ranks in search of incredibly situated springs and rivulets. It will not do to accede to the request, for if one man goes, all have a right to go, and, moreover, the absence would probably terminate in a course of foraging or pillaging. Mindful of his duty and the orders of his superiors, the captain grimly responds, ‘Keep your place, sir,’ and trudges sufferingly on, cursing inwardly the heat, the dust, the pace and, perhaps, the orders. He knows that if his fellows are caught a miles to the rear wringing the necks of chickens, he may be sent after them; and, in view of his blisters and the fifteen miles already marched and the indefinite miles yet to go, he has no fancy for such an expedition…”
“In describing the miseries of marching, I must not forget the dust. The movement of so many thousands of feet throws up such dense and prodigious clouds that one who has not witnessed the phenomenon will find it difficult to imagine in all its vastness and nuisance. The officers dodge from side to side of the road to escape the pulverous suffocation; and the men, bound to their fours, choke desperately along in the midst of it. The faces become grimed out of all human semblance; the eyelashes are loaded, the hair discolored, and the uniform turns to the color of the earth. It frequently happens that you cannot see the length of your regiment, and it has occurred to me that I have been unable to see the length of my own company of perhaps twenty files. Of course, this annoyance varies greatly in magnitude, according to the nature of the earth.
Rain is good or bad, according to circumstances. In hot weather it cools the skin, invigorates the muscles, and is a positive comfort, except in so far as it spoils the footing. On the second day of this advance we had a pelting shower, which soaked everybody, including General Banks- which last circumstance was a source of unmixed satisfaction to the soldiers. Enlisted men like to see officers bear their share of the troubles of war; and, moreover, our fellows held the general responsible for the tearing speed at which we were going. But rain, although pleasant to the skin in warm weather, will reach the earth and make puddles; and to infantry in march a puddle in the road is a greater nuisance than people in carriages would imagine. No man, however wet he may be, wants to step into it; he crowds his next comrade, and so gets into a growling bout; or he hangs back, and so checks the succeeding files. A large puddle always produces a tailing-off of the regiment, which must be made up presently by double-quicking, much to the fatigue and wrath of the rearmost. Oh, miserable left of the column! how many times a day it has to run in order to catch up with the right! and how heartily it hates the right in consequence! Put a regiment or a brigade ‘left in front,’ and see how it will go. The men who usually march in the rear are now in the lead, and they are sure to give the fellows at the other end of the line a race. This opening out of the column of march is a constant evil, and one which officers soon learn to struggle against with incessant watchfulness. I believe that I used to shout, ‘Close up, men,’ at least a hundred times a day, in every conceivable tone of authority, impatience, and entreaty.
But are there no comforts, no pleasures, in forced marching? Just one: stopping it. Yes, compared with the incessant anguish of going, there was a keen luxury in the act of throwing one’s self at full length and remaining motionless. It was a beast’s heaven; but it was better than a beast’s hell- insupportable fatigue and pain. The march done, the fevered feet bare to the evening breeze, the aching limbs outstretched, the head laid on the blanket roll which had been such a burden through the day, the pipe in mouth, nature revived a little and found the life retained some sweetness. Delicious dreams, too- dreams, wonderfully distinct and consecutive- made slumber a conscious pleasure. All night I was at home surrounded by loving faces. No visions of war or troubles; no calling up of the sufferings of the day, nor anticipation of those on the morrow; nothing but home, peace, and friends. I do not know why this should be, but I have always found it so when quite worn out with fatigue, and I have heard others say that it was their experience.
I have already said that we were en bivouac. Shelter tents were as yet unknown in the Department of the Gulf, and our own wall tents, as well as every other article of not absolutely essential baggage, had been left at Brashear City. For cover, our servants made hasty wigwams or lean-tos of rails, over which we threw our rubber blankets to keep out of the ‘heft’ of the showers. If it rained we sat up with our overcoats over our heads, or perhaps slept through it without minding. Not until August, more than three months later, did we again enjoy the shelter of a tent; and during that time we had only two brief opportunities for providing ourselves with board shanties. Meantime, we became as dirty and ragged as beggars, and eventually as lousy...”
“On the arrival of the regiment it had been placed on picket, two miles north of the town; and when, next day, an order came to relieve it, men and officers begged to be allowed to remain undisturbed. Watching and the chance of fighting were trifles compared with even two miles of marching on those unhealed blisters. The petition was granted at the Twelfth continued its picket duty, looking contentedly out over the great bare plain which led northward. No one would have wondered at our choice who had seen the plight in which the regiment reached this blessed bivouac. Seventy-five men and officers dragged along with the colors, while four hundred others lay gasping by the roadside for miles rearward, fagged nigh unto death with speed and the scorching rays of the Louisiana sun. In the whole history of the Twelfth, before and after, there never was such another falling out- not even when it was following Early up the Shenandoah, under cavalry Sheridan. The truth is that Banks was the most merciless marcher of men that I ever knew…”
“Longer and more rapid forced marches than this of ours have been made, but I am glad that I was not called upon to assist at the performance. We should not have suffered so much as we did, had it not been for the heat, which not only wore our our muscular forces, but greatly increased the blistering of our feet.
Perhaps it is worth while to mention that, after two or three days of repose, we were excessively proud of our thirty-four miles in a day, and were ready to march with any brigade in the army for a wager.”
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