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131st New York Volunteer Infantry

 

What was it really like to serve with the 131st New York Infantry? In the Collection of the Library of the New-York Historical Society on West 77th Street in New York City, I have had the rare privilege to hold and to read through the letters of 4 men who served and documented their experiences with this regiment. It is with this historical reverence that I share with you excerpts from the letters of 2 such individuals; 2nd Lt. James E. McBeth of Co. G and Capt. Francis A. Howell of Co. E. McBeth's extremely frank observations and opinions do not always portray the 131st New York and it's leadership in the most favorable or exemplary light. They are the opinions and the candid musings of one officer who as evidenced by his writings, became embittered and discouraged with the Banks Expedition, the pestilence and sickness of Louisiana and eventually the 131st itself. Their unparalleled historical significance, coupled with the overall record of gallant and meritorious service of the 131st, can allow this regiment to stand up to McBeth's slight tarnishing. Quotes from Howell's letters give us even further insight into the 131st and to the duties performed early on while stationed at Annapolis, his own account of their arrival at Baton Rouge and the circumstances surrounding the resignation of the regiment's original commanding officer and Howell family friend, Colonel Charles S. Turnbull. They also reveal a bit about the duties of a Regimental Company Captain as well as his yearning to be home with his wife and children. A hyperlink at the bottom of this page will also allow you to read Howell's rather lengthy/detailed description of the Battle of Irish Bend, La. on a page of it's own.
Research, Composition & Computer Graphics by Richard N. Ether 2001
McBeth/Howell Letters: The Collection of the New-York Historical Society


 

2nd Lieutenant James E. McBeth

[USAMHI]

 

From a letter written by McBeth to William E. Conrow from Camp Acton, Annapolis, Md., dated Sept. 30, 1862:

  "The people of Baltimore said that our regt. was the hardest-one that had ever passed through their city ­ And I can tell you we had our hands full. But I can also state another side to the matter ­ I never saw a body of men behave better than our regt. does now. They are beginning to receive praise all around here for their soldier like bearing ­ And I can tell you there is every indication of this being made one of the first regiments in the field ­ that is if we are not wholly neglected by the Police Commissioners of New York. And that this regiment has been ill treated, neglected and abused by them there isn't any question. They sent us away before the regiment was full by three hundred men ­ only half equipped ­ And with about a hundred of as bad as set of thieves and robbers as ever disgraced a city. And the Commissioners knew it well. We had however, the good luck to get rid of them as we came on ­ as we lost over a hundred by desertion. The balance are well behaved and if they will give us the balance of the men we need from pure enlistment and not out of the prisons, we can make a good regiment of it.

I had my carte de visite taken before I came away and left word with John Cairns to give one to you when they were done. Have you received it yet?"


From a letter written by Howell to his wife from Camp Acton, Annapolis, Md., dated Sept. 24, 1862:

  "We have had a very hard time so far, my company particular. As we have been on duty ever since last Tuesday guarding Parole Prisoners taking [sic] at Harpers Ferry the Sunday before, but hope now as we are in camp here they will give us some rest."

 

Postwar photos of Capt. Francis Augustus Howell and his wife Mary Jane Howell in the 1890's

[Photos Courtesy of Kent Howell]


From a letter written by Howell to his wife from Camp Acton, Annapolis, Md., dated Nov. 2, 1862:

"The reason I have not written is that we are guarding the Parole Prisoners again and it keeps us very busy, but we will soon be relieved as we are under marching orders to leave here at any moment but where to, we do not know but we think it is further down south, probably Charleston, so you see your intended visit here is postponed for the present."


From a letter written by McBeth to William E. Conrow from on board Steamship United States, off Fortress Monroe, Va.,   dated Dec. 3, 1862:

"We are huddled here together like a lot of cattle, filthy as a lot of pigs ­ one half of the officers being compelled to sleep on the floor ­ there not being state rooms enough. The men packed between decks like so much pork in a barrel. We have to pay $1.50 per day for our meals ­ cash."
 


From a letter written by McBeth to William E. Conrow from Baton Rouge, La., dated Dec. 19, 1862:

"We arrived at this place yesterday morning after a passage of fourteen days from Fortress Monroe. We effected a landing under fire of the Gun Boats ­ which Johnny Secesh so far respected as to make himself scarce, so that the fight which we were expecting did not come off. The enemy are in strong force about fifteen miles from here at Port Hudson ­ to which place we expect to go in a short time and dispute the possession with him ­ and from thence to Vicksburg ­ and so open the Mississippi."


From a letter written by Howell to his wife from Baton Rouge, La., dated January 24, 1863:

  "I suppose you read in the papers that our regiment was the first to land here under the Essexs guns and I tell you all of our hearts went pit pat for we did [not] know how many rebels there was here but we found on going into the city that there [were] about 500 rebels but they skedadled on our approach to the city. So there was no chance for a fight then. But we were pretty strong (about 20,000) now, but if we are attacked by the same number of rebels we shall have to stand our ground as there is no place here to crawl out of as there is in Virginia. Baton Rouge is nearly deserted, you will find nothing but some few women, old men and hundred niggers. Every white person is a rebel and do not fear to express their opinion as our Generals let them do as they please. That is what makes me so angry and makes me feel as if this was no place for me with the opinions I entertain. Lieut. Corsa has been very sick again with the fever. I am trying to get him discharged from the service. Lieut. Bergan is well and as saucy as ever. Col. Turnbull has resigned on account of his health and is now down to N.O. [New Orleans] waiting for ship to N.Y. He will call on you when he gets home (and don't I wish I was in his place)."

 
Coincidentally, 2nd Lt. William Corsa and 1st Lt. Van Brunt Bergan were both nephews to two of the Police Commissioners of the city of New York respectively. Lt. Corsa would recover and go on to be promoted to Captain of Co. E on April 25, 1864. In one of those strange twists of fate during the Civil War, Corsa became the Captain of the very same company that the writer of the above letter, Howell, had commanded before he was eventually discharged. Like many of the officers of the 131st NYSVI, Howell and Corsa had both previously served in the famous 7th NYS Militia. Corsa was later wounded in action at Opequon, Va. and would be discharged due to a disability from his wounds on January 4, 1865. Ironically, Lt. Bergan (whom Howell described in his letter as "well and saucy as ever") was discharged due to failing health in March of 1865 and died shortly thereafter of consumption.

 

Lithograph purported to be that of the 131st NY, 41st MA, & 25th CT in the

United States Arsenal, Baton Rouge, La., being entertained by the "Contrabands"


From a letter written by Howell to his wife from Baton Rouge, La, dated Feb. 15, 1863:

  "We are situated just about the same as when I wrote you last. We do nothing but drill, eat & sleep and move camp from one place to another." "...I wish when you write you will tell me every little thing that happens about yourself, for when I get such a letter from you it makes me thoughtful and I lay down on my bunk and shut my eyes and think I am with you in body as well as in thoughts and feeling." "...I wish you would go and see Mrs. Wingert, whose husband died on the 11th of January in the general hospital here from Typhoid Fever. Tell her the Company buried him with military honors and that I will write to her and give her the particulars & money due her husband when he died." "...Today is the first I have had a good Dinner since I left home. I had an invitation from Billy Wilsons officers to Dinner and I tell you they done it in style and to my satisfaction, but when I got in camp I found the regiment had gone to drill. So I had to go double quick and get a blowing up and drill from 2 oclock till 5 1/2 oclock, so you know how I felt."

 

View of the encampment of the 131st NYSV & the 19th Army Corps. at Baton Rouge (L)

Hospital in Baton Rouge where Pvt. John Wingert died of Typhoid Fever (R)


From a letter written by McBeth to William E. Conrow from Camp near Alexandria, La., dated May 15, 1863:

"We have marched over 500 miles in 35 days ­ so you will see that we haven't been idle. The fact of the matter is it is killing the men. The hospitals are beginning to fill up very rapidly. My constitution is slowly but surely becoming undermined. There is a great amount of sickness here ­ and the worst weather is yet to come. I have had my full share of it. I have been quite unwell for some days back and feel worse today ­ so much so that I can hardly sit up to write to you ­ and wouldn't do so but there is a mail leaves from here today. I must leave this department. I like it much better on the Potomac. I am trying to keep up my spirits as well as I can and keep out of the hospital, but how much longer I can't tell. One reason is that I am and have been for a long time the only officer in my company. They have only about ten line officers in the regiment for duty ­ all the others are either present or absent-sick. I am heartily sick of this regiment and wish myself out of it. If I live for two months longer I will get out of it if I have to get out of it dishonorably."
 
McBeth got his wish, on October 8, 1863 he was discharged from the 131st NY for a promotion into the Second Louisiana Calvary as a First Lieutenant. Much later, Howell too would be discharged from the 131st NY on January 19, 1864. During it's service, the regiment traveled over 10,000 miles by land and water. Deaths attributed to disease and other causes by July of 1865 would claim the lives of 107 enlisted men alone, while deaths of enlisted men killed in action would number 49.


From a letter written by Howell to his wife from Thibodeaux, La., dated Aug. 31, 1863:

  "You see by the heading of this letter we have moved from New Orleans again. If there is any hard work to do the New York regiments has to do it. We have a very fine camp near the Bayou Lafourche about 60 miles from New Orleans." "...I have not written to you lately for I have been very busy getting my books written up for the year. Ask Tom how much I have to do and he can tell you how much it is." "...Also tell Tom to get as many volunteers as he can for our Company by mentioning Liegt. Eldridge name down in 5th Ward. He thinks there is a good many of his friends would come with him in preference to being drafted." 


From a letter written by McBeth to William E. Conrow from Camp near Alexandria, La., dated May 15, 1863:

"Col. Turnbull left the regt. last January ­ And Col. Nott is Col. of another regt. It was he who got me in this regt. ­ Nicholas W. Day ­ a son of Day, the India rubber man ­ was sent out to the regt. as Major ­ which position was bought for him by his father ­ after Turnbull left (Nott never came on to us). Day was made Lt. Col. He is no military man whatever. Thinks of little but the gratification of his own appetite and has very few friends in the regiment. I have quarreled with him several times."
 
The "Col. Nott" to which he refers was Lt.-Colonel Charles C. Nott, who left the 131st on January 10, 1863 to take command of the 176th New York. McBeth's opinion not withstanding and in all deference to Colonel Day, it should be noted that author and fellow-officer Richard B. Irwin credits Day for having "brought up his regiment" (under many drawbacks) "to a high standard of discipline and efficiency." Day was also made Brigadier-General by brevet, for gallant and meritorious services at the Battle of Opequon (or 3rd Winchester), Va., on March 13, 1865.
 

Rare War-time photo of Col. Nicholas W. Day (131st NY) and Col. Frederick A. Boardman (4th Wisc. Cavalry)

[Hunt Collection/USAMHI]

 

 

Read Captain Howell's First-Hand Account Detailing the Battle of Irish Bend, La.  

 

 

More About 131st New York Volunteer Infantry Web Page

Read About the Battles of Irish Bend, La. and Third Winchester, Va.

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