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Federals on Grand Lake, Landing at Hudgins' Point, McWilliams' Plantation, April 13, 1863

 

The Battle of Irish Bend, Louisiana

 

In an attempt to cut off the retreat of Confederate General Richard Taylor's troops in the aftermath of the Battle of Fort Bisland, General Cuvier Grover's 4th Division was ordered to launch an amphibious assault up Grand Lake (the 131st New York being part of this division). Learning of Grover's movements, Taylor sent a force under Colonel William Vincent to observe and oppose the movement. This action would eventually culminate, on April 14, 1863, into the Battle of Irish Bend or Nerson's Woods (as it was called by the Confederates). Below, Capt. Francis A. Howell, Co. E, 131st New York Volunteers, describes the ensuing battle in remarkably vivid detail.
Capt. Francis A. Howell's Letter Quotes from the Collection of the New-York Historical Society


From a letter to his wife from Alexandria, La., dated May 9, 1863:

  "We left Brashear City on steam boat and went to Grand Lake where we landed under cover of the gun boats at a place called Irish Bend, where we had our first battle. The 91st N.Y. was the first to land and received the first fire from rebels who killed 2 or 3 men and wounded the Lt. Col. in the leg but they drove them back in the woods so that we all could land which we did and then commenced the march through the country. But we did not get far before they made another stand. The N.Y. 6th was now in front. They done well driving the rebs backs to a river where they stopped and set the bridge on fire but we pressed them so hard that we saved the bridge but in our stopping, it broke down and we had to stop of course. Then commenced the worst kind of murdering I ever saw, the rebs has long range rifles and they would get behind fences, trees, barns and fire at anyone they saw, while we had to lay down on the ground flat till it got dark. Then we went to bed (rolled up in our blankets with the sky for shelter) to sleep at 10 o'clock at night. We was called to arms to march across the river (as the bridge was repaired) to about one mile where we encamped for the night in one of the hardest rain storms you ever saw. So my dear wife you must know how I felt that night laying awake all night thinking of everything. Particular of my dear wife & children and what the morrow would bring forth, knowing that the rebel's camp was only 8 miles from us and they intended to keep us back. And that we must drive whip them or drive them ahead of us which we did with what loss it is fearful to think of (but I am anticipating). At last the morning broke, we got up and made our coffee & hard bread. When it was reported our Brigade would be the advance again today (for you must know the Brigades take turns for the advance) but when we got in the road we found it was not so, for the 3rd Brigade was there and thank god it was so, for they was most severely cut up losing about 300 killed & wounded, besides a great many officers. We had gone about 2 miles when we heard a volley from the woods on our right and at the same time 2 shells came over our heads. The order was giving [sic] to halt when 6 pieces of artillery of the 3rd Brigade was ordered out in the field to prepare for action. Then commenced one of the most terrific battles I ever heard of, it lasted for about one hour. There we stood all this time watching (for it was our turn next). Then by some chance got on the flank of the 159th and giving them a whole volley which killed about 100 men, 5 or 6 officers. When they broke and came running back to where we was, then came our turn to advance which we did in splendid order. First the 91st regt. then the 1st La. then 6th & then 131st which was sent to support the artillery with orders to hold our position till every man was shot dead. But when the rebels saw so many troops they fired one volley at us and ran like the _____ in the woods. They wounded 2 of our men and put one ball through the colors. We were then ordered to advance to the woods. In that march to the woods was the most awful sight I ever expected to see where we had to walk right over dead and wounded. When the wounded would cry for gods sake, for some one to help them but we could not stop for anything. I have read about battles in the papers, I never believed it, but now I do not believe any person could describe half of the horrors of a battle. I could go on and mention a great many incidents, but will not for fear of your forgetting yourself as I suppose you have not got over that yet. I suppose it is enough for you to know that I am all safe. I was only frightened a little by having some piece of lead going over my head which I did not want to stop. We have been driving them every day so far about 200 miles and we think we have broken them up entirely if so I think you will hear from me next at Vicksburg.

 
Originally Grant wanted the Nineteenth Army Corps, to which the 131st was a part of, to join him to defeat the rebel stronghold at Vicksburg, but "Political" General Nathaniel Banks had an agenda of his own, which was to take the well defended city of Port Hudson and thus open the entire Mississippi to the Union.
 

The Battle of Irish Bend, La., April 14, 1863

In his book, "History of the Nineteenth Army Corps", Richard B. Irwin tells us that General William Dwight "caught an unfortunate man of the 131st New York, Henry Hamill by name, absent from his regiment under circumstances that pointed him out as a plunderer. Then, without pausing to communicate with the general commanding, Dwight took upon himself the task of trial and judgment on the spot, and becoming satisfied of the man's guilt, caused him to be shot to death at sunset in front of the brigade." Howell, after further alluding to the horrors of the Battle of Irish Bend, tells his wife his eyewitness account of this very same incident.

From a letter to his wife from Alexandria, La., dated May 13, 1863:

  "But since I have seen other most horrible sights such as one of our own regiment was shot to death before the whole brigade for going into a house and robbing a woman and children of their clothing & jewelry and of taking liberties with the woman. In 4 days we caught a Guirelia [sic] with arms and he was also shot before the whole troops, 6 balls going in him but they did not kill and one man had to go close to him and blow his brains out (horrible is it not). We are now at this place, but I understand we leave tomorrow for Port Hudson."

 

 

 

The Battle of Winchester (Opequon), Va., September 19, 1864

 

The Battle of Winchester (Opequon), Virginia

 

Known as the "Fighting Regiment", the 131st New York was later to distinguish themselves at the battle sometimes referred to as Third Winchester or Opequon, Virginia on September 19, 1864. General Philip H. Sheridan was to attribute the victory in part to the heroism displayed by this regiment.


General William H. Emory, says with regard to the Battle of Winchester and the 131st New York in his official narrative*:

  "I ordered Grover's division to charge, holding Dwight's in reserve. The charge was made with great bravery, dispersing the enemy's first line; but this first success seemed to throw our men off their guard, and give them too much confidence, and they rushed, without orders, with impetuosity upon the second line of the enemy, which had the protection of woods and stone walls, and they met with a bloody repulse." "...The enemy rose from their sheltered position and charged in mass on our lines. A small point of woods projected at right angles from the right of my line; in this I posted Colonel Nicholas W. Day, 131st New York Volunteers, with his regiment, and as the enemy came down on our lines with loud yells they received the fire of this regiment in the flank and rear, and at the same time receiving a very spirited fire in front, they broke and fled."
*Narrative quote from "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War"


Recounting the same incident during the Battle of Winchester (Opequon), Richard B. Irwin in his "History of the Nineteenth Army Corps." says:
 
"As the Confederates charged down upon a section of Bradbury's 1st Maine Battery, posted about the centre of the division, Day, who under many drawbacks had brought up his regiment, the 131st New York, to a high standard of discipline and efficiency, took prompt and full advantage of the slight cover afforded by the little wooded ravine in which he happened to be. With equal coolness and readiness he changed front forward on his tenth company, yet held his fire until he could see the shoulders and almost the backs of the enemy; then, pouring in a hot fire, and being immediately supported by the 11th Indiana, part of the 3rd Massachusetts, and the 176th New York, which had quickly rallied from Sharpe's reverse, the attacking force was driven back in disorder."

Another account of this incident during the battle is further and skillfully elaborated upon by John W. De Forest in his Civil War narrative, "A Volunteer's Adventures":

"Meantime two pieces of Bradbury's battery (the First Maine) had reached the field. "Push them into that gap near the pike," said General Grover. "We must show a front there." Guided by Bradbury himself, the section advanced through musketry and canister into the plain, and opened a fire which helped much toward checking the enemy. A Confederate line which tried to carry these guns was repulsed in a strange way. General Emory, after aiding to rally the 131st New York, had it posted in a narrow grove projecting from the wood which now formed Grover's base of resistance. As the Rebels passed this point they received a flanking volley and, almost immediately, another in front from the troops in the main wood. Under this double assault the charging swarm broke and fled in confusion. Shortly after this adventure Molineux pushed a line of his rallied men up to within two hundred yards of the isolated grove which Birge had won and lost. Thus bit by bit Grover's shattered division was got into passable shape again, and a large portion of the field of battle was recovered."

 

 

Excerpts From Actual Letters Written By Men of the 131st

More About 131st New York Volunteer Infantry Web Page

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