A Yankee Regiment in Confederate Louisiana
The 31st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Gulf South
Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2019, 360 pages
Book Review published on: March 20, 2020
Unit histories are nothing new and are almost a subgenre of the war between the states. The Iron Brigade, the Washington Artillery, the 20th Maine, the Stonewall Brigade, the 69th New York, the Orphan Brigade, the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, and the 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry have all had histories written about them and their famous deeds. In this instance, they are joined by Larry Lowenthal’s study of the 31st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (MVI) in the book A Yankee Regiment in Confederate Louisiana: The 31st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Gulf South.
If there is a reason that the 31st Massachusetts is not more famous it may be because the unit had so few opportunities for glory. The unit was one raised, not by a governor (which was the standard practice), but by Gen. Benjamin Butler. A “political general” given a command not because of his military background but because of his role in democratic politics, Butler was assigned by Lincoln to raise regiments in the region of New England, taking the prerogative of assigning officers away from the respective governors of that corner of the nation. This angered the governor of Massachusetts, a formal rival of Butler’s, to the point where officers training new companies were unsure of the status of their commissions. It was not a good beginning for the unit.
The unit was transported from Massachusetts as part of Butler’s Louisiana expedition. While this operation was successful (after an unsettling voyage for the 31st MVI), there was much confusion and little glory for the volunteers. After arriving in New Orleans, some companies were used to garrison the city, while others were assigned to garrison the two Mississippi forts south of New Orleans—the seacoast batteries that had failed to stop Admiral David Farragut. Later, after Butler was replaced by Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks, 31st Massachusetts took part in the fruitless land assaults on Port Hudson, one of the few major actions that the unit would participate in. Then the unit suffered through weeks of besieging the Confederate force holed up in Port Hudson. This besiegement was an effort which, thanks to a poor supply system, left the besiegers in almost as poor a state as the besieged. Finally, the bastion was starved out and surrendered to U.S. Navy Capt. Thornton Jenkins.
But more was in store for the ill-fated 31st. After spending many months fighting Confederate guerillas in the swamps and bayous, the New Englanders were re-equipped as cavalry. Then, they were sent to fight in the ill-fated Red River Campaign.
Red River was the nadir of Banks’ military career, a low point even by the standards of an officer who was known as “Commissary” Banks for his unfortunate habit of allowing supplies to be captured by the enemy. The Red River Campaign was based on faulty intelligence and poor planning. The campaign was supposed to proceed up the Red River into the northwest corner of Louisiana, supported by Admiral David Dixon Porter and his motley fleet of ironclads, tinclads, timberclads, and various other vessels. In all, almost forty thousand Yankees were sent upriver to capture Shreveport and to destroy Gen. Richard Taylor’s ten thousand men of the Confederate District of West Louisiana.
It was a disaster. The Red River flowed lower than expected and it was clear that Porter would not be able to reach Shreveport. Then, Taylor struck back, and partially due to the restrictive terrain and partially due to Banks’s poor troop handling, managed to set the Union forces on their heels and then into full-fledged retreat. As a result, the small Confederate force managed to push a much larger Union force all the way, with the Yankees only pausing long enough to build a partial dam to save Porter’s fleet from being trapped by the river’s falling level.
Once again, through no fault of its own, the 31st Massachusetts was involved in an operation which saw no opportunity for glory or fame. Even if it had been captured, Shreveport would have served no strategic purpose and in fact would have been impossible to hold; much of the army given to Banks was “on loan” from other commands and Banks would have had to leave a garrison at the end of a long, treacherous supply line passing through enemy territory. New Orleans fell without a fight. It could even be argued that the surrender of Port Hudson was overshadowed, and in fact triggered, by the fall of Vicksburg days earlier.
And maybe this is the true lesson of Yankee Regiment: not every unit, regardless of how good it is, gets the opportunity to show what it can do. The 20th Maine is known for its masterful defense at Gettysburg, the Stonewall Brigade for its role as Lee’s “shock troops” and the 69th New York for its “Irish pluck” in battle, but the 31st Massachusetts had no such luck. From the unusual number of diaries and reminisces that Lowenthal was able to research, it is obvious that the unit had high morale and cohesiveness-at least at first. If sent to the Army of the Potomac or the Army of the Tennessee I have no doubt from reading this book that the 31st Massachusetts would have acquitted itself well. But those who serve on the fringes of the war also serve the cause.
Book Review written by: James D. Crabtree, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas