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Not Enough Fight in This Department
Spending autumn along Bayou Teche had been an enjoyable respite for the Mercantile Battery's men. Their garrison duty at Franklin enabled them to recuperate from eight hazardous months of campaigning, which began with the Chickasaw Bayou disaster and culminated in the Jackson siege with its heat-drenched, dust-filled marches. The Battery Boys appreciated the hospitality of Franklin's residents-who tended to be hostesses rather than hosts, since most of the area's younger men were dead, imprisoned, or serving in the Confederate army. But they were more disillusioned than ever about their assignment to the Department of the Gulf. When they departed New Orleans, the Chicagoans had been filled with hope for a swift, decisive campaign, such as they had grown accustomed to under Grant's leadership. Those hopes began to recede as they moved midway up Bayou Teche, ultimately drying up as the campaign stagnated around New Iberia.
Lieutenant George Throop and 33 men from the battery's center section had been detached to New Iberia in November. They were present when roughly 120 Confederate prisoners were paraded down its main street, accompanied by blaring Union bands. About 5,000 Federal troops, intent on settling the North's score for the humiliation heaped upon their comrades at the Battle of Carrion Crow, had captured the Rebels on November 20 at Spanish Lake. The Mercantile Battery veterans must have regarded this Department of the Gulf "victory" as paltry compared to the triumphs they had enjoyed under the hard-hitting leadership of Western generals such as Grant, Sherman, and Whiskey Smith.
Instead of advancing from Acadia, Nathaniel Banks, the Battery Boys' new departmental commander, focused his attention on Texas' 600-mile stretch of coastal islands and peninsulas. From the coast he hoped to push inland, perhaps taking Houston or marching up the Rio Grande valley to join with Union forces in New Mexico. To this end, Banks had already occupied Matagorda Island, near where the Mercantile Battery would soon be heading. Although the press was trying to pump up Banks' efforts, he had accomplished little with his attempts to reach the Texas heartland. William Franklin's overland expedition through Louisiana had failed to live up to expectations. Banks' much-trumpeted coastal assault was even less effective, resembling a cannon salute that boomed loudly but fired no shell. Despite Banks' optimism, the Lone Star State remained under enemy control. The Confederates continued to occupy the mainland along with Galveston and Sabine Pass on the northern coast.
As the year drew to a close, the St. Mary's carried another contingent of Banks' troops, which included the Battery Boys, into Matagorda Bay. To reach the bay, the ship had to pass over a sandbar and then travel up Pass Cavallo, which linked Matagorda Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. The vessel was full of trusting soldiers who assumed their leaders would not send them to such a God-forsaken wasteland without providing them with the supplies they needed to survive. By this time, Banks himself was ensconced with his family in a New Orleans mansion (from which its secessionist owners had been ousted) enjoying dances, concerts, and receptions with prominent city residents. The festivities were part of an attempt to cultivate good will among the local Unionists. Surrounded by ostentatious luxury, Banks delegated to the quartermasters the responsibility of supplying his Texas-bound soldiers. Meanwhile, at 4:00 p.m. on December 27, the St. Mary's lurched across the Pass Cavallo sand bar, which lurked some 7-to-10 feet beneath the surface of the narrow channel, and fought its way into Matagorda Bay.
First Lieutenant Pinckney Cone temporarily commanded the battery while Pat White remained in New Orleans. Chagrined at the bleakness of their new surroundings, the Battery Boys envied their captain's extended stay in the Crescent City. The abundant grass and leaves of the lush Teche country had been replaced by vistas of desolate sand. For most of the Mercantile Battery members, their only previous exposure to a sandy shore had been walking along the narrow strand surrounding Lake Michigan-or in Will Brown's case, a larger beach stretching along the base of the St. Joseph bluff.
In his diary, the usually upbeat Cone summed up the battery's initial response to the Matagorda Peninsula: "Good heavens! What a desolate cheerless sight met my eye. Nothing but a wild waste of sand & sand hills. Not a tree shrub or any green thing. It was the first time I regretted being a Soldier." The lack of trees and meager supply of coastal drift- wood hindered the building of shelters and campfires. Keeping those campfires burning also proved to be a difficult task. The soldiers had to drop the few waterlogged chunks of wood they scavenged into sand holes so the wind would not blow out the sputtering flames. On January 5, as Pitts noted in his diary, some squads in the Mercantile Battery ran out of hardtack and had nothing to eat for two days. Pitts stayed in bed as much as possible to avoid the fate of a picket from the 23rd Wisconsin, who froze to death on duty. The Battery Boys' friends in the 77th Illinois were faring no better. After the war, one of the infantrymen recollected, "At night the cold northwesters would howl across the sandy waste, and it was no uncommon thing to see the whole encampment lying prostrate on the sand."
The men in the Mercantile Battery were not the only ones appalled by their situation. Their corps commander, Major General Cadwallader Washburn, vociferously complained to Banks and his staff, telling them his men did not have an adequate supply of food at Matagorda Bay. "We are without a thing to eat except salt meat," wrote Washburn, whose command also suffered from a shortage of subsistence for its horses and mules. In New Orleans, the ineptitude of some of Banks' subordinates only exacerbated the problems at Matagorda Bay. One large steamer, the Continental, arrived carrying only a small number of troops. Washburn noted it "could also have brought from 700 to 1,000 tons of forage and commissary stores." Many of the supply vessels were too heavy to enter Pass Cavallo, and their cargo had to be transferred onto smaller craft. Once inside Matagorda Bay, Washburn reported, the "vessels cannot get near the shore." To address the landing problem, Washburn converted the broken-down steamer Warrior into a makeshift wharf. Despite this ingenuity, food and other supplies only trickled in, further damaging morale.
For two months, the young men in the Mercantile Battery adapted, as best they could, to living in a region where there was insufficient drinking water and, in the words of one soldier, "Nothing but wind and sand like an Arabian desert." They found scant produce available for purchase at nearby farms. The Federals resorted to confiscating sutler stores, but this desperate act could not compensate for their deplorable lack of food. After New Year's Eve-celebrated with raw pork, hardtack, and stale cheese-the battery's food situation improved somewhat when the hungry artillerists "charged" a flock of sheep near camp. Having gorged himself on mutton, Will Brown commented, "I am almost ashamed to look a sheep in the face." The cannoneers had a secret weapon in "capturing" sheep-their shepherd dog, Doggie Doggett. While encamped on Matagorda Peninsula, they proudly showcased the canine during a grand review. The fun-loving Chicagoans draped a blanket, secured with a red, white, and blue belt, on their mascot and had him walk at the head of a 13th Corps column.
In mid-February, the supply of fresh meat disappeared when the battery's remaining sheep died during a merciless storm that swept across the unprotected peninsula. To alleviate their food shortage, some of the Battery Boys resorted to fishing, or took a wagon 18 miles up the coast to plunder oyster beds. Others searched for shore birds. One of the hunters shot a pelican and gave part of the wings to Will and his friends, who carved "a goodly number of pelican quill tooth-picks." Will also amused himself with a different kind of hunting-he scoured the seashore looking for "curiosities" such as sea horses, coral, and toadfish.
The blueclad soldiers took advantage of the milder weather in mid-January to "play ball." During the Civil War, "base ball" became popular among some soldiers who faced extended periods of time in camp. (When the war's survivors returned home, they continued to play and formed local teams.) Florison Pitts penned multiple diary entries about playing in Texas. So did Cone, who scribbled that after drilling one Saturday his men "Clos[ed] up with a good grand game of base ball." The restless Mercantile Battery soldiers found other ways to keep busy. They attended revival meetings; played euchre and whist; read Shakespeare and Charles Dickens' David Copperfield; had a "stag dance;" and started a Mercantile Battery "Sons of Mars" club.