Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Review - "A Yankee Regiment in Confederate Louisiana: The 31st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Gulf South" by Larry Lowenthal

[A Yankee Regiment in Confederate Louisiana: The 31st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Gulf South by Larry Lowenthal (Louisiana State University Press, 2019) Cloth, 3 maps, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xv,283/353. ISBN:978-0-8071-7190-5. $48]

While the more casual Civil War reader is unlikely to associate Massachusetts regiments with military campaigns fought in Louisiana, the truth is that a large number of New Englanders spent the majority of their volunteer service in the Department of the Gulf under the overall command of political generals Benjamin Butler and Nathaniel Banks. The Gulf Department's longest-serving New England unit was the 31st Massachusetts, which has now finally received a modern, full-length regimental history. Larry Lowenthal's A Yankee Regiment in Confederate Louisiana: The 31st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Gulf South chronicles the unit's entire military service from its late-1861 organization to its October 1865 mustering out.

The ranks of the 31st Massachusetts were filled with men recruited from western counties, and it would become appropriately known as the "Western Bay State Regiment." Civil War readers very quickly become accustomed to the fact that Civil War volunteer regiments were political animals through and through, but Lowenthal shows that political pressures on the budding 31st were a bit more extreme than most. In addition to highlighting the regional prejudice and rivalry that emerged between the western 31st and their eastern Massachusetts counterparts, the author documents the regiment's early history in the context of a patronage battle fought between the War Democrat Butler and abolitionist Republican governor John Andrew. Though conflict over leadership appointments would linger, a proficient officer, Colonel Oliver Gooding, was placed in command. As will be noted below, the other field grade officers would prove less capable.

Having taken part in Butler's highly successful 1862 New Orleans expedition, the 31st spent much of its early active service as garrison troops in and around the Crescent City (including Fort Jackson). During this time the regiment rarely served together as a whole. Though the author attributes this to negative political interference, it was perhaps more likely a function of the kind of duty they were performing. To fulfill the need to occupy posts both large and small, it was common practice during the Civil War to split up garrison regiments for extended periods of time.

As described in the book, the regiment's first experience of major combat was at the Battle of Fort Bisland during General Banks's 1863 Bayou Teche Campaign. Both there and during the ensuing Port Hudson campaign and siege, the unit was not at the forefront of the fighting and escaped heavy casualties. After the fall of Port Hudson in July, the regiment returned to more mundane garrison activities at Baton Rouge.

In December, citing persistent weakness in the department's cavalry arm, the 31st was ordered mounted. Assigned to Dudley's Brigade of Albert Lee's hastily assembled command, the regiment's first campaign in their new role was up the Red River in early 1864. Like much of Banks's vanguard, the regiment was swept away during the April 8 rout at Mansfield. Though the 31st fought in the front rank under impossible conditions, the author blames much of its panicked disintegration on the poor showing of the field grade officers. With Col. Gooding temporarily reassigned elsewhere to a brigade command, the regiment's lieutenant colonel was in charge during the campaign. Unfortunately, he was found intoxicated on the side of the road during the approach march, and the major, also an alleged drunkard, fled the Mansfield battlefield after the first shots were fired. Though reassigned to army's rear during the Battle of Pleasant Hill, the unit was thereafter in constant action from Alexandria through the end of the campaign. It played an important role during the daylong skirmish fought between Mansura (May 16) and Yellow Bayou (May 18) and was heavily engaged at the latter battle. This part of the book nicely fills in some details of lesser-known events from the 1864 Red River Campaign.

Though the sacking of Lee highlighted the scapegoating of the cavalry, the Red River disaster did not especially harm the 31st's reputation. Returning to the Gulf after a month-long furlough home, the men exchanged their cavalry carbines for infantry rifles and were expected to operate thereafter in the capacity of mounted infantry. When their three-year enlistments expired at the end of 1864, the remaining men were consolidated into a five-company battalion. Though the current generation of Civil War guerrilla warfare scholars might justifiably cringe at Lowenthal's general characterization of guerrillas as "byproducts of social disintegration" who were "(d)rawn from the lowest strata of society,...coarse, uneducated, violent, and unprincipled" (pg. 250), the author's account of the 31st's new career as guerrilla hunters is otherwise a very fine contribution to the historiography of the topic. Though the irregular war in the LaFourche District of SW Louisiana has already been well documented in the literature, the book's coverage of the 31st's late-war operations there and also on the other side of the Mississippi over a period of several months is both interesting and freshly informative. Later, the battalion would be shipped to Pensacola for the final push on Mobile, and the Massachusetts mounted infantry would end the war in the Department of Alabama.

Even though the veterans of the regiment compiled a large mass of letters, diaries, and other firsthand accounts for a planned regimental history, it was never written or published. Languishing for many decades in an uncatalogued archive in Springfield, the collection proved to be an unexpected research bonanza for Lowenthal, who skillfully integrated those invaluable primary source materials into this study. Supplements to Lowenthal's narrative history are scarce, with only a few maps included in the book and no collection of photographs of people or places related to the regiment and its wartime service. There's also no roster attached to the unit history, an omission that may or may not disappoint the reader.

Lowenthal is persuasive in observing that the Civil War career of the 31st Massachusetts was most remarkable not for its battle record but for its atypically broad range of formal military functions performed in the field, which included both front line and rear area infantry, mounted infantry, and cavalry operations as well as dedicated guerrilla hunting. A fine record of this largely obscure history, A Yankee Regiment in Confederate Louisiana finally accords the men of the 31st appropriate recognition for their service. Along with being regarded as a unique contribution to the unit historiography, the book should greatly appeal to Civil War students of the Lower Mississippi home and fighting fronts. Recommended.


  1. Having read in your review of another case of intoxicated officers I guess if there is a study of the impact of drunkness in the war?

    1. I've never looked for one specifically, but I don't recall ever coming across a serious, book-length study of the topic. I agree with you that it would be a worthwhile project.


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