After feasting on roast goose and sipping hot coffee priced at 70 cents per pound, a soldier from Co. A, 14th Maine Infantry, contently watched Ol’ Man River roll past on Christmas Day 1862.
“To-day [Thursday], as you see, is Christmas. I wish you all a merry one,” the soldier wrote from Bonnet Carre, La., in a letter published by the Bangor Daily Whig and Courier three weeks later. While the writer was not identified, evidence suggests the author was a Co. A. sergeant: either Charles Stevens of Castine or Joseph Wood of Bangor.
They had mustered with the 14th Maine a year earlier before shipping to Louisiana, where the regiment fought heroically at Baton Rouge in August 1862. Subsequently stationed at Carrollton near New Orleans, six 14th Maine companies boarded the steamboats Algerine and Sally Robinson on Saturday, Dec. 13 and sailed upriver to disembark later that day on the Mississippi River’s east bank.
“This place is called Bonnet Carre Bend. The words … are French, and mean a ‘Square Cap.’ How it came to have this name, I know not,” the soldier mused while “writing this [letter] in a Frenchman’s house.” Owned by slaveholder Romain Bussiel, the framed building had “walls … filled in with mud.”
Bonnet Carre Bend lay upriver from New Orleans in “the Parish of St. John the Baptist … about 12 miles from Lake Pontchartrain, and but a little way from Pass Manchac, where there is a rebel force of some 800 or 1,000” men, the soldier reported. At Bonne Carre the Maine boys protected an Indiana artillery battery and kept an eye “on the point opposite,” where “there used to be quite a resort for [Confederate] guerrillas, but they are rather scarce now.”
On this warm afternoon, the soldier talked about a world incomprehensible to many mid-19th century Mainers. “The weather this month has been beautiful — this is a most splendid day,” he informed the folks already dealing with ice and snow back home. “Pecan nuts and oranges are very plenty here. They call the former Peckorn nuts.”
The Mississippi dominated life at Bonne Carre. The Maine boys had “camped close to the river bank, between the levee and the river, so at very high water we shall be afloat,” the soldier joked. “The river is now rising, and much drift stuff is floating down.
“The river is wide at this point, and I always like to look at it, as it reminds me of home.”
Today, Interstate 310 vaults the Mississippi River perhaps five miles downriver from Bonnet Carre, and I-10 runs only a few miles to the north. In the early 1860s, however, bayous and swamps limited overland travel, so Union troops relied on steamboats and the river for swift transportation.
Upon receiving orders to leave Carrollton on Dec. 13, the 14th Maine boys had heard “that we were to march some 80 miles, and that no heavy baggage was to be taken,” the soldier recalled. By boarding the two steamboats, however, “the regiment never took more baggage and trash than at this move.”
Deposited at Bonne Carre, the Maine boys felt they were “what might be called [left] out of the world” by Christmas Day, he commented. “Were it not for seeing boats passing in the river,” life “would be dull indeed.”
“Tuesday, the 16th, in the morning, a man-of-war and gunboat passed up by,” the soldier recalled. “In the afternoon I heard great cheering along the river, went out and saw seven or eight large ocean steamers passing by, loaded with troops.
“Our regiment turned out, sick and well, on the river bank and cheered them. Our flag was brought out and spread, and they replied to our cheers,” he detailed the event. “It was a fine day, with a fresh breeze.
“Since then, steamers have been passing up each day, laden with troops,” the soldier reported. “We hear that what troops have gone up have landed at Baton Rouge … we hope and expect to be ordered up[river] soon.”
Besides the 14th Maine boys, other people celebrated this particular Christmas with passion at Bonne Carre.
“Contrabands [escaped slaves] are coming in continually, so that we now have quite a large colony,” the soldier said, describing a fledgling refugee camp similar to those appearing wherever slaves reached Union lines, from Corinth in Mississippi to Roanoke Island in North Carolina.
“Many of them are very intelligent, and are waiting with anxious suspense for the [emancipation] proclamation of the President [Abraham Lincoln], declaring them free, [on] Jan. 1, 1863,” he said.
“When we first arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi, nearly all the officers of our regiment, and many of the privates likewise, were pro-slavery,” the soldier admitted.
But “now I do not know of a single individual in this or any other regiment, who would lift a finger to save the ‘peculiar institution,’” he reported, using a popular euphemism for slavery. “General [Ben] Butler says with emphasis, in the words of another, that ‘Slavery is the sum of all villainies,’ and Gov. [George F.] Shepley is now convinced that ‘Slavery is a bitter draught.’
“The sooner we get rid of it, the better for the country,” the soldier said.
So this unidentified soldier from Maine understood why, at Bonne Carre in Louisiana on Christmas 1862, the former slaves “are making quite a day of it in view of their expected emancipation.”
And so did Gov. (and general) Shepley, a Saco native who had led the 12th Maine Infantry to war just a month before Charles Barnard and the 14th Maine Infantry had left home. In mid-July 1862, the Republican Lincoln had appointed the Democrat Shepley as military governor of Union-occupied Louisiana.
He would agree with the 14th Mainer soldier’s assessment that “the slaves throughout the whole South are well posted up in regard to their anticipated freedom.”
Brian Swartz may be reached at email@example.com or visit his blog at http://maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.