As the days of April, 1862, slowly lengthened, the farmers of north Louisiana had more on their minds than just getting seed planted.
In February, Forts Henry and Donelson had surrendered, Bowling Green, Ky., bad been evacuated and Nashville occupied. Following a three-day battle at Elkhorn Tavern, the Confederates had been forced to withdraw in early March. The first week of April brought more disastrous news with the fall of Island No. 10 and the defeat of the Southern forces at a church named Shiloh. To the south, Union warships were advancing up the Mississippi River and preparing to attack New Orleans. The war was getting closer to home.
Independent of each other, community leaders and prominent businessmen in the north Louisiana parishes of Bienville, Bossier, Claiborne, Jackson and Winn began to hold rallies, meetings and get-togethers to recruit volunteers to defend their homes, their state and the South.
Crisscrossing Claiborne Parish, Marcus 0. Cheatham held rallies in Athens, Haynesville, Homer, Lisbon and Summerfield to recruit members for a company of infantry to be known as the Claiborne Invincibles. At the rally in Lisbon on April 13, 31-year-old Joseph Benjamin Hammonds joined Cheatham's company and left a pregnant wife and three small children at home.
On May 10, the newly formed company departed from Homer, having been ordered to report to Monroe where the men were mustered into Confederate service as Company D, with Cheatham as captain. The Marks Guards from Bossier Parish were mustered in as Company B on the 14th and other companies were added upon their arrival. When 10 companies were assembled, they were organized into the 28th Louisiana Infantry, with Henry Gray as colonel, William Walker as lieutenant colonel and Thomas Pool as major. The regiment numbered 902 men.
Given the rural nature of North Louisiana, it is not surprising that almost 95 percent of the men of the 28th named their occupation as farmer. Fifteen other occupations were listed, ranging from physician, to teacher, to merchant, to daguerrotypist. The average age of the men in the regiment at the time of their enlistment was 26, with 15 percent being less than age 20 and five percent older than age 35.
Following the unit's organization in Monroe, it was ordered to a training camp approximately five miles north of Vienna where it would spend the -next two months. Accustomed as most of the men were to a life outdoors, drilling and marching under a hot Louisiana summer sun toughened them for the harsh rigors of military campaigning which lay ahead.
After completing training, the regiment was detailed to the Monroe Department and posted to guard the vital Vicksburg to Monroe railroad. While assigned this duty, between 25 percent and 33 percent of the men suffered from camp diseases, such as measles and dysentery. Pvt. W.H. King, of Company B, wrote in his journal for November 5, 1862, "Lt. Marks said in a fit of anger during drill, 'It is a perfect shame to have 75 men here, and never more than 25 or 30 fit for duty.'"
When the 28th was assigned to Gen. Richard Taylor's command and ordered to the Bayou Teche region, Col. Gray was insistent that each company contain at least 50 men, even if they bad. to be carried in wagons. King noted, however, that one company bad only 14 effectives at this time.
Upon arrival in the Bayou Teche region, the men of the 28th were assigned to Gen. Alfred Mouton's brigade at Camp Bisland, a small fort on the Teche just north of Brashear City. Here the men would remain encamped until the Battle of Bisland on April 13, 1863.
The Battle of Bisland was not the baptism of fire for the men of the 28th. On March 28, 1863, the 239-ton federal gunboat Diana was on a reconnaissance mission in the upper Grand Lake area when the gunboat's commander disobeyed orders and ventured up the Atchafalaya River. Exploiting the blunder of the ship's captain, men of the 28th, along with other units, attacked the ship. After a fierce, three-hour engagement in which 30 of the ship's 150-men company were either killed or seriously wounded, the commander of the Diana surrendered the vessel.
Following the capture of the Diana, Union Gen. Nathaniel Banks decided to clear the Teche region of Rebels. The plan was that Banks' 12,000 men would land at Berwick and move up the Teche while Gen. Cuvier Grover's 4,000 troops moved south from Franklin, trapping the Confederates at Bisland.
Even though the Confederate force only numbered approximately 5,000 men, Taylor split his army and sent some north to oppose Grover's troops, while keeping the majority at Camp Bisland.
On April 12, the Union troops under Banks began a bombardment which continued through the night and into the next day. Believing the Confederates to have been sufficiently bombarded, Banks ordered the attack on both sides of the Teche. The 28th Louisiana held the center of the Confederates' line on the west bank between a portion of Waller's Battalion and, the Semmes and Valverde batteries of artillery. Many of the members of Company K manned the captured gunboat Diana and provided artillery support during the federal attacks. Twice the blue-clad soldiers of the 75th New York and the 114th New York attacked the west bank positions, and twice they were beaten back.
As night fell, the Union generals were preparing an all-out assault on the Confederate line, but because of darkness the attack was postponed until the following morning.
Word reached Taylor that Grover's men bad successfully landed above Franklin, and the Rebels were forced to evacuate Camp Bisland in the middle of the night for fear of becoming trapped in a pincher movement. When Banks' men attacked Camp Bisland the morning of the 14th, they found it deserted.
During the night Taylor's forces linked up at Irish Bend and prepared to meet Grover's army at daybreak. By the time the 28th arrived after a forced march from Camp Bisland, a brisk firefight was in progress and the exhausted men were posted on the extreme left of the line bordering a swamp. The men of the 28th used "buck and ball" ammunition and inflicted severe casualities among the 159th New York, which lost 115 men out of a total of 375 in the battle.
As Grover's army recoiled from Taylor's pounding, the Rebels were able to escape northward, with Banks in pursuit. Because of a mix-up in orders, the crew of the Diana was left behind to face capture while the rest of the Confederate force escaped. Those known to have been aboard the Diana during this action were Capt. O.J. Semmes, Pilot George Price, Sgt. Cyrus Berry, and Pvts. John Baker, Henry Campbell, William Cockburn, Thomas Farrell, Edward. Ferguson, Robert Goins, James McCarthy, James McDermot, Thomas Meyers and John Sprigg.
Taylor had provided sufficient ambulances for the sick and wounded to be transported to safety, but Gen. Henry H. Sibley ordered the men placed aboard the hospital ship, Cornie, and, an attempt was made to pass through the federal lines under a hospital flag. The plan did not succeed and all aboard were captured.
Among the members of the 28th captured aboard the hospital ship were Cpl. George W. Massey, Pvts. Edward S. Dolton, Michel T. Bryant, Elisha H. Carter, Richard M. Cook, R.S. Crawford, Robert Crayson, A.B. Davis, F.L. Farnell, Joseph Benjamin Hammonds, Asbury W. Milner, Jasper W. Milner, Pierce B. Monk, James A. Murphy, Algerine G. McCan, William T. McElroy and Frank Ponir, all of whom would be exchanged May 11, 1863, on Prophet's Island in the Mississippi River below Port Hudson.
In Taylor's official report of the fighting at Camp Bisland and at Irish Bend, be said of the 28th:
"Col. Gray and his regiment ... deserve most favorable mention. Their gallantry in action is enhanced by the excellent discipline which they have preserved, and no veteran soldiers could have excelled them in their conduct during the trying scenes through which they passed ...."
On July 9, 1863, Sgt. B.W. Stone of Company E wrote from Labadieville:
"The health of the regiment is tolerable good at this time and we are faring tolerable well now, but I don't know bow long it will last for we are running short of money. We haven't never drawn but twice since we have been in the service but I think that we will draw before long."
The 28th was ordered to New Iberia at the end of August and remained in south Louisiana for several months, crisscrossing the area on frequent marches until a shipment of much needed arms was due to be transported across the Mississippi River.
In December, the 28th was ordered to Monroe to protect the shipment, but the winter weather proved as formidable a foe as did the Yankees. A member of Gray's staff, Felix Poche, described a terrible storm that lashed the men on the march:
... those poor soldiers were drenched to the skin, shivering with cold, starving and dog tired after a march of 15 miles, having nothing with which to cover themselves, and spent a miserable night near to the fire, as best they could.
New Year's Eve did not prove to be any better for the men of the 28th, for Poche wrote:
... the weather was extreme, in the morning it rained and later it snowed, and the ground froze. One can well understand the misery and suffering of our poor soldiers without tents, and practically no fire due to the poor quality of the firewood.
In late January, 1864, the 28th was ordered to return to Pineville where they remained until Banks began his Red River Campaign in mid-March. After the fall of Fort DeRussey, Taylor was forced to evacuate Alexandria and retreat towards Natchitoches. Grudgingly giving ground to Banks' army, Taylor's forces skirmished with the enemy to slow their advance as much as possible.
Every person has his or her limit, and on April 8, 1864, Taylor would retreat no farther. Three miles south of Mansfield at Sabine Crossroads, Taylor made his stand.
Mouton's division, which included the 18th Louisiana, the 28th Louisiana and the Consolidated Crescent Regiment, formed a line of battle on a ridge on the east side of the Moss Plantation. Before them was a field with a new growth of wheat, wet with the rain from a spring shower, across which they must charge to reach the enemy troops who hid behind a rail fence one-half mile away.
"By the right of companies, to the front, forward march," the order came, and the men moved forward down the slope, through the new wheat, toward the stream that bordered the field and the woods beyond.
"By companies, into line," the command echoed up and down the formation.
"The air seemed alive with the sounds of various proj ectiles," a survivor of the battle wrote afterwards, "from the spiteful, cat-like spit of the buckshot, the 'pouf' of the old fashioned musket and the 'zing' of the Minie bullet .... "
Mixed with the sounds of the enemy's projectiles was another, more insistent sound. It was the soft "thdt" as a half-ounce of lead impacted with warm and yielding human flesh. The recipient of the enemy's offering crumpled to the ground as his comrades closed ranks and continued forward.
Having reached the ravine formed by the shallow stream, the men were told to lie down and. catch their breaths, but in what seemed only an instant, new orders were issued.
"Fix bayonets," and the men obeyed.
"Double quick, march," shouted the officers, and the lines of men, almost shoulder to shoulder, surged forward at a brisk trot, up the next bill toward the waiting enemy.
The 77th Illinois and the 130th Illinois huddled in the right angle where the rail fence turned south, while to their right waited the 48th Ohio and the 19th Kentucky who were soon to bear the brunt of the first attack of the Confederates.
Running and fighting their way through the undergrowth and the brambles, the charging men of Mouton's division burst from the woodline and were met by canister and grape from Nims' battery on Honeycutt Hill.
"Masses of Rebels, no less than four lines in depth, emerged from the woods and charged with impetuous force, while yelling like crazed demons," an artilleryman wrote after the war. "Our guns were filled to the muzzles with grape, canister and bags of of bullets, making wide gaps in the Rebel ranks at every discharge...."
"Our troops advance pale with excitement, compressed lips and blazing eyes (showing) the spirit of their determination," an old Confederate wrote in his memoirs. "Casting your eyes along the column, you behold the flags of the various regiments floating on the breeze, and each regiment trying to be the first to scale the fence."
"Nearer our troops advance," he continued. ''The color-sergeants flaunt their flags at the enemy, and fall; others grasp them and fall, and they are borne by the corporals."
The Louisianans charged with bayonets fixed and held waist-high ready to impale any so foolish as to stand and fight. Rushing forward as fast as their legs could carry them, not even pausing to fire their weapons, the men came on, as unstoppable as the winds that precede a sudden summer thunderstorm.
A wall of red-orange flame and grayish-white smoke erupted from beneath the rail fence where the enemy bid. Men stumbled and fell, screaming in agony and clutching at horrendous wounds which for the lucky would only require amputation, but for the unlucky would prove fatal. Other men pitched headlong to the leaf-littered forest floor without a sound, never to rise again.
The line wavered, but did not falter, for with a deafening yell bespeaking their anger and determination, the attackers leapt the fence and routed their foes, capturing many and killing others in a fierce hand-to-hand struggle to the death.
Onward the gray tidal wave surged, up the east flank of Honeycutt Hill, washing over Nims' battery of 6-pound Napoleon cannons as if they were pebbles on the shore.
Falling back, the enemy formed. a second line of defense which soon disintegrated under the weight of the Confederate attack. It was at this point that the gallant Mouton would fall, dead before he hit the ground, and Gen. Camille de Polignac assumed command of the division.
Of the 2,200 men who began the charge in Gray's brigade,
762 fell in the first 25 minutes of the battle. As one historian noted, this was a casualty rate equalled by the "Charge of the Brigade" in 1854.
The shattered enemy fell back upon reinforcements rushing to their rescue in such confusion and panic that Banks' entire army fled in a rout. A Northern participant of this action wrote:
The teams were abandoned by the drivers, the traces cut, and the animals ridden off by the frightened men. Bare headed riders rode with agony in their faces, and ... it seemed as if we were going to destruction together.
As darkness fell, musketry sputtered to a halt, but the Yankee retreat continued until they reached Pleasant Hill, 18 miles away, where they regrouped and awaited the Rebels.
At first light, Taylor's army began to move and engaged the enemy at Pleasant Hill, but the 28th, along with the 18th and Consolidated Crescent Regiments, were held in reserve due to their staggering losses the previous day until late afternoon and did not suffer many casualties in this engagement.
As Banks' army withdrew southward with Taylor's forces in constant contact, Polignac's division, which included the 28th Louisiana, was pulled back and encamped near Mansfield for a much needed rest.
On April 12, Polignac formed his troops in an open field to praise them for their gallantry and to remember their comrades who bad fallen in the recent battles:
Many ... gallant officers and soldiers of all ranks have been strewn on the battlefield, whose names would fill a long list of woe .... We mourn for the fallen brave, and for the wounded who can no longer assist us in the defense of the country .... The memory of the dead will be cherished by us and our children, they will wear in heaven the crown which is due to their devotion to our most sacred and holy cause.
That night, Capt. Cheatham, of Company D, wrote to Sallie Hammonds:
It becomes my painful duty to write you that Mr. Joseph Hammonds rec(eive)d a wound in the left leg below the knee which broke the leg so badly that it was necessary to cut it off below the knee. .... He was wounded while in the front rank of the Company, among the foremost in the Charge, fighting Gallantly and bravely, doing his duty Nobly.
The regiment soon rejoined Taylor's army in the pursuit of Banks and, on May 16, the enemy was engaged in an artillery duel at Mansura, but the infantry did not participate as Banks' only thought was to flee and Taylor's force was too small to stop the enemy.
The 28th Louisianans last battle was on May 18, at Yellow Bayou where Taylor made one last attempt to destroy Banks' army before it could escape across the Atchafalaya River. Charging the enemy in dense woods, the 28th was repulsed by concentrated cannon fire. Polignac regrouped the men, and the 28th again attacked, this time reaching the enemy's lines where savage hand-to-hand fighting ensued, but the North Louisianans could not bold on and were beaten back. The discharges from muskets and cannon were so intense that the underbrush was set on fire and smoke and flames prevented another attack. Taylor bad to withdraw and Banks escaped back across the Atchafalaya, where he could not be pursued.
The 28th remained assigned to Polignac's division and was encamped with it near Alexandria when orders were received to march north to Monroe and then to Monticello, Ark., to defend the area against an anticipated enemy attack from the direction of Pine Bluff. Arriving in Monticello on September 20, the division was reviewed by Gen. John B. Magruder, Commander of the District of Arkansas, on the 26th. The attack never materialized, and the 28th remained encamped until October 2, when they were ordered to Camden to work on the southwest portion of the fortifications guarding the city.
After completing the work in Camden, Polignac's division, including the 28th, was ordered by Gen. Kirby Smith, Commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department, to march to Camp Magruder, near Minden, La., where they would make their winter camp.
A private in Walker's Texas Division, which was assigned to
Camp Magruder at the same time as Polignac's division, wrote:
Camp Magruder was situated on the right of the military road leading from Shreveport to Camden, in the midst of a pine ridge. On the southwest was a deserted field .... Our quarters were substantial log cabins, constructed of pine logs. Each cabin was fourteen by sixteen feet. The privates quarters were in two parallel rows, facing each other, while the officers' ran perpendicular to them, forming nearly a square at one end. The men were not too much crowded, and slept in berths placed one above the other, similar to those in a state-room of a river steamer.
On January 8, 1865, a "sham" battle was held to maintain the men's combat readiness, and on the 17th, the troops were reviewed by Gen. Kirby Smith and Gen. Simon Buckner, Commander of the District of Louisiana.
With the arrival of better weather, the regiment moved to an encampment on Bayou Cotile, near Alexandria. Here they would learn of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, and the men knew that the end of the war was near.
In May, the 28th marched to Mansfield, the scene of its greatest victory, and there encamped with the 17th, 18th, 26th, 27th, 29th, 31st and Consolidated Crescent Regiments awaiting the surrender of the Trans-Mississippi Department. On May 19, the units were gathered together in formation, a solemn funeral dirge was played by a regimental band as the Confederate flag was lowered and the units disbanded.
Grown men wept, while others moved silently away to return to their homes and families they left so long before. The arduous road to recovery and reconstruction stretched ahead of these veterans, some of whom would report to parole centers to sign their parole papers, but others we're unreconstructed and never did sign an oath of allegiance to the victors.