Lagrange Severance showed promise as a fledgling travel agent … despite the faded blue uniform that he donned daily.
When Col. George Shepley led the 12th Maine Infantry to war in November 1861, the delightfully named Lagrange marched along as a private in Co. H. Described by a Bangor newspaper as “a very intelligent young man,” Severance toured the Deep South via pestilential Ship Island in Mississippi, New Orleans, and other places familiar and foreign up and down the Mississippi River.
In time he rose in rank to sergeant and later to second lieutenant.
When Union Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks launched an expedition against Confederate-held Port Hudson in spring 1863, the talented Severance crisscrossed south Louisiana with the 12th Maine — and he described his travels in a letter written from Opelousas on Saturday, April 25.
In a campaign coordinated with Admiral David Farragut and his naval squadron, Banks and components of his 19th Corps departed Baton Rouge on Friday, March 13. Union troops marched north toward Port Hudson, which lay 25 miles upriver; there, in stout fortifications dug atop the town’s high bluffs, Confederate cannons dominated traffic on the river.
Plans called for Banks’ men to attack Port Hudson’s landward defenses while Farragut’s warships steamed beneath the bluffs and passed safely beyond the river defenses. The joint attack would begin about dawn on Sunday, March 15.
Based on a message sent from Banks on Saturday, Farragut launched the naval assault that night. Darkness, gun smoke, accurate Confederate artillery fire, and missed signals saw only two warships — Farragut’s flagship, the USS Hartford, and the USS Albatross — steam past the Port Hudson defenses. Most ships suffered damage; the USS Mississippi grounded on an uncharted sand bar, and Capt. Melancton Smith finally ordered his men to abandon their ship after setting it ablaze. The Mississippi’s 24 tons of gunpowder provided a brilliant explosion later that night.
Withdrawing his men to Baton Rouge, Banks filed reports and looked around for other opportunities for military glory. He decided to deal with the perceived threat presented by Confederate Maj. Gen. Richard Taylor and his troops in the bayous and swamps west of New Orleans.
Severance apparently never believed that Banks had intended a serious assault on Port Hudson. “The whole expedition has been conducted well,” with “the enemy … [being] totally ignorant of our intentions one week before the blow was struck,” he described what he viewed as Banks’ sleight of hand.
“When I started for Port Hudson, something over five weeks ago today, I expected that we were going to do something there … but there was a possibility of failure and that possibility prevented the attack,” he wrote.
But Severance finally figured that “now it appears that it was never intended to attack the place, but only to call off their (Confederate) attention while the navy passed by” the cliff-mounted cannons at Port Hudson. He likely questioned the ineffectual infantry probes against the Port Hudson defenses;
“As a large part of the [Confederate] troops west of the Mississippi had been called to the defence of the Mississippi, that part of the Confederacy was rather unprotected,” Severance explained.
After the Navy’s failure to sail an entire squadron pass Port Hudson, “we went back to Baton Rouge,” he continued his travelogue.
“What the next move was to be no one seemed to know,” he pondered.
Suddenly “regiments and sometimes brigades would disappear in the night, and when it came our turn to go we started one night at six o’clock and found ourselves next morning at Donaldsonville,” on the west bank of the Mississippi “about fifty miles below (downriver from) Baton Rouge,” Sgt. Lagrange Severance wrote from Opelousas.
Here the 12th Maine caught up with “the truant brigades” and the division commanded by Brig. Gen. Cuvier Grover. Then “three days’ long march brought us to Thibedauville (Thibodaux), about forty miles from the Mississippi, on Bayou LaFouche,” Severance reported.
Cuvier’s men entrained on the New Orleans & Opelousas (sic) Railroad for an 18-mile journey “to Bayou Roueff, where we remained two or three days,” he described the journey.
Turning west into southern Louisiana, Banks sought to trap Taylor’s army with a two-pronged attack. Boarding steamboats at Brashear City (now called Morgan City) on Thursday, April 9, two Union divisions crossed Berwick Bay and landed at Berwick. From there Banks slowly advanced on Franklin while Cuvier’s division sailed up the Atchafalaya River to land beyond Franklin.
If the two expeditions moved quickly, Union forces could trap and destroy Taylor’s army.
During the morning on Saturday, April 11, the men from the 12th Maine and 41st Massachusetts Infantry boarded the transport Arizona. Along with other troop-laden streamers, “we started up the [Berwick] Bay, and from that into Lake Chestimacha, up which Lake we went about thirty miles,” Severance recalled.
He explained to his letter’s recipients that “Franklin, where the headquarters and principal part of Confederate troops were stationed,” lay “on Bayou Teche, about 25 miles [from] where it empties into Berwick’s Bay.
Banks intended that the two Union divisions put ashore at Berwick would keep the Confederates busy “while we were to go around and take them in the rear,” Severance wrote.
Unfortunately “the Arizona … grounded in passing the lake,” and the Maine and Massachusetts boys could only watch from the steamer’s rails as “the remainder of the fleet went on without her,” he commented. But “after considerable effort the vessel was got off Monday morning.”
The Arizona caught up with the other steamers that afternoon; by then “all the troops had been disembarked and gone off,” Severance wrote. The 12th Maine and 41st Massachusetts went ashore “and that night laid on our arms on the west side of the Teche.”
Banks believed Taylor to be trapped between Grover’s division and the Union divisions that had attacked Confederate-held Fort Bisland downriver from Franklin on Monday. Refusing to sacrifice his men, Taylor abandoned the fort that night and withdrew to Franklin.
With Grover blocking Taylor’s expected escape route, “it seemed we had them between the two [Union] armies,” Severance believed, “but it proved they found a way of crawling out.”
He described to his readers how “the bayou makes quite a turn (known as Irish Bend) towards the east at the place where we were, and a road runs across from one town to the other.” Federal troops failed to cut that road, across which “during the night, the enemy employed himself … in moving his baggage, and by [Tuesday] morning it was nearly all across.”
According to Severance, Grover ordered an advance that “had not gone far before [meeting] the enemy in the edge of a thick wood” called Nerson’s Woods. “Regiments and batteries were brought into line of battle as soon as they came up and attacked the enemy.
“The fight was short but severe,” Severance described the Battle of Irish Bend. “The enemy was in a concealed position and [had] an excellent chance to rake us, but our men fought so desperately and advanced so rapidly that what they did they had to do quick.
“Before our regiment came up the woods were cleared, so we bore off none of the honors or enemies’ bullets except what we picked upon the battle field,” he wrote.
Enduring extensive shelling from a Confederate gunboat, Severance and his comrades resumed their Louisiana tour. They soon reached New Iberia after marching 16 miles; with “the rebel salt mines” not far away, Grover detached the 12th Maine and 41st Massachusetts to destroy them. The New Englanders headed out at 7 p.m. “and marched 11 miles [to the southwest] over the worst road I have seen for some time,” Severance wrote.
“But we were paid for our trouble on our arrival at the salt works next morning. It is the most splendid place I have seen in the whole South,” he wrote in a descriptive style worthy of a 21st-century travel agent.
“These salt works are situated on an Island, and on the north part of the land their (sic) is an elevation of about two hundred feet, affording one of the most splendid views I ever gazed upon,” Severance praised the scenery.
The Maine and Massachusetts boys destroyed the salt mines, then “started for New Iberia, where we arrived that night somewhat tired,” he wrote. From there the two regiments kept marching until the footsore soldiers reached Opelousas
And there the aspiring travel agent Lagrange Severance described in geographical detail how the Union forces had isolated Port Hudson and created alternate river routes along which “vessels can pass” without venturing beneath Confederate cannons.
“We have completely cut the Confederacy in twain, leaving Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana out in the cold,” he concluded. “Who says our cause looks bad?”