Did some 15th Maine Infantry Regiment boys re-enlist just to escape the ennui of Texas garrison life — and perhaps to desert after receiving Army-sanctioned leaves back home in Maine?
By capturing New Orleans in April 1862 and blockading other Gulf of Mexico ports, the Navy sharply reduced Confederate capabilities to move freight east of Louisiana by sea.
Then there was Texas, where some 370 miles separated Sabine Pass on the Louisiana border from Brazos Island at the Rio Grande’s outlet. A few peninsulas named Bolivar and Matagorda and barrier islands like Galveston, Matagorda, and Padre — the last actually a long series of islands — separated the sea from inland waterways bearing English (“bay”) or Spanish (“laguna”) place names.
Sheltered from Yankee warships by the barrier islands and peninsulas, coastal schooners ferried munitions — cannons, pistols, rifles, gunpowder — and other military supplies north to Texas ports (including Galveston and Indianola). Offloaded at such ports, supplies then moved overland to reach Confederate troops fighting in the Trans-Mississippi.
Key channels among the barrier islands could let Union warships reach the inland waterways and deny their use by enemy ships. Confederate troops built fortifications to defend these channels, such as Pass Cavallo separating Matagorda island and peninsula.
Measuring 38 miles in length and slanting northeast to southwest, Matagorda Island separates the Gulf of Mexico from Espiritu Santo Bay. On the island’s northeastern tip, Confederate troops used slaves to construct earthworks dubbed Fort Esperanza. Mounted behind its ramparts were eight 24-pounder cannons and a 128-pounder gun to shell Federal warships sailing through Pass Cavallo.
Union army and naval forces finally moved against the Texas coastal forts in November 1863. After capturing Brownsville, troops moved north to seize Fort Semmes guarding Aransas Pass near Corpus Christi. From there seven Union infantry regiments — the 33rd Illinois, 99th Illinois, 8th Indiana, 48th Indiana, 20th Iowa, and 13th and 15th Maine — marched north on San Jose Island, crossed Cedar Bayou, and landed on Matagorda Island.
There the Yankees dealt with Fort Esperanza. While the writer remains unidentified (he likely was a Midwesterner), “A soldier’s letter” published in the Sunday, Dec. 27 “New York Times” details the campaign.
Landing on San Jose (“St. Joseph”) Island on Sunday, Nov. 22, the “next morning” the Yankees “took our line of march without baggage or transportation.” Each soldier carried “one or two blankets and three days’ rations,” the writer indicated.
“We moved eighteen miles and arrived about sundown at Cedar Bayou, a stream about 100 yards in width, which divides St. Joseph and Matagorda islands,” he wrote. After crossing the bayou, the soldiers “marched twenty-five miles, which brought us within ten miles of” Fort Esperanza.
On Friday, Nov. 27 the soldiers “were up early as usual, and expected by noon or before to have a big fight,” the letter revealed. “But such was not the result … We drove in their pickets” while losing two men wounded. The Union boys “then withdrew and encamped for the night.”
Plunging south across the Plains, “a [blue] norther” crossed the Gulf Coast after dark. The letter writer “never suffered more from cold in my life–from the fact that the wind was severe, and our command had neither tents nor wood, and were lying on the cold, sandy beach, the [blowing] sand nearly filling every eye.”
The Union infantry suddenly attacked Fort Esperanza’s defenders “early on the 29th” and “gained their outer works … about six hundred yards” from the fort. That night the Confederates abandoned the fort, “and by 1 A.M. we were aroused by the explosion” of a power magazine, the letter revealed.
After sweeping over Fort Esperanza, the Union soldiers chased the retreating Confederates across Saluria Bayou “about one and a half miles further up the island” and captured a small fort mounting a 24-pounder cannon.
Taking Matagorda Island “gives us the best harbor on the Texas coast, and the key to Galveston by way of Matagorda and Houston,” the letter writer surmised. He reported Union casualties as one man killed and 10 wounded.
Union troops garrisoned Matagorda Island and occasionally conducted raids across Espiritu Santo Bay or Matagorda Peninsula. Except for these rare adventures, soldiers from Maine and the Midwest suffered boredom, battled indigenous insects and snakes, and hunted Matagorda’s wild cattle to supplement stale Army fare.
Then soldiers learned about General Order 191.
Like the 15th Maine Infantry, many state regiments mustered in 1862 would see their three-year service periods expire in 1864. The Union needed experienced soldiers — “veterans” in Washington, D.C. parlance — and the best place to find them was within the existing regiments.
Under General Order 191, if veterans in three-year state regiments re-enlisted for three years or the war’s duration, those men could stay with their respective outfits, receive bonuses, and enjoy Army-paid leaves to their distant homes. Stationed on windswept Matagorda Island, the 15th Maine boys responded enthusiastically.
Writing Gov. Samuel Cony from “Pass Cavallo, Texas” on Thursday, Feb. 4, 1864, Col. Isaac Dyer had “the honor to report that ‘Three Fourths’ of the 15th ME Vols will reenlist as veterans” under General Order 191.
So far 375 men had signed up to continue the fight; more might do so. “Our present aggregate of enlisted men is 506[,] but we are not altogether, consequently I cannot tell exactly as to what can be done, but the disposition of those present is large in favor of re-enlisting,” Dyer indicated.
He assured Cony that “the health of the men present [in Texas] is very good” and that “all are in excellent spirits.”
Dyer enclosed with his letter a list of soldiers “who have reenlisted as Veterans.” Written in a neat cursive (likely not by Dyer), the list broke out the veterans by municipality — and the veterans’ names were visibly “checked & entered” on the list by an unidentified clerk.
Many went on leave in Maine, and the 15th Maine left Matagorda Island in early March 1864 to join the Union forces coalescing for the Red River Campaign in Louisiana. Then, before very long, some veterans started appearing as “absent without leave” on the regimental muster rolls.
Among them were Aroostook County lads, such as Patrick Collins, Daniel McCarty, and William Murphy of Fort Kent and Charles Lake and David Sawyer of Linneus. These veterans all belonged to Co. E; so did Canadians James Furlong of New Brunswick and James McGinnis of Prince Edward Island, who were also listed as AWOL. In Co. F, four Houlton soldiers — Frank Martin, Eugene McCarthy, Morris Murphy, and William Ryan — appeared on the rolls as AWOL later in 1864.
And re-enlisted 15th Maine veterans from elsewhere also went AWOL, at least according to the regimental rolls. Washington County was well represented in Co. A by Hammond Davis and Hiram Davis of Lubec, Ralph Teed and William Walker of Pembroke, John Sherman of Meddybemps, and Charles Swan of Charlotte.
The muster rolls often proved incorrect. Veteran Hosea Smith of Charlotte re-enlisted in the 15th Maine’s Co. A on Jan. 25, 1864, then was “erroneously reported [as a ] deserter” later that year.
He was not.
So what about the County, Canadian, and Down East boys reported as AWOL? Many traveled home on those Army-paid furloughs that winter and spring. Meanwhile, the 15th Maine “hopped” to Franklin, La.; after participating in a few battles related to the disastrous Red River Campaign, the regiment arrived in Virginia in early July.
With their outfit moving hither and yon across the South, some veterans completing their furloughs landed in official limbo while catching up with the 15th Maine. Transportation delays — overworked railroads, leaky steamers that threatened to sink in light seas, and the intricate repositioning of Union troops prior to the spring 1864 campaigns — left many veterans unable to report for duty before their furloughs expired.
And onto the duty roll appeared each man’s name and his AWOL status.
Letters written by other Maine veterans attest to the problems they encountered while war-bound from their furloughs. Usually when such men rejoined the ranks, the “absent without leave” vanished from the official records, because a 15th Maine veteran standing on the firing line in Louisiana or Virginia definitely was not AWOL in Maine.
He was here with his comrades, fighting to preserve the Union long after his original enlistment had expired.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.