Upon arriving in New Orleans, John Franklin Godfrey of Bangor discovered he would rather ride like the wind than shoot like the devil.
The 22-year-old son of Judge John Edwards Godfrey and Elizabeth Stackpole Godfrey of Bangor, Godfrey had joined the 1st Maine Cavalry as a private in autumn 1861. An ambitious young man, he lobbied for an officer’s commission in the 1st Maine Battery, which mustered at Portland on Dec. 18.
After the battery shipped by train to Lowell, Mass., “company junior 2nd Lieut.“ Godfrey remained in Maine to find a few extra good men.
But “recruiting was dull work,” because “those who had any interest in the war went when it first broke out, or a short time after,” Godfrey realized. After stumping up and down the Pine Tree State, he reported to Lowell with five recruits in tow.
They were “not all such as we would wish to look upon as patriots, or care to think about heroes,” the opinionated Godfrey commented.
Stepping from the train in Boston, Godfrey attached his decrepit squad “to the rear of a company of well-dressed soldiers” marching to Camp Cameron Cambridge to spend the night. “Loafers who were collected at the corners of the streets through which we passed … showed their admiration for us” by hurling insults at his recruits.
Of the five men, two “were six feet long log drivers” wearing well-worn clothing and looking “not very prepossessing,” Godfrey admitted. The third recruit “was a hard looking Irishman,” the fourth “a long haired wild looking countryman, with a very frightened look.”
The last recruit was “a young boyish looking fellow … short and fat, with a self-satisfied look as much as to say I’m a soldier,” Godfrey said. Avoiding a near riot when one log driver went to plow into “the bystanders” shouting “with mirth” at the recruits in Lowell, Godfrey got his men safety to Camp Chase.
Moving to Boston on Feb. 2, 1862, the 1st Maine Battery shipped from Bean Town aboard the SS Idaho on Feb. 8. Packed with artillery batteries from Massachusetts and Vermont and a company of Massachusetts infantrymen, the ship moored in Boston Harbor until Gen. Ben Butler sent “orders … as to when we should sail,” Godfrey commented.
Butler commanded the Army troops involved in the impending attack on Confederate-held New Orleans. A graduate of Waterville (Colby) College, he assembled his artillery, cavalry, and infantry at Ship Island, a sandy barrier island off the Mississippi coast.
Butler soon released the SS Idaho. “With a fair wind and all sail set we passed Race Point the same afternoon,” noticed Godfrey, a capable sailor. Sailing south with a cargo of seasick soldiers (Godfrey commented on how “the filth between the decks was enough to make sick those” men not yet ill), the ship reached Ship Island on March 10.
New Orleans fell to the United States Navy in late April, and the 1st Maine Battery moved to the Big Easy in early May. Although sickened by dysentery, Godfrey apparently liked garrison duty in the city, but “I feel very vexed sometimes” because by mid-June he had not yet received the monthly pay accrued since enlisting in the 1st Maine Battery.
Godfrey learned by June 15 that he should receive $401 sometime soon, the pay due him through May 1. Because he had joined other 1st Maine officers in renting a house and living high off the hog, Godfrey would “not be able to send home as much [money to his parents] as I expected.”
In midsummer, Ben Butler ordered Godfrey to raise a company of cavalrymen, not that difficult a feat in cosmopolitan New Orleans. Detached from the 1st Maine Battery, Godfrey appropriated “an empty store” with permission of the Union provost marshal, and quickly enlisted “a young Spaniard” as a recruiting sergeant.
Somewhat conversant in Spanish after spending time in Argentina in the late 1850s, Godfrey raised Co. C, 1st Louisiana Cavalry Regiment (U.S.). For his effort, Butler promoted him to captain.
By late September, the company “was quartered at the Barracks below the city, in a cotton press,” Godfrey wrote his mother, Elizabeth. “I have got my saddles and horses, and am drilling every day, and my men are improving very fast.”
He wanted his men “to be the smartest and best company” of Union cavalry in Louisiana, which with its bayous and rivers and swamps was not good cavalry country. Godfrey expected that Co. C would be equipped with “Sharps rifles, revolvers and sabers.”
The Army finally unleashed Co. C (accompanied by the 75th New York Infantry Regiment) on Oct. 31, after Godfrey and his men had shipped upriver to Baton Rouge. The two units “started on an expedition to the Grand Bayou to attack a body of the enemy” supposedly armed with three cannons, Godfrey wrote Elizabeth from “near Thibodeaux, Louisiana” on Nov. 1.
The Union troops marched 12 miles to discover “our information to be incorrect,” he realized. The only result of the expedition was the confiscation of 11 cotton bales found on the return trip.
Because water covered so much of lower Louisiana, Union troops (including cavalry) usually kept to the few roads and the levee tops or traveled by ship. Shallow-draft gunboats and troop transports penetrated deeply into interior Louisiana, but Confederate troops (often considered little more than guerrillas) harassed steamboats and pro-Union civilians.
Within a few days after Godfrey and Co. C completed that initial expedition, the Army started letting the Maine cavalryman run amuck against Confederate targets.
He did not disappoint his superiors.
Next week: John F. Godfrey runs amuck with Confederates and his own men.
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Source: The Civil Letters of Capt. John Franklin Godfrey, Candace Sawyer and Laura Orcutt, Portland, 1993.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.