By Nov. 7, 1862, Capt. John Franklin Godfrey could proudly tell his parents (John Edwards and Elizabeth Stackpole Godfrey of Bangor) that the Army had turned loose him and his Co. C, 1st Louisiana Cavalry Regiment (U.S.) to run amuck in Louisiana.
“I like the cavalry service very much … and there are few Captains of Companies who are as pleasantly situated as myself,” he admitted. In New Orleans, Gen. Ben Butler had authorized the raising of only three companies for the 1st Louisiana; with few higher-ranking cavalry officers to whom they must report, the captains commanding those companies enjoyed much autonomy.
“I am just as independent as a Col. of a Regt.,” noted Godfrey, who in the past week had been “every now and then going off on a scout.”
His cavalrymen had accompanied infantrymen to occupy Donaldsonville on the Mississippi River. Union gunboats and steamboats approaching the town from either direction had to slow around the river’s bends; Confederate troops concealed in buildings and brush fired on the passing ships and sometime caused casualties aboard them.
On the return 34-mile march from Donaldsonville, Godfrey was amazed at how many fleeing slaves now accompanied the expedition. “The whole country as far as the eye could reach in our rear on both sides of the bayou, was full of carts piled to overflowing” with escaping children, “men and women.
“Hundred more were walking on the levees, all blessing the pretty Yankees, and in perfect raptures of joy and excitement” as escaping slavery, Godfrey commented.
His parents had read in the Bangor newspapers “about the Black Regiments” being formed in New Orleans. In a Nov. 30 letter, Godfrey reported that two black regiments “are guarding the Opolousas (sic) Railroad.” The black soldiers “are just as good for that purpose as white men.
“As to how they will fight I cannot tell, [but] the majority of our officers … seem to think they will fight well,” he informed his parents.
Godfrey and Co. C had seen serious action during a late October 1862 expedition to defeat enemy guerrillas plaguing Union shipping upriver from New Orleans. On Oct. 25, a Co. C patrol charged 15 Confederates in some cane fields; “a blind ditch” concealed by the sugar-cane stalks tripped three Union horses and their riders, and Godfrey rode quickly with Co. C to recover the patrol.
“I soon gathered up the rest of the men, and a sorry looking set some of them were, covered with burs and mud and looking a little more sober than when they had started out,” he noticed.
Later that afternoon, Godfrey’s second lieutenant “ran down several guerrillas … captured one, and shot one horse.” The captured Confederate “was frightened almost to death, [because] he thought he was to be hung.”
The fortunate Confederate was not.
On Oct. 26, one of Godfrey’s troopers exchanged gunfire at point-blank range with a shotgun-toting man in civilian clothing; the Union trooper suffered bullet-grazed skin, and the dead guerrilla “was a tall and very handsome man with black wavy hair and smooth face.” Godfrey estimated his age at 23.
On Oct. 27, his company ironically supported the 1st Maine Battery and a Massachusetts battery during an artillery exchange with hidden enemy cannons. The fight was inconclusive; Union troops soon moved on.
On Sunday, Dec. 14, Godfrey and Co. C left their camp near Thibodeaux at 10 p.m. and rode to link up with another cavalry company at Donaldsonville. After scouting for two days, the cavalrymen collided with “a rebel scouting party … and after a skirmish of about half an hour” chased the enemy riders “into the woods.” The Confederates lost one soldier and two horses killed; the Union cavalry suffered no losses.
The next morning, Godfrey scouted with 10 men toward Baton Rouge. Reaching the Mississippi’s west bank, he signaled a Navy gunboat skippered by a Bath officer; after treating Godfrey “in first rate style,” he put him ashore on the east bank.
Then Godfrey discovered that two Maine infantry regiments (the 22nd and 26th) were stationed at Baton Rouge. He visited with two acquaintances before rejoining his squad and ultimately Co. C.
Early 1863 saw Godfrey and his men frequently in the saddle and on patrol. They skirmished with Confederates near Baton Rouge on Jan. 27; “a bullet whistled by” Godfrey during the shooting.
In mid-March, Co. C and other Union troops were transported by ship to a point 4 miles from Port Hudson, along with Vicksburg the last remaining Confederate-held position on the entire Mississippi River. Skirmishing often with enemy cavalry, Co. C lost one trooper and three horses wounded in one fight that saw Godfrey and his men kill two Confederates and capture four others.
The adventurous Godfrey participated in other fights as Union troops dithered near Port Hudson. Two Hispanic troopers — “Spodafire a brave young Spaniard and Marcia a Mexican” — “were the front men” as Co. C chased a Confederate cavalry company toward a church; swinging his saber, Spodafire all but hacked the left arm off an enemy trooper “and took him prisoner,” Godfrey wrote his parents.
He and his troopers constantly rode hither and yon on patrol and skirmished with enemy horsemen. Godfrey boasted in an April 7 letter that “I have a good little Command, and an as independent as ever.”
But he also revealed a darker nature that would not be tolerated if superior officers were nearby. “I have a good many” men “to discipline now,” Godfrey wrote. “You never can make a brave man of a coward, but you can make him fear you more than the enemies bullets.”
Godfrey detailed how Co. C had been sent on a mission to watch for Union warships on the river near Port Hudson. “The men had been a long time in the saddle, and had just laid down to sleep” when he rousted them to mount their horses and return to camp.
“The night was dark and the journey we were going on dangerous,” Godfrey noted. A trooper named Watross was missing; Godfrey found him curled up in a blanket, asleep “near a fence.”
Watross trembled (and for good reason) as he stood after Godfrey awakened him. Like a scared dog awaiting its angry master’s blows, Watross shook and shivered.
“Without another word I struck him several times with the flat of my sabre, with my whole strength, almost doubling it round his body each time,” Godfrey described the vicious hiding that he administered to Watross. “I hurt him very much, and he cried out with pain.”
Then Godfrey threatened to “put my sabre through your body” if Watross did not mount his horse and join the cavalry column. “I want no skulkers with me,” growled Godfrey, showing no pity for an exhausted trooper.
Then he made Watross “the front man” as the cavalrymen rode through the night to their camp.
“With love to all, I remain as ever your aff. son,” Godfrey closed his letter.
As a captain in the United States Army, John Franklin Godfrey was running amuck in Louisiana in more ways than one.
Next week: A Maine cavalryman meets a legendary Union raider in Louisiana – Part III
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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.