Playing “angel of mercy” briefly cost Charlie Blake his freedom at Port Hudson, La. in late spring 1863.
Hailing from Portland, 21-year-old Charles H. Blake had enlisted in Co. B, 12th Maine Infantry Regiment as a corporal in November 1861. The regiment accompanied Ben Butler’s New Orleans expedition in early 1862.
Within 12 months, Union forces cleared Confederates from most major Louisiana posts on the Mississippi River. However, set on high bluffs overlooking a hairpin river bend, Port Hudson denied the Union full control of the “Father of Waters.”
Troops commanded by Ulysses Simpson Grant besieged Vicksburg far to the north. Replacing Butler, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks led the Union ground forces that encircled Port Hudson by May 22, 1863.
Union infantry attacked the well-designed Confederate entrenchments on May 27, suffered repulse, and attacked again on June 14. His poorly coordinated attacks led Banks to lose many men (including Mainers) and to decide to besiege Port Hudson. Its Confederate commander, Maj. Gen. Franklin Gardner, surrendered on July 9, five days after John C. Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg to Grant.
Sometime soon after either the late May or mid-June ground attacks, Charlie Blake committed “a heroic act … not under the excitement of battle … but from the higher motive of humanity to a suffering man,” according to a Portland Daily Press account.
Out on the front lines, 12th Maine soldiers “discovered a [wounded] Union soldier lying in the ditch” beneath the enemy parapets. The man, “by signs made to them [Mainers], showed that he was living, but wanted water.”
Deciding to help the Yankee, the Maine boys discussed how to do so. We can almost imagine a good, old-fashioned Maine town meeting taking place, with various alternatives being discussed and voted down on the one-article warrant.
With “the enemies[’] sharpshooters … within a few hundred yards,” climbing out of the trenches and walking directly to the downed Yankee was suicidal; “the party attempting it would no doubt be shot,” the Mainers figured.
Blake then volunteered to carry two canteens — one containing water, the other whiskey — to the man “by creeping around a line of our fascines and through a slight valley” out of sight of Southern defenders. An officer approved the risky movement.
“Upon all fours,” Blake “crept steadily up to the ditch” and “turned one angle,” the Press reported.
“Yank, what are you doing there?” a Confederate drawl erupted above Blake.
Probably sighing, Blake looked up and “saw some fifteen to twenty rifles that, from a saliant [sic] he had not seen before, completely covered him.” The curious Confederates were ready to shoot.
“I am carrying drink to that wounded man still living in the ditch,” Blake replied.
“Get up and carry it to him,” the Confederate said.
Standing up, Blake “walked to the wounded soldier, gave him what drink he wanted, fixed his head on a pillow and left the canteens where he could get them.”
Blake headed back to the Union lines. Noticing “the same rifles still pointed at him,” he “walked calmly back” while assuming the Confederates would not shoot because he had “done a noble act.”
“Halt, Yank!” a Confederate shouted. “File right and come in here as a prisoner of war.”
Blake likely sighed again. Knowing that “to have disobeyed or hesitated” meant “instant death,” he turned to the right “and marched boldly and safely up the escarpment into the fort.”
Held prisoner for at least a few weeks, Blake was released on July 9. Reporting “that he had been well treated other than as to food,” Blake talked to his comrades about eating the same fare as the Confederate defenders: “two ears of ‘horse corn’ distributed … daily.”
Some Confederates caught, cooked, and ate rats during the latter days of the Port Hudson siege, but the slightly fastidious Blake did not go so far.
Commanded Lt. Col. Edward Ilsley, the 12th Maine belonged to the 2nd Brigade (Col. William K. Kimball) of the 4th Division led by Brig. Gen. Cuvier Grover. Familiar with Maine troops after commanding some during the Peninsula Campaign. Grover knew a hero when he met one in Blake.
“On learning of the humane and courageous act of Blake,” Grover “said he should report him for promotion, which he well deserves, we think,” the Portland Daily Press concluded.
The November 15, 1863 returns of Co. B indicate that Blake was still a corporal four months after Port Hudson fell.
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Sources: Heroism of a Portland Soldier, Portland Daily Press, Wednesday, July 29, 1863; Return of Captain Horace Eastman’s Company B, Twelfth Maine Regiment, 1863 Maine Adjutant General’s Report, Appendix D, p. 469
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.