Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Significant Sesquicentennial for Hudson

A hundred and fifty years ago, the country was in the middle of fighting the Civil War. In the last days of May 1863, the Union Army was preparing to attack Port Hudson near Baton Rouge, with the objective of taking control of the Mississippi River. Major General Nathaniel P. Banks was in command of between 30,000 and 40,000 Union soldiers for the operation, among them the 128th New York Infantry Regiment, from Columbia and Dutchess counties.

The 128th Regiment was commanded by David S. Cowles, who had played an active role in recruiting the volunteers. Born in Canaan, the son of a Congregationalist minister, Cowles studied at Yale, practiced law in Hudson, and had served for three terms as district attorney in Columbia County before the Civil War began. At the time Cowles took on the task of raising and commanding a regiment, he was forty-five years old.

The volunteers of the 128th gathered at the fairgrounds in Hudson and were mustered into service on September 4, 1862. Cowles was commissioned by the governor of New York to be the regiment's colonel. On September 5, 1862, the regiment sailed for New York on the steamboat Oregon and from there went by train to Baltimore, where they trained at Camp Millington.

The 128th Regiment spent the winter and spring of 1863 at New Orleans where, according to Captain Franklin Ellis in the History of Columbia County, "the regiment acquired a distinguished reputation for high discipline and soldierly conduct." On May 26, 1863--a hundred and fifty years ago today--Colonel Cowles was put in charge of two batteries of heavy guns and tasked with taking out the enemy's guns at the far left of their fortifications, or "works"--an objective that was achieved the following morning.

Newspaper illustration of the assault on Port Hudson from the National Archive
A full assault on Port Hudson took place the next day. Ellis describes what happened: 
About the middle of the day, May 27, Major-General [Thomas West] Sherman ordered an assault on the right, left, and centre of the enemy's works. The column on the Union left, with which the One Hundred and Twenty-eight participated, was under the immediate command of the commanding general. Immediately on moving, the head of the column became exposed to the full force of the enemy's fire,--discharge of grape, canister, and shell,--while sharpshooters from the tops of trees within the rebel works opened with deadly effect. General Sherman soon fell from a cannon-shot, which carried away a leg. Brigadier-General Dow, second in command, was wounded and carried to the rear. Colonel Clark, of the Sixth Michigan Volunteers, third in rank, was knocked senseless by the concussion of an exploding shell. Colonel Cowles, next in rank, then assumed command. By this time the column was badly shattered. The whole force reeled. With characteristic disregard of exposure in the moment of peril, Colonel Cowles rushed to the head of the column, and by voice and example stayed the recoiling regiments, rapidly re-formed their ranks, and taking his position at their head and quite in advance, by force of his own strong will, headed on the column in a rush at a "double-quick" to within six rods of the enemy's works, when he fell from the rifle-shot of a sharpshooter, which passed through his body just above the left groin. He was laid in a slight depression of the field, having resisted every attempt to take him to the rear, and refusing to be attended by more than one faithful sergeant,--Charles M. Bell, now [1878] a practicing lawyer at Hillsdale, in this county,--earnestly urging and commanding all the others to press forward, and constantly inquiring of the fate and fortune of the assault. It was soon seen that he had received a fatal wound. With composure he gave his watch to his attendant, requesting that it be returned to his mother, who had presented it to him in his boyhood, also his ring and other small articles. Then, as he felt his life-blood ebbing fast, he desired to be raised up that he might view the field and look into the enemy's works, exclaiming, "Oh, that I could have been spared a few minutes longer, and I believe we should have carried those works!" His thoughts reverted to his command, and, alluding to his own One Hundred and Twenty-eighth, he said to his attendant, "I believe, sergeant, that I have done my whole duty by it as a man and a soldier." Growing fainter with loss of blood, he said, "Tell my mother that I died with my face to the enemy." With full consciousness that the hand of death was upon him, he closed his eyes, ejaculated, "Christ Jesus receive my spirit!" and expired.
At 5 p.m. the commander of the 159th New York Regiment raised a white flag to signal a truce to remove the wounded and dead from the field, and the fighting ended for the day.

Tomorrow--Memorial Day 2013--is the sesquicentennial of the assault on Port Hudson and Colonel David S. Cowles' death.

1 comment:

  1. According to the 1860 federal census, Colonel David Smith Cowles lived in the First Ward at the Worth Hotel.

    David's brother Edward Pitkin Cowles, who also lived in Hudson, was also a lawyer.

    Both were children of Pitkin Cowles and Fanny Smith, along with five other siblings.

    Edward P. Cowles's son, David S. Cowles (b. 1857) was named after his uncle, our Civil War hero.

    It was the latter David S. Cowles and his wife Matilda (nee Parsons) who sold waterfront property in the Hudson South Bay to the Standard Oil Company in 1888.

    With modern research tools, we don't need to rely on the woolly memories of the Mr. Whitbecks anymore. I pity the man's flawed memory, but he has lost his right and his position to preside over such questions on the public's behalf. We may pity and we may forgive, but let's not forget his bluster and his pro bono challenge to the public interest, and to our right to know the facts.

    But to end on a respectful note for the original David Cowles, the Civil War Muster Roll of New York State Volunteers noted that Colonel Cowles was "killed 27 May 1863 in action before Port Hudson, La. while gallantly leading his regiment."