In recognition of Memorial Day 2015, the Topsfield Historical Society presents the story of Eugene Henry Todd. The Society particularly extends its gratitude to Mr. Bryan Alfier who, in April 2015, provided us with a copy of Pvt. Todd's May 7, 1862 letter home.
"Kiss Clara and Sam Preston for me."
On a hot Wednesday afternoon, May 7, 1862, in the early summer heat of New Orleans, a 19 year old Union cavalry soldier, sweating in his wool uniform in the Custom House where he was quartered, took pen and ink and a sheet of paper to write a letter to his mother. Six months earlier, he had been boarding the steamer Constitution in the cold of Boston winter. Only six months before that, he'd been recovering from frostbite in a Quebec hospital after running away from home on a whaling ship. Sixteen months after sending off his letter, and just 100 miles further up the Mississippi, he would die from dysentery, at the tender age of 21.
We do not know much about Eugene Henry Todd other than what he wrote in the few letters from him that have survived. We do know something about his extended family in Topsfield, especially his father. We know something about the family members who survived him well into the twentieth century. From these bits and from the letters, diaries and memoirs written by his fellow soldiers and regimental officers, we can sketch out some of the details of his short life, its impact on those who loved him and what he was experiencing as he sweated over his letter in the New Orleans heat.
"I suppose you have heard..."
Private Todd is not as informative in his letter about his surroundings and his experiences as we might wish he had been. Most likely his mother thought so too. He is serving in the Third Unattached Company of the Massachusetts Cavalry under the command of Capt. Henry A. Durivage. He was mustered in during late December. The three companies trained together at Camp Chase which was set up in the then Lowell Fairgrounds (see map). On January 13, 1862, they sailed south on the steamer transport, Constitution, arriving one month later at Ship Island, Mississippi. The three companies organized into an unattached battalion under Captain Read and very uncomfortably settled in to wait for the expected battle for New Orleans.
"We have left Ship Island at last."
Pvt. Todd's battalion was not the first to arrive on Ship Island. In September 1861, six weeks after the Union loss at Bull Run, Major General Benjamin F. Butler was given the command to "raise, organize, arm, uniform, and equip a volunteer force for the war in the New England States." The Confederates had abandoned Ship Island and Butler had determined to use it as a base for an eventual attack on New Orleans. The first units he organized arrived, via the Constitution in December 1861; Eugene was on the second arrival. By April 1861, there were 15,000 men on Ship Island.
Other letter writers, more verbose than Eugene, described Ship Island as, "The island is a low stretch of sand, almost as white as snow, with no discernible vegetation (Captain John William DeForest, 12th Connecticut, March 8, 1862)" or, more colorfully, "the Sand drifts like Snow it filled my eyes and ears full[.] it was very warm hear yesterday but it is coal this morning[.] it Seems like october[.] i got wet to the skin last knight for there was a havy shower before we got back[.] (Private James F. Stoddard, 7th Vermont, April 1862)". Andrew Sherman, 23rd Connecticut , July 1863 wrote, "In this sand our tents are pitched, and on this sand, with a mere blanket for a bed, we lie, and sleep as best we can, with the various insects that minister to our discomfort. Our shoes are never free from the irritating presence of this sand."
"...inside it was a perfect ruin."
Between the Union Forces and the port of New Orleans were Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip, one on each bank of the Mississippi, a boom strung across the river between them. They were the major defense for New Orleans, the Queen of the South. It took a week of bombardment and a heavy battle but Union Flag Officer David Farragut got 17 ships past their defense. New Orleans surrendered without a fight on April 25, 1862. The two forts, however, were in ruins.
In Eugene's own words, "The outside walls were not hurt very much but inside it is a perfect ruin. They had plenty of everything but some of their men Mutinied and the walls were coming down over them."
Three Topsfield men sailed on those ships past the forts up to New Orleans. In addition to Eugene, John William Rea, 18 years old, also in Company M and George W Peabody, in Reed's Company. Private Peabody, 23 years old, died the day after the surrender.
"The Citizens seem very civil."
The Union had only occupied New Orleans for twelve days when Pvt. Todd wrote home to his mother. It's said that each soldier experiences his own war; the same may be true of military occupation. It was reported then and historians say now that the citizens of New Orleans were not very accepting of the presence of Union soldiers in their midst. Farragut's officers had had to walk through a drunken, threatening mob to get to the Mayor's office to formally accept the city's surrender. It was said that Farragut himself had a chamber pot's contents nearly dumped on his head as he walked through the city. General Butler concerned about controlling the city with his relatively few troops issued several draconian orders almost immediately. He had a William Mumford, a local gambler, hung for hauling down the U.S. flag. And one week after Eugene wrote his letter, General Butler issued his infamous General Orders No. 28, declaring:
HDQRS. DEPARTMENT OF THE GULF New Orleans, May 15, 1862. As the officers and soldiers of the United States have been subject to repeated insults from the women (calling themselves ladies) of New Orleans in return for the most scrupulous non-interference and courtesy on our part, it is ordered that hereafter when any female shall by word, gesture, or movement insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation. By command of Major-General Butler: GEO. C. STRONG, Assistant Adjutant-General and Chief of Staff.