Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Wisconsin Yankee in Confederate Bayou Country: Halbert Eleazer Paine

A Wisconsin Yankee in the Confederate Bayou Country: The Civil War Reminiscences of a Union General by Halbert Eleazer Paine. Edited by Samuel C. Hyde, Jr.

Union General Halbert E. Paine is a figure one rarely encounters in Civil War literature, except for one particular incident. Paine began his career with a brief stint as quartermaster for the 2nd Wisconsin but was quickly promoted to colonel of the 4th Wisconsin. The 4th Wisconsin was first sent to Washington DC, spent some time on the Eastern Shore of Maryland before being sent to the Gulf of Mexico as part of General Benjamin Butler’s force set to attack New Orleans.

Paine seemed to run have afoul of Brigadier General Thomas Williams from the very beginning that the 4th Wisconsin was attached to Williams’s brigade. At first the issue was Williams’s insistence that his brigade use his own tactical formation, the "Order of Combat." Paine described “Order of Combat” as an “interesting performance” and “an invention of Gen. Williams, who, being absolutely ignorant pf tactics, as of everything else worth knowing, sought to make this scheme take the place of the entire system of tactics.” Apparently the movement from the company lines into “Order of Combat” was not that difficult, it essentially made a formation that was two companies wide and four deep (Paine made no note of where other two companies would be). But Williams did not create an order to return the men to their previous formation.

Eventually the problems between Williams and Paine would be far greater than opinions on drill ground movements. The issue of what to do with the escaped slaves that flooded into Union camps became an early problem for Union commanders. Ironically Butler was one of the first to confront this issue head on as he refused to return slaves to their owners (the Fugitive Slave law was still on the books at that time). His reasoning was that the slaves would materially aid the Confederacy, whether this was working on fortifications or working on plantations to allow white men to build fortifications instead. This would eventually become the Contraband Act.

On June 5, 1862 Paine was faced with this very issue while in Louisiana. A slave owner, and a lieutenant from Williams’s staff, came to Paine’s camp to collect an escaped slave. Paine refused to allow the men to do this, citing a recent Act of Congress that forbade officers from returning slaves to their masters. Paine also stated that many of the slaves furnished information about Confederate dispositions and that they were likely to be killed if returned to their masters. Coincidentally on June 4th Paine had started writing formal charges against Williams for breaking an article of war, namely the very Act of Congress that Paine referenced in his refusal to allow the alleged master to search his camp for his slave. Paine was soon put under arrest by Williams for refusing to obey his order concerning the fugitive slave.

For the first 7 weeks of his arrest Paine remained with his regiment and would be temporarily released from arrest when his men were ordered on a scouting mission. By the end of July Paine grew tired of this and asked Butler if the charges against Williams had made their way to his desk yet. This must have prompted Williams to write Butler asking that the temporary releases end and Butler soon ordered Paine to report to New Orleans. Butler tried to smooth the issue but Paine wanted his day in court. There would be no court martial though as Williams was killed August 5th at the battle of Baton Rouge. Butler sent Paine to Baton Rouge to take command of Williams’s brigade as Paine was the senior colonel in the brigade.

Paine turned in fine service at Baton Rouge, and then during the 1863 Bayou Teche and Port Hudson campaigns. At Port Hudson he was severely wounded in the leg. He would end up losing the leg (remarkably his diary does not refer to which leg was amputated). His diary stops there but he did end up returning to duty commanding troops in the defenses of Washington DC. He would be promoted to brevet Major General at the close of the war.

The format of the text is a bit odd in that it is mainly in a diary format but was actually written in 1901. It is not clear in the introduction if Paine kept a diary that he later reworked or if he did this all from memory. It would seem to be the former as some diary entries are as simple as “I received an order from Gen. Williams to hold a lottery, to determine the rank of captains.” Also knowing that this diary was written nearly forty years afterwards has to make us suspicious of some of his comments about leaders. Forty years later it was clear that Butler was not a great general but in the spring of 1862 Paine might not have had all the negative thoughts that he records in this diary. Perhaps his first impression of Williams was positive, but within a year there would be enough bad blood between the two that Paine would never be able to admit his earlier favorable opinions.

My only issue with the text is that Hyde says Paine’s original manuscript had many more details of the feud with Williams. Hyde says he removed the extra chapter to avoid repetition and also to make the manuscript as a whole better. I think though that this should have been included because this dispute is how most readers have heard of Paine, not for his service in the Baton Rouge, Bayou Teche and Port Hudson campaigns. This is especially true because there is a wonderful regimental history on the 4th Wisconsin (A History of the 4th Wisconsin Infantry and Cavalry in the American Civil War by Michael Martin). If someone wanted to learn about the movements of Paine and the 4th Wisconsin they would be better served by that book than this one. With that in mind I think Hyde would have been well served to explore the Williams-Paine feud more closely. Despite that absence the book is still a very enjoyable read.

This review originally appeared in October issue of Civil War News

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