“I was out in the woods chopping with Charles Nowlton and was just thinking of going home for the night, when Lieut. Geo. S. Darling came out where we were to work, seeking for recruits, and as I had been wanting to enlist, this was just the opportunity, so I took his pencil and paper upon an oak stump and made myself a soldier for three years in Co F., 31st regt.”
Thus begins the Diary of Richard F. Underwood, of Belchertown, just one of scores of newly-discovered manuscripts of Civil War diaries, letters, and personal recollections of members of the 31st Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Comprised mainly of troops from the four western counties of Massachusetts, the unit was known as the “Western Bay State Regiment.” Recruits enrolled in the final months of 1861 for three years’ service, but most re-enlisted in February 1864 and served for the duration of the war. The regiment was the first to enter New Orleans in 1862 and from then on the unit was stationed in and around Louisiana, having participated in the Red River Campaign, the Siege of Port Hudson, and saw action at Bayou Teche and Sabine Cross Roads. Curiously, at one point, the 31st Regiment was temporarily re-outfitted as a cavalry unit.
More than two dozen Belchertown residents served in this regiment. Notable among them were Captain Elliot Bridgman, Sergeant George Mason Abbey, and Amos Ramsdell, all of whom resigned in October of 1863 to accept commissions of a higher rank in the newly-organized 91st U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment. At least two Belchertown residents from the 31st regiment died of disease in the bayous of Louisiana.
The manuscripts were found in the archives of the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History in Springfield. They had been collected in the early 1900s by the regimental historian with the purpose of publishing a regimental history which was never completed. In 1929, the documents were donated by the dwindling regimental association to the Connecticut Valley Historical Society, whose collection was absorbed into the current museum. They have remained unprocessed until now. The collection includes more than fifty manuscripts written by more than thirty individuals. Most have been transcribed and typewritten, but none have been published before.
Private Underwood continues: “December 12, 1861. Left home in the morning early for the depot. It came hard to leave home I can tell you. I left Belchertown at 2 o’clock to go to Camp Seward at Pittsfield. I got there about four in the afternoon tired out with my long ride. It was my first riding on a rail. The 31st were encamped in the agricultural buildings on the top of a cold bleak hill. I was homesick enough on my first night in Camp. I had to sleep on a board and only one blanket for three of us. I caught a cold that night that never went off till I was far down in Dixie.”
Some of the documents are simply transcripts of the day-by-day diaries kept by the soldiers at the time. Most, like the Underwood transcript, appear to be edited reminiscences based on actual diary entries. Others are personal recollections written retrospectively. There are also collections of letters written during and after the war. All combined, they draw a vivid and insightful picture of Civil War camp life in and around Louisiana from 1862 through 1865.
In addition to the Underwood diary, there is a transcript of the recollections of Mrs. Sarah Darling, wife of Captain George Sumner Darling of Belchertown. In it, she recalls the time her husband was captured by the enemy and exchanged for a Rebel officer being held prisoner in New Orleans. Captain Darling and she were residing on the Deslond Plantation when Rebel troops appeared and captured her husband as he returned from New Orleans. The prisoner requested a chance to say goodbye to his wife, which the Confederate officer, Capt. Poche, granted.
“I was waiting. Pretty soon I heard Mr. Darling’s step on the stairs and he says, ‘I am a prisoner, Sarah’ and I says, ‘I expected it, they have been up to the house.’ Behind him was the Captain and he says, ‘Good evening, Madam Darling.’ I invited him to come in, and he came in and looked all around and then looked at me…I didn’t say one word to Capt. Poche, but I made up a face at him — I turned up my nose at him.”
Mrs. Darling’s recollections were recorded after the war, in 1905 — probably from an interview — after her husband had passed away. She continued:
“They had not been long gone before somebody came pounding on my door and I says, ‘Who is that?’ and he says, ‘Lieut. So-and-So from camp. Open the door.’ and I said I shan’t open the door. And he says, ‘If you don’t open the door, I will break it down’ and I said, ‘If you break down my door, I will shoot you. I have got a gun, here,’ and he didn’t dare break my door down.”
The Stone House Museum is in the process of acquiring photocopies of the material relevant to the Belchertown soldiers in the unit. However, the entire collection of manuscripts from the 31st Massachusetts Infantry Regiment is available for inspection at the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, just off the Quadrangle in Springfield.