156 years ago today, Oswego County soldiers mounted doomed attack against Confederate fortress

As the Civil War raged during the summer of 1863, a little-remembered but important conflict for the men of Oswego County’s own 110th Regiment was brewing at Port Hudson, Louisiana.

A heavily fortified garrison was situated at Port Hudson, perched on a bluff at a strategic bend on the Mississippi River halfway between Vicksburg and New Orleans.  

Under the command of Confederate Gen. Franklin Gardner, the rebels occupied the high ground.

Infantry Companies A (Volney), B (Richland), E (Mexico), and I (Oswego City) wanted it and 156 years ago today, they tried to take it.

The 110th Regiment was part of Union Gen. Nathaniel Banks’ 19th Army Corps, stationed in Louisiana. Banks several months prior made a partially successful attempt to isolate Port Hudson on the river-facing side of the fort as part of the Union’s effort to divide the Confederacy in half and prevent the flow of materiel to the interior.  

June 14 was to be a day of destiny for four companies of the 110th as Banks mounted an attack. He hoped, foolishly and naively, it would be the final assault on the Port Hudson stronghold.

Early on the morning of June 14 and together with companies from many other regiments under Banks’ command, the Oswego County soldiers were ordered to attack Port Hudson from the rear. The plan was ill-conceived plan at best and utterly foolhardy at worst. The area was naturally fortified with ravines and the Union pre-dawn assault would prove suicidal.

Among the soldiers involved in this attack was a young man from Mexico, NY studying at the University of Rochester and planning to enter the ministry: William Henry Kenyon. Kenyon was caught up in the recruitment efforts of the Oswego County War Committee in the summer of 1862 and along with his brother, Horace, enlisted in the Union infantry as members of the 110th Regiment, E Company.  

William was assigned to carry out the assault on Port Hudson on June 14. After the battle, while lying in a hospital bed, he wrote a revealing letter to his mother, Susan. The letter describes marching straight into “terrific fire” from blazing Confederate gun and being shot clear through the leg by a musket ball:

“On Sunday morning we were ordered to storm the rebel works.  The 4th Wis., 8th N.H. and a battalion from the 4th Mass., 100 from the 28th Conn. and 50 from the 110th – the last battalion to sling their guns on their backs and carry hand grenades, a kind of pocket bomb-shell, in their hands, and after throwing these over the parapet, to use their guns – were deployed as skirmishers to lead the assault in Paine’s division.  We were to go up to the parapet just before light, being deployed at intervals of two paces, the 4th, 1st, 8th next, and we following, the lines being close together, and after throwing over our grenades to charge over the parapet and clear space for the column which was to follow in form.  In due time we marched up to our position but instead of a surprise we were greeted with a terrific fire . . . When it became light so that we could see, Gen. Paine came through and ordered us to charge.  We sprang up and advanced at a double-quick, the storm of lead thinning our ranks as we advanced  . . . The ground was very uneven and in going forward we were broken up so that the grenades were not thrown simultaneously.  I have not space to particularize, but we were repulsed, and at night our forces withdrew to their old position.  Some went over, but were killed or captured.  I jumped into the ditch at an angle in the breastwork and knelt on my left knee so as to rest my gun against the corner of the work to sight at a reb., and just as I pulled on him a shot struck my right leg some three inches above the knee on the inside, and came out higher up on the outside, passing behind the bones without injuring them at all.  By the aid of my gun I threw myself out of the ditch and succeeded in crawling back into a ravine some twenty rods behind the advanced line which had come to our support…”

Kenyon failed to mention that he had managed to shoot the rebel soldier before being wounded himself.

The struggle for Port Hudson continued until July 9.  Unable to take the fortress by assault, Banks decided to starve out the rebels.  After 40 days of siege, the defenders were reduced to eating their horses and even the resident rats.

With his men in such desperate straits, when Gen. heard of Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s victory at Vicksburg on July 4 he realized his position was hopeless and surrendered.

The war virtually ended for William Kenyon after June 14 but he was reminded of it every day of his life.  After returning to Oswego County in August 1863, he resumed his studies at the University of Rochester but decided instead to become an attorney rather than a Baptist minister.  Following graduation he studied law in the office George French and was admitted to the Bar in 1869.  For the next 30 years he enjoyed a career in the city of Oswego as a careful, honest, and honorable legal adviser.  

Nevertheless, the wound he so casually described in correspondence to his mother plagued him until he died.  Depositions found in his pension file reveal that the bullet severed his sciatic nerve and the bones in his foot deteriorated and disintegrated.  He was obliged to keep bandages on open sores where bone fragments worked their way through the skin.  He walked with a pronounced limp and suffered extreme pain every day.  

Kenyon, however, was among the luckiest of the Oswego County boys sent on that foolhardy errand a century-and-a-half ago today. While the figures vary, approximately 35 members of the 110th were killed, wounded, or listed as missing.

Lieutenant Valorus Randall, of Volney, was never found, although several weeks after the assault, a much-mutilated body was tentatively identified as his.  

Lucien Morse, of Volney, and Elias Geer, of Mexico, had the dubious honor of reaching the Confederate parapet and being captured.  Both died as prisoners of war.  Eli Alexander, of Richland, was wounded severely in the foot and died on July 1. Nathan Munger and Captain James Doyle, both of the city of Oswego, were wounded but survived.

Veterans of Company B after the war formed an association, which met annually on June 14 to remember the events of that fateful day.  The 110th and the 147th Regiments regularly held reunions at which old times were talked over.  William Kenyon, noted for his oratorical abilities, was a favorite speaker at these gatherings.

Kenyon died of cancer on Memorial Day, May 30, 1905.  He was buried beside his wife, Anna Savage Kenyon, in Rural Cemetery, Oswego Town.

Natalie Woodall a writer from Oswego and the author of a forthcoming book “Of Blood and Battles: Oswego’s 147th Regiment,” due out this summer.

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