During the early morning of September 6, 1864, Private Dugald Hammonds was on guard duty aboard the steamboat Effie Deans. Hammons walked up to Corporal Augell and casually said, “If I was you and a man wanted to jump overboard I would let him, I wouldn’t say a word to him.” Before the end of the day, Private Hammonds was arrested, jailed, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for his remark to the corporal.
By 1864, the Union army faced a severe manpower shortage. Union victories had put large amounts of territory under Federal control, and this territory had to be defended while Northern armies continued to prosecute the war against the South. Casualties, disease and desertion depleted the Union ranks, and new recruits didn’t make up for the losses. At the same time, governors were demanding relief from conscription, threatening to severely limit the manpower pool in the North.
Desperate for more men, the Union War Department suggested recruiting Confederate prisoners to augment Northern manpower. Lincoln approved the plan. Major General Benjamin Butler recruited two regiments, the 1st and 4th U. S. Volunteers, from Confederate prisoners at Point Lookout. The 1st Regiment U. S. Volunteers was recruited between January and June 1864. This regiment was placed under the command of Colonel Charles Dimon.
By April 23, 1864, 1,000 prisoners had enlisted in the 1st U. S. Volunteers. These “Galvanized Yankees” were transported to Norfolk, where they manned the city’s defenses and performed provost duty in town. Recruiting at Point Lookout continued until June 28, when Colonel Dimon decided he had enough men to meet the standard strength of an infantry regiment. Dougald Hammonds was one of the last enlistees, joining the army on June 7, and mustering in with Company K of the 1st Volunteers at Norfolk on June 28.
In June and July 1864, Dimon’s regiment made several raids into North Carolina and skirmished with Rebel partisans. The Galvanized Yankees performed well during the actions, but the Union high command did not trust the men enough to send them into a major engagement. In addition to concerns about the former prisoners’ loyalty, General Ulysses Grant feared that any captured soldiers would be executed by the Confederates for desertion.
Meanwhile, General John Pope, commanding the Department of the Northwest, was clamoring for reinforcements to put down a Sioux uprising that had been raging since 1862. Grant could not spare any regular troops from the Virginia campaign, but he saw this as a perfect assignment for the 1st Volunteers. On August 15, 1864, Colonel Dimon and his regiment left for New York aboard a steamer. From New York, the regiment travelled by train to Chicago, then on to St. Louis.
On August 27, Dimon’s six companies* boarded the steamer Effie Deans and began the slow journey to Fort Rice (about 30 miles south of present-day Bismarck, ND). As the regiment made its way up the Missouri River, Colonel Dimon began to worry about desertion. About 60 men had deserted on the trip out West and another dozen disappeared while the unit was in St. Louis. Almost every night, one or two men would slip over the steamer’s railings. Dimon decided to make an example of a soldier to deter further desertions.
* The other four companies were diverted to Milwaukee.
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