No one saw it happen.
It was late February, 1864. The screw steamer “Charles Thomas,” carrying the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers, was just pulling into the dock at Algiers, a small village opposite New Orleans. They had had a relatively pleasant voyage since they had left Key West, returning from garrison duty at Fort Jefferson where they had been guarding Rebel prisoners.
“Just as the steamer was preparatory to our landing,” wrote a member of the 47TH, “a fatal accident happened.” A recruit sitting on one of the hatches either fell or jumped between the ship and the gangplank. “Before a boat could get to him either from the steamer or from the land he was drowned,” the soldier wrote. The victim’s body was quickly caught by the current and drawn out into the Mississippi until it disappeared from view.
The rest of the men were in shock. The victim, recognized from the initials FK on the visor of his cap, was fished out of the water. Frederick Koehler of Luzerne County had made no attempt to cry out “man overboard” or anything else. At least one soldier writing home to his family, said, “Some think he wanted to do it because he was so depressed.”
The tragic death of Frederick Koehler was to be the 47th’s introduction to the ill-fated Red River Campaign of March/April 1864, one of the most botched episodes in the Civil War. It began with high hopes of seizing Shreveport, Louisiana and a lot of cotton along with it. The Navy was to send ironclads up the river providing support for a land army that it was presumed would “whip” the Rebels. The Confederate troops, commanded by General Richard Taylor, ironically the son of the late former U.S. President Zachery Taylor, were not expected to put up much of a fuss.
Union commander Major General Nathaniel P. Banks had his eye both on glory- he was hoping a victory would carry him to the White House- and making a tidy sum from captured Confederate cotton. Admiral David Dixon Porter, one of the most skilled officers in the U.S. Navy, wanted to show the power of his new ironclads. He also so had his eye on cotton. And Lincoln was hoping it would spilt Texas off from Louisiana, possibly making it the first state to re-enter the Union.
The 47TH had been raised in Allentown in 1861 by Col. Tilghman H. Good. They had fought a number of battles in South Carolina and Florida before being assigned to act as garrison troops and prison guards over U.S. forts in the Florida Keys. It was understood that they would be headed back east before the end of April to join Grant’s Army in Virginia.
The 47th was one of two infantry divisions that formed... Click here to read the entire article