The Rise and Fall of W. Irving Hodgson

W. Irving Hodgson

The most famed artillery unit of the American Civil War was New Orleans’ Washington Artillery. Founded in 1838, they had taken part in the Mexican-American War but did not see combat. Founded as a strictly Anglo-American outfit, by the 1850s Creoles and Jews were being admitted. They were made up young elite men. They dressed in fine uniforms and were smart on parade.

When the Civil War started, the Washington Artillery had a glut of enlistments, and therefore were organized into four companies under James Walton. When they left for Virginia, Walton had a fifth company formed and handed command over to his good friend Washington Irving Hodgson.

Hodgson came to New Orleans at age fourteen and served a clerk and eventually worked under Walton as an auctioneer. He was perfect for the job, being charming, energetic, and superb at negotiation. Hodgson was charged with maintaining the 5th Company, which would forward drilled replacements to the parent battery as well as supplies such as food. Hodgson fulfilled both duties, but went beyond. He used his political connections to raise money and purchase equipment. By March 1862 the battery had six cannon: two six pound smoothbores, two six pound rifles, and two twelve pound howitzers. He also selected as section commanders three talented officers: William Vaught, Cuthbert Slocomb, and Adolphe Chalaron. Walton and nearly everyone in New Orleans was thoroughly impressed.

Hodgson trained his men as best he could, but lacked horses and carriages to do serious drill. Yet, the men were in good spirits. Women came to visit and they paraded about town, becoming darlings of the city. Hodgson ran the unit like a social club, creating a chummy atmosphere. Yet, the unit was also stratified. The elite were the gunners while the drivers were poor, mostly Irish and German immigrants. There was relatively little camaraderie between the two groups.

Hodgson was Featured in Music Written for the 5th Company

After Fort Donelson fell, P. G. T. Beauregard asked for militia units to come north to Tennessee. Hodgson decided to transfer the unit, but he argued with Captain Henry Ducatel of the Orleans Guard Artillery over who would have the honor of being the first unit to respond to Beauregard’s plea. Ducatel won the fight. Before leaving, Hodgson ordered a sixth company to be formed, but New Orleans fell before the unit could cohere.

The 5th Company arrived at Grand Junction, Tennessee and actively drilled once they had horses. Around this time Hodgson become increasingly unpopular, possibly because section commanders handled most of the actual drilling. Shiloh though ruined him. Hodgson was unable to lead the unit or even keep it together. Battery sections wandered off and on April 7 he failed to follow his parent unit, Brigadier General J. Patton Anderson’s brigade. Nevertheless, the unit did well, and earned high praise from Anderson, Beauregard, and William J. Hardee.

Hodgson was a superb promoter. During Shiloh he personally presented to Beauregard two flags his men found in a tent. Yet, it was also a weakness. He submitted his battle report on April 12 then amended it, apparently to give himself more praise. He failed to spread around the accolades and the men resented him for it. There were some accusations of cowardice at Shiloh. These appear unfounded as Hodgson had a horse shot from under him and he was praised by several officers for his courage. Trouble was, he did not adequately direct the unit, and apparently some men never even saw him during the battle.

Matters were not aided by the actions of Corporal Fred Thayer, who was friends with Hodgson. He broke his finger during the battle, but Hodgson reported him as wounded. In the retreat from Shiloh, some Texas Rangers looted Thayer’s detail and threatened to kill him. He reported it to Hodgson, but the incident left him humiliated. Sent to New Orleans to recruit men, he boasted in the Daily Delta that his efforts made sure the battery had enough horses at Shiloh, that he buried the unit’s dead on the night of April 6, and most of all that he had rescued the unit’s equipment from capture. He was eventually dropped from the roles. He had better luck after the war, going into business with John Bell Hood and writing and directing “The Wounded Soldier,” a play which debuted at the Varrities Theater in New Orleans in 1875.

Hodgson also proved to be a testy subordinate. He asked if the battery could be sent back to New Orleans to defend the city, believing his rival Ducatel was also being sent back. Based upon an unfounded rumor, he protested to Anderson that the unit should not be converted to rifled cannon.

After Shiloh Hodgson recruited men and secured good horses, displaying his usual talent for administration, but it was obvious he was not a battlefield leader. On June 2 he resigned his commission and handed command to Vaught, citing that his ninety day term with the army was up and his health was poor. Braxton Bragg, who had deduced Hodgson was unfit, quickly accepted and put Slocomb in charge. Hodgson then reconsidered, but the 5th Company unanimously voted on August 13 to reject Hodgson’s reappointment.

5th Company Washington Artillery

Hodgson returned to Louisiana where his movements are unclear. He seemed to have served in the commissary department with Thayer and on the staff of Governor Henry Allen. He was certainly active enough in the Confederacy to claim a parole at Alexandria, Louisiana at war’s end. After 1865 he worked for Walton again, then in real estate and finally as a New Orleans city councilman. Whatever animus the 5th Company had seemed to have washed away, as postbellum accounts were generally kinder to his term in command and he helped erect a monument to the dead of the Washington Artillery in Metairie Cemetery. He was buried in Lafayette Cemetery Number 1, a popular final destination for veterans of the Washington Artillery.

Hodgson was an expert administrator and crucial in making the 5th Company not just a reserve unit, but an outfit that was battle ready with its own personality. Hodgson’s gentlemen’s club idea persisted until the bitter end. In 1863, while defending Jackson, Mississippi the unit dug its first entrenchments under protest and they were deemed to be poor. However, after repulsing a Union attack the men sang and played a piano to celebrate. The battery was the elite of the army, with particularly good showings at Perryville, Stones River, 2nd Jackson, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Murfreesboro (1864), and Spanish Fort.

Hodgson’s selection of Vaught, Slocomb, and Chalaron for section commands was wise. Slocomb in particular was considered one of the best artillery commanders of the war. Yet, Hodgson was a difficult subordinate and he had no skill in actual combat. He typified the officers who were vital to creating the units that fought the war, but who were themselves unable to actually fight the war.

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