Downs, James

174th & 162nd New York Infantry
Private, Company E
Middle Island

James B. Downs
174th New York Infantry
162nd New York Infantry
Private, Company E
Middle Island

James B. Downs lived in Middle Island, farming land owned by his parents, John and Betsy Downs. Unlike many of the other local young men, Downs was already married and had a child when he enlisted in 1862. He married Dorcas Rebecca Smith three years earlier, on September 30, 1859. They had a daughter, Elizabeth, who was born in October of 1860.

Downs was thirty-five, stood five feet six inches tall, had blue eyes and light hair when he enlisted on October 17, 1862. Captain Baker enlisted Downs into the 174th Infantry, also known as the Metropolitan Guard. Colonel Theodore Parmele organized the Metropolitan Guard on October 3, 1862, after receiving authority to recruit the regiment under the auspices of the Metropolitan Police of New York City.

After brief training at Rikers Island, the regiment left for Louisiana in November. They reached Baton Rouge and were stationed at Fort Sturges for November and December.
The 174th joined with other Union forces to try to capture key cities on the Mississippi River. Once these key cities were captured, the Mississippi would come under Union control. This would effectively cut the Confederacy in half and no supplies or weapons would cross west of the river.

The plan saw General Grant heading south on the Mississippi towards Vicksburg. The 174th was part of General Bank's troops marching north to capture Port Hudson. Sitting high on bluffs overlooking a bend in the Mississippi River, Port Hudson was in a strong and strategic position, easily able to defend against Union vessels slowly navigating the bend in the river.

Downs, James

General Nathaniel Banks, in charge of Union Forces at Port Hudson.

The operation began in May. Downs was present when the 174th saw combat for the first time at Plains Store, Louisiana, only five miles from Port Hudson. The Regiment was involved in the siege of Port Hudson, which lasted from May 23 to the surrender on June 9, 1863. Port Hudson fell two days after Confederate forces surrendered Vicksburg to Grant.

Confederate gun emplacements at Port Hudson overlooking the Mississippi River.

On July 13, 1863, Confederate forces attacked the regiment at Bayou La Fourche. The regiment suffered fifty-four casualties. In September, the 174th was sent to Opelousa, Louisiana, to rest.

On October 12, 1863, James B. Downs was reported as drowned at Berwick City, Louisiana. His account was charged $26.30 for a lost rifle, canteen, tent, and rubber blanket.

Downs did not drown; he deserted. He returned to his company three months later on January 10, 1864. There is no information as to why he deserted, nor is there any record of punishment. Downs was present when the 174th and 162nd regiments were combined. Disease and casualties had reduced both units, so they were consolidated into the 162nd.

In March, the 162nd began the Red River Campaign to control lower Louisiana. Downs did not participate, for he was in the hospital from March through April.

Soon after, the 162nd boarded the steamer Leary and arrived at Fortress Monroe in Virginia on July 19, 1864. They were then sent to Deep Bottom, Virginia, where they crossed the James River. Once on the other side, they dug trenches and built fortifications. An attack by Confederate forces caught the 162nd by surprise, and 37 men were captured. Union reinforcements arrived and pushed the Confederates back.

On August 15, while marching near Harpers Ferry, it was reported that Downs deserted. He returned to his company on September 7, 1864. Again, there was no record of reason or punishment for his desertion.

The Battle of Winchester took place on October 19, but the 162nd was held in reserve and did not see action. In November, the regiment set up quarters at Winchester for the winter. Downs was detached to chop wood starting in January. In June, the regiment left by boat for Savannah, Georgia, arriving on July 1, 1865. Downs was again detached to chop wood, and held this position until August.

In the meantime, things were hard at home for the Downs family. They were in serious financial trouble. At a Brookhaven Town meeting on March 7, 1865, the trustees ordered that "the child (Elizabeth) of James Downs who is in the army as a volunteer be allowed $.75 per week from this date until further notice."

Around the same time, Downs became sick with chronic diarrhea. The regiment was mustered out of service on October 12, 1865. James Downs left with the regiment when it sailed for New York on October 14. The ship arrived on October 18, and the regiment was ordered to Hart's Island in New York Harbor. Downs' condition did not improve and he was sent to the regimental hospital. He died from chronic diarrhea on October 22, 1865. Although it was six months after the war had ended, he too lost his life in the war, as surely as if he had been killed in battle.

His wife and daughter ended up moving to New York City, where Dorcas filed for a widow's pension.

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