It is remarkable how indifferent men become to danger under such circumstances. While myself and another soldier were engaged in washing some clothes one day, at a little stream to the right of this place, a bullet passed within a foot of our heads. The only effect was to turn our conversation to the subject of the range of rifles. It would naturally be supposed that, under such constant danger of death or wounds, men would be in continual dread of what might happen. As a rule, it is quite otherwise. Feelings of dread and uneasiness gradually give way to a sense of comparative security.
Coming under fire for the first time, a man usually feels as if he were about as large as a good-sized barn, and consequently very likely to take in all the balls, shells, grape, and canister, and such odds and ends, coming in his direction. After a while he begins to realize that he is not so large, after all, and frequent and continued experience confirms him in the view. That which unnerves the recruit is not alone the fear of injury or death to himself, but also the very nature of the terrible tragedy about to be enacted. He takes his place in line of battle as they are forming for a charge, knowing that hundreds of men who now stand with him there in the full flush of life and health and the hopefulness of vigorous manhood, in one hour will lie dead in their blood, or be racked with the agony of shattered limbs or torn flesh. What man of ordinary humanity can be unmoved by such surroundings? No man should regard war otherwise than with the utmost horror, nor sanction it except as an awful, inevitable necessity. Some such feeling as this is in the breast of most men on the eve of battle, modified somewhat by the fact that the stern necessity is present. The difference between a recruit and a veteran is, mainly, that the latter has learned to command, perhaps to ignore, such feelings.
For my own part, I can remember few occasions when such thoughts did not oppress me during the waiting which is frequently incident to the opening of an engagement. These thoughts soon vanish amid the noise and excitement of battle.
You may ask whether soldiers feel any scruples as to shedding blood. I answer, first and in general, kill is the game. You know it, and prefer that the killing should be confined as much as possible to the parties over yonder. If this seems to you to be a cold-blooded way of looking at things, please remember I am not representing the ideal, but the real. Again, suppose the bullets are coming thick and fast from the woods over yonder, you soon discover that the only way to stop them is to send in your own as close as possible.
In firing, we always took aim, though often we could not see the enemy on account of trees or brush in which they were concealed. In such case we took aim at the point where they were supposed to be, guided by the smoke, a glimpse of a battle-flag, or the glitter of a gun here and there. The men were sometimes ordered to keep up a fire when not an enemy could be seen. The One Hundred and Ninetieth was generally sent on the skirmish line. The men always preferred this, and did not like it if this place was given to another regiment. Those who were not accustomed to skirmishing dreaded it. On the other hand, our boys were uneasy if placed in line of battle. As a matter of course, the skirmishers took aim in fighting. It was not seldom a question of marksmanship between two men, each the other's target. We took advantage of every thing possible in the way of "cover," the main point being to go ahead, stir up every thing in front, develop the enemy's position, drive in his skirmishers. A line of skirmishers is always thrown forward when the presence of an enemy is suspected. They will soon discover what is in front. Advancing at a distance of five paces apart, the loss is not so great as if a regular line were advanced in the same manner. In the Summer of 1864 the One Hundred and Ninetieth was armed with the Spencer rifle, an eight-shooter, and well adapted to work on the skirmish line.
June 23d the brigade was withdrawn from this position for a day's rest. Our stay at this point had been almost equivalent to continuous fighting. We had lost men every day in killed and wounded. At headquarters we had received orders to prepare to move. After we were packed up ready to march, there was still a little delay before starting. Young Robbins and myself sat down with our backs against a tree, taking it easy. As we were sitting thus, a bullet came singing over, and struck the tree close to our heads. The ball was so far spent that it did not enter the tree, and was picked up by Robbins. We concluded this would do as a parting salute, and soon got out of that without any lingering regrets.
On the morning of the 24th the brigade moved to the left, and went into works before occupied by men of the Second Corps, on the Jerusalem plank-road. They should have reached this position before daylight, but did not. They could have reached the works with very little exposure by coming in a little further to the right. Instead of this, the column was led by Colonel Carle through open ground, less than eighteen hundred yards from rebel batteries. These, of course, opened on them with shell, causing considerable loss. Moreland, of our company, was among the killed. A shell struck him in the chest. The men, without waiting for orders, but without disorder, moved obliquely to the right, to reach the protection of lower ground, which there led up to the works. This called forth such violent protest and condemnation from Colonel Carle, that the result was a serious mutiny in the One Hundred and Ninetieth. Both officers and men felt that it was a blunder and an outrage to be thus needlessly exposed; and when Carle cursed them as cowards, they resented it. Confusion followed. The officers, almost to a man, refused to obey orders, or do any thing, until the insult should be retracted. The men were becoming dangerous. Carle rode up to Adjutant Wright, and ordered him to restore order, and take the men on to the works. Wright replied defiantly and profanely. Carle laid his hand on his pistol. Instantly a score of rifles were leveled on him. Yells and curses resounded on every side. He withdrew his hand, apologized to both officers and men, and they moved on to the rifle-pits without further trouble. Carle had the reputation of being a good officer; but it was said that he was under the influence of whisky at this time. I was with the brigade tent and baggage, and knew nothing of this until I visited the company the next evening. Neither do I remember who was in command of the regiment on this occasion. I think the colonel, lieutenant-colonel, and major were all absent, wounded. After we had been here a few days, arrangements were made to desist from picket firing; and after this we were no longer subjected to the peril resulting from this useless and barbarous practice. The loss of men from this cause was said to be about eighty a day in Grant's army, and was probably not less on the other side. Where the lines were so close, it was probably necessary and justifiable.
I remained at brigade headquarters until some time after July 4th, and was then relieved and returned to the regiment. It was then posted on the left of the Jerusalem road. Our camp was on sloping ground, the rifle pit at the foot of the slope. A few rods in front rose a slight ridge, and beyond this, a narrow fringe of timber shut out the rebel works from direct view. In this timber, or just beyond it, were our pickets. The well from which we obtained our supply of water was between our rifle-pits and the ridge spoken of. Further to the left, our line extended into woods, where the timber had been "slashed" in front for several hundred yards.
Back of where Company C's camp was, on the left side of the road as you faced the works, we soon after began the construction of a fort, called Fort Warren. It was four hundred feet square, strongly and carefully constructed. When finished, the ditch must have been twelve feet deep. The rebels did not get the range of our position at first, but annoyed us a good deal at times by pitching shells around at a venture. In a few days they would strike the vicinity of the fort with considerable accuracy, and kept at it with a persistence which showed that they were certain of the locality. After the work had progressed some time we felt no concern about the shelling. If it became too lively, we would stretch ourselves in the bottom of the ditch, and wait for the thing to let up, with great resignation, as we preferred this to working.
The confederate gunners had a way of sending shells "hopping" across, which was rather uncomfortable. One evening they were entertaining us in this fashion. The little ridge in front of our pits generally prevented shells from striking them, though the camp on the sloping ground behind was exposed. We had gone down to the works, waiting for the rebels to get through with their fun, which we regarded as comparatively harmless. We could see the flash of the gun, and by the time the shell would arrive, we would be safely sheltered behind the pit. One of these, however, struck the pit a few feet to my left. We waited a few seconds, expecting to hear it explode. Thinking the fuse had been extinguished, the men had risen up again and were indulging in jocular remarks over the matter, when, to our astonishment, the shell exploded in the air about ten feet high and nearly over the works, not far from where it struck. Where it had been during the intervening seconds we could not imagine. Fortunately no one was injured.
At this time, one of the men, who had not yet had supper, became impatient and started out for water. Just as he reached the well a shell came bounding over and struck him. A single exclamation of pain announced the result. Some of the men were at his side in a moment. A stretcher was procured, and he was carried back to the ambulance stand, to be taken to the hospital. The shell struck him about midway between the knee and ankle, leaving the fragment dangling by a few shreds.
While engaged in constructing Fort Warren we alternated in work with a regiment of colored troops. They were fine, soldierly fellows, and stood the shelling quite as well as any green troops.
At the entrance of the inclosure, of course, there was no ditch, a space being left about twelve feet wide. Passing along, one day, I saw a young colored soldier standing on this narrow passage between the ditches, curiously examining a twelve-pound shell which had been thrown over, and had failed to explode. Addressing him and taking the shell in my hands, I proceeded to give him a scientific explanation of how the thing worked. After expatiating at considerable length and in glowing language on the prodigious effects of such projectiles, I then unfolded to him the manner in which this particular sample might be exploded.
"Do you see that thing?" pointing to the fuse.
"Yes, sah, I sees him," replied the dusky warrior.
"Well, now, if I spit on that—the thing will go off. See here—yeep! yeep!" as I spat on it and hurled it into the ditch. With a yell and a screech a Comanche might have been proud of, that darkey "lit out." As he ran he turned his head, and seeing me dancing a war-dance to work off the extra hilarity which his fright had occasioned, he pulled up and joined in the laugh.
Work at this place continued about two weeks. One morning we were roused up before daylight and ordered to strike tents quietly. In ten minutes the column was moving down the plank road toward the rear. We went about half a mile and camped. The next morning we again struck tents before daylight, and moving toward the front, we formed line of battle in the rear of Fort Warren. Here we lay till after sunrise, when we returned to about the same place from which we had started. What all this meant was more than we could make out, but we supposed that an attack was anticipated.
We were then placed on picket still farther to the left. We called it picket duty; but as far as I could ascertain, we were the only force in front of the enemy on this part of the line. This ground had been fought over. The Second Corps had been driven from here June 23d, with heavy loss of men and guns. From the manner in which the trees were cut and splintered by bullets and cannon-shot, it would scarcely seem possible for a human being to remain alive on part of the ground. The loss had been terrible. Many of the dead had been buried in the trenches. Others, by the score, were buried where they fell, in rebel fashion, by throwing some dirt over them where they lay. Now, after the lapse of a couple of weeks, the dirt had washed from them, in some instances. Here and there you might see an arm, a leg, or a ghastly head protruding from a slight mound of earth. If any man was enamored of the glory of war, it was good for him to sit down and meditate in such a field as this.
Two of the boys sat down to their dinner, one day, near some bushes at the edge of the woods. The coffee was poured out, the frying-pan, with its contents of fried meat was beside the blackened coffee-cups. They were squatted on the ground on either side eating with a hearty relish, when one of them noticed more closely the bushes just overhanging the frying-pan, within a few inches of it. A human hand, dried, black, shriveled, protruded from the leaves, the distorted fingers in attitude as if about to make a grab at the contents of the pan. You suppose they turned away in horror at such an intrusion on their feast. Why so? The dead were all around us. When we slept at night behind the trenches, we made our beds by them. Under such circumstances human nature suffers a reaction, and horrors become the common things of life. These young men did nothing of the kind. With a light remark suggested by the idea of such a party wanting to rob them of their dinner, they moved the pan a little, and finished their meal. This done, they examined further, and found it to be the half-buried remains of a rebel soldier. On a scrap of paper they found the name, company, regiment, and State. The paper also contained a request for the burial of the body. They prepared a grave and buried him. Then as a matter of courtesy and humanity, one of them went out between the lines and was met there by a rebel soldier, to whom he related the circumstances, and requested him to join in this becoming duty by preparing a properly inscribed head-board. This was cheerfully done, and the board set up at the grave. In passing to and fro between the lines other dead were found, and these, too, were decently interred.
The days passed on pleasantly, and without special incident. No videttes were kept out, except in the night. None were needed, as the ground was open and level between us and the enemy. There was no picket firing, and we had a very comfortable time of it. We could watch the artillery "practice," which took place almost every evening, between the batteries on our right, without any apprehension that they would practice on us.
One evening I sat on the rifle-pit, watching this. Scores of the men were doing the same, or were idling the time away as suited them best. The sun had sunk from sight; but as the shells would burst over the rebel redoubt, which was then the mark of our artillerists, they seemed balls of silver, in the rays of the sun, now invisible to us. Then they would expand, and roll away in little snowy cloudlets, almost before the sound of the explosion would reach us. Suddenly a great column of smoke shot upward from the redoubt; dark at first, but turning to a silver whiteness, as the rays of the sun touched it. A sound that seemed to shake the earth came rumbling through the air. A shell had reached and exploded the magazine. A laugh, with a cheer here and there, ran along our heavy picket-line. The rebels called out: "Stop laughing, Yanks!" "Stop that laughing!"
Whether this would have resulted in an outbreak between the pickets, is uncertain; but a moment later a shell came screaming across, about ten feet above the pits, passing a few rods to my right. Thinking this was but introductory, the men dived for the pits, and the laugh was suddenly and indefinitely postponed. Then a general "ha-ha" rose from the rebel pickets, and good nature was restored.
Some time in July I was taken sick with fever. I stayed a day or two at the surgeon's tent, but can not remember much about what occurred. I gave away every thing I had. Fortunately I gave my gun to Joe Bovard, who took care of it. I remember nothing of this, but he told me so afterward. I have also an indistinct recollection of being sent away in an ambulance, of being very sick at City Point, of the dull, dreamy indolence of convalescence. I was then sent to Davis' Island, New York. I improved rapidly during the voyage. I was here but a few days when I received a furlough, to report at Philadelphia, September 10th. The patriotic people of Pittsburg had ample and generous arrangements to care for the sick and wounded soldiers that passed through their city. Arriving there weak and dispirited, a gentleman met me at the train, and took me to a place where every convenience and comfort was provided. I had looked so long on the forbidding, bloody front of war, that it was a most pleasing revelation to discover that back here was the warm, loving heart of Peace.
I arrived at Philadelphia the night of September 10th. There had been a serious riot during the evening, between the soldiers from the hospital and some of those patriotic citizens who, although painfully loyal at times, have a great antipathy to blue. I reached the Citizens' Hospital without molestation. The next morning a large crowd of rioters gathered in the vicinity of the hospital, and a murderous raid was anticipated; but they dispersed without any demonstration.
From Philadelphia I was transferred, at my own request, to Little York, Pennsylvania. Although now quite recovered, I was detained here some time, in the hospital drum corps, as a musician. We went out one night, on the occasion of a Republican meeting. We started to parade the principal streets with a transparency, the usual following of small boys, etc. A crowd of patriots cheerfully greeted us with stones, brickbats, and like tokens of sympathy. We returned to headquarters in about twenty minutes, a demoralized outfit. The bass drum was broken, one drummer's head was peeled, the transparency was smashed, and we were mad. The managers gave us a dollar apiece; we disposed of our instruments, and started up street to look for any little incident that might afford balm for our wounded feelings. Opportunities were plenty, and many a cracked head bore testimony to the zeal with which the great national issues were discussed.
About the middle of October, myself and a large number of other convalescents started to rejoin our regiments, at the front. We went by rail to Baltimore, and remained over night at Fort Federal Hill, to go on by steamer, on the morrow. The "heavies," doing garrison duty here, were accustomed to dealing with recruits, and counted on making them step around in fine military style. This crowd was composed of men to whom soldiering was no novelty, and they had no fancy for extras. Hence, when they were ordered, with much pomp and assurance, to fall in line, in front of the barracks that evening, for roll call, at nine o'clock, there was something of a scene. The anathematical display has rarely been equaled in modern times. Perhaps twenty-five men out of several hundred at last took their place in a sort of line, with much gravity and feigned decorum, playing green, standing in any thing but soldierly attitude. Behind them, perched on the railing, windows, or wherever they could best see the show, was about as unruly and uproarious a crowd as could well be found. After vainly trying to bring order out of confusion, the sergeant, in great disgust, began to call the roll. A name is called:
On all sides the word "Here" is bellowed and screamed by a score of voices. The face of the burly sergeant grows red with fury, but he proceeds.
Another chorus of hooting, jeering response, and then, in a momentary lull of the hubbub, a stentorian voice solemnly announces:
"He's gone to —— long ago."
This rather startling announcement is hailed with another outburst of laughter, yells, and cat-calls, interjected with allusions to the sergeant, which were far from complimentary. Finally, having exhausted his extensive vocabulary of maledictions on that mob of obdurate sinners, this patriotic officer took himself away, and the boys turned in for the night.
The next forenoon we went on board a steamer, but did not start down the bay till toward evening. The vessel may be called "steamer" as a matter of courtesy. The thing went by steam, but I would not care to ship a cargo of hogs on such a contrivance, unless they were of the kind that ran violently down the mountain. During the night the weather changed. A strong wind, with rain, swept across the bay. I was asleep on the deck when the storm came on, and awoke thoroughly wet and cold. Leaving my water-soaked blanket where it lay, I started to go below. The door was closed. A soldier, standing in the hatchway, suggested that by our united efforts we could push it open. I put my shoulder against the door, and he braced himself against me, and we gave a heave. The door went open and I went in, plunging headlong into the crowd lying on the floor, as close as packed herring.
Nobody swore, except those who were most severely bruised by our feet. There was an opening left in the side of the vessel, about two feet wide by twelve feet long. In the slow-going days before the war, this stately ship was probably used for transporting cattle, and the hole was made for the humane purpose of giving the animals air. Now it let in both air and water. I finally made my way down into the hold, and there, with the coal, dirt, and other things, found a more agreeable temperature. We reached Fortress Monroe the next evening. Here we were transferred to another vessel, and went up the James River, arriving at City Point the following evening.
This trip was very unpleasant. Besides the discomfort caused by the stormy weather, we were not provided with rations. No doubt provisions were furnished, and somebody got the benefit of them. On the second day those in charge of the vessel, in collusion with the officer in charge of our escort, proposed selling us lunch at the rate of fifty cents for a slice of meat and a piece of bread. Their enterprise did not pan out very well. But few bought, preferring hunger to submitting to the outrage. During the entire trip I ate not more than two ordinary hard-tacks.
Arriving at City Point, we were provided with a substantial supper. Our hotel accommodations, however, were not strictly first-class. Recruits and returning convalescents arriving here were provided with lodgings during their stay in a huge board structure known by the expressive name of "The Bull Pen." As to rooms, furnishings, and general appointments, the government had been exceedingly frugal. In fact, the entire outfit consisted of four walls, roof, and floor, joined together on principles of the strictest economy. The floor was comfortably carpeted with mud to the depth of about an inch and a half. Tobacco chewings, cigar stumps, etc., added variety and flavor.
On this particular occasion the institution was so crowded that you could not get room to lie down, all to yourself. This was no serious objection, as it furnished ample apology for resting your feet on the other fellow's stomach. Thieves found the "Bull Pen" an excellent place for plying their trade. The recruits and substitutes finding entertainment here usually had some money.
This night, after the lights were out, and all had been quiet for some time, I lay doubled up on the floor still wide awake. In such a gathering there are usually some splendid snorers. This crowd had some performers of rare merit. My location was toward the end of the building. Lying here, listening drowsily to the odd sounds about me, I heard a slight commotion down toward the center of the building, then a blow, and the cry of "Thief!" Then more blows, a general rising up of that part of the congregation, and a pouring out of profane objurgations that was surprising. The swearing and pounding went on with great vigor for some minutes, those not directly engaged cheering the others on with hoots and yells. In fact, a free fight was going on down there in the intense darkness, every body thumping every one within reach, thinking to spot the thief. Finally some one struck a match. As its flickering rays lighted up the gloom, they revealed a dozen or so of disgusted combatants glaring savagely on each other, and each wanting to know who was the thief. Of course it was impossible to find him now.
The next day I reached the regiment, then on the Welden Railroad, near the Yellow Tavern. I say "the regiment." I mean what was left of it. Instead of the large, full organization I left in July, it was now but a remnant. Four commissioned officers of the One Hundred and Ninetieth remained. These were Colonel Pattee, Adjutant Wright, Captain Birkman, and Lieutenant Peacock. Of Company C, there were but ten men, myself making the eleventh.
A terrible calamity had befallen them at the time the Welden Railroad was taken from the enemy, August 18th and 19th. The brigade was sent forward to skirmish. They advanced and drove every thing before them till they struck the main force of the enemy. Here they fortified and held their ground without support until the afternoon of the 19th, when they were compelled to surrender. A few escaped by taking the suicidal risk of running through a gap in the rebel lines. Mike Coleman, Captain Birkman, and a few others escaped in this way. Mike told me he heard men call "Halt! Halt!" on every side; but he looked neither to the right nor left, and went ahead. Dave Steen was killed in this battle. A ball struck him in the breast, a little to the right, and high up, severing one of the large blood vessels. As he fell, two of the men ran to him. He asked for his Bible—his only words. Hastily opening his knapsack, they handed it to him. Almost as his fingers closed on the holy book, his spirit hastened away from that scene of turmoil to the rest above. He was a brave soldier and a true man.
After the ground had been re-occupied, as it quickly was by men of the Ninth Corps, his remaining comrades buried him, and placed around his grave a rude framework to protect it from disturbance. The few that escaped, together with returning absentees, represented the organization under Colonel Pattee, who had now recovered from his wound. During September and October the regiment suffered considerable loss in fighting along the left of our line at various points.
On one occasion they were ordered to advance and "feel" the enemy. The design was merely to drive in his pickets, and compel him to show his strength. As soon as the command "forward" was given, away they went with a yell, sweeping the rebel pickets before them, and on into the works beyond, before the enemy knew what was the matter or could recover from his astonishment. An attempt was made to recall them as they went rushing on toward the rebel works; but signals and bugle-calls were unheeded. They entered, and for a time held a part of the rebel works. Of course, this could not last long. It was not the intention to bring on a general engagement, and they were not supported. In a little while they were driven back again with serious loss. Captain Kinsey, of Company C, was severely wounded, and never returned. In trying to bring Captain Kinsey off the field, young Overdoff was killed, shot through the head. When he first came to the company he was not very well liked; but his kind and pleasant bearing soon made friends of all. From his first experience in the Wilderness until his death, he was loved and honored as a brave and fearless soldier.
In the latter part of November the Ninth Corps was passing, one day, and I went over to the road, and waited till the One Hundredth Pennsylvania came along. Here were many familiar faces. George Preston was there, his face as honest and bright as in boyhood's days; and George Dillinger—or was his name Hugh? Names become confused as the mind runs back over so many years. What I saw there was but a section of the past slipped forward, and given a different setting. My earliest recollections were connected with these faces, when, at church or school in the pleasant Summer-time, in one we listened to the good Irish pastor's "sixteenthly" and "seventeenthly" and "in conclusion" as sedately as our seniors; and in the other we took our regular flogging, as prescribed by the lamented Solomon. The stalwart boys in blue were the same boys still; but now they were the heroes of many a hard-fought battle. The hurried questions and answers of that brief interview touched upon as tragic scenes as ever employed the pen of genius. They told how one fell here, another there—dead for the land they loved.
December 7, 1864, we started on a raid, the object of which was to disturb the enemy's railroad communications toward the south. We followed the Jerusalem plank-road one day's march, reaching Notaway River in the evening, at Freeman's Ford. Our force was a strong one, consisting of the Fifth Corps, under General Warren, and a division of cavalry. With this force we felt quite at home within one day's march of the main army. Once across the river, and at a greater distance, we might stir up all the game we could take care of. Such was the feeling expressed by the soldiers as they discussed the situation on the march that day, and indulged in conjectures as to our probable destination and the outcome of the expedition. Of course, the company wag had a hearing while he expounded his views as to what we would do to the Confederacy or the Confederacy to us. The soldiers had confidence in General Warren, and regarded him as a prudent and efficient officer. He had the reputation of being personally brave and fearless.
As evening approached, we turned to the right from the plank-road, and halted in a corn-field, not far from the river. As we were about to break ranks we heard on our right the clatter and snapping of gun-caps, which, in a regiment armed with muzzle-loading guns, usually follows the command to prepare to load. This sounded like business; but nothing further indicating trouble occurred, and soon the cheerful camp-fires enlivened the scene, and we proceeded to make ourselves comfortable.
It was the general impression that we would soon move on, and make a night march; but as time passed, the men made down their beds, and addressed themselves to sleep. About ten or eleven o'clock, orders—perhaps delayed—were received for the men to camp for the night, the march to be resumed at two in the morning. It at once entered into the fertile brain of Lieutenant Peacock to extract a little fun from the circumstances. Going to a group of men sleeping soundly under their blankets, he deliberately roused them up and informed them that they could sleep till two o'clock.
"Well, what the —— did you wake us up for, to tell us that?"
"Why, you —— lunatic, aren't two sleeps better than one?"
Then would follow a volley of protestations and modified blessings from one side and the other.
At two in the morning we were again on the march. We passed Sussex Court House and a place called Corman's Well. In the evening we reached the North Cross House, on the Halifax road, thirty miles from Petersburg. Here we struck the Welden Railroad, and the work of destruction began. It was an exciting scene as the work progressed. There was an abundance of ties along the road, and of these fires were built beside the track. As far as the eye could reach the track was a line of blazing fires and busy, shouting men. A brigade would stack arms on the bank beside the track; then, taking hold of the rails, would begin to lift and surge on it altogether, shouting in unison:
"Set her up!"
Soon it would begin to give, and quickly would be hurled over from the road-bed with a ripping, crashing sound, followed by the shouts and cheers of the men. Then came the process of detaching the part thus overturned from that still undisturbed, if this had not been previously accomplished. Using a length of rail as a lever, this was quickly done, and in a surprisingly brief space of time the rails of a half-mile of road would be lying on blazing piles of ties. As a general rule, the rails were laid on the fire, and the heating of the middle portion would cause them to bend by their own weight, thus rendering them useless. When there was time, the men twisted the hot rails around trees or telegraph poles, or wreathed them together in fantastic shapes. We worked nearly all night. Toward morning we halted in a field, and slept for a couple of hours. Early in the morning the work was resumed, and continued till evening, with only brief intermission for dinner. It rained during the day, and became very cold toward evening. Night found us near a stream; I do not know whether it was the Meherrin River or a tributary of that stream. If the latter, it must have been near its junction with the river. The town of Bellefield is on the Meherrin. We tore up the road to that town. The town was held by a force of rebel infantry, and also artillery to the number of seven or eight guns.
A dismal storm of snow and sleet came on in the evening, and we could only anticipate a night of discomfort. Not long after dark we were ordered to fall in, with only arms and ammunition. The intention was to surprise the rebel force at Bellefield, or, at least, this was the belief of the men. If so, the project was abandoned. We crossed the stream, and tore up some more track, and returned. At this time the only man lost by the regiment during the raid was killed.
As we overturned a stretch of rail, as before described, he was caught under it as it fell. In the darkness and confusion no one noticed the accident but myself; and such was the noise and shouting, it was some time before I could make it known. As soon as possible we lifted the rails and drew him out. His chest was crushed by the great weight, and he scarcely breathed after he was extricated.
We spent the night standing around the fires. Sleep was impossible. The freezing mud was ankle deep, and, as the sleety storm swept by, it encased the outer world in an icy covering. Muffled in rubber blankets, crouched around the fires, to get what warmth and comfort they could, as the driving wind whirled the flames this way and that, the soldiers waited for the return of day.
The next morning the return march began. Flankers were kept out on each side of the column, to guard against surprise, and to prevent men from straggling out from the column, as it was known that rebel cavalry was hanging on our flank and rear, ready to inflict whatever damage they could. There was an occasional dash on our rear; but this was easily repulsed, and the day passed without special incident.
We camped that night in woods, two days' march from Petersburg. The storm still continued, but not so severe as during the previous night. I was fortunate enough to secure a piece of board, by means of which I provided myself comfortable lodging for the night. That board was torn from the side of a church near by. It was none the worse for that. Perhaps that church never before did any service in the cause of loyalty and the Union. That night it kept some Union soldiers off the wet ground. The next morning the march was resumed. Before we had gone far, we made a discovery that was enough to bring the blush of shame to the face of any civilized man. Some of our men, who had fallen behind in the march out, had been inhumanly butchered. I suppose the citizens, with their usual stupidity, thought we would never return, and no day of reckoning would come; and, finding these men in their power, murdered them with a cold-blooded brutality only equaled by the most degraded savages. Some were found riddled with bullets and stripped of their clothing; some had their throats cut, besides gunshot wounds. My first information was from Mike Coleman, who told me, with a look of horror in his face, of the blood-curdling sight he had just witnessed.
This discovery had a peculiar effect upon the soldiers. Even those who were usually undemonstrative gave vent to their feelings in hearty curses on the rebellion, and every thing connected with it. The wish was freely expressed that Lee might intercept us, and bring on the final battle between civilization and barbarism. Up to this time there had been no destruction of private property, except a mill, which had been burned as a war measure, and a house, from which a cavalryman had been treacherously shot; but now, either with or without orders, the men began to burn and destroy every thing within their reach. Even the fences were fired when it could be done. Not a single able-bodied man could be seen along the route; they had fled from the wrath to come.
The One Hundred and Ninetieth was on the flank most of the day. About the middle of the afternoon, we reached a group of houses and outbuildings, which might almost be called a village. Here the head of the column halted, and the flankers drew in near the road. A large dwelling-house stood on the left of the road, the side on which we were. The buildings on the other side of the road were already in flames, and men were preparing to fire the dwelling-house. An old man was looking out of a little out-door kitchen. He was leaning on his staff, trembling with age, cold, and terror. A woman, bearing in her arms a babe but a few months old, came out of the house. Her pale face and quiet bearing, as she walked hurriedly away from the door, touched the gentler nature in the soldiers' hearts, that was now dominated by the tiger, which the sight of blood unjustly shed had aroused. Sympathy was marked on every face. Not an unkind word was spoken; but the house must burn. This general distress must teach the lesson that even war has its limit of barbarity.
That evening we recrossed the Notaway River, and camped about a quarter of a mile beyond, where we camped the first night out. Here we were joined by troops that had been sent down from Petersburg for that purpose.
A large house, perhaps a tavern, stood near the road, nearly opposite the site of our former camp. We had not been long in camp till we saw this house, and the buildings connected with it, wrapped in flames. From the fact that the place was not fired at once, we supposed it would be spared. The case was thus explained: When the men first came to the house, they were informed, on inquiry, that there was no man about. The woman who seemed to be the mistress of the house, claimed to be a widow. Investigation revealed a Springfield rifle and the uniform of a murdered soldier concealed about the premises. This was sufficient. The house was fired; and, as the flames spread, a man ran out from some place of concealment, and tried to escape. He received the mercy he had given.
During the night the sky cleared, and by morning the ground was frozen. You would suppose that the soldiers suffered from the cold. Most of them slept as comfortably as you would at home, on such a night, covered over with your quilts and blankets. How was it done? Every man wore an overcoat, carried one wool blanket, a rubber blanket, and at least one piece of canvas tent, five feet square. We "bunked" at least two together, sometimes three. This gave two or three heavy wool blankets, as many rubber blankets, besides the shelter tents. If the ground was wet, we put a rubber blanket and a piece of tent under us; otherwise, only one of these, and the rest over us. Then, with a fire on one side, and a log on the other, there was no trouble about getting a good night's sleep. Such were our sleeping arrangements this cold night.
The march of the following day was very trying, because of the roughness of the ground and the extreme cold. In the evening we arrived in the vicinity of Petersburg, and took our place on the left of our lines, rather toward the rear. The loss of the Union forces during this raid was about one hundred, killed and wounded.
Our camp was in woods. The ground was somewhat flat and wet, but with good facilities for draining. A deep ditch was dug around the camp on three sides. We had plenty of timber near the camp for building tents. The tents built by the soldiers for Winter-quarters were generally about nine feet by seven, built of logs, five feet high. A ridge pole was fastened up at the proper height, over which four shelter tents, buttoned together, were stretched and brought down to the top log on either side, and securely fastened. This formed the roof. The gable ends were closed with pieces of shelter-tent, boards, or some substitute.
A door about three feet high was left in the side next the company street. A chimney, with fire-place, was made at one end, carried up a foot above the roof. It was built of clay and sticks. Usually the tents were uniform in this respect, the chimney of each at the same side of the tent. Two beds or bunks, one above the other, were made of poles covered with a layer of leafy twigs, if possible. On these were laid wool blankets, rubber blankets, extra clothing, etc., making a very comfortable bed. Cracker boxes furnished material for door, seats, and table. The chinks between the logs were closed with clay mortar. The Winter-quarters of a regiment was simply a neat, cleanly village of small log houses, with this peculiarity, that only one row of houses faced on a street.
A military execution took place not long after our return from the Welden raid. A man had deserted to the enemy from a Maryland regiment, was captured, tried, and sentenced to be hung. The troops were ordered out to witness the execution. A hollow square was formed around the scaffold, and in due time the doomed man was led forth, accompanied by a guard, provost-marshal, and chaplain. The prisoner promptly ascended the scaffold, the sentence was read, and prayer was offered by the chaplain. The rope was placed about his neck, and an attempt was made to draw the cap over his head. It was found that the cap should have been put on first, and they loosed the rope to change it. At this point the trap-door gave way, and precipitated them all to the ground. The straps with which the prisoner's knees had been bound were now loosed, so that he could again ascend the scaffold. He sat on the steps while repairs were made. When all was ready he took his place on the trap-door, first testing it with his weight, to see whether it might again give way prematurely. The cap was now drawn over his head, the noose adjusted, and the trap sprung. After he had hung for some time, we marched back to camp.
Our stay at this camp was very pleasant. The location was supposed to be unhealthy, and they issued whisky and quinine to the men for a while. This did more harm than good.
My tent-mates were George Dunn, Joe Bovard, and Andy Shank. Joe Bovard had been in the service from the beginning of the war. He was over six feet in height, a good-natured, manly fellow. George Dunn extended upward to an altitude of at least six feet and a half, besides running along the ground an extraordinary distance before being started in a vertical direction. Our tent was larger than the ordinary, ten by twelve feet, well daubed and comfortable.
One day Jim M'Guire solicited "the hospitality of our tent for the purpose of entertaining some friends." This meant that they wanted to have a high old time, and our tent would be very convenient for that purpose because of its size. Early next morning the festivities began. Commissary whisky was provided in abundance. "Sport" (William Harris) furnished music for the occasion, which he extracted from an old fiddle procured from some unexplainable source. The ball opened with a good pull all around from the canteen. Ordinary forms of entertainment and social enjoyment soon became stale and they concluded to try the mazy dance. Our tent was floored with puncheons, and the racket which they kicked up was something marvelous. Occasionally I looked in to see how the thing was progressing. "Sport" was perched upon the upper bunk, his chin on the fiddle, his tongue protruding from his mouth, and wiggling to and fro in time to the music, while on his face was a look of solemn intensity, as if his life depended on his efforts. The dances were necessarily limited to "French Fours," but these were rendered with great animation and in the latest style of art. As George Dunn would execute some of the fancy flourishes with which their figures were profusely ornamented, his head would bob against the canvas roof. This was suggestive. Procuring a stick of proper size, I crossed over to the rear street, and stood back of the tent watching my opportunity. Presently Dunn's head came bobbing against the canvas, and I brought the stick down on it with a good, sharp crack. The effect was all that could be desired. There came an unearthly bellow, accompanied, I grieve to say, with many exclamations suggestive of the future prospects of the culprit who had cracked the head of the festive dancer. Out they poured through the little door in hot haste to chastise the offender; but he was nowhere to be found. Failing in their search, they returned and resumed their exercises.
Although the day was quite mild and pleasant, there was some fire in the tent, and a thin column of smoke rose lazily from the chimney top. Thinking to add still further the spice of variety to the occasion, I took a cast-off garment and spread it over the top of the chimney, and awaited events.
Meantime within, the dance waxed warm again. The fiddle shrieked, the government stogies thundered upon the puncheon floor; but soon it was evident that all things were not as they had been from the beginning. Confusion first fell upon the fiddler. His dulcet notes, as they whirled through their lofty flight, reeled, and staggered, and fell, to give place to anathemas, steady and well sustained. Smoke filled the tent, and came creeping out through every crevice. They rose up as one man and cursed the chimney with great vehemence. They came scrambling out of the door, wiping their weeping eyes. A brief investigation revealed the cause of their discomfiture. In dislodging the offending garment from the chimney they nearly wrecked that ornamental structure. As soon as Shank saw what was the matter, he at once announced that "that —— —— had done it. He had played that trick on him once before, when he was getting dinner." From this and other remarks that were made, I thought it prudent to withhold all further co-operation. Toward evening the entertainment came to a close. This was hastened by unfavorable rumors from regimental headquarters. After carefully reconnoitering the position, I ventured to present myself at the tent. Dunn was deposited on the lower bunk, overcome by the varied duties of the day. The upper bunk had not proved equal to the emergency, and had broken down. The table, seats, and door were broken. The canvas roof was torn loose at one side and hung disconsolately from the ridge-pole. Shank was in the tent; Joe Bovard was sitting on a stump in front, evidently holding a discussion with his stomach. "Sport" was capering around with many sage remarks and comical gesticulations intended to express his sympathy. Just then Shank came out of the tent, and made for him, to chastise him for some offense. "Sport" fled up the street and across a little bridge to the parade-ground. The feet of his pursuer were heavy, and when he came to the bridge he paused, reflected a moment, and deliberately tore it up, and returned with a very satisfied expression of countenance, remarking:
"I've cu-cut off 'is communications off, anyhow."
This little episode of camp life seems to reach a very flat conclusion. But the facts leave no alternative. It required about two days' diligent labor to clean up and repair, to say nothing about Dunn's head, stomach, and general constitution. The working of prohibition was well illustrated in the army. If the traffic had been "regulated" as it is throughout a large portion of our country, the effectiveness of the army would have been destroyed within six months. As it was, the officers in charge of the commissary department were prohibited from selling to the privates. They tell us now that there is no use of trying to reduce drunkenness in this way. We cite the army as an illustration of successful prohibition. If men had been inclined to evade the law, they could have obtained liquor as readily as in civil life. If the evil had become manifest, a remedy could have been applied more directly than in civil life. But it was not necessary. If intoxicating liquors are made difficult to obtain, multitudes who would otherwise use them and become drunkards will not take the trouble to procure them. We affirm that this was demonstrated in the Army of the Potomac. There was very little drunkenness. A few would secure whisky, and become intoxicated. Sometimes it was accomplished by forging the name of an officer to an order. In the revel just described one of the men disguised himself in the uniform of an officer, and bought the whisky.
I never knew whisky to do the men any good. It was certainly one of the strangest of follies to issue whisky rations, as was sometimes done on occasions of peculiar exposure. The men who never tasted stimulants had the most endurance, and suffered the least from cold or exposure of any kind. We wonder at the delusions of witchcraft, and can scarcely comprehend how men could so abandon common sense as to give credence to such folly; but the absurdity of the use of alcoholic stimulants is not less puerile. The time will come when it will be told with pitying wonder how men of this day stupidly ignore the ghastly results of the liquor traffic to themselves and others, and with supine meanness bow their necks to the yoke which it fastens upon them. They will believe the most barefaced lies, assent to the shallowest sophisms of the liquor-dealers, and turn a deaf ear to the most evident dictates of common sense, justice, and prudence.
I think it is Thomas Carlyle says: "England has a population of thirty millions, mostly fools." The same comment is fairly applicable to every so-called civilized people in the world. The dealers say, "It is a benefit to trade." The fools echo, "We can not have prosperity in state, county, or town without the dram-shops." The brewers and distillers say, "It enhances the value of property and products of all kinds." The fools answer, with idiotic promptness and docility, "Yes, we must continue this ulcerous cancer upon the body politic—this unclean, pestilential, gangrenous sore, reeking with disease, vice, poverty, madness, to increase the price of grain." Yes, gentlemen, grain is more profitable deposited in the stomach of your son or your neighbor's son, in the form of whisky, mixed with sundry deadly drugs to give it "tone," than in pork, beef, or mutton, or transformed into the power which sets the whirling spindles of the East in motion, fires up the black caverns of a thousand furnaces, and fills unnumbered homes with joy and plenty. This would do very well if you saw fit to wait till the redeemed drunkard would recover health and manly ambition, and provide his family with sufficient food, clothing, and shelter. But there is a more direct way to turn your produce into money. Transform it into liquor. With this, arm the vampires that suck the people's blood, and turn them loose after him. Post them in every city, village, cross-roads. They will strip him, ruin him, finally kill him; but never mind that. They will make you quick returns in bright dollars. There is, however, one disadvantage incident to this method, which is worthy of consideration. The victims of the dram-seller die, and he must make more drunkards or his business will be gone. He may get his clutches on your boy. He will, if he can. This would be very unpleasant. However, if such a thing should occur, you can drive your son away, banish him from your sight. Then, if you should hear some time that he has ended the struggle with pistol, rope, or poison, thus decreasing the income of yourself and your partner, the dram-seller, you can console yourself with pious reflections on the mysterious ways of Providence.
At this time pickets were only changed every third day, "three-day picket," we called it. We preferred this, as it gave us such a long time without any duty of this kind, that the change was welcome. We were almost two months in this camp, and during this time I was only on picket twice. There was no enemy in our immediate front. The days passed as tranquilly and as free from danger as if war had never been. Now and then you could hear a boom of cannon far to the right; but if you wanted to see a rebel, you had to travel four or five miles to get a glimpse of one.
The second time I was on picket, the weather was extremely cold. The first day we were placed on reserve, at a substantial rifle pit, about fifty yards back of the regular picket line. During the night, for some reason, we had orders to strengthen the line. I was sent to the extreme right of our brigade line, where we joined with pickets of German troops. The posts were about a hundred yards apart, at each post a strong rifle-pit. The fires were built at the right or left of the rifle-pit, and carefully screened with bushes, so that those about them could not be seen from the outside. Our line here was in woods, and the timber was cut down between the posts. In front of the posts, videttes were placed during the night, who were relieved every two hours. The men at this post were from a Delaware regiment, and all strangers to me.
It was very cold work, standing vidette two hours at a time; in fact, my toes were slightly frosted the first night. We discussed the question, and concluded we could relieve matters a little. We arranged with the men on the post at our left to put out but one man from the two posts. By alternating, we would only be on post one-half as long. The officer in charge of the line would come from the left, and it was arranged that the other post would signal us when he approached, and one of us would go out. In this way we always had a man out from each post when he inquired into matters. This was rather an irresponsible way of running the Army of the Potomac, but it seemed to us an improvement.
An incident occurred the second night, which convinced us that our plan was open to objection. The men were all sleeping around the fire, except one, a nervous fellow, of whose qualities I had not a high opinion. I must have been sleeping but lightly. Suddenly I was aroused by a noise outside the screen, to the right, as if some one had been passing stealthily along and tripped, falling headlong. I was instantly on my feet, and telling the men to scatter out and see what was the matter, I hastened out toward the right, followed only by the nervous man. We searched the ground carefully as far as the pit on our right. With our bayonets we thrust among the brush, and examined every dark corner, without any result. We returned, to find part of the men still at the fire, and the rest behind the rifle-pit outside. A similar search toward the left was equally fruitless. We never were able to explain the thing satisfactorily, but concluded to keep out our videttes.
After the Hatcher's Run campaign, I saw one of these men in rather unfavorable circumstances. We had been in camp a few days, and were engaged in building our tents, when we heard the sound of a fife and drum approaching. As they drew near, we saw a corporal and a file of men, and in their midst one of the heroes of the picket adventure, who had shivered over the fire that night, when he should have been out looking for the supposed intruder. Across his back was hung a board, about three feet long by one in breadth, on which was inscribed, in large letters:
The musicians were playing "Rogues' March," to which the soldiers had adapted the following touching lines:
"Poor old soldier, Poor old soldier, Bucked and gagged and sent to ——, Because he wouldn't soldier."
The morning of February 5th found our camp in a bustle of preparation. We had orders to march, leaving our tents "in statu quo," taking only overcoats, arms, and haversacks. General Warren was mounted on his old gray horse. This we regarded as a sure sign that a fight was on the programme. The column headed toward the left. Then we knew that Warren had done well to mount the old gray. A tender spot of the Confederacy lay in that direction. The "Southside Railroad" was the main artery that carried life-blood to the rebel army, and was guarded with jealous care.
The morning was bright, crisp, and frosty. The men were in excellent spirits. We had with us a number of waggish fellows that would be the life of any company, jovial, hearty, able to bring forth a joke under the most forbidding circumstances. One of these (Smith let us call him) had served eight years in the regular army before the rebellion, and had been in the volunteer service during the entire war. He was a sturdy, big-hearted fellow, now becoming somewhat gray with years. His favorite word was "Woo-haw," which he pressed into service quite frequently. From this we called him "Old Woo-haw."
Some time in the forenoon we found the enemy intrenched at Rowanty Creek, just below the junction of Gravelly Run and Hatcher's Run. From a slight ridge about three hundred yards back, open ground sloped down to the run, where there were a few small trees on the bank, which sloped abruptly to the water. The stream was perhaps fifteen feet wide. On the other side the ground rose again as abruptly as on the side next to us; and on the bank were the rebel rifle-pits, this side of the stream being also covered with woods. It was not more than twenty-five or thirty yards from the side of the stream on which we were approaching to the pits beyond.
At this time I was armed with a Springfield rifle, muzzle-loader, while the rest had the Spencer. I never professed to have a natural appetite for cold lead, broken bones, etc., and very much disliked to go into a skirmish with a "long Tom." However, there was no help for it. The sharp crack of carbines showed that the cavalry had met with stubborn resistance. At the first halt after we heard firing, I loaded her up and was ready.
As the head of the regiment reached the ridge, we halted. The cavalry were keeping up a lively fire just ahead and on the right, and there was every prospect of an interesting time. Very soon we were ordered forward to skirmish. As the order was received, Smith remarked, with a peculiar twang to his heavy voice and an odd twist of his head:
"Now, boys, the woo-hawin' is a-goin' to begin."
We followed the road over the ridge, and filed to the right on a farm-road which led in this direction. As we filed right Colonel Pattee's voice rang out:
We came around the corner on a run, and as the order was given the men faced toward the enemy, and advanced as they deployed. Before the rear of the regiment had left the main road, the rest were charging down through the open field. They looked like a mob as they broke ranks and went pell-mell over the field, yelling like madmen. But there was method in their disorder, and before they had passed over half the distance they were in as good position as if they had gone about it in the most formal manner. It was a reckless movement; but the officers were not responsible for it, as no order was given except to deploy.
Reaching the stream, we found it covered with ice, on which we hoped to cross. One of the foremost boys stepped upon it, and it at once gave way, and let him into the water. Just the top of his head stuck out above the fragments of ice. He was fished out as expeditiously as possible, and the idea of crossing in that way was abandoned. Men came down with axes, and proceeded to fell trees across the run on which to cross. While this was going on, we did our best to keep the rebels down behind their works, and render their fire ineffectual. We soon succeeded in this, but not until they had inflicted some loss. Sullivan was standing a little below me, when a bullet clipped by his left hip, cutting his pants about three inches, but doing no harm. A ball touched my hand as I was capping my gun. Others struck close around. Soon the trees were down, and part of the men crossed, while others kept careful watch on the rebels, and fired rapidly to keep them down. When enough had crossed, perhaps forty or fifty, then every body yelled, and those who had crossed charged the pits, and the rest came crowding over. Some of the rebels surrendered, and a few escaped. As the final charge was made, the line of battle came down, reaching the run just in time to lose some men. There may have been some reason unknown to us for bringing them down; but as far as we could see, it was a mistake. Our loss was fifteen wounded and one or two killed.
The losses of a regiment do not always show its courage nor its effectiveness as a military organization, but rather its lack of discipline, and unskillful handling. The One Hundred and Ninetieth was composed of well-trained, veteran soldiers, and had good officers. This fight shows how such a regiment may incur serious disaster without room for just reflection on the skill, courage, or discipline of men or officers. Had a much stronger force been behind those works, situated as they were, our heedless charge would have resulted in a bloody repulse, unless speedily supported by a charge from the line of battle, which would have involved heavy loss.
The road which we had followed is called the stage-road. Crossing the run, we followed it in the direction of Dinwiddie Court House, until we reached the Quaker road. The enemy was not encountered in our front, but farther to the right there was severe fighting along Hatcher's Run. During the night we moved to a position near Dabney's Mill. I think we followed the Vaughan road. In crossing Gravelly Run, there was some delay in getting the column over. After we had reached the other side, and were waiting for the others, a colonel offended one of the men of Company A, ordering him away from a fire by which the colonel was standing. This called forth some of the liveliest sort of vituperation. Such combinations of opprobrious epithets are rarely exhibited. That man's relatives, near and remote, male and female, were brought into requisition to define the exquisite meanness of his nature and origin. The discomfited nabob appealed to Colonel Pattee for redress, who sent Adjutant Wright back to quiet the boys.
During the day we moved out from our position near the run, into the woods in front, and formed line of battle. The One Hundred and Ninetieth was in the line. The day was dismal. Rain and snow had fallen during the preceding night, and now it was growing colder. Our line advanced over ground partly swampy. In maneuvering to pass one of these difficult places, the Two Hundred and Tenth Pennsylvania was massed behind us, and came crowding close after. Some of the men would break through the crust of ice, and sink into the mud beneath. Among others, George Dunn, notwithstanding the size of his feet, went plunging in, half-way to his knee. When the foot was withdrawn, it was found that the shoe had been left in the depths below. George hesitated, thinking, perhaps, to attempt a rescue; but it was too late. The Two Hundred and Tenth, coming on in close divisions, trampled it down beyond all hope of recovery. Advancing some distance, the line halted. The formation of the Second Division must have been imperfect, on account of the nature of the ground. This probably caused the delay.
On the right a severe engagement was in progress, and in front was some skirmishing. The men, as usual with them when placed in line of battle, were uneasy and dissatisfied. Soon they began to go out, one at a time, then by twos and threes, toward the front. No objection was made by the officers, until the line began to grow thin. A little later, part of the line became engaged; but, as the right of the corps had been checked, we were soon withdrawn, and took a position not far from the run, where we intrenched and held the ground. Here we were on the left, where our line rested on the run. We were considerably annoyed by shells, which came nearly from our rear. Our pits faced down the run, and afforded no protection from shells coming from the enemy's position at our right.
On the morning of the 8th we had orders to "fall in," and soon we were in line, ready to move. Passing to the right a short distance, we halted, at a gap in the rifle-pits, where a road led out to the front; I think it was the Vaughan Road. Soon an aid rode up to Colonel Pattee with orders. Some one inquired, of those standing nearest the colonel, what the orders were. One of them replied, with the utmost seriousness:
"The orders are for the One Hundred and Ninetieth to report in —— in less than ten minutes."
We passed out on this road some distance, and then bore to the right, over ground strewn with dead horses, that had been killed during the cavalry fighting of the preceding days. After advancing about a mile, we halted in open ground, and formed line of battle. On our right, and some distance in front, was timber. We hastily intrenched, for this purpose tearing down a house. We judged that the enemy would not let us remain long undisturbed; nor were we mistaken. Through the still, frosty air we heard the sound of preparation. We could hear the officers giving orders, and the snapping of caps as they prepared to load. Their line of battle extended far past our left, and a line was evidently preparing to come down on our right flank. We threw up pits on each flank, and waited, uncertain of the result. We knew of no arrangement to prevent our being overwhelmed by numbers. This suspense continued for some time, and we expected every moment that the vengeful storm would burst upon us. But now an aid was seen galloping toward us, and we were ordered to withdraw from our exposed position. We lost no time in regaining the works we had left in the morning. What this little side show was for, we could not imagine. Perhaps it was a misunderstanding.
The same day we recrossed Hatcher's Run, and began the construction of permanent works on that side. We worked by reliefs, three hours on duty and three off. We had run out of provisions, and a fresh supply failed to arrive. The men became dissatisfied, and finally refused to work. Threats of compelling them to work were made. The men answered by gathering up their guns and starting for the woods, in the rear. At this point General Warren came down and spoke to the men in a reasonable manner. The mere fact of his coming among them had a good effect on the men. He urged the necessity of the work, and told them that if provisions were not on hand by a given time, he would consent to their ceasing from work. The men then went to work cheerfully.
Jack M'Bride and myself had previously solved, in a measure, the difficult problem of reconciling the conflicting claims of an empty stomach and the vigorous prosecution of the war. As night came on, we retired some distance into the woods, built a fire, and made ourselves comfortable. The next morning we found a piece of pork, which had been lost or thrown away three or four days before. It was good. We scraped the mud from it carefully, and ate it with a relish. We then came back and went to work with the rest.
After these works had been completed, we moved some distance down Hatcher's Run, to a small branch of that stream, called Arthur's Creek. Our position was on the left flank of the army, facing rather toward the rear. For the third time this winter we built winter-quarters. Our camp was pleasantly located, fronting a large farm, in the rear woods. Brigade and division headquarters were in the woods, our picket-line in the open ground beyond the farm-house, a mile from camp.
On the 7th of February, the next day after the fight near Dabney's Mill, I got a Spencer rifle, and kept it until we were mustered out. The spiral spring of the magazine was damaged in some way, so that it would receive only four or five cartridges, instead of seven. I repaired it by taking the spring out entirely. It would then receive nine or ten, and a little practice made the experiment a success.
Duty was light, and our main business was amusing ourselves. For in-door amusement, euchre was the favorite. There was not much gambling, but many fine points were settled by "best three out of five." One form of out-door amusement was the following: A peg was driven into the ground, and to this were fastened two ropes, fifteen or twenty feet long. Two men were then blindfolded, and placed one at the end of each rope, on opposite sides of the peg. To one was given a notched stick, about two feet long; and also another, to rub over it, making a scraping sound. He was called the "scraper." To the other was given a pant-leg, or something of this kind, stuffed with paper or rags. He was called the "pounder," and it was his business to "pound" the scraper, if he could. They were each required to keep hold of his rope. The boys would sometimes stand around a circle of this kind by the hour, and watch the fun. The two would move about with catlike caution, each listening for the other. Sometimes the pounder would think he had the other, sure; and, listening most earnestly, anticipated triumph shining from his face, he would bring his weapon down on nothing. Again, the scraper, thinking the pounder, who was right beside him, was far away, would rest the end of his notched stick on the ground, and draw the other along it, "scrape-scrape," when down would come the pant-leg on his head, followed by shouts of laughter from the audience.
The soldiers built a large tent for religious meetings, and a revival of extraordinary interest took place during our stay here. The noble Christian young men who did this work remember those meetings with satisfaction now, whether they are on earth or in heaven. They conducted them without the aid of a minister. No! they themselves were ministers of God, anointed from on high for this work.
Some of the conversions were remarkable. One young man, whom I had known as a brave, fearless fellow, was converted during a meeting of peculiar power. The change was plain and evident to all. His handsome face was continually bright with the peace of God. He fell in battle, March 31st, and died in the arms of his comrades, who were trying to carry him back when our line was broken and routed.
As Spring drew near came the reviews and various movements that indicate the approach of active operations. Some changes were made in the brigade. It now consisted of the fragments of three Pennsylvania regiments, the One Hundred and Ninetieth, One Hundred and Ninety-first, and One Hundred and Fifty-seventh; two Delaware regiments, now consolidated into one, and the Two Hundred and Tenth Pennsylvania. The latter was a one-year regiment, and almost as large as the rest of the brigade. They were a fine body of men, reliable and well-drilled. There were but five commissioned officers in the One Hundred and Ninetieth. Colonel Pattee and Adjutant Wright, Captain Birkman, Lieutenants Coleman and Peacock. Captain Birkman had charge of Companies A, B, and C. The One Hundred and Ninetieth and One Hundred and Ninety-first acted together as one regiment, under command of Colonel Pattee. The fragment of the One Hundred and Fifty-seventh—not more than forty or fifty men—was regarded as a part of the One Hundred and Ninety-first.
We held this little band in high esteem. They were heroes, every man of them. Captain Carter was in command. We were the Third Brigade, Second Division, Fifth Corps.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END.
On the morning of March 25th, I know not why, our camp was astir earlier than usual. Heavy cannonading could be heard toward the right, but this was nothing uncommon. As time passed on, the noise of strife continued, and seemed to extend farther toward the left. Eating a hasty breakfast, I started toward the scene of action, determined to ascertain the cause of the unusual uproar. When starting from camp, I did not suppose it was any thing more serious than an artillery fight of more than ordinary interest. As I went on the sound swelled to a steady roar, which showed that a determined battle was in progress. Drawing nearer, I saw the troops in line of battle, the shells bursting, and cannon flaming as far as the eye could reach.
I was informed that Fort Steadman had been taken, and a part of our works captured by the enemy. Supposing that we would be ordered to the right to retrieve the disaster, I started to return to camp. I had not proceeded far when I saw the head of the column approaching. I hurried back to camp and procured my gun and accouterments and started to overtake the troops. I was joined by Lewis, who had also been absent. Only the pickets and ordinary camp guard remained. As we passed along we met President Lincoln, General Meade, and staff, coming toward the left. We concluded to greet them with due ceremony. As we met them we halted on the bank by the road and presented arms. The President raised his hat, and turned to General Meade with some humorous remark as they rode on. It seemed a reversal of things for the head of the nation to pass in review before a couple of stragglers.
We found the Second and Third Divisions drawn up in the rear of the works as support, awaiting events. A large number of prisoners passed to the rear while we waited here. Farther to the left, the First Division advanced on the enemy's works, and was repulsed with considerable loss, but succeeded in establishing our lines nearer to those of the enemy. We were not engaged, and returned to our quarters in the evening.
The next morning I started early to visit an acquaintance belonging to the One Hundred and Fifty-fifth Pennsylvania, First Division. It was not yet sunrise when I reached their camp. The acquaintance whom I had come to visit was on picket, and I went out along the line to find him. The pickets were stationed in woods, and the men were engaged in building or strengthening their intrenchments. Passing along the line, I noticed that the men kept close to the pits. I inquired if things were woolly out there, and was informed that the latitude was decidedly unhealthy.
I now noticed a Yankee vidette about twenty-five yards in front, rifle in hand, sticking close to a tree, and scarcely fifty yards farther on, a rebel vidette peered cautiously past another tree. The vigilance with which they watched each other revealed both the danger and security of the situation. If all were watching each other as jealously as these, I could continue my observations with comparative safety. A little farther toward the left I reached open ground. Arrangements had been made, under flag of truce, for burying our dead who had fallen in the battle of the previous day. Quite a number of dead lay scattered over the field, some of them close up to the rebel works. They were carried back within our own lines and buried there. They were carried on blankets, one man taking hold of each corner, and thus bearing them along.
Four men thus engaged, halted with their burden to rest as they were passing near me. In the blanket lay a boy, certainly not more than eighteen or nineteen years old. At first glance you could scarcely believe that he was dead. Surely the grim King could not stamp upon dying clay a smile so pleasant, a laugh so winning, as shone out from those parted lips and half-closed eyes! But just over his heart, half-concealed by his arm, that bloody rent in his blouse showed how he died.
"Somebody's darling is cold and dead."
I looked upon that handsome, boyish face with wonder. The smile was so happy and so life-like that the first impression was only that of light and careless mirth; but the lines curved away into an expression of solemn majesty, is if the passing spirit, thrilled with the full perception of the grandeur of its own immortality, had left this impress on the tenement of clay.
On the way back to camp, evidences were everywhere visible that the final act of the great national tragedy would quickly come on. That afternoon I made ready for active operations by purchasing from the "commissary" a couple of pounds of extra coffee. The regulation quantity was sufficient while in camp; but after a hard day's march there was a strong inclination to throw an extra handful into the old coffee-pot. As a result, the inexperienced frequently found themselves short after a few days, to their discomfort and actual disadvantage.
The next morning, March 27th, I went on picket. Some time after midnight, on the 28th, we were withdrawn, and returned to camp. Orders had come to prepare for the march. The camp was astir with busy life. In a little while our tents, that looked so neat and trim last evening, with their white canvas roofs and clean-swept streets, will be silent, cheerless, and deserted. My tent-mates had taken down our shelter-tents, and I had nothing to do but pack my knapsack, and all was ready.
In some of the dismantled tents the fires still burned, casting their flickering rays upward through the air, while about them, sitting or lounging at ease, were men equipped for the stern work of war, ready to fall into line at the word of command. The stirring scene had in it not a little of sadness. We had passed pleasant hours in this camp. That tender something of association which clings around the thought of "the old campground" breathed through the darkness that night, and glanced in the camp-fires that dimly lighted up the warlike scene. These would be our last Winter-quarters. For some, the next night would bring the quiet "bivouac of the dead."
The strength of the Fifth Corps was as follows:
First Division, General Griffin, 6,180 Second Division, General Ayer, 3,980 Third Division, General Crawford, 5,250 ——— Total, 15,410
The artillery consisted of twenty guns, and there was an escort of forty cavalry.
The march began at three o'clock on the morning of the 29th, the Second Division in the advance. We passed down what was called the stage-road toward Rowanty Creek, the same road on which we had marched February 5th, at the time of the Hatcher's Run fighting. We reached the vicinity of the creek a little after daybreak, and formed line of battle in the open ground south-east of the residence of W. Perkins. Much to our dissatisfaction the One Hundred and Ninetieth was placed in the line, and the Two Hundred and Tenth was deployed as skirmishers. They did not advance till the line was formed, and then not far enough ahead of us to be of any use. Fortunately no enemy was found; but time might have been saved by a prompt advance of the skirmishers without waiting for the line.
Crossing Rowanty without opposition, we followed the stage-road to its junction with the Quaker road. Up this we marched toward Gravelly Run. The First Division, however, followed the stage-road some distance farther. How far we advanced up the Quaker road I am unable to say; but we finally turned to the left, and formed line of battle, facing the west. In our front was quite an expanse of open ground sloping down toward woods beyond. About a hundred yards to our left was a battery, ready for action. The Two Hundred and Tenth was again sent forward to skirmish. They advanced with due form and ceremony until they neared the woods, when they opened fire with such a racket that we supposed the enemy had been found in force. But they soon let up, and presently sent back a solitary prisoner, about as forlorn, dilapidated looking a specimen of grayback as could be imagined.
While we were waiting, John Edgar went down to the battery, in which he had served for a considerable time, detached from his company for this purpose; but he had left it and rejoined his company without being returned in due form. He was at once placed under arrest as a deserter by the officer in command, the man whose brutal treatment had caused Edgar's unauthorized return to the regiment. This made quite a commotion, and might have produced serious trouble; but as soon as Colonel Pattee learned what had occurred, he went down to the battery, and demanded and secured Edgar's release without delay.
After remaining here some time, we moved farther toward the left. Here the One Hundred and Ninetieth deployed as skirmishers, and advanced into the woods, facing the south-west. We remained in this position during the night. Meantime the First Division had passed up the Quaker road. At an old sawmill about half a mile from the Boydton plank-road they encountered the enemy at four in the evening. A brief but terrific conflict ensued, in which the enemy was driven back to the junction of the two roads. We knew from the rapid discharges of artillery and the heavy volleys of musketry that the great struggle had begun. The First Division lost 367 killed and wounded, while the loss of the enemy was heavier.
At dark on the 29th rain began to fall, and continued during the night and the following day, making the roads almost impassable. On the morning of the 30th we left the position held during the previous night, and moved up the Quaker road. Near the sawmill we turned to the left, and crossed the Boydton plank-road near Mrs. Butler's. In the field there were dark patches of blood on the ground, here and there, which the rain had not yet washed out. Guns that had dropped from the hands of wounded or slain, knapsacks, haversacks, accouterments stripped from mangled men ere they were borne from the field, lay scattered on the ground over which we passed.
Near the plank-road, we deployed, and advanced across a branch of Gravelly Run. The right of the regiment rested in open ground, near a negro's house, and the left extended into the woods in a north-west direction. I think the division formed on our left, facing the Whiteoak Road; and we held a gap in our lines, between the Second Corps and our own. Companies A, B, and C were on the right, in the open ground.
In advancing to this point, we were under a sharp fire, to which we did not respond, but hastened to throw up pits. On the left of the regiment the firing was lively, as the men in the woods did not need to be in such haste entrenching. We were ordered to "rally by fours," and each group threw up a separate pit.
I was in the group with Mike Coleman, and had a chance to notice one of his peculiarities. As we advanced to this position, he seemed to be dazed, and almost unconscious of his surroundings. When we halted to entrench, with my most vigorous exhortations I could not arouse him to any interest or exertion. We had no shovel, and must make a pit with rails and stones, which we could gather up in front. I would urge him to carry stones and put them in place. He would perhaps pick up a couple, very leisurely, and lay them on the ground, back of the pit, and then stand with his hands in his pockets. The bullets would whistle around, or strike the ground near him, and he would look about as if he did not understand what it all meant. Yet in battle, he was always cool, brave, and daring.
In a little while we had a pit, capable of stopping a rifle ball, and considered ourselves ready for any ordinary emergency. During the day, the rebels attacked the line on our right, and were repulsed, after a sharp fight, with considerable loss. They also advanced in our front, and opened fire on us; but only as accessory to the more determined movement on our right. The left of the regiment returned the fire; but we could not see the enemy, and there seemed no reason to justify a random fire.
There was a man in Company C who was usually troubled with a deficiency in his knees at such times. Though sufficiently warlike and lion-hearted by nature, no doubt, yet his legs were his undoing. They worked very well, when steered for the rear, but otherwise they were a failure. When the firing began on the right, he took his position behind the pit with an air of great determination. Pointing his gun—a Springfield rifle—toward the enemy, he sat crouching low, and looking intently toward the brush in front. The boys were sitting or standing around, dividing their attention between the skirmish, partly visible through the trees, and R——, whose warlike attitude and evident terror called forth good-natured raillery.
"Steady on the left, R——!"
"Cut her loose, R——!"
"Give 'em ——, R——!"
Such were a few of the cheering exhortations which greeted that redoubtable warrior. To all these he paid no heed. I suppose, in spite of his fears, a few shells, a sharp volley, or even a charge from the enemy, would have given him profound satisfaction—if unharmed himself—as a vindication of his prudent vigilance. Nothing of the kind occurred, and soon things resumed their former comparative quiet.
There was not much done during the day, except to get troops in position and prepare for the struggle of the morrow. There was some skirmishing, but our losses were not heavy—less than two hundred in the two corps, the Fifth and Second.
As night approached, a vidette was placed in front of each pit, near the edge of the woods, which was about forty yards in advance. It was not yet dark when the first man was posted here, and fire was at once opened on him, by invisible marksmen in the woods.
At first the bullets went whistling over, but soon they came lower, and began to strike the fence by which he was standing,—right, left, close,—with a savage snap. Up to this time our vidette stood it with seeming indifference; but, as the splinters began to fly from the fence, his indifference gave place to a lively interest, which called forth the laughter of the sympathizing spectators. He threw down his gun, and hastily piled rails together for a protection, and took refuge behind them.
Night came on, dark and gloomy, the rain continued to fall, and the soldiers lay down on the water-soaked earth to take what rest they could. I made a comfortable bed, by leaning two rails against the rifle-pit. On these I bestowed myself, and drew over me my rubber blanket. My knapsack was placed under my bed, to protect it from the rain. My haversack served for a pillow, and, with my cartridge box, which had not been removed since the morning of the 27th, still strapped around me, and my rifle in my hands, I sank to sleep, the rain pattering on the blanket over my head.
About four o'clock, Sergeant Hasler woke me up to go on vidette post. I arose and followed him in the deep darkness. Reaching the man whom I was to relieve, instructions were given in a whisper, and in a moment I was alone.
This was the last watch of the night, and if a surprise was contemplated by the enemy, the attempt would be made during these two hours. The rebel pickets were close at hand, and occasional sounds and voices had been heard by my predecessor. The rain dripped monotonously from the trees, and now and then a breath of wind moaned drearily through their branches. The ear alone could detect approaching danger; and thus, with rifle in hand, I listened, jealously noting every sound.
Time passed on, and at length the almost painful darkness began to disperse. Objects very near could be indistinctly discerned. What if all those weary men back there should sleep till clearer light should made me a mark for the unseen foe, that did such good shooting last evening? Why were not the videttes, at least, advanced into the underbrush, instead of being posted at its edge, to be shot at by rebel sharpshooters? Thoughts like these were running through my mind as daylight approached. But all anxiety was allayed before long, by the sergeant calling me to come in.
We made a hasty breakfast, and then the waiting of the preceding day continued. Every rifle stood loaded where it could be grasped in a moment. As time passed on, there was an evident uneasiness on the left. About ten o'clock, the occasional picket firing increased to the sharper rattle of skirmishing, and then deepened to the roar of battle, as the sound of continuous volleys rolled through the woods, mingled with the bellow of cannon and the hiss of shells. Every man now stood with rifle in hand, ready for the decisive moment which had evidently come. Above the noise of musketry and cannon we could sometimes hear the well-known rebel yell, and knew that they were charging with all their force. Now the horrid uproar could be heard moving backward toward the run. But now orders have come. Word is immediately sent along the line to assemble on the right. The Sixteenth Maine will relieve us. Colonel Pattee mounts his horse.
"Forward, double quick, march!"
We plunge into the woods, following the road toward the left. Shells crash through the trees, and bullets patter around like hail. The left of the division was flanked and hopelessly turned. The right was stubbornly resisting, but giving way before the overpowering force that was crowding down upon it. We halted and faced the front, advancing a short distance from the road toward the fighting. Wounded men were limping past. We could see the smoke through the trees, and the men slowly yielding, fighting as they came.
Colonel Pattee gave an order, but we could not hear a word. We all knew what it ought to be, and instantly deployed. The line, broken and shattered, went back past us, and we met the enemy with the rapid fire of our repeating rifles. We brought them to a stand in our front. If fresh troops could have been thrown in on our left, the disaster could have been retrieved at this point, and the rebel charge hurled back; but our flanks were exposed, and we were many times outnumbered, and in danger of being surrounded. There was nothing left but to get out of that the best we could.