91st PA: Walter, part 1

Thomas F Walter, 'Personal Recollections', part 1

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[source: Grand Army Scout and Soldiers' Mail, volume 3, number 35, page 1]

PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS AND EXPERIENCES OF AN Obscure Soldier, BY T. F. WALTER, Company A, 91st P. V. V., Post 8, Phila.

We being located close to the new capitol building, myself and others frequently went over and wandered about in it, visiting the senate and representative chambers, and admiring the beautiful art work that so plentifully abounded in most every part of the structure. The dome and rotunda received there [sic] share of attention, and the grand paintings there were scanned again and again. At that time the extreme top of the dome was not finished, and no work was being done on it. Visitors could only go as high as an outside gallery that is around it; that, I suppose, is sixty or seventy feet below where the goddess of liberty now stands. There was a scaffold up to the extreme height, the upper part of which was very frail looking, and a fifteen foot ladder loosely tied in a perpendicular manner, led to the top. One day I concluded that I would like to take in the splendid view that might be had from that very elevated position. By a little dexteritous [sic] climbing, I got from the upper gallery through a window aperature [sic] that was above my head, and quickly mounted the swinging ladder. Only a strong will and steady nerves enabled me to keep on and stand on the little platform that formed the summit.

I cannot do justice to the beautiful, interesting and suggestive prospect that was spread out, around and beneath me. The bright waters of the Potomac could be seen for several miles above and below the city. The teams and pedestrians that thronged Pennsylvania avenue were mere pygmies in size. Georgetown and Alexandria were distinct in the near distance. The President's house, the patent office, post office, treasure buildings, the navy yard, Smithsonian Institute, Long Bridge, Arlington, the unfortunate Washington Monument and camps and forts on every side, and much more that was in plain sight, formed a panorama that was never to be forgotten.

In other leisure hours I took in the interesting sights in the patent office and [three illegible words], but did not enter the president's house or see its illustrious occupant. I was not very anxious to see him, because I had been [two or three illegible words] him about a year before, when he raised the Stars and Stripes over Independence Hall, in Philadelphia. During the latter part of our stay at the old capital an event occurred in which our regiment shed the life-blood of a rebel for the first time.

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A member of Co. C was on guard in the yard one day, when one of the citizen prisoners in the second story came to the window and cursed and dared the guard to fire on him. [The guard may have been Ambrose Baker; the prisoner was Jesse B Wharton; other reports of this incident are available.] A young corporal of our company had charge of the guard just then, and when he came around the sentinal told what had happened. He told the guard that if the offence was repeated he was to shoot. The man soon returned and began a fresh tirade against the government and the guard, when the guard shot him through the arm and chest, so that he died in a few minutes.

The rebel was a man of means and influence, and his shooting seemed to have stirred up some indignation outside as well as inside the prison, for a few days afterward both the corporal and sentinal were arrested and confined in uncomfortable quarters in the Central Guard House. [Representative Charles B Calvert asked for an investigation.]

About this time also, the first death in our company occurred. A young man whose family at home were poor died of a fever in the hospital. [perhaps G J Bernstein, who died on 13 April 1862] Some of his friends began to canvass the company with a view to forming an association to send his body home, as well as the bodies of any other comrades who might die in the service. I opposed it at once. I said the family would have one great grief when they heard of his death, and another great grief and a serious expense when they received the body. I argued that it was better that they should remember him as they had seen him in health and that we owed the dead no more than circumstances forced us to spend on them. I asked that no money or ceremony be wasted on me after the breath was out of me. The subject was then dropped and was not revived among us again.

On the 27th of April, 1862, the regiment was relieved from duty at Washington and transferred by steamer to Alexandria, Virginia, to do provost duty there. Here the command was divided as before, and quartered in different locations about the city in private residences whose owners had gone South to serve the Confederacy. Co. A was quartered in a nice three-story brick house on Washington street near King. King was the main business street, and Washington was a wide, clean avenue; and though our house had been cleared of nearly all its furniture, we had very pleasant quarters. But few Virginians remained in the city, and of these, quite a number made their sentiments known by going out of their way rather than walk under the flag we had hung over the pavement. The old Episcopal Church that Washington had sometimes attended in his day was close by, and I attended service there once or twice. [Christ Church; see http://www.historicchristchurch.org, which says that US Army chaplains conducted services there, with an army congregation displacing the original parishioners, who largely were Confederate sympathizers.] The Marshall House, where Colonel Ellsworth was shot, was also near, and a regular slave-pen or slave-market on the southwestern edge of the city was an emphatic reminder to us of the cause of the war and the peculiar chivalry of the South. [On 24 May 1861, James Jackson, the innkeeper of the Marshall House, shot Col. Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth, of the 11th NY Infantry, as he was removing a Confederate flag from a hotel.]

The slave-dealing firm who had this establishment in the days when such places flourished, must have been wealthy and aristocratic, for they had good accomodations for themselves as well as extensive and strong quarters for their stock-in-trade.

To those of us who were familiar with the abolition arguments and literature that were popular at home, then pen, the cells and the dungeons were very suggestive. We had been several weeks in Alexandria and still our corporal and the sentinel, who were concerned in the shooting of the rebel at the old capital-prison, were kept in close and filthy confinement at Washington. One morning our captain [sc. Frank Gilbert] called me into his room and told me that though there were no written charges against them, the several efforts that had been made to have them released had been without effect. He asked me to write a petition in their favor, and the major, [sc. George Todd] who was going up to Washington, would present it to President Lincoln.

The corporal was a fellow of such excellent character, that I was glad of a chance to serve him, so I wrote it and made it strong, and it went to the president, and before the day was past the men were free and had rejoined their companies.

One of my pleasantest reminiscences of the fine old town we were in, is of the swimming we had there during that summer in the Potomac River. During the hottest weather there would sometimes be as many as twenty of our company at one time diving, swimming or floundering about in the water. I and several others who were expert and fond of that kind of exercise made most too frequent use of our opportunities. [Bates lists two soldiers as dying of drowning at Alexandria: William Campbell (d.31 May 1862) and John Mallon (d.26 Apr 1862).]

About the middle of June, Gordon, myself and the corporal, recently out of prison, concluded to visit Mount Vernon. [Two Gordan's served in the 91st: George Gordan, a private in company G, and James Gordan, a sergeant in company A. The latter seems more likely to be this Gordon, given his company.] As we would be gone all day, and as the way was not entirely safe, we were afraid the captain would not give us permission if asked, so we decided to go on "French leave." The only way to get there was to walk. I believe the distance is eight miles. Selecting a day when neither of us would be on guard and having some extra grub on hand, we arose before the rest of the comrades were astir, and set gaily off on the road leading south from the city. When we had gone about four miles, we stopped and had a lunch and a short rest, meanwhile speculating on what would be said when the morning roll-call made our disappearance known. We soon trudged on, and though the road became wild, woody and lonely, we kept going until we came to a deserted lodge and a dilapidated gateway on the east side of the road.

We thought it was time to turn off, so we followed the obscure track through the gateway, and after going a half mile or so through woods, came to some fields, and very soon after to the celebrated home we were seeking. We approached the home with some caution, for being runaways, we wanted to meet neither friends nor foes. I believe we did not see any person about the place, though the garden and buildings showed that they were being cared for. The house was open and we walked through the wide hall and looked into the lower rooms, but there was little of value to be seen. I suppose much of the belongings of the house had been removed to Washington city for safety.

We spent some time on the front porch and at the tomb, and loitered about the well, the orchard and the out-buildings. Cherries were ripe and several trees near by tempted us with their loads of red and black fruit. Their limbs hung near the ground and we ate all we wanted, and, of course, made some remarks about truthful George Washington and his immortal little hatchet. The moral of that hatchet-story went right to our stomachs with the fruit, and I expect we have been more inclined to the truth ever since.

About the middle of the afternoon we started leisurely homeward, and got safely into our quarters about dusk. Our return was soon reported, and we were summoned before the captain. [sc. Frank Gilbert] We supposed that we were in a scrape, but as it was our first offence of the kind, we escaped with only a decided reprimand. I thought afterwards what a verdant and inexcusable pair we would have been had we been "gobbled" on this trip by some scouting party of the enemy and sent to Richmond, or stripped of our uniforms and sent back to our command.

The house we were quartered in stood alone, and the sun had nearly a clear chance at it, so when the sultry weather of July and August came, sleeping at home became very difficult on account of the heat and mosquitoes; some of us would quietly go out after last roll-call and crawl through the window of an unused Methodist Church close by, and spread ourselves down on the carpet in the aisles. Here we had a better chance, as there was plenty of room for the heat to rise and no light or open windows to favor the mosquitoes.

But even this did not always satisfy us. A couple of squares away was a Presbyterian Church that had a cupola on, around the upper part of which was a narrow gallery. Several nights we groped our way up to this gallery, and with music books from the choir for pillows, snoozed in the open air. If there was any breeze we were sure to get it, and we were too high for the blood-sucking insects. We felt, on those occasions, that though we were quite young, we were occupying very high positions in the military service of our country, and that our religious elevation was far above the average height of other soldiers.

During those times battalion drills were frequent. The colonel [sc. Edgar Gregory] being provost marshall, the instructing of our regiment devolved on the lieutenant-colonel [sc. Edward Wallace] and major [sc. George Todd].

They proved quite efficient, and the command became well versed in the most important tactical movements. The adjutant [sc. Benjamin Tayman] gave us non-commissioned officers a good deal of practical instruction in our duties, and the drum major gave his corps such attention that they became fairly proficient performers. [See general order 18, paragraph 3, 91st PA, 8 May 1862, about the adjutant's training non-coms.]

Our dress parades were nearly perfect, and our drum and fife corps, for three years, was among the best in the army. When out in force our company would make an excellent appearance, and might have easily been mistaken for regulars.

As the summer wore away many of our men became tired of the monotonous and exacting duty we were performing. The details for guard and patrol duty took about half the the [sic] command each day and when the men were not on duty, they often had to drill or do duty as escort and firing party at the funerals from the various hospitals about the city.

Much growling and comment was indulged in, and many expressions not complimentary to the officers or general character of the regiment were uttered. Of course, we were aware that we had great cause to be thankful, that we were escaping so easily the extreme dangers and privations of the front; still there were many complainers, and we were taunted and jeered at times by those who were familiar with the whistle of bullets and the whine of shells. For the general good of the organization, I was in favor of taking the field. There were strong influences of demorilazation about Alexandria that no amount of vigilance or severity seemed able to overcome. Whisky and bad women seemed to be doing the regiment as much harm as the rebels were likely to with powder and ball. It was not until the 28th of August, and some of us had been more than a year in service, that our provost duty ended and we went into camp a short distance southwest of the city at Cloud's Mills.

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revised 10 Jun 12
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