91st PA: Walter, part 2

Thomas F Walter, 'Personal Recollections', part 2

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[Grand Army Scout and Soldiers' Mail v.3 #35 p.2 continued]

We had been "feather-bed," "band-box" and "soft-bread' soldiers a good while, but the end of that kind of soldiering had come, and we began fairly to realize it when our little shelter tents were issued to us, which proved that in subsequent migrations we were expected to carry our homes as well as our arms, wardrobe, utensils and rations.

We had a few days of pleasant rest, and then one midnight were ordered to pack up and fall in. We were soon tramping the highway that led in the direction of Fairfax, Manassas and the enemy. [This was on 28 August 1862.]

Our company being the first of the regiment as well as the strongest and best drilled, formed the advance guard, and was kept a considerable distance ahead of the column. We marched quietly and leisurely on without knowing anything definite of our destination or the reason of our night expedition. When daylight came we we [sic] had gone about ten miles, and were so far ahead that the rest of the regiment were not in sight. We halted at a stone bridge and spent an hour in loitering about and getting breakfast. Then we took the back track and the whole command returned to our former camp.

We learned that we had been out as escort to a wagon-train that carried supplies to a division of McClellan's army, that then was creeping along to reinforce Pope. We found that we had breakfasted near Fairfax, and the rebels were in possession of that place at the time. Had a a [sic] squadron of the enemy's cavalry dashed among us while we were fooling about that bridge, they could have "scooped" in our whole company.

That day the second battle of Bull Run was fought [sc. 29-30 August], and hundreds of Pope's brave men were sacrificed to the McClellanism that then cursed the Union forces in Virginia, and the mismanagement that prevailed at Washington. I felt that we ought to have been in the fight, and wrong had been done to those who were there and so sorely needed our support. [for another event that probably occurred on that trip, see 'A straddle bug']

Several days more sped away and then one sultry, dusty morning we were marched clear to Washington to attend the funeral of a paymaster. I suppose there were fifty regiments nearer the capital than we were, but we were the victims. The regiment, though not strong in numbers, was good at marching, and making a good soldierly appearance.

After this, a week or more was spent in marching and counter-marching about Washington, and about the time Lee crossed into Maryland we had made a halt at Meredian Hill, which is just beyond the north side of the city. McClellan was again in command of the Army of the Potomac, and needed reinforcements to overwhelm Lee.

We became part of a brigade of four regiments, then formed and placed under command of General H. B. Tyler, of Ohio. He was a good officer, who had seen some hard sacrifice in the Shenendoah Valley. The other three regiments were new and green troops, and two of them were enlisted for nine months only. [The other regiments were the 140th and 146th New York Infantry (the nine-months regiments), and the 155th Pennsylvania Infantry. The brigade was actually formed earlier, on 21 August. Perhaps Walter is thinking of the division, which was formed only on 12 September (see Humphreys' statement).]

[Grand Army Scout and Soldiers' Mail v.3 #36 p.1]
Early in the morning of the day that we started on our Maryland campaign [presumably 14 or 15 September 1862], an order was issued that, to enable the men to march longer and faster, the knapsacks would be turned over to the quartermaster. [see lost property] He was to secure safe storage for them and when we were settled in camp again, they would be forwarded to us. This plan pleased most of the men greatly, as most of them had bulky knapsacks and knew what an inconvenient burden they were on long marches in hot weather. I was opposed to this arrangement at once; my baggage was not much either for size or value, but I was not inclined to trust it in Washington, as I said quietly to the boys around me. Several others were of the same mind, and when the line was formed, we fell in with our extra duds and sundries in their usual place. The colonel [sc. Edgar Gregory] came along and wanted to know what we men were doing with knapsacks? and had there been time we would have been ordered out to give them up. As it was there was a growl and we were allowed to retain them.

At this time I was one of the regular color bearers of the regiment, though it was a distinction I was in no wise partial to. Our regiment, like many others, always had a State, as well as National colors, or at least we had as much of them as their hard service allowed to hang together. I did not object to the colors because they increased my chances of being shot, but because they kept so close to the ranks. The color-sergeants and color-guard had to be first in line when the regiments was found, and were last to get away when the command was dismissed. We had no chance to do any foraging on the march, neither could we feel as free when off duty in camp.

Three or four days of moderately hard marching brought us to the vicinity of Frederick City Junction, on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and near to Monocacy Creek. The weather was fine and our route was through a highly cultivated part of Maryland [16 September 1862]. It was the middle of September, and the country looked beautiful, and some of the orchards by the way were gorgeous with tempting fruit. Our column, however, was allowed to do very little foraging. When we got to the Monocacy we were on ground lately occupied by the Confederates, and here we got some of the details of Miles' [p.2] misfortune at Harper's Ferry, two days before.

The day we arrived here the battle of Antietam was fought [16-17 September 1862], and again we had been cleared of the struggle and danger that I thought we should have shared. It was said that the division we belonged to was on the reserve, but I made up my mind that we had been reserved entirely too far in the rear if it was intended to carry on the war vigorously on our side.

The night after the battle we made a march of near eighteen miles, and the following morning went on the battlefield near the Sharpsburg Pike. [17 September 1862] There had been hard fighting over the ground, but only a few prominent traces of it now remained. The victors had gone from the field, some of the dead had been buried, the wounded removed, and the litter and wreck of army outfit pretty generally carried off. In one spot on the spike lay four artillery horses that had appeared to have been killed by one shell. Some of our men found two dead rebels in a small house near the eastern end of Sharpsburg, who seemed who [sic] have been shot dead while trying to hide or looking for plunder, for one was in a loft and the other in a closet.

We soon moved forward and to the left towards the Potomac, and spent some time near a battery that was throwing shells across the river. We moved forward a little again, and then many of the men were taken down to the river bank to act as sharpshooters. [This occurred on 20 September 1862.] The rest of us could not see what was going on down at the river, but it seemed probable that a crossing was to be attempted, and it looked likely that we would soon be made familiar with the music of a fight under circumstances favorable to the enemy, and particularly unfavorable to us color bearers. Our sharpshooters soon came back and we learned that another command had been across, but had been repulsed with serious loss.

The movement seemed to have been only a feint to discover what force of the foe remained opposite; but it proved a very severe experiment to the 118th Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia organization, in which our men had many acquaintances. [They suffered 269/737 casualties (36%); see their report.] The Potomac, at this point, a short distance below Sheppardstown, is easily fordable, being generally less than waist deep, and less than three hundred yards wide. The opposite bank is bold and hilly, and though not wooded, gave the enemy great advantage. After this we went into camp a mile or more west of Sharpsburg, and it was "all quiet along the Potomac" once more.

We now belonged to the 3d Division of the 5th Army Corps, commanded by Gen. F. J. Porter, and realized that we were surely a part of that great organization called the Army of the Potomac, and were likely to be full sharers in its fortunes. Our new abode was on a nice open piece of ground, and as soon as we were fairly settled there, an agitation began about the knapsacks that had been left at Washington. [see lost property]

Weeks passed and not one came; neither did any postal matter reach us. Finally an officer was sent to make special effort to rectify these matters, but he accomplished nothing, and never came back himself; so the knapsacks were given up as lost. I got considerable credit for having gumption enough to hold on to mine. [This was probably George Eyre, the regimental quartermaster, who died of disease in Philadelphia on 31 December 1862.] Matters remained very quiet for nearly a month, or until the 16th of October.

At dawn on that day our brigade marched back to the ford of the Potomac, and waded the river without opposition. Several regiments of Regulars had gone over ahead of us; we were to form the reserve of a strong reconnoitering force. We passed up through Sheppardstown, and out on the highway leading westward. We had gone but a short distance when the booming of cannon ahead intimated that our excursion was going to be attended with some diversion.

Our regiment was deployed across the road so as to cover a space about a quarter of a mile wide, and we moved slowly forward through an open and cultivated country. The firing in our front did not increase, but sounded only at irregular and lengthy intervals, and it seemed to recede about as fast as we advanced. We concluded the Regulars were driving a small force of the enemy, and that they only stopped to send back a few compliments when they had an extra good chance.

So matters went on until near the middle of the afternoon, when we were halted for an hour near a substantial farm house. No tenants were seen, and some of the men began to investigate the premises. Some bloody bandages and other evidence of wounded men having been cared for there were found. In ransacking the house, the only additional interesting find was about a dozen large jars of preserves, and these were soon divided around to help sweeten the existence of us Yanks.

We leisurely retraced our steps after this for several miles, and as night came on, rain began to fall in torrents. By the time it was pitch dark we got back to where a reserve force was lying along the road.

Here we were marched into a field of standing corn and invited to make ourselves comfortable for the night. How very kind and considerate this attention was, as well as how much we were gratified, will be better understood when I tell a little more of our circumstances. Having been on the go since daybreak we were pretty well exhausted; having breakfasted light, taken a slim dinner and no taste of supper, we were sure we were hungry. We were also confident that we were wet to the skin and chilly. All the fences were completely soaked, and fires and coffee could not be made to give us their comforting influence. Many of the men had left their blankets and pieces of tent in camp not expecting to be away all night. Intense darkness and rainfall continued until past midnight, and rivulets formed in the furrows made by the last plowing to "tall up" the corn.

Our condition was such that a man needed a little time to consider just how to fix himself to be entirely comfortable. You may be sure there were [sic] some wild swearing done as well as a large number of emotional and imprecational remarks indulged in. I was a character that was too self-possessed to take matters other than calmly, and I soon made up my mind that I was tired enough to sleep even if I was wet, cold and famished; but I wanted to find a spot where I could snooze without being flooded. A few yards in front of the company I found the stump of a tree. The ground close to it was a little elevated and had not been plowed. Here I made my bed by cutting an armful of the full-grown cornstalk with my pocket-knife and throwing them on the ground. I turned in with my head to the stump, my blanket covering me all over. I soon slept, but every little while would be awakened by the vehement remarks of some comrade whose bed had become too watery for him. Sometime between midnight and dawn I awoke suddenly and found the heads of two horses over me and their fore feet within a few inches of my body. I raised up a little and could just make out that the horses were mounted.

A clear voice asked, "Who's here?".

I said, "Don't you men ride through this cornfield, it's full of infantry."

They wheeled their horses and rode quietly away towards the front, and I was asleep again. I can hardly doubt that they were a pair of rebel scouts, and that I would have been ridden over had not the horses refused to go forward. [sc. 17 October 1862] Morning came, clear and pleasant, and continuing our retreat we had soon waded the Potomac again, and were back to our old camp.

Thus ended our first reconnoiscence [sic], and the regiment's loss was only one man, a member of Co. K, who was killed or captured while venturing some distance away from the flank of the command. [I couldn't find anyone listed in Bates as dying on 16 or 17 October 1862. Perhaps he was captured and exchanged.] Matter remained quiet about the camp for some time, except that we were on picket in force at Antietam Bridge for several days, at the time Stuart made his brilliant raid around our army and gave us the slip so effectually.

This humiliation of our army, as well as its inefficiency, after all its experience, must have afforded a soldier so practical and vigorous as him, a good deal of amusement. The government, at this time, was using balloons for observing the enemy, and one of the balloon-stations was close to our camp, and added some interest to our life as the beautiful autumn days went by. Two or three signal stations were in sight also, and we became familiar with the spasmodic gyrations of those "wonderful flags that talk."

Finally, on the 30th of October, tents were again struck, and with the rest of the army, our faces were turned southward. Along the base of South Mountain and through Happy Valley to Harper's Ferry was our route. The autumn scenery in the valley and along the cultivated and wild side of the great hills was superb, and was a good prelude to the grand scenery that environs the meeting-place of the Potomac and Shenandoah. At Harper's Ferry we crossed both of these rivers, and bearing east followed the road that leads south along the east base of the Blue Ridge.

Three nights afterward [probably 2 November 1862] we and a large part of the army bivouacked in the vicinity of Snicker's Gap, we resting close to the highway that crosses the mountains here. The following morning our regiment was sent to the top of the mountain a little distance south of the road, where we made ourselves easy on a pleasant open piece of ground. Soon after getting off our accoutrements, the lieutentant-colonel, several others and myself, started off for a short scout, taking a westerly direction which led us toward the enemy. About the same time a column of infantry started through the gap, on the road, on an advance for observation, I suppose. [Perhaps this is the reconnaissance to and skirmish at Snicker's Gap that occurred on 3 November 1862, with the 1st Mass Cavalry, and the 6th, 7th, and 14th US infantry (Dyer, v.3, p.910). Hill briefly describes this reconnaissance from the Confederate viewpoint.] When they reached an open, level space near the edge of the Shenandoah River they were opened on by a masked rebel battery that was admirably posted on high ground on the other side. Our little party being well up on the west side of the mountain, had a full view of the firing of this battery, it being distant only half a mile. Ere we returned to camp we sighted a lank hog, of the "racer" species, and after firing enough bullets at it to bring down a grizzly bear, it fell into our hands, and its carcase was divided among us; it furnished fresh pork for our suppers.

This, I believe, was the only time during my military service that I foraged for fresh meat. My system made no demand for flesh under the severest courses of duty, so that, except to gratify a taste for variety, it mattered not to me whether I ate meat at any season of the year. I was a poor forager, anyhow, as I shrank from butchering of any kind, and was always backward about invading any premises in search of meal barrels, cured pork or other eatables. Fruits and vegetables were the usual objects of my efforts to forage, and my comrades soon knew that I could distinguish fruit trees of most any kind at a great distance.

The first night we spent on the mountain top we were visited by a furious gale. We had no tents up, and with the hurricane about us sleeping was well nigh impossible. I remember gathering a lot of large stones to pile up to windward of my knapsack in the hope of getting enough protection for my head so that I could get into a little nap.

Another day and night passed and early the succeeding morning we were on the march again, being the rear guard of McClellan's south-moving army. By way of Middleburg and White Plains we traveled, and after two or three days tramping we came to another lengthy halt at a pleasant spot between New Baltimore and Warrenton. Here McClellan left us, and we were drawn up in line along the road to witness the departure of the army's "Old Commander." [7 November 1862] Our brigade commander, General Tyler, still had faith in him, and told us we were losing a good officer. In the 91st Pennsylvania he had few friends; still there was a number that were rampant in his favor, and could see nothing but disaster in store for us without him as our leader. A little corporal of our company named Zane [sc. Simeon Zane], was so earnest and outspoken for little "Little Mac" for several months after he was relieved, that some of the comrades called him McClellan until the end of the war. From the matter he had wasted his time and his army in the swamp and ditches before Yorktown, I had not been able to rest much hope on him, and though I did not expect to relish fighting or enjoy hard campaigning, I could not help objecting to his hesitating and dilatory way of carrying on the war, so that when he, accompanied by his numerous staff disappeared on his homeward journey, I felt a kind of relief and took new courage.

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