91st PA: Walter, part 4

Thomas F Walter, 'Personal Recollections', part 4

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[Grand Army Scout and Soldiers' Mail v.3 #38 p.2 continued]

I soon had a full account of how the regiment and company had gone through the terrible ordeal of the Fredericksburg fight. They had borne a full part in one of the bravest charges that were made up the heights and on the stone wall back of the town, as well as doing other important duty. Our company had been pretty fortunate, as usual, but one man being killed on the field, and three severely wounded. [Amos Godfrey was killed, and James Gordan, James Lewis, and Henry Mason were wounded.] All three of the wounded were quite young fellows, and one of them showed a remarkable example of self-possession. He was shot through the body near the waist while upon the charge, when he brought his musket to a proper position on his shoulder, and with his other hand in the breast of his coat, he walked off the field. To a comrade who asked where he was going, he only replied, "I'm shot; I'm going back to the hospital." He lived several years, but never fully recovered.

Several important changes had occurred among the officers of the regiment. The major [sc. George Todd] was killed at Fredericksburg, and the lieutenant-colonel [sc. Edward Wallace] had resigned on a plea of ill-health. Our captain [sc. Frank Gilbert] and another of our second lieutenants [sc. Randolph Smith] had left us on the same plea. Our former first lieutenant [sc. Francis Gregory] was now captain, and the first sergeant [sc. John Brass] at time of my capture was commissioned to fill the place he had vacated. I had been promoted to first sergeant, and was entitled to a second lieutenant's commission. A feeling of better harmony and comradeship was apparent in the company since their late hardships. We, when first organized as a company, were made up of several pretty distinct lots or cliques of men. There was a strong squad known as the Fishtowners, or "Shad Hose" fellows, while another squad of a dozen or more were the Ringgold Hose gang.

The Thirteenth Ward Home Guard was the parent of our organization, and was represented by a goodly party, and lastly there was a promiscuous lot of chaps, who, like myself, were outsiders to all the rest. A little spirit of clannishness and jealousy had been an annoyance, until the fiery and bloody trials of Fredericksburg had made each to have a higher and closer regard for the other. Gen. Hooker had succeeded General Burnside in the command of the Army of the Potomac, and important reforms in its organization were taking place, and our men seemed to be in good heart, notwithstanding the late disastrous fight and unfortunate "Dead March" campaign.

The usual camp duties and picketing on the north side of the army employed us for several weeks, and then on the 13th of April the regiment left its winter quarters and went to guard two of the fords just above us, on the Rapahannock River.

Half of the command went to Banks' Ford, that is five or six miles above Fredericksburg, and the other half, including us, was sent several miles still further up to take care of United States Ford. Neither of these river crossings had ever been much used, I believe, and the country in their vicinity was hilly and woody.

The rebels had fortified their side of the river a little, and a guard was there, but we seldom saw any of them, and no firing was indulged in. A week or ten days were spent at the ford, and then we were relieved by other troops and went back to our old camp near Falmouth. [Apparently on 25 April 1863.]

On the morning of April 28, 1863, there was a general stir up of the army, that indicated the proximity of important events. Pack up was the order, and every article not absolutely necessary on a short campaign, was to be left behind. We had eatables for a day on hand, but five days' additional rations were issued, with instructions to use them carefully. It was an absurd fraud to issue such an amount of food to foot soldiers about to start on an arduous campaign. Four days' allowance of crackers, meat, coffee and sugar filled our haversacks and few of us had any facilities for carrying the rest elsewhere, except inside of us.

Haversacks crammed full became a very inconvenient part of our load on the march, and when so much stuff was given out a lot had to be uselessly eaten or else abandoned. Many others beside myself left part of out "grub" and trusted to the chances of the future.

Early in the afternoon we left camp, and formed part of a large force that moved off in a northerly direction. The march that day was not a very long one, and we slept by the roadside that night. The next day's [sc. 29 April 1863] march brought us to Kelly's Ford, on the Rapahannock, soon after the middle of the afternoon. A pontoon bridge was here, and by dusk all the troops seemed to be across the river. Night came on, but instead of preparing to sleep, we took the advance of our column and moved off along an obscure road, in a south-westerly direction. Some of us who knew the general lay of affairs soon surmised that we were on a move against the rear and flank of Lee's army, but who could have believed that we could make it by such a circuitous route, with enough secrecy and celerity to accomplish any very important result. Early in the night a drizzly, chilling rain began to fall, and our trail leading nearly the whole time through woods, made our march intensely gloomy and uncomfortable. Nor were these our only difficulties, for a lot of wagons and artillery having got ahead of us, we had a weary time in getting past them. For near two hours, I think, we could only advance a few hundred yards at a time, and then halt for a few minutes.

Loaded as we were with our tents, bedding, wardrobe, cooking utensils, arms and ammunition, with a full haversack in addition, and impeded besides by the gloom, rain and mud, this became indeed a memorable night. When we would stop half of the men would sink by the roadside and be asleep in a minute. I snatched a few minutes of slumber while standing or walking. Finally the long night wore away, and the morning [sc. of 30 April] came clear, as we toiled on. Forward, was still the command, until shortly after noon, when we came to an open space at Ely's Ford, on the Rapidan River. Here we had a chance to make coffee and get a couple of hours nap. Then we were in line again, and moved down to the verge of the river, where we prepared for a fresh ordeal. We had to wade the stream, which was over a hundred yards wide, with a swift current, that was cold and deep.

During the next forenoon [sc. 1 May] we advanced to Chancellorsville, and soon afterwards led a column that moved up a road leading toward Banks' Ford, on the Rappahannock.

We now knew that we were well around in rear of the rebels, and were astonished that matters were going on so quietly. We had even seen fires burning that the enemy had used to cook by that morning, and were quite sure that we had surprised them. We marched slowly a couple of miles and then made an "about-face" and moved back. [on 1 May 1863] Just as we neared the Chancellor house musketry firing was heard on our left.

[Grand Army Scout and Soldiers' Mail v.3 #39 p.1]
Artillery soon began to boom and the fight to wax fierce, but instead of us hurrying over to take a hand in it, we tramped off in a northerlly direction, and afterward went east for a short distance towards United States Ford. Our regiment formed a line of battle near the edge of a field, and began to build a breast-work of logs and earth. A strong picket force was put out and some batteries of artillery were masked a short distance to our left. A big entertainment seemed to be in immediate expectation right there.

The day and the night passed away in quietness, and as we did not hear much sound of strife to the south of us, we began to consider that Lee's army must be making tracks in the direction of Richmond.

The second day and night [2 May] came and went without a break in our unaccountable tranquility.

On the third morning [3 May] a lot of straggling organizations, of the 11th Corps, came to occupy our breastworks, and we fell back to the main road leading from the north to Chancellorsville. We soon had exaggerated accounts of what Stonewall Jackson had been doing in our rear. Soon afterward our brigade was formed in line along the road, and at the command "forward!" we advanced briskly into the woods in the direction of where Jackson's victorious Corps was supposed to be. We had the right of the brigade and my position as first sergeant of the first company was the extreme right of the line. The woods was not of very large growth, and the underbrush was not dense. We had gone in but a little way when we saw a skirmish line of our own men cautiously working their way forward. We pushed on past them, and had gone a hundred yards or more when a skirmish line of the enemy let us have their doses of lead at short range. A line of battle was just behind them, and they too opened upon us in a lively style. We dropped upon the ground in good order, and promptly put our muskets to work. Bullets whistled and hummed about us by scores, making the bark and twigs fly, but the shrubbery kept the enemy concealed. They seemed to be firing too high, for near a half an hour elapsed before one of the company was struck. Our first victim had the palm of his hand torn by a ball as he was about [page 2] to ram his piece. Before this, I had concluded to stand up to enable me to see better to the front, and off on our uncovered flank. The captain [sc. Francis Gregory] and first lieutenant [sc. John Brass] were lying flat upon the ground four or five yards behind me, while the heavy and close firing all along the line showed that the rebel line was about parallel with ours. I cautioned the men about loading carefully and firing low, and kept a sharp lookout.

After awhile I caught sight of a strong column of the enemy moving in close order on our right. I told the boys we were flanked and would have to get up at once. Many promptly skedaddled, but several like myself stayed for a last good shot. Our lieutenant-colonel [sc. Joseph Sinex] was lying a short distance back of us, and when the men began to go he jumped up and begged them not to run. I ran to him and showed the condition of affairs, and he scrambled for his horse, but a bullet killed his horse just then, and its owner had to leg it out of the woods like the rest of us. The enemy charged on us at double-quick and those of us who were behind did some wild running till we came to the edge of the wood. When I reached the cleared ground I found myself right in front of one of our batteries that was in good position, and the cannoneers stood to the guns ready to fire. They motioned me quickly to lie down, which I did, and over me went their first round of grape and canister into the woods among the advancing rebs. Other batteries joined in and the foe was soon driven back. Both of our colors and color-bearers came out safe, though six of the eight corporals composing the color-guard had been struck, I believe.

The regiment was so scattered in the surrounding wilderness that only a squad of us gathered around the flags at first, and it seemed as if the command had been terribly used up. Not until next morning could we aggregate our killed, wounded and missing with any reliable approximation. Our company had two killed, two wounded (one mortally) and three were captured because they did not start to run quick enough. [Bates lists three casualties in company A on 3 May 1863: Samuel W Wilson (killed), Rudolph Maidre (killed), William Stettler (wounded).] The losses of the rest of the regiment was in about the same proportion.

The rest of that day and night were spent in quietness behind our artillery, that now pointed towards what ought to have been our rear. By the following morning [sc. 4 May 1863] nearly all of our men were out of rations, but scarcely anything could be had for either love or money. A dollar was offered and refused for a single cracker. Fortunately the coffee still held out, and this was a great help in keeping the men up. A few rations for the officers had come over on pack-horses, and I was fortunate in getting two pounds of sugar. With sugar to eat and coffee to drink I could make out first-rate.

The day succeeding the fight [sc. 5 May 1863] we marched about a little and made an attempt to put up breastworks. Near night a heavy rain came on, and weary, wet, hungry, and unsettled, we passed a wretched night.

Early the next morning [sc. 6 May 1863] we learned that most of our army had already retreated across the Rappahannock, and we, covering the rear of those who crossed at United States ford, were over by the middle of the forenoon.

With tired steps we made our way back to our old winter camp, and soon began to know a little comfort once more. Three weeks of quiet and rest followed. The nine months regiments that were serving with us ended their time and went home, and we were transferred to the 3d Brigade of the 2d Division of our corps. The 1st and 2d Brigades, of this division, were composed entirely of Regulars, and were small in numbers on account of the hard service they had gone through. The other three regiments of our brigade were newer and much stronger than we were, and wore zouave uniforms, so that we were about the strongest and gayest brigade in the army.

Near the end of May [sc. 28 May 1863] we bid a final adieu to our log huts and old camp, as we were ordered to do guard duty along the railroad leading from Stoneman's Switch, opposite Fredericksburg, to Acquia Creek on the Potomac. Great quantities of army supplies came over the road, and we had to patrol several miles of it every hour of the day and night. We took kindly to the duty and were very busy in trying to make our detached camps as comfortable as possible.

A week passed away and everything seemed serene, when lo! in the middle of the afternoon we were ordered to pack up, and our regiment started off alone in the direction of United States Ford. One of my shoes began to hurt me a little after we had gone four or five miles, and I left the ranks to remedy the matter. Soon after other stragglers gathered around, and we concluded that the regiment might go as far as it liked, but we were going to lay over for the night. Each one of us then made coffee and afterwards proceeded to fix up a little bed. The weather being pleasant we slept soundly until after sunrise the next morning. There were sixteen or eighteen of us altogether, and we got breakfast very leisurely and discussed the war awhile before we started to catch up with the regiment. We found that the command had bivouacked but a mile or so beyond us, and had started again early in the morning. Being the ranking officer present I had assumed command, and we tramped slowly along for six or seven miles, when we came to a place in the woods where a brook crossed the road. Here we turned off and went up the stream far enough to be secure from surprise or observation and halted to cook our meals and have a nap. It was towards evening when I brought my squad into camp at United States Ford. Our straggling and long absence on so short a march had stirred up the wrath of some of the officers, and dire threats, that we soon heard of, had been made against us. The colonel [sc. Edgar Gregory] gave us a harangue and a reprimand, sent us to our companies, and the affair was ended; but I often think of it as the greatest "bumming trip" of my soldier days.

Our camp was in the forest close to the river, and we assumed our old duty of taking care of the ford. Here in the seclusion of the woods and among the hills and ravines that skirt the historical and romantic Rapahannock came, with the 8th of June, 1863, my twenty-first birthday. The day had to go by without any celebration on my part. No sutler was with us, and though I had plenty of money I could not add one thing to the usual meagre bill of fare of myself and tent-mates. The proximity of the enemy even precluded me indulging in the pleasure of "going a fishing" or taking a bath. It was rather a tame "coming of age" amid the wild surroundings and peculiar circumstances.

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