91st PA: Walter, part 6

Thomas F Walter, 'Personal Recollections', part 6

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[Grand Army Scout and Soldiers' Mail v.3 #41 p.1 continued]

Several weeks went quietly by, and one of my principal recollections of the period is of the outrageous character of the "hard-tack" we received. For more than two months, I believe, we did not get a cracker that was not either wormy, musty or infested with wevil bugs. There were lots of emphatic protesting and indignant "cussin" done, but it availed nothing. The quartermaster declared that we were faring no worse than the rest of the corps, and such seemed to be the case. It was reported that the crackers had been in store ever since McClellan left the Peninsula. We thought if they had to be eaten by soldiers, they ought to have been issued to those fellows doing duty in the forts about Washington and elsewhere. We con- sidered [sic] that we were worthy of [p.2] better treatment after our Gettysburg campaign of trial and triumph.

Another of my recollections of this Beverly Ford camp is of an extraordinary military execution that we were ordered out to witness. Near the end of August [29 August] we had heard that five men, attached to the 118th Pennsylvania, had been court-martialed for "bounty-jumping" and desertion, and sentenced to be shot. These men were said to be distinguished criminals of their class, none of them having deserted less than twice, and one had done it five times, enlisting after each time in a different organization and pocketing the bounty money that was being paid. The general discipline of the army had been of such a merciful sort that many thought they would be pardoned on the day set for their death, and the culprits themselves were reported to be not much concerned. However, our order to attend and witness their end soon came, and one pleasant afternoon the regiment was formed and we marched out, taking a direction that led us up to the Rappahannock and nearer its banks. When we had gone a half a mile or more we came to a large open space that was excellently adapted to the carrying out of the tragic orders that had been issued and the accommodation of the thousands detailed to look on. The ground sloped gently forward from three sides and formed a small valley, in which were five freshly made graves, each having beside it a common board coffin. Our regiment, with the other regiments of our division (2d Division, 5th Corps), were formed in close lines on the sloping ground along two sides of the valley facing the graves, and a little more than a hundred yard from them. We were in the front line and but a little distance from the firing party. Soon the solemn strains of a dirge began far on the left, and a striking procession came into view. On the lead was the band with its mournful music and slow step. Next came a detachment of the guard and firing party, and after them the convicts, following each other a few steps apart. Their hands were closely tied behind them, and each wore a white shirt, but neither coat, vest or cap. Each was accompanied by a comrade, and another platoon of the guard completed the funeral procession by bringing up the rear. The prisoners seemed to be vigorous men, all between twenty-five and forty years of age, and excepting one, walked with pretty steady steps as they marched slowly along the whole front of our line. Then they moved down to where the graves were yawning, and each man was seated on a coffin and his eyes covered with a bandage. The firing party consisted of about forty men, and while they were taking their position at twelve or fifteen yards in in [sic] front of the victims, a citizen went forward from our lines and began to have a peculiar conversation with one of the condemned. There was gestures and signs of emotion, and sounds of recitation and responses. This performance continued for eight or ten minutes I think, and none of us could give a satisfactory explanation of it at the time, though we learned soon afterward that one of the deserters was a Jew, and that it was a Rabbi and a Hebrew religious ceremony that we had witnessed. The Rabbi departed, and quick came the clear command to the guard: "Ready!" "Aim!" "Fire!" The rifles spoke together, and four men fell over dead, while the fifth sprang forward, and ere he sank down was a corpse. We were soon on our way to camp, glad that the trying ordeal was over. [more information]

This was not the first execution we had witnessed, and a few of us would have attended of our own free will. We were not a hard-hearted set, but this scene made very little impression on us. We remembered how the terrible hail of iron and lead had torn through our ranks at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and how noble and dear comrades had gone down in agony and blood all around us, and we considered it probable that some of those very rascals had been paid to occupy the places where far better men had been killed; and that their perjuries and dishonesty had made them worse traitors to us than the foe that openly aimed their guns at our hearts.

Some of our most vehement comrades remarked, "d--m 'em; it served them right." Some others declared that it was a shame to shoot those fellows so soon, as they should have been kept to help to eat the wormy "hard tack." It would be perfectly in keeping with the usual course of matters in our company, if several had next joined in a discourse about the inconsiderateness of the government in compelling a man to walk so far to his own funeral, and turning out a band of music to make the occasion lively. We were certainly a curious, comical and devil-may-care set, anyhow.

Sometime near the middle of September, we started out for the south side of the Rappahnnock and marched along the Orange and Alexandria Railroad until we reached the old town of Culpeper. Near it we encamped a few days, and then moved a short distance again. So we were kept shifting and unsettled for nearly three weeks, I think, and although the general indication of things was for a fresh fight, there seemed to be some catch that we could not divine that prevented the performance from being promptly inaugurated.

About the 8th or 9th of October, we were over near where the railroad bridge crosses the Rapidan River, and matters remained unsettled and portentious as before. A morning or two later [apparently 11 October] we were on the go again, and with the rest of the brigade, we retraced our steps to the north bank of the Rappahannock, and late that night laid ourselves down to rest in our old camp near Beverly Ford. In the morning we learned something that was more suggestive than pleasant, when it was reported that Lee had flanked us, and was positively between us and Washington. If such was the case, hot, hard and terrible work was at hand.

We stayed in camp all day, and as no thunder of distant guns came to confirm the unwelcome report, the most credulous of us dismissed our forbodings. The following morning [14 October] we were harnessed and loaded early, and tramped over to Bealton Station on the railroad, where we heard more news and learned that our noble army was falling back toward the Potomac in haste. We were certain the rebels were on our flank, but could hardly judge what advantage they had obtained.

Our whole division (2d of the 5th Corps), had come together at Bealton, and from there we bore off a little to the northeast in the direction of Washington. When we got a half mile or so from the railroad, we began to move parallel with it in the direction of Alexandria. The other two divisions of the corps moved along opposite to us and nearer the railroad. Our regiment led the division that day, and all of our company was detailed to act as flankers or skirmishers, to cover the head and flank of the column where it would receive the first salute if the enemy had been smart enough to reach a position where they could attack us advantageously on that day's retreat. It was almost considered certain that there would be a "ball" of some kind ere night, and if so, we would have the "lead off."

I was placed in charge of the flankers, and having deployed my men several hundred yards away from the main body, in single line, at intervals of five paces, we moved forward, conforming our advance to that of the head of the division.

With trailed rifles, that were ready for instant use, we glided along over hill and plain, and through woods, swamps and thicket. Hours passed and Catletts and Bristow Stations were left behind us, and we neared the old Bull Run battlefield. Still no enemy "tackled" us, and we had heard nothing to alarm us except an occasional artillery report in the rear. It was said that these shots were fired by a battery that was with our cavalry behind us, for the purpose of hurrying our wagon-trains that now and then threatened to get stuck and tangled at some bad place in the road.

Just after the middle of the afternoon, we got back to the old earthworks that stood close to Manassas Junction. Here a long halt was made, and the flankers were called in. Standing on the earthworks and looking off in the direction of the Warrenton or Baltimore road to the west, the dust raised by the moving column of rebels was plainly to be seen, as well as indications that a force of them were coming over in the direction of the stations we had recently passed.

About dusk the sounds of fighting came from out near Bristow. The firing soon ceased, and night was quietly closing about us, when suddenly we were ordered to fall in, in the greatest haste, and were going directly back along the railroad, on the "double-quick." Wearied and loaded as we were, we kept up this pace for a couple of miles, and were then halted for a little rest before we turned about and marched back to where we started from. A part of the Confederate force had hurried over and struck a portion of the 2d Corps at Bristow Station, but they struck the wrong party and at the wrong time, for they were struck back with such effect, that the affair soon ended, leaving several hundred prisoners in our hands.

Somewhere about 10 or 11 o'clock, I think, there came a shower of rain, and we were in line again, and having hunted our way through the extreme darkness and mud to the high ground near Centreville, finally lay down for a little sleep about 2 o'clock in the morning. Our condition would have been too forlorn for sleeping had we not been so extremely weary. We had been on foot and loaded with our luggage for twenty hours, and had had but a little to eat. Our clothes and blankets were wet from the shower, and the night was gloomy and cold. We had waded Bull Run in the track of the artillery and wagons, and some of us were soaking wet to the knees, while our shoes inside and out were plastered with mud. There was no wood about to make fires with, and only the bare, wet ground to make a bed on. I expect there were many that were less strong and hopeful than I, who felt worse than I did that night, but I still remember it as another of the memorable nights of my soldier life.

[15 October] Long wished for daylight slowly came at last, and after overcoming the difficulties of making ourselves hot coffee to moisten our breakfast crackers, we soon satisfied our stomachs, and were prepared to take a view of the great expanse of country our high position enabled us to overlook. Quietness reigned everywhere, and it soon became pretty evident that whatever advantage the foe had gained at the beginning of his flank movement, was not going to save it from fizzling out to a contemptible end. Sometime during that day we left the Centreville heights and marched over to near Fairfax. I think the distance is five or six miles. The following day [16 October] we tramped back again to Centreville, and so for four days in succession we marched from one of these places to the other each day. So time passed away, and about October 20th we, with the rest of the army, took part in a forward movement in the direction of our old camps beyond the Rappahannock. [Is this the "advance to the Rappahannock" that took place on 7 November?] We slept one night on that part of the first Bull Run battle ground where the severest fighting took place, but we conjured up no spirit of fallen friend or foe to prophesy to us of coming victory or defeat, but each "lay like a warrior taking his rest," with his face to the stars and his blanket or tent-piece around him. Then we shifted ahead for several days in a zig-zag way, and all was quiet until the day that a few of our division and a few other troops hustled the rebels out of the forts at the Rappahannock railroad crossing. We were there, though we did not actually take a hand in this handsome and effective onslaught. Soon after daybreak our men charged over a long stretch of open ground, on the run, and took the fort on the north bank of the river and a brigade of the enemy, together with a pontoon bridge. Having this fort, the one on the other side of the river became untenable for the foe, so the rebels promptly "got up and dusted." We went over after this, and spent several days in camp on Deep Run, this being but a few miles from the forts and river. It was nearly the end of November, and chilly days and frosty nights began to make us think of fixing our tents for "winter quarters." On or about the 26th [Walter has the correct date here.], however, orders came to pack up once more, and our homes and all our household furnishing, as well as our wardrobes and rifles, were soon on our backs again, and we took up the "route step" to act our part in the memorable Mine Run campaign.

Although this trip made a pretty decided impression on many of us at the time, I find that I cannot recall the incidents of it as distinctly as I wish. Well, we strode along to the southward, and I believe it took six or seven hours to reach Gold Mine Ford, on the Rapidan River [Sykes calls it Culpeper Ford]. A pontoon bridge was ready for us, and we soon mounted to the top of the high hill on the other side, glad that no foe had been there to oppose us.

Part of the way up the hill, on the south bank, a small fortune had been spent in erecting buildings and machinery to mine gold. What the outcome had been I know not, but the works seemed to have been idle for a long time. We went a few miles further before we bivouacked for the night. We moved forward again early the following morning [27 November], and about the middle of the forenoon began to hear firing in our front [sic].

[Grand Army Scout and Soldiers' Mail v.3 #42 p.1]

We understood that a force of our cavalry was in advance of us, and that they had met an inferior force of mounted rebels. Our cavalrymen drove them back, but like good soldiers, they fought all the way as they went.

Our route bore to the westward, and led through a district that was undulating and almost entirely covered with forest. This condition of things compelled our cavalry to advance slowly and cautiously, and our progress was governed by theirs.

I think it was near the middle of the afternoon, when, after crossing a road that formed a right angle with ours, we came to a cleared space and an old habitation. This place, I believe, was called Hope Church, though no church was visible that I can recollect. Other Union troops were here that had come by another route, and some confusion was visible.

The rebel cavalry had got back to a strong infantry support, and our cavalry seemed to be going to the rear to leave to us the perils of forcing a further advance. There was very little firing going on, and after we had stayed at Hope Church awhile we fell back a short distance and moved northward for several miles towards what became the right of the Union lines. A [d]rizzling, chilling rain came on, and it was sometime after dark when we bivouacked in the woods, near what was known as Robertson's Tavern. [Actually, they moved to Robertson's Tavern early on 28 Nov.]

Nearly all the country about here was covered with forests, and was a reminder of the Chancellorsville wilderness. It seemed to be a very undesirable region to make a campaign or fight a great battle in, as each army might become so mixed and confused, as to be unable to distinguish its front from its rear. The ground we were on had been fought over that afternoon by the 3d Corps, we were told, but despite this, and the fact that we were wet and chilly, as well as weary and lightly fed, several of our company got together and gave us a sort of burlesque of German opera, that made the place seem like bedlam for awhile. Other companies might quiet down under the influences of weariness and anxious forebodings, but our set was liable to get up a rampage in spite of the most adverse surroundings and depressing circumstances. Quietness finally reigned, and we got what sleep we could before day began to dawn [Walter seems to be running together several days here. The 91st moved to Robertson's Tavern on 28 Nov, relieved the 2nd corps at 4 am on 29 Nov, but prepared to attack the Confederate entrenchments on 30 November], for we were then hastily aroused and started off again, going still further to the right. We marched for an hour or more, part of the way being in a track that the Pioneer Corps had cleared of trees in the night, so that the artillery could get along.

We halted where the woods was [sic] not dense, and as the weather had been getting colder and colder, until the breeze had a regular icy bit about it, we began to feel very much like having some hot coffee and some sort of a breakfast. There were strict orders against making fires, and the men were ordered not to go out of sight of their officers. Generals and staff officers were riding to and fro every few minutes, and though we heard no firing, the indications were that "the ball" might begin at any moment.

After a couple of hours or more we moved on a quarter of a mile further to the right, and then soon learned what the real condition of things were [sic] in our front. We had just passed a large field of thirty or forty acres that opened towards the enemy. It sloped gradually from us for a quarter of a mile to where there was a creek of considerable size, as well as some swamps, and then rose again for a short distance to the edge of a strip of low pine woods. We could see that the pine trees were nearly all "slashed," and the work was still going on. This slashing was done by felling the trees with their tops towards us, thus forming a tangled barrier that would greatly impede the passage of any troops from our side. Back of this, where the ground was higher and the trees were more lofty and diversified, the officers' field glasses brought into view a line of breastworks held by a strong force of Lee's veterans.

It had evidently been intended that we should charge those works early in the morning, and we were at a loss to account for the long "stay of proceedings." [Meade wrote his wife on 2 Dec 1863 that 'a corps commander' [sc. Warren], who had initially been confident he could carry the Confederate works, had changed his mind just as the attack was to begin, leaving barely enough time to call off the supporting assault. The Confederates used the time to strengthen their defenses, making it impossible to attack anywhere. (The life and letters of George Gordon Meade, by George Meade. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913. Volume 2 page 157.)] To us who knew so well what it was to attack such a foe in such a position, the prospect was anything but exilerating. After a short time part of our artillery came around and sent a few shells over as bearers of "our sincere regards." The enemy acknowledged our attentions by sending us their compliments by like messengers, and though some of their shells howled and hummed uncomfortably near us, I believe no one was injured.

The day was somewhat cloudy, and the breeze continued stinging cold, so that, at times, a dozen or more of us would be seen chasing each other around in a circle trying to keep warm. Now and then some comrade would go to the edge of the field to take an observation and free his mind. "No line of men can ever cross that place, that's certain. Good-bye to this regiment and brigade if they send us over there. Every man of us will get our final discharge before we can get across that creek and swamp, and through these pines." Such were the thoughts and comments of the men during the trying hours of the early part of that memorable day. The officers had little to say, and looked as anxious and careworn as any of us. In case the charge was ordered, our chances, as I figured them, were exceedingly unpromising, as we were almost certain to be the extreme right of the line, and so "catch it" from the front and the flank.

Soon after noon the men began to steal away by two's and three's to go a short distance to the rear to make coffee. Dry sticks were quickly gathered and turned into a cheery blaze and warmth, and we all felt better after getting a good hot drink to wash down our crackers and pork. By the middle of the afternoon it was pretty generally concluded that there would be no charge, and our hearts were lightened accordingly. About this time, however, we moved back a short distance over the route we had come, and were then ordered forward in line of battle.

All about us was woods, but the trees were not close, and there was [sic] many low, bushy pines, so that we could get along right well, but could not see far ahead. We had advanced but a few rods when a rebel battery opened fire right in front of us, and scarcely more than five hundred yards away. Still our good fortune did not entirely desert us, for as usual, the enemy fire a little high, so they only made havoc among the trees and scared us pretty badly. On we went until we seemed to be more than half way to those thundering guns, when a halt was ordered and we laid down very close to the ground. The way the shot and shell howled and tore through the low pines for a few minutes was terrific, but then the firing ceased, and soon afterward we fell back a quarter of a mile or more and began to make some preparation for spending the night. [This occurred on 1 Dec.] Details for pickets were made, and the men were posted as though we fully intended to stay, but as soon as darkness closed around us the pickets were withdrawn, and all hands of us were up and away. We soon got on a pretty good highway and realized that we were retreating.

Weary and worn though we were, our spirits grew brighter and our steps quicker at the thought. I particularly remember the sturdy strides that kept our captain well on the lead through all the long hours of that long night. On and on we went, nor did we make any considerable halt until after the first streakings of dawn had dimmed the stars and rimmed the horizon in the east. Then we rested for an hour or more, and a few of us had a little uncomfortable nap.

Onward was again the command, and a short march brought us to the Rapidan River at Germania Ford. We strode across on the pontoon bridge and bore off in the direction of Kelly's Ford on the Rappahannock. The distance from Germania to Kelly's was eight or ten miles, and when we had gone nearly half the distance, we made a long halt at a convenient place to cook, and so we had our hot coffee again.

When we first started back we did not know but that the enemy had made some sort of a flank movement on us again that would compel us to fight our way back to the protection of Washington, but after this rest we were pretty certain that we were only going back to where supplies could easily reach us.

We were off again, and in the afternoon we tramped over the pontoons at Kelly's Ford and were on familiar ground near our railroad once more. Still our steps were not stayed until we arrived opposite Bealton Station, which was several miles further on, and here we went into camp.

We had the lead of the brigade on this march, and we "stepped out" so effectively that we left the other regiments several miles in the rear, they not coming into camp until the next day. I believe we could travel equal to Stonewall Jackson's celebrated "foot cavalry," although we carried so much more baggage than they did. Just after crossing the Rappahannock I nearly fainted, which was such an extraordinary thing for me that I will tell how it happened. We had halted for a few minutes, and in trying to pull an old rail out of a pile, my hand slipped and a large decayed splinter ran with great force into my thumb, where it broke off. I could not budge it, so I went to the surgeon to have him cut it out. He passed my hand from behind, between his knees, and with an instrument a good deal like a lance, began to gouge at this splinter and try to cut it out. The blade of the implement seemed to be very little sharper than its handle, so that after he had made three attempts to cut it from the wound outward without making any progress, I nearly "keeled over." Drawing my hand away I walked of and left him, and persevered with it until I got the old wood out myself.

So ended our Mine Run campaign, and it does not fully console me to know that Mine Run, with the hills and woods and swamps that environ it, is the only region that I ever left the "rebs" in peaceful possession of willingly, but when I think of it, of the weather we had there, as well as the prospects we had to contemplate, I want to exclaim every time, "The d--l take that place, anyhow."

One great consolation in regard to the campaign is the smallness of the loss in killed and wounded all through, and it seems miraculous almost, that our regiment, with three hundred or more men present, did not lose a man. As an evidence of what the weather was, I recollect it was reported that several of the Pennsylvania Reserves had been frozen to death on the picket line.

Our camp near Bealton Station was not in a suitable place for winter quarters, because wood was scarce and water not fairly abundant, and as December had come, bringing Christmas and New Year near, the boys soon began to be anxious to know how and where to be fixed, with a view to our comfort as well as having boxes of good things sent us from home.

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