91st PA: Walter, part 8

Thomas F Walter, 'Personal Recollections', part 8

previous part[summary]next part

[Grand Army Scout and Soldiers' Mail v.3 #44 p.2 continued]

Once more we were on the "sacred soil" where it had often before been pressed by our "vandal" feet, and being down near the Rappahannock River, were as far south as the rebels would admit that the Army of the Potomac could maintain its ground. When we got into camp we drew up in front of the tent of the lieutenant-colonel [sc. Joseph Sinex], who was in command, and who greeted us with a harangue that was rather more forcible than refined in its make up, and in which I was characterized as the chief of the bummers. We were dismissed to our companies to take up the routine of camp life. Our camp was on a sloping piece of ground that was literally bare. Great attention was paid to keeping all garbage or trash from lying about, and for awhile we were credited with having the cleanest camp in the army.

We were still attached to the same brigade and division as before 3d Brigade, 2d Division, 5th Corps company and battalion drills were frequent and military regulations and formalities carefully observed.

As the three regiments brigaded with us wore fancy uniforms of the zouave style, the brigade commander was desirous that we too should adopt a similar dress, but we would have none of it. We objected to being so easily identified in case we should straggle a little, or be caught on a small foraging expedition of our own. However, we were ordered to drill the zouave tactics and bayonet exercise. The adjutant [presumably not Benjamin Tayman, who was post adjutant at the rendezvous, and did not rejoin the regiment until June.] drilled the non-commissioned officers of the companies from the book, that they might instruct the men. These were trying times to some of our recruits, particularly several of the youngest of them. Put in the ranks to drill with expert soldiers before they had learned to step out promptly at the word "march," their heels would be trodden against and the [sic] would get "out of step," while not being used to handling their muskets firmly promptly and properly, added to their worriment. To avoid being so harassed, they sometimes absented themselves from drill and dress parade. When they returned for supper I would give them an extra drill for punishment. In matters that were in the regular line of duty I could not show any favoritism, and this made me seem very harsh and tyrannical to them, as the discipline and instruction of the company devolved upon me; the captain [sc. Francis Gregory] still being in Philadelphia, and the first lieutenant [sc. John G Brass] being detailed to command Co. H.

Newspapers came into camp daily, and we knew, from other sources besides, of the great preparations that were being made for the spring campaign. General Meade we knew pretty well, and had a good deal of confidence in, but the matter of General Grant assuming the chief directorship of the Army of the Potomac did not strike us very favorably. We knew that Lee and his army were greatly different from the rebels that had been doing the fighting in the southwest.

The last of April soon came, and one afternoon while battalion drill was going on we received orders to pack up and move. Off we went to the westward, and having crossed the Rappahannock once more, put up our little shelter tents near army headquarters in the vicinity of Brandy Station.

[Grand Army Scout and Soldiers' Mail v.3 #45 p.1]
On the third of May, 1864, we moved again, and this time our route was southward and towards a dangerous country. The following day [sc. 4 May] we crossed the Rapidan and moved in the direction of Chancellorsville. As we thought of our former misfortunes in this region of forests and thickets, our anxieties and forebodings were far from being of a pleasurable sort. The rebels had boasted that no Yankee army could ever make its way south through that wilderness, and we knew they thought themselves able to make the boast good.

Though our army was vastly superior to theirs in numbers and equipment, we felt pretty certain that we could not advance another day without brining on a terrific battle. There was so much that favored the foe. They were ahead of us and could await our coming almost where it suited them. They could hide their cavalry near the road, and rest while they waited for a chance to make an effective sweep upon one of our columns; they could mask their artillery and hide their opportunity. What chance had our cavalry or artillery to help us? How could they manoeuvre or act effectively in those narrow forest-bordered roads? It seemed that we "dough-boys", the infantry, would have to bear nearly the whole brunt of the contest on our side. Thought we were loaded almost like pack-horses, we were expected to go forward in the road, the thicket or the swamp; and we could fight either funning or walking, or standing or kneeling, or lying. We would furnish the skirmishers or the line of battle that would advance to develop or dislodge the enemy if he seemed inclined to lurk in the woods. If the rebels assumed the aggressive, we would be depended upon to defeat their charges; without the swooping grape or the howling shot and aball [?] of our artillery to help us.

One great botheration of that country was that after moving about in various directions among the bushes, we could no longer tell which was our proper "front," and consequently could not tell on which side either friends or enemies were likely to appear.

On the morning of the 5th [?] of May, we were near the Chancellorville battle-ground, and coming to a place where a road extending [?] in the direction of Mine Run joined our road, [page 2] we turned off and followed it a short distance till we came to high ground, and then rested in the open woods on the right of the road. This place was said to be near "Parker's Store," but what Parker or anybody else could do with a store in that country is a mystery to me. I would think that a man's hat would hold more store goods than he would sell in a year in the locality. There was no noise or excitement for some hours, and so far as we knew, there were no troops ahead of us, nor arms near by, except our brigade.

Appearances this time, as on several former occasions, proved deceptive. A number of times, in former campaigns, we had thought ourselves almost alone and dangerously exposed, but if a fight began, many other commands were at hand whose presence seemed little short of mystery. Our columns had got to moving so quietly and quickly, and the umbrageous character of the country made it possible for large bodies of men to be near each other for a long while without detecting each other's presence. Under our present circumstances there was no clang of drums, or blare of bugles, or flaunting of flags.

I think it was between ten and eleven o'clock when musketry firing began more than a quarter of a mile to the south of us. It soon increased in volume and came a little nearer, but we did not concern ourselves visibly about it. A little while longer and the infantry fire down in the woods became terrific. There was a spasmodic or intermittent character about it that indicated that the enemy was making repeated charges on a part of our line they could not break. Thinking that we might receive a share of the rebel attentions soon, we began to busy ourselves to get up a small breastwork. We had neither axes or shovels, so that we had made very little progress when near the middle of the afternoon we "fell in" and began to advance in line of battle, parallel with the road that was just to the left of our regiment. There had been a lull for some time in the roar and snap of the musketry farther to the left, and it was our turn now to hunt up and stir up the foe, that we might know just what he was at. The ground had a gradual downward slope in front of us, and the woods were open so that we could easily get along. We were the extreme right of the line and if we should run against a strong line of the enemy, whose flank extended beyond ours, we would be in a specially dangerous fix. Our own lieutenant [sc. John Brass] was still commanding Company H, and a lieutenant of Company D [this could be either James Diehl or John Hamill--I suspect it is Hamill] was assigned to us, for it would not look right to have the first and largest company of the regiment going into action without a shoulder-strapped officer.

We had gone scarcely more than a furlong when we reached the location of a small valley, and drew the fire of a rebel skirmish line. We went a few steps farther and a line of infantry gave us a salute. Though the end of their line there did not extend quite as far as ours, they seemed very near; but we could not see them on account of the density of the trees and bushes. What seemed to be an explosive cartridge burst right in front of my face, blinding me for a moment and cutting my cheek a little. No one near me had been seriously hurt, and the regiment began to move to the left and rear. This movement, and a small swamp near by, caused several of us to become separated from the main line. These men I held together to act as skirmishers in case the enemy should attempt a flank movement of any kind. Seeing no hostile indications, we slowly fell back and rejoined the regiment where we had been lying before. I do not know what the brigade or regiment lost in the advance, but Company A had only one slightly wounded. [not listed in Bates]

The musketry fire to the south of us at times through the day was a continuous roar, and is said to have exceeded any that occurred elsewhere during the war. After our advance the sounds of strife gradually died away, and by sundown, "silence reigned o'er all the scene once more." We were hungry and tired; we had started early, with a weak breakfast, and had dined in a way that was weaker. We finally succeeded in making some good coffee and this, with fat pork and crackers, gave us a passable supper. Next, we began to consider the chances of getting a night's rest. I think it was near nine o'clock, and after many of us were curled up on the ground for a snoose [sic], when order came to "Fall in" as quietly as possible. Our regiment, only I believe, got ready and moved off towards where the heaviest fire had occurred during the day. After crossing the road and entering the woods again, our company was separated from the rest, and with a strange officer for a pilot, we moved on.

The forest was extremely dark and we moved with great caution. I soon began to wonder how the mischief our guide knew where he was taking us. Directly we hear chopping ahead, and then the sound of voices. On we went through the gloom, till we seemed within a stone's throw of the noise. Then we came to a little breastwork of earth with a shallow trench behind it, that was not more than thirty or forty yards long. Into this we spread ourselves and drew a long breath of relief. Next a detail was made of all our most experienced veterans, and these the lieutenant took out to act as videttes, a few paces farther towards the foe. Each of these was to select a tree and stand by it, with his rifle ready for instant use, and keep himself as quiet as a mouse. The rest of the company was in my charge in the trench, with instructions to keep every man alert and make no sound above a whisper. We soon comprehended our situation. We were close to the rebel line, and the choppers were working at a breastwork. A little to our left a religious meeting was being held, and we heard part of the chaplain's address. When this was ended, several voiced joined in singing a hymn to a familiar old tune. By half past 10 o'clock stillness almost perfect and oppressive held sway,. and helped the night to disguise the fearful aggregation of hellish destructiveness and woe that was reposing behind the picket-lines in the woods for miles around us, except that about four hundred yards away in the left of us the enemy had a piece of artillery to the front, and every fifteen or twenty minutes would let go a shot that was sent high enough to make its way back to our main line on its mission of annoyance or slaughter. Had they understood our position, they could have enfiladed and blown us out of it in a few minutes. I was reminded of the "Burial of Sir John Moore," and this was
"The distant and random gun
The foe was sullenly firing."
I could not account for this foolery, for they knew the shots were not likely to do us much damage, while the reports of the gun startled and harassed their own men that had so much need of sleep.

By midnight the cannonade had ceased and I was in additional trouble. My men, thoroughly worn out and compelled to keep quiet, could no longer keep awake. Sitting along on the edge of the low trench, they would lean on their rifles and sleep in spite of me and themselves. Again and again did I go along and arouse and caution them but my efforts were in vain. Even the precious water from my canteen, poured down their backs, would not keep them on the alert while I passed from one end of the line to the other.

By half past 1 o'clock I was as desperate as they were, and going to the right of the line I stretched myself out upon the ground to forget my cares and leave Providence or fate free to their own desires. I slept, perhaps an hour, when there came a sudden awaking, and an officer stood over me. It was impossible to distinguish between friend and foe in the intense gloom. He whispered: "Rouse your men and get them in line silently and quickly." He moved out to bring in the videttes, while I obeyed his order without a question. The rest were soon in, and without giving them time to get their knapsacks that had been piled under a tree a little distance in the rear, we started back, and in a little while rejoined the regiment. We laid down and got two or three hours of slumber before full daylight came and ended another of the memorable nights of my soldier life. Several of us left the regiment and went a short distance to a ravine to make coffee. When we came back, some of the boys told us how the rebels, when they discovered that we were gone from their immediate front, had rushed over and through the woods to search of plunder, and how some of our artillery that had been massed and masked for the purpose had been making havoc among them.

Towards the middle of the morning we moved off to the left in the direction of Chancellorsville, and in a little while found ourselves on the extreme front again. All was quiet, however, and here we fell in with one of the immense heavy artillery regiments that were so prominent a phase of that terrific campaign.

Grand Army Scout and Soldiers' Mail v.3 #46 p.1
Several regiments were raised in the North during the two previous years for artillery service, and to draw men in it, it was proclaimed that they would never be sent to the front, but would serve their term in taking care of the fortifications around Washington, Alexandria, Baltimore and elsewhere. These regiments became very strong in numbers, and had been having comparatively easy times until a recent order from General Grant had compelled them to come to the front to act as infantry. Here in the Wilderness, May 6th, 1864, was the first we saw any of them. They came down with twelve or fourteen or sixteen hundred men each. They had bulky knapsacks and great possessions. They had "dress hats" and "dress coats," and bright brasses and white gloves, shoe blacking, etc. They moved away from the breastwork just as we came up, and as company after company went by, we looked at them with astonishment and pity, for we well knew what would be the fate of their goods and themselves if the campaign lasted a few weeks. One of our fellows ventured the opinion that "that must be a whole brigade." Another remarked: "How are you, white gloves and shiny buttons." White a third exclaimed: "Lord, won't the rebs make things fly if they get a chance at them fellows."

We were used to seeing regiments of from eighty to four hundred men. Our uniform was cap, blouse and pants, more or less smoked with pine, and smeared with the "the sacred soil." Some of us who were more fastidious carried an extra shirt, [p.2] drawers and socks. I was wearing a black slouch hat and fine cloth jacket and pants, but no sash or stripes, except a small chevron on my right arm. Our luggage was reduced to the utmost. To carry a testament or pack of cards was out of the question. When a letter came to me that was precious enough to keep until I could answer it, I threw its envelope away to decrease my load. We had got things down ever so fine as that.

We spent most of the day in quietness at this point, and there seemed to be very little fighting going on in our neighborhood. Near sundown we were off again, towards Chancellorsville, on the old plank road. There were many troops ahead, and we moved slowly along till about 9 o'clock. Then a strange sound began to be heard in advance that resembled low thunder. Nearer and nearer, and louder and louder, came the rumble. The mystery quickly became painful, for we were hemmed in with dense woods, and heard neither shouts nor shots. It must be a stampede of artillery. On they rushed and thundered, and as they met us, we sprang from the road to the edge of the woods, and they shot by like some sweeping and irresistable [sic] engine of vengeance. The march was not delayed two minutes, but the mystery remained until the next day, when we learned that it was a stampede of a few pack mules, but where they started or where they stopped, or how much mischief they did, I never knew. One of our color-sergeants, a fine young fellow from Delaware [sc. Robert Chism], was run over by them and had both legs broken, from the effects of which he died. [Chism died about midnight on 7 May 1864.]

Shortly after this our route was changed now to the southward, or towards Mine Run, and through the long, long hours of all that night, we toiled onward. Sunrise came, but there came no halt for breakfast, neither came the sounds of renewed battle. Where could the enemy be? and where were we going? Those were the questions that puzzled us.

I think it was after the middle of the morning when the sharp crack of rifles, a half mile ahead, brought the strong hints of a worse trouble ahead than we already endured, near by. Soon we turned off into a large cleared space of uneven ground and formed line of battle. We were the extreme right of the line, and as we moved forward, the firing over to the left of us became very lively. In a few moments I saw the rebels making a determined charge beyond the left of our brigade, and it seems that our regiments on the left were somewhat confused by the character of the ground and the danger of their position. A small piece of woods was bothering us, when a slightly retrograde movement in the left detached several of us from the main line. Instead of struggling to rejoin our comrades, I assumed an independent command, and we moved off to scout or skirmish in some woods to the right, that was a favorable place for the enemy to concentrate, or plant batteries in. We had just started, when two pieces of light artillery opened fire from a short distance, sending their shots over in the direction of the lively fighting. I think there was not more than eight of us, and after we had moved forward, cautiously, for a short distance, we consulted whether we should attack those guns or try to find out first what support they had. We were close to the guns then, but would have to crawl much closer before we could see just how they were fixed, so we moved more to our right, and directly came in sight of a whole brigade of cavalry grouped together and taking it easy in a meadow. They were within good rifle range, and we proceeded to stir them up at once. A line of their skirmishers soon came for us on foot, and were just getting dangerously near when a skirmish line of the 1st New York Rifles came up and relieved us. They checked the rebels and we rejoined our regiment. A line of battle was established right along by the little piece of woods that had bothered us awhile before.

Here we remained several days and had a warm time of it, both in reference to the weather and the active and unpleasant attention of the enemy. There was open ground for a short space to the right and left of our regiment, and then more woods. Many other troops were present and a strong line was maintained. An irregular field, extended in our front and reached back from four to six hundred yards to more forest, that swarmed with rebels. There was a little swell extending along a hundred or more yards to the front, and there our picket line was established. Our men could screen themselves by lying flat, but the foe kept up such a worrying fire that they soon dug little pits, piling the dirt up in front, so that they could change position a little with more safety. When the fresh guardsmen were to go on duty each morning, they would get ready in a sheltered spot just in front, and then go on a run and throw themselves into the pile, while a small shower of bullets would come humming around them. The men they relieved would soon afterwards spring up and run to the rear, and then there would be more flying bullets.

During the long, sunny days, this exposed and dangerous service was very hard on our men. Several of our regiment were killed on this line, among them was one of our company's youngest recruits, who received a fearful wound in the stomach. [James McDermot was killed there, and John F Jester was wounded.]

A Confederate battery was set in the woods at the far corner of the field, and every day, for a little while, would open fire in our direction. They treated us to solid shot, shell and shrapnel. The limbs of the trees flew, and the racket was fearful, but they always fired a little too high to do us much damage.

The last morning we spent at Laurel Hill we charged across the field and in front of the battery. It was desperate work, but we went over and drove the foe back from the edge of the woods and held their line a while, and then fell back to our former position under a sharp fire. The Regulars had charged to the right of us, and other troops to the left of us, and the action was severe all along. What good ever could, or did come of that charge, I never knew. It proved that a strong rebel force was still in front, but the demonstration cost us a fearful price. Of our company, one of the sergeants and another of our young recruits were killed, and several wounded one mortally. [Joseph Andrews was killed at Spottsylvania Court House, on 12 May 1864. Frank Miller died of his wounds on 20 May. Also wounded then in co. A were John Beaver, Albert J Quick (died 22 June of his wounds), Marcus Ullman, and Jones Urwiler.]

Coming back from that charge, we were a good deal scattered and disordered, so I made an oblique movement to get to the cover of the woods. The enemy was gunning for us briskly, and I had an old fence to climb. Getting over a fence under fire, loaded as we were, with rifle, cartridge box, haversack, canteen and knapsack, was something of a job, and just as I reached the top, my foot slipped and I came down on the other side in such a comical heap that it set me to laughing. I soon got back to where the boys were rallying about our colors again, and learned that I had been reported killed or seriously wounded.

previous partnext part

top of document | home
revised 24 Dec 03
contact Harry Ide at [email protected] with comments or questions