91st PA: Walter, part 9

Thomas F Walter, 'Personal Recollections', part 9

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[Grand Army Scout and Soldiers' Mail v.3 #46 p.2 continued]

Late in the afternoon [sc. 13 May 1864] we harnessed and loaded up once more, and took our way off towards the southeast. Night came on but the march continued, and we became aware that a large and hurried movement of troops was taking place. We seemed to be marching on by-ways or across open country, and occasionally different columns of troops would get mixed or blocked. This aggravated the tired and hungry men, and made them inclined to straggle. Sometime after midnight we marched through a small muddy creek, and some gravel lodged in one of my shoes. I tramped along for a mile or two and then fell out to relieve my feet. By the time my shoe and stocking were cleaned, the company was a quarter of a mile ahead. I pondered a little, and concluded that I was going to look about for some place to get a little sleep. I strolled along a little farther and came to a pine forest where several little parties of tragglers [sic] were trying to do a little cooking or get some hot coffee. Hungry, weary and bedraggled, I spread myself on the ground near them, and slept until after daybreak. [sc. 14 May 1864] Then I cooked my breakfast, and, after eating, rested awhile longer. Our troops seemed to have all gone by in the night, and occasional sounds of fighting came from several miles ahead.

[Grand Army Scout and Soldiers' Mail v.3, #47, p.1]
Fearing the rebs might come on us suddenly and leave us no chance to escape, I moved leisurely off towards the front, for it was no part of my programme to allow myself to be made a prisoner again, except under the most desperate circumstances. Some of the men seemed inclined to see the matter differently, and concluded that Southern prisons could not be much worse than the dangers and hardships we were undergoing.

I fell in with two or three more of the company during the morning, and we put in the time until near the middle of the afternoon before we found ourselves near the positions held by our regiment. Just as we were about to show ourselves, the command was reformed and moved off in a direction that seemed to be to the rear. Down we sat, for as only one other regiment besides our was moving, we concluded they were not going far and were likely to come back. They were going around somewhere, we thought, to protect the pioneers in making a road through the woods or in making a bridge, or some such service. Half an hour or so later we saw a line of troops charge up the hill to a house that was a mile or more off to the left, and one of our batteries sent a few shots in that direction. [This occurred on 14 May 1864.]

An hour later the regiment came back to its former position. Our lieutenant-colonel [sc. Joseph Sinex] had been severely wounded at Laurel Hill, so the major [sc. John Lentz] was now in command, and though he was commonly good-natured, he gave me a lively overhauling for being absent so long. The accident, darkness and confusion of the previous night was my excuse, and got me off.

We were lying on the open ground a short distance behind a line of breastworks held by other troops. I soon learned that we were near Spottsylvania Court House, and there had been some hard fighting in the vicinity early in the day.

Our fellows had been actively, but not so desperately employed. They, with others, had charged that same house and driven a considerable force of the enemy from the position. They were relieved by other troops, and the rebels came back and took the place from them. When they made the second charge the enemy were leaving, but they were in great danger because the shots fired from [p.2] our battery were sent too low to go over the hill. The regimental loss had been light, and Co. A lost none, though its loss since the campaign began amounted to two killed, fourteen wounded and three missing, being a loss of over thirty per cent. of the number that crossed the Rapidan with it.

About dusk we moved to the right and front a little, and occupied a very exposed position. To the right of us were woods, and a few yards behind us a hollow ravine that might form a good shelter to fight from. Orders came for us to put up a breastwork at once, and the officers bestirred themselves to get the men at it, but all were so utterly and desperately weary that little progress was made. Some one soon suggested that if the front line got too hot, the ravine would be very convenient. One of the officers said they were going to occupy that, and d-- if he wouldn't shoot any subaltern that attempted to fall back to it. He was quickly informed that when it came to that sort of a game there was a good many more about beside him that could take a hand, and he subsided, for, however courageous and pig-headed an officer might be, he could not help realizing that, in such a campaign as we were going through, he lived by the suffrance of his men. Fighting in the woods, and the picket-lines at night, gave men a chance to get rid of obnoxious officers with little risk to themselves.

All was quiet along the line, so we slept where we were, and the following morning moved to the left to where good breastworks were already up. This was about May 13 [actually 15 May], and several days of rest and good weather followed.

The regiments along our line would plant their colors on the works during the day, and they waved beautifully in the spring breeze. It was nearly half a mile across to where the woods hid the enemy's works, but we heard their band play as the gentle zephyrs brought us the strains of the "Marsellaise," "Annie Laurie," and "When This Cruel War Is Over." Occasionally a Union or rebel battery would fire a few shots, but the infantry, on both sides, cherished their rest.

The last day we spent in this neighborhood, all the company, except myself, went on picket. Orderly-sergeants not being expected to do picket duty, I was clean. Early in the afternoon word came that there would an issue of rations, and I went out to tell the boys, so that if there was a chance, some of them might come and get what the company was entitled to. I found them in an open, rocky piece of woods taking things easy, and I strolled all long to hear what "chin" might be going. That evening when the men came in, they told me I had hardly got away when a lot of sharpshooters crawled near and looked after them so sharply for a couple of hours, that they scarcely dared to stir. [perhaps 19 or 20 May?]

The day previous to this, I experienced considerable tribulation in getting a short letter written. Behind the breastwork was no shade, but out in front, a few yards, was a tall cedar with a close top, that sheltered a nice spot from the sun. Portfolio in hand, I seated myself there, and had got my paper spread out, when over came a rebel shell that burst near by and went humming about. Directly another shot came and buried itself in our breastwork, and then another went howling over a good distance to the rear. A comrade sang out: "Pard, you'd better come in out of that!" and I came. Quietness reigned for some time after, and I went out again, but before I got through, two other shots came visiting in discomforting proximity.

From Spottsylvania we made a night march of ten or twelve miles to a pretty spot, where there had been a boarding school called Edge Hill. War's vandal hand had left no traces here, and we heard no sounds of strife during the past two days we remained here. South and southeast our route continued, through a fair and fertile country, and, during the morning of May 23, we came to the North Anna River. [actually 21 May 1864] The stream appeared nearly a hundred yards wide, and was waist deep, rocky and rapid. Somebody said we were at Jericho Ford, but I could see no signs of a place for vehicles to cross. Our side of the river had not very high steep bank, but the other side had in fact, a formidable bare bluff extended all along. As we gazed up and down we wondered how it could be that no rebel artillery was in place to send its ballish compliments among us. Could it be that our wary and active foe would allow us to cross unmolested? Our whole division waded across and mounted the bluff, and our hearts beat a good deal easier. Line of battle was formed, and we advanced a quarter of a mile or more, coming to a halt near the edge of a nice open woods. Arms were stacked and the order, "Rest!" was given.

The day was warm and bright, and matters seemed so settled and peaceful that nearly all of us threw off our accoutrements and scattered. Reports soon came that there was a couple of farmhouses not far off to the left and front. Another report said, a flock about fifteen sheep were just beyond the woods. Several of Co. A, and a lot of others, took their rifles and started off to forage. One of our chaps soon came back with a pair of chickens, and offered to share with me if I could raise a kettle large enough to cook them in. They were a prize, though far from corpulent. I found a fellow that had a gallon kettle and willing to go in with us, so the fowls were quickly over a fire. Meanwhile the musket-firing off to the front had got right lively, and some one remarked that there must be a hundred of those sheep or some other stock out there. We were the extreme right of the line. Soon the firing got close to the left, and we saw the men rush for their pieces in the wildest haste. The owner of the chickens seized the kettle and he and the owner flew to the rear, while I and others dashed to the stacks in front for our rifles and equipments. In five minutes a hot fight at close quarters was raging all along the line, except in front of us. Fully one fourth of our regiment were absent from their places in the ranks, and only a third of the officers stuck to their places in line. Bullets sung about us very sharply, but we held our places and our fire till the foe should come near. Only a skirmish line showed up, and while waiting for a good shot, a bullet tore the bark off of a small tree that partly covered me, close to my head. The force of rebels that had attacked us so impetuously, outnumbered us, and had it not been that some of our artillery had been advantageously placed in time, would probably have given us a fearful rout. As it was they were repulsed gallantly, and the action was pretty much over in less than an hour. The regiment lost eleven in killed and wounded, but none belonged to our company, though our absentees did not turn up till the next day. Every other regiment in the division lost more than ours, I believe.

[Grand Army Scout and Soldiers' Mail v.3 #48 p.1]
The episode of the chicken I had, but lost so unexpectedly and suddenly reminds me of another, characteristic of those times, that I will relate. Of course our recruits by this time, were expert and well-tried soldiers, but they could not read the signs about them, and exercise the subtle intuition that was so natural to us veterans. The movement of a column of cavalry, a few shots on the picket-[line] or riding to and fro of staff officers, were signs of the greatest portent to us sometimes, while at other times we viewed them with the utmost unconcern. Experience had taught us to understand our circumstances in relation to these things wonderfully well. Perhaps we would be taking it easy at what seemed a safe distance in the rear, and two or three of the recruits would be fussing about a small fire, trying to make some coffee or a small stew, or toast some hard-tack, when an old soldier, who had perceived some far off sign of coming trouble, would remark, "If you fellows want that stuff, you had better get it in you pretty quick, for we'll have to get out of this pretty soon." Or may he would say: "You roosters better drop that and get your things on; there's going to be h--l here directly;" and it was apt to turn out somewhat as he had indicated.

While I have been thinking of that chicken that I wanted so much and did not get, another circumstance, a different sort of an episode, has come to my mind. My action in this matter, thought it was contrary to the direct command of my superiors, was of a kind that secured to me the strongest regard of my immediate comrades. I believe it was two or three nights previous to crossing the North Anna, that a large portion of the 5th Corps, including ourselves, bivouacked in a sort of mass in a small valley or basin. It was dark when we got there, and though we seemed to be away from the front and sheltered, bullets came humming among us frequently and several were hit. It was confounded mysterious and bothered us not a little. However, by 10 o'clock this ended, and nearly everybody was asleep. About midnight I was awakened by a messenger from our adjutant [sc. Benjamin Tayman], and ordered to send a corporal and two men toward the ammunition train and bring cartridges enough to make up sixty rounds to each man in the regi- [p.2]ment. He said the wagon was close by, and indicated the direction. I spread my opinion at once, by saying that we had from thirty-five to forty rounds a piece now, and the men were too much worn to be burdened with more; beside the fact that we had never needed as much as was in our boxes in any one fight. The night was pretty dark, and thinking I could right the matter I took my detail and started myself, instead of sending a corporal. When we had gone a hundred yards I halted and instructed them that we would scatter and search for the wagon awhile, but, at the same time, would do our best not to find it. After moving about for twenty minutes or more I whistled for them, and we went back to the regiment to report our failure to find the cartridges, but finding all hands asleep, we turned in too. In the morning, there was a little fuss made by the adjutant and colonel, but we got clear of carrying the extra stuff, much to our satisfaction.

Leaving the North Anna we made a sort of detour southward, and came around to the Pamunkey River, in the vicinity of Hanovertown, I believe. [28 May 1864] This was a woody country, and I did not see any indications of a town, but that was not strange, as Virginia seemed to be full of placed that had a great deal of name but very little else that was visible to identify them by.

From peaceful Pamunkey we went across to a place near Beaver Dam Station, on the Richmond and Fredericksburg Railroad. Here we were in line of battle, and began to put up breastworks near a picket-line. The rebel and Union pickets were making it hot for each other, and bullets flew around among us as we worked in the woods, in a very discomforting style. We soon left here, and for several days subsequently I cannot recall our doings in anything like systematic order.

One day we marched cooly along in some low woods in front of a rebel battery that was firing into it at very close range. One of the shots scattered the brains of a comrade of Co. E, and soon afterward we had to cross a road where the rebel sharpshooters made it very unhealthy. [perhaps Alexander Baird, who was killed on 1 June 1864] We rushed across, a few at a time, but several of the regiment were struck.

One hot day we were in a breastwork in the woods near the Mechanicsville Road, and all was quiet except a little picket firing. Shortly after noon came a terrific storm of rain and thunder, that lasted an hour or so. When this was about over our regiment, alone, got into line, and we moved off a little distance to the rear and to the edge of the road, where there was a very large field. All firing had ceased during the rain, but as we moved off it began again, and seemed to increase rapidly. We soon saw that something extraordinary had happened. Men of different regiments and brigades came rushing to the rear in a way that betokened a panic, and directly it seemed that every regiment of our 1st and 2d Divisions must be in confusion and danger of rout except ours. A Union battery came up at a gallop, and took position near us. We remained quietly in line under a suspense that became terrible, when a few minutes later a piece of rebel artillery was run up along the road near our flank and began to blaze away, sending shells right along our line. Overhanging limbs near them kept the enemy from getting a direct range on us, which was our good fortune, as our position was such that a well-directed shot might have killed fifty of us, as we did not even lie down. Two shells passed a little above us, and then one came that seemed to fairly fan our faces. One bursted [sic] near the left of the regiment and wounded several, and another went fearfully near a group of mounted officers, composed of General Griffin and his staff.

Remaining passive and in line under such circumstances was an ordeal that tested the mettle of the boys pretty thoroughly, but they held their placed like heroes. However, quietness came again in a little while, and we found out more of what had happened. During the storm the rebels had arranged an attack on the line held by our division, and when they came, their rush was so unexpected and impetuous as to nearly surprise our troops, who were principally engaged in trying to dry their blankets and tents. They captured some of our pickets and some of our breastworks, but the veterans of the 5th Corps were a hard lot to rout. They rallied so quickly and made it so hot for the foe that they fell back without us having suffered very heavy loss. Two or three days later our brigade manoeuvred about all day on a dilapidated farm, and men who climbed tall trees said they could see the spires of Richmond.

When night came we made a sort of forced march in the other direction, though we had not seen a sign of the enemy. About this time our captain [sc. Francis Gregory] took command again. He had been with the army for two weeks or more, but had not joined us, pleading sickness or some other excuse that was very frail as the reason. It was commonly said that he kept away to avoid going under fire. About this time, too, came peremptory orders that every man must carry sixty rounds of ammunition. I protested, saying the men could not keep up with more load; and the order was so modified that we were allowed to throw them away rather than fall out. Of course, all above forty rounds was soon disposed of.

Days sped by and we kept moving along till we got to the neighborhood of Cold Harbor. There, that morning, upon which nearly all of the Army of the Potomac was engaged in the bloody and futile charge on the adjacent rebel fortifications, that were so formidable, we were lying around in a loose sort of a fashion, a safe distance to the rear. Part of our division was engaged, and as far as I know, our regiment was the most unconcerned of any. Myself and several others went and had a swim in a mill-dam, having no idea that our army had received a worse than Fredericksburg repulse, through worse than Fredericksburg generalship. This was about the 6th of June, and about this time our regiment was transferred from the 2d to the 1st Division, of the 5th Corps, becoming part of the 1st Brigade. [They changed brigades on 9 June 1864.]

As time kept its course, we meandered about the Peninsula with the rest of the army, and saw some of the country made famous by McClellan's great campaign. We crossed the Chickahominy [13 June 1864] and York River Railroad, and were near Bottom's Bridge and other places whose names belong to the history of the early part of the war. By the middle of June, without more fighting, we were down near Charles City Court House and the James River. [They reached the James River on 14 June 1864] June 16th steam transports carried us over to the south bank, and we realized pretty fully that the mighty work that was to be accomplished towards the destruction of the Confederacy by Butler's army, while we were giving Lee's command so much entertainment, had fizzled down to about nothing. How gloomy and dispirited the army felt at this time I had no means of knowing, but it did seem as though some spirit of misfortune that was dire, pitiless and relentless, held us in close alliance in all our campaigns in eastern Virginia.

In the late operations between the Rapidan and the James we, as a company and a regiment, had been favored, but we were sure, nevertheless, that our experiences had been terrible. The strain of battle, hunger, heat, thirst, dangerous and wearisome vigils and marches, by night and by day, had somewhat cowed the spirits of Co. A, though the old buoyant and devil-may-care air still clung to us still. Few of us figured on the sick list, and I was as sturdy as the best of them. Holding a position that relieved me of picket and guard duty, came very nice at times, and helped to reconcile me to the non-possession of the commission that had been due me for the past sixteen months. I still had no stripes on to show my rank, and had the black slouch hat and blue jacket that I began the campaign with. I carried a knapsack, but you may be sure it was a light one. With us the matter of lightening our load and reducing our personal luggage had been brought down to dots. Few carried knapsack, blanket, overcoat or plate. Several carried no extra clothing whatever. At times we were hard up for a chance to wash clothes, but I am sure we were never counted as lacking in the honor of cleanliness.

One of our recruits came in from a foraging trip one day, bringing the lower half of a three quart coffee pot. It had a wire bale to lift it by, and had been used by some rebel soldier, I expect. It struck me that coffee or soup would boil quicker in it than in the deeper, narrower cups we generally used, so I begged it or traded for it, and for several months cooked in it and carried it slung to my haversack, where it often drew droll comments from the boys. How I would prize that old section of coffee pot if some chance should put it in my possession again. I believe I could recognize it among all the cups and kettles that both armies used in Virginia. It was a scallawag sort of utensil, that was so lacking in style, but how many meals of stewed meat, or crackers, or soup or coffee, did I have from it, that went down with that relish that a good appetite gives. Few of us had need to be ashamed of our cooking when our limited facilities were considered. I carried no plate, but had knife, fork and spoon, of a very light patter, that locked together when not in use.

Co. A, taken altogether, were not only expert soldiers in company, battalion or zouave drill, the routine of camps and hostile campaigns, but in the minutia of what can be done to palliate the harshness of military life under the most trying conditions, and help them take such care of themselves that they should remain as effective combatants in the ranks. Nor do I want any body to infer that our obscure regiment was not up to the standard of efficiency that characterized other city regiments. I have good reason to blieve [sic] it was decidedly above that standard, and that soldiers from the cities were the best troops in the service.

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