91st PA: Walter, part 11

Thomas F Walter, 'Personal Recollections', part 11

previous part[summary]next part

[Grand Army Scout and Soldier's Mail v.3 #51 p.1, continued]

Menaced by many dangers in and around our arid little camp, we kept the sun-browned tenor of our existence as even as we might, and had few on the sicklist. About the 20th of August we gathered our things together and took them again to the old camp where we had put up the arbors. There was [sic] some indications of a bigger move being on hand, so we fixed up very little. On the morning of the 22d the regiment, with the rest of our division and other troops, moved off to the left. [The attack on Weldon Railroad actually began on 18 August.] I told them I thought they were going around to strike the Weldon Railroad, and such was the case. A detour of several miles brought them to the road, which was quickly torn up and its line occupied and fortified with very little fighting. I did not go with them as I still continued to feel badly. That afternoon or the following day other troops moved out, principally of the 9th Corps, I believe, to form a junction with our division, and make our main line continuous. They had to do some sharp fighting, [p.2] but repulsed the rebels at every point.

Two days after the movement began, I concluded I wanted to join the boys again, so I started leisurely out along the rear of the new line. I came to a spot where a field hospital had been the day before, and in stepping over a little gully noticed right under me a pile of amputated arms and legs. They were a saddening and a sickening sight. On I went, and when I was but a little distance back of where the regiment lay, a fight of the most lively kind suddenly began. It seems Lee had determined on a big effort to recapture the railroad, and this impetuous attack by a large force was the result. They struck part of our brigade and the brigade to the right of ours, and were soon repulsed. Their loss in killed and wounded were [sic] severe. They also lost several hundred as prisoners and several flags, while our loss was slight. When cannon shot began to rip around me I selected a big pine tree to sit behind until the racket should be over. The sudden and unexpected opening of this entertainment caught a lot of teams and teamsters, officers' servants, musicians and other non-combatants, right up to the front, and the skedaddle they made was a sight to behold. Thirty or forty minutes sufficed for the storm of flight to spend itself, and then I went forward and found Co. A in good condition, having suffered no loss.

Our position, which we occupied for several weeks, was a little to the left of the large building that soon became well known as the "Yellow House." Our little shelter tents were soon up in proper order, and the woods cleared away and a small breastwork put up to protect our rear. The picket-line in front was a quarter of a mile out, beyond a dense thicket, and those of us who remained in camp could rest in much more security than at any time since we first attacked Petersburg.

While we were at this place the last spasm in reference to "Our Old Commander, Little Mac," went through the army. This was a scheme to present him with a very handsome testimonial, but who its projectors were I did not learn. I think twenty thousand dollars or more was to be raised, by allowing each field officer and line officer and each subaltern to subscribe a strictly limited amount. I think it did not strike our regiment for a cent, and so far as I was able to find out, it soon ended in a miserable fizzle throughout.

Washington and Philadelphia papers reached us regularly, and aside from the war news, matters in connection with politics and the Sanitary Commission, were most frequently commented on. Of course, for a couple of years past, we had been getting stationery, thread and other small conveniences, as well as Testaments and tracts occasionally from the Christian Commission. Our men were inclined to be too proud to go for these things, or show anything like fraternity with the sanctimonious. Toward the Sanitary Commission we felt different. We had seen its good work about the hospitals, and when we read of the immense quantities of good eatables that it had sent, or would send down for the soldiers on the front, our mouths watered, and our government rations became less palatable. I think it was only nine or ten miles from our position to City Point, where these supplies were landed, but that was a long way for extras to come. These things seemed to be distributed on the principle of serving those first who were handiest, and by the time the hospitals and convalescents, doctors and their aids, general officers and their staffs, quartermasters and their assistants, and a horde of hangers-on and plunderers about the Point were supplied, there remained a slim showing for the worthy fighters that were on the distant front and flanks. It seemed that sanitary grub reached us something like prize-money reaches the subalterns in the navy, as described by the sailor, who said: "The cash was shook about a ladder, the officers [sic] share being all that did not happen to stick." We did get something though. One time each of us got two or three little mackerel, and they were good. Another time we received a peach, and though the fruit was not extra good, it was an extraordinary article of army supply. We got some potatoes and onions once or twice, and we prized the onions above all the rest, as they were such a change.

Everyone of us had to feel some interest in the political contest going on in the North, with Lincoln and McClellan as leaders. "Little Mac" had several outspoken friends in the regiment, and of course, with them, the war was a failure and the South unconquerable. There was none of them in Co. A. Even our little corporal [sc. Simeon Zane], that had been nicknamed for him, no longer raised his voice in his favor. In fact, our fellows were very reserved, and I scarcely knew how they would vote, or whether they would vote if they had a chance. I told them that if the Democrats thought our armies were whipped, that my opinion was quite different, and that I believed that Co. A, of the 91st, would be willing to stir the rebels up several times more, before they would consent to give up to them Fort Monroe, or the country about Washington, with other posts and districts that we had fought them out of.

A peculiar incident connected with this matter and our company, happened about this time. When Co. C was first forming a man joined it that was called Bob Gray. He was then about fifty-six years old, though he had to represent himself as much younger to be accepted. He was tall, active, touch, grizzly and slouchy. Gambling and liquor drinking was [sic] not his sins, but he was a great eater and swore right along with a "rip tearing volubility." He was a kicker against discipline, for though he wanted to do his share of duty, he wanted to insist on doing it at such times and in such proportions as he thought fair. Except in age, our pious colonel [sc. Edgar Gregory] was an extremely different sort of a man, yet as soon as the companies came together in camp, Bob Gray became his protege, and "old Bob" soon realized that in him he had a friend that would ease his way out of most any scrape. Co. C worried along with him for more than two years, and then came the period of re-enlistment. He had been in fights and none challenged his bravery. He had been captured, having been one of the guards left with the wagon that I was sent to rescue from Snickers' Gap, and had gone through much the same captive experiences as I had. He had been among soldiers a good deal, but had not become much of a soldier himself. His military vicissitudes, various and trying as they had been, did not satisfy his patriotism, but he was determined to enlist again, whether he was wanted or not. Not only that, but he was coming into Co. A, and with the backing of the colonel, he did in spite of us. We got along with him pretty smoothly, my greatest trouble being to get him in presentable order for the frequent sharp inspections that took place, when we lay in camp. Bob had come safely through, and was with us in our camp on the Weldon Railroad. Our colonel's brigade of new troops had its headquarters near, and occasionally Bob would stroll off in that direction. If the colonel happened to notice him near his tent, he was apt to call him in to have a talk. One day I noticed him coming back, and asked him if he had been to see his friend. Coming close to me, he broke out with:
"Say! the old bugger wants me to vote for Lincoln."

I said, "Well, Bob, don't that suit?"

He hesitated for a moment, and then exclaimed, "D--n if I ever voted for a man yet for a big office but what he was defeated, and I'm going to vote for McClellan, and I'll know he's beaten then, from the first."

"Have it your own way," I said, and thought no more about it at the time.

Sure enough, when election day came, Bob carried out his plan, and his was the only Democratic ballot cast by the company. Twenty-six of the others, I believe, voted for Lincoln, while a dozen or more (principally of our recruits) remained neutral. More than a third of the company were absent, sick, or wounded, or on duty at army or division headquarters, but the "home vote" proved the boys were neither for surrender or compromise, and as I look back to those times that were so fraught with great trials and dangers, I cannot help thinking that the action of my comrades in that election makes a particularly bright spot in their long and good record.

[Grand Army Scout and Soldiers' Mail v.3 #52 p.1]
Prior to the election day, I think it was the 30th of September when the regiment packed up once more, and with the brigade and other troops, started off to bear their share in a movement around and beyond the extreme left. I had been taking medicine all along, but was feeling no better, so I did not go with them. Several of the quartermaster's gang, a few teamsters and others were about, so that I was not alone. I believe it was at this time that a force of rebel cavalry raided around us, and got among a large drove of our beef cattle that were near the James River, a short distance below City Point. [This raid occurred on 16 August 1864, and captured nearly 2500 cattle.] It seems that we had no available troopers to make it lively for them just then, and as they were leisurely returning, part of them came forward to near our part of the line. There was [sic] woods all along a short distance to the rear, and some teams that had been out for fuel came in on a run and reported the enemy close by. Every man about who could arm himself hurried to the breastworks, and though we were about twenty paces apart, I am sure we would have given them quite a "racket" before we would have allowed them to break through. They did not show up, however, but I have remembered these circumstances as going to prove the superb effectiveness of our army, for all seemed to act like good soldiers at once without a command.

The following day as I lay in my tent the staff surgeon of Colonel Gregory's Brigade rode up and told me that he had been sent back to send me to the hospital. The colonel, while riding by the regiment missed me, and on inquiry, was told that I had stayed back sick. The regimental doctor said he was not aware that much ailed me, when our first lieutenant, who was on Gregory's staff, spoke out said [sic] said that he did not care what the doctors said, if I said I was sick, that was enough; so the surgeon had his long ride back to camp. I reluctantly bundled up my dunnage [?] and took a ride over that curious up and down hill railroad that had been built to bring supplies up to the left of the Union lines from City Point.

At the Point I reported at the hospital, and was surprised on the following morning to see our captain [sc. Francis Gregory] come walking into the ward. He was ailing too, and had succeeded in [p.2] getting away from the dangerous front. About the same time the surgeons received directions to clear out the hospital as far as possible, so they would have the needed room in case the movement then going on resulted in some hard fighting. In the afternoon myself and a hundred or so of the others, were put on a nice steamer and started for Washington. We had a pleasant trip down the James River and up the Potomac, but my forebodings were not so agreeable, for I knew I was going among strangers, and that I had not the appearance of one that needed a physician.

I could scarcely hope to receive careful treatment, or to escape suspicion, ridicule, or insult, for all manner of subterfuge was practiced at times, by both officers and men, to get away from the tribulations and dangers incident to facing the enemy. The shrewdest of the surgeons and hospital attendants were frequently at their wits end to tell whether a man was playing off to escape being sent to the front, or was really a fit subject for their attention.

Early the following afternoon our boat was made fast to the wharf at the foot of Seventh street; some ambulances were there to receive the worst cases, and they were soon in and away. No one seemed concerned about me, and I was left to walk up through the city, and make my way out to Harewood Hospital, where I learned the others had been sent. Harewood, I think, was nearly a mile north of the suburbs, in a pleasant location, with country surrounding. I judge it was not more than half full at that time. I was assigned to a nice bed in one of the wards occupied chiefly by convalescents, and went to the general dining-room for me meals. The only thing the doctor prescribed for me was milk punch, and that I was in no wise fond of. Three or four days after my arrival in walked our late captain [sc. Francis Gregory]. He told me that his three years of service, as well as the first lieutenant's, [sc. John Brass] was ended, and they had been mustered out and were on their way home. He told me a first lieutenant's commission was in the hands of the colonel for me, and urged me to get back to the regiment as soon as I could. Thus was our company, the leading, the strongest and the best in the battalion left without a commissioned officer of its own.

My symptoms had not improved, and I felt little concern about the matter. A few days later, or about October 21st, 1864, my mother came down from Baltimore, where she was in the government service, with a transfer order, and I returned with her to the National General Hospital in that city. Here I was tolerated rather than treated as a patient, and was given a furlough to visit Philadelphia just previous to the presidential election. My home at that time was on Eleventh street below Callowhill, and my first ballot was cast for President Lincoln on Ridge avenue above Tenth street. I returned to Baltimore in the beginning of December, and a few days afterwards, was notified to go to the front. Though I was no better I did not object to go, but I did object to being sent with a guard, so I went to the chief surgeon and asked his written permission to go back to the regiment at my own expense. He said he could not give me such a document, and added that the usual way of getting back to the front was the only correct way. Such talk I knew to be falsehood and buncombe, and I left him with an intensified contempt for all officers that knew nothing beyond the rut of ordinary routine and the promptings of an extreme regard for personal safety.

Not before the following day could I make up my mind to go over to the barracks on Federal Hill to join the squad and await transportation. Several days sped away, and then the afternoon came wherein a guard took us down to the steamboat that was to take us to Fort Monroe. The boat was a pretty good one and in no wise crowded, but the night gathered around dark and stormy. Chesapeake Bay became very rough and several of us were sea-sick, and once in awhile the huge waves that dashed against us sent their crests flying over the decks and made the steamer creak and tremble from stem to stern. For us it was certainly a wretched night. Pleasant weather came again ere we reached the fort, where, after landing, we were sent back to the old Parole Camp, to stay until it was convenient to send us to City Point. We were here two or three days and had a free range of the place, but I was not feeling well and interested enough to enter the great fortress that occupied so prominent a place in the chronicles of the Rebellion.

A good steamer took us up the James River, and at City Point I was again where I could hear the boom of our heavy guns as they thundered against the enemy. I soon learned that our regiment was with a large portion of the 5th Corps that had gone on a raid down the Weldon Railroad, a long way to make a several days' trip of it. [The Weldon Railroad raid began on 7 December 1864, and ended on 12 December.] It seemed that I could do no better than to go to the quarters provided for enlisted men who might have the misfortune to be detained here. These quarters were in a miserable, gloomy skeleton sort of a frame building. There were bunks in it, but no bedding, and I had no blanket. The weather had become very chilly and wet, and the grounds about the place were covered with a batter of yellow mud. I believe I bought nearly all I had to eat, and the general combination of circumstances at this time more thoroughly disgusted me with military service than ever before.

Grant's generalship, and the general familiarity with death, seemed to have placed human life at a considerable discount, while the rights of the best veteran soldier, when he was away from his company or regiment, were only on a par with those of the uniformed bummer. In fact, the bummer, with his assurance and self-assertion, frequently obtained far the most consideration.

A couple of days later I heard that our raiders had returned, so I mounted a freight car, and after a cold ride of eight or ten miles, soon found my old comrades. The military railroad at that time extended right up to that part of the line held by the 5th Corps.

The raid had been a cold, rough experience, with scarcely any fighting, and Company A suffered no loss. Most of the army was in winter quarters of some sort, but I found our fellows in a patch of stumps, with only their shelter tents for houses, and a spit of snow whitened the ground. There was a good deal of vehement language and expert "cussin" going on among the boys, because twice already they had been told to fix themselves for winter, and soon afterward had been compelled to abandon their shanties. My reception was satisfactory, however, and I was promptly taken in and made welcome to the luxuries of the camp. The following day I gave the officer commanding the regiment an account of my case, and also rehearsed it to the surgeon, telling him that I despaired of getting well in the army, and was anxious for my discharge. He gave me little hope, for at that time it was exceedingly difficult for any man that could move about to get clear of the army in a regular way, anywhere south of Washington. Next I saw our colonel [sc. Edgar Gregory], who was still commanding a brigade. After he had heard my story, he promised to aid me in getting discharged, but at the same time gave me my commission, and advised me to get mustered. This I was not disposed to do. A couple of days later we met again, and he promised to send for a captain's commission for me as soon as I was mustered as lieutenant, also saying that I could have a staff position if I desired. None of these things moved me and the matter was still in abeyance when we next met, when he gave me positive orders to delay no longer. Not until the 30th of December were his commands obeyed, and by that time I had grown pretty desperate. The [sc. 31 Dec] following morning I was detailed to go on picket, and sent the adjutant a note to say that I considered the condition of my health made it my duty to refuse to go, and that I positively would not. I was notified to consider myself in arrest, and in arrest I stayed until after Lee's surrender, when I was discharged.

In the meantime Christmas had been with us and departed, leaving no festive memories behind. We were still upon the same ground, trying to make ourselves comfortable under our adverse circumstances. Wood and water were both scarce, but matters were quiet on the front and we were safe from the mishaps of battle. There had been a distribution of little mackerel, though I cannot recall whether the Government or the Sanitary Commission issued them to us, and we were occasionally getting soft bread, so when Christmas morning came we had coffee, bread and salt fish for breakfast. At dinner time there was no spread, and at supper we filed up with that celebrated army staple, bean soup. New Year's day passed without bringing us anything more of incidents or cheer, except a gratifying improvement in the weather. Our forlorn condition during this holiday season made me think and talk more of former times when Providence was treating us more kindly. "Home" was the usual subject of the "chinning" one heard, especially among those we called our recruits. Several of the fellows told me of their late Thanksgiving Day experiences. Of the immense amount of eatables sent to the Army of the Potomac on that occasion by the Sanitary and Christian Commissions, some actually reached our company. Part of the lot consisted of several mince pies. When I asked about the quality of them, one wag declared that his piece was principally made up of the sweepings of a cobbler shop.

[Grand Army Scout and Soldiers' Mail v.4 #1 p.1] Eighteen hundred and sixty-four became a period of the past, while those of us who read the newspapers and studied the situation in the light of the military record, knew to a certainty how low the tide of rebellion was ebbing. January of the new year passed away without bringing any important event to affect the command or myself, except that having seen [??] an advertisement of homeopathic remedies, I sent a statement of my case to New York, with money for some medicine, which soon reached me by mail. This was near the middle of the month, and nearly six months after receiving the wound in my shoulder and spine.

The sixth of February came, and with it came orders for our men to pack up again for a move. They started off to the left and rear, but the quartermaster, with several others, including myself, stayed behind where we were. Two or three days later news came of the lively cracker the boys had been through. They were around near Hatcher's Run again, and the scrimmage had been of a sort that was peculiar to this wild, woody, swampy, and otherwise abominable country. The 5th Corps seemed to have this question pretty much to itself, and the object was to regularly extend the Union lines of [?] environment. They found some rebels and some earthworks in their way, so they attacked them. Our brigade got into a dangerous position, where they could see no chance to do good, so they ran away pell-mell. The men were mad, anyhow, because for the fourth time during the winter they had been taken from their quarters on expeditions that seemed to promise no very important results. Part of the 2d Division were put in line to stop the [illegible], but they would not be halted till they were
[the left part of the rest of this column is a blotch]
[illegible] out of the reach of the rebel
[illegible] past them.
[illegible] officer killed
[illegible] in the face,
[illegible] Company [?] A
[illegible] , same
[illegible] close
[illegible] As
[illegible] our shame
[illegible] had
[illegible] on, and there [illegible]
[illegible] scattered [illegible]
[illegible] pair of [illegible]
[illegible] that [illegible]
a better [illlegible]
[p.2] were left. Another fellow picked up a tin cup and fastened it to his haversack, but before the [sic] got to the rear a rifle ball went through its bottom and ruined it.

previous partnext part

top of document | home
revised 5 Jul 02
contact Harry Ide at [email protected] with comments or questions