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Chapter 15: from Petersburg to Harper's Ferry

The Fourth of July was duly celebrated along the lines in front of Petersburg and Richmond by a shotted salute of all the cannon along our extended line. It must have been a day of seriousness to the Confederate authorities and people. The war was evidently going against them, and the old flag was floating over the camps that were constantly encroaching on their narrowing lines of defense; and on the vessels closing all the seaports of Rebeldom. To break the tightening grip of Grant upon the defenses of Richmond, General Early had been sent down the valley of the Shenandoah to make a raid into Maryland and towards Washington. To meet the raid General Lew Wallace gathered all the troops he could, but they were not sufficient to stay the advance of Early. It was determined to send the 6th Corps to the defense of Washington.

On the 6th of July the 3d Division of the Corps marched to City Point and boarded transports and steamed away. On the 8th of July the rest of the corps followed. The night was very dark, and the first part of the march was through the cut over ground from which wood had been procured, and the walking was execrable until the road was reached.

The method by which a barrel of onions was secured from the pile guarded by a colored sentinel, the rough and tumble row between men of the 121st and 96th Pennsylvania on the boat to the [170] different sides of which they were assigned, needs no more than a mention in the history of the regiment; the living participants will no doubt recall both transactions vividly. Colonel Beckwith did not forget any feature of it in writing his remembrances. The name of the transport was the Transylvania and the speed she made caused a refreshing breeze which the men on board enjoyed exceedingly. The next day Washington was reached and the men of the corps, rested and refreshed by the trip, but very hungry, disembarked at the Sixth Street wharf, and were quickly formed in rank and hurried up Seventh Street. Beckwith writes, “As we passed along we were greeted with clapping of hands, waving of handkerchiefs, and many remarks such as ‘Bully for you,’ ‘Hurrah for the 6th Corps,’ and we soon learned that the enemy were attacking the line of defenses on the Seventh Street road out near Brightwood, known as Fort Stevens, and that our advance brigade, Bidwell's of the 2d Division was already at work. Every man was ordered to keep in the ranks, and as we passed along water and ginger beer were given to the men and hundreds of people anxiously cheered us. The negroes were very demonstrative and saluted us with many quaint remarks one of which was, ‘God bress Massa Lincum for the Six Co.,’ and another, ‘Dey's done got to clear out for dem red cross sojers. Wee's all saved now.’ ” President Lincoln was riding to the front while the 6th Corps was marching up Seventh street and was soon joined by General Wright, and together they went on to Fort Stevens, on the rampart of which the President stood surveying the scene until urged almost imperatively by General Wright to leave that exposed position.

Colonel Beckwith gives the best account of what immediately followed that I have seen. “The day [171] was exceedingly hot and that made the marching in the thick dust very hard after we had left the pavements of the city. When the sound of musketry reached us just before reaching Brightwood, we saw General Wright stopping by the road side with a gentleman whom we immediately recognized as President Lincoln. He answered our greeting and cheers by raising his hat. Instantly afterward we heard the sing of a bullet and we knew that the President was under fire. Moving up to the fort and deploying to the left in rear of our line of works, we found them swarming to suffocation, with all sorts of people, invalid reserves, convalescents, clerks, citizens, marines, any and everybody who could or would be able to fire a gun. Among them was Hank Johnson, a Company D man of our regiment. He ran over and saluted his friends in that company. As soon as we were deployed, before in fact, General Bidwell rushed forward with the 7th Maine, the 61st Pennsylvania, 43d, 45th, 77th and 122d New York regiments, and swept back the troops of Rodes' division of Ewell's corps, then under Early, and pushed them down across Rock Creek and beyond Montgomery Blair's residence at Silver Spring, losing quite heavily at the outset, but inflicting a greater loss upon the enemy. Under the eyes of President Lincoln, Secretary Stanton and a vast multitude of soldiers and civilians standing upon the works, where they had for many hours fearfully awaited the advance of Lee's choicest troops, the superb veterans of Bidwell rushed upon their old time foes and pushed them from our front, under a devouring fire of musketry, but stimulated by the cheering of the spectators. We were proud of our comrades, and glad that the President had an opportunity to witness something of the terrible reality of war. [172] Bidwell's success, and darkness coming on, ended the day's fighting, and we were not engaged. The next morning we went down the road and over the ground where the severest fighting had taken place, and saw many of our gallant fellows lying cold and stiff in death, as they had fallen. Their dead also lay scattered about thickly showing the determination of our advance and the courage of their resistance. The wounded had been gathered up, and taken to the hospital. Our loss amounted to nearly three hundred killed and wounded. The killed were buried in an enclosure to the right of the road in front of Fort Stevens, now a national cemetery, over which float the colors for which they gave their lives.”

General Gordon says that the objects of this movement under Early were two, first, to draw some of Grant's troops from in front of Lee, and second, the release of the Confederate prisoners confined at Point Lookout. The capture of Washington was not contemplated, and Early was perplexed as to what to do, when his troops reached the outworks of the city. He might have entered before the arrival of the 6th Corps, if he had desired to do so, for a portion of the works in his front was bare of defenders. But all the facts seem to point to a different conclusion. Gordon goes on to say that the first of these objects was attained, but it was found impossible to free the prisoners, and no attempt was made to reach them.

In the affair at Fort Stevens only two divisions were engaged. The 3d Division, which started from City Point the day before the rest of the corps, was disembarked at Baltimore and advanced from that city to Frederick City, where it joined the forces of General Lew Wallace, and took part in the battle of the Monocacy. In this battle the small force of General Wallace, by successful [173] maneuvering and stubborn fighting, delayed General Early an entire day, and thus gave the time necessary for the 6th Corps to arrive at Washington, before the Confederates could enter.

General Early afterwards said that when he saw the banners of the 6th Corps in the works at Fort Stevens, he gave up all hope of taking the city. One of his officers said, “Damn the 6th Corps, we find it everywhere.” These were the men whom the corps had fought at the Wilderness battle at Spottsylvania, on the 10th and 12th of May, and a part of it at the Monocacy. Gordon's Georgians had had a conspicuous part in all those terrible battles, and they knew the metal of which the 6th Corps was made.

The day following the battle of Fort Stevens, the corps advanced and found that the enemy had retreated. This was rendered necessary from the fact that General Wallace had restored the morale of his defeated army, and was threatening Early's rear and flank. The advance continued through Rockville and Seneca on the river road to the vicinity of Poolsville, the 1st Division having the lead. At Poolsville the enemy was found, but gave way before the attack of our cavalry. The corps encamped there for the night. The next day by a long and dusty march, the cavalry leading, Edwards Ferry was reached. On the 16th the river was crossed and the advance reached Leesburg, and passed beyond to Clark's Gap. Here the 3d Division under General Ricketts rejoined the corps. They showed the effect of their hard fight at Monocacy. Of them Beckwith says, “They gave us an account of their fight there, and spoke of the confidence with which the Rebels charged them, until they found out what troops were in front of them. Prisoners said that the Rebel officers told their men, that the troops in front of them were only [174] militia and did not know how to fight, and would run at the first charge, but as soon as we fired our first volley, they knew mighty well that, ‘You uns wan't no militia,’ and the first thing they asked when they saw the crosses we wore, was, ‘Where did you uns come from? Is you everywhere?’ They told us that they were outnumbered and outflanked, and the new troops did not hold their ground. They made as good a fight as possible under the circumstances, (a fact that General Gordon fully acknowledges). If we had been there, we could have whipped the Rebels, and now that we were together again we were anxious to get at them and show them that we could.”

Part of the 19th Corps under General Emory joined us at Clark's Gap and a cavalry engagement of some importance was fought in our front. We advanced again on the 17th along the Snickerville Pike through the gap and to Snickerville Ford on the Shenandoah River. Here the 19th Corps, under General Emory, joined the army. Twice the regiment crossed the river and advanced without serious opposition some distance into the valley.

The result of these observations convinced General Grant that Early had been called back to Petersburg, by General Lee, and he ordered the 6th and 19th Corps to report as soon as possible at Petersburg. This left the 8th Corps under General Crook in the valley.

While the two corps were resting and being provided with new clothing at Georgetown, Crook attempted to advance up the valley from Harper's Ferry, and was met with a stubborn resistance by a superior force and driven back. It was soon evident that Early with an increased force was still in the valley and bent upon more mischief. The 6th and 19th Corps were therefore ordered back through the villages of Maryland, north of the Potomac [175] to Frederick City. A short halt was made, near the Monocacy battlefield, but the march was resumed and continued all night until Harper's Ferry had been passed and camp was made at Halltown.

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