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Chapter 12:

A hard forced march from Gettysburg to Frederick, via Emmetsburg, Maryland, commenced on the night of the 5th of July; we encountered on the way Sisters of Charity, proceeding to the hospitals in Pennsylvania to minister to the wounded, as is ever their wont when the occasion for their services occurs. Our arrival at Frederick was in the midst of rain, that had been falling more or less through the previous twelve hours, and we were quite hungry. After a brief halt in this town, where we saw the Tenth Massachusetts Battery and had the pleasure of greeting Capt. Sleeper, who had been our third in command, it became apparent that we were not to continue the pursuit down the Monocacy Valley, for we took the road leading over South Mountain to Boonesboro. One circumstance of our bivouac in the vicinity of the place, worthy of mention, was its nearness to a most remarkable spring, which was nothing less than a basin in the rock, perhaps twenty feet by thirty feet, whose outlet was a creek which a few rods thence entered the Antietam.

We soon moved to Williamsport, the inference being that Lee had crossed the Potomac near this town. But if this were the route of the retreating army, it is evident that its southward progress had been sufficiently rapid to render it necessary for us to march upon a more easterly line and one nearer the railroad communications with the capital, for we descended the north bank of the Potomac and crossed that river about two miles below Harper's Ferry, entering Virginia at the same point as in the previous year, six weeks after the battle of Antietam. It was during this week that news of the fall of Vicksburg reached us,—the complement of the encouraging report from our own army, which the press had already transmitted to the West. The military outlook [131] from a Union standpoint had never before been so promising. We moved up Loudon Valley, bivouacked one night upon the banks of Goose Creek, made yet another day's march southward, and halted. There was a demand for fodder for the horses; the following day, therefore, found us scouring the by-ways for sequestered barns where sizable haymows might be found, or for unmolested stacks. Seldom was a place visited in this part of Loudon County where we were not assured that the proprietor was a ‘good Union man,’ and were cautioned by the officers in charge of our little expedition, not to yield to any temptation that might present itself to plunder, as if such injunction were necessary in a command in which, as a rule, a Spartan diet was a matter of preference, and luxuries were despised. But one was forced to wonder why this section did not send its delegates to the West Virginia Convention, in order that it might, as a part of the new loyal state, receive the recognition and protection that its fidelity merited.


What a network of blackberry vines covered the uncultivated tracts along the line of march, as we advanced over and beyond the height of land between the tributaries of the Potomac and the Rappahanock, and what a wealth of wild fruit there was! It is estimated that the free use of blackberries at this time saved the medical department thousands of dollars. We have seen a brigadier, during a few moments' halt by the way, filling with the luscious fruit the tin dipper which he usually carried at his saddle. This valley region which we were now traversing, together with both slopes of the eastern range of mountains, which bounds it, is known in geography as the Piedmont region, and covers an area of nearly 7,000 square miles; its northern boundary is the Potomac; its southern limit, the south state line of Virginia.

The upper waters of the affluents of the Rappahannock are a little north of the centre of this district. One of these streams, called Hedgeman's River, we crossed the third week in July, and moved over the east side of the mountains to the vicinity of Warrenton. The army headquarters were, we believe, at Warrenton; there is a branch of the great Midland line leading northwest to this place, which was our immediate base of supplies.

This county of Fauquier, where our forces lay in August, 1863, is a most beautiful region of undulation and plain, with fine tracts [132] of hard-wood growth; there were grand old plantations of great extent, with ancestral manor house, the proprietor generally being absent. There would be here and there a rude house upon the domain, occupied by a negro family, the head of which had passed the meridian of life. The good wife would make a spread frequently for a knot of soldiers, at two and threepence a head, the boys patronizing the old dame for the sake of the then novel experience of sitting at table and looking at crockery in lieu of tinware.

The army now lay, principally, north of the north fork of the Rappahannock, stretching from the plains crossed by the Alexandria and Orange Railroad, south of Warrenton Junction, through Fauquier Springs, west to the valley that lies at the west slope of the Blue Ridge, and reaching back along the line of the railroad and the Warrenton pike, toward Gainesville.

The Confederate force lay south of the south fork of the Rappahannock, between that stream and the Rapidan, a part of their forces lying south of that river, and their front extending west to the Blue Ridge. Any flank movement at this time would be likely to be an attempt to march by our right, along the west base of the ridge, to Thoroughfare Gap and its vicinity, with the purpose of striking our railroad communications in the rear.

There was at this time a strong line of infantry and artillery ranged across the ridge three miles northwest of Sulphur Springs; the guns of the artillery commanding the road that leads over Hedgeman's River, and generally guarding the approaches from the southwest, the main body of the infantry being upon the east slope of the ridge and reaching up to the crest.

Previous to the second week in August, the point on this ridge six or eight miles southwest of Warrenton and three miles northwest of Sulphur Springs, the most advanced artillery outpost on our right, was held by Company M, Fifth United States, which was then relieved by the First Massachusetts Battery. On our left and rear, upon the crest of the ridge, was the Twenty-sixth Pennsylvania Regiment, and upon our right, our guns being pointed to the southwest, was the Sixth Vermont.

The anniversary of the organization of the former regiment occurred while we were on this service, and the occasion was celebrated by that command with such festivities as our brethren [133] from the Middle States, especially those of Teutonic origin, know so well how to inaugurate and conduct. We should judge that the major portion of the line, rank and file, of the troops upon the ridge and of those upon the east slope and neighboring plain, were present to witness the climbing of the slippery pole, and the chasing of the pig, and to partake of the good things that might be afforded. So hilarious, not to say uproarious, was the returning crowd which streamed down the east slope to their camps, that a reverend chaplain of another Pennsylvania regiment, who was holding a meeting in a nook at the foot of the hill, felt constrained to criticise the unseemly actions of some of the revellers. It having been intimated that a soldier correspondent of a Pittsburg paper would write a glowing account of the afternoon's festivities, the reverend gentleman remarked with spirit: ‘If the affair is puffed in a Pittsburg paper, it will get puffed.’


The otherwise sultry air of a Virginian August was at this place materially modified, both by the mountain breezes and the heavy thunderstorms characteristic of this region. What vivid flashes! what peals of thunder! what torrents of water streamed down the slopes, and wore gullies therein! How the trees groaned and cracked during the fury of the storm! Occasionally one would be demolished by a bolt, or another be stripped of a section of its bark, together with some of its limbs.


One afternoon in the fourth week in August, the cavalry division of Gen. Gregg might have been seen moving north along the Sulphur Springs road toward Warrenton. This retirement of the cavalry was declared by the knowing ones who witnessed it to indicate an advance of our lines. We certainly did move on the following day, by way of Sulphur Springs, crossing the branch of the Rappahannock at that place, marching during that day across Hazel River and thence southwest to Stonehouse Mountain, at the north base of which we encamped. This lies northwest of Culpepper, C. H., and is a peak of that range to which we have so often alluded as extending east of the Blue Ridge, under different local names, through Virginia. This forward movement of the Army of the Potomac indicated the retirement of the main body of Lee's army, beyond the Rapidan. Our right was west of Culpepper, C. H., [134] our left beyond Rappahannock Ford, the cavalry being busily employed upon the flanks of our long line, and also in watching our extended line of communication. We tarried here during the remainder of the summer, and into September. The continuance of the army in camp for so many weeks since its arrival in the regions of Fauquier and Culpepper Counties emboldened sutlers to venture to move out to the camps considerable stores, and daguerrotypists to come hither to ply their craft. Many a soldier had an opportunity to dispose of his hard-earned paper to the former and to procure a counterfeit of himself of the latter. Tintypes exhibiting full length portraits of the boys were common articles of transmission through the mails, in those days.

It was while at this place that a proposition was submitted to the boys to contribute ten cents each toward a testimonial to Gen. McClellan. When the scheme was explained to the noncommissioned officers and privates they were informed that it had the approval of Gen. Meade, and that all general officers would participate in the contribution; that colonels and subordinate field officers would give something less, and that line officers would generally contribute $1.50 each. The object of this enterprise was understood to be a vindication of Gen. McClellan. Whether it implied a criticism of the war department was not much considered. We think the true friends of Gen. McClellan, among whom the writer of this chapter counts himself, doubted the propriety of such a plan, judged from the standpoint of healthy military discipline. The scheme was nipped in the bud by the department, as it ought to have been.


Back of the surgeon's tent a crowd was gathered. A comrade sat upon a cracker box. Along comes the steward with a pair of rusty forceps; he takes the soldier's head in his left hand, examines his mouth and applies the pincers to a bicuspid. The boys are intently watching the face of the patient. The tooth is firmly fixed in the lower jaw. The steward makes considerable effort before it is loosened, causing intense pain, but at length displays the tooth in the grip of the forceps, to the crowd. ‘He never flinched,’ said the boys, admiringly.

On another day, we were passing a hospital tent, and were drawn to the door by hearing dreadful imprecations within, which [135] had attracted the attention of other passers, who were peeping in. We perceived a soldier striking out lustily at a hospital assistant on either hand, each of whom was careful to keep out of range, at the same time watching his opportunity to close with the man. The soldier was giving vent to most wrathful utterances. ‘What would they do with the man?’ we asked of a bystander. ‘Pull a tooth,’ he replied. We did not remain to witness the denouement. One would have thought that the two skirmishers might have endured the struggle the longer, as their prospective victim was exhausting his vitality by strokes in the air and abnormal exhalations. But the poor fellow had soon an opportunity to expend any surplus energy that he might possess, for the next week, it being the second in September, we moved beyond Culpepper, C. H., near where Cedar Creek makes its way to the Rapidan, through pawpaw bushes and other small wood growth.

We were now well on the right of the main line; if an advance were contemplated, we should be in the van; if a retreat, we should share the honors that pertain to the rear-guard in such a movement.

That our coming here was only the commencement of a more extensive enterprise, seemed evident from shadows cast before, or straws which indicated the course of the wind. For example, cavalry were retiring from our front and moving by our right, as if anticipating a flank movement of the enemy. Again, sutlers were ordered to Washington, and the prudent obeyed; but not a few greedy leeches clung to the body of the army, so intent upon absorbing its vitality as to be oblivious to repulse; so when the long Federal line moved by the left flank along the line of railroad between the Rappahannock and the Rapidan, Lee having crossed the latter river and moved north, these fellows were literally on a hot gridiron, hopping frantically from one strip to another. It is a long plain which the railroad (and we followed its course) traverses from Culpepper to Rappahannock Station. And as our long train, moving at rapid pace, swept over the great waste, the extortioners were now sandwiching themselves between the mess and company wagons, then, being ousted, flying timorously along on parallel lines, again bouncing into a gap in the train, to be anon swept out and relegated to a side-track. [136]

Every one seemed instinctively to realize that we were making a race with the Confederates for Centreville. How did we know? No one could tell. How did we know time and again our destination, when suddenly set in motion forward, or hurried back to retraverse some route? And how was it that nine times in ten the conjectures or predictions of the rank and file, as to the result of a movement, would be verified or fulfilled?

It was an exciting race; for a good stretch of the way, past Brandy Station, we sped, sometimes at a trot, always at quickstep. It must have been past noon when our division, in the rear of the long, broad phalanx, neared Rappahannock Station, by Rappahannock Ford.

As we bowled over the plain to the bank, we came up with and broadened a large mass of troops waiting their turn to cross the pontoon; the river was not fordable at this time. Away over the sea of plain north of the river stretched the army toward Bealton, and beyond as far as an object was visible. When at length, after a long wait, we had gained the north bank, and were in the wake of the procession which was unmistakably moving on Manassas, the booming of cannon was heard in the northwest as at Warrenton. The head of our column must be at Warrenton Junction, nine miles to the southeast or beyond. It must be that Union cavalry and horse artillery have met similar Confederate troops up in Fauquier, these bodies being between their respective columns, with a broad interval on either hand.

The rival columns appeared to have made equally good time. Now the Federal commander availed himself of a clever piece of strategy. We countermarched. Our division became the head of the column; we were soon on the south side of the river and were rapidly marching toward Brandy Station, as though bent upon placing ourselves in Lee's rear. Now it was the turn of the Confederate column to countermarch, and back it turned, making progress toward Culpepper. Now the pace of our column is slackened perceptibly, and perhaps twenty minutes of slow movement succeeded, when we are marched right about, and at double-quick regain the river and recross; and the whole Federal army is on the wing over the plain and along the line of the great Midland track, having gained considerable advantage in respect to a start northward, although we have the outside track. Now was [137] a race in earnest for Centreville. A night march, dark and chilly; the sutlers crawled between the column and the railroad track, halting when the procession paused, and hastening along when it was again in motion, persistently wedging themselves into a niche when one presented itself. It was so dark that one could not see his best friend's face, but he could hear some evil genius asking for a wrench,—the nuts of the wheels were loose; a few moments later, a cry from the sutlers that they were breaking down; and one heard proffered assistance accepted, then shrieks and denunciations. Somebody was expressing disgust that a box contained ‘jacks’ which he supposed filled with tobacco. Another complacently fondled a cheese. Thus was avarice punished, but morals meanwhile corrupted. How we crossed Broad Run beyond Bristow, passed Manassas and over Bull Run and climbed to the summit of Centreville, the All-seeing eye alone perceived. We were arrayed upon the height in the morning, and retained the position during that day and the following night.

On the morrow after we marched south, along the Warrenton pike, crossed Bull Run by the Stone Bridge, and pushed on to Gainesville on the Manassas Gap road; here a locomotive was standing facing the gap; it had probably brought cars with some supplies, possibly some men, from Alexandria, switching off at Manassas Junction. The enemy must have paused somewhere along their line of march, for after a very brief halt we marched along the pike to New Baltimore.

As at noon we rode into this decayed hamlet, and rested a moment at the junction of the pike with the road that leads over the mountains from White Plains, whence we came a year ago, memory reverted to our departure from this place in 1862, for Fredericksburg, and rapidly reviewed the thrilling history of that eventful year. What a long oval with a diameter of a hundred miles we had described since then! We had left comrades at many a point in the curve, because of disease or death.

We halted an hour south of the village on the east side of the pike, nibbled some hardtack, and speculated upon the events of the morrow. There was a very general dearth of tobacco in the ranks, and the commissioned officers who used pipes were not seen to take them from their pockets; it was ardently hoped that [138] some of the fragrant leaf might be found in Warrenton. We were not disappointed.


The morning after our arrival at Warrenton was the beginning of a typical Indian summer day; the air was delightfully exhilarating. After water-call and stable-duty we hurried into the village, and found in the basement of a tavern a man in a gray coat dealing out figs of tobacco among a swarm of blue coats, who gave him great trouble to make change. It was ‘first come, first served,’ and there was considerable crowding, but we secured forty hands, which were soon distributed in camp to the satisfaction of those who received them. Others having found the source of supply, there was a general relighting of pipes, and a marked decrease of nervousness. This episode is only a vagary,— a whimsical incident of our return to the peninsula between the Rappahannock and the Rapidan. Stern experience was in store for us, of a color like that already realized, but with new features. The Army of the Potomac had made its last retreat when it finally crossed these rivers. The Confederate army, retiring behind the Rappahannock in our front, left a detachment of Hoke's brigade in an earthwork on the north side on the plain, which could be approached on the run from the rising ground to the northwest by an attacking force. These brave men were to dispute the Federal crossing at this point just above Rappahannock Station,—a forlorn hope, indeed. Russell's brigade of Wright's division of the Sixth Corps carried the earthworks, Saturday, November 7. The stubborn resistance of that devoted band was sublime in its hopelessness; they would not surrender.

Sunday morning, those who did not escape lay in mathematically straight rows with their feet to the north; now a bayonet thrust in one's breast, or a fracture of the skull as from a clubbed musket. The countenances of these dead were stamped with an expression of grim resolution, which was unmistakably the seal of the courage of despair. The gallantry of the Federal brigade was duly noticed by General Meade, and its wounded commander, Gen. Russell, was selected to bear the captured battle-flags to Washington. (See Appendix.)

Crossing the Rappahannock, we marched up the peninsula to the farm of John Minor Botts, and made a camp north of Brandy [139] Station, perhaps three quarters of a mile from the mill on Hazel River. Recollections of this camp will be vivid, because it was the point of departure for the Mine Run expedition, the winter reconnoissance to Robinson's River, the memorable passing in review before General Grant, and for the entry upon the campaign of 1864 that culminated in the siege of Petersburg. These were the central and prominent features of our career during the fall and winter of 1863, and the spring of 1864; with what a tissue of reminiscences may the groundwork be clothed around and among them! Camp architecture at this place attained a degree of perfection never before equalled, whether exemplified in privates' quarters, officers' abodes, chapels, or depots. We recollect a facsimile of an omnibus without wheels, which two comrades, who have since gone over to the majority, cunningly constructed for their winter residence; also the commodious chapel of the Third Vermont, of our division, which was also lyceum and lecture hall, and of which more anon.

How thick the crows were in this section! As we used to ride every day to Hazel River, the fellows would throw out vedettes in a scanty line next us as we approached, behind which would be a somewhat more compact line, and some distance in its rear would be their main body. Their pickets would saucily wait our approach, and as we neared them one would give a signal, ‘Caw!’ as he arose from the ground; this would be echoed in the other lines, and away flew the whole army.

Speaking of Hazel River, some of the boys had the opportunity of noting the temperature of its waters during the season; some of the horses, hide-bound perhaps, since their flesh seemed to itch, as they manifested an insatiable desire to always lie down in the river when driven in, would gratify that passion, as soon as they had attained sufficient depth to handily immerse their drivers. Any sympathy that the comrade drivers undoubtedly had for the chilled ones was tempered with such chaffing as: ‘Well! you have washed yourself for once! You have had one good bath!’

The stable this season had some strongly marked equine characters, some execrable brutes with swell foreheads, wall-eyes, and heels that flew toward all points of the compass, without warning. Some of them were decidedly cannibalistic, since they would dart forward and bite a man who might be unconsciously within reach, [140] sometimes fixing their teeth in his arm, sometimes in his leg, generally, however, preferring his scalp. There was one fellow, known as ‘Old Joe Hooker,’ who was beyond comparison the most sensitive horse we ever saw. He would tremble with rage if a finger were pointed at him. One day, one of our lieutenants was showing the horses to visiting officers; he innocently called attention to ‘Hooker,’ accompanying the movement of his finger with some complimentary remark concerning the beast, when ‘Old Joe’ darted forward, ears thrown back, mouth open, teeth set, and eyes flashing. The trio of officers jumped back more than Joe's length, for, failing to taste of them, he would present his heels.

There was one large black horse which never allowed the blacksmith to lift his hoof while he was standing upon the other three. It was necessary, when the smith would shoe this horse, to cast the animal; one day the blacksmith, procuring the aid of a half dozen men, proceeded to strap up one of the fore legs of the beast, having fixed a twister upon his nose and a collar upon his neck. Then the smith passed a rope from the halter, through the collar, back to the horse's hind legs, taking a turn of the rope round one of them. As soon as this ingenious device was perfected, one man holding the twister and the halter shank, another was to pull on the rope which passed around the horse's hind leg; the horse would naturally lift the other hind leg, and one fore leg being strapped up, inevitably the horse would fall prone upon the ground; the half dozen auxiliaries were then to pounce upon him and hold him to the earth. The scheme worked with complete success. The men were seated comfortably upon the body of the horse, watching the smith as he fitted the shoe.

After a while, however, the novelty of the situation wearing off, the men carelessly relaxed their hold; the horse, instinctively perceiving his opportunity, speedily arose, dexterously scattering the blacksmith and his tools, together with the smith's six assistants. The athletic fellow then stood upon the spot where he had just lain prostrate, and gazed disdainfully upon his discomfited assailants. It was necessary to repeat the experiment, and the assistants had to exercise unremitting vigilance until the last nail was driven.

While thus alluding to the humors of the camp at Brandy Station, it occurs to us to notice the curious mistakes that would [141] arise in conversation between parties, who, coming from different sections of our great country, spoke the peculiar dialect of the Northern, Middle, or Western States.

One of our comrades, named M——, was of French Canadian extraction. He was on the sick-list, because of chronic diarrhea. O——, the surgeon, who was of Teutonic origin, and who hailed from one of the Middle States, said one morning: ‘M——, vat state your bowels vas in dis morn?’ M——, who had much deference for the doctor, replied: ‘Orange County, New York, sir.’

As November of 1863 wore away, the opinion gained ground among the rank and file that we were fixed for the winter, and we presume that this was the tenor of the story that comrades' letters bore to their loved ones at home; but Gen. Meade, knowing that Longstreet had been detached for service in East Tennessee, and counting upon a material depletion of the force then beyond the Rapidan, led the Army of the Potomac across that river on the 26th of the month.

During the severe cold weather of this period, some of our command were either on guard or on the march every night during the eight days that elapsed between our departure from this camp until we recrossed at Germanna Ford.

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