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Chapter 32:

  • Gossip in camp
  • -- of dress, discipline, and arms -- preference for breech-loading weapons -- the Parrott, the Whitworth, and the Armstrong guns -- German muskets -- advantage of rifles over muskets in action -- the Maynard rifle -- Berdan's sharpshooters -- our sanitary condition -- of our medical staff -- mortality amongst our men and its cause -- insufficient and inferior supplies -- of baggage and transportation.

In some previous chapters I have endeavored to picture the condition of our army and the feeling of our men, reproducing, as nearly as possible, such conversations among comrades as it was but natural should occur. It is true, I cannot pretend to graphic skill, or scenic effect, in the report of those gossips; but they are faithful in substance, and they offer me the readiest means of placing much on record that would otherwise run into tedious detail. As I must once more resume the conversational method, I can only hope that faults of style will be overlooked, and the intention only regarded.

“If by accident any European were to visit our lines, what a poor opinion he might form of the true merit of our soldiers! Accustomed to see fine bodies of men, splendidly drilled, and tastefully uniformed, he would be inclined to look upon. us as a parcel of ragged, ill-fed, slovenly-looking, mud-colored militia, unfit for service, and doomed to discomfiture at the first volley from an enemy. Even the Federal army, though uniformly attired in blue, and smart in appearance, would hardly appear more effective in his eyes, when compared with the brilliancy and neatness of European regiments. It is true that no people who are fighting for their independence can be expected to make the same military display as the old-established standing armies of Europe; yet it is much to be regretted that, through the poverty of Government, we have to depend for clothes upon the industry and charity of our friends at home. A braver army than ours, or one more creditable in its physique, [308] never existed; and were we but well dressed, our European friends would have little cause to smile. ‘Results,’ however, are all that is necessary; and so that we beat the enemy, and ultimately triumph, we can very well forego the pomp and circumstance of war. In peaceful times, I have no doubt that our ‘regulars’ will present a fine and imposing appearance, for Southerners have good taste in attire, and means will not be lacking to put our military establishment on a sound and magnificent footing. What think you, Major?”

“I agree with you. It matters little how we are dressed at present; there are no ladies at our parades, or I might be tempted to make an outlay in fine cloth and gold lace; but as our fancy manoeuvres and field-days are usually with the enemy, I am content to appear in any dress that is fit for wear and tear. So that my weapons and my horse are all right, I care little for the rest. Yet there is one thing I do regret, namely, that our regiments are without ‘bands’ to cheer them on the march, and dispel the depressing monotony of the camps. True, bands are allowed by the ‘regulations,’ and much money has been expended in procuring instruments; yet those of our boys who have musical talent refuse to enter the band, from false pride, considering it dishonorable to exchange the musket for a musical instrument, as if they desired to shun the battle-field. They will contribute readily enough; we have now not less than twenty-five hundred dollars in hand to procure instruments, but, except the leader, a Frenchman, and two German volunteers, we have not a man to play them!”

That is true, old friend, and in those regiments which have succeeded in getting up bands, the performance is so wretched for a few months that their dismal noises are an intolerable nuisance. Yet it cannot be avoided; we lack cultivated talent, and many “who volunteer to do the blowing,” as the boys say, have seldom seen, and certainly never before touched, a bugle or cornet. There are the customary drums and fifes, and the “regulation” tunes for “reveille--” Roast Beef, “ Tattoo,” and every necessary call; but in walking through camps at any of those times, we hear all kinds of drumming; and as for rival fifers!-they seem to be in an intense screeching agony, whenever called upon, and know no tune except “Dixie,” or the [309] doleful and eternal “My Maryland.” It is absolutely necessary, Captain, that something should be done; all our commands are now given by word of mouth, even in drilling. Such a system is exhausting to commanders, and it causes indecision and confusion in the ranks, from the failure of the voice; while in battle it is impossible to be heard at all. Fancy every officer bawling out the word of command, and oftentimes the wrong one, in some abominable falsetto amid the din of arms and the tramp of hurrying feet. In our cavalry and artillery corps the trumpet is used, and with splendid effect. Why cannot our infantry be commanded with the bugle?

“Under innumerable circumstances music is necessary to the soldier, and has a beneficial effect. How inspiriting it is to hear a good band strike up a cheerful tune on a long march, how stragglers jump to their places, how quickly the file is dressed, and how easy the step becomes, no matter how weary or how long the march may be It seems to me we look like a regiment of geese marching through town, without the strains of music to mark the time. If Jenkins were here he would smile and say: “ These things are different in Europe.” They are so, and they will be different here in time. The old armies have their light and heavy infantry and cavalry, their rifles, and every branch of the service well represented, each having its particular part to play in skirmish or battle; but owing to our hurry in forming the Southern army, and the continual succession of stirring events, we have but three classes-artillery, infantry, and cavalry-without further distinctions; and one regiment is considered as “heavy” as another if it musters only five hundred men. The enemy have splendid bands, for there are German, Dutch, Italians, and French in their ranks by tens of thousands. Not so with us. The ruling foreign element with us is Irish, and, although Irishmen are passionately fond of music, they still cling to the musket, and make music of their own in the hour of battle. I wish we had a hundred thousand of them; they make the best soldiers in the world.

“ We have some good bands in the service, Major, though I confess but few of them. The Louisiana bands are occasionally good, and that of the First Virginia Foot is one among a [310] thousand. But, as you observe, it is to be regretted our boys will not volunteer to play, instead of lavishly throwing their money away on those who have no talent for it. The want of uniformity in our ‘calls’ is notorious; what one regiment beats for ‘tattoo’ its next neighbor will furiously drum for ‘reveille.’ All the men know is that drums are beating for ‘something,’ and they turn out with alacrity to ascertain what that something is. But this is not in form, and though commanders look upon the matter lightly, it may be the occasion of much mischief. Take a case in point: At the battle of Oak Hill, in Missouri, the camps and commands of Price and McCulloch were some distance apart, and the Missourians, it is said, were so much accustomed to beating drums at all times, that when they were suddenly attacked by Lyon, McCulloch took no notice of the call, until Sigel opened fire upon his pickets, when he ascertained that for once the Missouri drummers meant something by their thumpings. I do not say that such a thing would happen with us, for as volunteers we are the best drilled in ‘essentials’ of any troops in the world, and are ever on the alert, more frequently moving in search of the enemy than being sought. But although uniforms, fine bands, pipeclay, and all the rest are desirable things enough, we must, for the present, be content to do without them. To speak of other things more essential to our success and existence as a nation, what think you of our weapons? Are they all you could desire? What say you, Robins, of the artillery?”

You have called an incompetent authority for judgment upon such an important point, for as I am not an educated officer, I know but little of the science of gunnery, and less of casting guns. As a volunteer I am not a bad shot, but that is another thing. I know this, however, that if the various battlefields had not supplied us with new weapons, we should have been badly off at the present time. Our supply of good guns, when the war opened, was very inadequate; and although we have upon our side the best engineers and artillerists of the old service, we have never yet succeeded in making pieces equal to those brought into the field by the enemy. In fact, it is dangerous to use guns of our own manufacture, for, to my knowledge, many have exploded upon the first trial in the [311] field, and others have been so inaccurate they were worse than useless. We succeeded in procuring some good ones from England, by vessels which ran the blockade; and the fact that our Government has not purchased European guns of any other manufacture, speaks well for British superiority in this respect.

We have captured hundreds of excellent guns from the enemy, of all which the “Parrott” is my favorite, being much lighter, more durable, stronger at the breech, of longer range, and safer to handle. The “Parrott” gun, you know, was invented by a Georgian, and patented before the war began; the enemy have extensively patronized the weapon. But of all guns, I most admire Whitworth's English breech-loading pieces. We had several of them during our blockade of the Lower Potomac in the winter months of 1861 and 1862, at Cockpit Point,. and other places, and their accuracy was amazing, while the unnecessary, unsightly, dangerous, and detestable ramrod business was entirely discarded, and the rapidity of fire greatly increased. It requires no great amount of scientific knowledge to see that the rammer and ramrod are totally behind the age, and should be discouraged and disused. All that is required of a good gun can be realized by breech-loading, and, from experience, I can do more with such a weapon than any other. It occupies less room in working, and saves the men from unnecessary exposure and loss. In England, I know, the invention of Armstrong is patronized; they may have potent reasons for the preference, but our men prefer Whitworth's weapon.1

“I agree with you entirely, Robins,” said the Major, “in regard to the ramrod; I think it should be abolished. Half the men you see walking about town with arms in slings have been hit while loading, for the enemy fire high, and had we breechloading muskets in our battles, few would have been struck at all. There are other important reasons besides this for objecting to the ramrod. In a rifle, accuracy entirely depends upon the cartridge properly ‘chambering,’ as with artillery. It is difficult to load a rifle perfectly tight at any time, and especially in the heat of action, for the best of rifles ‘lead’ so, that it is a matter of impossibility to ram home the charge; but if we had [312] breech-loaders, the weapon might ‘ lead’ at the bore, but a fresh cartridge introduced at the breech would clean it. Try both methods, and you will perceive that rapidity and accuracy are gained by using the breech to load, for if you lose your ramrod in the confusion or excitement, how much is your weapon worth? The ‘thumb’ should be the only ramrod — you do not lose that often, and whether the weapon be ‘dirty’ or ‘leaded,’ your charge is sufficiently ‘home’ for every purpose; besides, much closer fitting cartridges can be used, without the process of greasing or ramming, for the thumb does the last, and a fresh bullet the former. During one of our battles, I saw a youth fix his ramrod to a tree, and endeavor to push the cartridge ‘home’ in that way, for the musket was so dirty from use, that it was impossible to ram the load. Here was a situation for the boy to be in-ramrod bent, and the musket useless!”

“Since the enemy have supplied us with arms,” said another, “we have had a good variety of weapons among us — the English Enfield rifle, by various makers; the old Harper's Ferry musket; the Harper's Ferry Minie musket; the new and old Springfield musket, rifled and smooth bore; and last of all, that heavy, unhandy, clumsily-made thing called the German or Belgian rifle, which carries a ball equal .to that of a young six-pounder. The Belgians or Germans, who use this weapon, must be hard, large-fisted fellows, used to playing with a pair of fifty-sixes; for it is certainly the most ungainly rifle mortal ever used; being furnished with a heavy oak stock, and trappings of iron and brass, sufficient to decorate a howitzer. Those I have seen apparently come from some part of Austria, judging by the name-plate. The Mississippi rifle is also too heavy, and carries a large ball; though good for its time, it is now superseded by lighter and more accurate weapons.”

“ Take a seat, Adjutant,” said Robins, as Lieutenant Nixon entered the tent. “We have ,been speaking of the different kinds. of weapons, and by general consent it seems breechloaders are preferred; what think you?”

“ I am a better judge of pens than rifles, perhaps, but many old wiseheads still seem to prefer the smooth-bore [313] musket-brown Bess, as it is called-and consider it more destructive than any.”

“Yes,” said the Major, “their reasons are peculiar; I have frequently heard them. They tell you that at short range, with buckshot, you can kill more than with the rifle. But how often do we get within that short range? If we mutually advanced until within a hundred yards, and then blazed away until one or the other were exterminated, I should decide for a smooth-bore musket, and a sufficiency of buckshot. But suppose the enemy occupied a skirt of woods, and not. coming out, we were ordered, as usual, to advance over a thousand yards of open field, and force them out — must your men be exposed to their fire, for that distance, until you arrived within a hundred yards, the maximum effective distance of the ordinary musket? The foe would pour several volleys before you could return them, if you ran ever so fast. What condition would your line be in for the onset, after being thinned by their shot, when you halted to re-form, fire, or charge? Surely the case is a plain one. You would have lost many men, the remainder would be sorely fatigued, and their nerves shaken, so that when they did fire, half the volley would be thrown away; and there you stand before an untouched regiment fit to annihilate you, if they have the pluck to move forward.”

“ ‘Their rifle fire at a thousand or five hundred yards would not be effective,’ you say? True, with such shots as the New-Englanders; but if they were Western men opposing you, your regiment would be sadly deceived, for they shoot as well as our best. But suppose they failed to hit a single man for a few hundred yards, would young troops unhesitatingly advance under such a threatening fire? Scores would drop from trepidation; for they are usually more frightened than hurt. Give these same boys good breech-loading rifles, without fears of the all-important ramrod before their mind, and they can advance, firing volley for volley, and loading as they walk or run-a feat impossible, if the ramrod is to be drawn and returned in a hurry. With a good breech-loading rifle that cleans itself, as I have explained, if troubled with dirt or lead, a well-made tape cap, and sword-bayonet, our boys would prove invincible.”

“Well,” said the Adjutant, “European nations who fight more frequently than we, on a grander and more scientific [314] scale, still retain the ramrod and percussion-cap; it must be conceded that as the subject vitally interests them, there must be powerful reasons for adhering to that system, though personally I agree with what you say, and know that you do not insist upon the tape cap, but a nipple suitable to both. As for the sword-bayonet, we have never yet used it except in a few unimportant combats. It is far preferable, however, to the old bayonet, and would prove a valuable side-arm in close encounters, where the rifle or musket is useless. In every way, it is a valuable improvement, and put to a variety of useful purposes by the men, when the old bayonet would not be of more utility than a stick.”

“The Maynard rifle,” said a cavalry man, “is the favorite with us, and proves a destructive weapon when one becomes accustomed to handling it, mounted, or in a skirmish. It is light, simple in structure, and can be used with both caps; the only objection is, that you have to be careful in preserving the empty brass tubes, or you will not be able to make new cartridges. I wear a belt round me, which holds fifty, each in its hole, handy for use, but I object to the brass tubes, for, if lost, it is difficult to replace them in active service.”

“I consider that the ‘ Maynard ’ was never intended for the army — for that, among other reasons, it is admirably fitted for hunting, and was, perhaps, invented for that purpose; though light and of easy carriage, too much care is requisite in preparing the cartridge for ordinary vidette service. Did you ever see any of those globe or telescopic-sighted rifles, exclusively used by Berdan's battalions of sharpshooters in the Federal army? They are a very accurate weapon, but expensive, I am told; yet the Federals have not done much mischief with them. The men are trained to climb trees, lie on their back, crawl rapidly through the grass, have grass-green pantaloons to prevent detection, etc.; but with all the usual systematic boasting regarding them, our Texans and others are more than a. match for them. We have picked off a greater number of them than we have ourselves lost by their wonderful shooting; but as our men do not waste much time in skirmishing, but hasten to ‘ close quarters,’ I have not heard much of them for some time, although a few months since nothing was talked of, North, but [315] the extraordinary achievements of ‘ Berdan's Sharpshooters.’ To believe their reports, nearly every general in our army has fallen under their ‘unerring aim.’ The best sharpshooters with us are to be found among the Missourians, Texans, Arkansans, Mississippians, and Alabamians-men accustomed to woods and swamps and to Indian warfare.”

“Speaking of losses,” said one, “we have suffered fearfully from disease, but not so much in proportion as the Federal army, judging from their frequent statements. Our men seem to stand campaigning much better than theirs. It was said by the Northern journals that winter would cause more loss to us than a dozen battles, for it was thought we could not stand cold, hail, frost, sleet, and freezing weather; but I think the health of our troops was much better during that period than in summer. Men with strong wills can do or suffer any thing. We erected comfortable cabins in two days, and having timber all around us, kept up roaring fires of logs. During the summer and fall, however, our hospital-lists were heavy with chills, fevers, rheumatism, and the like, but now we are thoroughly acclimated, and the hills, snows, cold winds, and mud of Virginia are as bearable and pleasant to the boys as their own sunny South, near the waters of the Gulf. Hera is Dr. Wilson, smoking at his ease. What have you to say regarding this matter, Doctor? No long, barbarous, four-footed professional terms, if you please!”

The fine old doctor appealed to remarked, that: “ In plain English, the commissary department has not done its duty. When our youth were called to the field, they were unaccustomed to hardships or privations — being for the most part well-educated, comfortably circumstanced, and never subjected to any labor at home harder than a week's hunting. They were lavish in their expenditure, had superabundance of clothing, and servants to attend them. All this was reversed in camp. Money, for a time, was plentiful, but supplies could not be obtained round the country, for our troops swarmed like locusts over every thing eatable; nor could their wants be supplied from home, for all transportation was so much occupied with troops and munitions, that after the first month's service, sugar, coffee, molasses, and rice-things we thought impossible to do without — were seldom given in rations, although [316] abundant enough far South. Our boys, again, were careless; eating any thing or every thing that came in their way; and as the digesting organs are not made exactly of steel, or copper, such abuses brought on very natural consequences. Again, their clothing, though light and sufficient for Southern use, was not durable enough to withstand the change of climate, and the variable weather of a hilly country, in comparatively Northern latitudes; besides which, they were reprehensively careless, moving about in all weathers, and unceremoniously squatting down in dry or damp places. Much of all this was occasioned by the continual movements of our generals, and as the men seldom troubled that abortion called a ‘knapsack,’ but simply marched with arms, accoutrements, and rations, every medical man in the army foresaw that hundreds would be sacrificed.

Young men of refined habits, inhabitants of cities, have made the best of soldiers; while, strange as it may seem, those bred in the country, and accustomed to woods and fields, have frequented the hospitals far more than any others. This can only be accounted for by the thoughtfulness, neatness, and scrupulous cleanliness of the one, compared with the carelessness and thoughtlessness of the other. But the chief cause of all our sickness has arisen from the lack of good, well-cooked food, regularly changed and diversified. What kind of bread can you expect boys to make, who, have never seen the process, and are not furnished with proper ingredients or utensils for rendering it wholesome? For several months it was the common practice in the army to make up the flour into ‘slap-jacks’ or ‘fritters,’ which were nothing more than a thin mixture of flour and water fried in a sea of bacon-grease! I know regiments which have been in the service sixteen months, and three fourths of the time have had naught for rations but flour and very poor fat bacon. I do not complain of Government, for I know the heart of the President bleeds, and he would willingly enter the ranks, rather than fill the position he does, while thousands of office-seekers and petty malcontents are growling around and vilifying him, as if he were something worse than a common thief; but I do say, that our poverty [317] and carelessness in the commissary and quartermaster's departments, have much to do with these disasters.2

When we were appointed to our several posts, what did these much-abused doctors find? Hundreds of sick, lying on the bare ground; no hospitals, but simple tents to withstand the weather; and oftentimes not a grain of medicine of any kind on hand, nearer than Richmond! And how stood matters in the capital? All in confusion, and short of supplies. In the hurry of the first months, hundreds of so-called ‘doctors’ thronged the city in quest of preferment, and to my own knowledge — either from incapacity or carelessness — the heads of the Medical Department appointed scores of men who could scarcely write their own names, or tell the difference between salts and strychnine — impostors who brought disgrace upon an honorable profession, and were unfitted to administer poison to a dog!

“Yes, the doctor is right,” said another; “ things are gradually improving, but the price of our experience has been awful; though nothing like the mortality among the enemy from similar causes — if that is any consolation. McClellan acknowledges to have lost nearly fifty thousand men during his stay on the peninsula, chiefly from sickness! Johnston always managed to keep him in some kind of swamp or mudhole, and when a certain person complained of his inactivity before ‘Seven Pines,’ he answered: ‘ I am fighting, sir, every day! Is it nothing that I compel the enemy to inhabit the swamps, like frogs, and lessen their strength every hour, without firing a shot?’ That was all very well, but I am [318] convinced if Lee had not taken the helm when he did, we might have been ‘falling back’ towards the Gulf.

I see there is some difference of opinion on this point, and therefore keep to the doctor's chain of thought. There is no doubt that good bread and pure water are the two essentials of a soldier's welfare. He may exist for a long time, and do excellent work without any thing more, but these he must have. Beauregard managed things very indifferently at Corinth, in those respects; there was a superabundant supply of excellent water a few score feet below the surface, but yet few wells were dug; men scooped up sufficient water from the surface, or from a few indifferent Springs, but the quality was wretched, as all water usually is in the South. Much sickness was the consequence. Halleck, on the other hand, had not been in Corinth more than three days before he bored for water, and had many fine artesian and other wells in operation, which would have more than sufficed for three times the number of men in both armies. Virginia is the only place where fine water is abundant in the South, yet at Yorktown and other places the quality and supply were inferior. The same may be said of Manassas. Although Bull Run ran there, the men had an aversion to using that stream, except for washing purposes. How strange our generals never thought of digging wells!

“The bread question,” said the doctor, “ is an all-important one; old troops become expert bakers in time, but young ones only spoil the flour, and ruin their digestion. In truth, flour should not be distributed at all; ‘cracker bread ’ is what is required, and it takes up no greater amount of transportation than flour. By giving the men good hard bread, it relieves them of many duties; for oftentimes flour is served out when there are no utensils in which to make it. I have frequently seen men receive their ration of flour after a hard day's march, when the baggage-wagons with the pots and pans were far ahead. I have often pitied our boys when, under these circumstances, the poor fellows have had to bake their flour in the ashes, or toast the dough on a stick — any thing, in fact, to satisfy hunger! The British troops in the Crimea were sadly perplexed about cooking, and hundreds died from the improper preparation of food. Soyer endeavored to teach them better, but they never [319] succeeded so well as their French neighbors. We excel both in that respect, and although not a nation of cooks, have done wonderfully well.

Our generals did endeavor to erect large bakeries to supply the army, but they were too small, at Manassas and elsewhere. Those that could bake would not-‘ they enlisted to shoulder a musket,’ they said, and could not be prevailed upon to try their hands at bread-making, though hundreds were professional bakers, and excellent workmen. The scarcity of salt, soda, and other articles has sorely tried our men in preparing bread; and even if they succeeded in purchasing these and other necessaries, there was no transportation allowed for such articles. One wagon was the maximum allowed to each company; and if the roads proved heavy, the order came, ‘ lighten the wagons,’ and every article but tents and such like was pitched into the roads; pots and pans were among the first to be sacrificed; Generals and others, however, always found room for their traps, and men did not fail to notice and grumble at it. For why should a colonel be allowed to carry his stove, desk, bedstead, and trunk, when room can scarcely be found or allowed for a private's coffee-pot or frying-pan? The rank and file are socially superior, in a majority of cases, to those who command them; and with all deference to the present company, I think our officers have not shown sufficient interest or solicitude for the comfort and well-being of their men.

“In many instances, that is true,” said one, “but as to myself, there has been so much grumbling and growling about the subject of ‘baggage’ with quartermasters and others, that I have thrown all mine away. I have my sword, a blanket, haversack, canteen, and a change of under-clothing thrust in a light knapsack, and let every thing else go; for our wagons are always far off-you never can find what you put in them-and as we are continually moving about and fighting, I find my load sufficiently heavy without adding to it. Hundreds of officers do the same, I find; and, except the brigade is stationary, never think of increasing our bulk of baggage. When ordered to march, I am at the head of my company, heavily laden as any; the boy makes a fire when the ‘ halt’ is sounded, and throwing myself down on my blanket, I share rations with some ‘mess’ [320] or other, and am ready to move or fight at a moment's warning. As for thinking of toilet and appearance, a full supply of pots and pans for cooking, etc., in times like these, it is all nonsense. Our wagons are scarcely sufficient to carry tents, ammunition, and flour. We are lightly armed, lightly fed, march rapidly, fight frequently, and so that we beat the enemy, and get barely enough to sustain life, we ought to be contented. Such an army as ours can never-be whipped-generals and privates are all lean animals, little else but bone and muscle, reduced to a proper fighting weight, and all the better for not being encumbered with the baggage of a Xerxes!”

1 This was written long before Whitworth was patronized by the English Government.

2 There are many honorable exceptions to the carelessness and incapacity of which the doctor complains, and all must join in eulogizing the Herculean labors of Assistant Quartermaster-General William L. Cabell. This officer, by unceasing labor, night and day, has brought up his department to a high state of efficiency. His despatch of business is marvellous-he seems to understand, intuitively, the wants, shortcomings, and capacity of every one with whom he has business. He found his department in a chaotic state; but by constant and untiring labor, he has done much to place our army on a comfortable footing, while, by prudence and forethought, he has prevented unnecessary expenditure, and greatly facilitated the designs and movements of our generals. He is a Virginian, about thirty-five years of age; entered the old service as Brevet Second Lieutenant of Infantry, July first, 1850; was Captain Seventh Infantry, March third, 1855; and appointed Captain Assistant Quartermaster, March eighth, 1858. This gentleman's labors are beyond all praise.

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