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Yorktown and Williamsburg. Recollections of a private.--Iii.

Warren Lee Goss.

Wagon train.

It was with open-eyed wonder that, as part of McClellan's army, we arrived at Old Point Comfort and gazed upon Fort Monroe, huge and frowning. Negroes were everywhere, and went about their work with an air of importance born of their new-found freedom. These were the “contrabands” for whom General Butler had recently invented that sobriquet. We pitched our tents amid the charred and blackened ruins of what had been the beautiful and aristocratic village of Hampton. The first thing I noticed about the ruins, unaccustomed as I was to Southern architecture, was the absence of cellars. The only building left standing of all the village was the massive old Episcopal church. Here Washington had worshiped, and its broad aisles had echoed to the footsteps of armed men during the Revolution. In the church-yard the tombs had been broken open. Many tombstones were broken and overthrown, and at the corner of the church a big hole showed that some one with a greater desire for possessing curiosities than reverence for ancient landmarks had been digging for the corner-stone and its buried mementos.

Along the shore which looks toward Fort Monroe were landed artillery, baggage-wagons, pontoon trains and boats, and the level land back of this was crowded with the tents of the soldiers. Here and there were groups frying hard-tack and bacon. Near at hand was the irrepressible army mule, hitched to and eating out of pontoon boats; those who had eaten their ration of grain and hay were trying their teeth, with promise of success, in eating the boats. An army mule was hungrier than a soldier, and would eat anything, especially a pontoon boat or rubber blanket. The scene was a busy one. The red cap, white leggins, and baggy trousers of the Zouaves mingled with the blue uniforms and dark trimmings of the regular infantry-men, the short jackets and yellow trimmings of the cavalry, the red stripes of the artillery, and the dark blue with orange trimmings of the engineers; together with the ragged, many-colored costumes of the black laborers and teamsters, all busy at something.

One morning we broke camp and went marching up the Peninsula. The roads were very poor and muddy with recent rains, and were crowded with the indescribable material of the vast army which was slowly creeping through the mud over the flat, wooded country. It was a bright day in April--a perfect Virginia day; the grass was green beneath our feet, the buds of the trees were just unrolling into leaves under the warming sun of spring, and in the woods the birds were singing. The march was at first orderly, but [190]

Mrs. T--'s exodus.

under the unaccustomed burden of heavy equipments and knapsacks, and the warmth of the weather, the men straggled along the roads, mingling with the baggage-wagons, ambulances, and pontoon trains, in seeming confusion.

During our second day's march it rained, and the muddy roads, cut up and kneaded, as it were by the teams preceding us, left them in a state of semi-liquid filth hardly possible to describe or imagine. When we arrived at Big Bethel the rain was coming down in sheets. A dozen houses of very ordinary character, scattered over an area of a third of a mile, constituted what was called the village. Just outside and west of the town was an insignificant building from which the place takes its name. It did not seem large enough or of sufficient consequence to give name to a hamlet as small as Big Bethel. Before our arrival it had evidently been occupied as officers' barracks for the enemy, and looked very little like a church.

I visited one of the dwelling-houses just outside the fortifications (if the insignificant rifle-pits could be called such) for the purpose of obtaining something more palatable than hard-tack, salt beef, or pork, which, with coffee, comprised the marching rations. The woman of the house was communicative and expressed her surprise at the great number of Yanks who had “come down to invade our soil.” She said she had a son in the Confederate army, or, as she expressed it, “in our army,” and then tearfully said she should tremble for her boy every time she heard of a battle. I expressed the opinion that we should go into Richmond without much fighting . “No!” said she, with the emphasis of conviction, “you all will drink hot blood before you all get thar!”

While wandering about, I came to the house of a Mrs. T____, whose husband was said to be a captain in the Confederate service and a “fire-eating” secessionist. Here some of our men were put on guard for a short time, until relieved by guards from other parts of the army as they came up, whereupon we went on. A large, good-looking woman, about forty years old, who, I learned, was Mrs. T____, was crying profusely, and I could not induce her to tell me why. One of the soldiers said her grief was caused by the fact that some of our men had helped themselves to the contents of cupboard and cellar. She was superintending the loading of an old farm-wagon, into which she was putting a large family of colored people, with numerous bundles. The only white person on the load as it started away was [191] the mistress, who sat amid her dark chattels in desolation and tears. Returning to the house, after this exodus, I found letters, papers, and odds and ends of various kinds littering the floor; whether overturned in the haste of the mistress or by the visiting soldiers, I could only guess. No other building at Big Bethel was so devastated, and I did not see another building so treated on our whole route. The men detailed to guard it declined to protect the property of one who was in arms fighting against us.

After leaving Big Bethel we began to feel the weight of our knapsacks. Castaway overcoats, blankets, parade-coats, and shoes were scattered along the route in reckless profusion, being dropped by the overloaded soldiers, as if after plowing the roads with heavy teams they were sowing them for a harvest. I lightened my knapsack without much regret, for I could not see the wisdom of carrying a blanket or overcoat when I could pick one up almost anywhere along the march. Very likely the same philosophy actuated those who preceded me or came after. The colored people along our route occupied themselves in picking up this scattered property. They had on their faces a distrustful look, as if uncertain of the tenure of their harvest. The march up the peninsula seemed very slow, yet it was impossible to increase our speed, owing to the bad condition of the roads. I learned in time that marching on paper and the actual march made two very different impressions. I can easily understand

Confederate battery on the Terraced magazine commanding the land approach to the Gosport Navy-Yard. [see page 152.] from a War-time sketch.

and excuse our fireside heroes, who fought their or our battles at home over comfortable break-fast-tables, without impediments of any kind to circumscribe any their fancied operations; it is so much easier to manoeuvre and fight large armies around the corner grocery, than to fight, march, and manoeuvre in mud and rain, in the face of a brave and vigilant enemy.

The baggage-trains were a notable spectacle. To each baggage-wagon were attached four or six mules, driven usually by a colored man, with only one rein, or line, and that line attached to the bit of the near leading mule, while the driver rode in a saddle upon the near wheel mule. Each train was accompanied by a guard, and while the guard urged [192] the drivers the drivers urged the mules. The drivers were usually expert, and understood well the wayward, sportive natures of the creatures over whose destinies they presided. On our way to Yorktown our pontoon and baggage trains were sometimes blocked for miles, and the heaviest trains were often unloaded by the guard to facilitate their removal from the mud. It did seem at times as if there were needless delays with the trains, partly due, no doubt, to fear of danger ahead. While I was guarding our pontoon train, after leaving Big Bethel, the teams stopped all along the line. Hurrying to the front, I found one of the leading teams badly mired, but not enough to justify the stopping of the whole train. The lazy colored driver was comfortably asleep in the saddle. “Get that team out of the mud!” I yelled, bringing him to his senses. He flourished his long whip, shouted his mule lingo at the team, and the mules pulled frantically, but not together. “Can't you make your mules pull together?” I inquired. “Dem mules pull right smart!” said the driver. Cocking and capping my unloaded musket, I brought it to the shoulder and again commanded the driver, “Get that team out of the mud!” The negro rolled his eyes wildly and woke up all over. He first patted his saddle mule, spoke to each one, and then, flourishing his long whip with a crack like a pistol, shouted, “Go ‘long dar! what I feed yo‘ fo‘!” and the mule team left the slough in a very expeditious manner.

When procuring luxuries of eggs or milk, we paid the people at first in silver, and they gave us local scrip in change; but we found on attempting to pay it out again that they were rather reluctant to receive it, even at that early stage in Confederate finance, and much preferred Yankee silver or notes.

“Get that team out of the mud!”

On the afternoon of April 5th, 1862, the advance of our column was brought [193]

Skirmish at Lee's Mills before Yorktown, April 16, 1862. [see map, P. 188.] from a sketch made at the time.

to a standstill, with the right in front of Yorktown, and the left by the enemy's works at Lee's mills [see p. 188]. We pitched our camp on Wormley Creek, near the Moore house, on the York River, in sight of the enemy's Vater-battery and their defensive works at Gloucester Point. One of the impediments to an immediate attack on Yorktown was the difficulty of using light artillery in the muddy fields in our front, and at that time the topography of the country ahead was but little understood, and had to be learned by reconnoissance in force. We had settled down to the siege of Yorktown; began bridging the streams between us and the enemy, constructing and improving the roads for the rapid transit of supplies, and for the advance. The first parallel was opened about a mile from the enemy's fortifications, extending along the entire front of their works, which reached from the York River on the left to Warwick Creek on the right, along a line about four miles in length. Fourteen batteries and three redoubts were planted, heavily armed with ordnance.

We were near Battery No. 1, not far from the York River. On it were mounted several 200-pounder guns, which commanded the enemy's water-batteries. One day I was in a redoubt on the left, and saw General McClellan with the Prince de Joinville, examining the enemy's works through their field-glasses. They very soon drew the fire of the observant enemy, who opened with one of their heavy guns on the group, sending the first shot howling and hissing over and very close to their heads; another, quickly following it, struck in the parapet of the redoubt. The French prince, seemingly quite startled, jumped and glanced nervously around, while McClellan quietly knocked the ashes from his cigar.

Several of our war-vessels made their appearance in the York River, and occasionally threw a shot at the enemy's works; but most of them were kept busy at Hampton Roads, watching for the iron-clad Merrimac, which was still afloat. The firing from the enemy's lines was of little consequence, not [194] amounting to over ten or twelve shots each day, a number of these being directed at the huge balloon which went up daily on a tour of inspection, from near General Fitz John Porter's headquarters. One day the balloon broke from its mooring of ropes and sailed majestically over the enemy's works; but fortunately for its occupants it soon met a counter-current of air which returned it safe to our lines. The month of April was a dreary one, much of the time rainy and uncomfortable. It was a common expectation among us that we were about to end the rebellion. One of my comrades wrote home to his father that we should probably finish up the war in season for him to be at home to teach the village school the following winter; in fact, I believe he partly engaged to teach it. Another wrote to his mother: “We have got them hemmed in on every side, and the only reason they don't run is because they can't.” We had at last corduroyed every road and bridged every creek; our guns and mortars were in position; Battery No. 1 had actually opened on the enemy's works, Saturday, May 3d, 1862, and it was expected that our whole line would open on them in the morning. About 2 o'clock of Saturday night, or rather of Sunday morning, while on guard duty, I observed a bright illumination, as if a fire had broken out within the enemy's lines. Several guns were fired from their works during the early morning hours, but soon after daylight of May 4th it was reported that they had abandoned their works in our front, and we very quickly found the report to be true. As soon as I was relieved from guard duty, I went over on “French leave” to view our enemy's fortifications. They were prodigiously strong. A few tumble-down tents and houses and seventy pieces of heavy ordnance had been abandoned as the price of the enemy's safe retreat.

As soon as it was known that the Confederates had abandoned the works

Union mortar-battery before Yorktown. From a photograph.

at Yorktown, the commanding general sent the cavalry and horse artillery under Stoneman in pursuit to harass the retreating column. The infantry divisions of Smith (Fourth Corps) and Hooker (Third Corps) were sent forward by two roads to support the column. General Sumner (the officer second in rank in the Army of the Potomac) was directed to proceed to the front and assume command until McClellan's arrival. Stoneman overtook Johnston's rear-guard about noon, six miles from Williamsburg, and skirmished with the cavalry of Stuart, following sharply until 4 o'clock, when he was confronted by a line of redoubts before Williamsburg. The works consisted of a large fort (Magruder) at the junction of two roads running from Yorktown to Williamsburg, and small redoubts on each side of this, making an irregular chain of fortifications extending, with the creeks upon which they rested on either flank, across the peninsula. The Confederate brigades of [195]

The 61st New York regiment in camp at ship point, below Yorktown. [see map, P. 188.] from a War-time sketch.

Kershaw and Semmes, of Magruder's command, occupied the works when Stoneman came in front of them, and, on finding his advance stubbornly opposed, Stoneman sent his cavalry upon reconnoissances over the field, and waited for the infantry under Hooker and Smith to come to his support. These divisions marched from Yorktown on parallel roads until Smith's column was halted by a burning bridge, and compelled to turn into the road by which Hooker was advancing. Sumner accompanied Smith's column, and, immediately on the arrival before Williamsburg, formed the brigades of Hancock and Brooks for an advance through a piece of woods which screened the Confederate rifle-pits. The result is given in Sumner's official report as follows:

After entering the woods I found the underbrush much thicker than I expected, and the lines became entangled, and shortly afterward it became so dark it was impossible to advance, and I ordered the troops to halt and lie on their arms.

General Hooker was delayed on the road so long that he did not reach the field until early on the morning of May 5th, when he found himself on the left of Smith's division, and in front of Fort Magruder. The position of the Union troops then was: Smith on the right, and Hooker on the left, confronting the enemy's works, the latter having the heaviest obstacle before him, and the divisions of Kearny, Casey, and Couch struggling on toward the front, over crowded, muddy roads. General Sumner says in his report:

I had a careful reconnoissance made on the left of the enemy's works, on the morning of the 5th, and found two of their forts unoccupied. I immediately ordered General Hancock to advance with a brigade and ten pieces of artillery, and hold those works, it being my intention to force their left.

This was about 11 A. M. Meantime, at 7:30 A. M., General Hooker, on his own responsibility, had advanced his lines. In his official report he says:

Being in pursuit of a retreating army, I deemed it my duty to lose no time in making the disposition to attack, regardless of their number and position, except to accomplish the result with the least possible sacrifice of life.

Hooker sent forward Grover's brigade, and Bramhall's and Webber's batteries, and very soon all opposition on his front was silenced for a time. [196] Longstreet, however, ordered up reinforcements, and soon had a section of Pelham's battery, and the three fresh brigades of Wilcox, Pickett, and A. P. Hill on the ground, driving Hooker back, with the loss of all his cannon, and heavy casualties. During his desperate engagement, Hooker reported his situation to Sumner, and Kearny was promptly ordered up with his division, while Heintzelman, the proper commander of the Third Corps, was sent to the spot to take charge. [See “Opposing forces,” p. 200.]

A comrade in Hooker's division gave me an account of his experiences about as follows:

Marching over the muddy road late in the afternoon, we found our farther advance prevented by a force which had preceded us, and we halted in the mud by the roadside just as it began to rain. About 5 o'clock we resumed our march by the tenor of which was, ‘Why did we come for a soldier? ’ Before daylight we were on the march, plodding in the

A tempting breastwork.

rain through the mire. By daybreak we came out on the edge of the edge of the dense woods in front of Fort Magruder. The main fort was a strong earth-work with a bastioned front and a wide ditch. In front of this muddy-looking heap of dirt was a level plain, sprinkled plentifully with smaller earth-works; while between us and the level plain the dense forest, for a distance of a quarter of a mile, had been felled, thus forming a labyrinth of tangled abatis difficult to penetrate. A mile away lay the village of Williamsburg.

We were soon sent out as skirmishers, with orders to advance as near the enemy's rifle-pits as possible. They immediately opened fire upon us with heavy guns from the fort, while from their rifle-pits came a hum of bullets and crackle of musketry. Their heavy shot came crashing among the tangled abatis of fallen timber, and plowed up the dirt in our front, rebounding and tearing through the branches of the woods in our rear. The constant hissing of the bullets, with their sharp ping or bizz whispering around and sometimes into us, gave me a sickening feeling and a cold perspiration. I felt weak around my knees — a sort of faintness and lack of strength in the joints of my legs, as if they would sink from under me. These symptoms did not decrease when several of my comrades were hit. The little rifle-pits in our front fairly blazed with musketry, and the continuous snap, snap, crack, crack was murderous. Seeing I was not killed at once, in spite of all the noise, my knees recovered from their unpleasant limpness, and my mind gradually regained its balance and composure. I never afterward felt these disturbing influences to the same degree. [197]

We slowly retired from stump to stump and from log to log, finally regaining the edge of the wood, and took our position near Webber's and Bramhall's batteries, which had just got into position on the right of the road, not over seven hundred yards from the hostile fort. While getting into position several of the battery men were killed, as they immediately drew the artillery fire of the enemy, which opened with a noise and violence that astonished me. Our two batteries were admirably handled, throwing a number of shot and shell into the enemy's works, speedily silencing them, and by 9 o'clock the field in our front, including the rifle-pits, was completely ‘cleaned out’ of artillery and infantry. Shortly afterward we advanced along the edge of the wood to the left of Fort Magruder, and about 11 o'clock we saw emerging from the little ravine to the left of the fort a swarm of Confederates, who opened on us with a terrible and deadly fire. Then they charged upon us with their peculiar yell. We took all the advantage possible of the stumps and trees as we were pushed back, until we reached the edge of the wood again, where we halted and fired upon the enemy from behind all the cover the situation afforded. We were none of us too proud, not even those who had the dignity of shoulder-straps to support, to dodge behind a tree or stump. I called out to a comrade, ‘Why don't you get behind a tree?’ ‘Confound it,’ said he, ‘ there ain't enough for the officers.’ I don't mean to accuse officers of cowardice, but we had suddenly found out that they showed the same general inclination not to get shot as privates did, and were anxious to avail themselves of the privilege of their rank by getting in our rear. I have always thought that pride was a good substitute for courage, if well backed by a conscientious sense of duty; and most of our men, officers as well as privates, were too proud to show the fear which I have no doubt they felt in common with myself. Occasionally a soldier would show symptoms which pride could not overcome. One of our men, Spinney, ran into the woods and was not seen until after the engagement. Some time afterward, when he had proved a good soldier, I asked him why he ran, and he replied that every bullet which went by his head said ‘ Spinney,’ and he thought they were calling for him. In all the pictures of battles I had seen before I ever saw a battle, the officers were at the front on prancing steeds, or with uplifted swords were leading their followers to the charge. Of course, I was surprised to find that in a real battle the officer gets in the rear of his men, as is his right and duty,--that is, if his ideas of duty do not carry him so far to the rear as to make his sword useless.

The ‘rebs’ forced us back by their charge, and our central lines were almost broken. The forces withdrawn from our right had taken the infantry support from our batteries, one of which, consisting of four guns, was captured. We were tired, wet, and exhausted when supports came up, and we were allowed to fall back from under the enemy's fire, but still in easy reach of the battle. I asked one of my comrades how he felt, and his reply was characteristic of the prevailing sentiment: ‘I should feel like a hero if I wasn't so blank wet.’ The bullets had cut queer antics among our men. A private, who had a canteen of whisky when he went into the engagement, on [198]

Camp of the Union Army near White House on the Pamunkey River, McClellan's base of operations against Richmond. From photographs.

endeavoring to take a drink found the canteen quite empty, a bullet having tapped it for him. Another had a part of his thumb-nail taken off. Another had a bullet pass into the toe of his boot, down between two toes, and out along the sole of his foot, without much injury. Another had a scalp-wound from a bullet, which took off a strip of hair about three inches in length from the top of his head. Two of my regiment were killed outright and fourteen badly wounded, besides quite a number slightly injured. Thus I have chronicled my first day's fight, and I don't believe any of my regiment were ambitious to ‘chase the enemy’ any farther just at present. Refreshed with hot coffee and hardtack, we rested from the fight, well satisfied that we had done our duty.

On the Confederate side, according to Longstreet's account, the march of the rear column northward in retreat from the town was being delayed all day on the 5th by impassable roads, and he ordered fresh troops from time to time to countermarch to the field at Williamsburg, relieving those whose ammunition was exhausted in this unexpected engagement. After Hooker had been forced back from Fort Magruder, the threatening position of Hancock on the Confederate left was noted by the enemy, and D. H. Hill went forward with Early's brigade, Early and Hill in person leading, toward the crest where Hancock's infantry was posted.

The Confederates were met by a severe musketry fire, and at length by a counter charge, led by Hancock, in which the bayonet was used in open field. Generals Sumner, Keyes, and Smith all mentioned Hancock's victory, which was brilliant and decisive. General Smith said in his report, “The brilliancy of the plan of battle, the [199] coolness of its execution, the seizing of the proper instant for changing from the defensive to the offensive, the steadiness of the troops engaged, and the completeness of the victory, are subjects to which I earnestly call the attention of the General-in-Chief for just praise.” General Keyes wrote, “If Hancock had failed, the enemy would not have retreated.” 1

The division of Kearny, that was coming to Hooker's aid, was delayed by crowded roads, and reached the field by brigades between 2:30 and 4 o'clock, and, taking position on Hooker's field, became engaged in a somewhat irregular fight to the extent of five regiments of the brigades of Berry and Birney. Berry's brigade made a desperate charge, recovering some of the ground yielded by Hooker earlier in the day. The heavy losses at Williamsburg fell upon Hooker and Kearny, the division of the former sustaining nearly three-fourths of the total Union loss.

After the engagement I went over the field in front of the enemy's fort. Advancing through the tangled mass of logs and stumps, I saw one of our men aiming over the branch of a fallen tree, which lay among the tangled abatis. I called to him, but he did not turn or move. Advancing nearer, I put my hand on his shoulder, looked in his face, and started back. He was dead!--shot through the brain; and so suddenly had the end come that his rigid hand grasped his musket, and he still preserved the attitude of watchfulness, literally occupying his post after death. At another place we came upon one of our men who had evidently died from wounds. Near one of his hands was a Testament, and on his breast lay an ambrotype picture of a group of children and another of a young woman.

The 6th of May was a beautiful morning, with birds singing among the thickets in which lay the dead. The next morning we marched through quaint, old-fashioned Williamsburg. The most substantial buildings of the town were those of William and Mary College, which were of brick. We kindled fires from that almost inexhaustible source of supply, the Virginia fences, cooked our coffee, sang, and smoked, thoughtless of the morrow.

Union camp at Cumberland Landing below White House. [see map, P. 167.]

1 It was of this action that McClellan telegraphed to his wife, “Hancock was superb.”--Editors.

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