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Chapter 10: camping in Washington; in command of a brigade

On June 8th, the day our veteran commander, General Winfield Scott, penned his famous letter to old General Patterson favoring his projected capture of Harper's Ferry, my new regiment was marching along Pennsylvania Avenue and Fourteenth Street to Meridian Hill. When we began the march the heat was intense. The men were loaded down with their knapsacks, haversacks, and cartridge boxes. Friends at home and along our route had been so generous that much underclothing, books, and keepsakes had been stowed away by the men, so that the weight for each was extra heavy. Again, these old-pattern knapsacks sagged, bound the arms, hurt the shoulders, and wearied the muscles of our young soldiers. Many a brave-hearted youth gave up, sat down by the way, or dropped out of ranks for water or rest and that before the end of the first three miles of bona fide marching. When about half way on the Fourteenth Street stretch a sudden storm arose, attended by Wind, fierce lightning, and a pouring rain. The storm was at its height as the regiment began the last ascent, and then, somewhat quieter, continued till dark. About the time the rain set in one poor fellow left the ranks and undertook to get o er a fence; he pulled his loaded musket after him with the muzzle toward [134] him. As the hammer struck a rail or stone an explosion followed, inflicting upon him a desperate, disabling wound-and yet so far from any battlefield! How fruitless now to his vision appeared his ardent patriotism; how dim all anticipated glory Thus it was with many another who had left home full of life, setting forth with fiery eyes and glowing cheeks, only to be arrested by a premature wound or prostrated by camp fever. Thus that short five-mile march was the beginning of the hardships and experiences of real war.

Tell me, soldiers, you who have bivouacked on the Bad Lands of the Missouri or endured the severities of winter in the Rocky Mountains, did anything quite equal the first stormy night under canvas To arrive on new ground, muddy and sticky; to work in wet clothes; to put up tents, soaked, dirty, and heavy; to be where a stick of wood is precious and fuel is begrudged you — where it is a crime to burn a fence rail; then to worry out a long night without sleep for fear of a fatal cold; every veteran has had somewhere such an experience. The Kennebec men endured the trial the first night on Meridian Hill. President Sampson and other friends from Columbian College near by offered to many of us hospitality which is still gratefully remembered. Colonel Charles D. Jameson with the Second Maine was encamped on our flank; he, his officers, and men took compassion on our forlorn condition, and gave all who were not otherwise provided for an ample supper, including the soldiers' hot coffee. Jameson's regiment having preceded us a few days, had already comfortable tents and a general preparedness for storms. They housed us all for one night.

The beautiful June day which succeeded that night [135] set everything to rights. Tents were pitched in proper order and the strictest of camp regulations instituted. Here on Meridian Hill, in keeping with the lot of many another army officer, my popularity both on the spot and in many homes of the Kennebec Valley, where letters from camp found their way, greatly suffered. At first I granted passes freely, but finding many violations of them, I was obliged to stop them entirely.

One day in solemn conclave a delegation of soldiers came to my tent to reason with me and to remonstrate. Their complaints were many and profound; but they may be condensed into a sentence: “Why make the innocent suffer for the guilty” It was extremely difficult for an independent freeman to see why he should not go when he pleased and have an interview with Generals Mansfield, Lorenzo Thomas, or Winfield Scott. Famous men were in Washington. It would be an opportunity lost not to see them in their official chairs. There was also their own President, Abraham Lincoln, for whose election many of them had contended in the political campaign of 1860; and there was the White House; could not every citizen avail himself of the poor privilege of just one visit Furthermore, think of the Capitol, glorious and immense, though still without its crowning Goddess of Liberty. How was it possible to be so near and yet be allowed only a distant glimpse t Surely, the colonel would give abundant passes to the good and true? But I could not. They believed I would not. The regiment must be drilled, disciplined, and made ready for war. Ours was not a holiday excursion. The petitioners departed answered but not convinced.

Two West Point lieutenants, Buell and McQuesten, [136] were sent to me to give the elementary instruction, or, in military phrase, “to set the men up.” These young officers added to the severities. Once, when I had been cadet officer of the day at West Point during a cadet disturbance which I could not quell, I myself was punished by the superintendent. Thus the responsible innocent suffered for the irresponsible guilty. Substitutive penalties in military affairs are expedient. By them men learn to govern their fellows. I now found this a very useful military doctrine, but not popular with volunteers — more tolerable, however, after a few battles, when they saw what havoc want of discipline produced.

What a military school was that on Meridian Hill! In bright memory I see them now — the men and the officers of my regiment before sickness and death had broken in — the major, the surgeon, the captains and lieutenants, and the entire staff; I recall the faces. The hard drill was the real beginning of our repute. Washington came at sunset in carriages to witness our evening parade. I had these men in but one battle, but they had a great history, especially after Colonel Moses Lakeman, one of my captains, succeeded Staples as colonel. Being called the “Fighting Colonel,” he developed the energies of his regiment till it took high rank in Sickles's corps. It gave any flank strength to find the Third Maine there. Its presence made a rear guard confident, but its own chief pride in campaign or battle was to be in the lead. The officers very soon looked back to that exacting first colonel who insisted on close discipline and much drill, and forgave his severity. But at first there was considerable chafing; my brother, still a private in the regiment, on June 29th wrote to a friend: “We had a good deal of excitement [137] the night of taking the oath; fifty or sixty men refused at first, but after a few words of explanation they rallied under the colors at the command of Colonel Howard.”

That June 29th I was made to sympathize with the poor fellows upon whom a radical change of life had brought illness. Suddenly, without previous symptom or warning, I suffered from an attack of something like cholera. So rapid was my decline under it that for a time our good surgeon, Dr. Palmer, had little hope of arresting the disease; but my brother's devotion, the firmness and skill of my doctor, and the care given me by the wife of Captain Sampson, with the blessing of God saved me at death's door. Then, to complete my good fortune, just as I began convalescing, the mother of my friend, Lieutenant S. S. Carroll, took me in her carriage to her home in Washington. Her gentle nursing gave me just those things which would nourish and strengthen, and soon restored me to the field and to duty. Her generous husband and herself always made their house a home to me. To my comfort the surgeon after that incisive attack congratulated me and himself on my solid constitution. “More recuperative energy than I have ever elsewhere met,” he said. Later, I learned that President Lincoln kindly called twice at my tent and inquired for me while I was unconscious.

Washington in June and to the middle of July, under the immediate administration of Colonel Mansfield, was a scattered camp. Regiments crowned every height; officers in uniform thronged the streets and crowded the hotels. There appeared to the looker-on great confusion; not yet any regular, well-appointed force. Everybody talked; newspapers published and [138] sometimes magnified idle rumors; they made and unmade reputations in a day. No one seemed to know what was to be done or what could be done. Alexandria, over the Potomac, was occupied by our troops; the new Confederate flag, unfolded to the breeze on a Virginia hill, waved its stars and bars in plain sight of the Capitol, and thus boldly challenged our rulers to a conflict which was destined either to wreck or establish our Union. State governors came on to Washington with their regiments; prominent citizens hastened thither with their proposals; avaricious dealers were on hand to make their fortunes. The White House, the departments, the hotels, and all public buildings were densely crowded. Had that capital been Paris, there would have been a speedy revolution, and, indeed, in the words of Carlyle, it did seem for a time that “if somebody did not do something soon things would do themselves satisfactory to nobody.”

At every turn when I visited the city I met acquaintances or was introduced to strangers who afterwards became distinguished-Governor Fenton, of New York, quiet, watchful, self-poised; Governor Curtin, of Pennsylvania, with his tall form, ready wit, and tender, benevolent soul; Senator Morgan, of New York, of giant proportions, large purse, and larger heart; Senator Harris, of the same State, noble in bearing and in character; Secretary Seward, dignified and distant to young men, sanguine of our speedy success; Governor Sprague, of Rhode Island, very young, and putting youthful life into his well-equipped regiments; his colonel, Burnside, in uniform, handsome as a picture; Colonel A. McD. McCook, with the First Ohio Regiment, never fuller of happy humor, ready for anything that might occur; and Colonel Daniel Butterfield, [139] commanding the Twelfth New York, then encamped in Franklin Square, himself the best dressed, the most self-contained, calm, and ambitious. We had occasional glimpses of General Irwin McDowell. For years I had heard and seen his name connected with the orders from General Scott, and was surprised to find him so tall and of such full build. His habitual demeanor now was that of one self-absorbed and distant. He was the subject at that time of constant observation and remark, for it was believed that he would soon command all our movable forces on the Potomac. Many voices around Mr. Lincoln made themselves heard, but all were not in his support. His cabinet, however, gave pretty general satisfaction. Chase, of the Treasury, with practical brain, could make and distribute the money, provided he had the handsome, sanguine, able banker, Jay Cooke, to help him. Montgomery Blair, the postmaster-general, with his political acumen, could cooperate with his brother, General F. P. Blair, in Missouri. The Blairs were watched with confident interest. Simon Cameron, in the War Department, a secretary, wealthy, experienced, and wise-how could the President have a better adviser than he Most venerable of the Cabinet was Secretary Wells, in charge of the navy portfolio. It did us young men good to look upon him and upon General Scott because of their imperturbable faces. We needed solid men of age rather than ardent leaders.

The first great excitement was from the outside. During the afternoon of June 11th the news of General Benjamin F. Butler's attempt to capture Little and Big Bethel came to us. Butler ordered a night march with the hope of surprising a small intrenched force at Big Bethel. It was to be a combined movement of [140] three detachments-one from Fortress Monroe, one from Hampton, and the other from Newport News. Brigadier General Pierce, of Massachusetts, an officer without experience, was placed over the field command. Colonel Abram Duryea, with his Fifth New York (Duryea Zouaves), starting at midnight, led the way from Hamptom, beyond the point of junction with the Newport News road. Colonel Bendix, with a New York regiment of Germans, a small detachment of New Englanders, and a section of a regular battery under Lieutenant John T. Greble, came next from Newport News to the junction. Bendix, considering the uncertainties of night work, went into ambush near the crossroads. Some two hours after Duryea had passed the junction, General Pierce, escorted by the Third New York, came up by the same road that Duryea had followed. Bendix mistook this force for the enemy's cavalry and opened fire. In the resulting skirmish with each other some were killed and many wounded. The air filled with the rattle of musketry created for a time a panic, and of course the secrecy of the expedition was over. At last all of our men passed Little Bethel and were before the small fort, which was fairly well manned with Confederate infantry and a few field guns. My friend and classmate, John T. Greble, while effectively firing his cannon against the fort at short range, was instantly killed. We had been next-door neighbors at West Point and had long lived in affectionate intimacy, so this blow was most afflicting to me.

I-e was the first regular army officer to fall in the Civil War, and was immediately officially recorded as a brevet colonel. Though he had not this grateful recognition in life, yet his patriotic and worthy family appreciate and cherish the record. [141]

I wrote home: “Poor John Greble's death struck me like a thunderbolt. It seems to have been a disastrous fight under incompetent leaders.”

But now in the retrospect one hardly casts blame. Experience and the habit of working together would have hindered the panic at the junction. The famous Magruder and D. H. Hill were on the other side in this combat. The victory then gave them joy and confidence-extravagant, indeed, but thus it was in both armies early in the war. Modesty and mutual respect appeared in reports and dispatches only later.

Before leaving Augusta Mr. Blaine and I were talking of the army to be organized from the volunteers. I-e remarked: “You, Howard, will be the first brigadier from Maine.” Of course the proposition to me, accustomed only to wrinkled captains and white-headed field officers, appeared visionary.

Later, July 4th, I answered another friend who made the same suggestion: “I am as high as I desire. What could I effect in a higher position I do not think there is any likelihood at present of taking me from my regiment.”

Yet, three days later, I received a note from the War Department directing me to select three regiments in addition to my own to constitute a brigade of which I as the senior colonel was to take command and conduct them to Alexandria.

On July 6th at dawn I had had reveille; our men had promptly loaded the wagons, but the quartermaster did not get draught animals to us from the city till ten o'clock. That waiting indicated want of system and discipline. At last, proudly we marched from Meridian Hill back to Pennsylvania Avenue and down Sixth Street to the dock, the regimental band playing [142] national airs. Soldiers stepped out together with heads high, hopes strong, and hearts beating courageously.

After a brief halt the regiment crossed by steamer to Alexandria. Colonel S. P. Heintzelman, of the Seventeenth Regular Infantry, had been designated our division commander, with headquarters in Alexandria. He brought a good record from the Mexican War, and was in 1861 a hardy, fearless, energetic character, which our undisciplined levies then especially needed. IHe had a frank way of expressing the exact truth whether it hurt or not.

As my full regiment, of which I was proud, was marching up the main street, I caught sight of Colonel IIeintzelman, who had come out of his office and was standing near a street corner which I was to pass. I brought the command to a carry-arms, but did not halt and fix bayonets as I would have done for a formal review. In this order we went past him, while he critically noticed every fault. I went up to him, hoping for a compliment, but heard a nasal speech: “Colonel, you have a fine regiment; they march well and give promise for the future, but you are not well drilled-poor officers, but good-looking men!” Ie evidently enjoyed my discomfiture, and would have no explanation.

Alexandria was more gloomy than Baltimore. The pavements were rough and broken; cobblestones in piles alternated with mudholes and pitfalls. Most residences were closed and empty and beautiful homes deserted; no business was transacted except what the army brought. Those who had fled and those now coming from over the Potomac were like locusts. They destroyed every green herb and even ate up the hedges [143] and fences. Grass, foliage, and flowers disappeared before army movements.

Five miles to the Washington dock and three more to camp on the Alexandria side, eight in all, with the load each man carried, made labor enough for the first trial. We watched southward from the vicinity of R. F. Roberts's farm and had for a single brigade a wide front to protect.

As soon as I received the War Department note, making me a brigade commander, I visited, selected, and brought over to my vicinity from their several camps near Washington three other regiments-the Fourth Maine, Colonel Hiram G. Berry; the Fifth Maine, Colonel Mark H. Dunnell, and the Second Vermont, Colonel Henry Whiting commanding. The latter was a graduate of the Military Academy. My lieutenant colonel was absent, so Major Staples passed to the head of the Third Maine on my temporary promotion. Notwithstanding the usual depletions of new regiments, my command was at this time above three thousand strong. McDowell soon sent me forward as far as Mrs. Scott's farm, sometimes called “Bush Hill,” four miles from Alexandria. The Maine regiments held the country to the south of the Centreville Pike, and Whiting's Vermonters had a handsome position in a field to the north of it.

About that time there was much camp criticism of McDowell, who had in charge the army of occupation officially called “the Department of Northeast Virginia.” The accusers said that he had too much tenderness toward the enemies' property. Regular officers were berated generally in the soldier gossip and in the newspapers for using up the soldiers in guarding such property. This conduct, however, did not proceed, [144] as charged, from Southern sympathy. McDowell and his associates wished to prevent the demoralization of the soldiers, for to take property ad libitum would soon overturn all order and leave no basis of rightdoing. Heintzelman's instruction just after the accession of my brigade to his division is a specimen of the prevailing restriction:

Headquarters Third Division, Alexandria, July 10, 1861.
Colonel Howard, Commanding Third Brigade.
Sir: The bearer of this note, R. F. Roberts, states that privates of the Fourth and Fifth Maine regiments have been committing depredations on his property, stealing potatoes, etc. The general commanding wishes you to investigate the matter and put a stop at once to all such proceedings. If the men can be identified, punish them severely.

Very respectfully, Chauncey Mckeever, Assistant Adjutant General.

Our soldiers, through the servants and escaping slaves, always claimed that they knew the old residents who were disloyal better than their generals, and they had firmly adopted the theory that the spoils of all enemies belonged to them-particularly such reprisals as potatoes, onions, and other vegetables. They advocated the seizure of cattle, sheep, fowls, and preserved meats, and found great need for fence rails before their claim was admitted by the authorities. The wonder is that our men were not more demoralized than they were by our subsequent living on the country and foraging at will.

Near the position of the Fifth Maine below the turnpike and facing toward the enemy, who was at IManassas Junction, with outposts at Sangster's and [145] Fairfax Station, was a crossroad. The regiment had there a picket guard, the point being an important one and the environs much darkened by thick trees. A captain commanded this guard. One night the tramp of horses was heard. In an instant the whole guard was in readiness, and one may imagine how the hearts of new soldiers throbbed as they listened to the fastapproaching sounds. Three bold riders soon appeared, moving at a trot, one in advance. The outside sentinel called: “Who comes there” The soldierly answer gave confidence: “Union officer and two men.”

Dressed in our uniform, they correctly answered every question put to them. The captain spoke a pleasant word and was about to let them pass when it occurred to him to be a little extra cautious on account of a rumor of spies passing the lines. He said: “Very well, gentlemen; you may be all right, but I will take you to the senior officer of my guard.” Turning to the first man, he said: “Please, sir, give me your gun.” The stranger, taken by surprise, cried out: “My gun?” then, recovering, he whirled his horse and with a sharp exclamation gave him the spurs. The captain instantly ordered: “Firel” The stranger wavered in his saddle and then fell dead to the ground, while his two friends escaped through the thicket. They had not approached so near the guard as their leader. The leader, as his papers revealed, was a young man from Mississippi. Bold and energetic, he had been chosen to go back and forth from Fairfax to Alexandria. This was by no means his first trip. He tried the experiment once too often. It is a singular custom of war that the bravest become scouts and spies, and if unsuccessful are stigmatized with dishonor.

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