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Chapter 10:

  • Northward movement of both armies
  • -- accessions from the Sixteenth New York -- Wolf Run Shoal Fairfax Station -- Bristow Station -- enter Maryland -- change of army commanders -- Sixth Corps at Manchester -- memorable march of the Sixth Corps to Gettysburg

The great highway from Falmouth to Alexandria leads through Stafford, C. H., across Aquia Creek to the ford at Wolf Run Shoal on the Occoquan. North of the Occoquan, a road leads northwesterly from the highway, to the Fairfax Station on the Alexandria and Orange Railroad, eighteen or twenty miles west of Alexandria. This was part of the route traversed in June, 1863, by the Sixth Corps, in its transfer from the vicinity of the Rappahannock to the subsequent theatre of military operations in Pennsylvania.

Our company supped and slept, on the night of the 14th of June, on the north bank of Agwam Creek, south of Aquia. The next morning we were astir betimes, and moving through the fog a good two hours before the sun appeared to scatter it. Notwithstanding that dress uniforms and extra blankets, shirts, and stockings, had been turned in, in April, many of the infantry seemed to consider their overcoats and more than one blanket for two men, encumbrances, for these articles were plentifully strewn along the way, this morning, and must have afforded a considerable prize to the dwellers on this route, even though some thrifty soldiers exchanged inferior garments or blankets for excellent ones that had been cast away.

Arriving at Aquia Creek, where this road crosses, we found, as we were about to ford the stream, that a foot bridge of rails had been thrown across, on the lower side of the wagon road through the creek; but this was only wide enough for the passage of two abreast, and while the bridge would be continually lined with men passing over, there was a considerable crowd waiting on the shore, the men being naturally reluctant to plunge into the cold water before sunrise, and to wear their wet pants, stockings, and [116] shoes for an hour or two after, upon a hurried march. This hesitation, however pardonable, did not suit a newly-fledged brigadier, who, riding up at this moment, drove them headlong into the creek. We saw him brandish his sword about their heads and thrust and cut at their ears as if he were a cavalry recruit practising upon dummies with a sabre. Doubtless the wet feet and chills, conjoined to the sleeping in the open air, were among the causes of the ‘night blindness,’ with which during this season many were afflicted.

The ford of the Occoquan at Wolf Run Shoal, which we reached at mid-day, is a very difficult crossing on account of the slippery ledge and loose stones on the bed of the pathway; and for teams especially, because of bowlders of various size, among which the drivers must carefully steer, at the same time keeping a tight rein upon the horses lest they slip and fall upon the sunken rocks on the bed of the river. The passage of the corps was necessarily slow; but the approach to the water was rapid enough, being down a quite steep, though indirect pathway from the bank above; altogether, the gulf through which the Occoquan flows at this place is strikingly picturesque.

Our battery made a safe transit, and as speedily as any of the mounted corps, and a few hours later halted with the other regiments and batteries of our division, in the neighborhood of Fairfax Station. We bivouacked here, receiving in the course of the evening rations for ourselves and grain and hay for our horses.

Shortly after the indecisive battle of Chancellorsville, the term of service of nearly 40,000 men expired. Among these two years regiments was the Sixteenth New York, of the First Division, Sixth Corps. There being, in the several companies of this corps, men who had enlisted at different times subsequent to the mustering in of the regiment, these soldiers, as three years men, were distributed among various corps of the division, to serve out the remainder of their terms. Thirty of these were attached to the First Massachusetts Battery, and had marched with us to this station. These men were almost without exception from the west shore of Lake Champlain, a hardy, intelligent, and for the most part adaptable body of soldiers; therefore they were a desirable acquisition to our company; and it had, including them and other recruits which it had received during the past winter, on the 16th of June, a full complement of non-commissioned officers and privates. [117]

Gen. Hooker had now brought his army into a position by means of which he could cover Washington, and could readily move to the defence of Baltimore from the threatened attack of the advancing and powerful army led by Lee. For the ‘skill, energy, and endurance’ by means of which he accomplished this, he deserved and soon received the thanks of Congress. His headquarters on the 17th and 18th were in the immediate vicinity of our division at Fairfax Station. We saw him occasionally standing by a fire which burned near his tent, and remember seeing him light his cigar with a lighted sliver which his servant handed him. Our purpose now seems to have been to watch and wait for the further development of the enemy's plans. On the 15th, Ewell, who seems to have commanded the van of the Confederates, encountered Gen. Milroy west of Winchester. Ewell was apparently moving up the Potomac to some point above Martinsburg. The valley was swarming with Confederate troops, but the Army of the Potomac was so located that it could prevent their egress through the gaps of the Blue Ridge, or in the event of their crossing the upper Potomac, say at Martinsburg or Williamsport, could be in the valley of the Monocacy in a few hours, and ranging north and south of Frederick interpose itself between its adversaries and Baltimore, at the same time having the capital behind its protecting lines.

The superior portion of the Confederate army on the 19th and 20th was far up the Shenandoah Valley, beyond Luray, but gradually moving north. At this time Ewell's division, which routed Milroy's brigades defending Winchester, had moved to the Potomac, opposite Williamsport.

Now, in the further disposition of the Federal forces made necessary by the enemy's movements, the Sixth Army Corps was sent across Bull Run and along the line of the Alexandria and Orange Railroad, to occupy a position upon the plains, where it could observe and foil any attempt of the Confederates to cross to the east side of the mountains. As an element of this corps of observation and reconnoissance, our company crossed Blackburn's Ford on the 19th, marched over the rugged, broken ridge, the scene of the bloody conflict of July, 1861; over the knolls beyond; by the Brick Farmhouse so often mentioned in the annals of warfare in the Manassas region; by the junction, [118] and over the site of the village of log huts where we tarried two days in the spring of 1862, when we came out with Gen. McDowell, previous to the organization of the Sixth Corps; crossed Broad Run at a point near where we had bivouacked in storm and sleet, fifteen months ago, and took position at Bristow Station, facing to the west. Here where the railroad embankment on the plain made an effective defensive field work, lay, four days, the infantry and artillery of our division. The cavalry vedettes of this section ranged along a line drawn through points perhaps three miles to the south and west of our position, and between it and our outposts was the infantry picket line. Cavalry was actively scouring the region in our front and on our left flanks. In the meanwhile Ewell, on the 21st, had invaded the narrow portion of Maryland north of Williamsport; a few hours' march will take his division into Pennsylvania. On the 22d a large part of the force yet in the valley move rapidly after Ewell toward Williamsport. These are now known to have been the troops of Longstreet and Hill; they cross upon the 24th and 25th. Now the Federal columns are moving toward the crossing at Edwards' Ferry. The Sixth Corps reaches the vicinity of the ferry, the evening of the 26th. A large part of the army and the general commanding are already in Maryland. We cross on the 27th, and on this day Gen. Hooker was in Frederick.

To arrive at an approximate notion of the relative situation and strength of the two armies at this moment, let the reader picture in his mind the map of western Maryland and Pennsylvania, or spread before his eye an actual map of that region. Find Chambersburg in Cumberland Valley; Lee, with Longstreet and Hill, had reached this place about the same time that Hooker came into Frederick. Early was thirty miles east and Ewell about thirty miles west of the main body of their army. Taking Frederick as a centre, the Federal corps lay east, south, and northeast, all within twenty miles of that town, except that a considerable cavalry force, commanded by Gen. Buford, which had been following the track of Lee, was yet in Cumberland Valley over the mountains from Frederick.

According to the estimate of Gen. Humphreys, Lee had at this moment 85,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry, and a due proportion of artillery, though De Peyster says ‘this is a low estimate,’ and that [119] there is reason to think he mustered over 100,000 men, not over 83,000 of whom were in the actions of the 1st, 2d, and 3d of July. Gen. Humphreys states that the Army of the Potomac consisted of 70,000 infantry, 10,000 cavalry, and 300 guns.

It was now that Gen. Hooker requested that the troops at Harper's Ferry be placed at his disposal; not only were they needed for the active campaign which was in progress, but bitter experience had demonstrated the futility of attempting to hold that place for a defensive position. The opinion that it was vastly easier to capture it with a comparatively small force than to hold it with a large number, had been more than once expressed by generals of reputation on both sides.

In the present instance of invasion, for any impediment that it placed in the way of the Confederate entry into Maryland, it were as well not in being. But General-in-Chief Halleck refused to allow the withdrawal of the troops from this position, and Gen. Hooker tendered his resignation as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Strange to relate, his resignation was immediately accepted; and Gen. Meade, obeying as a soldier the orders of the general-in-chief, assumed command on the 28th.

We judge that this fact was not generally known by the rank and file of the Sixth Corps, until the night of the 1st of July; for then the general order of the new commander was read to our company in line, in which, after stating that he assumed command in obedience to orders as a soldier, he briefly reviewed the military situation, reminding his command of the momentous issues at stake, making an earnest appeal to their patriotism, and enjoining strict fidelity to duty.

If the reader will glance once more at the map of Pennsylvania, and note the situation of York and Columbia, and their position with reference to Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, and remember that on the 29th and 30th of June, and the 1st of July, the left of Lee's army, commanded by Ewell, was in the region in which these places are situated, he will understand why the Sixth Corps, at this moment the right of the Army of the Potomac, should have been at Manchester, forty-two miles northwest of Baltimore.

‘Boots and saddles’ sounded at half-past 7 P. M.; the company was in line and ready for the road a few minutes later. [120] General orders were read, and in the too calm quiet of this summer night, this command waited for orders to move into column. Gettysburg was more than thirty miles away, and the route thither was not direct. A march of thirty-five miles was before us.

It was between eight and nine o'clock, twenty-four hours after our arrival hither, that we set out at a quickstep, that soon became a trot until it would be necessary to halt for little, till interval had been gained by ranks and teams in advance. Then rapid movement would be resumed. It was a typical July night; the sultry air retaining the mid-day heat, there was an uncomfortable closeness.

The march was made with unflagging energy all night, and there was no relaxation of effort when the scorching sun of the 2d of July appeared to light another day's conflict on that field to which we were hastening. Now was the test of physical vigor, —to keep the ranks and make the requisite time, wipe away the perspiration, grin, and endure. So, for an hour after sunrise, men and horses well stood the test. Then there was a brief rest to answer the calls of nature, after which regiments and batteries were speeding on. Now the column moved through Westminster, the town having been well waked up by the beat of hoofs and the tramp of feet.

Let us digress here a moment, to record to the honor of this town, that when once a Confederate force approached it with a demand for supplies for 15,000 men and the threat to destroy the town if they were withheld, the fathers asked for time to remove the women and children, as they declined to accede to the demand for supplies. Fortunately, Union cavalry appearing at this juncture, the Confederates withdrew. The passage of the Sixth Corps on the morning of the 2d of July, caused perhaps a pleasanter awakening of the townspeople.

The next five miles are traversed with scarcely a break in the steady, rapid, forward movement. The sun's rays strike fiercely. Countenances are begrimed with dust and sweat. Now the progress is slower; the road is ascending for a way. We are moving due north. Now we hear the sound of cannon, peal on peal. At length, at noon, we reach a plateau, over which the road passes on the Pennsylvania side; there away to the north is a portion of the Federal line of battle. We see distinctly the batteries working upon the crest of a ridge, as we are moving forward to the scene.

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