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Chapter 6:

  • Return to the “old Dominion”
  • -- up Loudon Valley -- New Baltimore -- McClellan relieved of command -- grand divisions -- reminiscences of the marches and halts -- Stafford, C. H. -- Belle plain -- reminiscences

A pontoon bridge had been thrown across the Potomac at this place, over which we passed and climbed the high banks on the Virginia shore. We marched up Loudon Valley, which is a continuation in Virginia of Pleasant Valley, in Maryland, lying between the same ranges, which, under different local names, cross the state of Virginia. Somewhat more than a day's march from Berlin, the Sixth Corps, having bivouacked on a farm which lies in the north central part of the valley, stretching from the pike down toward Goose Creek, rested there the following day and night. On the morning after our arrival we were sent to forage, hay being needed for our horses. We were directed to the barns on this farm, which stood on a ridge perhaps half a mile east of the highway, and in the vicinity of the mansion, negro houses, storehouses, and other buildings of the farm. Before we mounted we espied the cavalry on the ground with feed bags, evidently bent on obtaining grain if it were to be had, and as we got under way, the infantry, seemingly prospecting on individual accounts, were streaming along ahead of us. As we rode up to the establishment, we found some of the cavalrymen who had filled their feed bags with grain, watching with evident signs of interest the infantry chasing pigs and chickens. The proprietor himself seemed to enjoy the affair so long as the foragers failed to catch any game. But when at last some fleet-footed and nimble-fingered infantryman fastened upon a young porker, his rage was enkindled, and he imprudently declared that he ‘would like to see the d—d Yankee hung.’ Natural and pardonable as was his indignation, the imprudent expression of it was the spark that ignited a big blaze for him, for they denuded the place of pigs and chickens and negro stores; all this either before any [86] guard arrived, or in spite of the guard. The hay and grain were carried away by necessity, there being mounted troops enough in the vicinity to demand for their horses a much greater supply. Was this justifiable? Oh, no! not morally justifiable. But it is doubtful if war has any ethics. If it has, it is of the utilitarian school, its two leading maxims being: ‘The end justifies the means,’ and ‘All's fair in war.’

Moving up the valley from this place, where we had rested thirty-six hours, we passed over the height of land between the headwaters of the streams that flow into the Potomac from this valley, and those which are tributary to the branches of the Rappahannock, and in the last days of October we were at White Plains, on the Manassas Gap Railroad, west of Thoroughfare Gap in the Bull Run range. Though these plains are in the ‘sunny South,’ the air ‘bites shrewdly’ on them on a morning in late October, and early frosts are incidents of that season in this region, likewise nipping winds from the face of the Blue Ridge. The day before we started to cross the Bull Run range to the plains east of the mountains, the ground was covered with snow, the branches of the shrubbery and wildwood along the run were encrusted with flakes, the waters of the stream looked black and dismal, and a good stiff breeze was blowing from the Blue Ridge some miles to the west. The exterior aspect of camp and surroundings was cheerless, certainly, but a ‘soldier's life is always gay,’ and the influence of a good fire and a dipper of coffee was such upon the inner man as to render him fit and willing the next morning, especially if mounted, to splash through the run at the ford, and then plod along all day over the twisting, muddy, half passable mountain roads that lead to the Warrenton pike on the other side of the range.

This Bull Run range is nothing else than the Virginia section of the Blue or Kittatinny, the most eastern spur of the Appalachian, which commence in New Jersey. It is a very interesting region from a geographical or geological point of view. Some of the most wonderful natural scenes are embraced in this system along the thousand miles of its extent. Rivers cut their way through from the west in winding channels between lofty wooded banks. The veins of the rock structure of this range contain, in its long course from Jersey to Georgia, a wider variety of minerals [87] than any other region of similar area in the world. The gold fields of Virginia and North Carolina belong to this region.

In northern Virginia it has two noted passes: one at Aldie, and the famous Thoroughfare Gap, between Loudon Valley and Manassas Plains. Through the latter extends the Manassas Gap Railroad, to Manassas Junction. The course of the pass is from the southwest to the northeast; our course being to the southeast, as we are moving toward Warrenton, we do not go through the gap, but pass the mouth of it, and climb the mountainside east of Salem.

The ascent was difficult, and the progress slow, over the broad summit, whose surface is broken and irregular, like that of the valley which we had lately traversed. In following the mountain roads, you jog through the same soft soil as that of the fields, which the rain has rendered plastic. Here and there, to the top of the mountains and down the eastern descent, families had settled, and had established homes in this wild section. We would pass, now and again a rude cottage, having in front and around it a vegetable garden. We recollect one in the midst of the forest, high up on the crest. The proprietor was sitting on the threshold. Some soldiers came running through the garden before the door, and some of them stopped to pluck something from the grounds, the man expostulating with them. Some chap told him he should be a Union man if he did not want his garden plundered. ‘That don't make any odds,’ said he, ‘I was Union; I never got any protection; it's no use to be a Union man, you have to suffer from both sides.’ These assertions were mingled with some profanity, which no doubt relieved the outraged spirit of the mountaineer. We were impressed by the large grain of truth in the man's asseverations.

It was near night when we came down to the base of the mountain on the eastern side. ‘What place is this?’ asked one of our number of a soldier who had arrived earlier. ‘New Baltimore.’ ‘Where is the village?’ ‘I don't know; somewhere about.’

We were now once more in the heart of old Virginia. The army lay on the great plain that extends south of Bull Run to the upper Rappahannock, and thence west into Culpepper County. Army headquarters were at Warrenton, which lies west of the great [88] Midland Railroad, then called Alexandria and Orange, and is connected with that road by a branch. We seem to have been at this stage, upon the right and rear of the army. It was now in the first days of November, and the woods and fields were in autumn guise; the nights were chilly, and the mornings crisp and cold for an hour after sunrise.

During the two or three days next preceding the 8th of November we were scouring the west side of the mountain, which we had crossed, for haystacks, and with considerable success; a lieutenant with forty mounted drivers, more or less, and their sergeants, would ride through the woods and across the open fields or along the cross-ways, in quest of feed; and, when hay was found, each horseman would make up two bundles as large as he could conveniently carry, which were secured with halter shanks, whose ends were tied over the horse's back, so that the bundles hung one on either side, like panniers; a troop loaded in this wise, defiling down the side of the ridge, the ponies striving occasionally to draw a wisp from the packs that brushed their sides, or shying when tickled or prodded by a straw, afforded quite an amusing picture to an observer. We were returning from one of these expeditions in the forenoon of the 8th of November, when, striking at the foot of the mountain the main road that comes over it, we observed a commotion in the camps alongside,—men rushing to the street, and a cry, ‘Bring out the colors!’ ‘What's the matter?’ we inquire. ‘McClellan is taking leave of the army.’ And sure enough, there were Generals McClellan and Burnside riding along the great road. Little Mac, bareheaded, was bowing right and left amid the clamorous applause of his late comrades. We believe that none of our company had any previous intimation of the change of commanders.

From the time of our crossing the Potomac, five miles below Harper's Ferry, in the last days of October, McClellan, in his course southward guarding the passes of the Blue Ridge on his right, through which he threatened to issue, succeeded in concealing his intention so far that, on our arrival upon the plains around and to the north of Warrenton, one half of the Confederate army of northern Virginia was at Culpepper, having moved parallel with the Army of the Potomac; the other half was scattered through the Shenandoah Valley. It seems to have been [89] our general's design to throw his army between these widely detached portions of the Confederate army, moving obliquely from Warrenton. But last night he was ordered to turn over his command to Gen. Burnside. Burnside reluctantly assumed command in obedience to the mandate of the war department. He halted here on the plains around Warrenton, reorganizing the army upon a novel plan. The six army corps were consolidated into three grand divisions, the right, centre, and left, respectively commanded by Generals Sumner, Hooker, and Franklin. The Sixth Corps now formed a part of the left grand division, and was commanded by ‘BaldySmith, the First Corps by Gen. John F. Reynolds.

The right grand division arrived at Falmouth November 17. It is said that at this time, Fredericksburg was occupied by but one regiment of cavalry, four companies of infantry, and a light battery, and that the river before the town was fordable. Burnside, however, it is alleged, declined to give orders to the right grand division to cross and take possession of the heights behind the town, ‘until his communications should be established.’ Burnside's intentions were now clearly manifest to the enemy; Aquia Creek his base of supplies, Fredericksburg his first objective point, and ultimately a forward movement along the ‘air-line road’ to Richmond. The delays of the next twenty-three days gave the enemy ample time to disturb these plans of the Federal commander. The Sixth Corps moved obliquely to the southeast from the vicinity of New Baltimore; the First Division, to which our company had always been attached, was now commanded by Gen. Brooks, a stern disciplinarian and able soldier, Gen. Slocum having succeeded to the command of the Twelfth Corps. The division artillery organization remained substantially the same; but Company D, Second U. S., the one regular army battery of the four attached to this division, was in charge of Lieut. Williston. Our battery commander had not yet received his captain's commission, though a vacancy existed by the resignation of Capt. Porter. Lieut. Federhen was our junior first, and Lieutenants Sawin and Greene (the latter raised from the ranks by the commission of the governor of his state) were respectively our senior and junior second. Sergt. French, previously of the first detachment, had been made orderly sergeant, [90] and was next in order of promotion to the junior second lieutenancy. The company, by means of two batches of recruits during the year last past, had now nearly the original complement.

The line of march of the several divisions of the left of the army, seems to have been chosen with reference to their subsequent position in the battle of the 13th of December,—the First Corps, whose badge was the circular disk, red, white, and blue, respectively, for its three divisions, marching at the extreme left, toward Belle Plain and Potomac Creek; the Sixth Corps, whose badge was the ‘Greek Cross,’ red, white, and blue for the First, Second, and Third Divisions, respectively, moving to the right and rear of the First Corps.

It must have been as late as the 18th of November when we reached Stafford, C. H., northeast of Falmouth, the divisions of the First Corps lying to the left and front, and both corps ranged before the base of supplies at the inlets of the Potomac. It was said that the pontoon trains that had been ordered from Washington had not yet arrived. At all events, there was now a delay of about three weeks after reaching Stafford, C. H., before our command again broke camp; during which time there was a gathering of the Confederate clans, far and near, on the south side of the Rappahannock, and undoubtedly the heights behind the town were rendered impregnable.

In the vicinity of Stafford, C. H., was an abundance of wood, much white oak, which makes a slow-burning, hot fire, and leaves a white ash. Our company and the First Maryland, which lay side by side, had their experience in working up for fuel more or less of this tough-fibred material. It was amusing to see the variety of axes employed, that had been through various stages of use in a multiplicity of hands. But the use of some of them that were unwedged, or improperly wedged, was a serious matter. We observed one day one of our boys go down to the spring, which lay in the hollow between our camp and that of the First Maryland, both being upon rising ground sloping to the run. Two Maryland boys were chopping, a couple of rods from the spring; just as the Massachusetts man stooped to dip water, his head being on the plane of the brink of the spring, one of the axes came flying from the helve and fell upon the ground on the bank, just near enough to neatly clear the man's head. Mingled fright and [91] amazement rendered the three men dumb for a moment, when the Massachusetts man said, ‘You had better wedge that axe!’

Our junior bugler, by the discharge of his companion, was now our chief musician, and, being quite an enthusiast, in his desire to perfect himself he made the woods ring in these days, with the practice notes of his instrument. It was during this wait at Stafford that we received, each man, a nice, warm, woolen, knit blouse; these were said to have been part of the cargo of a captured blockade runner. They were gratefully appreciated by the boys during the ensuing winter. The date of the New England Thanksgiving passed while we were here. Winter, as it is experienced on the lower Potomac, and in that belt of Virginia in which lies Stafford County, was now upon us: rain, drizzle, damp, moist air, then a freeze; little snow for any length of time upon the ground, but occasional falls, covering the earth and quite rapidly disappearing, leaving the roads in such condition as to render corduroy indispensable to the continuous movement of the trains from the landing.

A cold wave settled over this region in the first days of December, with a steadily low temperature for a week. It was about the 8th of December when we moved to the vicinity of Belle Plain. This is a basin extending inland from the Potomac, surrounded on all sides, except the east, by hills. Its position with reference to the camps, then and during the whole winter, made it a convenient base of quartermaster's supplies. There was a very noticeable rising of the temperature of the air on this afternoon, and during the evening; and on the following morning, the stretch of plain and the hills around and beyond it were white with snow.

The sun shone bright and warm; there was a hum and a bustle in the camps that lay thick at the base and upon the sides of the hills, on the west and south of the plain. Gen. Brooks's headquarters were upon a comparatively high hill to the south of us. We observed in their vicinity several men lugging rails upon their shoulders, evidently for disciplinary exercise. What had they been doing? At another place, several teamsters were standing upon barrels, this also for punishment. But the rogues were disporting themselves in their limited circles as though they did not feel very keenly the disgrace which is thought to attach itself to [92] such conspicuousness. In this part of Virginia, a very common tree is the persimmon, whose wood and foliage resemble the wild black cherry, but whose double-stoned fruit bears a close exterior likeness to the red horse-plums which abound in northern New England. These persimmon plums, when ripe before the frost, are red, sweet, puckery, and unpleasant to the taste, suggesting choke cherries. But after the frost, the outer skin has a bluish cast, and they are delicious; no fig or date can equal them. On this forenoon in question, the persimmon trees in the fields lying over the brow of the range of hills about Belle Plain, hung full of fruit, looking at a little distance like nut-trees with a wealth of nuts ungathered. It is said, ‘the longest pole rakes the persimmon,’ but the boys, having no poles at hand, climbed the trees and shook a shower of plums into the snow; there was a general feast of them. Hearing cries as of lamentation in a hut which we were passing on our way to the camp, we peeped in and found a dejected-looking, gray-haired old negro, and a mulatto girl perhaps eighteen years old, who were bewailing the loss of bedding and other household indispensables which some miscreant in the absence of the inmates had stolen. ‘Oh, dear! what will de old woman done, when she find de bed gone? I dunno!’ The fireplace was empty, but for a few cold ashes; the bare walls, which were of logs chinked with clay, looked dreary enough. ‘I never saw such a picture of extreme poverty,’ said Comrade L., and surely the scene was calculated to impress one with the force of the adage, ‘One half of the world knows not how the other half lives.’ Try to conceive of a log hut, perhaps fifteen by eighteen, with a diminutive L or wing built of the same material, and plastered with clay for a fireplace and a chimney; the cracks between the logs pointed with clay; the floor, if there be any, of the loft between the gables and under the roof, of poles or logs; a scuttle in this floor reached by a rude ladder; the log roof of the cabin thatched with a coarse grass; and you have an approximate notion of an abode of a free negro or a buckrah in ante bellum days in those sections where either genus was indigenous.

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