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Chapter 7: the Peninsula Campaign.

  • Reenlistment and reorganization in the spring of 1862
  • -- Gen. McClellan -- the Peninsula lines -- the Texans -- the battle of Williamsburg -- the mud.

We left Leesburg about the 7th of March, 1862, for Culpeper C. H., which was the place of rendezvous of the army before taking up the line of march for the Peninsula, whither we were ordered to repair to meet McClellan. Only two things of interest occurred on the way — the reenlistment and reorganization of the battery and a hurried glimpse at our friends in Richmond. The former, as I remember, took place at or near Culpeper C. H., about the 15th of March, and deserves more than casual mention.

In the spring of 1862, throughout our service, the men reenlisting were allowed to elect their own officers; so that for weeks about this time the army, and that in the face of the enemy, was resolved — it is the highest proof of its patriotism and character that it was not also dissolved-into nominating caucuses and electioneering meetings. This compliment, by the way, is as well deserved by the men voluntarily reenlisting and electing their own officers, on the Federal side as the Confederate, if, as I presume, the same system was adopted by the Federals.

I do not say this is not the usual mode of organizing a volunteer army, at least in this country; nor do I deny that the result was better, on the average, than might have been anticipated, but it was bad enough. Our friend, Gen. D. H. Hill, in a report of a little later date, says, “The reorganization of the army, at Yorktown under the elective system, had thrown out of service many of our best officers and had much demoralized our army.” [74]

In short, the selection of military officers by the elective method is a monstrosity, an utter reversal of the essential spirit of military appointment and promotion. It ought to be enough to immortalize it as such that, about the time of or soon after the original enlistments, the men of one of the Virginia regiments, in the exercise of their volunteer right to choose their officers, protested successfully against the assignment of General, then Colonel, Jackson to command them.

It is fair also to add that the result, in the case of our own company — as I have abundantly shown an exceptionally intelligent corps,--so far as the newly-elected captain was concerned, could not have been more satisfactory, as he was a man of the noblest nature and every inch a soldier. But this was not by any means the case with all the officers elected by us. Our two preceding captains were promoted, the one to be colonel commanding “Camp Lee” --the camp of instruction at Richmond-and the other, at a later date, to be surgeon of that post, with rank of major.

We seemed to be in no sort of hurry to get at McClellan; that is, we took our time on the road, feeling sure, from past experience, that he would take his. Our army and people invariably regarded that general as “an officer and a gentleman” and a fine soldier, too, except that he was a little slow and prone to see double as to the number of his foes. The Richmond Examiner, by far the most vigorous journal published in the South during the war, epitomized “little Mac” in the following graphic sentence, “Accustomed in peace to the indecent haste of railroad travel, McClellan adopted in war the sedate tactics of the mud turtle.” He certainly did seem to have a penchant for mud, Peninsula mud, Chickahominy mud, James River mud-any sort of mud; but he was too much of a gentleman to “sling” any of it, even at us “rebels.”

The only point of the march down at which we were made to hurry was the only one at which we would have demurred to doing so if it would have done any good, and that was Richmond, where, as I remember, we arrived about the 10th of April, and left by steamer down James River a day [75] or two later. I remember, too, that as the boat left the shouting thousands on the shore and swept out into the stream our glee club burst into the rollicking stanzas of “Mynheer von Dunck” --a song as good in verse and in music as it is bad in morals:

Mynheer von Dunck,
Though he never got drunk,
Sipped brandy and water gaily;
And he quenched his thirst
With two quarts of the first
To a pint of the latter, daily.

Water well mingled with spirit, good store,
No Hollander dreams of scorning;
But of water alone he drinks no more
Than the rose supplies
When the dew drop lies
On its bloom of a summer morning-

For a Dutchman's draft should potent be,
Though deep as the rolling Zuyder Zee.

And as we steamed out of hearing of the pier the stout voices of the singers were publishing, with metrical and musical elaboration, the somewhat shady proposition that-

A pretty girl who gets a kiss and runs and tells her mother,
Does what she should not do and don't deserve another.

These revelling, rollicking songs came later to be prime favorites with sundry brigadier, major and even lieutenantgenerals in the Army of Northern Virginia, and they cheered, too, many a comfortless camp and relieved many a weary march of the old battery.

In due time we made our landing and found our place in the peninsular lines of Yorktown and Warwick River, which were admirably adapted to the purpose for which General Magruder designed and located them; namely, to enable a small body of troops to hold the position-but for occupation by a large army they were simply execrable. There was scarcely solid ground enough accessible to afford standing, sleeping, or living room foi the men. [76]

Our boys had their first taste of actual war in these abominable lines. Soon after our arrival the enemy attempted a crossing in force. Our guns being called for, we made an inspiring rush for the point of attack and were loudly cheered by the long lines of waiting infantry as we thundered by with our horses at a wild gallop. We got in only at the end of the fight, but our pieces were soon placed in the works and in situations about as trying as any we ever occupied. Our positions were commanded by those on the other side, our earth-works were utterly insufficient, we were heavily outnumbered in guus, and the Federal sharpshooters were as audacious and deadly as I ever saw them. For the most part they were concealed in the tops of tall pine trees and had down shots upon us, against which it was almost impossible to protect ourselves. When we attempted to do so by digging holes back of and beneath our works, the water rose in them and drove us out. Then, too, the enemy had opposite to us several rapid-firing guns of the earlier models, which we dubbed “the hopper mine,” “the putty machine,” etc., and which ground out a stream of bullets almost equal to the fire of a line of battle. The guns were not, however, really effective, and I do not recall ever encountering them again. But our boys showed excellent pluck and did some fine shooting, dismounting one of the guns of a Rhode Island battery which we had the luck of meeting several times during the war.

The only relief we had from the sharpshooters was when the marvelous Texan scouts got to work upon them, which was as often as their “impudence” got to be unbearable. This was the first time we had met those greatest of all soldiers, the Texas brigade. I question whether any body of troops ever received such a compliment as General Lee paid them in his letter to Senator Wigfall, written later in the war, in which he asked him, if possible, to go to Texas and raise another such brigade for his army. He said that the efficiency of the Army of Northern Virginia would be thereby increased to an incalculable extent, and that he would be relieved of the unpleasant necessity of calling on this one brigade so often in critical junctures. I have not the letter [77] before me, but I have read it several times and feel substatitially sure of its contents.

In the present instance the work of these worthies appeared little less than miraculous. They were apparently unconscious of danger and seemed to bear charmed lives. When the pressure of the Federal sharpshooters became intolerable, the Texans would pass the word that it was time to go out “squirrel shooting.” Then they would get up, yawn and stretch a little, load their rifles and take to the water, disappearing from view in the brush. Then everything would be still a few minutes; then two or three shots, and the sputter of the sharpshooters would cease. After a while the Texans would straggle back, and report how many “squirrels” they had got.

Notwithstanding this relief, or it may have been for the lack of it,--for our guns were separated by considerable distances,--one of our detachments broke down utterly from nervous tension and lack of rest. I went in as one of the relief party to bring them out and take their places. It was, of course, after nightfall, and some of these poor lads were sobbing in their broken sleep, like a crying child just before it sinks to rest. It was really pathetic. The men actually had to be supported to the ambulances sent down to bring them away.

Amongst the unpleasant experiences of these lines were the night attacks, or perhaps, to speak more accurately, I should say, the night alarms. Down in these swamps at night it was incredibly dark and musketry never roared and reverberated as terribly anywhere else. These exhibitions reached the dignity at least of fully developed “alarms.” Especially was this the case when, one black night, a sudden outburst of fire-infantry, artillery, machine guns and all-stampeded a working party of some two hundred negroes who had just begun the much-needed strengthening of our very inadequate fortifications. The working party not only fled themselves, but the frantic fugitives actually swept away with them a part of our infantry support.

I was sent back to the drivers' camp to see that the horses were harnessed and ready in case it should be necessary to [78] withdraw our pieces, and I met a line or mass of troops advancing to our support. Hearing some one call “Stiles!” I asked, “Who said ‘Stiles’ and who are you speaking to?” A voice answered, “I called Stiles,” and another, close beside me, said, “He's speaking to me. Stiles is my name. I'm Capt. Edward Stiles, of Savannah, Georgia.” I grasped his hand, unable to see him, and having only time to say, “Then I'm your cousin, Robert Stiles, of Richmond, Virginia. Look you up to-morrow.” Until that moment I did not know I had a relative in the Virginia army, knowing that some and supposing that all of my cousins were in the armies of the coast defense.

It was, of course, well understood by all of us that the Federal commander, having complete control of the navigable rivers, by virtue of his overwhelming naval power, could at any time turn either of our flanks or land a heavy force between us and Richmond, and that therefore our present line could not be a permanent one. We were not surprised, then, at receiving orders, about the 2d of May, to withdraw and march toward Richmond, which we did.

The enemy followed, but not vigorously. My recollection is that our company was the rear battery during the next day and that we several times unlimbered our pieces, but never fired a shot; so the evening of the 4th of May found us on the Richmond side of Williamsburg, hitched up and ready to fall in behind our brigade. We heard firing in the rear, but thought little of it until a mounted officer rode up with orders from competent authority to bring up as rapidly as possible the first battery he could find ready hitched up, and so we passed rapidly back through Williamsburg, and became at once hotly engaged, doing good service, as we also did the next day. Indeed our action the first evening might, without much strain, be termed “distinguished.” The enemy, under a heavy fire from our battery and another, abandoned a three-inch rifled gun and a caisson of ammunition, and the general at whose orders we had entered the fight calling for volunteers to bring them into our lines, our boys volunteered and brought them off the field, using the captured gun with fine effect the following day. [79]

Williamsburg was not in any sense a decisive battle, perhaps not designed to be so on either side. Upon our side certainly, perhaps upon both sides, it accomplished its limited purpose, which upon our part was to let General McClellan see that it would not be well for him to seriously interfere with or molest us in our “change of base,” or “retreat,” if one prefers that term, though, as above remarked, it cannot be contended that the line we were leaving could ever have been designed for permanent occupation.

It is obvious, I say, that McClellan did learn the lesson we intended; for after Williamsburg our army was allowed to pursue its march very leisurely up the peninsula — a considerable part of it stopping to finish the reenlistment and reorganization by the election of new officers.

But it is not a satisfactory battle to contemplate, because the administering of this lesson cost too much in blood, and this because, as so often happens, some one blundered. Col. Richard L. Maury-son of Commodore M. F. Maury-and an exceptionally intelligent officer, who at the close of the fight commanded the Twenty-fourth Virginia, Early's old regiment, the colonel and lieutenant-colonel having been shot down — has written a brief but strong memoir on this battle, from which it would seem well nigh impossible to draw any other conclusions.

He makes substantially the following points:

General Magruder had built, and was commended for building, a chain of redoubts across the Peninsula from the York to the James, as a second line; Fort Magruder, a strong closed work, about a mile from Williamsburg, on the main road running down the Peninsula, being the key of the entire line. The battle was fought in and from these fortifications, we occupying Fort Magruder, but, incredible as it may seem, not occupying the other works, and not even those within a short distance of the main road along which lay our route to Richmond. Indeed General Hancock was allowed, without firing a shot, to possess himself of one or more of these works, and yet the heaviest loss in the action was entailed in the attempt to dislodge Hancock, which failed. Several of the general officers, by whose apparent neglect all this happened, [80] have publicly defended themselves by stating that they did not know and were not informed as to the location of these works. It seems to go without saying that they ought to have been informed. Furthermore, it is evident that if a single general officer upon our side was fully informed as to — the entire line, it was General Magruder, who built it, and who, it seems, took no part in this battle. Indeed, as I remember, he had been sent on toward Richmond. As above intimated, it would seem impossible that all these facts should co-exist with prudence and generalship upon the part of all our leading officers.

There is, however, one relief to the rather sombre picture. Our troops, whether prudently and wisely led or not, certainly fought well. “Hancock the superb” was generous enough to say that the Twenty-fourth Virginia and the Fifth North Carolina, the two regiments which attacked his strong force in its fortified position, deserved to have the word “immortal” inscribed upon their banners.

Two of the most vivid pictures in the gallery of my memory are set in the framing of this battle — the one the most shocking instance of the unhuman demoraliation of war, the other the most inspiring illustration of the noblest traits developed by it.

During a lull in the fighting our guns were withdrawn and were in column parallel to the road, in a common on the outskirts of the town, resting and awaiting orders, when a number of wounded Federal prisoners were brought up in an ambulance and laid temporarily on the grass, while a field hospital was being established hard by. Among them was a poor wretch, shot through the bowels, who was rolling on the ground in excruciating agony and beseeching the bystanders to put him out of his misery. There did not appear to be anything that could be done for him, at least not in advance of the coming of the surgeons, so I was in the act of turning away from the painful spectacle when a couple of Tureos, or Louisiana tigers, the most rakish and devilishlooking beings I ever saw, came up and peered over the shoulders of the circle of onlookers.

Suddenly one of them pushed through the ring, saying: “Put you out of your misery? Certainly, sir!” and before [81] any one had time to interfere, or even the faintest idea of his intention, brained the man with the butt of his musket; and the bloody club still in his hands, looking around upon the other wounded men, added glibly, “Any other gentleman here'd like to be accommodated?”

It is impossible to express my feelings. I fear that if I had had a loaded musket in my hands I should have illustrated the demoralization of war a little further by shooting down in his tracks the demon, who suddenly disappeared, as a gasp of horror escaped the spectators.

For the honor of human nature, let me quickly give you the other picture.

At the crisis of the battle we were stationed in Fort Magruder, as above explained, the key of our position. I was standing, sponge-staff in hand, awaiting the firing of my gun, the next piece to the left being a gun of the Fayette Artillery. As my eye fell upon it, No. 1 was sponging out, No. 3, of course, having his thumbstall pressed upon the vent. Suddenly I saw No. 3 stoop, clapping his right hand upon his leg below the knee, and then I saw him topple slowly forward, never, however, lifting his thumb from the vent, but pressing it down close and hard-his elbow strained upward as his body sank forward and downward. The heroic fellow had been first shot in the calf of the right leg, and as he bent to feel that wound a bullet crashed through his skull; but his last effort was to save No. 1 from the loss of his hands by premature explosion as he rammed home the next charge. I have never witnessed more sublime faithfulness unto death than was exhibited by the downward pressure of that thumb as it was literally dragged from the bole of the piece by the weight of the sinking body of the noble cannoneer.

This incident reminds me of another which well illustrates how receptive and retentive of pictorial impression are the minds of men-especially men of a certain type-at moments of intense excitement. It is this faculty, in great measure, which imparts special interest and value to the personal reminiscences of men of this character.

Nearly three years after the battle of Williamsburg, I think in March, 1865, entering the office of the provostshal [82] of the city of Richmond for the first and only time during the war, I found an officer, in a new uniform of a colonel of cavalry, in an unpleasant altercation with one of the employees of the office. As I approached he turned to me, saying:

It's a hard case, Major, that a veteran colonel of the Army of Northern Virginia is bearded in this way by a beardless boy of a provost-marshal's clerk, and that he cannot have even the poor satisfaction of slapping his jaws as he is entrenched behind this partition.

While pouring out this complaint the Colonel gazed at me with increasing interest and, as he ceased-starting a little-said abruptly:

I have seen you before, sir!

“Yes, Colonel,” I replied, “or at least, I have seen you, and I recall just when and where it was; but as you are the ranking officer won't you be good enough to say first, if you can, when and where you saw me?”

“Certainly, sir,” said he; “it was at the battle of Williamsburg, in May, 1862. You were then a private soldier in an artillery company and were standing, bare-headed, at the angle of Fort Magruder with a sponge-staff in your hand as I led a charge of cavalry past the fort.”

My recollection exactly coincided with his. The officer, I think, was Col. J. Lucius Davis, who commanded a body of Virginia troops at Charlestown or Harper's Ferry during the John Brown raid; but, whoever he was, he was not a colonel at Williamsburg, but I think a captain; and, as I remember, then wore a brown-gray tunic belted around his waist, and his hair, which was then quite long, swept back from his forehead as he gallantly led his men, sabre in hand, at full speed against the enemy.

We never met save on the two occasions mentioned and could not possibly have seen each other at Williamsburg more than a moment. The rank, dress, bearing-everything, indeed, save the essential personality of the two men-was entirely different at the two meetings, and yet neither of us felt the slightest hesitation as to mutual identification or the time, place, and circumstances of the first meeting. [83]

The one feature of the march up the Peninsula was mud. Even the great “Mud turtle” himself must have been satiated with it. As for me, I had never imagined anything approximating to it. The ground had been saturated by recent heavy rains, which seemed to have brought down with them myriads of diminutive green frogs, the only living organisms, except of course the mud turtle, which could enjoy the big lob-lolly puddles into which the road-bed had been churned by the multitude of houghs and wheels and the feet of the trampling thousands. Our company wagon, containing a present supply of commissary and quartermaster stores and all our extra clothing, sank to the hubs and had to be abandoned. We feared for the guns and could not think of wasting teams on wagons. The danger was really imminent that the guns themselves would have to be abandoned, and the captain instructed me to have at hand a haversack with hammer and spikes and to keep near the rear of the battery, and if a gun could not be dragged through the mud, then to “spike it” as thoroughly as I could, slip the trunnions from the sockets and let the piece drop into the deepest mud I could find, and mark the spot. By dint, however, of fine driving, and heavy lifting and shoving at the wheels, we managed to save our brazen war dogs, for which we were beginning to feel a strong attachment.

The poor horses often sank to their bellies, and we were several times compelled to unhitch a stalled horse, tie a prolonge around him, hitch the rest of the team to the rope and drag him out. I mean just what I say when I aver that I saw a team of mules disappear, every hair, under the mud, in the middle of the road. Of course they had first fallen, in their impotent efforts to extricate themselves, and they afterwards arose and emerged from their baptism of mud, at once the most melancholy and the most ludicrous-looking objects that could be imagined. It was wretched, and yet it had its funny side.

We mounted upon the gun and caisson horses, for the emergency, the very best men, regard being had to the single requisite of skill and experience in handling draft horses and heavy loads, and no regard whatever as to whether or [84] not they had theretofore been battery drivers. In this way it happened that two of the finest soldiers in the command were driving at my gun, the one the wheel team and the other the lead, there being at the time six horses to the piece. It was stalled, and two or three unsuccessful efforts having been made to start it, the wheel driver declared that it was the fault of the leader. The latter retorted, and the war of words waxed hot, until suddenly the wheel charioteer dismounted in the thigh-deep mud and, struggling up abreast of the lead team, dared the driver of it to get down and fight it out then and there. It is possible the other would have accepted the challenge if a glance down at his friend and foe had not brought the absurdity of the entire thing so vividly before him that he simply threw his head back in a burst of laughter, saying, “Why Billy, you must take me for an infernal fool, to expect me to get down in that infernal mud to fight you!” Whereupon the gentleman in the mud laughed, too, as did everybody within sight and hearing, and Billy struggled back to his wheelers, remounted, and with “a long pull, a strong pull, and a pull altogether” --out she came.

Another gentleman-he who had “resigned” when all trunks were sent to the rear from Manassas-having gotten at the company wagon this day, just before it was abandoned, had on a beautiful new suit of “Crenshaw gray,” and, thus arrayed, was making a perilous passage out in the woods parallel to the road, dodging behind the big pine trees and springing from tussock to tussock of swamp grass and bushes. The boys had been watching him for some time, but he begged so hard, by cabalistic signs, that they had not “told on him.” But finally the lieutenant saw him and called to him to come and get in the mud and help start a stalled gun. Of course he had to come, but he came very slowly, meanwhile beseeching the boys to “put on a little more steam and get the gun out!”

But the fellows had now come to appreciate the fun of the thing, as had also the lieutenant, and he ordered them to do nothing until Jim should get down in the mud with them. He wriggled and squirmed, his comrades standing in [85] the mud about the gun jeering and jibing at him, as he mounted and walked upon a big pine log which projected out to the slough of despond in which the gun was stuck, till, getting about squarely over it, he stopped and begged once more; but the boys shouted derisively, and the lieutenant called out, “Get down to it, sir; nobody's going to shove a pound until you get in and shove with the rest!” Poor Jim! He lifted his foot and stamped it down in vexation on the wet bark, which parted and slipped from the smooth, slick bole of the tree, and down came Jim, with a great splash like the mules, hide and hair and Crenshaw gray, all into and under the mud. I don't think I ever heard such a shout as greeted this “knight of the sorrowful figure” as he emerged, from his thighs up, the liquid mud dripping from every part of the upper half of his person. But it cured him and his suit as well, the beautiful Crenshaw gray thenceforward exhibiting a sickly, jaundiced, butter-nut hue, like the clothes some backwoods cracker regiments wore when they first came to Virginia.

Only one other feature of our march up the Peninsula merits notice, and that was our almost actual starvation on the way. The cause of. this was separation from our brigade, which was probably ten miles from Williamsburg before we were ordered to follow. In the condition of the roads already described, catching up with any particular body of troops was of course out of the question. We really had nothing to eat for two days and nights, except, that, as we were compelled to impress corn for the horses — of course old, hard corn-we roasted a little of it for ourselves.

On the third day we overhauled a commissary train, in a by-road we were traveling to escape the jam and the mud, and Captain McCarthy, making known the extreme need of his men, begged rations enough to give them just one meal; but the officer in charge answered:

I cannot issue you anything, Captain, except upon the order of General Griffith, your brigadier, or my commanding officer.

To which our captain replied:

General Griffith is somewhere between here and Richmond, I don't know where your commanding officer is; but [86] if you can't give me anything, except upon the order of one of these two officers, then I can take what my men need, on my own order, and I'll do it. Here, boys, drive a gun up here in the road ahead of this train, unlimber it and load it. Now, sir, you shan't pass here without issuing three days rations for my men; but I'll give you a written statement of what has occurred, signed by me!

We sprang with a shout to execute the Captain's order, and in a few moments had our three days rations, cooking them in the few utensils we always kept with us, and soon made a good square meal. I suppose Captain McCarthy's conduct was deemed justifiable, as no notice of a courtmartial or a court of inquiry was ever served upon him.

It was, however, some days before the supply departments were thoroughly organized, after the disorganization and paralysis of the fearful mud deluge, and meanwhile not only did we artillerymen once more come down to hard pan and hard corn, but one evening General Griffith, who was a charming gentleman, rode over to where our battery was parked, saying to our captain that he came to beg three favors — a couple of ears of corn for himself, a feed for his horse, and a song from our Glee Club--to all of which he was made royally welcome, and he sat right down about our camp fire and roasted and ate his corn with us.

The boys used to say, “ten ears to a horse, two to a manwhich shows that a horse is equal to five men.” Later in the war this ratio was practically vindicated, for the supply of horses got to be in every sense a prime necessity with the field artillery of the Confederate armies. Many a time, during the campaign of 1864, have I heard artillery officers of the Army of Northern Virginia-belonging to different corpsmeeting for the first time after heavy fighting, in which the commands of both had been engaged, exchange some such greeting as this:

Well, old fellow, how did you come out? How many horses did you lose? Lose any men?

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