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Chapter 18: private letters. [April 1 to May 5, 1862]

Steamer “commodore,” April 1, 1862 Potomac river, 4.15 P. M.

As soon as possible after reaching Alexandria I got the Commodore under way and “put off.” I did not feel safe until I could fairly see Alexandria behind us. I have brought a tug with us to take back despatches from Budd's Ferry, where I shall stop a few hours for the purpose of winding up everything. I found that if I remained at Alexandria I would be annoyed very much, and perhaps be sent for from Washington.. . . Officially speaking, I feel very glad to get away from that sink of iniquity. . .

8 P. M.

I have just returned from a trip in one of the naval vessels with Capt. Seymour to take a look at the rebel batteries (recently abandoned) at Shipping Point, etc. They were pretty formidable, and it would have given us no little trouble to take possession of them had they held firm. It makes only the more evident the propriety of my movements, by which Manassas was forced to be evacuated and these batteries with it. The trip was quite interesting. . . .

Steamer “commodore,” April 3, Hampton roads, 1.30 P. M.

. . I have been up to my eyes in business since my arrival. We reached here about four yesterday P. M.; ran into the wharf and unloaded the horses, then went out and anchored. Marcy and I at once took a tug and ran out to the flag-ship Minnesota to see Goldsborough, where we remained until about nine, taking tea with him.

On our return we found Gen. Heintzelman, soon followed by Porter and Smith, all of whom remained here all night. I sat up very late arranging movements, and had my hands full. I have been hard at work all the morning, and not yet on shore. Dine with Gen. Wool to-day at four, and go thence to our camp. [307] We move to-morrow A. M. Three divisions take the direct road to Yorktown, and will encamp at Howard's Bridge. Two take the James River road and go to Young's Mill. The reserve goes to Big Bethel, where my headquarters will be to-morrow night.

My great trouble is in the want of wagons — a terrible drawback; but I cannot wait for them. I hope to get possession, before to-morrow night, of a new landing-place some seven or eight miles from Yorktown, which will help us very much. It is probable that we shall have some fighting to-morrow; not serious, but we may have the opportunity of drubbing Magruder. The harbor here is very crowded; facilities for landing are bad. I hope to get possession of Yorktown day after to-morrow. Shall then arrange to make the York river my line of supplies. The great battle will be (I think) near Richmond, as I have always hoped and thought. I see my way very clearly, and, with my trains once ready, will move rapidly. . . .

Telegram--Great Bethel, April 4, 1862, 6 P. M.--My advanced guard five miles from Yorktown. Some slight skirmishing to-day. Our people driving rebels. Hope to invest Yorktown to-morrow. All well and in good spirits.

Big Bethel, April 5, 2 A. M.

. . . Have just got through with the orders for to-morrow; have been working very hard, and have sent off officers and orderlies in every direction. I feel sure of to-morrow. I have, I think, provided against every contingency, and shall have the men well in hand if we fight to-morrow. . . . I saw yesterday a wonderfully cool performance. Three of our men had gone close down to the enemy's position after a sheep, which they killed, skinned, and started off with. They were, of course, fired at frequently, and in the course of their travels a 12-pound shot struck directly by them. They quietly picked up the shot, held on to the sheep, and brought the shot to me, yet warm. I never saw so cool and gallant a set of men; they do not seem to know what fear is.

Near Yorktown, April 6, 1 A. M.

. . . I find the enemy in strong force and in a very strong position, but will drive him out, Fitz-John is in the advance on the right, Baldy on the [308] left; they are doing splendidly. Their divisions have been under fire all the afternoon; have lost only about five killed in each, and have punished secesh badly. Thus far it has been altogether an artillery affair.

While listening this P. M. to the sound of the guns I received an order detaching McDowell's corps from my command. It is the most infamous thing that history has recorded. I have made such representations as will probably induce a revocation of the order, or at least save Franklin to me. The idea of depriving a general of 35,000 troops when actually under fire!

To-morrow night I can tell you exactly what I intend doing. We have no baggage to-night, our wagons being detained by the bad roads. I have taken possession of a hut in a deserted secesh camp; found a table therein, and sleep on a horse-blanket, if I find time to “retire.” Colburn is copying a long letter; Seth, standing by the fire, looking very sleepy. He wakes up and sends his kindest regards, in which Colburn asks to participate. I am sorry to say that your father is snoring loudly in a corner.

April 6, 1.40 P. M.

. . . Did not get to bed until 3.30, and then my bed was a rather rough one, as our wagons did not arrive. Things quiet to-day; very little firing; our people are pushing their reconnoissancess and getting up supplies. I shall take the place, but may be some time in effecting it . . .

April 8, 8 A. M.

Raining hard all night, and still continues to do so. Am now encamped about five miles from Yorktown: have been here two or three days. Have now visited both the right and left, and, in spite of the heavy rain, must ride to Ship Point and our right immediately after breakfast. All I care for about the rain is the health and comfort of the men. They are more fond of me than ever; more enthusiastic than I deserve; wherever I go it seems to inspire the fullest confidence. . .

I have raised an awful row about McDowell's corps. The President very coolly telegraphed me yesterday that he thought I had better break the enemy's lines at once! I was much tempted to reply that he had better come and do it himself.


April 9, near Yorktown, 8 A. M.

. . . Last night returned late and was fully occupied with reports of reconnoissancess, etc., until very late.

It rained nearly every moment yesterday, all the night before: all last night, but has now stopped, though likely to commence again at any moment. It is execrable weather; everything knee-deep in mud; roads infamous: but we will get through it. I have had great difficulty in arranging about supplies — so few wagons and such bad roads. Rode down to Ship Point yesterday morning. . . .

9 A. M.

Interrupted and unable to finish. Have been bothered all the evening, but am getting things straightened out. .. . Start for the Point in a few minutes. . . .

April 10, 10 P. M.

Have had a pretty long ride to-day. Secretary Fox spent last night with me. As soon as he had gone I rode to Porter's camp, thence to the river-bank to meet Capt. Missroom, commanding the gunboats. Have had an excellent view of the water defences of Yorktown, as well as of Gloucester. The enemy is very strong and is adding to his works and the number of his men. I could see them coming in on schooners. But as my heavy guns are not yet landed, and the navy do not feel strong enough to go at them, I can only hurry forward our preparations and trust that the more they have the more I shall catch. . . .

Yesterday I also spent on the right, taking, under cover of the heavy rain, a pretty good look at the ground in front of York and its defences. I got back about dark, pretty wet and tired out. . .To-morrow we move headquarters to a much better and more convenient camp further to the front. . . . The present camp is a little too far from the scene of the most important operations.

April 11

I am just recovering from a terrible scare. Early this morning I was awakened by a despatch from Fitz-John's headquarters stating that Fitz had made an ascension in the balloon this morning, and that the balloon had broken away and come to the ground some three miles southwest, which would be within the enemy's lines. You can imagine how I felt. I at once sent off to the various pickets to find out what they knew and [310] try to do something to save him, but the order had no sooner gone than in walks Mr. Fitz just as cool as usual. He had luckily come down near my own camp after actually passing over that of the enemy. You may rest assured of one thing: you won't catch me in the confounded balloon, nor will I allow any other generals to go up in it.. . .

Don't worry about the wretches; they have done nearly their worst, and can't do much more. I am sure that I will win in the end, in spite of all their rascality. History will present a sad record of these traitors who are willing to sacrifice the country and its army for personal spite and personal aims. The people will soon understand the whole matter.

April 14, 11 P. M., camp Winfield Scott.

. . . I believe I now know who instigated the attack upon me and the country. . . . So Fox told you all about our troubles. They were severe for some time, but we are pretty well over the worst of them . . . . I do not expect to lose many men, but to do the work mainly with artillery, and so avoid much loss of life. Several brave fellows have already gone to their long home, but not a large number.

I can't tell you how soon I will attack, as it will depend upon the rapidity with which certain preliminary work can be done and the heavy guns brought up. I do not fear a repulse. I shall not quit the camps until I do so to continue the march on Richmond. If I am repulsed once, will try it again, and keep it up until we succeed, But I do not anticipate a repulse; am confident of success. . . . I received to-day a very kind letter from old Mr. Blair, which I enclose for you to keep for me. . . . Remained at home this morning, doing office-work, but rode out all the afternoon; rode to the front and took another look at secesh. . . .

8.30 A. M., 15th

Am about starting for the gunboats, which are anchored near here, to take a better look at the opposite shore. . . . It is raining a little this morning — not much more than a drizzle. . . .

April 18, 1.15 A. M.

. . . About a half-hour ago the accustomed intermittent sound of artillery was varied in its monotony [311] by a very heavy and continued rattle of musketry, with the accompaniment of a very respectable firing of artillery. I started at once for the telegraph-office, and endeavored in vain for some ten or fifteen minutes to arouse the operators at the stations in the direction of the firing. So I ordered twenty of the escort to saddle up, and started off Hudson, Sweitzer, and the Duc de Chartres to learn the state of the case. The firing has ceased now for some minutes, and I am still ignorant as to its whereabouts and cause. Of course I must remain up until I know what it is. I had had Arthur, Wright, Hammerstein, Radowitz, and the Comte de Paris, as well as Colburn, also up, with some of the escort ready to move or carry orders, as the case may be, but just now told them to lie down until I sent for them. It is a beautiful moonlight night, clear and pleasant — almost too much so for sleeping. . . . Poor Wagner, of the Topogs, lost an arm this afternoon by the bursting of a shell; he is doing well, however.

Merrill was severely but not dangerously wounded in the arm yesterday. In Smith's affair yesterday we lost, I fear, nearly 200 killed and wounded. The object I proposed had been fully accomplished with the loss of about 20, when, after I left the ground, a movement was made in direct violation of my orders, by which the remainder of the loss was uselessly incurred. I do not yet know the details nor who is responsible. We have a severe task before us, but we will gain a brilliant success. . . . Colburn is my stand-by-so true and faithful. Many of my aides are excellent. No general ever labored under greater disadvantages, but I will carry it through in spite of everything. I hope Franklin will be here to-morrow or next day. I will then invest Gloucester and attack it at the same time I do York. When the Galena arrives I will cause it to pass the batteries, take them in reverse, and cut off the enemy's communications by York river. As I write I hear our guns constantly sounding and the bursting of shells in Secession.

9 P. M.

The firing of last night was caused by the attempt of a part of the enemy to cross the stream in Smith's front. They were repulsed at once; tried it later, and were again driven back.

April 19, 10.30 P. M.

. . . To-day it has been very quiet; our batteries have merely fired enough to keep the enemy entirely [312] silent at his works in front of Smith and at Wynn's Mill. Last night we commenced a battery, at Farnholdt's house, for five 100-pounder Parrotts and one 200-pounder Parrott; also one for fifteen heavy guns about two thousand yards from the enemy's main defences; another for six and one for five close by. Another for six was armed to-day, and kept down the enemy's fire at Wynn's Mill. To-morrow evening we commence batteries for thirteen mortars. About Monday night we will construct the first parallel and several other batteries in exposed positions, leaving those already commenced to cover the work and render it more safe. We shall soon be raining down a terrible tempest on this devoted place. To-day the enemy sent a flag of truce to Smith, asking a suspension of hostilities to bury the killed of the 16th. The officer who met with Sweitzer acknowledged that their loss was very severe and the bearing of our men admirable. I received to-day a letter from Burnside, which I enclose. . .

Franklin arrived yesterday and spent the night in my tent. He is at Ship Point to-night; I expect his division to-morrow. .. . Don't be at all discouraged; all is going well. I know exactly what I am about. I can't go “with a rush” over strong posts. I must use heavy guns and silence their fire; all that takes much time, and I have not been longer than the usual time for such things-much less than the usual, in truth. . . .

I can't tell you when Yorktown is to be attacked, for it depends on circumstances that I cannot control. It shall be attacked the first moment I can do it successfully. But I don't intend to hurry it; I cannot afford to fail. I may have the opportunity of carrying the place next week, or may be delayed a couple of weeks; much, of course, depends on the rapidity with which the heavy guns and ammunition arrive. Never mind what such people as — say; they are beneath contempt.

I will put in a leaf of holly from the bower some of the men have made in front of my tent to-day. They have made quite an artistic thing of it — holly and pine; it adds much, too, to my comfort, as it renders the tent more private and cool.

April 20, 7.30 A. M.

. . It has been raining more or less all night, and if it were not for the men I would enjoy the rain, for I rather like to hear it patter on the tent.

I have a fire in my stove this morning, so it is quite comfortable. [313] My tent is the same the aides use for an office; it has a floor of pine boughs — a carpet of boughs, I suppose I ought to say — a table in the middle, a desk in one corner, my bed in another, my saddle in another, a wood-pile, etc., in the last. I have a splendid two-legged washstand which Charles's mechanical ingenuity devised. Then I have a clothes-rack, consisting of a sapling with the stumps of the branches projecting. So you see I am living quite en prince.

April 21.

Yesterday was rather unpleasant; rained a good deal. To-day about the same; not raining much yet, but a kind of drizzle. Had a letter yesterday from Francis B. Cutting, of New York, hoping that I would not allow these treacherous hounds to drive me from my path. Have just replied to it.

April 22, 11.15 P. M.

. . . The enemy has been blazing away a good deal to-day, but hurt nothing, however; he tried his best at a skirmish with some of Smith's men this morning, but was repulsed with loss. It is said that some of his troops were blacks. I do not, however, give full credit to this. It seems too improbable to be true. The navy have been firing this morning at long range.

April 23, 7 A. M.--. . . Some few shots fired already, but not many: secesh don't mean to get up very early. I am rather anxious to hear the result of last night's work; for I am in hopes that I can get all the batteries that have been commenced well aimed to-night, so that the first parallel may be commenced at once. The weather has cleared off beautifully again, so that I am in strong hopes we shall have no more rain for some time. You have no idea of the effect of a couple of days' rain in this country; roads, camps, etc., become impassable . . . .

11.30 P. M.

. . Have been working hard all day, but not in the saddle; it has been head-work in my tent to-day. I am getting on splendidly with my “slow preparations.” The prince is delighted and thinks my work gigantic. I do believe that I am avoiding the fault of the Allies at Sebastopol, and quietly preparing the way for great success. I have brought forty heavy guns in battery; to-morrow night I hope to have twelve new guns and five to ten heavy mortars in battery. I begin in the morning [314] the redoubts to cover the flank of the first parallel, which will be constructed to-morrow night. I will not open fire unless the enemy annoys us, hoping to get all the guns in battery and the trenches well advanced before meeting with serious opposition. We have done much more than they suspect. Have ordered a forced reconnoissances of a dangerous point in the morning; it may cost several lives, but I have taken all possible precautions, and hope to gain the information necessary with but little loss. There is no other choice than to run the risk. . . . Everything is as quiet now as if there were no enemy within a hundred miles of us The Galena, under Rodgers, will be here by day after tomorrow.

April 26.

Again raining, and has been all the morning. Grover carried a redoubt of the rebels most handsomely this morning. It was one from which they had it in their power to annoy the left of our parallels, and it was an object to get rid of it. The work was handsomely done; the work carried by assault, and then so much destroyed that it can be of no further use to the rebels. Fifteen prisoners were taken in the affair. We lost three killed, one mortally and about ten others slightly wounded; have not all the details yet. We got eight immense mortars up by water last night; but a canal-boat loaded with empty shells ran aground in sight of secesh, who has been blazing away at them; sent one shot through. He has stopped firing now, probably because he cannot see on account of the rain. To-night we complete the first parallel, which will be nearly four thousand yards long — an immense work. From the manner in which our men pitched into the little redoubt this morning it is clear that the morale is on our side. The men found quite a deep and broad ditch in front of the affair, but over it they went without a moment's hesitation!

April 27, midnight.--. . . Was engaged with Barnard, Porter, etc., until about one, when I rode to the trenches. Then, of course, had to walk; a good deal was muddy, so it was tiresome. Went over the whole extent and saw everything with care. The enemy have fired a good deal to-day, but the men are now so well covered that no one has been hurt to-day. Commenced to-day batteries for fifteen 10-inch mortars, and to-night another battery [315] for heavy guns; another for ten mortars to-morrow morning; an extension of the parallel on the left commenced to-night. By to-morrow night the parallel shall be finished in all its details, as well as the two covering redoubts on the left. Some time day after to-morrow I hope to have thirty-five mortars in battery. To-morrow night will open a tuyau in advance leading to a new gun-battery fast getting ready to blow secesh up. He will have a bad time of it when we open. Have news this evening via Richmond that New Orleans is in our possession. I presume it is true. So the work goes bravely on. . . . Yesterday made Fitz PorterDirector of the siege” --a novel title, but made necessary by the circumstances of the case. I give all my orders relating to the siege through him, making him at the same time commandant of the siege operations and a chief of staff for that portion of the work. This new arrangement will save me much trouble, and relieve my mind greatly, and save much time. In going over the line of trenches yesterday I found so many blunders committed that I was very thankful to put Porter on duty at once. . . . The good fellow (Colburn) never leaves me; wherever I ride he sticks close after me. He is one of the very best men I ever knew, so thoroughly honest and reliable. His judgment is excellent and he is perfectly untiring. Day and night are about the same to him, and he will start out on a long ride at midnight in a pitch-dark or rainy night with as much good-humor as at midday. “Rentuck” (horse) is still at Fort Monroe sick; will rejoin in a few days, I hope. Marsh is with him, and I am sometimes half-wicked enough to suspect that Marsh finds Fort Monroe more comfortable than camp would be.

April 28, 11.45 P. M.

. . . Rode out this P. M., and went over most of the ground from right to left. Commenced some new work still more to the front to-night; as it was exposed and dangerous, and required noiseless and rapid working, I as usual gave it to the regulars to do. Have this moment heard that although the rebels have been firing a great deal (there goes another gun), they have wounded but one man; the men should be well covered by this time, so I fancy the work is safe. I have also (there goes another gun) ordered a lot of rifle-pits for sharpshooters to be pushed out well to the front; we will, I hope, gain a good deal of ground to-night. Am getting on nicely. Will have [316] some more batteries ready for their guns by to-morrow P. M. and will very shortly be able to open on secesh. He tried to annoy one of our working parties this morning with a couple of guns; I sent out a field-battery and silenced him after four rounds.

8 A. M.

Colburn came back from the trenches after midnight, and reported all going on well; the regulars had covered themselves well by that time, and the fire of the enemy had only wounded one man, and that not badly. Clitz was in command of the working party last night. To-day weather good; will not rain. Hope to make good progress this morning. Good deal of firing going on now.

April 30, A. M.

Had a quiet night; very little firing; drove them out of an orchard whence they had been annoying us, and pushed them still further in towards their works. A good deal of firing on their part yesterday; did very little harm, killing some three and wounding four or five of our people. Scarcely a gun fired to-day as yet; we are working like horses and will soon be ready to open. It will be a tremendous affair when we do begin, and will, I hope, make short work of it. . . . Have put the regulars on the exposed portions of the work, they work so much better. A raw, disagreeable day; I fear it will rain-unless it snows; wind from east. . . .

10.30 P. M.

After I got through my morning work went down to see the opening of Battery No. 1. It worked handsomely; drove all the rebel schooners away from the wharf, and made a general scatteration. The effect was excellent. Shall not open the general fire for some four days--I hope on Monday A. M.

Next morning (May 1)

Another wet, drizzly, uncomfortable sort of a day. Good deal of firing during the night. I shall be very glad when we are really ready to open fire, and then finish this confounded affair. I am tired of public life; and even now, when I am doing the best I can for my country in the field, I know that my enemies are pursuing me more remorselessly than ever, and “kind friends” are constantly making themselves agreeable by informing me of the pleasant predicament in which I am — the rebels on one side, and the abolitionists and other scoundrels on the other. I believe in my heart and conscience, however, that I am walking on the ridge between the two gulfs, [317] and that all I have to do is to try to keep the path of honor and truth, and that God will bring me safely through. At all events I am willing to leave the matter in His hands, and will be content with the decision of the Almighty.

May 3, 12.30 A. M.

After the hot firing of to-day everything is so unusually still that I am a little suspicious that our friends may intend a sortie; so I have taken all the steps necessary to be ready for them, and am sitting up for a while to await developments. I feel much better satisfied when they are firing than when they are silent. To-day they have wasted about a thousand rounds and have done us no harm worth speaking of, except (Irish) bursting one of their own guns. We are now nearly ready to open; shall begin, I think, on Monday morning, certainly by Tuesday. If all works well it is not impossible that we shall have Yorktown by Wednesday or Thursday. The task is a difficult one, yet I am sure we have taken the right way to accomplish our purpose, and that we will soon win. I fear that me are to have another storm to-night. We want no more rain, but will make the best of it if it comes. Had plenty of work to do at home all the morning, and in the afternoon rode down to “Shield's House” to meet the new commander of the flotilla, Capt. Smith. . . . I don't half like the perfect quietness which reigns now. I have given orders to take advantage of it and push our approaches as far forward as possible. It don't seem natural. It looks like a sortie or an evacuation. If either, I hope it may be the former. I do not want these rascals to get away from me without a sound drubbing, which they richly deserve and will be sure to get if they remain. . . . I feel that the fate of a nation depends upon me, and I feel that I have not one single friend at the seat of government. Any day may bring an order relieving me from command. If they will simply let me alone I feel sure of success; but will they do it?

May 5, 9.30 A. M.

. . . You will have learned ere this that Yorktown is ours. It is a place of immense strength, and was very heavily armed. It so happened that our preparation for the attack was equally formidable, so that Lee, Johnston, and Davis confessed that they could not hold the place. They evacuated it in a great hurry, leaving their heavy guns, baggage, etc. I sent [318] the cavalry after them at once, and our advance is now engaged with them at Williamsburg. The weather is infamous; it has been raining all night, and is still raining heavily; no signs of stopping; roads awful. I hope to get to West Point to-day, although the weather has delayed us terribly. It could not well be worse, but we will get through nevertheless. The villains (secesh) have scattered torpedoes everywhere — by springs, wells, etc. It is the most murderous and barbarous thing I ever heard of.

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