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Chapter 3: battles of ball's Bluff and Edward's Ferry.--experiences at Darnestown and Rockville.

In a few weeks we broke camp and took up our line of march to the front. Our destination was the Potomac, near Poolsville. It was our first march and to us “tender feets” a hard one. The older men of the company laughed at us boys, said we would never be able to march that distance, but before night we left those who had laughed by the roadside. (I think our experience, that the boys fresh from school or from indoor life were able to endure more than men of mature years, was general.) Just before we arrived at Rockville, Md., we received ten rounds of ball cartridges and the command was given, “Load at will! Load!” I shall never forget the sensation I experienced as my ramrod forced home the first ball. We were told that at Rockville a strong secession sentiment existed, and I expected to kill a rebel or be a dead Yankee before night. We marched through the town and found it as quiet as a New England village. The second night of our march we arrived at Poolsville. Here we met the 15th Massachusetts, and Company A of the 19th was entertained by Company A of the 15th. Next morning we marched to Camp Benton, which was to be our home for several months.

We were brigaded with the 20th Massachusetts, 7th Michigan, 42d New York (Tammany regiment), Captain [13] Saunders's company of sharpshooters and Captain Vaughn's Rhode Island battery. Our brigade was commanded by Gen. F. W. Lander; the headquarters of the division were at Poolsville, called “corps of observation,” commanded by Gen. Chas. P. Stone. At Camp Benton the discipline was brought to the regular army standard; drills were almost constant; each afternoon we were drilled in battalion movements, in heavy marching order, and in every possible way fitted for active service. Dress coats with brass shoulder scales and leather neck stocks were issued, and when not in line or on guard our spare moments were spent in cleaning brasses. If any men ever earned thirteen dollars a month we did. Besides the camp guard we mounted what was called grand guard, consisting of a detail from each regiment in the brigade posted on the outskirts of the camp, the tour of duty being twenty-four hours. Often the long roll would beat after we had retired for the night; we would turn out and double quick to Edward's Ferry, march up the tow path of the canal, lay on our arms the rest of the night, and the next morning march back to camp. At first we expected the rebels were crossing the river, but as we saw no movement in that direction we looked upon these excursions as a part of the drill, the days not being long enough to give us the desired instructions. The enlisted men were not the only ones who had to work, as the line officers came in for their share. Well do I remember day after day marching to execute the movement “To the rear by the right flank pass the defile.” At last Colonel Hincks became discouraged, and throwing down his sword said, “Let every officer go to his tent, take his tactics and study them, and to-morrow if any one fails to understand this movement there will be a [14] vacancy in this regiment.” We came out next day and in fair shape executed the movement.

Many incidents occurred at Camp Benton that are pleasant to recall. We were in a country where there were many slaves, all anxious to serve our officers, and nearly every day some citizen would come into camp hunting for his runaway negro. One day a man came to the colonel and was sure one of his negroes was in our camp. Colonel Hincks sent for Sergeant McGinnis of Company K and ordered him to assist in the search. By the look the colonel gave McGinnis it was understood that the slave was not to be found. McGinnis went into the woods with the man. As soon as they were out of sight he halted and cut a switch. “Look here!” said McGinnis, “do you suppose we left Massachusetts and came out here to hunt negroes?” and to add force to his argument he touched the old fellow up with the switch. The man was indignant and said he would report McGinnis to the colonel. “Go ahead and I will go with you.” Both went to the colonel, and the citizen told his story with tears in his eyes. Colonel Hincks turned to McGinnis and said, “Sergeant McGinnis, is this true?” “Colonel, do you think I would be seen doing such a thing?” was the reply. “No,” said the colonel; “Sergeant McGinnis is a man of truth and I must take his word. You have deceived me, sir; leave this camp and never enter it again.” The man, fearing McGinnis might get another chance at him, left as quickly as possible.

Here is another instance of the ready wit of a soldier. We had in Company A an Irishman, who was one day detailed for headquarters guard. The night was dark and rainy and the morning found Mike, pacing his beat in front [15] of the colonel's tent, wet to his skin. Colonel Hincks came out and Mike said, “Colonel, will you allow me to speak a word with you?” “What is it?” said the colonel. “Well, colonel, I wish you believed as you did before the war. Then you believed in putting none but Americans on guard and here I am, an Irishman, wet to the skin, having been on guard all night.” The colonel laughed and retired. (Colonel Hincks had edited a Know-Nothing paper whose motto was, “Put none but Americans on guard.” )

Early in October we were ordered to the river and picketed it from Edward's Ferry to a point above Harrison's Island. By visits of general and field officers we could see that a movement against the enemy was intended. On the 20th, ten of the best shots of the regiment were selected for some important service. With our officers they crossed to Harrison's Island to reconnoitre. Early the next morning the regiments began to arrive. Two small scows were brought to a point opposite the island and Company A was detailed to ferry the troops across. At first we pushed the boats over with long poles, but the current being very strong they drifted down the river and it was hard to land. After one or two trips a rope was obtained from a passing canal boat and stretched across the river, making transportation much easier.

In a short time we heard musketry on the other side and knew that the battle had begun. The 19th regiment was the last to cross. As we landed on the island the sound of the minie balls greeted us for the first time. We met four men bearing a stretcher, on which was the lifeless form of Colonel Baker of the 1st California. He was the first man we had seen killed in battle. We were marched across the [16] island, meeting wounded and half-naked men who swam the river. On arriving at the other side we found there was work for us to do. The only transportation from the island to the Virginia shore was one scow. By this a load could be sent over, then marched up a steep bank called Ball's Bluff. The rebels, being strongly intrenched at the top, could kill or capture our men before another load could land. At last a retreat was ordered as our men were stampeded. They rushed down the hill and into the boat. The little craft being overloaded was soon swamped, men were swimming the river to escape, and many a poor fellow, not able to swim, went down before our eyes; others were shot by the rebels when almost within our lines. At night those not required at the landing were deployed to the right and left. A drenching rain set in and without overcoats or blankets we remained shivering until morning. Lieutenant Dodge and twelve men, under a flag of truce, were sent over to bury the dead. Alex. Short was the volunteer from Company A, and he received injuries from which he never fully recovered. While the flag of truce was out a rebel horseman was seen pursuing a Union soldier who was running to the river. A man in Company H on the island fired and the horseman fell. Immediately the rebels closed in on the burial party and held them as prisoners. It required all the energy and courage that Colonel Hincks possessed to have them released. The next day we picketed the island, cared for the men we had rescued, and on the morning of the 23d recrossed to the Maryland side, wet, cold and disheartened. A few shots from our batteries told that Ball's Bluff battle was over.

For the number of men engaged this was the most disastrous battle of the war. No man in his right mind would have [17] sent out such an expedition. There was no way to retreat and no chance to send reinforcements, except a scow load at a time. The movement was condemned by every one. It was said that General Stone was a traitor, that signal lights would be placed at a house on the Virginia side and that he would go down to the river and meet men from the rebel army. The truth we never knew, but General Stone was relieved, and it was late in the war before he was given another command.

While we were engaged at the bluff Company K crossed at Edward's Ferry with General Lander. They had a sharp skirmish with the rebels and our brave brigade commander received the wound which resulted in his death soon after. We returned to our old camp and were soon busy getting ready for winter.

About this time we were called upon to bear our first loss, not by death but by the resignation of Captain Stanwood. Lieutenant Merritt was promoted to the vacant position, Second Lieutenant Boyd to first lieutenant and Quartermaster Sergeant 0. F. Briggs to second lieutenant.

We were about to undergo our first winter in camp and had not learned to stockade our tents; we pinned them close to the ground, dug a flue for a fireplace, building a chimney outside topped with a barrel, and had plenty of smoke but little fire. Neither had we yet learned the art of sleeping in tents; we would put on all our clothes, including overcoats, bring the capes up over our heads, lie down and shiver. Experience soon taught us that to undress and throw our clothing over us was much the better way.

On Thanksgiving the officers of the regiment gave a ball; men were detailed to build a ball-room, and quite a nice [18] building was the result of their labors. Ladies came from Washington and Baltimore and a good time was enjoyed. We enlisted men looked on from a distance and thought of the pleasures we had surrendered for a chance to serve our country.

After getting snugly fixed for winter an order came to move, and soon we were on the march for Muddy Branch, to take the place of General Banks's division, which had been ordered to Harper's Ferry. Here the regiment was assigned various duties. A part of Company A was sent to Rockville. First Sergeant Cook, myself as corporal, and ten men were ordered to Darnestown. Our quarters at Darnestown were in an old barn on the main street, and at Rockville in buildings on the fair ground. Our duty at Darnestown was to prevent men coming to town from camp and to allow none to pass towards Washington, below the rank of a brigadier-genera], without proper papers. We had three posts, each at a store. The citizens of the town were in sympathy with the South, but as we behaved like gentlemen they were very kind, often sending us biscuits for breakfast and at Christmas furnishing a liberal supply of egg-nog. We were welcomed at any house, and often when off duty spent a pleasant hour by their firesides. Soon after we began duty Sergeant Cook received a furlough of thirty days and I was commander-in-chief of the Darnestown army.

I had no trouble with the enlisted men, but the officers “kicked” when I asked them to show their leave of absence. My duty was to inspect the coach when it arrived on its way to Washington, and if any officer or soldier was on board to ask him to show his pass. I will relate one [19] instance. I opened the coach door one morning and said, “I will see your leave of absence, if you please,” to an officer who wore the strap of a major. He growled out, “Call your officer; I don't show my leave of absence to any enlisted man.” I replied, “I am the only officer here; I have my orders in writing from headquarters and know my duty.” He put his head out of the coach window and said, “Driver, go on.” I called to the sentry on duty, “If that driver starts, shoot him off the box.” The driver did not start, and after swearing awhile the major gave in, but declared he would report me,--and he did. In a few days Major How rode up. I turned out the guard, and after presenting arms stood at attention. “Corporal, dismiss your guard, I want to see you a moment.” Taking me one side he said, “You have been reported to the headquarters of the regiment.” I explained the case to him. He patted me on the shoulder and said, “Corporal, you are right; you are in command of this post, and if the Apostle Paul undertakes to go through this town, unless he wears the uniform of a brigadier-general, don't you let him go without showing his pass, and if he refuses bring him to camp.” No corporal in the Union army felt better than I did that day, and I was glad that the major had reported me.

In February we were relieved by another detail from the regiment and ordered to Rockville. The night before we left, Mrs. Hayes, of one of the first families of the town, gave us an oyster supper, and her daughter, who was a pleasant young lady but a red-hot “reb,” presented me with a rebel flag. Thirty-eight years have passed since those days, but I shall never forget the kindness of those Darnestown people, and trust that to-day they are prosperous and happy. [20]

After a time we reported to the company at Rockville and found the three field officers examining the non-commissioned officers. Although we had been acting as “non-coms” since we left Massachusetts, none had received warrants from the colonel. First Sergeant Cook and I joined the procession. I was never more frightened in my life, as I had never spoken to the colonel or lieutenant-colonel, and the examination was unexpected. The marks were from one to five. In a few days, at dress parade, Captain Merritt read the list. He called First Sergeant Adams. I thought he meant my brother Isaac, who had been examined as a sergeant, and I was pleased with his good fortune, when the captain called “ First Sergeant J. G. B. Adams,” and explained to the company that I had passed the best examination and was promoted to that position. I did not want the place. First Sergeant Cook was a good man and was my friend. I went to the captain, told him I would prefer to be second sergeant and let First Sergeant Cook remain. This arrangement was made and I was happy.

Our duty at Rockville was very light. The boys had made the acquaintance of many agreeable people there; I was introduced, and the time passed pleasantly.

The colored people were holding revival meetings. As we had never witnessed anything of the kind before we all attended, without regard to religious convictions. The singing was of that wild, melodious nature that only colored people can render. The clapping of hands and stamping of feet, all in time, cause a thrill of excitement to run through the coldest veins. With the colored people the effect is such that they are lost to all else but the emotions of the hour. When striving with the spirit it is a strife in reality. [21] One night they held a meeting of unusual interest, and Company A was represented by a large delegation. Among the number was Uncle Ben Falls. Ben had joined the company just before we left Lynnfield. He had been a sailor and his kind heart and ready wit made him a favorite with all. That night Ben was deeply interested. He joined in the hymn, and although his voice might not accord with the rest there was no doubt but what he sang with the same spirit. Soon the excitement reached its height; sobs and groans were heard in all parts of the room, shouts of “Glory!” went up from every heart. The spirit took possession of a girl named Malinda, who was owned at the hotel where our officers boarded, and was acquainted with our boys. She shrieked and groaned and in her striving fell to the floor. The people shouted, “Hold Malinda! Oh, Lord, hold Malinda! The spirit has got Malinda! Oh, Lord, hold her!” but none went near her. This was too much for Ben. He rushed to the front, sat on her and held her down. This brought Malinda and the rest to their senses and the meeting soon closed.

We enjoyed the pleasures of Rockville but a short time after our detail joined the company, as we were ordered back to camp. A new company, recruited in Salem and commanded by Capt. Chas. U. Devereaux, a brother of our lieutenant-colonel, had joined the regiment. They were given the letter H and nicknamed the “Lapstone light infantry,” old Company H being disbanded and the men transferred to other companies.

March 1, by order of Colonel Hincks, I assumed the duties of first sergeant, and of all the trying positions I have ever filled this was the most so. If any one thinks that the life [22] of an orderly sergeant in active service is an amiable one let him try it. When the men are not growling about you the captain is growling at you, and you are constantly between two fires. About one-third of the men in Company A had been members of the “Old Battalion,” and the town meeting tactics that prevailed in the militia had not quite died out. I was a recruit, and my promotion was not hailed with joy by the old men. It was said by them that they were detailed for guard rainy days, and that in other ways I favored the new men. They drew up a petition asking for a change, and some twenty men signed it and, through a committee, presented it to Captain Merritt. “What is this?” said the captain. “A petition for a change in first sergeant,” was the reply. “Petition! This is mutiny. Go to your quarters, and if I hear more of this I will have every man court-marshalled and sent to ‘Dry Tortugus!’ ” That settled the youngsters, and I was ever after obeyed and respected.

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