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Chapter 4: our first campaign.--battle of Fair Oaks.

About the middle of March we broke camp and took up our line of march for our first campaign. We bade good-by to our tents, which had sheltered us since we left Massachusetts, and sent them to Washington with our extra personal baggage, where I expect they are to-day, as we never received them again. We marched to the river, then up the towpath of the canal to Harper's Ferry, forded the Potomac at Point of Rocks, and for the first time our feet pressed the sacred soil of Virginia. We saw here the devastations of war,--the ruins of the old arsenal that had been burned by the rebels, the dilapidated and vacant houses,--but most interesting to us was the old engine-house, where John Brown made his gallant fight. This we found filled with rebel prisoners. “Truly,” we said, “his soul is marching on.” As soon as arms were stacked we rushed to the arsenal ruins for relics. I found an old gun-lock and several other parts of muskets. These I packed in my knapsack,--and the next day threw them away. With other regiments we marched up the valley to join Banks's division, and bivouacked at Charlestown in the field where John Brown was hanged.

The next morning Company A was ordered back to Harper's Ferry for provost duty. The rest of the regiment [24] marched on, but in a few days returned and took position on Bolivar Heights, occupying deserted houses. Captain Merritt was appointed provost marshal at the ferry and everything was soon in military order, the company quartered in houses, the officers boarding in the town. One day Captain Merritt, with a detail from the company, made a seizure of several barrels of whiskey and a keg of gin, which were taken to a vacant store and a guard placed over them. Somehow the keg of gin disappeared; where it had gone no one knew. The next day was our last in town, having been ordered to join the regiment quite early in the morning. I noticed some of the men were very happy, but as we had been called by the other companies “Merritt's Sabbath school children,” I thought it possible they were rehearsing for a Sabbath school concert. The increase of the spiritual manifestations told me that the cause of the inspiration must be the gin, and that it was not far away. After searching awhile I found the missing keg in the cellar. Unlike many of the men, it was nearly empty. In the midst of the seance Captain Merritt arrived. He came to order me to have the company in line ready to move at once. When he saw the condition of some of the men I guess he thought we had better move in ambulances. As we were going the rounds of the rooms we met Ben Falls, perfectly sober, having just been relieved from guard. Captain Merritt (referring to the condition of the company) said, “Ben, I am astonished.” “Well,” said Ben, “it is not my fault; I have been on guard, but I will get just as full as the rest as soon as I find the stuff.” When the time came to march all were in fair condition, and before we reached Bolivar Heights, as good as ever. As it was the first offence the men were let [25] off with a lecture from the captain, and as the opportunity was never again presented, the offence was not repeated.

With Captain Devereaux, who joined us at Muddy Branch, came more recruits, and the regiment was now full, Company A having had for a few days one hundred and two enlisted men, several of the old men were discharged, bringing us down to the required number. A fine band was attached to the regiment, and having become very well drilled in the manual, our dress parades were almost perfect, and were witnessed by nearly all the soldiers and citizens in the town.

March 24 we received marching orders. Crossing the river we took cars at Point of Rocks for Washington, where we arrived the next day. We remained in Washington two days, then marched to the navy yard and took the old transport “North America” for Fortress Monroe.

In no place is the life of a soldier so hard as on a transport. Crowded between decks like cattle, unable to cook or even make coffee, they must subsist on what rations are issued and drink the water from the casks. The crews are always liberally supplied with miserable whiskey, which they sell at a high price to those who will buy, and a few men are always found in every regiment who will get drunk if they have a chance. On shore the guard-house can be resorted to, but on board ship there is no relief from this unbearable nuisance. I do not want it understood that drunkenness was general in the army, for many men went through the war without touching liquor, and in my four years experience I never saw an officer or enlisted man intoxicated when going into battle. I believe that what was true during the war has been true since, and that in no [26] organization — not temperance — can be found so many total abstainers to the number of men as can be found in the ranks of the Grand Army of the Republic.

Our trip down the Potomac was pleasant, but soon after leaving the river a sudden storm struck us; our old craft leaked badly and we feared we should be swamped. The captain dared not continue, and put back to Point Lookout. Here we found a deserted hotel and several cottages. We did not stop to register, but took possession of the rooms and passed a comfortable night. Next morning we reembarked, and reached Fortress Monroe during the night. The following day we landed and marched to Hampton, where we found the Army of the Potomac awaiting the arrival of our division. We encamped here about two weeks, quartered in Sibley tents. We were not required to drill often, and the time was pleasantly passed in visiting the several Massachusetts regiments in the army.

Early in April the grand Army of the Potomac moved towards Yorktown. It was a grand army, every regiment having its full quota. The experience of the previous months had made them reliable as soldiers. Incompetent officers and disabled men had been discharged, and those now on duty were filled with patriotic enthusiasm. They only desired a chance to fight, clear up the war and go home. Every man had confidence in General McClellan, and almost believed that he was sent by the Lord to lead us to victory. Whenever he appeared every head was uncovered and every voice raised in loud hurrahs.

We marched two days and encamped about two miles from the enemy's works before Yorktown. We pitched our shelter tents for the first time, and began army life in [27] earnest. Our rations were served to us uncooked, and company cooks ordered to the ranks. A company cook is a peculiar being; he generally knows less about cooking than any man in the company. Not being able to learn the drill, and too dirty to appear on inspection, he is sent to the cook house to get him out of the ranks. We were not sorry when the cook house was abolished.

The first day after our arrival the 19th and 20th Massachusetts regiments, under command of General Dana, were ordered to reconnoitre the enemy's works. We discovered a fortification near Winn's Mill, and the 19th was ordered to march through a piece of woods, then along the front, and discern its extent. We did this under a sharp fire of musketry. It was not our intention to attack, but as Company E, commanded by the brave but impulsive Captain Mahoney, was fired upon, he ordered the men to charge the works, and would have done so had not Colonel Hincks recalled him. Like a true Irishman that he was, he did not propose to be fired upon and not fight. The regiment behaved splendidly under fire; when the musketry was the hottest the clear voice of Colonel Hincks was heard. “Change front, forward on first company!” was the order, and it was executed as correctly as on drill. We lost the first man killed in this skirmish. Andrew Fountain of Company D, Captain Wass, and several of Company K were wounded.

We went into camp and began to erect fortifications; for nearly a month we were engaged in-that work, besides building corduroy roads and doing picket duty. While on picket Wm. Morgan was badly wounded by a piece of shell.

He was the first man wounded in Company A. [28]

Our camp was located in a swamp; the rain was almost constant, and the ground like a sponge. Sickness prevailed to an alarming extent; it was not an uncommon thing to march half of the company to sick call, but not all who went were sick. Active service had tired some who, when we were in camp in Maryland, were anxious to fight, and were constantly grumbling because we were not ordered in. Picket duty under fire had given these few the “shell fever.” Loss of voice was the trouble with many, caused by severe colds. One day I marched my squad of invalids to the hospital tent; with them was one of the loudest talking men in the company, but that morning he could only whisper. After the doctor had examined them all he gave me the list of excused, and my voiceless comrade was not down. “Hasn't he excused me?” said B. “No,” was my reply, in a voice that could be heard a quarter of a mile. “D-n him, I am the sickest man in the company,” was his indignant answer; but he went on duty just the same, and never again answered sick call until wounded. Such cases were the exception, however, and every day the number grew less, as our men were ordered back to general hospital.

The works we were erecting were of the strongest kind, as it was intended to besiege Yorktown, and the heaviest guns were mounted for that purpose. Sunday morning, May 4, found the regiment on picket duty. It had been a lively night, as the shelling had been constant. Lieutenant Hume, in charge of an outpost, believed that the rebels had left the works in his front; sending his opinion back to the commanding officer, he started to cross the field. No gun was fired and he continued on. The regiment was then ordered forward double quick, as others had seen Lieutenant [29] Hume and were anxious to be first in the works, but the 19th could run either to the front or rear and our flags were the first to float from the fortifications. We found the portholes filled with Quaker guns (logs of wood). Men of straw were stationed as gunners. Every indication of a hasty retreat was shown, as in the camps in the rear of the works we found fires and breakfast smoking hot, which we eagerly disposed of. We also found letters ready for mailing, which went by northern mail instead of southern, as we sent them home.

We marched back to our old camp, packed up, and Monday morning, in a drenching rain, marched from Winn's Mill to Yorktown. We were on the road all night and only made three miles. The mud was knee deep; we could not go out of line as the ground was full of torpedoes, yet, in all our misery, Company A started one of our old camp songs, which was taken up by other companies in the regiment, then by other regiments in the brigade, and soon the entire army was singing. This continued nearly all night. The next day we took steamers, and at night arrived at West Point. We remained on board until morning, then landed, and finding our forces engaged we were ordered to support Captain Porter, 1st Massachusetts battery. At West Point we saw a feature that we never saw before, or at any other time during the war. It was a human telegraph. A line of men was deployed some twenty feet apart, and extended from the line of battle to headquarters. The men at the front would start the message, and it would be repeated by each turning the head to the rear as he spoke. One message I remember,--“Send a man to take Daniel Webster's place.” We supposed Daniel had been shot, but [30] if a man was wanted to fill the place of our lamented Daniel Webster, we did not think Company A could spare the man. After a sharp fight the rebels fell back and we began the march up the peninsula. The condition of the roads was such that we halted more than we marched, but at last we reached the banks of the Chickahominy River, and were ordered on picket between Bottom and Grape Vine bridges.

Saturday, May 31, the battle of Fair Oaks began. We were not relieved from picket until Sunday morning, when we were ordered to the front; here we were marched from right to left and left to right, constantly under fire but not really engaged. We were at times passing over portions of the field that had been held by the rebels, and the ground was strewn with the dead and wounded. When the battle ended we were ordered on picket, where we remained ten days, having a brush with the rebel pickets every day. We were then given a few days' rest and ordered to the front, where we threw up a line of works and remained there while the army held the advance position.

On the 25th of June General Hooker asked for one regiment from Sumner's corps to assist in the attack on the rebel lines in our front. The 19th was selected. We advanced in front of our intrenchments and were soon hotly engaged. Led on by our gallant colonel, we soon had the rebels in full retreat, and had the army advanced at that time I am confident we could have marched into Richmond in five hours, as we were only a few miles from the city. Just as we were ready to make the final charge an aid came to Colonel Hincks and said, “You are ordered to fall back.” “What for?” said the colonel. “Don't you see we have got them on the run?” But the order was peremptory and [31] back we went. Our loss was very heavy for the short time engaged. Lieutenant Warner of Company H and several men were killed; Lieut. J. H. Rice, Sergt. Samuel H. Smith, William R. Meldon, Benjamin Jellison and others, in all about sixty, badly wounded.

While we had been under fire nearly all the time since arriving at Yorktown, this was the first square fight in which we had been engaged. We had no chance for the use of tactics as the woods were thick and we could see little of the enemy; but the officers and men behaved splendidly, and our only regret was to lose so many and accomplish nothing, an experience that the Army of the Potomac often had in the battles that followed.

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