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Chapter 10: the march to the Chickahominy.

On May 8, the second day after reaching West Point, the troops began the long, dreary march up the Peninsula, through rain and mud to the Chickahominy River. They first marched to Eltham, four miles distant, and remained there several days, while the engineer corps were building miles of corduroy roads and bridges. Here the men began to break down very fast and there was much sickness.

While at Eltham many of the men were greatly interested in watching the landing of cattle. The beeves would be hoisted over the side of a flat boat, which had been towed up, and let into the river to swim ashore. The water was not deep at this point, and the soft muddy flats extended for some distance. Some of the animals would land in a soft place and, in their attempt to get ashore, would get mired up to their bellies and stay exhausted in the mud. The cattle guard would then get out to them by means of boards, shoot them, and put a rope about their horns. Horses and men would draw the dead weight out. This beef would immediately be dressed for issue, and the live beeves would be corralled and driven forward to follow the army with other commissary stores, and slaughtered as needed.

From Eltham, General Sumner's Corps marched slowly by short stages in consequence of the intolerable condition of the roads, to the Chickahominy, halting successively at Cumberland, Cedar Hill and Tumstalls Station. Cedar Hill was left at 8. A. M. and the men were for eight hours on the road under an intensely hot sun, stopping only when the artillery and baggage wagons ahead became blocked, but resting nowhere long enough for dinner. The march was for twelve miles. Several plantations were passed on the line of march. On the gates leading to the magnificent residences where white [72] flags and the strict orders against leaving the ranks prevented all depredation or purchase.

The rations which were served during the hot weather on this march consisted of clear fat bacon. The river bank at Bottom's Bridge, within fifteen miles of Richmond, was finally reached on May 21.

Here camp was pitched on the borders of a swamp which was almost impenetrable. Many moccasins and copper head snakes were seen, and the magnolia trees in full bloom filled the air with their fragrance. Troops were thrown across at Bottom's Bridge, but the bulk of the army lay on the East bank of the river until other bridges could be built, among them being Sumner's ‘Grape-Vine’ bridge across the great Chickahominy swamp, destined to play a most eventful part in subsequent events rapidly maturing.

The whole Peninsula, that portion of Virginia between the York and the James River, was low and swampy and it was common talk at the time that one could not pat the earth three times with his foot anywhere without bringing water. Great mortality occurred among the troops, chiefly from malarial fever, and often, when a poor fellow was about to be laid away in the earth, his grave would be full of water before it had been dug two feet deep. Quinine and whiskey were issued daily, companies being formed in line for the purpose, and the ration was drunk under the supervision of the surgeon.

The siege of Yorktown had been raised; the battle of Williamsburg had been fought; the affair at West Point was over. Slowly the rebels were being pressed back toward Richmond, while the army of the Potomac cautiously followed, sweeping gradually up the Peninsula, its flanks protected by the gunboats in the York River on the right and the James on the left. Large quantities of infantry and artillery ammunition, rations for the troops, forage for the animals, medical supplies for the sick and wounded, camp and garrison equipage, siege and pontoon trains had to be moved and guarded by the army and and kept protected and in close proximity all the time.

The investment of Richmond was in gradual progress and the army was buoyant in spirits, looking forward to the capture [73] of the rebel capitol and the close of the war. Under no other circumstances could the army have endured the tedious, fatiguing and deadly malaria of this section of the country.

It was hot and muggy most of the time. It rained frequently and the men made the acquaintance of the ‘woodtick,’ and enumerable bugs and specimens of insect life hitherto unknown to them. The very earth moved with ‘new life.’ Sticks and twigs were endowed with motion. The men would watch a black twig two or three inches long, apparently dead wood among the leaves, when it would scamper off and the acquaintance of a new insect called the ‘walking stick’ was made, although it was a very old inhabitant of this section. They had the ‘Gold Bug,’ not the political specimen of later days but a handsome round yellow ‘feller.’ Lieut. James G. C. Dodge, of Company F, made quite a collection of these bugs.

It was a common thing to see two or three men, huddled together, poking at something on the ground. Others would join them on the run. Soon a crowd would collect, running and yelling ‘What's Up?’ Some one of the crouchers would answer, ‘Oh, got a new bug,’ and the crowd would laugh and disperse. Like everything else, this was soon an old story and ‘buggy’ was immediately dispatched, given to the lieutenant for his collection, or allowed to fly or run away. One specimen, however, stuck and abided long. It was the common louse.

On May 24, a dress parade was held at Lewis Farm, the first one since the regiment was before Yorktown.

On May 25, Q. M. S. Nathaniel Prentiss, of Cambridge, worn out from the fatigues on the Peninsula, was found dead in his tent. He had been mustered in as a sergeant in Company F at Lynnfield and was very popular. The funeral took place on May 27, and, as the Chaplain was absent on orders, Sergt. Maj. Edward M. Newcomb acted as Chaplain pro tempore, in order that the remains might have Christian burial. This was one of a number of instances where Sergt. Maj. Newcomb officiated in a similar capacity.

On Saturday, May 30, there was a sudden and severe storm which flooded the camps and the Chickahominy Creek became [74] a raging river, filling the entire swamp. General Johnston, commanding the Confederate forces, saw his opportunity, and, like the skillful general that he was, seized it and on May 31 suddenly attacked the small portion of the Union army that had crossed on the Richmond side of the river, at Fair Oaks. The Nineteenth regiment, which had been on picket duty for two days along the banks of the river, was called in and ordered forward to its place in Sedgwick's Division. The sudden storm had made a perfect quagmire of the bottoms, and in trying to get reinforcements from the East side, great delays and difficulties were met as a consequence. General Sumner led his Corps across, following the sound of cannon, using ‘Grape Vine Bridge’ for the purpose. It was soon found that the bridge was floating away and could only be held down by the weight of the artillery and the men who were crossing. As the regiment marched along, the logs rolled up in front of the men, much the same as thin, tough ice, does and reminded them of what they used to call ‘Bendibows.’

On reaching the field, the regiment was moved from right to left under fire, but was not actively engaged, General Sumner having arrived just in time to turn defeat into success.

The command moved forward on gradually rising ground until it reached a beautiful wood, filled with birds singing joyfully, while not more than two miles away the music of the minie balls and the screeching shell, bringing pain and death, were heard instead. Here the regiment halted near a mansion, where they found three springs of cool, sweet water bubbling out of the clear, white sand. It was the first spring the men had seen since leaving Hampton, and it can readily be imagined with what pleasure they filled their canteens out of the sparkling pool.

Here the men lay in the cool shade, listening to the thunders of artillery and the rattle of musketry, expecting every minute to be ordered into action. There was no sport or loud talk indulged in, conversation being carried on in low tones. The very air seemed oppressive. Everyone seemed to realize the terrible work that was being done beyond the woods. At about noon an aide of the brigade commander galloped into the woods [75] and rode up to the colonel. Immediately the order was given to fall in and the regiment went on the double-quick over gravelly roads, through plowed fields, through mud, stream and swamp until they halted within sight of the smoke of battle. There they met dozens of stragglers and wounded. Some brought tales of disaster and woe, but others, later, told of victory achieved, and then, under the hot sun, the regiment was ordered back by General Sedgwick and returned at a rapid pace to the ‘Grape Vine Bridge,’ where it was placed on guard.

At 6 P. M. it was again ordered to the front and drawn up in line of battle a short distance beyond where it had been halted before, and a few hundred feet from the battlefield of the two days past. Here Andrew M. Murphy, of Company K, was wounded by a spent ball.

What a sight met their eyes as the men took their position— knapsacks, haversacks, overcoats, blankets and surplus clothing of every kind strewed the ground in all directions. The road was a veritable paradise for a junk dealer. Company F, Captain Rice, was deployed as skirmishers from the railroad station at Fair Oaks to the Seven Pines, in front of the regiment and in touch with the rebel right. Darkness settled down and the men lay on their arms all night, sleeping soundly after their day of uncertainty and anxiety, except on one occasion, when they were awakened by a picket firing and turned out. The next day a detail was sent out to bury the dead. Most of the wounded had been removed and the Union dead buried, but the ground was covered in every direction with the swollen corpses of the enemy. Their faces were turned black under the hot sun and swelled almost to bursting. It was horrible to look upon, and the stench was almost unbearable. They lay in every conceivable condition just as they had fallen. Whole companies had seemingly been shot down in their tracks, so closely did they lie. Long trenches had been dug, and into these the decomposing bodies were dropped.

The members of the regimental band had been used as an ambulance corps for two days and performed the work so well that they were personally thanked and complimented by Chief [76] Surgeon Doherty of Sedgwick's Division, and, later, on the field, were thanked by General McClellan.

At noon the regiment was moved to the front, immediately behind the pickets, on the site of the camp from which the rebels had been driven on Sunday. Before night it began to rain and there the regiment lay in line of battle all night, the water covering most of the ground, with muskets loaded and capped, ready for the enemy should they come out of the woods. There were numerous shots fired by the pickets during the night and this kept everyone under an intense nervous strain. At three o'clock in the morning the regiment was called to attention and remained standing until daylight, when arms were stacked and they were allowed to move around a little and prepare breakfast of coffee, hardtack and raw pork. In front was an open space, in the further edge of which, about 2000 feet away, was the picket line. In front of the pickets were dense woods filled with an undergrowth which made it impossible to see 50 feet in advance. At the left was the York railroad which ran through the forest. Up this road the men could see a mile or more. About half a mile away, a breastwork of logs and bushes was built across it, and behind this were the rebel pickets.

While stationed at this point, the rebel pickets and skirmishers would advance every few hours and the whole Union line would fall in, expecting to see a line of battle come out of the woods. Here the shelter tents were brought up and the men made themselves as comfortable as possible. All about the position were the shallow graves of those who had been killed in battle. The air was heavy with noisome odors from the hundreds of decomposing bodies half-buried in the immediate vicinity, and it was little wonder that sickness and deaths increased to an alarming extent.

As a result of the night surprise of Casey's men by the enemy, none of the men were allowed to take off their equipments even while they slept. Their muskets were always by their side while sleeping and stacked in front of the tent during the day. At three o'clock every morning the regiment was [77] routed out and formed in line, remaining there until daylight so as to be ready for the enemy should they appear out of the woods. This was an additional hardship. Aroused from a sound sleep, the nights were damp and cold and the inactivity made it the more intense. At these times each man was served with about a half a gill of whiskey and quinine from a bucket,— this being done to keep off the malaria. Most of them took this ration, but a few refused it. One man, instead of drinking it at the time, put it in his canteen each day, and when it was nearly full someone stole it.

It rained constantly. Orders were given once a week to allow the men to change their underclothing, taking turns at it a few at a time. Occasionally permission would be given to unbuckle the roundabout while they slept, but the cross belt was not allowed to be removed from the shoulder. This constant expectation of sudden attack proved a terrible strain upon them.

Firing between the pickets was very frequent. On one occasion, Major Howe, field officer of the day, came galloping out of the woods, the picket firing became more rapid, the reserves were hastily summoned into line behind the earthworks, the artillery stood to their guns in the redoubts and, in silence, everyone awaited the attack. Gradually the firing died out, the tension was relaxed and no attack was made. These sudden alarms occurred often and were responsible for the broken down and shattered nervous systems of many of the men who received no wounds. Shells from the enemy's batteries were frequently sent over into the Union lines and the compliment would immediately be returned.

The rations here were, for a time, very poor,—a scant allowance of hard bread, coffee twice a day (sometimes none, however) and occasionally fresh or salted beef. There seemed to be no good reason for this scarcity of food, for the army was encamped by the side of the railroad, which it held, with trains running from West Point. One or two cases of scurvy appeared in the regiment and there were fears that it would spread. About the middle of June, however, a change for the better was made and food was more abundant and better in quality. Rations of [78] bacon and ham ceased and beans and rice took their place. The change in diet was at once palatable and refreshing.

On June 13 General McClellan passed down the road in front of the regiment and Colonel Hinks called for three cheers for ‘The man who is to lead us into Richmond,’ which were given with a will and then three more followed. The General's face was wreathed in smiles and he appeared satisfied with the progress of the work.

Several times while encamped here the Nineteenth was detailed, as a regiment, to work on the fortifications. There was no day that passed without an alarm by the rebels making a dash on the picket line. One day when at work on a large redoubt some distance to the right the rebels made a dash and drove the pickets in. The men worked with their arms stacked near, with equipment on and, when the firing began, stopped work and watched the skirmish as it went on, ready to fall in if a line of battle should appear. As soon as the rebel skirmishers were well out of the woods, the artillery opened on them and drove them back to cover. Private Wm. H. O'Neal, of Company K, was wounded by a ball. During the afternoon of the same day, a regiment was driven in from the left where it was on picket in the edge of the woods. Several men came running in pell mell as soon as the rebel line showed itself. General Richardson met them, and, after giving them a good scolding, in the hearing of the Nineteenth, sent them back. They attended to business thereafter, it being the first time they had been under fire.

While here the men were set to work at felling the trees in front. These were cut partially through and then felled, with the branches toward the enemy. This made an immense abatis, a mile wide. As the trunks had been but partially severed, the foliage kept green and it was impossible to see through it.

Richmond was but three and one half miles distant and from the tree tops could be easily seen through glasses.

During this period some officers and men were sick with fever and the scurvey, owing to the lack of vegetables. Only the hospitals could get potatoes and there were no onions at all.

While the regiment was at this point, two changes were made in the roster of Company B. Capt. Elijah P. Rogers and [79] First Lieut. John Hodges, Jr., resigned and left the regiment and the command of the company devolved for some time upon Second Lieut. Elisha A. Hinks. Lieutenant Hodges soon became the Major of the Fiftieth Massachusetts regiment. When he left the company, he was presented with a purse of gold and with this he purchased a sword and scabbard, suitably engraved with the names of the givers.

Colonel Hinks sent the following explanatory letter from the field:

Fair Oaks battlefield, Va., June 18, 1862.
To his Excellency, John A. Andrews, Governor and Commander-In-Chief.

The colors of my regiment are much worn and especially the State Color is so much dilapitated as to be entirely unfit for service. I request to be furnished with a new one, that the one I have may be returned to the State. It has never been dishonored and has successively waved at Washington, Baltimore, Harper's Ferry, Charlestown, Harrison Island, Edward's Ferry, Yorktown, West Point, and Fair Oaks and was the first to flaunt in the faces of the foes at Yorktown on the 7th of April on a reconnoisance as well as the first to be flung from the rebel works on the 4th of May, where it, together with its fellow stars and stripes, was placed upon a redoubt in the interior of the enemy's works before 5 o'clock A. M.

E. W. Hinks, Colonel 19th Mass. Vols.

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