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Chapter 8: the siege of Yorktown.

On Monday, March 24, the regiment left Boliver Heights at 7.30 A. M. for Harper's Ferry to join General McClellan's army, en route for the Peninsula. After two hours of tedious waiting at the Ferry, they crossed the river on single planks, placed end to end, along the railroad bridge just completed.

On reaching Sandy Hook on the Maryland side, the men waited in the cold until 10 P. M. before the train arrived and when it came they beheld the freight cars as friends in which they had travelled before. The officers, however, rejoiced in a passenger car. After a tedious night's ride, the regiment reached Washington on March 25 and occupied the same Soldier's Rest as was provided on its first arrival at the Capitol in August, 1861, but the lodging, this time, was inside, instead of outside the building.

In the morning of Wednesday they marched to a campground in the environs and during the brief stay there were much complimented for their excellent discipline, exemplary conduct, correct drill and fine parade.

On March 27, at 5.30 P. M. the regiment marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, amid clouds of dust, to the foot of Sixth Street, where it embarked upon the transport, ‘North America’ for Fortress Monroe. On account of a sudden storm which came up just as the boat left the Potomac River, the vessel put back behind Point Lookout to avoid being swamped. The boat was very leaky, old and unseaworthy, and narrowly escaped wreck. The men were crowded between the decks like cattle and the brief experience on shipboard was very trying.

At Point Lookout the regiment debarked and remained on shore over night, the ‘Non-Coms’ being placed in a tworoom cottage, while the men found quarters in the deserted Point Lookout Hotel. [55]

There were many evidences of the popularity of the hotel in the days that had passed, and a number of tickets for a ‘Grand Hop’ were found and kept as souvenirs.

Re-embarking on the following morning, the regiment reached Fortress Monroe at 9 P. M. that evening, March 30, and disembarked in the morning, marching over execrable roads into camp at Hampton. This place had been burned by the rebels, and nothing but chimneys were left to show its site. A large army had already assembled at Hampton and the practical formation of the Army of the Potomac took place there. The Nineteenth Massachusetts Regiment was made a part of the First Brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. N. J. T. Dana; of the Second Division, commanded by Brig. Gen. John Sedgwick; of the Second Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. E. V. Sumner. The two other Brigades of the Division were commanded by Brig. Gen. Gorman and Brig. Gen. Burns.

Camp was pitched here as though a long stay was to be made, the men being quartered in Sibley tents, it being the first time they had been thus housed. Thereafter, only shelter tents were used. Each man carried his part of it. Five pieces would make a tent, four for the roof and one for the end, and each tent sheltered five men. Sometimes four men would own, between them, six pieces and they would have more room and a tent with two ends to keep out the wind and rain in stormy weather. For sticks to hold them up, they had to trust to luck. Two forked sticks, about four feet long, would be driven into the ground and a longer one placed across it. Then the four pieces of tent, having been buttoned together, would be stretched over and pinned to the ground. As far as the eye could reach there was a sea of tents, wagons, horses, ambulances, infantry, artillery, cavalry, siege and pontoon trains, each branch complete in itself. There were on the ground, with the army, 126 regiments, batteries and cavalry.

General McClellan arrived on April 3, and the order was given for the main body of the army to be ready the next morning for the advance upon Yorktown. The soldiers were ordered to prepare five day's rations, three in their knapsacks and two in the wagons. This command sent a thrill of joy through the [56] ranks, for all were weary of the long months of quiet, during which they had loitered behind the intrenchments on the Potomac.

As the shades of night settled down over the bustling camp, a scene more beautiful than imagination can conceive was presented to the eye. In that genial clime, the air was deliciously pure and balmy; there was no wind and scarcely a leaf moved. The new moon shone serenely in a cloudless sky, without sufficient power to eclipse the myriad of stars which crowded the firmament. The exultant soldiers threw rails and logs upon their camp fires and the crackling flames so brilliantly illumined the scene that, as with the light of day, all the movements of the camp were revealed.

Never did a picnic festival present a more joyous aspect. The groups of soldiers were in all picturesque attitudes. Some were writing home, others were frolicking and dancing, with shouts which rang through the groves. Some were burnishing their arms, mending their clothing, or cooking food for the hungry hours which they knew would soon come; while others were soundly sleeping with the green turf alone for mattress and pillow.

The white tents scattered around added not a little to the beauty of the spectacle. Enlivening music from many bands rose over all and floated through the night air in soul-stirring strains. But at length the moon went down. The camp fires burned more and more dimly until they expired, and the silence of night enveloped the sleeping camp. At three o'clock in the morning, at the sound of the reveille, every soldier sprang up. The camp fires were instantly replenished and almost in a moment the gloom of the undawned morning was dispelled by the flashings of a thousand flames. The hot coffee was soon made, the morning meal hastily eaten, and at half past 5 the brigades were formed in line of march. Each soldier carried his piece of shelter tent. Six wagons only were allowed each regiment for officers' tents, baggage and the hospital and commissary stores.

As the column took up its line of march, the cavalry and sharpshooters were sent in advance, to reconnoitre and to remove [57] any obstructions of felled trees or broken bridges by which the enemy might have endeavored to retard their progress. The main body of the troops advanced by the direct route to Yorktown. General Morrill's Brigade and General Hamilton's Division of the Third Corps took a road which led to the right. The route traversed by both wings of the army led through the old fortifications of Big Bethel and over a fertile and very beautiful region, shaded with forests and embellished with the mansions of the wealthy planters. It was formerly the garden spot of Virginia, but the war had already spread its desolation over the once fair fields and they were now perfectly devastated. The farms were forsaken, and the little villages were abandoned by their terrified inhabitants.

A rain storm of several hour's duration compelled a halt and during that time Generals McClellan and Heintzelman passed the column on horseback. The cheering grew gradually and constantly louder as they approached, culminating in a deafening roar as they passed and gradually died away in the distance, showing at once the extent of the line and the enthusiasm of the soldiery under such a leader as their favorite, ‘Little Mac.’

At the end of the second day's march, the army encamped on a plain about two miles from the enemy's works at Yorktown. A sharp artillery duel followed. Here army life began in real earnest. Uncooked rations were served to the men and the company cooks were ordered to the ranks.

On the 7th of April, the Nineteenth and Twentieth Massachusetts regiments, under the command of General Dana, started on a reconnoissance of the enemy's works. After discovering the fortifications at Winn's Mills, the Nineteenth was ordered to march through a belt of woods down upon the works, then pass along their front and discover its extent. This was successfully accomplished under a sharp musketry fire, in the midst of which the regiment moved steadily and unflinchingly as if on drill. Two of the captains in the regiment, in their enthusiasm, borrowed each a musket from their men and peppered away at the enemy until ordered by a staff officer to desist. [58]

After gaining the requisite knowledge of the locality by thus drawing the enemy's fire, the regiment was halted where it was partially sheltered in a ravine and remained there two hours, subjected to a vigorous fire from the guns of the works. At nightfall they were withdrawn. The officers and men behaved admirably and called forth General Dana's hearty commendation. Captain Wass and Privates Patrick Murphy and David Duran of Company K were wounded, and Private Andrew Fontain, of Company D, was killed,—being the first man in the regiment to be killed.

During the reconnoisance a drizzling rain had prevailed and everything and everybody was thoroughly soaked. At night the men were stationed in an old cornfield with one foot on one hill and another on the other, with several inches of water between them. In this position, steaded by their muskets, many of them stood up all night. The officers were huddled together into a half dozen Sibley tents hastily put up. The ground was so wet that it was impossible to keep dry and the water ran in sheets under and through these tents.

On the following day the army moved forward to the close investment of the enemy's works. General Sumner was placed in command of the left wing, consisting of his own and the Fourth Corps. He was in front of the line of the Warwick, while the Third Corps was charged with the operations against Yorktown itself. Sedgwick's Division held the line along the front of the fortifications at Winn's Mills.

On the day after the investment was made, Lieut. Col. Devereux was, by Special Order, placed in charge of 3000 men, who worked day and night in the erection of the batteries and redoubts for the reduction of the works in front of the division.

The enemy's position extended across the Peninsula from Yorktown, on the York River, to Warwick, on Warwick Creek, a small stream which emptied into the James. From the natural defence of this creek, which they had dammed at Winn's Mills and Lee's Mills, and the conformity of the flooded land in that vicinity, the enemy were, by a comparatively short line of works, able to command all the roads up the Peninsula [59] leading to Richmond. They also held Gloucester, opposite Yorktown, on the eastern side of the York River, where the banks of that stream approach and form a narrow strait.

McClellan reported that ‘the position of the enemy is a strong one. From present indications their fortifications extend some two miles in length and mount heavy guns. The ground in front of their heavier guns is low and swampy, making it utterly impassable.’

The first camp of shelter tents was pitched within two miles of the enemy's outworks of Yorktown on a level plain, and was called, ‘Camp Winfield Scott.’ The men of the Nineteenth were employed in picket duty and building corduroy roads. One morning the Brigade was ordered out in light marching order and moved by the flank into the woods in the direction of the enemy's works. After marching a mile or so, it halted in the edge of some woods. The right [Capt. Wass,] and left [Capt. Rice,] flank companies of the regiment were deployed as skirmishers. After the two companies had got their distance ahead, the rest of the regiment moved after them by the flank, the rest of the brigade having gone off to the right.

After advancing about twenty rods, the men came to a road which crossed the one that they had been following. Filing to the right into this and following it some rods, the skirmishers moving by the flank, they halted and lay down behind a bank along the side of the road. In front, a thick growth of young wood, six or eight feet in height, prevented them from seeing what was there. Into this the skirmishers moved and in a minute encountered the enemy's pickets, who retired to their works. A few shots were exchanged with the ‘Johnnies’ to amuse them, while the engineers, who had come out for the purpose, got a sketch of the fort in the front. This being accomplished, they fell back near the regiment, which then moved to the right out of the woods and advanced by company front across a field into a thick pine forest, with little underbrush. Moving into it a short distance, the skirmishers made a right half wheel and almost immediately came into collision with the rebel pickets. A lively encounter took place [60] between them, in which Captain Wass, of Company K had his shoulder strap shot off and one of his men was wounded in the arm, when the rest of the regiment moved forward and the rebels retreated to their works. After going forward a short distance, the regiment flanked to the left and marched about a quarter of a mile, countermarching into a ravine somewhat nearer the enemy's works, and halted.

The Andrew Sharpshooters came up and advanced to the edge of the woods, the skirmishers falling back. Taking a position behind a fence they fired at the men in the enemy's works and then dodged back into the ravine to reload. The enemy at once sent back a volley of musket balls which went buzzing harmlessly overhead. The sharpshooters crept up and gave them another shot, receiving the same attention as at first, accompanied by an unearthly yelling and howling from behind the ‘Johnnies'’ breastworks. The bullets passed overhead as before. The enemy tried canister, and finding that those did no damage, fired solid 32 pound shot, all going overhead and far to the rear. Then they tried a shell which fell nearer; another burst directly overhead and the next burst directly in front, sending the pieces with full force among the men but doing no harm. When the engineers had accomplished their object the sharpshooters were ordered to cease firing. The enemy also stopped and the men began the dreary march back to camp, in darkness and the pouring rain. Arriving at about 10 o'clock, they found the camp completely flooded, there being no place to lie down, but the cooks had a nice hot vegetable soup which they were very glad to fill up on, being very tired, wet and thoroughly chilled. There being no place in the camp which was not ankle deep with water, the men groped their way in the darkness to higher ground and lay down on the damp earth to sleep, awaking in the morning still wet and chilled. The sun soon came out, however, and they dried themselves by taking a sun-bath.

Little drilling was done during the stay here, there being so much extra duty, which consisted chiefly of building corduroy roads. The regiment would go out in charge of the lieutenantcolonel or major, leaving only a camp guard behind. On arriving [61] at the road to be repaired or built, arms would be stacked, the companies sent to different points and divided into details, one to fell trees and cut them in suitable lengths; another to attend to the hauling, while a third would put them in place and cover with brush and dirt. Wagon trains, constantly passing to the front and returning, made things lively all the time, and once in a while enabled the men to vary their work by helping to get a mule out of the mud.

So the siege went on. Day by day, the pick, the spade and the rifle were in active use. The exhausting labor in the trenches bore down its hundreds, while the bullets lay low a dozen. Private Benjamin E. Morgan, of Company A, was wounded by the bursting of a shell while on picket, April 24.

The position of the camp was changed several times before the evacuation. These camps were anything but comfortable. The land was low and flat, water could be found almost anywhere at a foot below the surface. Natural springs were seldom found and the water was muddy and impure. Everything was filthy, and the frequent rains, followed by a broiling sun, caused much sickness. It was not an uncommon thing to march half a company to the sick call.

While Lieutenant-Colonel Devereux was detailed for duty with the Engineer Corps, he superintended the erection of a tall signal tower, built of logs piled up cross-wise like a log hut, narrowing toward the top. This signal tower was a constant target for the enemy who sent their daily compliments in the shape of shells. The Union artillery would reply and the duel was a progressive one.

The regiment was constantly employed working on intrenchments and picket duty, in addition to its road making. It would move out of camp in the morning in light marching order, one day's rations in haversacks, and proceed to the extreme front, where small redoubts were built, with embrasures for guns, the rifle pits extending, to right and left, to similar works of the adjoining company. The work would take all clay, the officer keeping watch for the smoke of the rebel guns, as their works could be plainly seen about a mile away across the marsh. When a puff of smoke was seen, some one would call [62] out ‘Down’ and every man would, without inquiring why, jump behind the breastworks. Almost instantly a shell would bury itself in the bank or go screeching over their heads far to the rear through the forest, cutting a limb off here, a tree top there, but never doing harm to the Nineteenth's men, although wounding or killing a man, occasionally, far in the rear.

At night the men were sent to the front on picket, going out after it got dark enough to hide their movements from the enemy and being withdrawn just at daybreak. There was a swamp on the left, covered with a thick growth of bushes, with here and there a tall pine. Through this swamp the men were stationed in couples and relieved each other at regular intervals. Generally one would be on duty and one would sleep until midnight, when they would change places.

Capt. Harry Hale, during the siege of Yorktown, had a colored servant who bore the familiar name of George Washington. For the captain's dinner, one day, this darkey brought out a can of salmon and, thinking to warm it, put it over the fire. The fire did not burn up as quickly as he wished, so he got down on his knees and started to blow it. There was an explosion, and in an instant the darkey appeared before his astonished captain, his face and head covered with a pinkish substance which had gone into his ears, eyes and mouth and was stringing off from his kinky wool. Captain Hale thought at first that the poor darkey's head had been hurt by a shell and that it was brains that he saw all over it, but he soon learned that the can of salmon had exploded and scattered its contents over the frightened servant.

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