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Chapter 18: back to Petersburg and winter quarters

The corps remained in the camp near Middletown until November 9th, the men doing only picket and guard duty. Then it retired to Kernstown where a slight skirmish with the enemy occurred on the morning of the 10th. Picket and guard duty continued until the 1st of December, when the corps broke camp and marching to Stevenson's Station entrained for Washington. The next day it embarked on steamers and arrived at City Point on the 4th. There cars were taken to Parke's Station. Here the railroad was left and the corps or a portion of it, relieved the 3d Division of the 5th Corps, and occupied their finely laid out, and well constructed winter quarters near the Jerusalem plank road, the position we had left five months before. The regiment now numbered not far from 175 men and was commanded by Colonel Olcott. On the 9th of December a reconnaisance was made to the vicinity of Hatcher's Run. Rain and then snow made farther operations impossible, and the corps returned to camp and went into winter quarters.

Of these weeks of rest and recuperation, Beckwith writes:

We passed the holidays in pretty good shape, but the first lot of boxes of goodies that were permitted to be sent us had been rifled of their contents, much to our discontent, and it would have gone hard with the thieves, if we could have gotten hold of them.

However, others soon came, which consoled us [203] for the loss of the first. Some socks and mittens came to us from the Sanitary Commission. There were plenty of sutlers with the army, so we managed to pass the time away. The weather as a rule was bad and picket duty the toughest work we had to do. We had to keep on the lookout for the Johnnies constantly. Quite a number of North Carolinians came in and entertained us with a description of the condition of the Rebel forces. Their bill of fare, their clothing and their personal appearance bore out the startling stories they told. They seemed glad to get away, and swore that they would not fight any more secession battles. The Union and the Old Flag was good enough for them; but they had been conscripted and forced to come. The months of January and February were but repetitions of December, without special incidents. Many men came back to the regiment, who had been sick, wounded and on detached duty, and on dress parade we made a very tidy looking battalion.

At this point in his narrative Colonel Beckwith gives a very amusing account of his experiences while on furlough granted on the 25th of April, which he managed to prolong to the 14th of March. During the winter an effort was made to fill up the regiment so that the officers who had been commissioned, but could not be mustered in, because the number of enlisted men was below the required standard, might receive their full rank. These were Lieutenant Colonel Olcott, Captain Cronkite and Captain Kidder, who had been commissioned respectively Colonel, Lieutenant Colonel and Major. Several recruiting officers were sent home to Herkimer and Otsego Counties to obtain recruits, but their efforts did not avail to fill the regiment and the 1st of March found the regiment still deficient in numbers. Application was then made to the [204] Secretary of War for the assignment of four hundred recruits to the regiment. This application was endorsed as follows: By General McKenzie, commanding the brigade. “Approved,” by General Wheaton, commanding the division, “I think it greatly for the interest of the division that the 121st New York Regiment be filled. Its services have been most marked and conspicuous, not surpassed by any regiment I can name, and its gallant commander is entitled by continuous and valuable services to be mustered as Colonel, he having held the commission for more than a year, and has frequently commanded a brigade in battle, and with great credit.” By Gen. H. G. Wright, commanding the corps, “Respectfully forwarded, with urgent request that recruits or drafted men sufficient to fill up this regiment be promptly assigned to it. And I hereby endorse all that has been said by Generals McKenzie and Wheaton in regard to the services and standing of the regiment, and the merits of its commander.” General Meade forwarded it to Washington with this endorsement: “It is especially requested that this regiment may be specially designated to be filled up by assignment of men to its ranks, in consideration of its gallant reputation, and the distinguished services of its commander.” This application, thus endorsed received consideration by the War Department, and four hundred additions were ordered to be sent to the 121st; but they did not arrive until after the surrender of Lee, and while the corps was at Burksville Junction. Then the officers were duly mustered.

During the winter also changes were made in the field and staff, by appointment and promotion. Dr. James P. Kimball was commissioned Assistant Surgeon. Vice Dr. Holt resigned. Frank E. Lowe was promoted to be Adjutant, Sergeant Major J. L. [205] Morthon, Sergeant Newber, N. A. Armstrong, Thomas J. Hassett and Philip R. Woodcock were promoted to lieutenants. Morris C. Foote, of Cooperstown was also commissioned as lieutenant. Lieut. E. C. Weaver resigned on account of sickness and Lieutenant Kelly died of disease.

The ordinary duties of camp life, drills, picket and fatigue, in trenches and forts, was broken once when in February 5th to 8th the brigade was sent to support the 5th Corps on an expedition to Hatcher's Run. At one time the line of the 5th Corps was broken and some of the troops fell back in confusion. The brigade restored and stiffened the line and became lightly engaged. It crossed the Run to the front twice and lost seven men wounded. The weather was very bad, and the return to camp was a great relief. Perhaps some of the surviving members of the regiment remember what happened when they were sent on St. Patrick's day with the teams to get pine poles to be used for strengthening Fort Fisher, and failed to get past the Irish Brigade that was celebrating the day with races and games of all sorts. They had an enjoyable day, but the toting of a log of cord wood all night, and extra picket duty somewhat cancelled the pleasant remembrance of it. Major Cronkite then in command of the regiment, did not escape denunciation by the transgressors.

General Grant says in his memoirs that at this time he was in great anxiety lest Lee should leave his, position protecting Petersburg and Richmond, and leaving only a thin line for the purpose of deception send or take the greater part of his army to the assistance of Johnston and overwhelm Sherman in his advance through the Carolinas. If he should do this before the roads became passable for artillery and trains, a great disaster to the Union cause might result. [206]

But General Lee determined to make one more desperate effort to break the vice-like grip that the Union army had on Petersburg; and so directed General Gordon with a chosen force to attack, and if possible break through the besieging forces at Fort Steadman. This attempt was made on the morning of the 25th of March. Fort Steadman was taken, but immediately was retaken by the Union forces in the vicinity.

Upon the breaking out of the tumult of the attack on Fort Steadman, the 6th Corps, or the 1st Division of it, was ordered out and advanced rapidly towards the point of attack. But before it reached there, the affair was over, and the division returned to the rest of the corps. We had become familiar with one feature of General Grant's strategy, the relieving of an attack on one portion of his line, by an attack on some distant portion of the enemy's line, and were not surprised therefore when orders came to form line of battle and advance on the works of the enemy. Let Colonel Beckwith tell what was done. “About noon we marched back to camp, and then moved to the left and formed line of battle and charged the skirmishers in front. We ran over their skirmish line for some distance, taking some prisoners. We then advanced on their main works, getting up to the house near them, under a heavy fire of artillery and musketry. We occupied this position until ordered back to the enemy's former skirmish line, but after a short time went forward to the top of the knoll and threw up breastworks. At midnight we returned to camp, leaving some of the regiment on picket in the new line we had built.”

Colonel Cronkite then in command of the regiment gives a fuller account of this affair. The 2d Brigade was on the right of the corps, and the 121st on the right of the brigade. The advance carried [207] the regiment to within seven hundred yards of the main work of the enemy, and the right of the regiment was exposed to a severe fire from front and flank. When the line had fallen back and thrown up the breastworks, it was within a hundred yards of the Rebel fortifications and the right flank was still exposed to an enfilading fire of artillery and musketry. An effort by a body of the enemy to turn the right flank of the corps was met by the two companies on the right changing front and opening fire on the advancing enemy, which drove them back to the shelter of their works. Beckwith continues:

The only man killed was Lieutenant Duroe, who commanded our company. He was the largest man in the regiment, and a brave and impetuous officer. We brought his body to camp and gave him a soldier's burial.

We reached the conclusion that the enemy's lines were thinly held, else he would not permit us to peaceably hold the strong position we had taken and entrenched, within easy striking distance of his main line.

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