previous next

Chapter 20: Appomattox and after

The battle of Sailor's Creek to the 6th Corps was of special interest, for it settled by the capture of General Ewell and the remnants of his corps a long succession of bitter conflicts between them. They had met during the previous year, in the Wilderness, May 5th and 6th, again on May 10th in the charge led by General Upton that broke through their works. In the all day fight of the 12th of May they had again been antagonists. The campaign in the Valley of the Shenandoah had been waged against Early's division of Ewell's corps, and now at the very close of the war the final conflict between them had resulted in the destruction of the corps, so long led by the veteran general of Lee's 3d Army Corps.

The result was disastrous also to the Army of Virginia. After the loss of Ewell's corps no other route was left open for the retreat of the Confederate army except to recross the Appomattox River at High Bridge, and make for Lynchburg. This was done and the bridge was burned behind the retreating Confederates. The 6th Corps followed at once but was compelled to wait at Farmville until a new bridge could be thrown across the river. The corps was massed in bivouac just outside the village, and when the bridge was completed it was about midnight, a dark moonless and starless night. When the corps drew out of its bivouac and had fairly entered the village, all the houses of which were closed and dark, a band [220] in the van struck up, “John Brown's body lies mouldering in the ground, but his soul goes marching on.” The other bands took up the tune and the soldiers joined in the song; and such a volume of triumphant music has seldom waked the midnight echoes of any town.

The next day the pursuit was halted and our brigade bivouaced in the rear of the Confederates, several miles from Appomattox Court House. It was rumored that Lee was surrendering and the brigade waited in eager anxiety for certain information. Late in the afternoon General Hamblin was seen coming towards the camp, his splendid black horse on the dead run, his hat in his hands, his cheek bloody where he had failed to escape the limb of a tree, and as soon as his voice could be heard he shouted, “Lee has surrendered.” And then what a tumult broke out among the troops. Cheers, shouts, laughter, hats and countless other things flung into the air. Some were too affected to cheer and stood with tears running down their faces. The excitement communicated itself to the animals. The mules brayed, the horses neighed and the author's dog leaped up and with his fore paws on his breast barked joyously. It seemed as though all nature was glad. It meant to us all, no more fighting, no more long, weary marches, home, friends, peace, a saved country, a triumphant flag.

But the 6th Corps was not permitted to see the surrender of the Confederate Army. It was marched back through Farmville and thence to Burksville Junction on Richmond to Danville railroad. There the 121st received the 400 drafted men and substitutes that had been promised it, and the officers that had been holding commissions for over a year were mustered into the service. Lieutenant Colonel Cronkite immediately resigned [221] his commission in order that Major Kidder might be commissioned as Lieutenant Colonel.

The itinerary of the march from Appomattox to Burksville was as follows: April 11th through New Store and Curdsville to the vicinity of Little Willis River, April 12th through Farmville to Sandy River. April 13th past Rice's Station on the South Side railroad to Burksville. It was at Rice's Station that the battle was being fought at the time of our fight at Sailor's Creek, and being won by our forces, and which cut off any possible escape of the Confederates in that direction, after the surrender of Ewell.

Colonel Beckwith gives his experiences with the citizens of Virginia in a very interesting manner: “We met a great many more of the citizens of the country than we had in the pursuit of Lee, and had opportunity to talk with them. They claimed that they had been impoverished, had no negroes, no stock and no seed to put in a crop, and saw nothing before them but starvation. Many of them availed themselves of the generosity of the government to draw supplies from our commissaries. Most of them had been at one time or another in the Confederate army, and some had been disabled by wounds or broken down by disease contracted in camp. These men were the most steadfast in their allegiance to the Rebel cause. Some went so far as to predict a renewal of the war, saying that the South was not conquered, but worn out.”

A large and motley company of colored people assembled at Burksville Junction and these also were dependent upon the government for their sustenance.

On the 13th of April the corps began an advance to Danville, one hundred miles south of Burksville and on the border of North Carolina. The object [222] of the movement was to interpose between Johnston's army and Lynchburg. A great portion of the journey was made along the railroad track. It was a primitive form of railroad. Long sleepers were mortised into the ties and on the top of the sleepers heavy straps of iron were spiked, on which the cars ran. This march was one of the most remarkable the corps ever made. In four days and four hours from the time the head of the column drew out of camp at Burksville it entered the streets of Danville. While on the last day's march news was received of the assassination of President Lincoln and his death. “A thrill of horror and rage ran through the ranks, and it would have fared badly for any armed Rebels who fell into our hands at that time.” (B.)

Danville was a village of considerable importance. A Confederate prison camp and hospital were located there, and it was one of the centers of supply for the Confederate army defending Richmond and Petersburg. Consequently there were gathered there large stores of every thing needed for the support of the army, the hospital, the prison and the inhabitants. All these fell into our hands, and the city was delivered up to General Wright by the civil authorities to whom it had been turned over by the military officers.

Johnston's surrender, rendered our stay at Danville no longer necessary, and only three or four days were spent there.

The 6th Corps arrived at Danville on the 27th of April. Johnston surrendered the same day and on the 1st of May the corps began its march northward to Washington and home. The 121st was ordered to take the train leaving Danville at 8 A. M. for Burksville and there await further orders.

The march from Burksville to Richmond [223] seventy-two miles, was made in four days and camp was pitched near Manchester. A delay of two or three days gave the officers and men an opportunity to visit the city and see its condition after so long a siege. The worst feature of it was the havoc produced by the fires set by the retreating Rebels. Libby Prison and the Prison Camp on Belle Isle were places of special interest to those who had experienced their horrors.

The regiment arrived at Manchester on the 16th of May and remained in camp seven days. On the 23d it began its march from Richmond to Washington and arrived near Hall's Hill on the 2d of June, about five miles from Washington, and just outside of Georgetown.

Hall's Hill will always be associated with the 121st New York because it is the place given on the muster out rolls of the regiment. This part of the journey homeward was hard and tedious. Reveille sounded every morning at 3:30 A. M. and sometimes the march was prolonged till after dark. It rained frequently and the most of the streams had to be forded. The march was through the section over which the corps had fought during the entire war, past the battle fields of Cold Harbor, Chancellorsville, Spottsylvania, The Wilderness, Fredericksburg, Bull Run-names that recall terrible experiences and bloody scenes. Chaplain Adams tells of a visit he made as follows: “I left the column while on the way and visited the battle ground near Spottsylvania Court House, where the terrible fighting occurred on the 12th of May. It still bears the marks of the conflict. It was at this point that two trees, one of twelve inches and one of twenty-three, were cut off by our minnie balls, for we had no batteries in play at that time. The trunk of one of these trees is now in the Patent Office at Washington. The trees in the vicinity [224] are dead, killed by the poison of the lead. I will not describe the appearance of the field as our men found it when they entered the works. I do not wish to recall the sights, they are too shocking. The 5th Maine and the 121st charged at that point; they fought bravely, but lost heavily, as they did also on the 10th, a mile farther to the right, near the spot where General Sedgwick was killed.”

From the 2d of June when we reached Hall's Hill till the 27th the time was spent in making out the muster out papers of the men and the transfer of the men whose term of service had not expired to the 65th New York Veteran Volunteers. The total number of men discharged at Hall's Hill was 320, of whom 275 were original members of the regiment and 45 recruits and transferred men.

The review of the corps took place on Thursday, the 8th of June, in the following order: 1st: Major General Wright, Staff and Escort. 2d: The 1st Division, Major General Wheaton commanding 3d: The 2d Division, Major General Getty commanding. 4th: The 3d Division, Major General Getty commanding. 5th: The Artillery Brigade, Brevet Major General

Andrew Cowan commanding. 6th: Detachment of 50th New York Engineers,

Brevet Major Van Brooklin commanding.

Leaving camp at 4 o'clock in the morning, marching the five miles to Washington over Long Bridge, up Maryland Avenue to mass at the foot of the Capital grounds, was the first portion of the long and tedious process of the review.

Then at 9 o'clock passing down Pennsylvania Avenue at wheeling distance, past the reviewing [225] stand before President Johnson, General Grant and other dignitaries, and crossing Acquaduct Bridge march back again to camp, was the second part of the proceeding. All this on a hot day in July made this review an experience more pleasant to look back upon than to participate in. I have never heard an enlisted man enthuse over the memory of that review.

On the 27th of June the regiment took the cars, baggage cars mostly, for New York, reaching there on the morning of the 30th and spending the rest of the day, Sunday, in the old armory, corner of Center and Grand streets.

Beckwith says, “On Monday, July 1st, we marched up Broadway, having with us the stands of Rebel colors we had captured at Rappahannock Station and Sailor's Creek. We received a great ovation.”

Arrangements had been made and permission obtained from Washington for the regiment to go to Little Falls to participate in the celebration of the Fourth of July. This home-coming reception is described as follows by Lieut. Jas. H. Smith:

Most of the members of the regiment were in line, with their arms, and with the seven Confederate regimental flags which they had captured during the preceding three years, and which the War Department had granted them the unparalleled privilege of carrying as trophies of their valor, and their sacrifices, to this reception, given by the parents, wives, sisters, brothers and friends of this brave remnant of that noble band, nearly 1000 strong, which they had bidden goodbye, and God speed, in 1862. At that time they heard their country's call, they realized its danger, they accepted the personal responsibilities and duties of citizenship, with all its hazards, and all the sacrifices due to the Republic from every loyal citizen. [226] Their work had now been done. The country's flag again floated freely as the undisputed emblem of authority throughout all our broad domains.

Before we took our departure from Camp Schuyler in August, 1862, we were presented with a beautiful flag, by the mothers, wives and sisters of our boys. It was presented with the admonition that it should be carried forward, victoriously and unsullied, that it should never be permitted to fall into treasonable hands, and that we bring it back an emblem of victory. How faintly did the donors of that flag realize the terrific cost, in suffering and in blood, which was involved in carrying out their admonitions.

We now bring back that flag, with every requirement of its donors for its care and defense, ,literally fulfilled. Shot and shell have pierced its folds, and its staff, until it can no longer be unfurled, but it has never been desecrated by the touch of treasonable hands. Would that we might also have brought back to this reception, every young man who three years before had marched forth, bravely and hopefully, in its defense. This volume tells us on the pages giving a list of our engagements and their losses that in following our flag through the conflicts where duty called, that 275 of our men were called upon to pay that “last full measure of devotion,” which is the glory of those who fall upon the battlefield for a righteous cause. Beside these there were 121 others, equally brave and devoted, who had died as a result of exposure and disease. We thus have a total of 396 fatalities. Our ranks were still further depleted by the 450 wounded, a large proportion of whom were discharged for the disabilities they had thus suffered, and these added to the number discharged for disease made a total of 420 discharged. [227]

The value to our country of the services of the 121st New York Infantry is measured not alone by its losses in battle, unequalled tho they were, by those of any regiment from the state, and exceeded by but three of the more than 2000 regiments which served in the Union Army during the war, nor in the seven Confederate regimental flags which it had captured, and which it carried as souvenirs of its valor, at its home-coming reception, but is based as well, upon its having captured approximately 1500 prisoners from the ranks of the enemy. The exact number of these prisoners it is impossible to determine, but it is beyond doubt that they exceed the entire enrollment of the regiment prior to Lee's surrender. It had made for itself a record which its survivors believe was unsurpassed, if not unequalled by that of any other regiment which served in the Union Army during the Civil War. And here in Little Falls, New York, this small but devoted remnant of the 121st Regiment after parading through its streets with its original flag unfurled as far as its battle scarred condition would permit, and with its captured Confederate flags as trophies of its devotion, stood shoulder to shoulder, and after a bountiful banquet and addresses lauding its heroic services, gave a parting salute to the flag they had followed for three long years and for which so many of their comrades had fallen.

The return to Albany and the final payment of all dues was the occasion of the dissolution of the regiment, the men as soon as paid slipping away alone or by squads to their homes, regretful at parting, but glad that for them there would be no more of the toil and danger and suffering and violent death that are the every day experiences of war.

To the writer these last weeks of service brought [228] no relief from work in the line to which he had been accustomed. At Hall's Hill he was set to making out muster out rolls, and at Albany his time was employed in work on the pay rolls of the regiment. The day spent at Little Falls was one of the dreariest he ever endured. He had no musket, was not in the ranks, knew very few of the men of the regiment, and those he knew were eagerly visiting with their friends who had assembled from the two counties; and so alone and friendless, he wandered around, feeling like an Ishmaelite in a strange country.

In spite of this, however, he could not help being proud that his name was enrolled among those who had made the regiment worthy of all that was then and has since been said about it. As the years since that day have passed and he has become personally acquainted with so many of the “Onesters,” his appreciation of, and pride in the regiment has been steadily increased, and the study of its records in the preparation of this history has aroused his admiration and made the work a “labor of love.” To be in any manner associated with men who did so much and did it so valiantly, who suffered so much and suffered it patriotically, is an honor not to be despised.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
June 2nd (2)
May 12th (2)
April 13th (2)
August, 1862 AD (1)
1862 AD (1)
1000 AD (1)
July 4th (1)
July 1st (1)
July (1)
June 27th (1)
June 8th (1)
May 16th (1)
May 10th (1)
May 6th (1)
May 5th (1)
May 1st (1)
April 27th (1)
April 12th (1)
April 11th (1)
23rd (1)
10th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: