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Chapter II

The defeat of McClellan before Richmond, and his retreat to Harrison's Landing so uncovered Washington to an advance of the Confederate army, that it became necessary to rush additional forces to the defense of the capital of the nation, and only a week was allowed for equipment and drill of the 121st at Camp Schuyler. On August 30th the regiment left camp under orders to proceed to Washington. The journey was made by railroad to Albany, by boat to New York, and by railroad through Philadelphia and Baltimore to Washington. The events of this journey are graphically told by members of the regiment. Colonel Beckwith's is the most explicit, and before quoting from his diary of this and future events, a sketch of his previous army experiences is almost a necessity. At the age of fifteen he went to Albany and enlisted in the 91st N. Y. Infantry, and with them went to Florida where he was unable to endure the climate, and was discharged for disability. Returning to his home in Utica, he so recovered his health that he determined to re-enlist, and after visiting several recruiting stations decided to enter the 121st. He was made a corporal in Company B. He has entitled the story of his war experiences, “Three Years with the Colors of a Fighting Regiment in the Army of the Potomac, by a Private Soldier.” Passing over the very interesting account of his previous experiences I quote from his journal, beginning at the departure from Camp Schuyler. “My life in camp at Camp Schuyler was thoroughly enjoyed by me and I never pass it now [7] without recollections of a pleasant nature surging to my memory. After we had been uniformed and equipped, we were sent to New York and Washington, without special incident-feeding at the old cooper shop in Philadelphia, and getting a tough meal at Washington. We were marched with full ranks, one thousand strong, in review past the great martyred Lincoln, and received his kindly commendation and warm approbation; and on, out to the fort in the chain of defenses of Washington, called after him, Fort Lincoln, in the vicinity of Hyattsville, Md., and near the famous duelling ground of slavery days.” (The Colonel was evidently not a participant in the melon-patch episode just outside of Philadelphia, while the train was waiting on a siding for other trains to pass. Colonel Cronkite says that the tedium of the wait was relieved by a raid on a neighboring melon patch in which more than half of the regiment participated; and that, led by an officer, they returned to the train laden with a melon each.) The regiment in box cars arrived in Washington on Sept. 3d, in the morning and arrived at Hyattsville in the afternoon. Major Olcott, having been sent ahead to get instructions, was asked by the commanding officer whether the regiment was from the country and had good choppers in it. The major answered that it was from an agricultural and dairy section, and did not contain many axemen. There the matter ended. This journey from Camp Schuyler to Washington, made so quietly and orderly, so soon after the muster of the regiment, demonstrates the remarkable character of the officers and the men composing it. They were not adventurers, not mere enthusiasts, but sober, earnest American citizens, who realized the need of. their services, and were patriotic enough to give their best to the country they loved. Their [8] good conduct was not the result of discipline and drill, but of the essential virtues of their character. It was prophetic of the admirable service it was destined to render, when perfected by months of well directed instruction in the tactics and practice of war.

To resume Col. Beckwith's narrative, “Here for a little time we busied ourselves with the duties of soldiers in camp, and becoming familiar with company and battalion movements, when all of a sudden we were astonished by news that McClellan had fallen back from Harrison's Landing, Pope was falling back from Culpeper Court House, Jackson was on Pope's flank, and Lee was partially between Pope and McClellan, and Washington. Everything was magnified in the most outrageous manner.”

What really had happened was serious enough. McClellan's army was concentrated at Harrison's Landing, discouraged by defeat, the defeat of its commander, not of its constituency, destitute of equipment and supplies on account of the capture and destruction of artillery and trains. Pope, with the forces able to be gathered for the purpose, was not able to resist the attack of the victorious Confederate army, in the series of engagements that constituted the second battle of Bull Run; and flushed with this further triumph, Lee was leading his forces forward in an attempt to capture Washington. They were already in Maryland, concentrating in the vicinity of Frederick City. It was necessary to interpose a sufficient force between the advancing enemy and Washington to prevent its capture, and defeat the enemy. In this effort, little time was given to the newly enlisted regiments for instruction and drill. They were hurriedly assigned to organizations already in the field. The 121st was ordered to report to the Fifth [9] Corps, then located in Virginia, south of Washington. When on the march to cross the Potomac, it was met by General Slocum, who was a friend of Col. Franchot, and by his influence the regiment was reassigned to the Sixth Corps. It was by this unexpected meeting of two old friends that in going to the front the 121st was “put into one of the choicest brigades of the army; and we were marched out by way of the Tenallyville road, to, and through Rockville, and by Darnstown and Sugar Loaf Mountain, and joined the brigade commanded by Gen. Joseph J. Bartlett, with which we remained till the war ended.” (B.)

By all accounts this march to the front was unnecessarily severe. On the first day it was continued until late in the evening, and the men were too weary even to eat, and as they had left their knapsacks behind and had not yet been supplied with shelter tents, the night was spent most miserably, and in many cases the health of the men was so shattered that they never recovered from the effects of their excessive fatigue and exposure. Many subsequent marches were longer and more difficult, but they were made under experienced commanders, with the men more inured to exercise, and with facilities to better take care of themselves.

The ambition of Col. Franchot to report at the front as soon as possible, led him to resume the march at 2 A. M. the next morning, thus giving the men only three hours for rest and sleep. Many who had not been able to keep up on the previous day, were deprived of even that scant period of rest.

Col. Beckwith continues,

We, in our inexperience, clung to our knapsacks, blankets, overcoats, rubber blankets, and all the trinkets and ‘whatnots’ we had brought from home, and these made [10] such heavy loads that they wore many a poor chap out; and by nightfall he was many miles in the rear, hurrying to catch up as best he could, generally with poor success. The weather was very warm, and the dirt roads, cut deep with the artillery, ammunition, supply and baggage trains, were shoe deep with powdered clay, and dust of a dark red color, and it would completely envelop a column of troops marching on each side of the roads, which were occupied by the cavalry and artillery portion of the army, because the infantry could go anywhere. So, loaded too heavily, and unused to the work, the men would pluckily keep up until overcome by heat, or choked with thirst, smothered by dust, discouraged and exhausted, they would throw themselves down, and many a fine fellow perished in this way.

In those days our ranks were full, our uniforms bright, our faces clean and untanned. We had, and wore, the sweetness of home. War, its suffering, misery, wounds, sickness and horrors were uncared for, because untouched.

These were the days when the endurance of our men was tested to the limit. We had no tents and had to secure shelter nights such as the country afforded, a night camp in the woods being the best; a rail shed with brush or straw roof when procurable, next; then again rolled up in our overcoats and rubber blankets, with our knapsacks for a pillow, we could get a good night's rest. Two days out from Camp Lincoln, the regiment overtook the corps and took its place in the Second Brigade. According to Col. Beckwith the reception it received was not altogether pleasant. He says, “Another source of annoyance and hardship was the constant shouting and ridicule we received from the old regiments. We were called ‘Paid Hirelings,’ ‘Two Hundred Dollar Men,’ “Sons of [11] Mars”; told we would get soft bread farther on if we did not like hardtack; asked if we liked army life, and a lot of stuff too foolish to speak of; but to us it was excessively annoying. Our men were an extraordinary body of troops and felt keenly this ridicule, but they bore it patiently, except now and then some hot blood would hit out and resent the insult. Such outbreaks were quickly quieted.”

Soon, however, a sincere friendship sprang up between the 121st and the 5th Maine, which deepened and ripened as the months went by and was continued for years after the war closed by the visits of delegates from each regiment to the annual reunions of the other.

This attachment cannot better be described than it was by Lieut. Philip R. Woodcock at one of these reunions. He said,

Comrades, it is with sincere pleasure I arise to respond to this toast, “The 5th Maine.” However poorly I may do it I shall always feel that I have been honored by my comrades in selecting me for this pleasant duty.

There has been a close fraternal feeling, amounting to a strong tie, existing between the 5th Maine and the 121st New York since we were brigaded together in September, 1862. It was cemented in the mingled blood of the two regiments as we went side by side, usually on the front line, as we passed through the successive campaigns of the war. The history of one is the history of the other, except that the 5th Maine commenced several months earlier, making a grand beginning, while the 121st continued on helping make history for the brigade, with an equally grand ending; both returning to private life with the highest achievements of honor, which was most pathetically shown by the thinned ranks of both returned regiments. [12]

This strong affection-and I may go farther and as Major Strout expressed it to-day-love, has continued increasing as the years go on, and is even stronger to-day than ever, made so by the presence of the representatives with us to-day. It seems to me a great privilege to exchange greetings with them after over forty years since our separation. Our ranks are still more depleted and we can not muster in numbers by fifty per cent what we could on our return.

We are growing old. Time is showing its mark, and our bodies are getting more or less infirm, and year by year, with increasing rapidity, our comrades are dropping out and can not answer the roll call at our annual meetings. Sad as this fact is, there is an amazing amount of vigor and vitality left in us yet, and our patriotism runs as high as ever.

We are glad to learn and hear something of our comrades of the 5th Maine to-day. Their representative assures us that we are not forgotten. Conditions with them are about the same as with us. At their annual reunions they speak of us, as we do of them to-night. How well we remember the old days, and how pleasant to recall the many thrilling incidents which connected us so closely! With our two regiments on the front line facing the enemy, led by the gallant Colonels Upton and Edwards, we had that feeling that the Japs must have had when facing the Russians in the present Eastern war, “that we can whip everything before us,” and we generally did it, too.

We do not forget the life and services of the faithful Chaplain, John R. Adams, who remained with us after the return home of the 5th Maine. The death of this honored officer only increases our affection for them all. We love to let our memories run back to those days and call up in our minds those strong, sturdy Maine boys. By [13] reason of their few months' previous service they were in a position to be very useful to us, as we, fresh from our homes, tried to get accustomed to a campaign life. We learned rapidly from them. They taught us just what a new regiment needed to know. We discarded our company cook, and they showed us how to do individual cooking, and how to adapt ourselves to the strange circumstances. The marches were hard, we had some superfluous clothing, which they, in the most kindly and friendly manner advised us to throw away; but I always noticed a 5th Maine man wearing it the next day.

Time is much too short to speak further of the close relations of our two regiments, but there is one thing more I ought to mention, yet I blush when I speak of it. Our regiment came from home a cleanly lot of men, but a few days' association with the 5th Maine, and we found that we had caught from them that pest of camp life, “the Army Greyback.” This was a great trial, and we wondered what to do; but here the noble, generous spirit of the 5th Maine showed itself. They showed us how to get rid of them, or at least to prevent their accumulation and increase.

The 5th Maine men were true and loyal, in every way, a credit to themselves and an honor to the brigade. All honor to such a brave regiment, and we feel proud and glad of our association with them.

A similar attachment developed in the Shenandoah Valley between the Sixth Corps and the Cavalry Corps which led Sheridan to ask for the Sixth Corps in beginning his operations in the final campaign against the defenses of Petersburgh.

In the advance of the army, to oppose Lee's invasion of Maryland, Col. Beckwith gives a vivid and somewhat amusing description of a physical prostration that he suffered. [14]

It may remind others of a similar experience, perhaps not with the same outcome. “The day we marched around Sugar Loaf Mountain we were the last division of our corps. The day was hot. Wherever the road was in the open, a cloud of dust obscured the moving columns from view. We had passed through scrubby pine patches that were on fire, which added to our discomfort. Along in the afternoon the road ran along and around the base of the mountain, a massive sugar loaf shaped prominence. I had felt more than ordinarily well during the day, the perspiration flowed from my pores profusely. We were talking and joking as we moved along. Suddenly I felt a sort of faintness come over me, the perspiration stopped and I said to Benny West, who was marching beside me, ‘I feel very strange.’ He asked me what was the matter, and before I could answer him I felt the sky grow dark, the world whirl round, and conscious that I was going to fall I made a last effort to reach the road side, and lost track of surrounding events. When I regained my senses I found Rounds and Tarbell, of my company, beside me and myself wet from the liberal supply of water to my surface. After a short time I began to feel better, and soon got all right again, and we started to catch the regiment, which I reached before the other two that night, and I was subject to considerable criticism on the part of Rounds and Tarball, who kicked because, being left behind to take care of a dying man, lie came to, got well, and beat them to the camp the same night.”

In his quick recovery and immediate return to the regiment Comrade Beckwith was especially fortunate, for according to Col. Cronkite, by the first two days march, “Many strong constitutions were wrecked, and many brave soldiers, stricken with fever and other diseases, lost their lives from exposure during the first week of service.”

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