previous next

Chapter IV

I was very glad when we left the vicinity of the battle of Antietam, for its horrors sickened me. We moved away and in the distance of a few miles in the direction we took, no appearances of battle were present. The country took on a peaceable look. We reached our destination in the neighborhood of Bakersville, also near Dam No. 4 on the Potomac River, along the bluff bank of which we picketed in our turn with the other regiments of our Brigade.

The encampment at Bakersville was protracted until the last day of October. During this period several important events occurred. First, the seeds of disease which had been sown in the bodies of officers and men by the overwork and exposure of the previous campaign began to bear fruit. No shelter tents had yet been provided for the men, and no hospital tents for the sick. Shacks and pens made of rails, and covered with straw and brush was all the shelter they had been able to obtain, and though such protection availed to ward off the heat of the sun, it utterly failed when rain came. Sickness increased, and death began to take its toll. The death of the first man in camp is thus described by the Adjutant's Clerk of the regiment, Charles W. Dean, in a letter to the Oneonta Herald, dated October 2d: “A man by the name of Helon Pearsons died last night of typhoid fever. He now lies back of the hospital tent covered with a blanket under the protection of a guard. The pioneers have made a board box and he is to be buried after battalion drill.” Later he wrote, “The [27] funeral of young Pearsons just over. He was taken to the grave about forty rods from camp, under a large oak tree, escorted by three drummers and one fifer with about three hundred of the boys. In going to the grave the drums were muffled and the music was solemn indeed. After a prayer by the Chaplain the body was lowered into its last resting place and covered with a shovel full of dirt, then a volley of musketry was fired over the grave and we returned to camp, the band playing a lively tune. His death was caused by exposure. In consequence of our sudden march into Maryland, the regiment left their tents behind and are destitute of shelter from rain and weather. The hospital is made of rails covered with corn stalks, likewise the tents in camp. Our medical supplies have been short, and our First Surgeon resigned.” Before any attempt was made to remedy this condition of the regiment, on October 1st, eighty men were sick in camp, over forty of whom were too sick to help themselves, and Captain Clark and sixty-one privates were absent on account of sickness. In thirty-eight days the regiment had been reduced from 946 enlisted men and thirty officers to a membership of 744. On October 30th the Adjutant's Clerk, Dean, reported the condition of the regiment as follows: Enlisted men present for duty, 722. Enlisted men present sick, 123. Commissioned officers present for duty, 28. Commissioned officers present sick, 4. Absent, 4. Enlisted men serving in hospitals as nurses, 30. Enlisted men absent without leave, 9. Absent sick, 28. One officer, Surgeon Basset, had resigned, and another, Lieut. Davis, had died. Of the sick, both officers and enlisted men, some died, some were discharged for disability, and others returned to duty with the regiment.

The other important event during the stay in [28] camp at Bakersville was the resignation of Colonel Franchot, and the appointment in his place of Emory Upton. Colonel Franchot had shown ability in the enlistment and organization of the regiment, and is to be honored for his patriotism and zeal in his service for the country. But his education had been wholly civilian; and military service was entirely new to him. He wisely decided to resign his command and return to civil life, and resume his place in Congress, of which he was a Representative. But before doing so, he used his influence to have Captain Upton appointed Colonel of the 121st, and for this he deserves the approval and gratitude of every member of the regiment. Colonel Upton was commissioned on September 25th, and being duly presented to the regiment was received with hearty cheers. The regiment was intelligent enough to soon learn that civilian officers were not generally fitted by education or experience for command in active warfare. After taking formal command Colonel Upton obtained a leave of absence for a few days, which left the command of the regiment to Major Olcott, Lieut. Colonel Clark being absent sick. Near the camp of the 121st was a large brick barn, the application for the use of which for hospital purposes had been refused. Major Olcott on his own authority took possession of this barn, and moved the sick from the cornstalk hospital into it. If over assumption of authority is ever justified, it certainly was in this case, and probably on that account Major Olcott escaped censure for his act.

Immediately upon his return to duty, Colonel Upton began the system of discipline, and drill, that soon brought the regiment to the high efficiency for which it became noted and which placed it among the most reliable of the organizations of the Army. Colonel Upton was a young [29] man, twenty-two years of age, a graduate of West Point, who had won recognition for efficiency as an artillery officer in the Peninsular campaign. In discipline he was strict but just. In administration he was efficient. In action he was prompt. In danger he was cool. And under no circumstances did he show fear or lack of decision. To these admirable qualities of an officer, he was strictly temperate, and decidedly religious in his conduct. He was not ashamed to keep a well worn Bible on his desk, and his conversation was always clean and without profanity. It is therefore not to be wondered at that he won and held the regard and affection of the officers and men under him, and that time has only served to enlarge the esteem in which he is held by the survivors of the regiment.

The advantages of a capable and competent leadership were immediately manifest. The health of the regiment was conserved by the regular daily drills, they were well fed, and tents and overcoats were secured for them.

On October 3d the Corps was reviewed by President Lincoln.

Of the experiences in this camp Comrade Beckwith writes thus:

I think the regiment was stronger and better for the experience it had gone through — the weeding out of the unfit men, the retiring of incompetent officers, and the acquiring of a young, intrepid, and skilled officer for its commander, who, with heroic purpose, unlimited patience and matchless skill, made it one of the best regiments in the army of the Potomac, and one which in its long and bloody career, could always be depended upon to strike a deadly blow against the enemy, and whose every soldier, once told what to do, pursued that course to its conclusion.

At this time all sorts of stories were afloat, and [30] rumors circulated among the troops to the effect that McClellan was to be removed or superseded by Burnside, and a campaign inaugurated that would not stop until our colors floated over Richmond. Most of the talk I heard among the old troops was greatly in favor of McClellan, and opposed to the War Department and the President, because of the treatment McClellan had received at the hands of the Administration. In our regiment, while we had great admiration for McClellan, we yet maintained the opinion, that the President had acted with great skill, and we did not share in the opinion so commonly expressed among the battalions from the Peninsula, that their Commanding General had been badly treated, and so we did not enthuse for McClellan as did the other regiments of the Brigade. Our Brigade Commander, Joseph J. Bartlett, was an intense admirer of General McClellan, and I think his influence was strong with the men of his command who idolized him. It was a strange sight to us to see these battle-tried veterans swarm to the roadside and yell and cheer and run after McClellan. General Bartlett was a splendid specimen of a soldier. He was nearly six feet tall, straight as an arrow, of powerful build, with black eyes and hair, and sat in his saddle as though horse and man were one. He dressed in a tight fitting uniform, low cap with straight visor. As he rode by on his fine black horse, he gained the admiration of his command and he deserved it, for he was a splendid officer, skillful and brave, and there was not a man of our regiment who would not have followed him anywhere at this time.

Our new Colonel came to us at this time and he made an instantaneously favorable impression. He was quite a young looking man, with a light mustache, rather high cheek bones and his cheeks [31] were thin and gave prominence to a strong square jaw. His mouth was small and his lips being rather thin, and tightly closed, made it look smaller. His brow, full and broad, but rather low, surmounted deep blue, deep set eyes, which seemed to be searching all the time. His hair was a dark brown, worn rather long, and his complexion dark but pale, gave him on the whole, the appearance of a man who was deeply impressed with the seriousness of warfare and had mastered its science. To this man was entrusted the fortunes of the 121st Regiment of New York Volunteers, and its command, until he was called to other and higher duties. He took command without show or ostentation. From the day that Emory Upton took command there was a change for the better. The camp was newly ordered and cleaned up, inspections were more rigid, and the officers were promptly taken to task for any slackness on their part.

When orders came on the 30th of October to march on the next day at 6 o'clock a. m., Company C was in command of 2d Lieut. Bradt, Captain Campbell was the only commissioned officer in Company E. Company I was in command of Orderly Sergeant J. W. Cronkite. The following named Company Officers were unfit for duty and in hospital: Captain Moon, Fish and Kidder; Lieutenants Bates, Van Horn, Cameron and Quartermaster Story. Lieut. J. P. Douw had previously been detailed to duty as Ordnance Officer of the Division.

The movement ordered for the 31st of October was the beginning of a campaign under General McClellan to force General Lee back from the line of the Potomac. It was conceived and begun under the principle that had controlled all of General McClellan's strategy up to this time, viz., that military [32] success consisted in strategic movements to force the enemy to abandon the positions he had occupied. If this could be done with little or no fighting all the better.

This policy in so large a territory as intervened between Washington and Richmond amounted to little more than a game of hide and seek, so far as final victory is involved, and gave the defensive side all the advantage. When it was to be carried on by a commander whose imagination exaggerated the forces opposed, and whose caution magnified the danger to his rear, who never was willing to risk the use of all his army in an offensive battle, but thought it necessary to hold a large percentage in reserve against a possible reverse, the ineffectiveness of such operations is to be expected. Avoiding a direct advance upon the Confederate Army, the march began back through Maryland, over the South Mountains to the Potomac River at Berlin, Md. There the Army crossed the Potomac into the same section of Virginia in which the two battles of Bull Run had been fought and lost. Between the hostile forces the Blue Ridge interposed, and the passes were held by the Confederates. The advance was leisurely with frequent stops, the first at White Plains where we rested for three days. Here for the first time Colonel Upton's strict discipline began to be felt. He ordered a Court Martial to convene for the trial of certain offenders against military order, and several men were convicted and punished according to the decision of the court. In this proceeding he showed that he intended to enforce order, not by arbitrary personal authority, but in accordance with strict judicial procedure. It was this equitable dealing with them that made his men respect and honor him as a man, and readily obey him as an officer. He could not have won [33] the loyal admiration of the regiment, as he quickly did, if he had acted arbitrarily in his method of discipline. The records of the regiment show his manly self control, by the practice of which he was able to control the unruly element in the regiment, and win the approval of all, and their obedience.

During the march into Virginia almost daily firing was heard on the right where frequent efforts were made to seize the gaps opening from the Shenandoah valley into the Mannasas plains, but no general engagement occurred. On November 9th an advance of four miles was made, and the Corps was reviewed by Generals McClellan and Burnside. The command of the army had been transferred to Burnside and this review was a sort of farewell to the departing General. This transfer of command had been made in spite of Burnside's earnest protests but it was persisted in because the authorities at Washington had become convinced that under its former commander nothing definite would be done as long as it could be put off. The change was resented by many of the old soldiers, and many officers, admirers of McClellan, resigned and left the service. The regiment remained in camp at White Plains ten days, during which a severe snow storm occurred, rendering the movement of troops fatiguing and difficult, but on the 15th camp was struck and the march resumed, first to Cattlet's Station and then to Stafford Court House. Here a stay of about two weeks was made during which Colonel Upton drilled the regiment diligently. The day's program was, Company drill in the morning; Battalion drill at 1 p. m.; Dress Parade at 4 p. m., and School of Instruction for officers at 6 p. m. Under this regime the improvement of the regiment was rapid and the officers and men caught the enthusiasm of their leader [34] and became ambitious to become a model regiment. It was no wonder that the regiment soon became known as “Upton's regulars,” and that General Meade on a subsequent occasion seriously inquired if they were regulars. During one of the daily parades the first promotion in the regiment was announced, that of Orderly Sergeant J. W. Cronkite to be Second Lieutenant of Company I. Other changes occurred during November. Dr. E. S. Walker was appointed Surgeon in place of Dr. Basset, resigned. Lieutenants Clyde and Ferguson resigned and were honorably discharged. Lieutenant Cameron had died in camp at Bakersville. Lieutenant A. E. Mather of Company K was transferred to Company G, which by the resignation of its two lieutenants had been left without a commissioned officer. Twenty-five men had been lost on account of sickness, and the regiment now numbered only 657 present for duty — not because of any loss in battle, but from exposure, much of it unnecessary, and the exhaustion of a strenuous campaign, for which the men were not inured by previous experience. But now the 657 men in the ranks were physically fit for anything that might be required of them. One day Colonel Upton set the men to felling trees to build winter quarters, but orders came to move the next day, at 6 o'clock, with three days rations. The first day's march carried the regiment past White Oak Church, and the next day to Belle Plain Landing. This last day it began to rain as we left camp, became gradually colder and colder, so that the rain soon changed to snow, the snow to sleet, and when we reached the Landing a keen, strong wind was blowing from the bay, and the halt was made and arms stacked on an open plain, so level that water stood in the hollows of the corn rows, with not a particle of shelter or fuel, and with clothing covered with [35] ice, and bodies almost exhausted by the difficult march, and quickly chilled to the bone by the strong, cold wind sweeping unchecked from the broad expanse of water. Colonel Cake was in command of the Brigade, and when Colonel Upton asked permission to take his regiment back to the shelter of a strip of woods through which it had recently passed, it was refused, and the men were compelled to shift as best they could on that dreary, desolate plain. The result was inevitable, another list of sick and broken down men and several additions to the death list. On this occasion the 16th N. Y. fared better than the 121st, for immediately after arms were stacked the Adjutant of the regiment rode up and said: “Men, go anywhere you please, take anything you can get except Government property, but report back here promptly in the morning.” It did not take long for part of the men to get back to that strip of woods and to the low side of it, where a rail fence was found, and soon a roaring fire, a comfortable shack, a warm meal and a comfortable bed were prepared, and a most comfortable night spent. On reporting in the morning we were told that at least one man had died during the night of the cold. The next day the men of the 16th set to work to build winter quarters, and considerable progress was made during the two days we were there. Colonel Cronkite, however, says of the 121st, that they were compelled to lie in this exposed position two days and one night without fires. On the 9th of December orders came to return to the Corps, and the Brigade marched back to the vicinity of Fredericksburg and bivouacked for the night with the rest of the Corps, not far from the Rappahannock River. General Burnside had reorganized the army of the Potomac into three Grand Divisions, and placed General Franklin in command [36] of the Left Division to which the Sixth Corps belonged. The first corps also belonged to the Left Grand Division. General Hooker commanded the Central Grand Division, and General Sumner the Right.

Of this Belle Plain experience Comrade Beckwith has this to say, and in the discrepancies between his account and that of Colonel Cronkite, the members of the regiment may decide which is correct.

After a short stay at Stafford Court House, we marched to Belle Plain, reaching there at dusk of a day that will always linger in the memory of every one of us who participated in that march. First it rained hard, then it turned to snow of the large, soft, fleecy flake kind. This made the road deep with mud and slippery; and by the time we had slipped and slid through the miles we came over, we were wet with the rain and snow outside, and steaming from the perspiration of our bodies. As soon as darkness fell, the wind rose and it grew cold rapidly, and we were marched onto the low flat near the river, and ordered to go into camp and make ourselves comfortable for the night. I was almost exhausted but I started with some others to hunt for shelter. There was no shelter except a few poplars and sycamores, standing along the river bank. The coarse, reedy grass of the low land came up through the snow. Finally we found the trunk of a large poplar, and cleaning away the snow from the sheltered side of it, we soon had a fire going, which soon augmented by the branches of wood gathered by others, made a fine blaze and gave out genial warmth which kept us from perishing. Working for several hours a good many of us succeeded in getting dry and cooking some supper. One squad who had cleaned away the snow and put up a tent on the other side of the log, was [37] burned out by the fire's burning through under the trunk and setting fire to their tent. They lost some baggage and a cartridge box blew up without hurting anyone. In the morning we were moved some distance to the hillside in the timber and there made ourselves comfortable with little effort. To this day, I believe the march from Stafford Court House and the camping on the flats by the river at Belle Plain Landing was the cause of the breaking down of a great many men. The misery of it is beyond description. I caught such a cold that it made me sore all over and my joints ached and creaked when I walked. The next morning with some others I went down to the landing where there was a great assemblage of transports and supply boats, and on shore a mountain of food supplies. Mule trains were being rapidly loaded and moving off to their respective commands. With a little well directed diplomacy and strategy, and some of Uncle Sam's currency, I secured a supply of substantial food, and what was then of more consequence, some whiskey. All this came from the Post or Depot Commissary, and the official who served me has a Captain's receipt for the articles furnished, which I regret very much to say the Captain has never seen. With a good load of provisions on my back I started back to camp. I took some of the whiskey that I had for my aches, some for my pains, some for the good I thought it would do me, and some to assist me with my load; and when I reached camp I could give a very good illustration of a man who had drank too much. Some of the men of my company also partook of the Commissary whiskey, and started to clean up the forest. One well known member insisted on thumping the whole crowd, and the next morning declared to the doctor that he was crazy, but never knew one [38] of his father's family to be crazy before. This explanation of the previous day's eccentricities was accepted, and the culprit was discharged with a dose of whiskey and quinine to prevent a recurrence of the attack.

Of the return to the Corps he writes:

We broke camp in the woods near Belle Plain Landing, on the 10th day of December, and took up the line of march toward Fredericksburg on the main traveled road. It had been so cut up by wagon trains that our progress was slow, and wherever it was possible to do so we marched by the roadside.

Long stretches of the road were covered with round pine poles laid crosswise of the road and covered with brush on which was thrown dirt taken from the roadside. The poles were held in place by longer poles laid lengthwise and pinned down by long crotched pins driven deeply into the ground. Most of the country through which we passed was heavily wooded with all the varieties of oak, and some of it very fine timber. Where the country was open there was here and there a patch of cornfield; but for the most part the old fields were worn out, unused tobacco ground, covered with a growth of broom sage and old field pine-neither of which have any value except to make the corduroy roads described above, and furnish a little softer bed than the ground for a night's camp.

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 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.
October 30th (2)
December 10th (1)
December 9th (1)
November 9th (1)
November (1)
October 31st (1)
October 3rd (1)
October 2nd (1)
October 1st (1)
October (1)
September 25th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: