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Chapter 6: the Chancellorsville campaign

  • Reorganization of the army by Hooker
  • -- crossing the River in pontoon boats -- the 6th Corps at Fredericksburg -- capture of Marye's Heights -- the battle of Salem Church -- successful withdrawal to bank's Ford -- the Brandy bottle in War

The Army of the Potomac as reorganized under General Hooker consisted of seven corps, the First commanded by General John F. Reynolds; the Second, commanded by General D. N. Couch; the Third, commanded by General D. N. Sickles; the Fifth, commanded by General George G. Meade; the Sixth, commanded by General John Sedgwick; the Eleventh, commanded by Franz Siegel; and the Twelfth, commanded by General H. W. Slocum. All these were Major Generals and had won distinction in previous campaigns. It is safe to say that no army ever started out on a campaign better equipped, better officered, or in higher spirits than did the Army of the Potomac when, on April 27, 1863, it broke camp and began the Chancellorsville campaign. General Hooker's order to move was couched in terms of absolute confidence. He was certain of sure and speedy victory, so certain that when President Lincoln read it, he turned to those who were present and asked, “Why is the hen the wisest of all animals?” and not receiving an answer, said “Because she does not cackle until after she has laid her egg.”

In carrying out his plan, in order to deceive General Lee, Hooker ordered the First, Third and Sixth Corps to demonstrate on the left three miles below Fredericksburg, but not to bring on a general engagement. Meanwhile he, with the rest of the army, began the main operation on the right with the intention of fighting the enemy to the [59] south and rear of Fredericksburg. The three corps were under the command of General Sedgwick. Before daylight on the 29th of April the First division of the Sixth Corps under command of General Brooks crossed the river in pontoon boats and drove the enemy from the rifle pits near the river. A bridge was quickly thrown across and the First Corps was soon over and took position to the left of Brooks' division. The other two divisions of the Sixth Corps did not cross that day, but when the First and Third Corps were ordered to join the army on the right, they were ordered to cross and the corps was united, and left alone to hold the crossing and threaten the enemy holding the heights behind the city. The sound of the fighting in the vicinity of Chancellorsville was heard by us.

Up to this point in the campaign, everything had gone prosperously. The enemy had evidently been taken by surprise, and deceived as to the intention of the movement. In supreme confidence of ultimate success Hooker ordered a message to be sent to the Sixth Corps expressing the surety of victory. The officer who prepared this message referred in it to the Divine favor in the success of the movement, but when it was read to General Hooker he turned to those present and said, “God Almighty can not keep the victory from me now.” This was told to the writer only a few days after, by one who evidently knew what he was talking about. But before treating further of the general affairs of the movement let us turn to the more intimate story of the part so far taken by the brigade and the regiments in it.

The duty assigned to General Brooks, to cross the river in pontoons, was one that required courage and secrecy, or great loss would be suffered. Fortunately the night was foggy, and nothing could [60] be seen from across the river. Every precaution was taken to avoid noise. Commands were given in a whisper, the muskets were left unloaded and without their bayonets. The teams drawing the pontoons were left out of hearing and the boats were brought down by hand and launched silently. As silently they were filled with soldiers, and rowed across the river rapidly. The first notice the pickets on the other side had of them, was when the boats grounded on the shore. Then a scattering fire was begun which caught those of us who were crossing in the second turn of the boats. It was not a pleasing sound to hear the bullets plumping into the water on all sides.

Those of the pickets captured said that a regiment had been in the trenches along the river bank all night and had just marched away when the crossing began. The writer was in the first boat of the second brigade that crossed, and on landing followed closely after Colonel Seaver, who pushed his way up the bank, and roughly commanded several men who were crouching under the brow of the slope, “Get out of the way of my men,” and immediately upon reaching the top threw the advance companies into skirmish formation, and sent us out after the retiring enemy as far as the edge of the cut made by Deep Run — the same ground we had occupied during the previous campaign.

The part taken by the 121st is best told by Comrade Beckwith.

We crossed the Rappahannock at Deep Bottom, near the place of our former crossing, and the movement of troops on the opposite side of the river from right to left made our position a mystery. We occupied some earthworks, and to our right and front there was considerable picket firing and a number of our men were hit by sharpshooters. The story went around that a woman would come out of a house near the [61] Rebel picket line and expose her person to attract the attention of our men who as soon as they showed themselves above the rifle pits, would be fired on by the sharpshooters and often hit. This went on until an officer ordered the woman to be shot, which was done by our men, and the entertainment ended.

On Saturday morning, May 3, 1863, long before daylight we moved forward a little to the left. As soon as it was light enough to see we moved forward across the Bowling Green Pike and under the shelter of a small stream flowing through it, grown up with large and small timber, in front of us a short distance, and we were put into position. Hexammer's Battery came galloping up, unlimbered in our front and began firing with considerable rapidity. A little way in front, I should think about a hundred and fifty yards, there was a line of little pits in which the enemy's skirmish line was posted and they at once began to annoy our batterymen who were busy firing at a Rebel battery some distance farther back. Colonel Upton, who was up by the guns, noticing this, came back to our company and called for some good shots, and soon had a squad firing at the puffs of smoke from the rifle pits. I remember Sam Button's being complimented for a good shot he made, which it was said quieted one grey-coated chap who had been especially troublesome, and had wounded one of our batterymen. On our left there did not seem to be any business going on, but on our right the musketry firing was lively and the spherical case shot, crashing through the heavy branches and foliage of the ravine, wounded several men on the right of our regiment. On the right across the ravine in the fields a heavy skirmish line of ours came falling back rather rapidly, but in fair order, evidencing that there was plenty [62] of opposition farther up than they had been. Farther along to the right and back of the city the batteries kept up a constant fire, and about eleven o'clock the cheering of our charging men, the heavy volley of musketry, dying away into a continuous rattle, enlivened with a volley near the end followed by a sudden quiet, told us that our men had carried the lines and forts of the enemy upon the heights, and we could see our flags flying there and we cheered them heartily. In a little while we were ordered into ranks and marched toward the city along the Bowling Green Pike, where Spicer and Doxtater and Davis and Wilson were buried, and not a thought given that before the sun went down on that day many a living, breathing body of our number would be as inanimate as they were, without the privilege of sepulcher being given them by comrades and fellow soldiers.

The military exploit so briefly described was one of the most brilliant of the war. The sphere of operation was the same as that which saw the disastrous defeat of the assaulting force in the previous campaign. The same stone wall, the same steep ascent, the same redoubts and forts only strengthened, and the same determined resistance to be overcome. The movement was in compliance with an order from General Hooker received at 11 A. M., on May 2, ordering Sedgwick “to at once march on the Chancellorville road, and connect with the Major General commanding, to attack and destroy any force you may fall in with on the road; leave all trains behind except the pack mule train of small ammunition, and be in the vicinity of the General at daylight.” The order was promptly obeyed so far as was possible. General Gibbons' division of the Second Corps, still under Sedgwick's command, was brought [63] across the river and placed on the right. And at 3 P. M. when all was ready General Newton's division of the Sixth Corps advanced at double quick without firing or halting, drove the enemy from his first line of works, the famous stone wall, pressed forward to the crest of the heights and carried the works in rear of the rifle pits, capturing guns and prisoners. At the same time General Howe on the left advanced and gained the crest in his front, also capturing guns and prisoners. Gibbons' division was sent in pursuit of the enemy retiring southward, with orders to hold the city.

Without delay the Sixth Corps advanced on the road to Chancellorsville, carrying a succession of heights without halting, until the vicinity of Salem church was reached. Here a larger force of the enemy was encountered, in strong position, on both flanks of the church, the church itself being occupied by sharpshooters for whom holes had been made in its walls from which they could fire as well as from the windows and doors. The enemy had been reinforced by troops from in front of Hooker, who at this time had abandoned all aggressive action, and had drawn back his advanced divisions to a defensive position. This virtually left Sedgwick with the Sixth Corps to fight the enemy alone. To reach the position now occupied by the rest of the army he would have had to break through the main Rebel army. Line of battle was formed of two divisions, General Brooks on the left and General Newton on the right. Two attacks failed to dislodge the opposing forces, and reinforcements rapidly coming up to the opposing forces the battle was quickly turned into the defensive. A division was sent by Lee to reoccupy the Fredericksburg Heights, which compelled General Sedgwick to throw his corps into the form [64] of a square, one side of which was filled by the Rappahannock River and the other three by the separate divisions of the corps. All day Monday was spent in resisting the fierce attacks of the enemy, and on Monday night the corps was safely withdrawn across the river at Banksford. The part which the Second Brigade took in this battle began after the first effort to carry the position had failed. The 16th and 121st N. Y. advanced in line until within musket range when it was found that a New Jersey regiment was in the immediate front of the 16th. It was ordered to move by the right flank across the road and advance against the enemy. This brought the New Jersey regiment between the 16th and the 121st, and when the New Jersey regiment gave way and the enemy advanced in pursuit, it resulted in the exposure of the left of the 16th and the right of the 121st to a raking flank fire. There were no troops to the right of the 16th, so that it was compelled to fall back to avoid being entirely cut off from the rest of the division. It suffered a grievous loss in killed, wounded and captured. It entered the fight with 30 officers and 380 men. It lost: 24 killed, 12 mortally wounded, 101 wounded, not mortally, and 17 captured.

It ought to be remembered to the credit of the 16th N. Y. that it entered this battle within a few days of the expiration of its term of service; that when it was proposed to send a commission to speak to the two-year regiments appealing to their patriotism, and urging them to enter their last fight with their former valor, Colonel Seaver refused to let anything be said to the 16th, on the ground that it was not necessary, that the 16th would do its whole duty to the last, without any special urging to do so. Their conduct in this battle showed that the Colonel had judged his men [65] correctly. This, however, was not the case with all the two-year regiments. A portion of the 20th N. Y., under the leadership of a sergeant, refused to cross the river, and were court-martialed and severely punished for mutiny. At its farthest advance, the left of the 16th N. Y. was only the width of the road across from the church, and they suffered from the fire of the men in it, and the battery near it. On the following day the 16th supported a battery with two companies on the skirmish line, and when the withdrawal was made in the evening, we of the two companies found ourselves at the extreme left of the line with orders to fall back gradually and hold the enemy in check. The writer was the man on the very end of the skirmish line, and when we got back to the plank road we were utterly bewildered. All our line and staff officers were gone, as was the case with the 27th N. Y. that was on our left, with the same orders and in the same perplexity. We stood a few moments in doubt when out of the darkness came the voice of our Colonel, Seaver, “Where are my men?” “Here we are,” was our eager response. “Well, get out of this as quick as you can,” and he set us the example by wheeling his horse and galloping off at full speed. The left of the line happened to be just at the junction of the plank road and the road that led to Bank's Ford, so that the order “Right face, file right, double quick” started us on the way to safety. But it was a fagged out company of grateful men who late in the evening fell utterly exhausted among their waiting comrades, until their turn came to cross the river in the early morning.

For the part that the 121st took in this campaign, Colonel Beckwith's account is both vivid and full. It is very fortunate for the friends of deceased members and survivors of the regiment, [66] that he has written so fully of these important events in the history of the regiment.

He says,

When we reached the city evidences of the fierce nature of the struggle just ended were everywhere present. The street upon which we entered the city was the continuation of the Bowling Green Pike, and along it the assaulting column formed. Forming on nearly the same spot as did French's division at the battle of Fredericksburg, they charged over a portion of the same ground, defended by fully as good troops, in fact the flower of Lee's infantry and artillery. They carried everything before them and captured the heights and their defenders, and among the other batteries in the redoubt near Marye's mansion, captured the Washington Artillery of New Orleans, the pride of the Confederate army. After a little halt in the street we moved on, filing to the left directly up the street and over the ground that the center of the assaulting column had passed over. At every step evidences of the deadliness of the enemy's fire accumulated and behind a ruined brick building, just on the outskirts of the city, a ghastly row of desperately wounded men had been gathered. Scattered at very frequent intervals from it, and until within a very few yards of Marye's Heights, hundreds of human forms dotted the ground. The ambulances were up and the stretcher bearers were bringing in the wounded. The dead were in every position, just as they had fallen. Reaching the redoubt occupied by men of different regiments that had participated in the assault, mostly men of the 6th Wisconsin and the 6th and 7th Maine, we heard the terrible experiences through which they had passed, and the struggle in the redoubt, for the guns. Looking from Marye's Heights toward the city any soldier standing behind the breastworks, as I did, would [67] feel his ability to destroy any number of foes advancing against him and I wonder that any of that devoted column had escaped death; and I ceased thinking of the pride and exultation which the survivors manifested, to the exclusion of thought for their comrades lying silent in death on the bare slope over which they had safely passed. Many times since have I thought of that stirring scene and compared it in my mind with other conspicuous deeds of valor recorded in the annals of war, and always ended with the opinion that it was as stout-hearted and cool-headed a piece of work as ever was done.

All that I have described occurred in less time than I can tell about it. We moved over the ground without making any long halt. After moving up the road a little distance a battery in our front opened on us and a shot from it passed over us. A few minutes later the popping sound of musketry in the distance attracted our attention and we could see our skirmish line pushing forward and the enemy's line opposing it, but falling back slowly. From here on we moved forward quite slowly, and at the next halt filed off from the road. Here we passed a staff officer whose horse had been wounded through the thick of his hind leg and the poor beast stood there with the blood spurting out at each pulsation of his heart. This officer stated that the enemy were deployed in line of battle ahead of us, that he had no earthworks and would not stand our advance in line of battle. We moved across the fields a long distance in columns of fours and finally after getting up pretty close to our skirmish line, which did not seem to be pushing the Rebel skirmishers back very rapidly, we were put in line of battle and moved forward some distance by regimental front. The skirmishers in our front, a New Jersey regiment, [68] with white canvas knapsacks, which I remember distinctly, were strengthened by the picket reserve having deployed, and moved forward to them, and they immediately moved forward more boldly and pressed back the Rebels who were then sheltered by the woods. In our front the skirmish fire became steady and well sustained, and the tone of the Rebel bullets indicated that they were not a great way off. In a few moments the Jerseymen disappeared in the woods, and we moved up to the rail fence running along the woods. This we quickly, by orders, took down and laid flat. Glancing back I saw a regiment coming up in line of battle, the officer riding at its right being the Colonel of the 96th Penn. I judged it was that regiment. To the right I could see very little. Behind us there were no troops coming up, but General Bartlett and staff were a little way off. Captain Wilson, who was General Bartlett's A. A. General, and who for some reason had been nicknamed “The Spook,” rode up to the right of our regiment on a gallop, which was his usual custom, and almost instantly we moved into the wood, which seemed to be mostly second growth and thickly grown up with underbrush of the oak variety. I can remember now a strange sort of quiet in the ranks. I had no idea, nor do I think any one near me had any premonition of any impending calamity. I was the extreme left man in the ranks of the regiment. Joe Rounds, I think, was the sergeant on the left of the company. We moved at an ordinary step forward into the woods perhaps seventy yards, with no sound except a growl from Eli Casler because some one had held a bush as he passed and let it fly back into his face.

The firing seemed to be coming to us, and reaching the distance I have named we came nearly [69] up to our skirmish line and they commanded and received our admiration, for the plucky and persistent way in which they did their work. The officer commanding just in front of us was a brave man and understood his business thoroughly. He shouted to his men to move up and push forward on the right, and fired his revolver at something in front that I could not see. At that instant there was a yell of pain and Arthur Proctor, a young man from Mohawk, a little way up the line cried out that he was shot, and Herringshaw took hold of him and began to help him. A little farther off another was hit and we were immediately ordered to “fix bayonets and forward, double quick, charge,” and we went forward on the run. What became of those skirmishers I could not see. I suppose they pushed their opponents as far as they could, and then lay down and let us charge over them. We moved forward on a run a distance of not more than one hundred yards until we could see the clearing beyond the woods, when suddenly as if by magic, a line of men rose up and delivered their fire almost in our faces. The crash seemed terrific. I was paralyzed for an instant but continued to move on. Benny West who was next to me gave a terrible bound and pitched against me, shot dead. Hank King stuck his gun up against the side of my head, as I thought, and fired, and I pointed my gun at the men in front of me and fired, all the time moving forward and over a little ditch into the road. The men who were in the ditch and behind the brush fence through the gap in which I passed, jumped up and ran, some to their rear and some to ours. I loaded and fired up the road twice. Joe Rounds stood beside me doing the same. The fire from the enemy seemed to come from that direction, but it was so smoky that I could not see much. A [70] little way off I remember a fellow standing, who seemed to be holding something before him which seemed like a blanket. Joe said, “Let's get back into the edge of the woods,” which we did. I then saw the 96th Penn. coming up to our rear and left. As I stepped back I saw Bill Wildrick and John Steinfort lying shot, and a couple of men who were wounded came there and asked to be carried back. Just then John Dain said he was hit. He mistook the water running from his canteen, which a bullet had pierced, for blood. I remember I laughed at the expression on his face at the time. I kept looking and firing in the direction from which the bullets seemed to come, and our fellows kept crowding down among our company to get away from the fire. After a time the smoke cleared a little and I could see some buildings, and from a brick building which we afterwards learned was Salem church, came the fire which was so destructive to us. There seemed to be men in the church who were firing from the windows, and our men were crowding away from it toward us to escape being hit. In front of us and to the left there were no Rebels that I could see. How long we would have stayed there I do not know, I suppose until we were attacked and driven away. I realized how useless it was for us to stay, but did not know enough to run, and it was well that Captain Wilson of General Bartlett's staff rode up and ordered us back, accompanying the order with the inquiry, “D-n you, don't you know enough to fall back?” I started to go back rather slowly. I think Yoeman and Pat McTague were near me then. A lot of our fellows were lying down. I remember Joe Rounds shouting, “Come on, we're ordered back,” and then seeing Sile Goodrich and Benny West who had been shot dead, and having the thought come to me, “Why, these men [71] are all shot and dead.” I went back through the woods helping along a Company F man who was wounded in the shoulder. Where I came out of the woods was farther to the left, and near where the 96th Penn. went in, and a little way out in the field was a pool of water where we stopped and filled our canteens. A great many men were scattered about in the fields all going back. I thought the 96th Penn. was still in the woods behind us, but found it was not so, when Captain Wilson came riding up and ordered us to go over to a house some distance away where our regiment was assembling. He said the enemy were now advancing through the woods and if we remained there five minutes we would all be captured. Well now, the way we got up and moved away from there must have convinced the Captain that we believed him. I went across the fields toward the house he had spoken of with a number of others, one of whom was an orderly sergeant. We kept to the left as the Rebels were firing some from the right, and got a canteen of good water from the spring near the house. A little while after I reached the regiment one of Company H's men was killed and he was the only man shot while we were there. The regiment looked but little larger than a company had looked in the morning. After dark we moved back about half a mile, and that night slept on our arms. The next morning those who had got lost, and those who had been back with the wounded and prisoners came up and increased our number considerably, but there was an awful gap in our company, more than half had been killed and wounded. I had very fortunately escaped, and with the exception of a bullet hole through the visor of my cap tearing the cloth and scratching my head, I had no mark of the conflict upon me. There was great [72] inquiry for absent ones, and during the early part of the day we became convinced that Benton West, Silas Goodrich, Jacob Christman, John Steinford, and William Weidrick had certainly been killed and Frank Carron, Wilbur H. Champany, William H. Chapman, Tom Marriott, William Coady, Arthur Proctor, Chester Catlin, Andrew Hubbard, Ed Yoeman, Levi Jones and Billy Applegate were wounded, and some were missing from whom we could get no report, but who, as afterwards was found out, were killed wounded or captured; because the wounded we left on the field who were able to be moved were sent to us by their captors, and then we got a complete record of the terrible loss we had suffered, which had seldom been equalled in the records of the Civil War. We went into the fight numbering 453 men and of these lost 104 killed and mortally wounded, a percentage of 21 to the hundred. Our total casualties were 278. That is to say 61 men out of each hundred were placed “Hors du combat.” But we could scarcely realize the terrible ordeal through which we had passed. Our dead and wounded were lying over in the woods where we were forced to leave them, and their terrible plight could only be imagined by us. Our doctors, hospital steward, and assistants were with them and it was only after they were sent back to us in our old camp near White Oak Church, that the full realization of our loss came to us.

It should be noted also that only nine companies of the regiment participated in this disastrous conflict. Company D was on duty on the skirmish line, and a considerable distance to the left, where it suffered no losses, at the time the battle of Salem Church was fought by the rest of the regiment.

In the morning we formed behind a battery of [73] three inch rifled cannon near the road and lay there all day of the 4th of May. With the exception of some skirmish firing along our front and some ways off, no struggle occurred near us. Some distance away the sounds of battle, loud, continuous and approaching, which did not betoken success. The congratulatory order from General Hooker which had been read to us, stating that he had intervened his army between Lee and Richmond, and that Lee would have to fight him upon ground of his own choosing had raised our hopes: but the ominous sounds of approaching battle, and the somber faces of our own officers, always a barometer of success or defeat, filled us with anxious forebodings. But the day wore silently and listlessly away. Now and then the gallop of staff officers would awaken some comment and interest, until along about half past 4 o'clock, the opening of a battery and sharp musketry on our right, and the appearance of a strong skirmish line advancing in our front, immediately followed by heavier and continuous artillery and infantry firing upon our right, caused us to spring up and watch the scene before us. We soon became aware that the Rebels were making a general and vigorous charge along our whole line. Shortly a line of battle came out of the woods where we had gone in the day before, and the battery in our front opened with every gun and fired as rapidly as possible. We could see that the shots about, around and through their line of battle were making great gaps, but they closed up and came forward again. Our skirmish line made a fierce resistance and stubbornly contested their advance, but we expected it to give way and let the Rebel line come up and give us a chance to revenge our loss of the previous day. We were splendidly posted, although we had no shelter. A [74] deep ravine ran along our front, and no troops could have reached us without an exhausting climb down and up its steep sides. But we got no opportunity to fire at them, and had to be content to see our skirmishers and artillery shoot them down as long as they stood up and advanced. But farther down towards Fredericksburg they were making ground. They came out of the timber in great masses, and charged our infantry and artillery with fierce intrepidity.

Here was posted General Howes division, White Cross men, among which were the Green Mountain boys, the Vermont Brigade. A portion of our line gave way down near Fredericksburg, and shortly there was the rush of hurrying battalions, with batteries on the dead run to strengthen the threatened point. The yelling and cheering of charging thousands. The continuous rattle of musketry, broken by heavy volleys, and the increasing roar of the artillery indicated deadly, desperate work. The fever of battle began to communicate itself to us. Our officers were eagerly scanning the point of danger. Colonel Upton among the guns of the battery giving directions and advice, seemed to be very much concerned as his practiced ear detected the movement of the battle, and as darkness began to make more distinct the flash of our guns, the quick daubs of light they belched forth at rapid intervals grew brighter, and the little streaks of light from the rifles grew more distinct, he said, “Thank God, they will have to light candles soon.” And so it was. A great peril had been passed. The Rebels had massed a picked division of troops and hurled it at “Pop” Howe's division, intending to crush his left and interpose between us and the river and make us fight our way to and across it, or surrender. But our gallant troops had successfully [75] resisted the assault and driven them back, inflicting upon them a terrible penalty for their temerity. Our losses were appalling, but nothing like theirs.

Years afterward one of their officers who was there and in the battle, told me that the troops engaged in the attack upon our left suffered the most terrible losses of the war upon the part of the enemy. Be that as it may, as soon as the sounds of battle had died away, we were ordered in line, cautioned to keep silent, and moved back toward the river. There was some firing on the picket line, and quite a rattle of musketry up the road on our right. We reached the high ground near the river after several hours crawl through the woods, no sound breaking the stillness except the lonely screech of the owl and the doleful screech of the “katydid.” There we found our batteries posted, the guns so close together that there was scarcely room to work them, and we moved up close to them and lay down. After some hours we moved across the river, a few cannon shots bidding us a parting farewell. Our whole Corps came across except those who had been stricken in battle; and the gallant Sixth Corps, with the noble Sedgwick at its head had by its courage and gallantry, extricated itself from the grasp of Lee's army, and had inflicted upon it so terrible a blow that he was content to relinquish his effort to capture it. As for us we began to feel the misery of our loss. Our dead comrades, our missing friends, were more missed. The absence of immediate peril gave time for reflection, but they were gone and we should never see them again. The Buck and Ball had torn through our ranks beyond repair, and for the first time we were complimented by the other regiments of the brigade and received their sympathy. [76] We camped in the woods near the river a day, and endured a heavy rainstorm. The storm over, we took up our march to our old camp and on May 6th or 7th filed down into our company streets with its row of log huts, where we immediately realized the losses we had sustained. More than half the huts were empty. We selected and used the best, tearing down and using some for firewood. In a few days we learned that our wounded had been sent over the river to us. From them, as we visited them in Potomac and Aquia Creek hospitals, our worst fears were confirmed as to the missing. Very few had escaped the bullets of the enemy, and those borne upon the roll as missing were either dead, or wounded unto death. But no time was given us for brooding. We were put to work at once upon drill, inspection and target practice. A round of steady work each day kept us pretty well occupied. Then the 16th and 27th N. Y. Vol. went home, their time having expired, as did that of the 18th, 31st and 32d of the Third Brigade (Newton's) of the 1st Division; and the recruits to these regiments being held as three-year men, were transferred to the 121st. They were a fine body of men, thoroughly inured to army life in all its phases. They made a sturdy fight against their detention. Colonel Upton called them up, explained to them their position and the position of the government, and his determination to enforce a rigid compliance to orders, and at the same time appealed to their pride and patriotism, and succeeded .in winning them all to a cheerful return to duty. After that they all worked with us, and never kicked or flinched in any field. They numbered more than we did at the time of their joining us, and again made a strong regiment of us. They rivaled us in a friendly way in work and [77] duty, and soon many of them were wearing chevrons betokening sergeant and corporal rank and a few had on shoulder straps.

To give the facts in the case of the recruits to the two-year regiments and their claim, a full statement ought to be made. They were enlisted under a definite promise and understanding that they would be retained in the same regimental organization or discharged with the rest of the regiment. When the regiments were disbanded both of these pledges were ignored and they were ordered to report to the 121st at once. Their protest against this action was submitted to a Board of Investigation, and this Board reported in their favor, so they were organized into an independent battalion and assigned to duty as guard at Brigade Headquarters, until the report of the Board should be acted upon by the War Department at Washington. When it came before Secretary Stanton, with his usual bruskness he dismissed the case, saying, “Might as well disband the army.” So the report came back disapproved on the ground that these men had enlisted for three years and that the government was not responsible for the illegal acts of its agents, or the false promises they had made. Of the other question, as to the detention in the old regimental organization, nothing was said. We had supposed that in joining the old regiments we were doing the best we could for the army and the country; that the plan to fill up and retain the old organizations was the wisest policy and would be adopted by the War Department. In this, according to high military authority, we were right, and it is now conceded that the disbanding of the old regiments, and the organization of so many new ones was a military blunder resulting in the unnecessary loss of thousands of men who had to enter upon hard campaigns [78] and desperate battles with little experience and slight training, and no encouragement of example and precept from old and experienced comrades. Of this mistake the 121st is certainly a good example. Raw men in companionship with veterans and under experienced officers become efficient soldiers much more quickly than can be the case with new officers and new men learning new things by hard won experience under unfavorable conditions.

To resume Comrade Beckwith's narrative.

Our Brigade now reorganized and reformed consisted of the 5th Maine, the 95th Penn. (Gosling Zouaves), the 96th Penn. and the 121st N. Y., commanded by Joseph J. Bartlett.

More than thirty years have elapsed since the battle of Salem Church, yet some of its incidents are as fresh and vivid in my memory as they were on that bright Sunday afternoon when so many of our fellows were shot near that little brick church, which bears today the marks of our rifle balls. All our dead it has been claimed were gathered up after the war and laid in that beautiful national cemetery near the city of Fredericksburg, but when I went over the ground and through the cemetery a few years ago, I failed to find any of the 121st recorded on the headstones, and except near the city from where the Light Brigade charged, I did not see one familiar spot. At home here I often see reminders of that awful five minutes, in the persons of men who were there, and whose shot scarred and crippled limbs attest more plainly than words can the effect of the enemy's fire.

As before stated, the troops opposed to us were Herbert's and Firney's Alabamians, composed of four regiments, commanded that day by General Herbert, who afterwards was a member of President [79] Cleveland's cabinet. They were armed with smooth bore muskets and used three buckshot and a bullet to a charge. This at close range is as effective as any ammunition in the world, and the only wonder to me is that any of us escaped.

Many years after the war I had occasion to go to the room of the Committee on Appropriations of the House of Representatives at Washington. With me was a gentleman, who, having been a newspaper man and a soldier also, had come in contact and become acquainted with a great many public men. As we entered the room the single person present, a fine looking portly gentleman, looked up and my friend said “Good morning, General.” He replied, “Good morning, Buell.” “I was just looking over my mail, and I found among it a card from a little boy in Michigan who wants my autograph. Now I always like to please the children, so I am going to write him at once.” Buell said, “That is very kind of you, General. By the way, you know my friend?” The general looked at me intently a short time and said, “Why I don't seem to remember your face.” Buell spoke up and said, “Why, General, do you not remember one Sunday afternoon up on Fredericksburg Heights, near Salem Church, during the war!” The general rose up, and grasping me by the hand, said, “Why, bless my soul, were you one of Upton's men?” I said, “Yes, General!” He said, “Why I didn't know that any of you got away but Upton, and he was as brave a man as I ever saw. Why, he rode through our line and back, and though we emptied a hundred rifles at him he escaped unhurt. We killed his horse and his men. Why we covered the ground with them after we drove you back .” I interrupted him and said, “I beg your pardon, General, but we were ordered back.” “Have it so,” he said, “perhaps that is the [80] reason any of you escaped. However, after you had left, we gathered up your wounded and did the best we could for them, with the aid of your surgeons who remained upon the field. By the way, Buell, I must recount that affair. We were very short of entrenching tools, and so we utilized an old icehouse to bury those dead Yanks in. You know we constructed our icehouses, by sinking a pit into the ground deep enough to store the ice we needed; around the top we built a low wall and over that a roof, and when we filled them we used straw and chaff to pack the ice in. The icehouse I speak of was convenient and empty; so we took those dead Yanks and put them in the pit as close together as we could. There was over a hundred of them” (some of them must have been from the 16th N. Y. who were on our right and lost heavily). “I thought if they were all together they could keep each other company as they had in life. The matter had passed from my mind, when happening to pass by there on my way to Gettysburg with my command I chanced to see smoke coming out of that icehouse pit, and going to it I found it was on fire, and undoubtedly so from spontaneous combustion. The incident made an impression on my mind and I wrote home about it, describing it and saying that it was no use trying to whip the Yankees; that you could kill them and put them in an icehouse for a grave, and they would come to and set themselves on fire to keep warm. Our mail facilities not being good, some time afterward, lying wounded between the lines upon the Gettysburg field, I bethought me of that letter, and expecting to fall into the Yanks' hands, and believing they would search me and find the letter and reading it, not receive it well, I took it out and chewed it into paper wads and threw them away from me. A little while after [81] some of your troops came up and I was taken back and well cared for.” I said, “General, did you regard the attack we made as well judged?” “Well yes, it was timely but badly supported. I hardly think there was a single line of troops in the Federal army that could have driven my men off, finely posted and sheltered as they were. But if Upton had had another line coming up fifty or a hundred paces in the rear I think we must have yielded, and if we had done so it would have been a very serious blow, because our lines were greatly extended and there were no troops near by to succor us.” Continuing he said, “I knew the troops attacking us were unused to battle by the way they hung on. They ran over our line and took fifty or sixty prisoners on the right of the 16th Alabama, and then stood and let us shoot them down like sheep.” “Any difference in the fighting qualities of Northern and Southern men?” I asked. “Well, yes, I think the Alabamians better than any other troops, but I must say that the way the New Yorkers fought entitles them to the respect of every soldier in either army. But after all the world will never again see such fighting as Lee's army did from Bull Run to Appomattox. My heart swells to bursting with pride and emotion as I think of and recall its heroic achievements. Think of the ragged, half starved, poorly armed battalions from the South successfully resisting for more than four years, all the efforts which the wealth, bravery and skill of the world hurled against them, and then at the last weeping and crying to be led by their old chief in a last charge to a glorious death. I think it the sublimity of bravery and heroism. But your men were brave. Yes, Grant was your best and most skillful general. He pursued but one plan in Virginia, and that was to keep his men in contact and wear us away [82] by friction, knowing that he had unlimited resources to draw from, and we had brought out our last available forces, and the loss of one man to us was equal to three of his, and that was the way he beat us, by constant grinding. Another war? Never, on any issue yet brought forward. The South wants and will have peace, even if it has to fight for it.”

After I left the general I could not help thinking of what he said about the burial of our men in the pit of the icehouse, and I asked Buell if he did not detect a tone of exultation in the general's voice. Buell answered, “No, I think not. He is a splendid old fellow, as kind and tender hearted as a woman. He has a fine record as a soldier, which was cut short by his being disabled by wounds.”

The battle of Salem Heights, or Church, being its first real encounter with the enemy, must be vividly called to memory by this full and graphic account of Comrade Beckwith, both in its experiences and its results. And to all the friends of the men who took part in it both living and dead it will show that their ancestry who fought in the Civil War, were the peers of the brave and faithful of any generation.

As to the Chancellorsville Campaign in general-its brilliant beginning, its gradual degeneration and its final disgraceful collapse, several causes have been given. General Hooker himself ascribed its failure to the tardiness of General Sedgwick in obeying his order, and the Congressional Committee on the conduct of the war so reported (after Sedgwick's death). Hooker's friends ascribed it to the effect of a solid shot hitting the pillar against which Hooker was leaning, and that has been generally accepted, and appears in most of the histories of the war, especially the school histories. [83] As to the first excuse, the simple reading of the record of accomplishment of the Sixth Corps, during the first twenty-four hours after receiving the order to join the rest of the army, is a sufficient refutation. An advance of two miles in constant contact with the enemy, the fighting of two desperate battles, the last of them against great odds, and the successful withdrawal across the river, after an all day's conflict on the second day shows that the part which Sedgwick and the Sixth Corps took is the only really admirable feature of the entire campaign.

As to the second excuse, the writer after the war became well acquainted with the bugler at Army Headquarters, and he ridiculed the idea that the solid shot had anything to do with Hooker's condition at any time. He said that the brandy bottle was the real reason for the fiasco. And, certainly the simple fact that a brandy bottle was frequently resorted to, is a more reasonable explanation of successive developments of the conduct and decisions of the commander of the army than any other can be. From energetic activity, through the different grades of intoxication to final incapacity, is the age old and certain effect of too frequent resorts to the bottle. But those were the days of ignorance of the real character of alcoholic drinks. They were accounted good and necessary by the great majority of people, and were used freely as medicine, as a harmless stimulant under trying circumstances, as an innocent social indulgence and as a creator of “Dutch courage” in time of battle. It was not until the close of the war that a realization of the harmful effect of the use of intoxicants began to be felt.

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