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Chapter 8:

  • Winter camp at White Oak Church and the “mud march”
  • -- the “darkest hours” of the Army of the Potomac -- the “dead march” -- death of Comrade Pooler -- evangelists in camp -- reminiscences of the period -- the emancipation Proclamation -- Capt. McCartney -- recollections of the “mud march” -- Gen. Burnside is relieved of command at his own request -- Gen. Hooker reorganizes the Army -- preparations for an advance -- roster of the Sixth Corps, December 13, 1862

Our company lay in the rear of the church, and Hexamer's Hoboken Battery lay upon our right. The next week was diligently employed in preparing as comfortable winter quarters for men and horses as available means would permit; and the ingenuity and industry of the individuals of the several detachments soon reared a village of small log cabins with stone fireplaces, with their shelter-tents for the roofs of their dwellings, that was interesting to behold. A corral for the horses, the most comfortable and convenient that we ever saw in a winter camp in this army, was contrived by clearing an oval space in the clump of evergreens, and by further sheltering it from the blasts by a tall, thick, brush-work fence of evergreen boughs. The picket-rope was stretched around the oval, at sufficient distance from the fence to allow the horses to stand with their heads facing in upon the plot. It was undeniable that few companies of the mounted service that participated in all the campaigns from the spring of 1862 until January, 1863, could show during that period a better record in regard to the care and preservation of army horses than ours. This was due to the selection of experienced and faithful stable sergeants and assistants, who, under the direction of Lieut. Federhen, who was a lover of the animal, pursued a careful system of feeding, watering, and grooming. So, under the keen supervision of Commander McCartney, who was familiar with and watchful of every detail of the work, our stable always presented a first-class appearance, and our complement of horses, in the field or on the march, was among the most efficient.

During the week in which we were engaged in preparing winter quarters and were busily working up the details of the arrangements for spending some weeks at this place, an address from [99] President Lincoln was read to the company at the five o'clock roll-call, in which he commended the bravery of the troops in the action of the 13th of December, and sought to comfort and encourage them, saying, ‘It was not a defeat, but a mistake.’ The reader will remember our allusion to his visit at Harrison's Landing, and our remarks upon the hopeful patriotism of Old Abe.

We believe this period, from December, 1862, until the following May, may be termed the darkest hours of the Army of the Potomac. The death rate in the camps during the winter must have been higher than during any other season of cessation from active duty in the field or on the march. This was not due to any circumstances of the situation of the camps; these deaths and the diseases from which they often resulted, were the culmination of the excessive fatigue, hardships, and wounds of the three campaigns, hastened by the despondency which the immediate military situation engendered. Every afternoon we heard the ‘Dead March,’ and every afternoon saw some funeral cortege moving to the little cemetery at the rear of White Oak church. We had but one death in our company, although several were discharged, whose disability, in the judgment of the surgeons, rendered it improbable that they would again be serviceable soldiers. We believe the number of these did not exceed four. One comrade who passed ‘over the river’ at this time, deserves more than a passing notice. John Pooler, our chief blacksmith, a skilful mechanic, a good soldier, an upright man, succumbed to a fever which must have been malignant indeed, to overcome a constitution so strong as our comrade possessed. We lost a man whose place was difficult to fill; for, beside the constant requisition upon his services for horse-shoeing, and for repair of our equipments, there were emergencies often arising in our career when very much depended upon this artificer's genius to contrive and skill to execute. Comrade Pooler's character compelled the respect of officers and men. The eulogistic remarks of the venerable chaplain of the Fifth Maine, who officiated at the funeral, remarks which must have been inspired by our commander, attested how thoroughly the latter appreciated the deceased.

Some days before New Year, evangelists, under the auspices of the United States Christian Commission, began to hold meetings [100] in old White Oak church. From the regiments and batteries around about, a large concourse of auditors would be gathered in the evening and on Sunday. These occasions furnished an opportunity for vocal exercises, elocutionary and musical, by the soldiers of the Sixth Corps, the results showing that this command could furnish a delegation which would possess a wide range of talent. There were, moreover, among the evangelists, some young men whose presence and whose evident adaptation to the work of their mission, conjoined to undoubted good moral character, doubtless made them efficient agents for good. One of these gentlemen was one evening descanting in a popular way upon the Commandents, when a rattle-brained fellow passing the door, bawled out, ‘Go to hell!’ The self-possessed exhorter, abashed neither by the shout nor the sensation which it created in the audience, quickly made of the incident a text, upon which he preached a brief sermon on profanity, relating at the outset the now threadbare yarn about Beecher's ‘'T is a d—d hot day.’

Colporteurs and exhorters, and even revivalists, were plentiful in the camps in the winter of 1861 and 1862; and the humorous traditions of that period have among their leaves an account of a jealous or zealous colonel, whose emulation being excited by a revivalist's representation that seven men in a neighboring regiment had been baptized, cried to a sergeant to detail fifteen men to be baptized, adding that he did not propose to be outdone by Colonel——of the——th.

Sutlers were also numerous, even as crows and buzzards. Occasionally one's team, loaded with goods, would by mistake drive into our company street, and our commander would hasten it to the right about; the sutler would palaver, hinting at favors; the captain would silence him, saying, ‘We live upon rations here, not favors!’

Christmas was enjoyed here with something like old-time festivity, and a bill of fare quite in the appropriate line of holiday feasts was arranged and discussed.

One week later the army and the nation were thrilled by the advent of the ‘Emancipation Proclamation.’ Every contraband who might be waiting upon an officer's mess, or cleaning an officer's horse, every colored servant, every African mule-driver, on the morning of the 1st of January, 1863, became at once as [101] completely a new object of interest to the average soldier, as if the black man had just dropped from the clouds before his startled eyes. The various comments of the press of that day upon this measure, may be taken as representative indications of the various shades of sentiment with which the immortal proclamation was received. There were men in every company of the Army of the Potomac who perfectly comprehended the relation which slavery sustained to secession, and who had foreseen the necessity of an emancipation measure when the first gun was fired. There were others who looked upon the measure, this day, as a dangerous expedient.

Long before we had entered upon the new year, Capt. Porter had resigned, and it was inexplicable why the governor of our state had not forwarded to the efficient commander of our battery his captain's commission. How well he had led his company hither, on the toilsome marches from Antietam, how ably he had handled his company on the 13th of December, was sufficiently evidenced by the indorsement of his corps, division, and brigade commanders. But when at last there was a tardy recognition of his merits and his rights, another vexatious mistake must needs occur to disturb the equilibrium of our company existence. By the promotion of Capt. McCartney, of course his lieutenants would be severally moved forward one step, thus leaving a vacant junior second lieutenancy. Our orderly sergeant, a thorough soldier, with qualifications for command, should have been immediately elevated to the lieutenancy, but curiously enough our governor commissioned a comparatively recent recruit. We believe this official act was resented by the whole command; not that there was, so far as we are aware, any prejudice against the recipient of the governor's favor; he certainly was an exemplary young man; the resentment was an instinctive protest against an act of injustice to the soldier who stood first in the line of promotion.

New Year passed, and three weeks of varied winter weather followed, time replete with incidents of camp life, as checkered as is usually the stream of events in a large community; when, on Wednesday, the 23d of January, the left grand division was once more in motion. This time the columns moved to the west. The air had been so cold during the previous week, and the [102] frosts so keen, that the roads seemed as firm as adamant, and the teams were moved with celerity. When we reached that portion of our line in the rear of Falmouth, a part of the centre grand division not yet in motion, we found that the troops that were encamped in and around Falmouth, and in fact none of those whose camps were in view of the Confederates, had changed their position.

This expedition was evidently to be a surprise. It was declared that though there was a show of force upon the heights behind Fredericksburg, and apparently the same condition of things as had obtained for weeks was unchanged, yet Lee had despatched a large force down to Port Royal, eighteen miles below Franklin's Crossing, apprehending a Federal attack in that quarter, a feint having been made at that point. He was not deceived by the apparent inactivity of the Federals around Falmouth. Here now was the bulk of Burnside's army making for Banks's or Kelly's Fords above Fredericksburg.

It was a splendid day, and mounted and foot made good time over the firm roads. Auspices were favorable, and rank and file were hopeful of a successful result. The left grand division at night was in a position back from the ford, and as near as it was practicable to have so large a force and permit the speedy and safe crossing of the river. The corps were brought together as compactly as was possible and yet allow the unobstructed march of the brigades.

Scarcely had night arrived when a storm arose, a storm in earnest. It was as though the heavens first frowned upon our enterprise, and then poured wrath upon it. The rain fell in torrents, dissolving the firm crust which had borne us up faithfully all day. The winds rocked the trees spitefully. Wheels settled down into the oozing mud hours before an attempt was made to move a carriage. Morning dawned upon a dank, wet body of men in a cheerless wilderness of trees and mud; but with the light there was bustle and activity. The infantry were soon in column, and moved over the way with comparative ease. At the same time, by the most strenuous efforts of men and horses, the pieces and caissons, whose wheels were imbedded by their own weight in the camp, were moved to the road to take their places in column. Now was a desperate attempt to advance, down sank the wheels, down fell [103] the horses; the poor brutes would look over their shoulders, wondering what kind of burden they had to-day, would make a frantic effort to start the carriage, then subside into their tracks and stand motionless. Now a dozen, now fifteen pairs would be attached to a caisson to move it over a particularly bad place, the succeeding carriage waiting until the way was clear; then the extra horses being taken off, the former team moving on, the same tactics would be tried with the succeeding piece or caisson; but the ruts had been cut deeper and the mud had oozed in, and the augmented team, in spite of whip and imprecation, fails to move the burden one jot. The horses seem to reason among themselves, and to conclude that it is impossible to move the carriage up the hill this day.

It needs a train of stubborn mules to force through the mire the heavy caisson; so the mules are attached, they are spurred on at the outset, taken quite by surprise before they have time to contemplate the situation, and they hurry along the carriage through the mud, up the hill and on for a way, when they are relieved and the horses are reattached. In the meanwhile sections of artillery become separated on the road by long intervals. The teams of a company are scattered, a wagon will be struggling here, and half a mile away one belonging to the same command will be in the same predicament. Pontoon wagons were held fast, and at last only moved by half a hundred men pulling them out with the prolong-rope. The sole consolation in this wretched condition of things was the reflection that the Confederates, if they had discovered our plans, were equally unable to move through the all-hindering mud. After a day of such experience, horses detached from the artillery were ridden back to the quartermaster's wagons, and each driver, taking a bag of grain, conveyed it to his company, where it was distributed from point to point. On the following day, by slow and painful effort, the scattered detachments were gathered in column, and the procession moved back to the winter quarters of the various commands.

Three months of genuine winter, with storm and sleet, precluded further field operations during the season. Gen. Burnside was at his own request relieved of the command of the Army of the Potomac on the 26th of January, six days after we entered upon the ‘mud march.’ Gen. Hooker assumed command. During the [104] dark period of depression that followed the battle of the 13th of December, desertions as well as disease and death were too common incidents. How much the numerical force of this army was decreased through this one agency will probably never be known, but the consequent demoralization was so palpable to the new commander that he applied himself with characteristic energy to its repair. Not only were the proper means employed to gather back to their commands those absent, but also rational methods of inspiring those present with patriotism and zeal, and with confidence in the commanding general; for example, a judicious system of furloughs was instituted.

As success crowned the efforts of Gen. Hooker in reorganizing by spring an effective army, whose self-confidence was restored, and whose strength was greater than on the ill-fated day in December when it crossed the Rappahannock, it ought to be recorded on every page that illustrates the splendid military achievements of Hooker, that he was the commander who knew how to inspire confidence in himself by considerately reposing confidence in others.

Few, indeed, were the desertions among those who enjoyed the privilege of a brief home visit during February and March, 1863. To our company it is a matter of honorable pride and everlasting satisfaction, that during those melancholy days no name upon our roster was sullied. On the 27th of April, our army had 12,000 cavalry, now for the first time organized in a corps under a commander of special distinction in this arm of the service. There were 120,000 infantry and artillery. On this day, to our company, as a representative of the last named arm, were read the general orders, which involved specific directions as to individual preparation for the campaign that was to open on the morrow.

We were to turn in our dress uniforms, all extra blankets and clothing, reserving only a change of shirts and stockings. We were to use knapsack or valise thus relieved to carry five days rations of bread, (as many days' rations of meat were to follow us in shape of beef creatures,) and we were to take three days supply of bread and meat in our haversacks.


Roster. Sixth Army Corps.

December 13, 1862.

Right of the Left Grand Division.—Maj. Gen. W. B. Franklin, Commanding.

Sixth Corps.—Maj. Gen. W. F. Smith, Commanding.

First Division.

Brig. Gen. W. T. H. Brooks, Commanding.

First Brigade.—Col. A. T. A. Torbert, Commanding, 1st, 2d, 3d, 4th, 15th, and 23d New Jersey Volunteers.

Second Brigade.—Brig. Gen. J. J. Bartlett, Commanding, 27th, 16th, 121st New York, 5th Maine, and 96th Pennsylvania.

Third Brigade.—Col. G. W. Towne, Commanding, 18th, 31st, and 32d New York, and 95th Pennsylvania.


Williston's D, 2d United States; McCartney's A, 1st Massachusetts; Hexamer's A, 1st New Jersey; Walcott's A, 1st Maryland.

Second Division.

Brig. Gen. A. P. Howe, Commanding.

First Brigade.—Brig. Gen. C. E. Pratt, Commanding, 5th Wisconsin, 49th Pennsylvania, 6th Maine, 43d New York, 119th Pennsylvania.

Second Brigade.—Col. Henry Whiting, Commanding, 2d, 3d, 4th, 5th, and 6th Vermont, and 26th New Jersey.

Third Brigade.—Brig. Gen. Francis L. Vinton, Commanding, 20th, 33d, 49th, and 77th New York, and 21st New Jersey Volunteers.


Ayres's F, 5th United States; Snow's B, 1st Maryland; Cowan's 1st New York Battery; Stewart's 3d New York.

Third Division.

Brig. Gen. John Newton, Commanding.

First Brigade.—Brig. Gen. John Cochrane, Commanding, 23d, 61st, and 82d Pennsylvania, 65th, 67th, and 122d New York Volunteers.

Second Brigade.—Brig. Gen. Chas. Devens, Commanding, 7th, 10th, and 37th Massachusetts, 2d Rhode Island, and 36th New York Volunteers.

Third Brigade.—Col. T. A. Rowley, Commanding, 62d New York, 93d, 98th, 102d, and 139th Pennsylvania Volunteers.


Butler's G, 2d United States; McCarthy's C, 1st Pennsylvania.

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