|Unit History Project|
Among the Pontoons at Fitzhugh Crossing
Paper Prepared and Read
Transcribed by Thomas J. Ebert
It may be well to state at the outset of this paper that inaccuracies may be expected in it. What is proposed to be given is the impression made on my memory by the events of a night and succeeding morning, of which there is no complete record in existence anywhere, so far as I know; and in recalling the incidents of which I have only the assistance of a meager pocket diary, with brief entries made while I was exhausted by labor and want of sleep. Human memory is not wholly reliable at best, and I cannot hope that my own recollections of a portion of the preliminary work before the battle of Chancellorsville will be all that one could desire, since the greater engagement so soon eclipsed the smaller ones; and, especially since the closing of my term of service, a few weeks after that time, brought into view the home which I had not seen for more than two years and which I was still boy enough to regard as the one object of the heart’s profoundest aspiration and affection.
I was in command of my company on the night of the 28th of April, 1863. The captain was suffering from the effects of wounds received eight months before in the battles about Bull Run, where the company had felt the focal fire of Longstreet’s and Jackson’s troops in the memorable charge of the last day’s fighting on that historic ground. Of about fifty of us who had participated in that desperate effort, and in the conflict of night before at Groveton, only five could be found to answer to the calling of their names on the occasion of the bi-monthly muster of August 31, 1862, the next day after the failure to carry the old railroad embankment. Of course, a number of our men who had been absent in hospital or on detached service during the events of Pope’s North Virginia campaign, with others who had recovered from the effects of wounds received at that time, had returned to their duties in the field; but we were still unable to bring more than forty men to the front, for recruiting of old regiments was not then much in fashion, and reorganization for the war was unknown. We had marched on that warm April day of which I am speaking from our old camp at Acquia Creek to Falmouth, and from Falmouth a few miles down the north bank of the Rappahannock, and had composed ourselves at nightfall for a sleep, such as soldiers know how to enjoy and appreciate after a whole day of wearisome work and travel. Before we had resigned ourselves to slumber, however, an order was received to be in instant readiness to march again, and we reluctantly gave up the idea of rest. At about ten o’clock in the evening the command was given to fall in, and the ranks were immediately formed, no one among us knowing where we were to go or when we would stop.
As a matter of fact, we did stop at a distance of thirty or forty rods from our starting point. Those who can recall any personal experience of the moving of armies by night, especially in the east and during the first two years of the war, do not need to be reminded that one of the first orders given to troops after getting fairly started was generally a season of confusion and impatience, lasting for what seemed an almost interminable time, before it became clear to the minds of the officers in charge what the course of march should be, and how it ought to be carried forward. This occasion was no exception to the general rule, and after standing in the ranks for a while, waiting for the official intellect to clear itself enough to assume direction of affairs, the boys began to rest themselves by sitting down, and at last many of them were asleep on the ground when another instruction for forward movement was received; and directly, in the darkness of the warm spring evening, the whole valley filled with vapors from the river and its damp shores, we groped and stumbled along as we were guided until the road was found occupied with a long train of pontoons and their appurtenances for bridge building. The pontoons were of wood, large and heavy as they had to be in order to sustain, after being anchored in a river, the timbers connecting them with one another, the plank road resting upon those timbers, and heavy guns to be drawn over the bridges thus constructed. Our brigade (the one made picturesque by our “red-legged” comrades of the Brooklyn 14th, and by the bright trappings of Harris Light Cavalry and of Gibbons’ regular battery, the one which was then numbered first, of the 1st Division of the 1st Army Corps) turned aside and marched along until it was abreast of the train, when the infantry were halted and ordered to unload the boats.
The way in which volunteer soldiers used to undertake such a piece of work is a familiar memory to all participants in the great internecine conflict. Though the pontoons were awkward things to handle they were speedily lifted from their trucks and deposited alongside of the road. With the quick perception of the soldiers of those days it became understood by all that this act was preliminary to a silent crossing of the Rappahannock, and that the cumbrous boats were to be conveyed to the river shore by the hands of the soldiers themselves, in order to avoid giving that information to the enemy which would have been conveyed by the noise of the unwieldy train, if that had rumbled down to the water with is usual accompaniment of clattering timber, of shrieking mules, and of swearing drivers. Therefore, the further orders to carry this wagon train load of heavy boats and timbers was not all unexpected, and the work was cheerfully undertaken by the men, who had no idea, however, of the distance which they were to overcome. Planks and beams from the train were laid on the ground transversely to the line of march. The muskets and other impedimenta were disposed of to the best practicable advantage. The flat-bottomed pontoons were lifted over upon the cross timbers, each end of each bearing plank or timber was hoisted breast high by a brave and willing pair of hands, and the long lines of men moved forward with the boats borne between them. For some time the march was continued in silence, as had been intended from the first. But as the long minutes wore on, with no signs of shore apparent, the burden of carriage became too great for the soldiers’ strength. Obliged by the compulsion of fatigue to stop sometimes for rest, the intervals of marching forward became shorter, and voices had to be used to prevent irregularity in lowering the boats as well as to halt those in the rear of a group too tired to proceed farther. With every fresh effort the burden became less tolerable, and occasionally a man, who had strained every nerve to keep up with his fellows, would collapse and leave a vacancy, the filling of which was sure to cause more or less confusion. Finally the officers had to take hold with the men and silence became impracticable. Hour after hour we struggled along, stumbling, cursing, and panting for breadth under the ponderous burdens. It seemed as though the river was withdrawing from us and could never be reached. The damp meadows over which we were groping our way became as mortar under our feet. Man after man dropped to the ground unable to sustain the work. Morning was coming on apace and still no sign of the Rappahannock. The babbling of many tongues swelled up from the ranks, and from the distant hills came the sound of cock-crowing, the precursor of breaking day.
It was evident that the intended surprise of the rebel works across the river could not be accomplished, and that, without, the help of trains, the pontoons could not be brought to the river before the daylight. So the wagons were brought up, the boats and timbers reloaded, and our all-night work cast aside as naught. A thick fog covered the river as we reached the shore with the pontoon train at our elbows, and again the work of unloading was begun. So thick was the dank river-cloud in which we were enveloped that we could see only a few yards away when the increasing daylight turned its dense darkness to a ghostly white. We were at a narrow section of the river locally known as Fitzhugh’s Crossing, and from the top of the bluffs on the opposite side we could hear the taunting salutations of the rebels, who promised to fill us with lead as they should be able to see us. There was, in fact, good reason to suppose that these promises would be made good to all intents and purposes. The line of rifle-pits occupied by the enemy on the opposite bluffs was of a somewhat more workmanlike character than was generally shown in their defenses of that character. Following the bends of the river, the main ditch was of the ordinary depth and width of our own rifle pits, with the excavated soil thrown towards the river in suchwise as to protect the occupants to the height of nearly five feet. The river fog was slowly dissolving, and if we should become visible from the bluff across the river before our pontoons should be deposited at the water’s edge we would undoubtedly prove easy victims to the aim of ta line of riflemen firing over an earthwork as high as their shoulders. We therefore worked industriously to accomplish our task, and before the fog had grown thin enough to be seen through from the other side of the river, the pontoons were placed on the shore with their noses in the water and the planks and connecting timbers deposited in heaps behind them. In the meantime a scattering fire of the confederate infantry had been opened upon us at random, but without any effect until the work of unloading was completed. By this time the sun had risen and the outlines of moving objects could be distinguished from one bank to the other. A sharp fusilade from the other bank was experienced and bullets whistled about our ears and tore up the ground in our immediate vicinity, though I do not remember any casualties in our regiment from this source. A few shots were then fired from our own side, but we were directly ordered to fall back and cease firing. Sleepily and wearily we obeyed, but without taking the trouble to form ranks. Twenty-four hours of almost continuous strain on nerve and muscle had changed the majority of us into half inert quantities of flesh and bones. We lay down on the ground, as favorable places were discovered, without exerting ourselves so far as to get out of musket range of the enemy. The 4th Brigade of our division – known among us then as the Wisconsin Brigade, but afterwards renowned throughout the west as the Iron Brigade – marched down past us, and a sufficient number of the boys filled some of the boats amidst the pattering of bullets from the earthworks on the southern bank. Gen. Wadsworth, eagle eyed and white-haired, leaped into the stern of one of the pontoons, dragging his horse after him by the bridle. Our batteries from behind us made the air over the rebel line white with exploding shells, so that they were glad to keep their heads under shelter, and the troops pushed across while the rebel batteries from the hills beyond threw their exploding shells over the river for our own entertainment.
It was a splendid sight to see the little blue-coated crowd rush up the bank along with the white-headed general, and a few moments afterwards to see the rebels swarm out of their rifle pits into the open, chased hotly by the vigorous boys from the west. Some dozens of Confederates took refuge in a barn on the open plateau, but a few well directed shells sent into the building were an inducement for them to come out and give themselves up. About a hundred prisoners were taken from among the occupants of the rifle-pits, and the 1st Brigade was still trying to get a little sleep between the fires of the opposing batteries. About noon, however, the bridges were completed, and we were ordered across to take our places in the late rebel works, which followed the windings of the Rappahannock for a long distance on the crest of the river bank. But our labors were not completed even then. Far into the succeeding night the boys toiled with spades and pickaxes, throwing the earth, which had been piled up at the side of the rifle-pits toward the river, over upon the other side of the entrenchment, as a defense on our own front. Then we were permitted to take a rest, which was enjoyed until the order arrived a few days after, for the 1st Corps to recross the river and march to Chancellorsville.
The time seems to have arrived when it is considered good form to sneer at the Union soldiers of the civil war. Even men who fought bravely in the field, and endured manfully the hardships and privations of campaigning, are often ashamed to speak of that part of their past history, as though there was something about the matter for which they ought rightfully to suffer blame and reproach. This does not seem to me reasonable or profitable from a patriotic standpoint. The young men of 1861 were of the same blood as the young men of to-day, and the latter doubtless have brawn, brain and temper like those of the generation by which the country’s integrity was saved, and under similar circumstances would comport themselves as their fathers and elder brothers did in the war to suppress the rebellion. But it fell to the lot of that generation to face death in a thousand forms for the accomplishment of their supremely patriotic purpose; and, if that fact is to their credit, let credit be given them. If discreditable, let us together accept the discredit. In the present paper I have recalled an incident in which fighting does not occupy a prominent place, in order to show that the battlefield was not the only scene of soldier life in which pluck was required and exposure to danger occurred. Of the men who helped carry the pontoons at Fitzhugh’s Crossing nearly all were disabled to a greater or lesser extent by the night’s work, and some were struck with death. I think that not a half dozen of the whole number of my own company (“K,” of the 24th N.Y.) are alive at this time, and none of us are in as sound bodily health as we should have been but for that night’s experience. Of course, we would not be eligible to the pension list on that account if we needed pensions; for among us all, in the darkness and the benumbing influence of sleeplessness, who could testify that he knew his comrade’s ever-diminishing hold upon healthful life certainly began at that precise time? There were more things in the campaign life of a soldier than are dreamt of in the philosophy of a pension legislator.
New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History