|Unit History Project|
Commander and Comrades: I have been called to relate some of my experience as a soldier.
Well do I remember with what feelings I witnessed the first Companies of the 77th march through the streets of this beautiful village to music of fife and drum to the fairground as they were to camp there until they raised and organized a Regiment under the lamented hero McKean and may his name ever be kept green in the hearts of every patriotic soldier, we left for the seat of War on Thanksgiving Day. How many never returned.
I was enrolled in Company “G” commanded by Capt. C. A. Rice.
In New York
Here we received our colors, arms and equipments leaving for Baltimore the same evening at which place we arrived the evening following.
Here we received our first orders i.e. to fix bayonets and in marching through the city to keep our ranks well closed, as the Reg. previous to ours while marching through had been fired into by the mob. Lieutenant Hammond of Co. “B” led, his being the first company upon our right, and he did lead us too, as he went on a double quick most of the way. It being in the night, the consequence was we stretched out like a string of India Rubber, causing people to make many remarks such as “That is the largest Regiment I ever saw – is there no end to it?” “I hope you will all be killed you d______Yanks” However, we were fortunate enough to get through without any accident and arrived at
Where we went into camp at Meridian Hill one mile from the White House. Here we drilled and did camp duty until spring when we broke camp and crossed the chain bridge into old Virginia where at
Where we lay until the advance was made upon Manassas. However, the Rebels had evacuated the place, and from there we marched to Alexandria and embarked upon transports for Fortress Monroe. This was one of the grandest sights which I ever beheld to see Regiment after Regiment march aboard the boats with the Stars and Stripes waving and hundreds of Bands playing National Airs. It actually made one feel proud to think he was an American Soldier. As we steamed down the Potomac that night, I shall never forget the sad feelings that came over me as we passed Mount Vernon, where rests the remains of the Father of this Republican Government, Washington. He sleeps his last sleep, he has fought his last battle, no sound can awake him to glory again. It was indeed a solemn scene in the silent hours of night with the tolling of bells as each boat passed this hallowed spot with heads uncovered.
We disembarked and passed through what was once the beautiful city of Hampton which was desolute and in ashes, showing most vividly the terrible ravages of war. After passing up the road towards Newport News we encamped for several days during which time we witnessed a very sad scene. Two men had been found sleeping on their posts while doing guard duty, and the Colonel ordered the Regiment out to witness punishment. The guard came forward with prisoners in charge. Colonel McKean then told them that the penalty of such a crime was death but, said he “I will take the responsibility of pardoning you but the next man who is convicted of a similar offense DIES”.
A Quaker Sun.
On the march again for Newport News, going through a piece of woods, we came in sigh of what appeared to be a Rebel battery. We made an advance expecting every moment to see an infernal thing belch forth a shower of leaden hail, but none came, and when we arrived at the spot we found an old Ox Cart minus the box, a large wooden mortar “10 inch bore” with a hogs head in its mouthy. This was the first Rebel piece I had the pleasure to help capture.
A Historic Shot
While encamped on the banks of the James at Newport News, we saw the first shell fired from the Rebel gunboat Teaser as she ran down the river. This is the spot where the famous battle took place between the Monitor and the Merrimac a few days previous. We could see some of the effects as our war vessel the Cumberland, which went down with her colors, still had flying the flat staff, in view above water.
Orders to March
We left camp in the morning, taking the road leading up the James River. This road was quite familiar to our Brigade, having passed over it twice while on a reconnaissance. The enemy had their pickets posted and we could not surprise them, as I supposed the intention was, the reason being that about half
From the Rebel line was a large house, and our pickets had discovered that whenever we moved up the Pike in force, there would be a signal in the shape of a white cloth waving from the window towards the Rebel pickets. Our boys dropped to it and reported. When our Reg’t went by we saw seated upon a trunk at the gate a beautiful lady by the name of Belle Boyd. She was a Rebel spy, and she was sent to the read. When we came to the Reb’s picket post we found their camp fires Still burning but where, on where, were the Rebels? We soon found out at the cost of many a brave soldier’s life.
At Lee’s Mills
On the 16th of April our advance guard came to a sudden halt. Here we found the rebs had built a fort, about eight miles from Yorktown, to protect the latter place and had planted some guns in position. The mill was on Warwick River, a bog running some hundreds of feet above the fort, also a large dam adjoining. Here the 77th was ordered to form. We moved forward on the left, our right resting on the road. We advanced across a piece of plowed field in a heavy shower of rain, at every step sinking ankle deep in the mud.
After crossing the field we came upon a bog, where we halted and moved by the right flank, then filing to the left down the road on a double quick through a piece of woods. Here we passed one of Capt. Mott’s pieces of artillery stuck fast in the mud, the men trying in vain to drag it out with ropes. Passing to the edge of the woods under a heavy fire from the enemy’s fort, filing again to the right along the edge of woods, we were ordered to lie down when Mott opened with his battery of 10 pound rifled guns. This was about nine o’clock. It being the first time our Regiment were under fire there were many pale faces, you can bet. I, for one, wished to bury myself in the mud out of sight but like Hamlet’s ghost I would not go down. It was a very trying time for raw recruits to lay under a tremendous cannonade. Mott shot the reb’s flag staff down twice on the fort and in return, had one of his caissons blown up.
Col. McKean seeing our colors furled and in a black enameled case spoke to the Color bearer and said “Unfurl those colors, it does not look well to have your colors draped in mourning the first time we meet the enemy.”
About this time two staff officers passed in the rear of our line to the right and lay down behind a large Oak tree. They took out their field glasses, thinking they would have a fine view of the fort, when a percussion shell struck the butt of the tree and exploded, causing each man to make a rotary move from the centre on a double quick. Brushing the mud and chips from their eyes, they struck a bee line to the left and passed out of our sight. Neither of them was hurt.
This action lasted about one hour. The firing then ceased and the fort was evacuated. A reconnaissance immediately followed, made by sharpshooters, to ascertain the position of the garrison but they found that it had retired. Quietness now reigned supreme until four oclock, when some Rebel troops were found behind breastworks, defending some guns. Mott’s battery again opened fire and a contest of half an hour’s duration was the consequence. The 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Vermont Regiments were ordered to advance and attack the Rebels who were discovered in larger force in the woods near the fort. These brave regiments advanced boldly to the charge, through the bog and up to their waists in mud and water, ,coming upon a line of rifle pits from which they drove the Rebels, and soon meeting another which they also assaulted, aided by Mott’s battery. At this point the enemy were reinforced thereby obliging the Vermont troops to fall back. In the meantime the Rebs had flooded the bag by opening the mill dam, and a number of wounded, in passing through, were drowned while others were shot down and expired in the water.
In vain, the Sixth Vermont tried to cover the retreat, as they were overpowered by superior numbers. All except the wounded and dying reached a place of safety. Preparations were at once made for a general assault upon Yorktown when to the astonishment of the Federal troops, the place was evacuated by the Rebel Army before daylight of the fourth of May.
Evacuation of Yorktown
The night before the retreat heavy firing had been kept up until midnight, when it ceased. Our pickets were the first to discover the desertion of the entrenchments. General McClellan ordered an immediate pursuit, the army was furnished with two days rations, all being prepared by 8 o’clock, and the retreating army was pursued towards Williamsburg. General Stoneman led the advance with the 1st and 6th Cavalry and 4th battery of artillery. Thus ends the siege of Yorktown.
Here I wish to make a few remarks in regard to my first picket duty with the Rebs face to face. The 77th relieved the 33rd New York at the close of the first days of skirmish. After dark, we marched through the woods, coming upon our skirmishers. Every man had taken possession of the biggest three he could find within reach of his post. They were exchanging shots with the enemy as lively as you please. As we stood and viewed the flashes along the line it reminded me of fireflies after a shower of rain. When the boys knew they were to be relieved they ceased firing and we took possession of the trees, the order being to hold the line at all hazards. As daylight approached I hugged my tree very close, I can assure you. I found we lay upon the bank of the Warwick River, which is about five rods in width, with the Johnnies on the opposite bank. We lay and fired at every one we saw moving and more times at random. One man at my right by the name of Tate Vanderworker said “Dave, come here. There is a reb over there who has fired several times at me and I cannot stop him. You come over and try a shot”. I crept to the tree and lay upon the ground while Vanderworker pointed out the spot from whence the shots had been fired. I shot, coming within six inches of the spot, but it came very near being my last, as a bullet struck the ground too close to me to be comfortable. I rolled over on my back behind the tree and wiped the dirt from my face and eyes. Loading my gun again and raising the sights to three hundred yards, I fired again. This time the shot was not returned. I then crawled back to my own tree.
It commenced to rain in the afternoon – you all know what a Virginia rain is. Night approaches and we are not relieved – at dark there came an order to Lieut. Rugg to send a corporal and two men down the river bank some forty rods in advance of his picket line. He ordered a detail. Corporal Harris, L. Vandenburg and J. Vandenburgh were drawn for this duty. It was then dark and the rain was pouring down in torrents. When the corporal reported to Lieut. Rugg for instructions he looked more like a corpse than a living man and I thought he had an attack of ague from the way he shook. The Lieut. Said “Corporal Weatherwax, you will take charge of this detail”. Ah, then it was my turn to shake. Well, comrades, I could not help it as it was so dark and I was wet to the skin, cold and I might say hungry, as our company had eaten but one rations of beans in forty eight hours. I took my men and went very cautiously down through the woods until I came to the bank of the river. Here we found a stick of timber hewn out for the knee of a vessel. There we sat through the long weary hours of night listening to the rain and watching one solitary light on the enemy’s fort. Just up the river, a little before daylight we reported to our command when our Company were relieved, and went into camp, some half a mile to the rear. Thus ends my first picket duty with an enemy in rifle shot of your humble servant.
How I lost my title as 6th Corporal while encamped around Lee’s Mills.
General Davidson issued strict orders to allow no soldier to fire his gun without permission from his superior officers. The enemy would do everything possible to annoy and break us of our rest all night by firing at our pickets at all hours of the night, when the order would be “77th Fall in”, and we had to go out and support our pickets.
One dark and rainy night, as all the boys were reposing upon our flowery beds of ease – oh, no, I mean pine boughs ! We were aroused by the rattle of musketry and that well known “Boys, fall in on the color line” of our Colonel. As every man came up he had to put his hand out and feel for his next comrade because of the pitchy dark- ness. It was the only way we could tell whether we were in line or not. One man in the confusion asked Captain White, who had command of my company at the time, if he could fire off his gun, and the Captain, misunderstanding him, said “Yes”, when bang went his gun just as my hand touched his shoulder and the voice of Colonel McKean was heard asking who fired that gun. Well, boys, under the circumstances and excitement I froze by the man, when he said “Damn you, let go of me” and tried to get away, but I was like that old Virginia plaster you read about - the more you try to pull it off, the tighter sticks the plaster – The reason is, because my name is ‘wax’. I said to the Colonel, “hold your lantern this way and we will see who he is. He and General Davidson came up and saw who the man was and who held him. The General said “Send that man to my headquarters under escort”. Under the circumstances the first thought was that he was a Rebel spy in our camp, and had fired his gun to let the Rebs know where to direct their fire. When we mustered for pay, your humble servant was promoted to 5th Sergeant. I thought the next jump would be to Colonel, but those hopes were never realized.
I will return to the Battle of Williamsburg at some future time.
New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History