|Unit History Project|
Paper Prepared and Read
Transcribed by Thomas J. Ebert
On the 28th of September 1862, Gen. Rufus King, who during the preceding summer had commanded the First Division of the First Corps of the Union army, wrote to Gen. Pope’s chief of staff a letter containing the following: “When I turned over the command of the division to Hatch, all the papers were left with him, including the reports of the several brigades as to the operations during the latter part of August, and the battles of the 28th, 29th, and 30th.” What may have become of the papers turned over to Gen. Hatch, history does no record, though it is probable enough that they were lost during the Bull Run disasters; but, at any rate, the fact remains that in all the vast amount of material gathered and published by the United States government, and comprising the documentary record of the war for the Union, there is nothing whatever in the nature of an official report, from parties immediately concerned, of anything done by King’s Division or any part thereof, for the three weeks beginning with the 8th day of August, 1862.
On that day two of the brigades, Gibbon’s and Hatch’s, returned from a three days reconnoissance southerly to the head waters of the Mattapony River. This reconnoissance had comprised a great deal of marching under a sweltering sun, and more skirmishing with detached fragments of the rebel army; and the return to camp found us so badly fatigued that a little rest seemed absolutely necessary, although orders had apparently already been received for our force to join the main body of Pope’s army, in the vicinity of Culpepper Court House. So, on the next day, while the battle of Cedar Mountain was being fought, we of King’s Division were resting on the banks of the Rappahannock, opposite Fredericksburg, in preparations for the long march, which we knew would begin on the morning of Sunday, the 10th. Saturday night was sultry, and the sleep of the soldiers was not so deep and restful as would have been the case under more favorable conditions of temperature. At three o’clock in the morning, however, we were called up from our couches of pine boughs and bidden to prepare ourselves for the march. As in many other instances, the call was somewhat premature in this case, and after strapping together our light baggage and eating our breakfast, we waited wearily for an hour and a quarter longer, until five o’clock, before being ordered into line. That Sunday was not characterized by any exhibition of religious devotion on the part of the soldiers of the division. A sultry morning had followed the super-heated night, and had found us in that weakened state of body and mind which is sure to accompany such climatic conditions.
Gen. King himself was suffering from a severe illness which had already afflicted him for several days and from the effects of which he never entirely recovered; but the hope of a decisive battle under the fighting commander fresh from Western victories, whose headquarters had been officially proclaimed to be in the saddle, spurred us all on to our best endeavor in order to reach the appointed rallying place. The long columns stretched away over the Falmouth hills to the northwest, following the course of the Rappahannock, and during the early hours of the day presented a beautiful as well as a magnificent spectacle. The average age of the men who set out from Falmouth on that Sunday morning probably did not exceed 22 years, and the buoyancy of youth was visible in every movement of every company. They were well disciplined and possessed an esprit du corps which impelled them to take the best care of their uniforms and equipments, so that their appearance in their lines of march, so long as they were able to keep strictly in line --- the dark and the light blue of the infantry relieved by the overtopping glean of shining muskets, the occasional scarlet and orange trappings of the artillery and cavalry, and the burning bronze of howitzers or the dead black of rifled Parrots --- was something never to be forgotten after having been once seen. The music of familiar hymns and songs was lifted up, too, by thousands of voices and added to the fascination of the spectacle.
But as that scorching Virginia sun climbed higher towards the zenith, there were marked changes in the aspect of the moving columns. The atmosphere was like a great hot sponge, which sucked the moisture out of every pore of the soldier’s body. From under the feet of thousands of men and horses, and from under the wheels of baggage and ammunition wagons and artillery, arose clouds of impalpable dust, which seemed to intensify the heat of the broiling sun to the men who marched, and which covered them gradually, but surely, with a lime-like coating, and dimmed the burnished metal surfaces of guns, belt-plates, and buttons, besides making its way into the mouths and nostrils of the troops, as well, permeating to the skin through the warp and woof of every uniform. The horse dragged themselves and their burdens wearily along, and at intervals more and more frequent, men who could no longer keep up the march were lying supine on the roadside grasping for breath. I remember seeing one body of a dead soldier who had been prostrated by sunstroke, so that he fell in his tracks and was run over by the wheels of a gun carriage. When a streamlet or spring was reached it was lined with eager soldiers scrapping the muddy bottom with cups in order to provide for their exhausted canteens. By midday the columns had become straggling multitudes of soldiers, with officers and men of all the infantry commands mingled together in apparently inextricable confusion.
As one o’clock we were halted at the banks of a little mill-stream which was still utilized for the purposes of the primitive flour mill standing near, the headquarters of the various regiments being sufficiently designated to bring each command into some sort of order. Here a long rest was taken while waiting for the stragglers to come up, and the men improved their time as they thought most advantageous for them, lying on their backs, or making coffee, or bathing, as they saw fit. In the middle of the afternoon a thunder storm occurred, which left no coolness in its wake, and at 5 p.m. the march was resumed to Kelly’s Ford, where we crossed the Rappahannock after dark, and at ten o’clock lay down in a grain field to sleep, hardly be imagined by one who has not experienced something of the same kind in his own person.
Our sleep lasted about four hours, when reveille again aroused us. As on the preceding morning, two hours were spent waiting for the order to fall in, so that our second start was made at the “first blush of dawn.” This day was very much a repetition of Sunday in its general character, our halt at Stevensburg beginning at 2 p.m. and lasting until 5, when we again moved forward until, at 10 o’clock in the evening, we were permitted to lie down to sleep in a field about two miles from the battlefield of Cedar Mountain. On Tuesday morning we were permitted to sleep as long as we desired, and spent the day at our ease. In the course of it many went over the Saturday’s battle field, the stench of which, especially from slaughtered horses whose bodies were half burned or left entirely untouched, pervaded the surrounding atmosphere for miles.
Late in the day we were ordered to pitch our shelter tents, which we found to be very necessary for anything like comfort, as the night of Tuesday turned out to be the beginning of that series of intensely cold nights which were experienced during the rest of the Virginia campaign. Very few of the enlisted men were provided with blankets for the reason that they were unable to carry them on the tiresome marches. Some had thin rubber ponchos in addition to their sheets of tent cloth, but even these were in the minority, as the greater number of soldiers found that they were unable to go through the day’s march with anything more than their rations and ammunition, the arms and accroutrements which they were obliged to carry, and their single tent cloths. The changes from intense heat during the day to almost freezing cold during the night were therefore very destructive to the health and strength of the soldiers.
We continued in this camp for three days longer, until the succeeding Saturday, when we were removed to a point at the foot of Cedar Mountain and were fortunately able to obtain straw to use as bedding, so that we remained there in tolerable comfort Sunday and Monday. On Monday night, however, we were not permitted to undress, but lay down to sleep with all our accroutrements and in line of battle. At 2 o’clock Tuesday morning we were called up and made to wait for many long hours before getting fairly started on our way. At noon we had covered about two miles of the road, and from that time until midnight marched northward towards the railroad crossing of the Rappahannock. Our bivouac was at Brandy Station, and before starting on again in the morning we found that we were covering the retreat northward of the whole army, the only troops in our rear being a few squadrons of cavalry. About noon we crossed the Rappahannock, and a few hours later observed with interest a hand to hand sabre fight between our own cavalry which had not yet crossed the bridge and the advance of the enemy’s horse. The latter soon retired, however, and the few regiments of Hartstuff’s Brigade remaining on the south side of the river continued to hold their position there. The tents of King’s Division were pitched upon the north side, the operation being a simple one, so far as we enlisted men were concerned. We were ordinarily grouped three men to a tent, each furnishing one section of cloth, and two muskets being used for the front and rear uprights. By this combination we secured a covering at the rear and on each side of our respective little habitations, about six feet by four in dimension on the ground. As we had obtained our knapsacks from the baggage wagon during the afternoon, we were able to use them for pillows and to make ourselves comparatively comfortable for the night. This was the only night of our three weeks’ campaign, however, in which we enjoyed so much luxury. At 4 o’clock on Thursday morning we were awakened and ordered to replace our knapsacks in the baggage wagons bound for Catlett’s station, to which place it was understood that we were soon to follow. While doing some letter-writing in the course of the morning, I was surprised by the explosion of a shell directly over my head, which was followed by others coming from the direction of the rebels, who were soon answered by our own batteries a little in the rear of ourselves. Directly afterwards we learned that a rebel cavalry regiment had just crossed the river at Beverly Ford, a mile and a half further up, capturing a few prisoners and muskets.
The whole division was therefore moved up the river, Hatch’s Brigade (in one of the “K” companies of which I then occupied the distinguished position of junior corporal) lying down in a line just close enough to the crest of the elevation near the water so that we would not be seen by the enemy unless we should lift up our heads. Naturally, most of us elevated our heads frequently in order to see what the people across the Rappahannock were doing, Stuart having taken back his cavalry regiment before our advance arrived at the ford. It is needless to say that we found out what we were looking for. Though the batteries in our rear were exchanging shot over our lines with the batteries in our front, the latter took frequent occasion to shorten fuses for our especial benefit, and our ears were frequently greeted with the buzzing of iron fragments in their vicinity, one piece of shell having been caught in the haversack of the soldier lying next me, after tearing an entrance hole in that receptacle. Another soldier, a little further away, while resting his chin upon his hand, was struck full in the face by a ricocheted shot, which scattered skull and brains for a long distance. There were but few casualties in the brigade, however, and by the time we had become so accustomed to the incessant cannonading above us as to regard it with utter indifference. During the day we were alternatively saturated by showers of rain and dried again by the intense heat of the intervening hours.
At night we lay down to sleep in a piece of woods a little to the right and rear of the ford, and my slumbers were so heavy that I did not awaken next morning --- that of August 23 --- until the light of the sun, then nearly an hour high, had been reinforced by the dropping of cannon balls in close proximity to my resting place. Most of our men, had stepped outside the woods into the open fields to see what was the new trouble, and many breakfast fires had been left, at one of which, on the safe side of a huge oak, I set my own coffee to boil, and while waiting had the honor of the conversation with Gen. Gordon of Banks’ Corps, which he afterwards thought worth recording on page 47 of his “History of the Campaign of the Army of Virginia.” The General’s report of the talk is more entertaining than accurate in its details, and I must offer an especial protest against the sort of dialect in which he clothes my remarks. “Gin’ral,” he makes me say, “I’ve mad a little cal’clation about this place and I’ve found that the rebs has two batteries a-firin’ on us, and that their fire crosses jest abeout three feet behind my tree, Gin’ral, you ain’t in the safe angle; jest step your hoss a little and you will be out of range.” One man killed and three wounded were all the casualties in our brigade of which I heard that morning, and in less than an hour the fire had ceased. At the same time it became evident that we had not been holding all of Lee’s army in front of us by our demonstrations of the past three days, but that all of Jackson’s force, at least, had slipped further up the river, and was getting in our rear by the fords and bridges near Warrenton, ten or twelve miles further north. So we were ordered to put three day’s rations on top of the sixty rounds of carriages in our haversacks, and to start in the direction of Warrenton.
By ten o’clock of Saturday --- the beginning of the last week that many of us were to see in this world--- the heat was sufficiently powerful to make it expedient for us to move on. Our clothing had been taken off but few times during the past fortnight, and was to be worn continuously thenceforth for at least another fortnight, in the case of those surviving the approaching Bull Run battles. It consisted of woolen stockings and broad-soled shoes, light blue trousers of coarse woolen cloth, a thin woolen blouse of dark blue, a woolen shirt, and hat or cap as the soldier might have chosen, or as his commanding officer might, in some regiments, have ordered. On the soldier’s waist belt was a brass plate in front, a sheath holding his bayonet at the left side, and the heavy leathern case with forty rounds of cartridges behind. Over his right shoulder passed the straps of his canteen and haversack, the former filled with water or some other liquid, and the latter holding as much of provisions as could be crowded above sixty additional rounds of cartridges. Over his left shoulder was his tent canvas rolled tightly, with the ends of the roll tied together, and his heavy musket rested on one or the other shoulder, or trailed in one hand, as he might choose. This was the minimum of the soldier’s load and was supplemented in many instances by other articles which were thought desirable by individuals, but which began to be unloaded after a few miles marching, so that the roadside along the line of march of that August day often had the appearance of a depository for miscellaneous goods. Among other things that I saw strewn along the route on this blistering Saturday was an antique bible, well preserved, and published in England more than 200 years before. The temptation was too great and I carried it along for several miles in hope of finding some way of securing it for future use. The flesh was too weak, however, and I finally had to follow the example of my predecessor in the possession of the book, and leave it for some following soldier to try his strength upon. Before night more necessary things than books were discarded by the tired marchers and in addition to the luxuries previously thrown aside, cartridges, pilot bread and salt meats were often seen scattered on the ground.
At 10 P. M. we bivouacked in the vicinity of Warrenton and were lulled to sleep by the distant cannonading along the river, notwithstanding the effect of the night cold upon our drenched clothing and mud-besmeared shoes. On Sunday we marched through Warrenton and made a temporary camp at the north side of the village, where we remained over Monday, replenishing our commissary supplies from the neighboring farms. Then we were moved out to Sulphur Springs, and had an artillery fight lasting till Tuesday night, with a little infantry exchange, across the river. The mud of the roads had now dried, news of Jackson’s raid on Catlett’s Station was everywhere circulated, and the huge column of dust a few miles to the north, reaching out towards Manassas Junction, made it evident to all the rank and file that the rebel army was outflanking us. Having slept awhile in the woods, the morning of the 27th, found us on our way towards the same railroad junction, and we plodded along as fast as Sigel’s wagon trains would permit. That night we slept among the stones lining the turnpike near New Baltimore, and were up before daylight of the 28th in obedience to an order for immediate progressive movement. We were unable to start for an hour longer, however, on account of Sigel (a little in advance) not getting out ahead of us. So we chewed hard tack, and waited in momentary expectation of orders to fall in. When the orders came, most of the soldiers had fires built and were trying to boil coffee in tin cups. Such as the decoctions were they were seized by the boys who did their coffee cooling on the march, as well as their coffee drinking. I think that the last time I ever saw Gen. King near at hand was that morning, and his haggard face showed that his illness was aggravated by every day of this killing work. He stood by a log fire trying to absorb warmth into his chilled body, and his staff also were standing near. The dawn struggling with the darkness, the back-ground gloomy with the woods from which we had just emerged, the long columns of troops in the road, and the red fire light shining upon the staff uniforms, made a picture which never fades from my memory.
A few minutes after we had passed, an interminable wagon train came up and insisted upon going by us because it had to reach Sigel immediately. So I found a fire and boiled my coffee while we were all waiting for it to pass. As the sun rose the booming of cannon began to be heard again, and from one quarter or another continued to be heard throughout the day. Following Sigel’s wagons we ran across a few hundred rebel stragglers who had been corralled by the advance, and deposited under guard at the Buckland Mills church. They looked more worn out than the worst fagged of our men, and it didn’t seem possible for men of their appearance to be effective in a fight. All the way to Gainesville we kept picking up these tired-out Confederates who had been dropped along the same road by Jackson not many hours before. The trail was certainly getting very fresh, and our anxiety to overtake the quarry was correspondingly heightened. From hour to hour we moved forward for a mile or two, stopped and waited for investigations in front and then moved on again. At noon we turned south from the Warrenton pike, stacked arms and got dinner and a two hours’ rest. In the middle of the afternoon we returned to the road and moved farther toward Centerville, Hatch’s Brigade in advance, then Doubleday’s and Gibbon’s (afterwards famous as the Iron Brigade of the West) next, with Patrick’s following at a considerable interval. The rebel videttes were in sight as we were passing Groveton, and our brigade did a little investigation with sharpshooters and artillery in our front, but elicited no response, and finally continued along the road pursuant to previous orders. When Gibbon’s Brigade arrived at the same point, however, the rebels had got ready to demonstrate, and the three days’ bloody fighting of Pope against Lee was fairly inaugurated. A description of these battles is not within the scope of the present paper, although at some other time I may offer you something in the way of personal experience there. What I have desired to accomplish here is the filling to some extent of the hiatus in official reports, by a narrative of events viewed from the standpoint of an enlisted infantry soldier. There are many listeners present to-night who have the experience necessary to pronounce an intelligent judgment upon the effort, and to them I submit it for such criticism as it may deserve.
New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History