Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Friday, May 16, 1862.

I don’t know where to date my letter. We left Highland yesterday, and are now on the road to Harrisonburg, seven or eight miles from the Augusta line. We have had three days’ rain, and still a cloudy sky threatening more rain. The road is now very bad, and as every wagon which passes makes it deeper, it will soon be impassable. The weather is worse upon us than last winter. Then the ground was frozen and we had the satisfaction at least of being dry—having dry clothes and dry blankets. But now everything is wet and we have no tents. It has had no happy effect upon my health. Yesterday I left the brigade to stay in a house a few days, but think I shall join it again to-morrow.

We had constant expectation of a fight while we were in Pendleton. We supposed Jackson would certainly make the attack on the morning after we reached Franklin, and every one was surprised when we turned to march in this direction. No one ever knows where he is going or what his plans are. I suppose his destination now is the Valley, where he will consolidate with Ewell and move towards Winchester. But at present, I think, he will be disposed to give his troops a week’s rest. They need it badly, as they have been marching for nearly three weeks since they left their last encampment.

We have not yet had an election in our regiment for field officers, and I feel more unsettled than ever before. I am not sure that I will be elected, and not sure that I will not. If I were elected by a mere majority, and knew that I did not have the good-will of a large portion of my regiment, I am not sure that I would want the place. I have been absent from the regiment on detached service of one kind and another, and when with them I have always been disposed to be rather rigid. The two causes combined have not given me a strong hold upon their affections. So you see I am rather perplexed with doubts —don’t know which end of the road to take, if either. Whatever be the result, I trust I shall do nothing to forfeit the good opinion of my friends; and if I return home, it will be for reasons which now and hereafter shall meet the approval of my judgment. I wish heartily the election was over and I knew my destiny.

(The election was soon after this held under what was known as the “Disorganization Act” of the Confederate Congress, and Major Paxton, with many other officers whose strict and wholesome discipline was not relished by their men, failed to be reelected. He was thus relieved from any further obligation to continue in the service, but his heart was too much in the cause to permit him to abandon the army at such a time. He accepted a place on the staff of his old commander, General Jackson, as a volunteer aide without pay, and in this capacity took part in the seven days’ fight before Richmond. After a brief visit to his home, on July 22,1862, he returned to the army to resume his position as volunteer aide on Jackson’s staff.)

London, May 16, 1862

Before this reaches you I suppose you will be in motion, and I hope that the war will be at an end. It would be a mere piece of unjustifiable wantonness for the Southern generals to defend Charleston, if they are defeated in Virginia. So, although I would like to see you covered with glory, I would be extremely well satisfied to hear that you had ended the campaign and ridden into Charleston without firing a shot or drawing a sabre.

Last Sunday afternoon, the day after my letter to you had gone, telling how hard it was to sustain one’s own convictions against the scepticism of a nation, I returned from taking a walk on Rotten Row with my very estimable friend Baron Brinken, and on reaching home, I was considerably astounded at perceiving the Chief in an excited manner dance across the entry and ejaculate, “We’ve got New Orleans.” Philosopher as I am and constant in a just and tenacious virtue, I confess that even I was considerably interested for the moment. So leaving Sir Charles Lyell regarding my abrupt departure through one eye-glass with some apparent astonishment, I took a cab and drove down to Mr. Weed. Meeting him in the street near his hotel, I leaped out of the cab, and each of us simultaneously drew out a telegram which we exchanged. His was Mr. Peabody’s private business telegram; mine was an official one from Seward. We then proceeded together to the telegraph office and sent a despatch to Mr. Dayton at Paris, and finally I went round to the Diplomatic Club and had the pleasure of enunciating my sentiments. Here my own agency ended, but Mr. Weed drank his cup of victory to the dregs. He spread the news in every direction, and finally sat down to dinner at the Reform Club with two sceptical old English friends of our side and had the pleasure of hearing the news-boys outside shout “Rumored capture of New Orleans” in an evening extra, while the news was posted at Brookes’s, and the whole town was in immense excitement as though it were an English defeat.

Indeed the effect of the news here has been greater than anything yet. It has acted like a violent blow in the face on a drunken man. The next morning the Times came out and gave fairly in that it had been mistaken; it had believed Southern accounts and was deceived by them. This morning it has an article still more remarkable and intimates for the first time that it sees little more chance for the South. There is, we think, a preparation for withdrawing their belligerent declaration and acknowledging again the authority of the Federal Government over all the national territory, to be absolute and undisputed. One more victory will bring us up to this, I am confident. That done, I shall consider, not only that the nation has come through a struggle such as no other nation ever heard of, but in a smaller and personal point of view I shall feel much relieved and pleased at the successful career of the Chief.

You can judge of the probable effect of this last victory at New Orleans from the fact that friend Russell of the Times (who has not yet called) gravely warned the English nation yesterday of the magnificent army that had better be carefully watched by the English people, since it hated them like the devil and would want to have something to do. And last night I met Mr. John Bright at an evening reception, who seemed to feel somewhat in the same way. “Now,” said he, “if you Americans succeed in getting over this affair, you must n’t go and get stuffy to England. Because if you do, I don’t know what’s to become of us who stood up for you here.” I did n’t say we would n’t, but I did tell him that he need n’t be alarmed, for all he would have to do would be to come over to America and we would send him to Congress at once. He laughed and said he thought he had had about enough of that sort of thing in England. By the way, there is a story that he thinks of leaving Parliament.

This last week has been socially a quiet one and I have seen very little of the world, as I have no time to frequent the Club. I don’t get ahead very fast in English society, because as yet I can’t succeed in finding any one to introduce me among people of my own age. It’s the same way with all the foreigners here, and a young Englishman, with whom I talked on the subject, comforted me by acknowledging the fact and saying that as a general thing young Englishmen were seldom intimate with any one unless they had known him three or four years. He gave a practical illustration of the principle by never recognizing me since, although we sat next each other three hours at a dinner and talked all the time, besides drinking various bottles of claret. With the foreigners I do much better, but they are generally worse off than I am in society. Except for a sort of conscientious feeling, I should care little for not knowing people at balls, especially as all accounts, especially English, declare young society to be a frantic bore….

Now as to your letter and its contents on the negro question. I’ve not published it for two reasons. The first is that the tendency here now is pro-slavery and the sympathy with the South is so great as to seek justification in everything. Your view of the case, however anti-slavery, is not encouraging nor does it tend to strengthen our case. If published, especially if by any accident known to be by you, it might be used to annoy us with effect.

My second reason, though this alone would not have decided me, is that it seems to me you are a little needlessly dark in your anticipations. One thing is certain; labor in America is dear and will remain so; American cotton will always command a premium over any other yet known; and can be most easily produced. Emancipation cannot be instantaneous. We must rather found free colonies in the south such as you are now engaged in building up at Port Royal; the nucleus of which must be military and naval stations garrisoned by corps d ‘armee, and grouped around them must be the emeriti, the old soldiers with their grants of lands, their families, their schools, churches and Northern energy, forming common cause with the negroes in gradually sapping the strength of the slave-holders, and thus year after year carrying new industry and free institutions until their borders meet from the Atlantic, the Gulf, the Mississippi and the Tennessee in a common center, and the old crime shall be expiated and the whole social system of the South reconstructed. Such was the system of the old Romans with their conquered countries and it was always successful. It is the only means by which we can insure our hold on the South and plant colonies that are certain of success. It must be a military system of colonies, governed by the Executive and without any dependence upon or relation to the States in which they happen to be placed. With such a system I would allow fifty years for the South to become ten times as great and powerful and loyal as she ever was, besides being free.

Such are my ideas and as the negroes would be extremely valuable and even necessary to the development of these colonies, or the Southern resources at I trust they will manage to have a career yet.

MAY 16TH.—McClellan is intrenching—that is, at least, significant of a respite, and of apprehension of attack.

Friday, 16th—Nothing of importance has taken place today, but I think we will have a fight soon. We have plenty of rations, but the drinking water is very poor. The health of the men is better, however, since we have become more active, and the men are getting back their old-time vigor. Some of the boys who have been sick are now returning to the regiment. Major Abercrombie is in command of the regiment while Colonel Hare and Lieutenant-Colonel Hall are at home recovering from wounds received at Shiloh.

May 16th. After discharging through the night a line was attached to a kedge off our quarter, and a gunboat hauling at the same time, started her from the sand, and at ten o’clock the Hartford was again a thing of life. The day was spent in reloading.

To Mrs. Lyon.

May 16, 1862.—We are ordered to march at daylight with two days’ cooked rations. It may be for another reconnaisance, and it may be—and probably is— an advance of the whole army upon Corinth. In that case the rebels must fight or run, and it is about an even chance which they will do. We do not for an instant lose our faith in our ability to whip them. You had better not lay plans to come to me in case of accident, for I would come home if unable to do duty.

16th. Rain obliged us to arise at five. Stayed under the wagon a while. Then went to the creek to wash. Reveille blew just before I got back. Lt. Hubbard arrested Brooks and me because somebody had wanted us and could not find us. Released us as soon as we came into camp. Rode partly on the wagons and walked some. Seemed good to get back to Fort Scott again. Found two letters from home.

16th.—Quiet at White House. Nothing worthy of note.

“Wilson Small,” May 16.

Dear Friend, — I have asked every one within reach what day of the week it is: in vain. Reference to Mr. Olmsted, who knows everything, establishes that it is Friday. Is it one week, or five, since I left New York?

As I wrote the last words of my last letter, the “Elizabeth,” our supply-boat, came alongside with Mr. Olmsted and Mr. Knapp, and just behind them a steamer with one hundred and eighty sick on board. All hands were at once alert. The sick men were to be put on board the “Knickerbocker,” whither we all went at once, armed with our precious spirit-lamps. Meantime Mr. Olmsted read a telegram we had received in his absence, saying that a hundred sick were lying at Bigelow’s Landing and “dying in the rain.” Mr. Knapp took charge of the “Elizabeth,” saying, “Who volunteers to go up for them?” Three young men, Miss Helen Gilson, and I followed him. Not a moment was lost, — Mr. Knapp would not even let me go back for a shawl, — and the tug was off.

The “Elizabeth” is our store-tender or supply-boat. Her main-deck is piled from deck to deck with boxes. The first thing done is to pick out six cases of pillows, six of quilts, one of brandy, and a cask of bread. Then all the rest are lowered into the hold. Meantime I make for the kitchen, where I find a remarkable old black aunty and a fire. I dive into her pots and pans, I wheedle her out of her green tea (the black having given out), and soon I have eight bucketsful of tea and pyramids of bread and butter. Miss Gilson and the young men have spread the cleared main-deck with two layers of quilts and rows of pillows a man’s length apart, and we are ready for the men some time before we reach them; for the night is dark and rainy, and the boat has got aground, and it is fully ten o’clock before the men are brought alongside. The poor fellows are led or carried on board, and stowed side by side as close as can be. We feed them with spoonfuls of brandy and water; they are utterly broken down, soaked through, some of them raving with fever. After all are laid down, Miss Gilson and I give them their suppers, and they sink down again. Any one who looks over such a deck as that, and sees the suffering, despondent attitudes of the men, and their worn frames and faces, knows what war is, better than the sight of wounds can teach it. We could only take ninety; twenty-five others had to go on the small tug which accompanied us. Mr. Knapp, the doctor, and one of the young men went on board of her. Meantime the “Elizabeth” started on the homeward trip, so that Miss Gilson and I and a quartermaster were left to manage our men alone. Fortunately only about a dozen were very ill, and none died. Still, I felt anxious: six were out of their minds; one had tried to destroy himself three times that day, and was drenched through and through, having been dragged out of the creek into which he had thrown himself just before we reached him.

We were alongside the “Knickerbocker” by 1 A.M., when Dr. Ware came on board and gave me some general directions, after which I got along very well. It was thought best to leave the poor wearied fellows to rest where they were until morning, and the night passed off quietly enough; my only disaster being that I gave morphia to a man who actually screamed with rheumatism and cramp. I supposed morphia could n’t hurt him, and it was a mercy to others to stop the noise. Instead of this, I made him perfectly crazy. He rose to his feet in the midst of the prostrate mass of men, and demanded of them and of me his “clean linen” and his “Sunday clothes.” I picked my way to him, but could do nothing at first but make him worse. At last I was inspired to say that I had all his clothes “there” (pointing to a dark corner behind a bulkhead): “would he lie down and wait till I brought them?” To my surprise he subsided. I hid in trepidation for a few minutes, and at last, to my great joy, I saw the morphine take effect. One little fellow of fifteen, crushed by a tree falling on his breast, had run away from his mother, and was very pathetic. I persuaded him to let me write to her.

The next morning, after getting them all washed, I went off guard, and Mrs. Griffin and Miss Butler came on board with their breakfast from the “Knickerbocker,” where the hundred and eighty whom we had left arriving the night before, were stowed and cared for. Getting them all washed, as I say, is a droll piece of work. Some are indifferent to the absurd luxury of soap and water, and some are so fussy. Some poor faces we must wash ourselves, and that softly and slowly. I started along each row with two tin basins and two bits of soap, my arm being the towel-horse. Now, you are not to suppose that each man had a basinful of clean water all to himself. However, I thought three to a basin was enough, or four, if they did n’t wash too hard. But an old corporal taught me better. “Stop, marm!” said he, as I was turning back with the dirty water to get fresh; “that water will do for several of us yet. Bless you! I make my coffee of worse than that.”

Soon after breakfast my men were transferred to the “Knickerbocker.” She still lies alongside, and we take care of her. She is beautifully in order. The ward-masters are all excellent, and the orderlies know their duty. The men look comfortable, and even cheerful. It is a pleasure to give them their meals. I gave the men in the long ward (where they lie on mattresses in two rows, head to bead, two hundred of them) their dinner to-day, and their supper yesterday. Ah, me! how they liked it, — some of them, of course, too worn to do more than swallow a few spoonfuls and look grateful; others loud in their satisfaction. The poor, crazy man who tried to destroy himself at Bigelow’s Landing has some vague idea about me now; and sometimes, when he utterly refuses his milk-punch, and thrashes and splutters at every one who comes near him, I am sent for, when he subsides into obedience with a smile which is meant to be bland, and is so comical that people around retire in convulsions.

To-day I am “loafing.” Everything is in perfect order on the “Knickerbocker;” and as I scent a transfer this afternoon of the whole corps to the “Spaulding,” to fit her up, I am determined to husband my efforts. This boat, the “Wilson Small,” is finally smashed up; we call her the “Collida.” The hospital-boats usually lie alongside of each other, with their gangways connected; and sometimes we run through four or five boats at a time.

Captain Curtis is still on board, doing well. He goes North on the “Knickerbocker” to-day. Now that our wounded men are gone, we have a dinner-table set, and the Captain lies in his cot on one side of the cabin, laughing at the fun and nonsense which go on at meals. Mrs. Howland. has her French man-servant, Maurice, on board. He is capital. He struggles to keep us proper in manners and appearance, and still dreams of les convenances. At dinner-time he rushes through the various ships and wards: “My ladies, j’ai un petit plat; je ne vous dirai pas ce que c’est. I beg of you to be ponctuelle; I gif you half-hour’s notis.” The half-hour having expired, he sets out again on a voyage of entreaty and remonstrance. He won’t let us help ourselves, and if we take a seat not close to the person above, he says: “No, no, move up; we must have order.” His petit plat proved to be baked potatoes, which were received with acclamation, while he stood bowing and smiling with a towel (or it may have been a rag) for a napkin. But I must tell you that Maurice is the tenderest of nurses, and gives every moment he can spare to the sick. He serves his mistress, but he is attentive to all, and, like a true Frenchman, he so identifies himself with the moment and its interests that he is, to all hospital intents and purposes, “one of us.”

You are not to be alarmed by the word “typhoid,” which I foresee will occur on every page of my letters, nearly all our sick cases being that or running into that. The idea of infection is simply absurd. The ventilation of these ships is excellent; besides, people employed in such a variety of work and in high health and spirits are not liable to infection. Nobody ever thinks of such a thing, and I only mention it to check your imagination. In a boat organized like the “Knickerbocker,” we women stand no regular watch, but we are on hand at all hours of the day, relieving each other at our own convenience. As for the ladies among whom my luck has thrown me, they are just what they should be, — efficient, wise, active as cats, merry, light-hearted, thoroughbred, and without the fearful tone of self-devotion which sad experience makes one expect in benevolent women. We all know in our hearts that it is thorough enjoyment to be here, — it is life, in short; and we wouldn’t be anywhere else for anything in the world. I hope people will continue to sustain the Sanitary Commission. Hundreds of lives are being saved by it. I have seen with my own eyes in one week fifty men who must have died without it, and many more who probably would have done so. I speak of lives saved only; the amount of suffering saved is incalculable. The Commission keeps up the work at great expense. It has six large steamers running from here. Government furnishes these and the bare rations of the men; but the real expenses of supply fall on the Commission, — in fact, everything that makes the power and excellence of the work is supplied by the Commission. If people ask what they shall send, say: Money, money, stimulants, and articles of sick-food.

May 16. For some time past the pickets of the 17th Massachusetts have been a good deal troubled by being fired on in the night. The enemy’s cavalry would come down, a few of them dismount and creeping up would fire on them. They would sometimes have cow bells with them, in order to divert attention and get nearer. But the boys soon learned that dodge, and when . they heard a cow bell, would draw their straightest bead on it and let fly. In this state of affairs it was thought best to make those fellows a call, and if they wanted anything of us to give them an opportunity to take it. So, yesterday morning, we marched out to the Trent road, where we joined the 17th Massachusetts, with five companies of the 3d New York cavalry and a section of a battery the whole under command of Col. Amory, of the 17th. The cavalry taking the advance, we marched up the road a couple of miles, coming to a deep gully or ravine; crossing this, the advance cavalry guard soon came upon the enemy’s pickets, driving them in and beyond their station into a swamp, where they formed an ambuscade, thinking there was only a small cavalry force and that they might capture them. By this time the infantry had come up to their rendezvous, which was a large, nice house, with ample barn room for their horses. Thinking this was too good accommodation for them and too near our line, it was set on fire and burned. We now heard firing ahead and hurried on. They had closed around the advance cavalry guard, and commenced the fight. The other companies being close by soon took a hand in it and were giving them about all they wanted when the infantry came up. When they saw the infantry and artillery they took to their heels towards Trenton, a small village a few miles distant.

Col. Upton wanted to follow them up and give them some more, but Col. Amory being in command, thought we had accomplished our purpose and had better return. In this skirmish the enemy lost eight killed and two prisoners, one of them wounded. Our cavalry had two wounded. The wounded men were brought out and loaded into an ambulance. When they brought out the wounded rebel they put down the stretcher on which he was lying near where I was standing. He was a smooth-faced, fair-haired boy, and was moaning piteously with pain from a bullet wound in his head, and asking himself what his mother would say when she heard of it. His thoughts turned on his home and of his mother. I pitied the boy, but could not help thinking, as a cavalryman told him, he should have thought of that before being caught here., We arrived back in camp late in the afternoon, tired, hungry and covered with mud. I reckon they will not disturb our pickets any more at present in the way they have done. Creeping up in the dark and firing on a lone picket is mean and cowardly. If they want anything of us let them come in force and get it; that is proper and honorable.