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

Post image for “Through the whole thing I must confess I felt like a fool.”–Adams Family Letters, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., to his mother.

“Through the whole thing I must confess I felt like a fool.”–Adams Family Letters, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., to his mother.

January 8, 2013

Adams Family Civil War letters; US Minister to the UK and his sons.

Camp of 1st Mass. Cav’y
Potomac Run, Va., January
8, 1863

It was clear that we were not going to the bridge, as Chamberlain of our regiment had charge of that party. I had the rear of the column and a ripping head-ache, otherwise I should have enjoyed the thing immensely, for it was a clear, cold, moonlight night and we went floundering through the marshes at a tremendous gait. All I could see was dissolving views of the rear of the column as we pelted through woods and across broad white marshes, intersected by creeks which we had to ford. Presently Ben [Crowninshield] came down the column and informed me that we were going up the railroad to destroy some smaller bridges and, if it took us long, we were to let the column go and find our own way home. Of course we lost the way and after riding up the road two miles and finding no bridge, we rode down two miles and a half, cutting down the telegraph poles as we went along, and then there was a halt and I heard the sound of the axes. “Ah,” thought I, “here is the bridge,” and my head-ache felt better.

So I rode up and looked at a miserable little culvert, about three yards long, on which some twenty destroyers were at work. This was, then, the greatest humbug of all. We had come with artillery and cavalry and infantry, through rain and snow and ice, without shelter or forage, all the way up here to cut up a miserable little culvert which ten men could rebuild in five hours. It would have been very amusing had I felt well. There we were a hundred of us, some eighty in line and ready to fire into any unsuspecting train which might come along, and the other twenty, without direction, or system or tools, tugging away at a remarkably well-built railroad which resisted their utmost efforts. Ye Gods! how the mismanagement did stick out!! Our tools were six axes and the ground was hard frozen. Every one directed and every one worked on his own hook. My second Lieutenant, a son of Judge Parsons, was ordered to do the work and he bellowed and swore, and the men laughed and minded him or not as they chose. White, quite nervous and anxious to get through, complained that too many orders were given and did nothing to remedy it. Ben Crowninshield, very anxious to get the job done while yet there was time, seeing that the men had worked an hour without getting up a single rail, encouraged them by dancing round in high excitement, exhorting them somewhat generally to “do something to turn the whole thing over at once, somehow,” and I sat on my horse in amused despair.

At length with immense effort we got up one rail and threw it into the creek, and White at once declared the bridge used up and we started back along the railroad. It was eleven o’clock now and the last half hour we had heard a spattering fire of carbines and musquetry towards the river, indicating that Chamberlain was at work, but no artillery, which seemed to indicate that it was n’t much of a job after all. As for us we went rapidly along the track and the first thing we knew we came to a bridge, as was a bridge. It was clear at once we had been at work on the wrong bridge hitherto, so we went to work again. It was the same old story, only a little better, for this time we made cleaner work, pulling up the track, cutting through the uprights and main beams and finally setting the middle pier on fire; having done which we mounted and went off better pleased.

Through the whole thing I must confess I felt like a fool. It was a small job and badly done; slight resistance would have turned us back and I have n’t as yet gotten over an old prejudice against going round destroying property which no one tries to protect. Anyhow it was done and the fire of the burning bridge threw a bright light across the marsh as we rode away. We rejoined the main body and waited for Chamberlain, who had been at work on the main bridge and had, after some slight resistance, resulting in nothing, destroyed about one hundred and twenty feet of it. The whole party was in by three o’clock, and we at once started back and, as I rode along in the clear, cold moonlight, I very soon made up my mind as to the whole affair.

I don’t know, but I imagine a newspaper success — “dashing raid” and all that — will be manufactured out of this. If it is I can only say it is a clap-trap and a humbug and was intended as such. It is, I fear, pure Joe Hookerism and wire pulling. The bridge was of no real value to the rebels or to us and was not protected. Even if it had been, Ned Flint, who is an engineer, said he would contract to repair with forty men all the damage done in four days. Anyhow, value or no value, two hundred cavalry could have done it twice as surely and effectually and in just half the time, and so Chamberlain had previously reported. But no! that would n’t answer for political effect, and so the sledge is brought out to crush the fly, and infantry, artillery and cavalry are paraded out in the depth of winter to burn a bridge which no one used or means to use, and I expect to see an immense pow-wow over it. If there is, rest assured it’s all a humbug. The thing amounted to nothing, was very badly done after no end of blunders and mismanagement, and was and is intended solely for political effect and has about as much bearing on the ends of the war as would the burning of Neponset Bridge or our barn at Quincy….

At last, at half past one, we marched into camp and were dismissed. This was Saturday afternoon. I had been on continuous duty for thirty-four hours and in the saddle twenty-eight; my horse had not eaten for thirty hours. I had last washed my face and hands on Wednesday morning, and in this week, the first in January and by far the most severe of the winter, I had passed two nights in my tent and five in bivouac. I got something to eat and washed my face and hands and then went out to see that the horses were cared for, but that night my blankets felt like a bed of down and I slept like an infant.

I have been specific about this trip as I regard it as finishing my education. I had tried most kinds before, dry and wet, hot and cold. We have steadily been at it for months and I have thought that terrible discomfort was yet to come. This combined cold and wet and hunger and sleeplessness and fatigue and all that men regard as hard to bear. We had slept in melting snow and rain, had passed days in the saddle with soaking feet and freezing clothes, had waited hours in a pelting rain, and yet I had enjoyed it all, and not for an instant had wished myself away. I do not now believe in outdoor hardships. None of us are sick, we have no colds and no diseases, we are all far better than we were at home, and yet there is but one greater hardship than we have felt. A long continued, disastrous winter retreat would be worse and in the line of exposure this alone I now fear….

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