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

Post image for “…here I am once more and, from here, go on with my broken story.”–Adams Family Letters, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., to his father.

“…here I am once more and, from here, go on with my broken story.”–Adams Family Letters, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., to his father.

May 9, 2013

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

Hartwood Church, Va.
May 8, 1863

This is indeed a twice told tale and of the weariest at that. Here am I once more picketing Hartwood Church after another battle of Fredericksburg, just as I did last December! I did on the fifteenth of last month confidently hope never again to see this modest brick edifice, but the wisdom of Providence differently ordained and here I am once more and, from here, go on with my broken story.

I left off with Sunday, 26th April, and an order to send me out on picket. I got off at about ten o’clock and reached my position on the road to Sulphur Springs at about four. I had only about sixty men and my line was very long. The officers whom I relieved looked disgusted enough when I told them what my force was, and said that they had twice as many and had sent for more. However I was sent to relieve them and went to work to do so. There are few things more disgusting I imagine than being called upon to establish a line of pickets at night and in a strange country, and then having night shut down on you just when you realize how difficult your task is. It took me four hours to ride over my line, and when I returned I was in an awful maze. Major Covode, whom I relieved, had taken me through the fields instead of over the roads, and I no longer knew where the river ran, which was north or south, or indeed where I was. My mind was a jumble of fords, hills and roads, with a distinct recollection of a rapid brook called “the river,” and the immense desolate ruins of the huge hotel at the Springs, burnt by Pope last summer and through which I had ridden by moonlight. Major Covode left me with the encouraging information that I need n’t fear much until the river went down, but then I’d have to look sharp and I proceeded to secure myself.

As for guarding the army, I gave that idea up at once and perforce ran for luck; but I was n’t going to be surprised myself, so I made my arrangements to protect myself and concluded that they were eminently unsatisfactory. Flint with twenty men was posted about four miles to my right and in a very exposed and dangerous place, and my force was too weak to keep up communication with him. He might be swallowed whole and I not know it. I was near Sulphur Springs and tolerably secure until the river fell. The enemy left us alone, however, and in the morning one of my men crossed the river and found it fordable. I sent in my report and at nine o’clock — as I was not likely to be on duty three days — went out to study the country. At two o’clock I had gotten through and set my mind at ease, for I understood the position and knew how to go to work for the next night, and at three o’clock I was notified that I was relieved. Our picket duty is made immensely more difficult here by the state of the population. The enemy know the country and we don’t, and every man is a citizen or a soldier, as the occasion offers. We feel no single man is safe and so our posts have to be double, and we feel at any time that these may be picked off and thus our reserves and the army exposed to surprises. I was glad to be relieved, although now I felt that I knew what I was about, and at seven o’clock got off and got into camp at nine. At eleven Flint got in and we turned in for a good night.

Monday the weather had changed again and all day it rained and was threatening rain, but we nevertheless went to work and made ourselves very comfortable. We moved our squadron camp to the top of the hill and had the tents pitched in line and our own head quarters fenced in with brush. When evening came all was finished, swept up and clean, and I looked round on the pleasantest camp I had ever seen in a bivouac. Teague, Flint’s 2d Lieutenant, had constructed a rustic bench and the bright fire in front of it threw its light into the shelter tents where Mac had ensconced himself on our blankets. It was very pretty and Flint and I sat down to a pipe of deep contentment, preparatory to a sleep of supreme comfort.

While we were simmering over these pleasant sensations an orderly blundered by inquiring the way to Colonel Curtis’ quarters, and a cold shiver went through me. In a minute more orders came for me to get ready to march at once. It was then eight o’clock, and a night march was before us, and we so comfortable and tired! It went very hard, but it had to go, and at nine o’clock we were in the saddle and our comfortable camp was nowhere. It was a general move. We marched down to Bealeton and struck the railroad and kept along until we came to within a mile of the river when we turned off into the woods, and Mac lost us and disappeared. It was then about two o’clock in the morning. We dismounted, unsaddled, built some fires and went to sleep before them. The night was cloudy, damp and warm. We were called and saddled at daylight and the men got their breakfasts — mine being a cup of coffee and at eight we started. In vain had I whistled and inquired for Mac. He seemed gone and I gave him up; but just as our column was formed out in the fields my heart was rejoiced by seeing him poking down the ranks, evidently looking for me. He caught sight of me at last and evinced his satisfaction by at once laying down and going to sleep. Since that he has pegged steadily along with the column and is now placidly sleeping in my tent. I did n’t expect to keep him so long, but now I think he’s got the hang of it and has a chance of coming through.

We marched towards the river and halted. It was a cold, cloudy, dismal east wind morning. Apparently the ford there was impracticable, for presently we started again and moved rapidly down the river. I now felt pretty sick of this running round after a ford and began to doubt whether we ever should get across that miserable little river. My doubts were solved, however, when at noon we got down to Kelly’s Ford and I saw a pontoon bridge thrown across and the cavalry fording. Here at last we crossed the river at a point which we reached at the end of our first day’s march, and we left camp on April 13th and this was April 29th. After crossing we dismounted and let our horses graze and lay there, doing nothing, or mounting, moving and accomplishing nothing, until nearly evening, when just as we were thinking of going into camp, the column began to defile into the woods and we followed in our turn. We had had nothing to eat since the evening before and were getting cross; but luckily, just then Flint’s man came up with a canteen of coffee and a plate of meat, and at the same time the skirmishing began in front. So we rode forward feasting and ready to fight.

We pressed rapidly forward in line of battle through the woods with a rapid skirmishing fire in front and a few shells now and then going or coming and, presently, about sunset, emerged onto an immense open country, on the farther side of which could just be seen the enemy’s cavalry. Here we formed line, but it was too late to attack and so presently we fell back to the edge of the wood to pass the night. Of course we could have no fires and our ranks were not broken; but the men dismounted, the horses were fed part at a time, and the men lay down and slept in front of them, holding the bridles. Presently it began to rain and kept it up smartly pretty much all night, but we slept none the less and I know I slept well. We certainly calculated on a fight that morning, but when morning came the rumor crept round that the enemy was gone and so it proved. It had stolen away like a thief in the night and left open to us the road to Culpepper. This we took at once and again breakfasted in the saddle, glad enough to see Davis, Flint’s man, with his coffee and tin dish of fried beef.

This was Thursday and we had one of the most delightful and interesting marches I ever enjoyed. The morning was cloudy, but it cleared bright and warm at noon, and the afternoon and night were charming, with a few slight drawbacks. The country towards Culpepper is open and we approached the town in order of battle — five columns or squadrons, marching straight across the country and all manœuvring together. We saw nothing of Lee or Stuart, however, except his dead horses, which lay along our course thick and unburied, and by noon we were close to Culpepper. The country looks old, war-worn and wasted, but not so bad as the other side of the river. Most of the houses along the road were deserted and apparently had been so for a long time. Some of them were evidently old Virginia plantation houses, and once had been aristocratic and lazy. Now they are pretty thoroughly out of doors. We marched rapidly through Culpepper and out on the other side, exciting the especial notice of the negroes and curs of the town and the lazy attention of the few whites left. It’s quite a Yankee looking place and, with Warrenton, very unlike most Virginia towns. Hardly were we dismounted when I was sent scampering out to the front to attend to a party of rebels who were said to be threatening our advance guard, but when I had pounded my horses up hill and down dale for a mile and a half, I found no enemy to attend to and was told I might come back and feed my men and horses. I did so and we lay off for a couple of hours in the woods. Presently the column came up and we fell in and continued our march until we came to the battlefield of Cedar Mountain, where we halted while the column was passing an obstacle in the road. Here you know our 2d Regiment was so cut up and Stephen Perkins was killed. We looked over the field and saw the graves of our troops, but there are few signs of a battlefield left. I noticed that our horses would not eat the grass and, as we passed one ditch, some of my men hit upon a skull, apparently dug up and gnawed by the swine. Such it is to die for one’s country!

While resting here a tremendous shower came up and, before it was over, we were again on the road. As night came on and we approached the Rapidan things got worse. The afternoon was clear and was followed by a full moonlight evening, but the roads were heavy enough and the head of the column passed on at a gait very unmerciful to the rear. I once got a mile to the rear of the squadron in front of me and was kept at a trot the whole time. At sunset we entered a thick marshy wood of heavy timber, between Cedar Mountain and the Rapidan, and pressed on, through perfectly fearful roads, until about eight when the river brought the column up standing. Then came one of those nights which try the temper and patience. After dark, with exhausted horses, tired, wet and hungry, we were first kept waiting and then marched into the woods, and then more delay, and then marched back in search of a camp. But the whole wood for miles was literally a marsh, and so after bungling round for some time, at ten o’clock we were dismounted and told to “make ourselves comfortable.” It was the worst camping ground I ever saw. The mud and water stood everywhere up to the horses’ fetlocks and our ankles and it seemed a dead flat; but the moon was in our favor. Had it rained, it would have been very trying. The men picked out the dry spots, or those least wet, and Flint, Teague and I had some young trees cut and, resting one end on a dead trunk and the other in the mud, made a sort of inclined plane bed on which we spread our blankets, had some coffee and beef and went to sleep.

The next day was the 1st of May — the day two years that you sailed for Europe, as I did not fail to remember. It was a delightful day, bright and sunny. We did not leave our charming camp, christened by the men the water-cure establishment — until about nine, and then went slowly forward to where we could hear some skirmishing and artillery practice along the line of the river. Presently we halted and our carbineers went to the front and there we waited all day. I don’t know what the plan was, but I cannot think that it included our crossing the river. The enemy had a few pieces of artillery on the hills beyond and the sharpshooters lined both banks. No attempt was made by us to cross and our plan seemed rather to be to make a feint and to distract the enemy’s attention from some other point. Once or twice during the day we changed our position, but otherwise we killed time only and finally when evening came and when we were in a very comfortable position orders came for us to go into camp and to our unspeakable disgust we were marched straight back to the water-cure establishment, and dumped down into the mud again. This time I could n’t stand it and at eleven o’clock, after wading round and looking at my horses wholly unable to lay down, I got permission to move my company and went to bed satisfied that men and horses were high and dry.

Saturday we started at eight o’clock and, to our immense surprise, found ourselves on the back track. They said that we had accomplished all we came for, but we could n’t see it, and we did n’t relish our march. As for me, I did n’t relish the reticence about high quarters. There seemed to be an air of solemn silence which omened badly and I felt sure that evil tidings had come from Hooker. Still the day was very fine and the spring young and full of life and at this season, in this open air life, one can’t be dull long, so I soon brightened up and was all ready for the first rumor which told us of a battle and a great victory of Hooker’s the day before. After that we lived in anxiety and rumors, now victory, now defeat, now all up and again all down, until the final acknowledgment came. We did not hear the guns of the battle until that afternoon, but as we approached the Rapidan near Ely’s Ford they began to boom faintly up and when we reached the ford at sunset they sounded loud and fast. Here we halted and went into camp with a notice that we should go on again at midnight; but just as we were getting ready to lay down there came a most tremendous volley of musketry close to us, causing us to saddle with the least possible delay. Our camps were knocked to pieces and the regiments moved off as soon as possible and my squadron was ordered to support Tidball’s battery. I reported and all the dispositions were made and things were prepared for a night attack, and then our commanders concluded that there would n’t be any after all. It proved that a rebel regiment had fired across the river into our camp and had then subsided into silence. So I was told that I might unsaddle and go to sleep, which I did, and at one o’clock we lay down in the hospitable furrows of a corn field to be called at four.

Saturday was a lazy, anxious disagreeable day. Heavy firing in the direction of Chancellorsville, about five miles off, began at daybreak and was kept up until nearly noon without intermission. We anxiously watched the direction and distance and tried to draw inferences from it. We listened to all sorts of rumors which came flowing in, most of them encouraging, and tried to believe them, and, in fact, we did and that afternoon I, for one, was sanguine and confident. At noon the battery left and I was relieved, so, to pass the time, I was ordered to go and strip an old secesh farmer of his corn, for our horses were well-nigh starving. I did so in most approved style and in reply to his long story of losses, plunderings and impending starvation turned the deaf ear of duty, and, as I swept off his last ears of seed corn, told him that Virginia had brought this on herself and need expect no mercy. I think that that old pod realises that the ordinance of secession was a mistake. After finishing this job I took my squadron into the woods and we lay off for a few hours under the trees in the pleasant spring afternoon until the column started to cross the river, when I fell in.

We crossed and came into our lines a couple of miles on the other side. Though I did not know it, those two miles were very dangerous to us, for it was through thick woods, of which we did not hold possession, and in which a few felled trees and a small force of infantry could have driven us back. We got through safely however and came into our lines. We found our forces throwing up defences, as busy as bees, already strongly protected and apparently in excellent spirits. They looked fresh, clean and confident. We went on to U.S. ford and soon struck the main road with its endless confusion — reinforcements, supply and ammunition trains and messengers going to the front; stragglers, ambulances and stretchers with the loads of wounded and dying men toiling to the rear; cattle, horses and mules; wounded men resting, tired men sleeping, all here looking excited and worn out with fatigue. The news here was not so good, but the 11th Corps had fought here and had not fought well, and we thought it was probably colored by their reverses.

We got to the ford at dusk and encamped, and in the evening we had a shower or two and in the morning we woke by a brisk discharge of artillery and bursting of shells. At ten o’clock we moved and came across the river and encamped on this side in a wood, a mile or so from the river, and received a new issue of forage or rations. The rumors were very good and very bad. At first, the enemy was surrounded, Sedgwick held the heights and we were getting ready to follow in pursuit. Then Sedgwick had lost the heights and Hooker was coming to grief, and night fell on rumors of an unpleasant aspect. Still our quarters were comfortable and we turned in for a good night’s sleep; but at two o’clock we were called and ordered to be ready to move in ten minutes and three found us on the road. We marched down towards Falmouth, utterly ignorant of our destination or of what was going on; but as day broke through a thick heavy fog we found various stragglers, etc., and picked up scraps of news. It was all bad, not decisive, but bad; things evidently were going wrong. At last I met a Captain from Sedgwick’s Corps who gave me the gross results, and in a few minutes I rode through Falmouth as dejected a man as you would care to see. I felt sick of the war, of the army, almost of life. I thought of you and of this result abroad; it seemed too much and I felt despairing. We presently halted beyond Falmouth and there passed the day trying not to believe news which we felt to be true. The morning was very hot, but in the afternoon a tremendous rain-storm came up ending in a northeaster, wetting us through, driving us out of our tents and freezing us nearly to death, and in this we passed the night.

Wednesday was cheerless to a degree. Wind northeast, cold and rainy, and we wet and shivering; but it wore away by degrees and our spirits kept rising, until at last we actually believed that the army had not retreated; but in the afternoon came the crusher. The news of the retreat of the army came upon us at once with the order to saddle and return to our old camp. We did so and returned to Potomac Run Bridge. It was a cold, cheerless afternoon. The rain fell by showers in torrents and we had been wet through twenty-four hours. We found our old camp deserted, burned up, filthy and surrounded with dead horses. We tied up our horses and stood dismally round in the pouring rain. Presently shelters were rigged up and we crawled into them and passed a supperless, wet night, by no means uncheerfully, for things were too bad to be trifled with now and woe to a grumbling man, or one who intimated that things might be more agreeable.

Thursday, just as we were getting ready to clear away the wreck and to discover what our four weeks of active service had left of our companions an order came for us at once to go out on picket. I was not sorry to do it, for the old camp is not pleasant. We did so and here I am now, doing the lightest possible picket duty and sitting in the woods. To be sure it rained again last night and we are still wet; but we are out of that confounded filthy camp which oppresses us with defeat.

Potomac Bridge, Va.
May 9, 1863

Back at Potomac Run and so ends today the four toughest weeks campaigning that I have ever felt — mud and rain, rain and mud, long marches and short forages. It is strange how I like the life though, in spite of its hardships and beastly slavery. I no longer care for a leave of absence, or wish to go home. I am satisfied to stay here and see the thing through. Still we are now clearing away the wreck and can see what damage is done. We got in from picket last night at nine o’clock, and today it has cleared off and we can take account of stock. The trip has used up about twenty of my sixty horses and done no good to the men, but we have seen no fighting. Our regiment has lost one officer, poor Phillips, picked off by a sharp-shooter on the Rapidan. He was a promoted sergeant and came from Springfield. Our division has lost its General — Averell — placed under arrest, why, I do not know. I think they’ll have to release him, as, good or bad, he’s the best we have. Stoneman turned up last night and what he has done the newspapers will tell you; I can’t. As for the Army of the Potomac, it’s loss is great, but not irreparable. The men do not seem cast down or demoralised and the enemy cannot afford to diminish their forces opposite. The real trouble, I imagine, is the mustering out of the two year men. If it were not for that I should feel confidence in immediate movement. As for Hooker, I think the army feels confidence in him. He ran his head against a stone wall here, but that is his tendency and the lesson will be of great service. I think he ‘ll do much better next time. On the whole things might be much worse; but the army must be kept in motion and the enemy engaged. If Hooker rests, he’s lost, and so I look to being in the field again at once….

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