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

David L Day–My diary of rambles with the 25th Mass


May 3. On the 27th of April we broke camp at Getty’s station, arriving here about dark, and marched up the Williamsburg road about two miles where we bivouacked. On this trip we were furnished transportation. On the morning of the 29th we were ordered into camp about three miles higher up the road. We had not much more than got up there when an order came for us to report at the landing immediately. We now had a five mile march before us, with the dust in the road about three inches deep. This was no march but a race, the companies trying to run past each other and get the advance to shield themselves from the dust. The colonel let them have it their own way and they made the dust fly right smart. We made the distance in less than an hour and on arriving at the landing looked like walking dirt heaps. A guard was placed along the bank of the river to prevent our washing in it for fear of creating a sand bar. There didn’t appear to be anything wanted of us after we got here and we are now in camp on the bluff just above the landing.

Our brigade now consists of the 9th New Jersey and the 23d, 25th and 27th Massachusetts, under command of Brig. Gen. C. A. Heckman, and is known as the 1st brigade, 2d division, 18th army corps, under command of Gen. William P. Smith, otherwise known as “Baldy.” Our knapsacks have been sent back to Portsmouth and we are now in light marching order, having only the clothing we have on and our blankets. Our camp equipage consists of two camp kettles for each company, and shelter tents. These tents are simply pieces of cotton cloth, about six feet long by four wide, made to button together, and every man is supplied with one which he carries with his blanket. Ordinarily they are used as blankets, but in ease of a storm three of them are buttoned together, two forming the roof and the other the end, which makes a kind of burrow which partly shelters three men. We fellows who are used to roughing it think it all well enough, but I feel sorry for the officers; it will come pretty hard on them. It is something they are not used to and besides it sort of reduces them to the ranks.

Yorktown is hardly as much today as it was the day of Cornwallis’ surrender, and I don’t think there has been a nail driven or an ounce of paint used since. There is the old church and about a dozen weather-beaten old houses, the most pretentious of which was Cornwallis’ headquarters.

The 18th corps are all here, infantry, artillery and cavalry, and yesterday Gen. Butler reviewed them. The review came off on the plain below the town and was quite an imposing affair. We came a very clever little dodge on the enemy last night. About midnight we were all routed up and every man given a chunk of raw salt pork. After standing there about half an hour holding our pork and awaiting further developments, we were then told we might go back to bed again. Now that was taking a mean advantage of a brave and chivalrous foe, thus to conceal the kind and quantity of our rations. They are probably thinking that we have nothing to eat and are keeping up their hopes that we shall soon surrender.

A Trip through the Chesapeake and Albemarle Canal.

April 26. The surrender of Plymouth, N. C, and death of Flusser caused consternation at Roanoke island, lest the dreaded Albemarle should make them a visit. On the 22d we were ordered to the succor of that island. Embarking on board a large double-ender boat, we left Portsmouth in the afternoon and proceeded up the river, going past the Gosport navy yard, where could be seen the burned and sunken hulks of the U. S. vessels which were destroyed at the surrender of Norfolk and the navy yard at the beginning of the war. We kept on up the river till towards night, when we entered the canal. The boat was a little too wide for the canal and our progress was slow.

About midnight we came to a station, having made but a few miles of our journey. There we found our Brooklyn friends who were doing picket duty. They were right glad to see us and kept us busy answering questions about their old home, which they were beginning to despair of ever seeing again. After an hour’s stop we resumed our journey. We had not gone far when the port wheel fouled with a stump, so that we could neither go ahead nor back off. This caused a delay of about two hours, as cutting out floats by the light of a lantern is a slow job. A mile or so further on a similar accident happened. This time they went to work cutting out the stump which was of considerable size, and took with a large amount of swearing, until after daylight to get clear. The port wheel had now acquired a provoking habit of foaling with all the stumps-and snags along the bank, and not until late in the afternoon of the 23d did we come out to a lake, sound, bay, or at any rate a large sheet of water, which we crossed, and just before night again entered the canal.

We now enter the eastern edge of the great dismal swamp. I have sometime read a legend of the phantom or witch of the lake of the dismal swamp, who all night long, by the light of the firefly lamp, would paddle her light canoe. On each side of the canal is a cypress swamp, and as the officers were about retiring for the night in the house on deck, the colonel charged the boys to keep a sharp lookout for guerrillas and bushwhackers who might be lurking there. About midnight all was still, not a sound was heard save the dull, heavy wheezing of the engines. Stripped of their bark, the dead trunks of the cypress trees looked in the dim light of the sweet German silver-plated moon, weird and ghostlike. Now it required no great stretch of the imagination to see almost anything in this swamp, and it began to be whispered around that bushwhackers could be seen behind the trees. Presently the sharp crack of a rifle rang out on the still night air, followed by a general fusillade and a cry that the woods are full of them. The officers came rushing out of the house and the colonel strained his eyes peering into the swamp, but seeing nothing and hearing no return fire, he naturally concluded that the boys were drawing on their imaginations, and gave the order to cease firing. But in such a racket it was difficult to hear orders, especially if they didn’t care to, and before he got them stopped, he was giving his orders in very emphatic language. It was rare sport to see the firing go on and to hear the colonel trying to stop it.

About morning we entered the North river, coming out into Currituck sound and sailing around the head of the island, landed at old Fort Huger. The garrison consisted of only the 99th New York, who felt a little nervous about being caught here alone in case the Albemarle should make them a visit. On landing we learned the scare was all over. The ram left Plymouth, intending to comc here, but on getting out into the sound the old ferryboats which had been lying in wait went for her and came well nigh sinking her; at any rate they disabled her so much she put back to Plymouth. Finding we were not needed here, after a few hours’ rest we re-embarked and started back.

The next day as we came out into the wide sheet of water, a cry was raised: “Sail ho! Sail ho!” “Where away?” “Five points off the port bow.” And sure enough, a little to the left and nearly across this lake, sound or whatever it is, lay a small steamer, which proved to be the little mail-boat Gazelle, which lay there stranded. We hauled up and inquired if they wished any assistance. They replied they should be all right as soon as the sand washed from under them, but in the meantime would like a guard aboard. About a dozen men from Company A were put aboard and we went on, arriving back to camp late last evening.

Guerrilla Hunting.

April 18. The country above here and that part of it lying between the Suffolk and James rivers is a good deal infected with guerrilla bands. It was thought best to send out in different directions three or four regiments to stir them up. In accordance with that arrangement we left our mud hole early in the morning of the 13th going aboard a big double-ender steamer at Portsmouth. In company with a small gunboat we steamed up the James river some 20 miles, when turning to the left we entered a small creek; following this a few miles we came to a village called Smithfield.

We landed here about noon and marched up into the street. The village seemed to be deserted, scarcely any one in sight. We had not been here many minutes before Col. Pickett was met by a good-looking elderly gentleman, who seemed to be considerably agitated about something. He wished the colonel to send a guard to his house, as he feared the negroes would take too many liberties with him during our stay. The colonel inquired if there were many Confederates about here. The old gentleman replied that he had seen none recently, and just then the report of rifles was heard up the creek. At this the colonel in a very abrupt and ungentlemanly manner, said: “D—n you and your house! Forward, march!” The old gentleman turned away sorrowfully, and started for home. This man’s name was Atkinson and he was formerly a member of Congress.

A little farther up the street we made another halt to fix on some plan of action. While waiting here I went into a house. There was no one at home, but from some books and papers lying around, I learned that its occupant was a namesake of mine, a Mr. Day, a lawyer by profession. I was disappointed in not finding the ‘squire at home. Mrs. Day had just finished ironing and her clothes lay on a table nice and clean. I noticed among them some towels, and being short of these, I borrowed a pair. I left my card expressing regrets at the ‘squire’s absence and said if he would send me his address, I should like to correspond with him.

Just out the village the roads forked. We halted a minute to determine which one to take, and while waiting a darky came along driving a pair of bulls hitched to a cart. Not being accustomed to seeing so grand a display, the animals became frightened and balked. The darky standing in the cart applied the whip and yelled at them. They began to bellow, and sticking their tails straight up in the air, went bellowing down the road at a gait which would have shamed a locomotive. We went out on the Suffolk road about five miles, where we met some scouts who said there was a regiment ahead of us. We then returned to Smithfield and soon after we were joined by the 9th New Jersey, who informed us that the 23d Massachusetts had had a brush with a party of guerrillas and had driven them towards Suffolk; those were the troops who were ahead of us when we met the scouts. The next morning on going down to the boats we saw a flag spread over something on the deck of the gunboat, and learned that it covered the body of a lieutenant of marines who was shot while going in a boat up the creek; those were the shots we heard. We arrived back to Camp Wellington in the afternoon.

April 3. This is a station on the Seaboard and Roanoke railroad; the camp ground lies between the station and the Nansemond river. The camp is named Camp Wellington in honor of a gentleman of that name in the city of Worcester, Mass., but I reckon if he could see this camp he would not feel very highly honored. It is the worst ground we have ever camped on, being little else than a mud hole. I have slept out in the woods ever since we came here, but we are getting it drained and the tents stockaded, but by the time we get it habitable we shall have to’ leave it.

The Family Together Again.

March 26. Broke camp and went over to Portsmouth, opposite Norfolk. Regiment arrived in the afternoon, bringing some 250 recruits. We are once more together and the regiment now numbers about 900 men. Towards night we were ordered out to Getty’s Station, about four miles west of Portsmouth.

Snow Storm.

March 23. A snow storm commenced yesterday and continued through last night with great severity, and as our camp is only a temporary affair it afforded but slight protection; when I awoke this morning I found myself under a blanket of snow about a foot thick; there was quite a depth of snow and it was badly drifted. Before noon it cleared up and the sun shone out warm. Now commenced snow-ball battles, in which all hands engaged and seemed to take great delight. This afternoon a sleighing party drove into camp and made the rounds of the officers’ quarters. This was a battery company, which out of some timbers and boards had improvised a sled about 30 feet long, and had hitched on their whole team of horses some 80 in number. The battery boys were riding the horses, while the sled was covered with officers, both military and naval. Making the rounds of the camps and being entertained at the officers’ quarters, they had a high old time. It didn’t matter much about the sleighing, whether good or bad, as they had team and whiskey enough to make good sleighing anywhere.

A Reunion.

March 7. Left Camp West on the 3d, arriving at Yorktown in the afternoon. Here our officers tried to get transportation but were ordered to move on. Went on about six miles below Yorktown, and on coming to an old church in the woods halted for the night. This was a brick building with nothing but the bare walls and roof, the floors, windows and finish having been removed. We gathered what wood we could find and kindled a fire inside; the night was cold and wood scarce, so that we passed a very uncomfortable night, not sleeping a wink. We took an early start in the morning, reaching the News about the middle of the afternoon, where we rejoined about 200 of the boys who first went home. We were glad to once more see each other, and the greetings were cordial among both officers and men. We introduced our new officers to our old ones, and when our new officers were about leaving us, as a slight expression of our regard for them, we shook hands with them and gave them three rousing cheers.

Return to Newport News.

March 2. The 11th Connecticut regiment arrived here today, and we are ordered back to the News where we rejoin a part of our old regiment which has just returned from home. This is good news to our boys who have been impatiently awaiting their return. So far as I am concerned I shall leave here with some regrets. We have been here several weeks and have got used to the officers and the place. The duty is light and somebody has got to stay here; as we have only a few months longer to remain we might as well be here as anywhere; but the orders are to go and orders must be obeyed. I will call on our officers and learn more about it. I am well pleased with these young fellows. They seem to«know their business and have a remarkable faculty of attending to it and letting other people attend to theirs. Their business appears to be in their quarters, amusing themselves with their reading, writing and games. They are not at all afflicted with exclusiveness and are not disposed to recline on their dignity. The boys have a standing invitation to call on them any time during office hours, and almost every evening some of them are in there. I called on them and inquired if they were going through to the News with us or stop with their regiment at Yorktown. They said it was not supposed that we knew enough to go from here to Newport News alone, and their orders were to march us down there, but they should try to get transportation from Yorktown. I said I thought that would be the most difficult job they had undertaken recently, that we could get transportation from here just as well as from Yorktown. But the idea was for us to march, as marching 50 or 100 miles a week, carrying heavy knapsacks, was a fine thing for soldiers. It took the kinks out of their legs and prevented them from becoming round shouldered. I inquired if they thought of making the journey on brook water? One of them partly closed his left eye and replied, “Not muchly.” I then said I should like an order on the commissary for a few much-needed supplies. The order was forthcoming, for which I made my best bow, and bidding them good evening took my leave.

Secesh Ladies.

Feb. 29. Most of the residents in town are women and small children, and a few old men. Of course the colored people are with us always. All the men being away, makes society for the Indies a little one-sided. At the evacuation most of the women remained here to take care of their property, and there are very few empty houses. These ladies pretend to have a great contempt for Yankees, but still they don’t appear to have quite enough to prevent their talking or chatting with us. On sunny days they may be seen at the windows or on the verandas, and a passing soldier who touches his cap in a respectful manner will perhaps get an invitation to call. If he conducts himself with propriety and is agreeable, they will ask him to be seated or perhaps ask him into the house, and on leaving, if he happens to suit them, they will invite him to call again, but some of them are not always so agreeable that a second call is desirable. These ladies pride themselves on being the regular F. F. V’s, and have a great pride of birth and ancestry; they will sit by the hour and talk and boast of it. They claim to be the real thoroughbreds and can trace their lineage in a direct line right straight back to William and Mary.

One day, while a party of them were talking that kind of nonsense and making right smart of fun of the mixed Yankee race, I said: “So far as anything that I know to the contrary that may all be as you say, but if appearances go for anything one would naturally conclude that some of the colored people about here might boast that some of William’s and Mary’s blood coursed through their veins.” That seemed to bring a sort of coldness over the meetin’, and I began to suspect that I had seriously offended, but they soon rallied and the conversation drifted into other and more agreeable channels.

.Some of the ladies are very agreeable conversationalists when they converse on something besides politics and secession, but what they say does not disturb me. I rather enjoy it, and have the fun of laughing at them. One day, in company with a party of them, they were having right smart of fun, laughing and making sport of the Yankees. I kept my end up as well as I could against such odds until they tired of it, when they switched off into secession and the war. On a table lay a small Confederate flag which one of them took up, and flaunting it around asked me how I liked the looks of it, remarking that it would finally triumph. I said that was no novelty to me, I had had the honor of helping capture quite a number of those things, “That does not represent anything, ladies; if you take any pleasure in keeping that little flag to look at occasionally as a curiosity, I presume there is no one who has the slightest objection, but be sure of one thing, you will never again see it floating in the breeze in this town.”

One replied: “You seem to feel pretty secure in your holding here, but it would not take a large force of our troops to set you Yankees scampering towards Fortress Monroe.”

“I know, but whatever force it might take, your people don’t care to pay the cost of retaking it. Your people have too many other jobs on hand at present, and a good prospect of having more to take much trouble about this place, besides it is of no use to them anyway and but very little use to us.”

Some of the women here seem to think it a mark of loyalty to their cause to exhibit all the contempt they can towards the Yankees. I fell in with a party of that kind one afternoon out in the churchyard. I sometimes go in there and spend an hour looking around and scraping the moss off those ancient stones to find names and dates, and I have found some that date back into the 17th century. In this yard are some 20 or 30 mounds beneath which sleep the Confederate dead, killed in the battle here or brought from other fields; at any rate they are here and the mounds are kept covered with flowers and evergreens. One day while looking around there a party of women entered, bringing wreaths of evergreen and commenced decorating those graves. I approached to within a respectful distance and watched them perform their sad rites of love and affection. When they had finished one of them, pointing at me, addressed me in this beautiful language: “But for you, you vile, miserable Yankees, these brave men would now be adorning their homes.”

Not knowing exactly whether they would or not, or just how much of an adornment they would have been, I deemed the most fitting reply to that crazed woman was dignified silence.

Guard Duty.

Feb. 27. Our guard duty is just outside the town. There are three stations: one on the south side next the asylum, one at the college on the west side, and one on the north side on the Palace Green. This last station is the one I usually take charge of. At each station the guard is divided into three reliefs, and the duty is simply to keep a lookout for the approach of the enemy and turn out the guard in honor of the officer of the day and to Col. West, the post commander. Our quarters at this station are in a small house which was formerly negroes’ quarters. In the yard stands a large, unoccupied house owned by a Mr. Saunders, now a resident of New York. He is said to be a loyal man and a lawyer by profession. When McClellan passed through here, Mr. Saunders availed himself of the opportunity, and taking his family, went to New Fork. When I first took command of this station several mornings ago, the instructions given me were to keep a sharp lookout for the approach of the enemy. I had not been engaged in this business a great while, when the approach of Col. West was announced. I turned out the guard with a great dash, extending all the honors due his exalted rank. He inquired my instructions. I informed him of those I had received. He then inquired if I had not received instructions in regard to-this house in the yard. I said I had not. “Then I will give you some; I shall expect you to look after this house and see that no one goes in there or in any way disturbs anything around it, and shall hold you responsible for its safe keeping while you are on duty.” I promised to faithfully attend to that important duty. He then dismissed the guard and rode over to call on a lady friend of his.

A Frightened Darky.

I now had a very important trust imposed on me, and I naturally felt a sort of womanly curiosity to explore that sacred realm. Soon after daylight the next morning, I took three of the boys and went around to the back side of the house and effected an entrance, but it was evident we were not the first explorers. We found nothing but a few articles of heavy furniture until we went into the southwest corner room next to the veranda. Here was a rich find, a large library. This room was about 15 feet square, and on all sides were books from the floor to the ceiling. Here was history, biography, travels, fiction, religion, law and miscellaneous works, magazines of all kinds, public documents, reports on all manner of subjects, and a large quantity of letters and private papers.

We tarried here over an hour, and on coming out met a darky on the veranda. He put on one of his ugliest looks and said:

“Wot doin’ in dar? Mus keep out dar!”

“What’s that to you, you black cuss?”

“You fine out, you go in dar. Colonel West tole me look out for dis yer property an’ tole him wot I sees goin’ on roun yere.”

“And do you tell Colonel West what you see done here?”

“O, yas sah, yas sah, Ize tole him ebery ting Ize sees.”

“Look here, boy, do you want to live to be old?”

“O, yas sah, yas sah.”

“Well then, if you are cherishing any such desire, you must be a little careful what you say to West, for if he ever comes to us with any stories from you, we will take you out here into the woods and leave you for the buzzards to eat.”

“O, lorra golly mity, boss, Ize neber ses nosin’ bout de sogers, it’s on’y dese yere citizens roun yere Ise looks arter, fore de Lord, boss, Ise done sa nosin bout de sogers.”

“That’s right, boy; yon stick to that and keep it right on your mind when you see West, unless you want buzzards to your funeral.”

That darky came down from boiling heat to zero in a short space of time, and as we have heard nothing from him he probably keeps the buzzards on his mind.

Saluting the Post Commander.

A few mornings ago it was warm, sunshiny and spring-like. It was my turn on guard, and I was in command of the whole party marching through town. On the way I saw Col. West coming, and gave the order: “Shoulder arms; close up!” Just then we were passing a house on the right side of the street. On the veranda were several ladies taking their morning airing. I gave the order: “Eyes right!” West heard the order, and caught the idea; laughing, he touched his cap as he rode past us.

I reckon he was pleased with my style of soldiering as he called on me at the station a few hours afterwards. I turned out the guard and extended the customary honors. After looking us over he said:

“Sergeant, suppose you should see a force of the enemy file out of the woods over yonder, what would you do?”

“Well, sir, that would depend altogether on the size of the force.”

“Well, say one or two regiments of infantry.”

“In that case I should deploy my men among the buildings here, and skirmish with them until reinforcements arrived.”

“Very well. Suppose a brigade of cavalry should dash out, what then?”

“In that case we would empty our rifles on them once or twice, and cut and run like hell for Fort Magruder.”

“You’ll do, dismiss your guard;” and wheeling his horse he rode off laughing.