“Wilson Small,” Off White House,
Friday Afternoon, June 27.
Dear Mother,—-Yesterday we went down the river, at Captain Sawtelle’s request, to clear the way, order the transports and barges quietly down, and prevent confusion. All the steamers towed all the sailing-vessels. Imagine a fleet of several hundred vessels streaming down the shining river. The Pamunky twists and turns so much that one day, after passing the “Webster” on her voyage down, we met her again, half an hour later, with only a narrow belt of land and a few trees between us.
We returned last evening and found the whole place transformed. All the trees along the- shore for half a mile had been cut down and toppled over into the river. The gunboats were drawn up ready for action, with their guns pointed to sweep the plain laid bare by the felling of the trees. Every hospital tent, two hundred and fifty of them, was down. All articles of value, commissary stores, ordnance stores, medical stores, etc., were on transports and barges, and on their way down the river. Nothing was left but the Quartermaster’s Department tents, our tent, the camp of the Ninety-third New York Regiment, and a few stores and sutlers’ quarters. Soon after, we saw the dear tent dismantled before our eyes, all her contents going on board the “Elizabeth,” — Dr. Ware rescuing for me, at the last moment, my invaluable Lund’s patent corkscrew.
The truth is, the whole thing has been preparing for days. Captain Sawtelle told us this morning that seven hundred thousand rations and a large amount of forage were sent up the James River a week ago. This is doubtless a masterly strategic movement of McClellan’s, compelled by the want of reinforcements. As for what is going on with the army to-day, it would be simple folly to attempt to give you any account of it. The wildest and most contradictory rumors are afloat. We lie at the wharf, and all around us are people eager to tell absurd and exaggerated stories. I make it a rule to believe nothing that I do not pick up from Captain Sawtelle. Yesterday there was an impression that Stonewall Jackson was coming down upon us to destroy this depot; and that has hastened the removal which was already prepared.
Stripped of all exaggeration, I suppose the truth is this: General Porter, being flanked in immense force, has wheeled round and back. He crossed the Chickahominy at four o’clock this morning. The whole army is now across that river; the enemy are in part on this side of it. We may now go into Richmond on the left, — Burnside co-operating. In that case this base of supplies will be more available up the James River. Meantime Colonel Installs and Captain Sawtelle are sending forward supplies in trains and army-wagons as fast as possible. The troops have six days’ rations in their knapsacks. The enemy evidently hope to ruin us by seizing this station, — hitherto the sole source of supply to our army. Instead of which, everything has been sent away; the few things that remain are lying on the wharves, ready to go on board a few vessels at the last moment. The “Elm City” is waiting for the Ninety-third New York Regiment, which is stationed here on guard duty. “We have had our steam up all day, ready to be off at a moment’s notice; and even as I write comes the order to start, the enemy having got the railroad. And so rapidly have we gone, that between writing the words “Elm City” and “railroad” we are off!
Such a jolly panic! Men rushing and tearing down to the wharves, —these precious civilians and sutlers and “scalawags”! The enemy are in force three miles from us; they have seized the railroad, and cut the telegraph. We privately hope to get a glimpse of them as we go down the river; it would be something to say that we had seen the Confederate army of Richmond!
We have just enjoyed the fun of seeing the last of the shore-people rushing on board schooners and steamers, —the former all yelling for “a tow.” I never laughed more than to see the “contrabands ” race down from the quarters and shovel into barges, — the men into one, the women into another. The “Canonicus” stayed behind to carry off Colonel Ingalls and Captain Sawtelle, who are highly pleased with the way the whole thing has been done,—as well they may be, for it reflects the greatest credit upon them.
All our army is now across the Chickahominy: General Porter crossed at four this morning; only General Stoneman and the cavalry are this side of the river. The order which finally moved us was in consequence of a message from General Stoneman to General Casey, which came by mounted messenger while Mr. Olmsted was with the latter. It said: “I hold the enemy in check at Tunstall’s [three miles from White House, on the railway], and shall for a short time. I shall then retreat by White House.” Then the great gun of the “Sebago” boomed out, and we all slipped our moorings. The gunboats were in line of battle; we passed between them and the shore; the men were beat to quarters, and standing at their guns, — the great ferocious guns!
We had scarcely turned the first bend of the river before we heard explosions, and saw the smoke and fire of the last things burning, — such as locomotives, cars, a few tents, whiskey, etc. Before leaving, we saw clouds of dust, and General Stoneman’s baggage-train came trotting in; and at the same moment a corral of invalid horses and mules, kept here by the Quartermaster’s Department, seven hundred of them, were let loose and driven towards Cumberland. The last I saw of the White House, General Casey was sitting on the piazza, and the signal-men on the roof were waving the pretty signals, which were being answered by the gunboats.
And now we are streaming down the winding river; the “Elm City” ahead, with two or three schooners; the little “Wissahickon” racing along as fast as she can go, like a crab, and blessing herself that she is too little to be detained for “a tow.” By and by we come, hauling slowly two big schooners; then comes the “Daniel Webster,” towing ammunition-barges; after her the “Vanderbilt,” towing something of which I can see only the masts above the trees as the river winds. At each bend there is an excitement. Somebody is sure to be within an ace of getting foul of somebody else. The smoke at White House is growing denser and denser, and we hear cannon, — which we take to mean that the gunboats are getting a chance at the enemy.
The “Spaulding” here comes quietly up the river, and asks, bewildered, for orders. Mr. Olmsted replies: “Go up for the first heavy tow you can find, and report at Yorktown.” So the Commission, having no sanitary business on hand, does its best for the service in another way.
[To this letter I venture to add the following extract from one written some months later by the Chief of the party who left White House that Friday evening, June 27, 1862: —
“All night we sat on the deck of the ‘Small,’ slowly moving away, watching the constantly increasing cloud and the fire-flashes above the trees toward White House; watching the fading out of what had been to us, through those strange weeks, a sort of home where we had worked together and been happy, — a place which is sacred to some of us now for its intense living remembrances, and for the hallowing of them all by the memory of one who, through months of death and darkness, lived and worked in self-abnegation; lived in and for the sufferings of others, and finally gave himself a sacrifice for them.”1]