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

Post image for Diary of David L. Day.

Diary of David L. Day.

February 11, 2014

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


The Expedition.

Feb. 11. The morning of February 6th found us in line on the parade ground, New York and Massachusetts shoulder to shoulder. Capt. Phillips, wanting a brave and valiant veteran on the left of his company, assigned me to that post of honor. I reckon the reason for it was that two of his sergeants were on the sick list. While standing in line, waiting the order to march, a scene is transpiring which to us of the 25th is altogether new and strange. The ladies living here in camp are all out, and wetting their handkerchiefs with their tears, are watching the preparations to leave. They are struggling under a fearful burden of anxiety which will not be removed until our return. Groups of men and women are standing around, taking each other by the hand and kissing their good-byes. Our Brooklyn friends are visibly affected, while the 25th boys look on stoically. While men and women with streaming eyes are bidding perhaps their last farewells, these roughened, hardened sons of Mars look with unpitying eye on this affecting scene and laugh. I confess I should have taken a greater interest in the thing and my sympathies would have flowed more freely if I could have taken a hand in the kissing.

We marched into town where the brigade line was formed, consisting of the 139th and 118th New York, two regiments of colored troops and one U. S. battery, (the 2d I think). The mounted rifles were to follow later. This comprised the whole force under command of Brig. Gen. Wistar, whoever he is. The line of march was taken up the country on the road towards Richmond. Arriving at the woods, about a mile from town, the column was halted and a detail made to act as skirmishers. The 139th being on the advance furnished the detail. In this detail the 25th was largely represented, and was under command of Major Mulcay. The major marched his command a few rods into the woods, formed his skirmish line and ordered them forward, the column following. I now began to hear plenty of talk about bushwhackers and business for the boys ahead. Capt. Phillips fell back to the rear of his company, marching by my side. I thought this a good opportunity to scrape an acquaintance, and commenced talking to him, but he did not seem to be in a mood for conversation and said as little as possible. He commenced a low, suppressed whistle of a single strain of Rally ‘Hound the Flag. I tried all means I could think of to draw him out, but finding I could do nothing with him, I turned my attention to the major and his skirmishers. He was as busy with them and as particular as if they were out for skirmish drill, and kept talking to them all the time about preserving their distances and alignments.

After a time, the boys started up a rabbit, and half a dozen of them gave chase, shouting and yelling till they were out of sight in the woods, where they waited for the major to come up. The major lectured them a little about charging without orders and warning them of the great danger they were in from bushwhackers. All the thanks he got from those heartless fellows for all his care and solicitude was: “Oh! damn the bushwhackers!” and as soon as another rabbit or squirrel was started up, away they would go again. Capt. Phillips, who meanwhile had kept up his whistle, suppressed it long enough to say: “Your boys are taking great risks in running off into the woods in that way; some of them will get shot by bushwhackers.” I said I thought our boys had very little fear of bushwhackers, and would sooner have the fun of chasing them than rabbits, besides I thought there was little danger from bushwhackers, for when a force like this was marching through they preferred keeping at a safe distance.

A little after noon the cavalry overtook us, and we halted to let them go past us. I was surprised to see such a force; there was a whole brigade, numbering between 3000 and 4000, under command of Col. Spear, who had been sent down from the army of the Potomac, landing at Yorktown, and had now overtaken us. I could now begin to see through a glass darkly. This is the raid on Richmond, of which I had heard some hints before. The cavalry of course are the principal actors, and we are simply the supporting column.

The cavalry past us, we again started. Thee general hurried us up, wishing to keep as near the cavalry as possible, but the major’s skirmish line rather retarded us. It was finally thought that with a large cavalry force in advance the skirmish line was not absolutely necessary, and it was withdrawn. The march was forced till past the middle of the afternoon, when it began to tell on the Brooklyn boys, some of them giving out. They were unaccustomed to such severe marching, and it took hold of them severely. We made a halt of an hour for rest and lunch, and before starting, Col. Roberts made a short address. He thought we were on the eve of a severe battle, and he hoped and believed his regiment would stand up and acquit themselves like soldiers, and if successful in our undertaking we should deserve and receive the plaudits of the country. In such a battle, there must necessarily be some victims, but just who, we are of course ignorant, but each one is hoping it will not be him. I laughed, and one of the boys asked what pleased me. I said if the colonel did not look out he would have us all whipped before we sighted the enemy. We pushed along till into the evening; the boys were getting pretty well played out and would make frequent halts without any orders.

There was one of the general’s aids who seemed to take a great interest in getting us along, and his interest from some cause or other (probably his canteen) seemed to increase with the evening. The boys would be groping their weary way through the darkness, when some one would give a whistle and they would all squat in the road. This aid would ride up in a great passion and order them up, telling them if they didn’t get along faster he would put a regiment of colored troops on the advance. The response to that threat would be: “Bring on your niggers!” This officer had another provoking habit which he came well nigh paying dearly for. There were occasional mud holes in the road caused by the rains; some of them two or three rods across. The boys would flank these to keep their feet from getting wet and sore, but this officer attempted to drive them through, saying it took up the time flanking them. At one of these places he was going to drive them through anyway or it would be the death of some of them. I was quietly going around, and halted to see how he made it work with them. He was swearing at them, wheeling his horse right and left among them, and making himself about as disagreeable as he could. Just then I heard the ominous click of rifle locks, and heard some one ask him if he was aware those rifles were loaded. He seemed to catch on to the idea, and got himself out of that as quickly as possible, and was seen nor heard from no more during the march. Soldiers are human, with feelings and passions like other men; they can and do stand a great deal, but they cannot stand everything any more than a stone drag.

The night wore on, the boys were well nigh exhausted and made frequent halts. The colonel would sympathize with them, and encourage them by saying he hoped the day’s march was nearly over, telling them to keep up courage and a few miles more the end would be reached. At one of these halts the major showed some impatience and riding up to the colonel said:

“Colonel, I really do not understand the meaning of this?”

“What’s the matter now, major?”

“Why, every few moments this entire regiment will simultaneously sit down?”

“Oh, well, major,” the colonel replied, “the boys are tired; they have come a long way and are pretty well played out; change places with some of them, major, and you will understand it better.”

That seemed to he satisfactory to the major and he rode off, but it cheered the boys up wonderfully and they made quite a distance before halting again.

It is curious how sometimes the most trifling act or expression will raise up the almost exhausted energies of men and inspire hope when almost on the verge of despair. As an instance of this, the boys while marching along had for some time preserved a dead silence; not a word had been spoken, and all seemed to he absorbed in their own reflections, when suddenly I stumbled over a stump. Gathering myself up I exclaimed: “There, I know just where that stump is!” The effect was like magic; all within the sound of my voice broke out in a loud and hearty laugh, and for a time forgot their fatigue and trudged lightly along.

We reached the end of our day’s tramp at New Kent sometime after midnight, having made a march of thirty miles. Many of the boys were so exhausted that they threw themselves down on the ground and were soon fast asleep. I prepared some coffee, and while it was boiling, washed myself up, and after drinking my coffee, rolled up in my blanket and was soon asleep.

We slept about three hours when we were routed up, and a little after daylight were again on the march. The boys were pretty stiff and sore, but a mile or two took the kinks out of their legs and limbered them up so they were about as good as new. Nothing transpired worthy of note during the forenoon’s march, unless it was that Capt. Phillips kept up his suppressed whistle of that same strain of Rally ‘Round the Flag. I tried to rally him and get him to talking, but it was of no use; he was entirely absorbed in his own reflections, ruminating, as I thought, over the probable chances of leaving a widow and orphan children as a legacy to his country.

Before noon we reached what is called the Baltimore cross roads, about two miles from Bottom bridge which crosses the Chickahominy river. Here we met the cavalry coming back, and Col. Spear reported to Gen. Wistar that on reaching the river he found all the bridges up and a considerable force of the enemy, with infantry and artillery guarding the river. With our small force and only one battery he thought it would be useless to attempt to force the passage of the river. On learning this I felt relieved, for if we couldn’t cross the river to them, they certainly couldn’t cross it to us, and in all probability they had no desire to do so.

Presently an alarm was raised that the enemy was coming up the White House road. The 139th was ordered down the road to meet them. We went about a quarter of a mile and formed a line of battle. A few cavalry went down the road a couple of miles and when they returned reported no enemy in sight or hearing, a circumstance I did not regret. We then went back and were dismissed for dinner.

This Baltimore is the junction of several roads; the one we came up from New Kent extends on to Richmond, one runs south to Charles City, one northeast to White House, and another runs north over into Northumberland, where once lived a little boy who owned a little hatchet and couldn’t tell a lie. It was fortunate for him and the country that he lived at that time for if he had lived in these times the chances are more than a thousand to one that he couldn’t have told the truth. There are some half a dozen farm houses scattered round in sight, and also the convenient blacksmith shop is located here.

In the little square formed by the intersection of the roads stands an interesting old building—the church in which Gen. Washington was married. It is a long, low, rather narrow building, without belfrey or ornament of any kind outside or in. It is without paint or even whitewash, and shows the rough marks of age and neglect. It is divested of its seats, having been used for an army hospital. I entered this historic old church and found it half full of the boys cutting their monograms in the ceiling; I uncovered my head in profound reverence for the place and the distinguished parties who were here joined in the holy bonds of wedlock. Here George and Martha mutually pledged themselves each to the other, to share together their joys and sorrows along the pathway of life until death should bring a separation, and well they kept their vows, for I have never learned that either of them ever applied for a divorce, although it is said Martha in prosperous gales was something of a shrew. For this little bit of history I am indebted to one of my Brooklyn friends who had made a previous visit here.

After waiting here a couple of hours the column re-formed and marched back over the road we came nearly to the woods, where we halted to let the cavalry go past us. After passing us they halted to feed their horses and themselves, and while waiting for them an alarm was raised that the enemy were coming through the woods on our flank. Down came the fences and a regiment of darkies filed into the field, and deployed as skirmishers. Every few moments they would look back to see where their support was, while their teeth and the whites of their eyes resembled bunches of tallow candles hanging in a dark cellar-way. The alarm of course was a false one, but the colored troops fought nobly.

We arrived back at New Kent about night, and bivouacked on a large field near the village. New Kent is the county seat, and is not much unlike other country places they call towns in Virginia. It contains a court house, jail, church, two or three stores, tavern, a small collection of houses and the inevitable blacksmith shop. There is no such thing in Virginia as a schoolhouse; they have no use for such things. All they want is law and gospel, and I have not been able to find out that these give them a great degree of culture and refinement. More than 200 years ago the colonial Gov. Berkley said: “I thank God there are no public schools in Virginia, and I hope there will be none for the next hundred years.” His hopes have been doubly realized, which probably accounts for the present state of affairs in Virginia.

Getting into camp we built fires, made coffee and began to make ourselves comfortable. Some time in the evening the major happened along where a few of us were standing around a fire of burning rails. He began to upbraid us for burning the rails, telling us if we wanted fires we must go into the woods and get our fuel. I said to the major I thought it was all right to burn the rails; as we were sort of guests on the gentleman’s place, I presumed he would be entirely willing and glad to contribute a few rails for our personal comfort during the, night. He went off muttering something about destruction of property while the boys added more rails to the fire.

Next morning the march was resumed, Capt. Phillips came out looking bright and pert as a wildcat, the low whistle was no longer heard and he was as full of orders to his company as a major-general. We arrived back on the afternoon of the 9th, and as we sighted Camp West, the ladies were all out on the parade ground, waving their handkerchiefs in greeting of our return. It was like the old Roman armies returning from conquest, when fair maidens, with white waving arms, would welcome their coming. Now another scene ensued; fair women and brave men close in the fond embraces of love and thanksgiving for their miraculous deliverance. I could but feel that the 25th boys were rather slighted in not receiving a share of the kisses, for who can tell that but for them their friends might not now be dwellers in the Hotel de Libby. On the whole we have had rather an interesting excursion, having seen some forty odd miles of the county. It was very woody and I think the poorest I have ever traveled in for chickens, applejack and peach and honey. But the chickens and applejack didn’t matter so much as the orders in regard to foraging were very strict. These officers in command here seem to think the proper way to conduct a war is not to hurt anyone or damage their property. The result was not much different from what I expected, and reminds me of the old couplet:

The king of France with 50,000 men marched up the hill
And then marched down again.

I reckon we must have gone very near where Pocahontas befriended Capt. Smith. The. history of that little romance is that Smith was captured while ascending the Chickahominy river, and taken higher up the river to Powhatan’s lodge, and that was said to be some twelve miles below where the city of Richmond now stands. So I reckon we must have been in the vicinity where that occurred; I should like to have stayed there two or three days, or at least long enough to have selected some romantic spot as being the place where that drama was enacted, and if possible gathered a few stones and erected some sort of rude monument to the memory of the young lady.

Before dismissing his regiment, Col. Roberts thanked them for their cheerful obedience to orders, endurance and good order while on the march, and especially his new allies, who throughout the long march neither faltered, complained or straggled.

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