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

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Diary of David L. Day.

November 12, 2012

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

The Tarboro March.

Nov. 12. On the morning of Oct. 30, Major Pickett, with six companies (the other four being on picket up the Trent road), left Newbern, embarking on the steamer Highlander for Washington on the Pamlico river. Here we joined Gen. Foster’s expedition for a raid up the country. The force consisted of the 17th, 23d, 24th and 25th Massachusetts and 10th Connecticut regiments of three years’ troops, and the 3d, 5th and 44th Massachusetts regiments of nine months’ troops, with five batteries of the 3d New York artillery, Capt. Belgers’ Rhode Island battery and seven companies of the 3d New York cavalry, besides a heavy wagon and ambulance train.

On Sunday morning Nov. 2, the expedition left Washington for a march across the country to the Roanoke river. The 23d and 25th were detailed as guard over the wagon and ambulance train. We marched through a poor and sparsely populated section of country without interruption or anything to create excitement, until about the middle of the afternoon, when we heard firing on the advance. They had reached a swamp of considerable width, with a small creek running across and overflowing the road for quite a distance. At this point two regiments of the enemy disputed the passage of the swamp, and a brisk infantry and artillery fire commenced, which lasted with short intervals for an hour or more, when the cavalry and two batteries charged across. The enemy beat a precipitate retreat, greatly accelarated by shells from the batteries. Our loss was small, not over a dozen killed and wounded, and most of these were from the 44th Massachusetts, which behaved nobly.

During this skirmish the wagon train made slow progress, advancing a short distance and then halting. It was late in the evening when we reached the swamp. All the troops were on the other side, but we got orders to halt where we were over night. The mules were fed and we made a supper of cold meat, hardtack and coffee, after which we lay down by the side of the fence to sleep.

Miles in a Mudhole.

Next morning the mule teams commenced the passage of the swamp and mudhole. Hearing a great noise and shouting, I went down to see what was up. I mounted the rude foot bridge at the side, improvised for the benefit of pedestrians, and walked along until I was near the middle of the mudhole and where the creek crossed the road. Here was a file of men on each side of the road, armed with hoop-poles and standing in mud and water from six inches to three feet deep. When a team was driven in, it received all necessary encouragement from the hoop-poles and strong lungs of the men while running the gauntlet. If the pilot was skilful and kept on the corduroy, the passage would he made before the mules would get discouraged. Sometimes the mules would get off the corduroy, but if the wagon kept on, the mules would manage to flounder back and go on. After a spell a careless driver ran his wagon off the corduroy and down it went to the axle. Here was a pretty fix. The mules couldn’t haul it out and no other team could get by. It was decided to unload the wagon, so the mules could pull it out. The load, consisting of beef and hardtack, was dumped into the creek, but the mules knew nothing of this arrangement, they only knew they were hopelessly stuck, and when they were appealed to to haul out the wagon, they obstinately refused; bracing out their forelegs and sticking their ears straight up in the air, they seemed to proclaim themselves a fixture. No amount of swearing and belaboring them with hoop-poles had the slightest effect. Capt. Schenck, who was standing by watching the fun, told them he would hitch on one of his teams and haul them out. The captain had a battery of 20-pounder Napoleon guns, with teams of eight heavy horses. He ordered in one of the teams and told them to hitch onto the mules, and when all was ready, he would give the order. When all was ready, the captain yelled, “Forward, march!” The horses, understanding the order, stepped smartly off; while the mules, not understanding it, did not keep step with the horses, but standing there braced out, the heels of three or four of them went up in the air, and they came down on their heads; in this way, sometimes under water and sometimes out, kicking and floundering, trying to regain their feet, they were dragged out through the mudhole, to the great delight and amusement of the captain and all other spectators.

This place is known as Rawls’ Mills creek, and that a grateful posterity may better understand the situation, I quote from Longfellow or some other fellow:

Then the muels strove and tugged

Up the hillsides steep and rugged,

Till they came unto a mudhole;

This was nary a common puddle;

One it was without a bottom,

Into which the muels, rot ’em,

Got so very far deluded,

Nothing but their ears protruded,

Picturing in a situation

Uncle Abe’s administration.

Darkies And Mules.

All the teams across, the march was resumed through a much better country, and we reached Williamston on the Roanoke river, about noon. Our teams are four horse and six mule teams. Some of the mule teams are driven by darkies, who sit on the nigh hind mule and pilot the craft by means of a single line running to the leaders, called a jerk line. With this line and their peculiar mule dialect, they handle the team admirably. Darkies and mules work together naturally; they understand each other perfectly and have the same dialect. Take a mule team that a white man can do nothing with, and let a darky come along and speak to them; in a minute they are entirely different animals and as docile as a kitten. They seem to have a love for him and are perfectly cognizant of all his actions and movements. If a darky while driving falls asleep, the mules know it in a minute and will stop. The leaders will face about and commence tangling themselves up in the chains and gearing of the next pair, and that will go on until some one hits the nigger on his head with a pine knot or lump of clay, waking him up. He will give the line a few jerks and call out to the mules in their language, and they will untangle themselves, straighten out and go on as though nothing had happened. Niggers and mules are a great institution.

Williamston is a pretty little town of about 1200 or 1500 inhabitants, nearly all of whom had left, leaving it to the tender mercies of an army; of course what was left lying around loose was gobbled up. When the wagon train marched through, the boys were frying the chickens and pigs in the streets, and probably the houses and stores contributed to their wants. The train halted just outside the town till about 4 p. m., when we again resumed the march, going up the Hamilton road. We went up this road about ten miles, and bivouacked in a large field of corn about 10 p. m. This afforded abundant forage for our horses and mules, also good beds and fires for ourselves. This day’s march was through a fine section of country and without opposition. A great quantity of corn was yet unharvested and a few barnsful of harvested corn which we found was set on fire, as being the best and quickest way to market it.

Plantation Dance.

Soon after we got into camp, a few darkies were seen lurking around, not knowing exactly whether it would do to come too near. But their fears were soon dispelled by a few darkies who were with us, telling them “de Yankees are our frien’s,” and to come right along. They soon began to flock into camp, and in a little while a hundred or more had come in. After the boys had their suppers, large fires were kindled, around which 200 or 300 of the boys formed a ring and getting thirty or forty of these darkies, men and women, inside, set them to dancing. They were free then and seemed anxious to do anything to please the boys and keep on good terms with them. Three or four of them, would pat the time and the rest would dance. They seemed to enjoy the fun as much as the spectators. Here was a genuine plantation dance in costume; men and women were dressed in well-worn garments of gunny cloth or Kentucky jeans, with enormous brogan shoes of russet leather, some of them looking as though they had a whole tannery on their feet. Some of the old ones were a little lame and would try to get rid of dancing by saying they didn’t know how, but the boys would tell them they did and that they must go in. It was great sport to watch the antics they cut up trying to dance. The next morning this field of corn comprising nearly or quite fifty acres, was nicely harvested. I don’t think ten bushels could have been saved from it.

Rainbow Bluff.

On the march at sunrise; just before noon we came out of the woods into an open country and in full view of the famous Rainbow bluff of which we had heard so much. The batteries were soon in position and skirmishers were sent out to examine the situation. After a time word came back that no enemy was near, the batteries limbered up and the march resumed. We were soon on the bluff, which was well fortified on the river and east sides but quite defenseless in the rear; it would have been an easy matter to have shelled out an enemy had there been one there. Here we found our gunboat fleet which had come up and was going to keep us company higher up the river. After destroying these works we moved on, reaching the little town of Hamilton about 2 p. m., and halted just outside. Here we were to stop three or four hours for rest and dinner.

A Private Dinner Party.

I suggested to Doctor Ben that it would be a good plan to forage our dinner; to this he assented and said if I could find some sweet potatoes he would furnish the chicken or pig. We started out, going up town; here we separated, each one to obtain his share of the dinner and then meet again on the corner. I was not long in finding a garden in which grew the potatoes; making a break in the fence I soon filled my haversack, and returning to the corner’ waited for the doctor. Great was my surprise to soon see him coming down the street with a hen dangling by the legs, and in charge of an officer of the guard, going in the direction of the general’s headquarters, on the veranda of which he and his staff were sitting. Being an interested party, I thought I would attend the conference. The officer preferred his charges, and Capt. Dan, the provost marshal, commenced the trial. He did not seem to get very much interested in it, and the doctor was getting along nicely with it, until the general began a cross examination by asking him if he had not heard the order in regard to foraging? The doctor admitted that he had. “How then does it happen that you do not observe it?” This was a pretty close question and I began to tremble for him, but he proved equal to the emergency; after waiting a moment he looked up and said, “General, this rebellion has got to be crushed if it takes every hen in North Carolina.” A smile lit up the face of the general, who asked, “Where is your regiment?” “Just beyond here, sir.” “Go to it, my boy, and get your dinner and be ready to march in a couple of hours or so.” We started, congratulating each other over the fortunate turn affairs had taken. We had a good dinner, and were well rested when the order came to march, about 6 p. m.

Burning of Hamilton.

This was a small town about half as large as Williamston, and like all other southern towns I have seen was built all in a heap. The inhabitants all left on our approach, and exhibited a bad feeling by cutting their well ropes and filling the wells with rubbish. This so incensed the boys that on leaving they set the town on fire, and we marched away by the light of it. A tramp of five or six miles up the Weldon road brought us to a plantation on which was a big cornfield. Into this we filed and put up for the night. Here again was forage for the team and cavalry horses and material for beds and fires. Our force of darkies was greatly augmented; they came in by hundreds, and after we had our supper the plantation dance was in order.

The Gunboats Thundering Up the River.

The gunboats had come up the river, and were now working their way towards Halifax, causing, I presume, the people of that town a terrible fright. They would fire an occasional shot as an advance notice of their coming, and on the still night air the boom of the big guns far up the river was wafted back to our camp.

Not Seeking a Fight.

They were expecting us at Halifax and Weldon and were making preparations to receive us, but the general was not up in that part of the country looking for a fight. A battle up there would have been without results to us, unless it was the loss of men. He was up there simply looking over the country, picking up a few horses and mules and helping the planters do their harvesting. The general, not caring to go where they were expecting him, the next morning turned his course across the country towards Tarboro, a town on the Tar river, some twenty miles west, hoping to reach there before the enemy could concentrate their forces against him.

A Rich Country.

This day’s march was through a rich and fertile section of country, abounding in large, rich plantations, affording plenty of luxuries for the boys and a great many horses and mules for the use of the army. The contrabands flocked in droves to our standard, and were very useful in carrying our blankets, filling canteens, foraging chickens and pigs, toting rails for the fires, and in many other ways. We harvested a large field of corn at noon and burned several barnfuls during the day, reaching camp late in the evening, some five or six miles from Tarboro. A heavy northeast rain storm set in during the night, and we could hear the cars running, bringing troops into Tarboro. Scouting parties were sent out to reconnoitre the enemy’s force and position, and reported they were in force and fortified between us and the town. As the general’s errand up through this part of the country was more for observation than fight, he thought with his small force of infantry (and a part of that new troops) and with a cumbersome wagon train, he had better act on the defensive, and early the next morning ordered a retreat.

The Retreat.

The morning was dark and dreary. With a heavy northeast rain storm blowing, the enemy in force in front of us and expecting an attack on our rear, when the retreat commenced our prospects were anything but flattering. Quietly the order was given for the wagons to start and make the time as short as possible back some eight miles to an old church and cross roads, past which we had come the day before, and there await further orders. Three companies of cavalry preceded us as an advance guard. The road was very muddy and the traveling hard, but that made no difference; the teams were urged forward and the boys exhibited remarkable enterprise in getting over the road. I thought I had never seen our boys more interested in anything than they were in this. Not even applejack nor all the luxuries that lay scattered along their pathway had any charms for them. Their whole souls seemed centered on the old church, and they were thorougly absorbed in their efforts to reach it. I don’t believe they ever took half so much interest before in going to a church. The old church and cross roads were reached before noon, and we anxiously awaited the arrival of the general. Not hearing any firing in the rear we concluded they were lying for us at some other point, if they were intending an attack on us. The cavalry informed us that the bridge across the creek out in the swamp, over which we crossed the day before, was taken up and things looked as though somebody might be waiting for us on the other side. The troops were now coming up, and a couple of batteries dashed past us, down the road into the swamp. The general soon came up and seemed quite pleased that he had gained this point without opposition, and thought there would be no further trouble.

The commander is a practical engineer, and can map with his eye the country as he passes through it, picking out the strong and weak positions, moving his troops in this or the other direction, holding such roads and positions as he thinks will give him an advantage, and when a movement is ordered, it is entered on by his troops with full confidence of success. Two roads branched from the one we were on, one taking a north-easterly direction,, the other a north-westerly. Up these roads the cavalry were sent to make a reconnoissanee. The pioneer corps was ordered down to the creek, over which the bridge had been take up, and commenced felling trees as though they intended to rebuild it. After an hour’s ride, the cavalry returned and reported everything all right. A part of the infantry and artillery now took the advance, going up the north-easterly road, followed by the wagon train, while the balance of the troops brought up the rear. While this was going on, the sharp ring of the axes could be heard out in the swamp as though that was the intended route, but after the column had got well under way, the pioneers abandoned their job and followed along. The route lay through an open country, easy of defence, and if anybody was waiting for us on the other side of the swamp (as we have since learned there was), they got nicely fooled. About night we reached the site where two days, before stood the town of Hamilton. Nothing remained but a few scattered rookeries on the outskirts occupied by negroes. There was, however, one small two story building standing a little apart from the others, which was saved, and into this went company B, taking the up-stairs tenement, while the lower one was occupied by a company of the 5th Massachusetts. The night was cold and stormy, snowing quite heavily, and the little army was obliged to stand it or find shelter as best they could. I reckon the boys who set the fires bitterly repented of their acts, as they must have suffered much, and a good many of them were worn down and sick from the long march.

By morning the storm had abated, but there were about two inches of soft snow or slush, and some of the boys were barefoot, having worn out their shoes, and a good many were nearly or quite sick. The surgeons looked over their regiments, sending; the sick and bare-footed aboard the gunboats for Plymouth, for which place the troops were bound.

The order of exercises for today was a march back to Williamston, which I very much regretted not being able to do, as I rather enjoy these rambles through the country and feel disappointed when 1 cannot go, but I had been a little under the weather for a day or two and was sent with the others aboard the little gunboat Hatzel, where we were greatly sympathized with by the marines, who seemed to think we had had a pretty hard time of it, and who showed us every favor and indulgence that lay in their power. The boats steamed slowly down the river, keeping along with the army, and arriving at Plymouth on the afternoon of the 10th, having made a two weeks’ excursion.

The Result.

I reckon the landed nobility up the country through which we traveled will never care to see another excursion of the same kind. They probably by this time begin to think that war is not so pretty a pastime, and the Confederate commissariat can mourn the loss of many thousand bushels of corn. We made a desolation of the country through which we passed, and that proud aristocracy can now look over their desolate fields, and in vain call the roll of their slaves; can sit down and make a nice calculation of how much better off they are under their Confederacy than they would have been had they remained loyal to the old flag. We cleaned up pretty much everything there was, bringing back with us upwards of 1000 negroes and several hundred horses and mules.

Coming down the river we ran past what appeared to be a large cotton plantation, when some 40 or 50 negroes came running down to the shore and begged to be taken aboard. They were the most forlorn and wretched looking beings I had ever seen; their clothing was little else than fags, scarcely covering their nakedness. Some of them followed us nearly a mile down the river, begging piteously to be taken aboard. I pitied the poor creatures, but was powerless to help them, and the thought .occurred to me that if God cares for all his creatures, he surely must have forgotten these.

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