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

Post image for Journal of Surgeon Alfred L. Castleman.

Journal of Surgeon Alfred L. Castleman.

July 13, 2012

Journal of Surgeon Alfred L Castleman.

13th.—One year ago this day, the —— Regiment of —— Volunteers entered the service of the United States. It then numbered between ten and eleven hundred of the finest troops that ever went to battle. Its history in that brief period, though sad, is briefly summed up. On the 19th of June, 1861, the regiment was organized. On the 24th of July following, it took up its hurried march, to aid in arresting the tide of retreat which was rushing from Bull Run on Washington, and was, I am told, the first Western regiment which passed through Pennsylvania to support our beaten friends. Early in August it reached Washington, was shortly after brigaded under command of General R—— K—— , a Commander in all respects worthy of the position he held. The measles, in its very worst form, had broken out in camp, before the regiment left the State of ——, and from severe exposure on a most hurried journey, much sickness prevailed for a time after its arrival at Washington. General K ——, being endowed with feelings which could never witness suffering without sympathy, fully realized the fact that sick and feeble men were an encumbrance to the army. He was constantly on the watch, and every means in his power was employed to preserve the health and energy of his men; nor did he permit either vanity or vindictiveness to interpose between his Surgeons and their proper duties. The restored health and vigor of his men responded beautifully to his care and his efforts.

Some time in September the regiment was transferred to the brigade of Gen. —— S—— , and although after this transfer their position subjected them to more labor and exposure, their health and comfort whilst under his command were looked after with such care and solicitude that their efficiency continued to improve, and on the 1st of October, not a man had died in camp, or had been killed or wounded in battle. About that time they were transferred to the brigade of Gen. ——. This General showed himself possessed of one very Napoleonic trait of character, that when an object is to be attained the lives of men are not to be estimated. The men were exposed and hard worked. The efforts of the surgeons were not seconded. Their advice was disregarded. Sickness increased. The men became jaded and dejected, and the frequent passing of a squad to the solemn tread of the dead march, and with arms reversed, told sadly that another foe was at work. The cool days of November brought hopes of restored health and vigor, but continued severity of discipline and disregard of sanitary demands, blasted the hopes and brought even more frequent processions to the grave.

The New Year came without a death on the battle-field, but with greatly thinned ranks. The winter passed with constant work and constant exposure, without an enemy in our field. The men sickened of the work of the menial, and panted for that of the soldier. The battle of Drainesville was fought in our hearing, but we were not permitted to participate. Their spirits were buoyed up by promises that soon we should have the enemy at Manassas “in a bag,” and then we should have only to go forward and capture them. But notwithstanding these promises we were compelled to chop, to dig, to do picket duty, and to see them going away before our very faces without being permitted to prevent it. So great had been our losses that recruiting officers had been sent off, and men were added to the regiment sufficient to swell its original number to between eleven and twelve hundred.

On the 23d March, 1863, the regiment (in the same brigade) embarked at Alexandria, for the Peninsula between the James and York Rivers. On its arrival, hard work, hard marches and exposure seemed the order of every day. Numbers were discharged from service daily, on account of constitutions broken by excessive demands on the nervous energy of the men. They were anxious, whilst able, to be led to battle, but for them only drudgery was reserved; and although for weeks our regiment has been within sight of the enemy, or within hearing of his guns, never to this day has it been permitted to attack.

At Williamsburg it fought on the defensive, and scarcely had it engaged till it was ordered to fall back. By declining to obey that order it at last found an opportunity of its long wished for ambition, to distinguish itself in fight. In that fight, despite the order of its General, it saved the battle of Williamsburg—the Army of the Potomac. The regiment lost in the fight nine killed, and seventy-one wounded. It fought that day under Gen. Hancock, and this is the battle in which Gen. McClellan telegraphed that “Hancock’s success was won with a loss of less than twenty in killed and wounded!” Was the Commander-in-Chief ignorant of the facts about which he telegraphed? Or did Gen. Hancock need some “setting up?” However this may be, the Commander-in-Chief publicly declared to this regiment that to it he owed the victory, and promised that it should have “Williamsburg inscribed on its banner.” Notwithstanding this promise, “Williamsburg” got on to other banners, but never found its place on that to which it was promised. Why?

Experience seemed to have taught no good lessons. Large demands continued to be made on the energies of the men. They sank under the efforts, and on the retreat before Richmond, when at the battle of White Oak Swamp, and Malvern Hills, all the force of active and robust men were needed. This regiment which had brought to the field eleven hundred of as good men as ever went to war,[1] which had not lost thirty men in battle, now tottered feebly into line with only two hundred and twenty-seven muskets, borne by men feeble, emaciated, and as nearly spiritless as it is possible for ambitious and energetic men to be.

I omitted to record, in the proper place, that though the regiment was in the fight on the night of the 27th of June, doing great execution, not a man was killed, and only twelve wounded.

This is an epitomized history of one regiment for a year.

The signs of the times portend that we have done “playing war.” Our Generals have now been taught a lesson of realities, which it is to be hoped will be heeded. Our muskets will hardly be seen guarding the property of rebels, whilst these are shooting down our men in the battle. Contratrabands are being taken into the employment of the government, and are relieving the soldiers of much hard and depressing labor. As matter of economy, the regimental brass bands are being discharged. This is pretty hard, but as economy is necessary to a proper and successful prosecution of the war, we submit cheerfully. Our good band then will no more carry us forward in pleasing imagination to the land of “Dixie,” nor ‘backward to the melancholy ” days of Auld Lang Syne,” the “Star Spangled Banner,” will not again wake our drowsy energies “At the Twilight’s Last Gleaming;” nor shall we be awoke in the “Stilly Night,” by the romping, rolicking music of “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” We shall part with regret, not only the band, but with particular members, whose conduct has on all occasions been courteous and gentlemanly. Their leader has also made himself useful by his peculiar talent for scouting, often learning almost instinctively the position and strength of the enemy.

[1] The physical superiority of the Western over the Eastern regiments was illustrated in the athletic exercises on first of January, at Camp Griffin. [See journal of that date.]

Previous post:

Next post: