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

Post image for War Diary and Letters of Stephen Minot Weld.

War Diary and Letters of Stephen Minot Weld.

April 29, 2013

War diary and letters of Stephen Minot Weld

Headquarters Engineer Brigade,

Camp near Falmouth, April 29, 1863.

Dear Father, — It is now 4.30 P.M., and we have finished five of our bridges. I will endeavor to give you a brief account of everything that has happened since yesterday morning. Yesterday was cloudy and rainy, towards afternoon and evening the weather growing very misty, much to our joy, as last night was the night selected to lay the bridges, two of which were to go down at Bank’s Ford; but these were afterwards shown and exposed to view merely to deceive the rebs, without any effort being made to lay them; three more were to be laid at Franklin’s old place of crossing, and two a mile and a half below Franklin’s old place. The weather was perfect, and could not have been better. A very thick fog hung over the earth, completely hiding every object a few yards distant. The boats were drawn by teams to within a mile of the intended crossing place. From here they were carried on poles to the river’s bank, there being 75 men to each boat. This was done in order to get near the enemy unheard, and take them if possible by surprise. At 10 P.M. last night we left our camp, and went to General Sedgwick’s headquarters, who had entire charge of the movements at the two lower crossings and who had the 1st, 3d and 6th Corps under his command. He and General Benham made their arrangements, and to assist General Benham, General Sedgwick sent an aide with him. While giving him some instructions a short time after, General Benham abused him shamefully without the slightest cause. Soon after he got himself into a scrape with General Brooks, and then with General Russell, whom he placed under arrest. I was asked by two officers, General Russell being one, whether General Benham was not drunk. I said he was not, as I knew he took wine only and not any liquors. Then, too, I was accustomed to his swearing, etc., and thought nothing of it. Pretty soon a captain came riding along on horseback, and General Benham opened on him, yelling out in a loud tone of voice and Goddamning him. This, too, right on the bank of the river and when he had just been cautioning every one to keep quiet. I said to the general, “Don’t call out so loud, sir, the enemy can hear you.” He still kept on, however. All this time he was lying flat on the ground, complaining of fatigue. He then sent me off to find a Captain Reese, and when I came back he was gone, having left directions for me to stay where his horse was. I did not see him then for some time, when he came back on a borrowed horse and reeling in his saddle. He said to me in a thick voice, “Go tell General Sedgwick that General Russell has disobeyed my orders,” and kept repeating it. I went off with the message to General S. During this last hour, everything had been going wrong. There was no one to attend to the matter and General B. confused and confounded everything. The enemy knew of our presence, and were signalling all along their line. And so it was until 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning, when men were put into the pontoon boats and pushed over, several shots being exchanged, with a loss of six wounded for us. Our men went right over and drove the enemy. Meanwhile, I was on the go to General Sedgwick with any number of messages from General B. When I came back about 6 o’clock, I found General B. drunk as could be, with a bloody cut over his left eye, and the blood all over that side of his face and forming a disgusting sight altogether. He had fallen down and cut his face. Soon after he reeled in his saddle, and in trying to shake hands with General Pratt, he fell right off his horse on to the ground. I saw him do this. The soldiers picked him up, and he mounted again, and rode round among the men, swearing and trying to hurry matters, but only creating trouble and making himself the laughing-stock of the crowd. Finally three bridges were got across and then we started for the two lower bridges where an unsuccessful attempt had been made to cross in the morning. The general had got moderately sober by that time, and began to feel slightly ashamed of himself. I never in my life have been so mortified and ashamed as I was this morning. I shall leave his staff as soon as possible, and I don’t see how he can escape a court-martial and dismissal from the service. By sheer good luck we got the men across the river and built the bridges. General Benham’s being drunk delayed the laying of the bridges for four hours; his mismanagement all but ruined the whole plan. Every one there expected a disgraceful termination to the whole affair, and as I have said, good luck only saved us, for the rebels had two or three hours to prepare themselves, after we arrived on the ground, when they should have had but half an hour at the outside.

At the lower crossing, I witnessed one of the prettiest sights of the war. It was our men driving the rebs from their rifle-pits. Our men in rifle-pits opened a heavy fire on the enemy’s sharpshooters, and soon one man jumped out and ran, then another, and soon all along the line men could be seen running from houses, ditches and rifle-pits. Then our artillery would open and make the rascals scatter. I saw one round shot knock a rebel head over heels. Then, too, as the rebs ran from their hiding places, our men would yell and cheer and send a perfect storm of bullets after them. Soon our men rushed over in boats and ran up the bank and began popping away at the rifle-pits, houses, etc. Then came the grand skedaddle. From every imaginable place came a rebel running for dear life, with our men cheering at their heels and our artillery helping to kick them along. Out of one large rifle-pit, I saw 10 or 12 rebs taken prisoners. Out of another one, a White rag would be raised and waved. Out of this came three rebels. 100 prisoners were captured in all, and a prettier sight I never saw in all my life. It is all very pleasant to look on and see a fight when your side is whipping, and you are not under fire, but it is not so pleasant to be in it yourself. I think myself that this movement here is a feint, whilst four of our corps cross at Bank’s or United States Ford. However, all will be settled in a day or two, and at present everything looks bright for us.

I cannot imagine where General B. got his liquor. I think it must have been sherry wine which he had with him. He must have drunk it very quietly, as none of us saw him drinking. May I be saved from another such general!

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