of Turrell E. Harriman
Part III - The Eastern Campaign
On opening the orders, we found we were saying goodbye to Louisiana, for our destination was Fortress Monroe, Va. At this point we received orders to continue to Washington to report to the secretary of war.
We arrived in the city on the 12th of July where we found the entire population in the wildest excitement.
The Confederate Gen. Early had come down from Harper's Ferry through Frederick, Md., and was menacing the city, which was almost defenseless from lack of troops. The 6th Corps had been hurried thither from Petersburg Va., and at the moment of our landing was engaging Early's forces at Fort Stevens and vicinity. Many of the citizens and the government departmental clerks were under arms in the streets. How they cheered when they saw our bronzed veterans go swinging by on their way to the scene of the battle. As we passed the White House, President Lincoln stood upon the balcony and saluted us by raising his hat. We returned his salute with three cheers and a tiger and passed rapidly on to the scene of action. We found that the 6th Corps was just giving General Early its parting shots, having defeated him.
We camped that night at Tennallytown. On the 14th, we marched to Poolsville where we remained until the 16th. Then, moving westward, we waded the Potomac at White's Ford and went into camp near Leesburg, Va., in the evening. In the morning, we searched the town for concealed Confederates and arms, and found quite a few of each. Early had left Maryland and was in Snicker's Gap in the blue Ridge. We were ordered to follow him, but upon reaching the Gap, found he had retreated over the mountain. We climbed the mountain in pursuit, waded the Shenandoah River, proceeded a mile or so and came to a halt, expecting to camp for the night.
While resting with our arms stacked at 5 P.M., a terrible thunderstorm arose, accompanied by a tornado.
This completed the drenching already begun by wading the river where the water was waist deep.
At sunset, orders came to return to Washington as rapidly as possible.
Without stopping for coffee, we retraced our steps to the river, now swollen to arm-pit depth by the recent cloudbursts. We re-forded, and soon began to re-climb the mountain in the darkness. We marched all night without halt, our feet badly blistered.
The shoes of many of the men, water-soaked had parted sole and upper, while some of the men were marching with shoes discarded. We did not halt for anything till 11 A.M. when we tried to make coffee. Before it could be gotten ready, we received orders to fall in. We proceeded to march to Goose Creek, a small stream beyond Leesburg, and there rested until late in the afternoon after which we continued to march till 11 P.M.
Here we halted for the night, so completely exhausted that we dropped in our tracks without supper, and slept till morning. After breakfast we moved on, crossed the Potomac at Chain Bridge, went into camp and remained two nights. On the 26, we made a march of 19 miles to Tennallytown, where we had bivouacked on the first night out of Washington.
The next day, we moved in another direction and camped without supper. Before sunrise, we were marching again. We passed through Urbana and camped at Monocacy Junction on the battlefield of engagement between Gen. Lew Wallace and Gen. Early a few days before. All this running around in as many different directions and with such rapidity was to checkmate the strategy of Gen. Early in his attempt to enter the capital.
On the 28th, we moved towards Harper's Ferry which we reached on the 30th about 4 P.M. Having forced the enemy to cross the river, where they had burned the bridge behind them, we naturally supposed we were going into camp for the night somewhere in the vicinity.
A pontoon bridge was thrown across the river and we passed over through historic Harper's Ferry, seeing the charred remains of the old government arsenal, and passing by the engine house where John Brown and his little band so long defended themselves, all our bands playing "John Brown's body lies mouldering in the grave." We climbed Bolivar Heights, about three miles of mighty steep climbing, came to a halt, and stacked arms. Fresh beef was issued, and indications were that we should camp for the night. We were just in the act of broiling our beef and making coffee when the familiar "Fall in" smote our ears. This meant drop everything, even supper. Some thought we were about to moved only a short distance, and consequently put their half-cooked meat into their haversacks and then coffee into their canteens. Others were cursing and throwing away everything, but falling in never the less.
When the sun get up on the Maryland Heights, and strikes down into the Ferry, you may be sure that it is hot. It seemed to us that we should be baked alive before we were through the gulch that afternoon.
Imagine our surprise on falling in to be ordered to retrace our steps through the town across the pontoon, after which we marched about thirteen miles to a little Maryland town called Jefferson. Here we halted for a couple of hours, then pushed on through Frederick, Md., and went into camp and waited for the stragglers to come up. Owing to the severe heat of the day before and the hard all night march, the column of stragglers was larger than the main column. Human nature, though clad in the uniform of Uncle Sam could endure no more without something to eat. There was a herd of cattle grazing nearby. Our colonel notified our division commander, Gen. Dwight, that if his regiment was not supplied with meat, some of those cattle would disappear before the night. The rations of beef failed to materialize, and we proceeded to draw on the herd, "borrowing" some salt from the neighboring storekeeper.
Having gotten fairly rested here, our next move was again to Harper's Ferry, arriving there just after dark after an all day's march. Instead of crossing the river, we filed off to the east above the town. We climbed Maryland Heights two miles or more by a bridle path in the dark which induced some most elaborate swearing from both officers and men. These expletives were repeated and re-inforced when we countermarched on reaching fairly open ground and took our way back over the same route without stopping, crossed the pontoon bridge to Harper's Ferry and climbed to the top of Halltown Heights, beyond which the enemy was in force, having withdrawn from the Maryland side completely. We maneuvered with the enemy back and forth short distances from Halltown Heights until Aug. 10th, when Gen. Phil Sheridan assumed command. Then began the initial marches in a masterly plan which was to culminate in the entire destruction of the Confederate power in the Shenandoah Valley, the pride of Virginia.
From the Potomac just below Harper's Ferry, the Blue Ridge Mountains, have a southeasterly trend across the state of Virginia. To the west is another irregular but nearly paralleled range, known as Kittatinny, or locally as the great & little North. Between these two mountain walls lies an elevated valley having an average width of about twenty miles.
The northerly portion of this valley where our interest will now center to the end of my story is about one hundred miles in extent, measured from the northernmost bend of the Potomac to Staunton, Va.
In the very center of this beautiful enclosed territory rise several to her rugged mountain spurs, the highest ending abruptly on the north and call Massannutten. In this charming valley nature has dealt with a generous hand. The sweep of meadows is everywhere broken by grand and rugged scenery. Wooded heights relieve broad acres of best tillage land, and crops are so bountiful that the place has been widely known as the granary of the Middle States. Its larger centers were connected by fine McAdamized pikes, so that when it became the scene of military operations, armies and wagon-trains could be moved to any point with rapidity and ease. Historic from wars between original settlers, and in the colonial period between Whites & Indians, it was destined to witness, the abomination of desolation during the entire period from 1861 to 1865, almost without cessation.
It had always been a source of food supplies for the Confederate Army, and Union forces under Generals Patterson, Banks, Shields, Fremont, Milroy, Sigel, and Crook had been unable to destroy the enemy west of the blue Ridge or drive them from that land of abundance.
On the morning of August 10th, we marched out of Halltown towards Winchester, Va., held by Gen. Jubal Early, and took up a strong position. Gen. Early was not ready to join battle and, on the morning of the 11th, while we were pushing on towards Opequon Creek, not far from Winchester, he withdrew in the direction of Cedar Creek and Strasburg. For three days the two armies continued their march up the valley via Middletown, with constant and sharp skirmishing by the cavalry on both sides. On the 13th it was learned that the enemy was being re-inforced and that they held a strongly fortified position at Fisher's Hill, with a signal station on the highest point of Massanutten Mountain from which all our movements could be observed.
So it was deemed prudent to fall back toward our base of supplies, Harper's Ferry. Accordingly, we started on the night of the 15th which brought us into Winchester the next morning at daylight. We fell back from here to Berryville, Virginia, and Summit Point, constantly skirmishing with the enemy which followed our retreat, and arrived at Halltown on the 21st and fortified our position. The Cavalry destroyed all crops, burned all barns and seized all horses and cattle south of Winchester. The enemy skirmished with our pickets, feigning a raid across the Potomac, and finally on the 24th, moved back up the valley again and halted at a place called ...Bunker Hill.
Two days later we followed and bivouacked at Charles Town, Va., the place of John Brown's execution, not far from where the enemy was encamped.
During several days, there was spirited fighting between the opposing lines when on Sept. 4th, Gen. Early withdrew his entire army across the Opequon Creek keeping at a short distance from us and nearer Winchester.
For ten days, these positions were held with continued skirmishing. Late in the afternoon of the 18th, came the order to pack up and be ready to fall in at a moment's notice. We well knew what this meant, for no move could be made without an attack.
We stood around waiting till 2 o'clock in the morning, when we left our improvised works and moved towards the Opequon. Winchester is some ten miles west of Berryville on the government turnpike. About four miles east of Winchester, the Opequon Creek crosses the pike. The highway then enters a narrow defile and emerges on high land covered largely with timber.
On wading the Creek and entering the defile we began to see evidences of a battle by troops in advance. The defile was strewn with wounded and dead cavalrymen and horses, and we could hear firing in our front. We passed the defile, marched to high ground, filed off to the northeast, and formed a line of battle with a dense strip of woods in our front. We knew now that we were the second line of battle. We were given the order, "In place, rest," which means gun in hand and practically in line. The band, in which Howard Wilcox played were lying about on the ground in our rear, and Howard and three other members were playing cards.
(A margin note by the author at this point has an arrow from the name of Howard Wilcox with the note: "My brother-in-law")
Soon a rebel shell came over and struck squarely in their card table and burst. Two of the players were twin brothers, the other a German. The brothers lost three legs, and the German's hip was torn to pieces, Howard was keeled over a few times, but escaped with a bruised side. Another shell or two came over without harm, we were called to attention and began to advance in line of battle. The enemy seemed to understand that a second line was advancing and turned their entire attention to us, having checked and badly cut up our first line. They shelled us through the wood, and when we emerged on their side, opened a fierce fire of musketry. We halted for a moment for one of our own batteries to get into position and the order came: "Forward, double quick." Then they literally peppered us. We halted only when we had reached the first line which had been in the fight since early morning and were terribly cut to pieces. We were now in a little depression between two rolls of land an on the roll in front of us was another piece of woods in which the enemy was concealed. I am now describing only the vicinity of my own company and regiment.
We lay here till afternoon, waiting for a flank movement which our men were making on our right. During this delay, many were wounded, for if a man stood up he would expose himself to sharpshooters from the woods in front. We were all very curious to know what was happening, and our officers had difficulty in keeping us down. The enemy seemed to be unconscious of what was going on except in their front, and did not realize they were being flanked.
Our colonel, Stephen Thomas, who always seemed to bear a charmed life did not dismount but watched the flank movement. When the time was ripe, without orders from his superior officer, he ordered his regiment to fall in, fix bayonets and to charge, which we did with a yell, the rest of the line following. We reached th woods an the enemy broke from the force of the charge. The flankers came up and we doubled their confusion and they took refuge beyond the woods behind a stone wall. When we emerged from the woods towards the ball they peppered us so that it seemed as if Hell were loose. Their shells crashed through the woods over our heads and from behind the wall. Under this terrible fire, we re-arranged our line. The piece of woods through which we had just passed had been occupied in the forenoon by our first line and was filled with dead and wounded of our men. After re-arrangement, we had orders to attack the men behind the wall which ran a little diagonally from our front over still another roll of ground. We started them from our end of the wall and the flanking party came up and attacked. They broke in confusion in the direction of Winchester.
On reaching the top of the knoll, I witnessed the grandest sight of my army experience, a cavalry charge. The cavalry had been sent away to the right to skirt the foot of the mountains for a flank movement, and just as our company reached the top of the hill, they came charging along at the gallop on the fleeing lines of the enemy. They scattered the fugitives in all directions, capturing many prisoners and guns with such a cheer as Winchester ever heard before. So the battle was won.
The enemy fled in the direction of Middletown and Cedar Creek, which they crossed, and continued to Fisher's Hill before they stopped. We moved beyond Winchester and camped for the night, having had no food since the night before. This battle of the Opequon, as it is called to distinguish it from the many other battles around Winchester was hard and well fought. In it were engaged the 6th, 8th, & 19th Corps, with a large force of cavalry. Three thousand of the enemy's wounded were left on the filed, and our loss was fully three thousand. Our ambulance corps worked the entire night bringing in the wounded, many of whom had lain all day. They were so thick in some portions of the field over which our supply trains had to come that drivers had to lead their horses to prevent treading on them. One of my company who fell out with a broken musket came up after dark through the last piece of woods which I have mentioned. He said it wasn't quite dark and the stretcher bearers were searching with lanterns for the wounded. Some of the poor fellows were calling for water, some begging the stretcher bearers to come for them, some praying for death, some shrieking with pain. Surely, General Sherman was right when he said "War is Hell!"
The 20th of September we moved on to Cedar Creek and on the 21st advanced to within artillery range of the enemy. Fisher's Hill rises abruptly from the plain about Strasburg, midway between Missanneten and North Mountain. The steep eastern base is guarded by a loop in the Shenandoah, and a smaller stream called Tumbling run cuts its channel under the very brow off the crest on th north. Therefore by blocking the only approaches on the northwest with strong works, the enemy in possession of the crest considered themselves secure, if not absolutely inaccessible. The day was spend shelling the woods on the enemy's flanks and working our skirmish line up nearer Strasburg where the enemy was maintaining a hearty skirmish line protected by rifle pits. We threw up a line of earthworks in front of our main line for what purpose we of the rank and file did not then know. We found out later it was merely a strategic move to keep the attention of the enemy in that direction. Meanwhile, Gen. Crook with a flanking party of the 8th Corps had moved along the North Mountain concealed by dense woods and had passed over into the higher valley in the rear of the enemy's left. At 2 P.M., our skirmisher's advanced, being supported by the main line. The enemy made a stubborn fight for their pits, but were pushed back towards the base of the bluff that looked so formidable bristling with blazing guns. Up to 5 P.M., we supposed we were destined to charge the bluff from some point, being still ignorant of the flank movement.
Above five, one of Gen. Emory's staff officers came dashing along waving his hat and shouting: "They had left their guns and are running like cowards!"
We crossed the ravine through the tangled brushwood, and climbed the steep ascent to find the works deserted and Early's army in full retreat along the valley road, their dead and wounded, batteries, and everything on wheels left behind, having been completely surprised while watching our front. Twenty one pieces of artillery and a stand of colors fell into our hands, while the disabled and slain, numbering more than a thousand men, told of the deadly work of our guns.
We also captured many prisoners, while our entire loss was only four hundred.
By this time, night had closed the scene from view. With our regiment leading the army, we started in pursuit as rapidly as possible. We were feeling pretty happy, trudging along in the darkness beside the pike, with another column following on the pike and with all hands singing: "We'll rally round the flag, boys!" We had no skirmishers out, as we supposed the cavalry was ahead of us. Soon in front of us in a little run through which a small stream flowed, skirted by some bushes, came a valley of twenty or more muskets. For a moment confusion reigned. Singing stopped abruptly, and some irresponsible person gave the order to countermarch to the rear. We began to obey the order, when up rushed an aide demanding to know who had given the order. No one knew. We were told to countermarch to the front again, and the movement was fairly begun when there came another volley from the run, and a piece of artillery opened on us from the pike ahead. Our regiment was ordered out as skirmishers. We soon had possession of those muskets and the artillery, and captured 250 men and a Major, with no men wounded in our regiment. We learned later that some in the other column further up the pike had been wounded by the bursting shells.
We marched all night, following the enemy so closely that their weary stragglers continually fell into our hands. At daybreak, we halted long enough to make coffee and to dispose of our prisoners, and again pressed on in pursuit.
On the 25th, when the Confederates reached Port Republic, we stopped near Harrisburg, Va.
While in camp here for several days I witnessed one of those scenes of devastation, cruel, but authorized by the necessities of war.
On the first day of our halt Gen. Sheridan sent out the chief engineer of his staff to choose positions for defense for his army. A short distance from camp, the little party was ambushed and his aid shot dead by guerrillas.
Sheridan promptly issued order to burn every building within 5 miles of our lines in all directions. The owners were permitted to remove their household goods to a place of safety. One of the houses burned was near our camp and I went down to see the people. The family consisted of a man and his wife and five small children. They were evidently very poor and had carried their few household goods to a fence in front of the house and had covered them with boards as best they could. The frightened children and the crying mother were crouching behind the boards. I was dreadfully sorry for them. We boys gave them enough rations to keep them alive until they could get help which they no doubt did when the Confederates came up with the regiment to which the man belonged.
As this valley was a supply ground for Lee's army, many of the male inhabitants had remained at home to raise crops, falling in for military duty as occasion required. They were called valley reserves.
Along the first days of October, it was learned that Gen. Early had been reinforced from Richmond, so we received orders to fall back towards our base of supplies, and to burn everything upon which man or beast could subsist.
The cavalry was stretched across the valley as a rear guard, and we moved leisurely along, setting fire to barns, houses, and grain stacks. The corps had been harvested and there were hundreds of stacks of rain and straw. From every eminence, we could see the movements of the cavalry, and the hundreds of fires behind us. It was a terrible sight never to be forgotten.
Gen. Early, encouraged by his reinforcements, and probably mistaking our retrograde movement as evidence of weakness, pushed on in pursuit.
His cavalry, a part of his reinforcements, pressed on our lines so closely that at a place called Tom's Brook, Gen. Sheridan decided to teach them a lesson.
So, on the morning of the 10th, he gave the cavalry-general, Torbert, the verbal order, familiar in history, to start out the next morning at daylight and whip the enemy or get whipped himself.
Torbert moved out as ordered, and in sight of our own infantry picket line, encountered his foe. The fight lasted about two hours, closing with the flight of the enemy in wild confusion, while all their artillery, except one piece, fell into our hands. Torbert's men pursued the fugitives along the valley full 25 miles.
We now fell back to Cedar Creek, and crossing took up a strong position and fortified it.
Unconsciously, we were preparing for our last engagement, but it was to be one of the bloodiest battles of our entire service.
General Early had followed us down to Fisher's Hill, and had taken up his old position. But since the flames had devoured the abundance on which he had hoped to subsist, he was reduced to the necessity of choosing between retreat and attack. He chose the latter.
Having a signal station on the highest point of what is called Three Top Mountain, from which both camps were spread out before him like a panorama, he planned a battle both unique and daring.
Our army was encamped just east of the creek near the pike leading to Winchester, with Strasburg in our front, hidden by a hill across the creek and with Middletown in our rear. The 8th Corps with two divisions occupied the left of the pike. The 19th Corps held the center on the right of the 8th, with the pike on the left, the creek in front and Meadow Brook (a branch of Cedar Creek) on the right. Beyond the brook, the 6th Corps formed the right flank of the army. Heavy pickets were maintained by our side, and we were alert in every way. However, "The best laid schemes o' mice and men" etc.!
Heretofore modesty had forbidden a too personal record, but here I must speak of self.
I had been promoted to Corporal, Nov. 1, 1863, to 5th Sergeant, July 1, 1864. So At this time, I was a veteran Sergeant in a veteran company at the age of eighteen.
On the morning of Oct. 18, our regiment was called upon to furnish a heavy picket for the twenty-four hours following. The regiment was small of course, after the hard campaign of the Summer, and all but 159 men and 16 officers were detailed for this picket. I was detailed as sergeant. We moved out to the line across the Creek and relieved the former picket. I was given six men and stationed on about the last post of our division line, not far from the right of the pike, and adjoining the 2nd division line. My post was on rising ground and almost in sight of our earthworks in camp. During the afternoon of that day, suspicions were aroused of some movement on the part of the enemy, and a reconnaissance was made which revealed nothing serious. However, since Sheridan was away, extra vigilance was urged upon the picket. We were ordered to load our muskets, light no fires, and a half hour before daybreak to form in line as skirmishers and to remain in line until daylight.
We always disliked loading our guns while on picket for the reason that we sometimes had to carry them for days before we had a chance to empty them. I gave my men the order to load, and upon receiving the reply that they had already done so, I did not inspect. It was a bitterly cold night. Disregarding my weak objections, the men laid up a stone arch, covered it to conceal the light, and built a fire. I often relieved my vidette to let him come in to get warm.
About 12 o'clock, midnight, the division officer of the picket line came plunging along through the brush alone, leading his horse. We challenged him. He left his horse to come to me to give the countersign. Meanwhile the boys had kicked the fire our, but he smelled the smoke and asked if we had been having a fire. We declared that we had not. To his declaration that he could smell smoke, replied that it was valley smoke.
His next question was, "Are your guns loaded?" I replied that I had so ordered. He demanded inspection, and found only one gun besides mine loaded. Intoxication tempered his anger, and I appeased him by sending a man after his horse which had strayed away. After repeating the orders of the evening before he proceeded to the next post. We did not renew our fire, however, for the remainder of the night, and just before daylight, as ordered, we formed a skirmish line. We had no more than done so when we hard a few scattering shots on the right of the 6th Corps picket, which formed the right of our line. I was suspicious that it was a ruse to attract attention. So it proved, for soon down on the left in front of the camp of the 8th Corps, came a terrible volley which I knew must be a heavy line of battle. If all the trees from the top of Massanutten Mountain had suddenly crashed to the bottom, it seemed to us it could not have been louder. Soon came more heavy firing followed by continuous scattering shots which were changing direction and coming nearer. We knew that our cam had been surprised in the vicinity of the 8th Corps. Along came the officer of our midnight episode and gave us the order to fall back in skirmish line some dozen rods, and to hold our ground until further orders. This brought us up to a rise of ground from which we saw a whole Confederate Battery coming upon a hill to our left in front of our picket line. They opened six guns on our camp. I cold easily have picked off some of their gunners, but had received orders not to fire.
Soon we were ordered to fall back about a dozen rods more. This took us to still higher ground and in full sight of our camp. In front of our regiment, I could see the enemy going over our earthworks like a flock of sheep, an indication that the fight was working to our rear.
The order came to fall back to reserve picket. By the time we had reached the reserve, the Confederate battery turned their guns on us. The officer in command of us, our intoxicated friend of the night before, said he was going to take us into camp. We informed him that the enemy was already in the camp. While this parley was going on, the enemy sent a solid shot which knocked him off his horse with a broken arm and sobered him.
"Every man for himself, " said he. So we started pell-mell for the right of the 6th Corps picket, over an almost impassable embankment to the creek which is so crooked here that a straight line would cross it several times. Meantime the enemy had sent a squad of sharpshooters after us, and, about the time we were wading the creek the second time, they reached the top of the embankment and continued to pepper us unmercifully. We waded the creek a third time, and they kept us under fire continually until we reached the 6th Corps picket. As we came up almost exhausted, the boys jeeringly asked us what was the matter out there in front. We replied without stopping, "Wait right where you are for about three minutes and you will find out!" They were soon close upon our heels. It was not long before we came upon a cordon of our cavalry sent out as flankers in the morning. As our army had been completely routed from camp, they were falling back towards Middletown.
We were indeed compelled to look out four ourselves. As we were actually in the rear of the enemy, we made a wide detour to the foot of the North Ridge Mountains and started in the direction of Middletown around both armies which were moving in the same directions, the Confederates still driving our men.
About 2 o'clock P.M. we concluded by the firing that we had gone far enough for safety. So we stopped, made some coffee and took a breathing spell, after which we started for the front. We saw Gen. Sheridan go by on his immortal ride.
We proceeded cautiously, stopping sometime as the firing seemed to be working our way, again advancing until towards night, when all of a sudden the firing began to recede, and we felt sure our men were driving the enemy.
Just before darkness came upon us, we moved near the pike and camped to await events. In the night we heard many wagons passing towards Winchester and took pains to ascertain the reason. We were told that our army had completely routed the Confederates and had driven them to Fisher's Hill. We waited until daybreak and started for our old camp.
We passed over the saddest fighting ground of the war. The fields were thickly strewn with the dead of both sides, terrible torn and mangled. Every wall and fence had its heaps on each side. The wounded had been removed from this portion of the field, but when we reached our camping place we witnessed evidence of barbarous cruelty.
The night had been extremely cold, ice having formed to the thickness of half an inch or more. The wounded of the morning where the movements had been so rapid, had lain on the ground all day. These had been stripped and plundered. Some of them had lain all the night through and were still alive. The dead were mostly naked, especially those shot through the head.
It became part of my duty to help bury the dead of our regiment after which sad service we started our to find the remnant of the regiment which had not been sent our on picket duty that day.
The surprise attack on the camp was explained as follows: - The enemy had crept around the base of Massanutten Mountain in the night and forded the north fork of the Shenandoah to the extreme left of the 8th Corps which held the left of the line. The movement had been so adroitly managed that the first intimation the 8th Corps had of the presence of the enemy was that terrible volley which we had heard in the morning as it came right into their sleeping camp. Being completely flanked of course they started in the direction of the 19th Corps which held the center o the line. The brigade to which my regiment belonged (now McWilliams) had formed and moved across the pike towards the left, and had barely gotten in line and were throwing out a skirmish line, when the 8th Corps men came running up, some with shoes and coats in their hands.
Our brigade thus met the heavy line of the enemy which followed them, and for some time had a hard fight.
Our regiment had three color bearers shot down, and one hundred out of the 159 men, and 13 out of the 16 officers were killed or wounded.
The enemy having reached our left flank and rear, the brigade was ordered to fall back to the right of the 6th Corps, which now had an opportunity to form a line, and then all fell back in the direction of Middletown, leaving us pickets detached as I have related.
On the 16th of October, the 1st sergeant of my company had been promoted to sergeant major of the regiment. When we re-united with our company that memorable day of the 20th we found that our captain had been severely wounded. The 2nd and 3rd Sergeants had been taken prisoners in the morning. The 4th Sergeant was present. However, Major Mead who was in command had received orders from our wounded Captain Howard to put me in command of the company in preference to any of the other sergeants. Thus I found myself company commander of 20 men all told. The Confederates retired in the direction of Richmond as afar as New Market, having lost, during the battle of the 19th, forty eight pieces of artillery, including twenty four taken from us in the morning, ten battle flags, thousands of small arms and a large number of prisoners. They had captured all of our camp equipage and many wagons and ambulances in the morning. We now had them all in our possession again and their own too. It was simply victory from defeat.
When the enemy took their departure from Fisher's Hill, we returned to our old position at Cedar Creek where we began the task of getting equipments together to live again. I had great difficulty in getting things for my company, our own tents, blankets, etc., having gone into the general mix-up. After a while we were provided again with blankets, tents, and cooking utensils, and then orders came to make out a muster-roll for pay. We had not received pay since before going on our veteran furlough in April. All our company and regimental papers and records had been lost in the morning of the fight.
With not a scrap of paper to refer to, with every man who had been in the company since April to account for, it was no easy task to make out the pay-roll, a tasked which devolved upon me. Copies of our last muster-roll were sent to us from the state and from that time on, we must account for every man. Howard Wilcox and I, lying on our stomachs under a little dog tent, made out the entire list from memory and it proved to be correct.
During the last days of October, the paymaster came and we received our money.
On the 4th of November, came the national election, the contest being between Lincoln & McClellan. Soldiers of age in the filed were entitled to vote. The army rolls shows that I was 21 years old, so I cast my vote for Abraham Lincoln when I was 18. The ballot box was placed on a stump in our camp. Nearby, the pools of blood were scarcely dry.
On the 9th of November, our army turned towards Kernstown, Va., where better quarters and a shorter line of supplies cold be obtained.
On the day after we withdrew from Cedar Creek to Kernstown, Gen. Early having learned of our movement, followed us with his entire force as far as Middletown and gave the cavalry a sharp fight which cost him some of his guns and some prisoners.
He gave up in despair and moved back to New Market on the 14th and before the end of the month, a large portion of his troops had been transferred to other commands.
The presence of the entire Union army was no longer necessary in the valley. Accordingly, the 6th Corps was sent to Petersburg, the 8th Corps to West Virginia, while our 19th Corps and a large portion of cavalry remained in the vicinity of the recent engagements. We began building a line of fortifications and preparing winter quarters expecting to be here through the winter. The weather was growing very cold.
We constructed comfortable quarters from boards and logs, using our dog tents for covering. We build good fireplaces with sticks and Virginia mud.
Fuel was plentiful and we were really enjoying life, with no duty but picket duty. Through the generosity of the good people of Vermont we received from home a reminder of Thanksgiving, a consignment of dressed poultry.
The colonel also received orders to issue to each man a ration of whiskey for that day. The whiskey was a novelty, but the poultry was not. We had been helping ourselves all summer wherever we found it.
The last of November, the Second Lieutenant of our company reported for duty, having remained in the field with the non-reenlisted men and recruits while we had been home on our veteran furlough.
I was still in command of the company and I expected that he would at once relieve me. But he was immediately put under arrest for overstaying leave of absence, and I was continued in command. The fourth day of December at dress parade, the announcement was made that I was promoted to First, or Orderly Sergeant for merit, to rank as such from the 16th day of October, the ate of my predecessors promotion. You don't know how small I felt drilling and ordering about men much older than I was.
On the 20th day of December, our equanimity was suddenly disturbed by the order to strike tents and be ready to march at a moment's notice.
What a howl went up! There was nothing to do but to obey orders.
Not until 3 o'clock P.M. did we get under way. Soon after we started, one of those cold southern winter thunderstorms came up and drenched us pretty thoroughly. Then it turned to hail with a chilling north wind. The march was continued until midnight north through Winchester.
We dropped on the frozen ground, rolled ourselves up in our blankets and went to sleep. Good Mother Nature kindly gave us an extra blanket of three inches of snow. On arising in the morning, a tramp of two hours brought us to a place called Summit Point, Va., about twenty miles from Harper's Ferry where the regiment camp was re-established for the winter.
We at once re-built ourselves some fine new residences of logs with good large fireplaces. For duty we had to build block houses along the Winchester & Harper's Ferry Railroad, which along with the other troops of the corps we were to garrison.
We had many a brush here with the wily guerrilla, Moseby, who with his prowling band, menaced our position with the utmost persistence, making sudden dashes upon a train or detail of unprotected soldiers, firing a few shots, gathering up his booty, capturing prisoners, then disappearing as suddenly. This method is the most exasperating kind of warfare. On the whole, we enjoyed life, had good rations, frequent mail, and no more snow to speak of during the winter.
While here, we received about 250 recruits for our regiment. My company receiving the largest squad. Here the Second Lieutenant was released from arrest and took command of the company.
Orders were issued from the war department to grant furloughs to not exceeding two men to a company at a time for twenty days, the same to be selected "according to merit for past distinguished service." Although many made application in our company, I was given first chance, and it was left tome to decide who the other should be. I selected a sergeant of my company whom I had recommended for promotion, a St. Johnsbury boy. The 28th, we received our papers, and started for Vermont via Baltimore and New York.
I did not write the family that I was coming, so no one came to meet me. I arrived in the evening. A man who recognized me said: "Your Father is sitting now in the Avenue House office." So I went there and gave him a surprise. (Let me state here, that Father had returned after two years of service, having been disabled by being ruptured.) He sat there with a group of men talking war as everybody did in those days.
There was very little snow in Vermont that winter. I remember crossing the dam at the depot on the ice and going up the hill across-lots to our house. You may believe they were astonished to see me. After my twenty days, I returned to the regiment. During February and March, nothing of importance occurred, but about the last days of February, Gen. Sheridan took his cavalry and started for Lynchburg, Va., from thence to unite with Grant's army around Petersburg. Soon after the first of April, we received orders to prepare five days cook rations, to draw two pairs of shoes apiece, and eighty rounds of cartridges, and to be ready to march at a moment's notice. This we knew meant a forced march away from our base of supplies. About the 8th, the whole corps, except a guard against Moseby, started up the valley. We marched two days toward Cedar Creek, at a moderate pace, camping at night with a band concert for our entertainment. It seemed like a pleasure trip. The weather was beautiful, and we were feeling like unbroken colts after our winter's rest.
The night of the second day's march, we were nicely encamped in a piece of woods. We had listened to the music of several bands and had retired for slumber beneath our blankets with the trees for shelter, when about midnight we were startled by the firing of a piece of artillery nearby which brought every man to his feet, gun in hand.
It was like the rising of the clans of Rhoderick Dhu from the mountain heather. Soon another piece was fired, then another from another direction. Then firing became general, and we were falling in thinking we were being attacked. Soon a band struck up the Star Spangled Banner. An aide came riding into our midst, saying that Lee had surrendered to Grant. Don't forget there was joy and fun in that camp the rest of the night, with no more sleep! We cheered ourselves hoarse, and, finally tired out settled down to conjecture what the effect would be on our particular division of the army.
We were soon marching once more towards Summit Point and went into camp on an open plain just before we reached there.
Here we received the news that President Lincoln had been assassinated.
This news turned our joy to the deepest gloom and sadness. We did not get the full particulars for some time as all was confusion at Washington.
In the meantime, Moseby's men began to come in and to give themselves up by the score. We knew that business in the valley was closed.
About the 20th we boarded the cars at Summit Point, and started for Washington City. On our way, we met the funeral train of the President just starting for his home.
On arriving at Washington, we were sent out to Fort Stevens, and helped form the chain picket to prevent the escape of the assassin until it was found he had escaped beyond the city limits and had been captured. Our corps was now stationed about half a mile from Fort Stevens on the Rockville Pike for some time. During the trial of the conspirators our regiment was to guard the Penitentiary where the trial was going on, and the streets through which the witnesses had to pass to Pennsylvania Avenue. When through this service we returned to camp to prepare for the grand review of the Army of the Potomac which was to take place the next day. A march of about six miles took us to camp.
We scoured our belt buckles and guns, blacked our shoes, cleaned up the best we could, and returned to the city, reaching our position about 3 o'clock in the morning. Every street and avenue, lane and road about Washington was full of troopers, each body occupying its assigned position.
At about 7 A.M., the column started, and it was after noon before our regiment fell in to the procession.
120,000 troops passed a given point that day. It was the greatest day of my life. Being First Sergeant, I was right guide of the company.
The reviewing stand was on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue, and another street I cannot recall. To pass it, we had to make a "right wheel by company front" from Pennsylvania Avenue to the other street, a most difficult move to make. I was the pivot man upon which the company turned. My eyes were turned to the left to watch the men, and I hardly breathed for fear someone would make an imperfect alignment. But the wheel was beautiful. I heard exclamations of surprise and applause as we passed. The next day the "National Intelligence" in its report of the affair paid our regiment the following compliment:
"Next came the 8th Vermont, a veteran regiment, four years in the field, commanded by Col. John B. Mead. This regiment was especially noticed for its excellent marching and the perfect alignment of its bayonets. Every soldier in his cap a sprig of cedar, the emblem of his state."
Soon after the review, orders were received in camp near Fort Sumter to strike tents and be ready to march. It was rumored that our 1st Division of the Corps had been ordered to Savannah, Georgia.
True enough, we marched to the wharf and went on board transports and were towed out into the stream and anchored ready to start the next morning. Most of the troops objected seriously to the plan and some of the 47th Penn. regiment, it was rumored, threw their guns overboard. The Governor of Vermont, Gregory Smith, happened to be in Washington at the time of the grand review. He made intercession for our regiment with the Secretary of War to have us transferred to the 6th Corps which contained most of the Vermont troops. Up to the time of embarkation, he had not succeeded, and we had given up all hope. I was not sorry, for I wanted to see the country. Soon after midnight, there came a little steam-tug alongside the line of transports inquiring of each if the 8th Vermont was on board. When it reached our boat, they called for the regiment colonel. On his appearance, he was ordered to report with his regiment to the 6th Corps as soon as convenient. Immediately there was a scene. The boys cheered and yelled until 2 A.M., when a steamer drew alongside and took us ashore at Alexandria, Va. We passed about 5 miles outside the town, and went into camp, where we spent one of the most pleasant weeks of our service. Drill was resumed. We drew new clothing, and at the end of the week, reported to Gen. Wright at Munson's Hill, Va.
June 8th, we were in the review with the 6th Corps which had been near Danville, Va., at the time of the review of the Army of the Potomac before described. The 6th Corps review proved to be our last. On the 28th of June, we were called into line to be mustered out of the U.S. service, and ordered to Burlington, Vt., for final discharge. We secured transportation in box-cars and started via Philadelphia, New York, Troy, Albany and Rutland to Burlington, arriving there just after dark on the 2nd of July. We stopped at Philadelphia, by invitation of the city, the people of which gave every home returning regiment a dinner. Ours was the fourteenth they had entertained.
On disembarking from the cars at Burlington we were ordered to march to the City Hall for what we could not imagine. We soon discovered the reason. We found tables set all through the Hall, profusely decorated with flowers, and loaded with good things to eat. The Hall was gay with flags and bunting, and in the high gallery were three hundred girls singing that stirring old was song, "Victory at last." It touched a tender chord in our hearts. We ate in silence, and when we had finished gave three army cheers and a tiger for the citizens of Burlington.
After the festivities, we marched to our barracks near the old Marine Hospital for our last night together.
In the morning we learned that we could not receive our pay till July 12th. We were given the choice of a pass home and return, or our keeping at Burlington at the expense of the state. Many chose the latter. I took a pass and went home to St. Johnsbury for the fourth, and reported with the others on the 12th, and receiving papers which transformed me from a soldier to a citizen.
During my four years, I had been very fortunate, having lost only a few weeks when sick with swamp fever at Algiers. I had never received a scratch except from wood ticks, had never been taken prisoner, had never been in a losing action or skirmish. I had traveled by sea between New York and New Orleans four times and had navigated the Mississippi for hundreds of miles.
My horizon had broadened somewhat since the December morning four years before, when, a fifteen year old boy had left my uncle's farm to become a recruit in Uncle Sam's service.
(St. Johnsbury Center, Vt. --- October, 1901)
Contributed by Gerald J. Rice
See also, Turrell Harriman's obituary.