Friday, June 29, 2012
Note: the 18th continues its trip down the Pamunkey River
As a rising sun illuminated the anchored Cornelius Vanderbilt flames and smoke could still be detected from the direction of White House Landing. From the stern of the ship the voices of contrabands, who filled two small boats tied to the rail, could be heard lifting heavenward in "a prayer-meeting."
Underway a short time later the Vanderbilt slowly steamed past West Point and later Yorktown, both of which places were entirely familiar to the Regiment. In late afternoon, in what must have seemed like a full circle homecoming of sorts, the walls of Fortress Monroe, rising out of the placid harbor waters at Hampton, came into view.
Far in the distance the Fifth Corps positioned itself close by the Fourth Corps at the junction of the Long Bridge, Charles City, and the Quaker roads where it waited a possible Confederate approach. That threat never materialized and at night Fitz-John Porter received orders to move toward Malvern Hill. It turned out to be a long night as the Corps, after being led down a wrong road, discovering its error, and countermarching, finally arrived at their destination between 10 and 11 a.m. the following morning.
Thursday, June 28, 2012
Note: the Regiment marches toward White House Landing
Encamped close by a rail line, on which one or two trains had passed during the night, daybreak brought a freight train to a stop and with it more complete details of the Fifth Corps' defeat at Gaines Mills the previous day, including tales of the 18th's now leveled camp and the fate of those who had been left behind. There was little anyone could do except thank their lucky stars they had been spared the experience and take advantage of a nearby creek for a quick bath.
Returning scouting parties soon after pulled reign to report Confederate troops nearby and, after scrambling for muskets, a line of battle was formed and maintained until 10 a.m. when, after deciding discretion being the better part of valor, Stoneman's expeditionary force began a five hour march toward White House Landing.
Arriving between 3 and 4 in the afternoon, the Landing presented as a veritable superwarehouse for commissary stores. "The river was full of small craft, barges, transports, loaded with the most valuable property of our Uncle Samuel." Those in Stoneman's party, given a thumbs up, roamed like kids in a candy store, loading up on "kegs of butter, cheese, bbls [sic], of pies and cakes, preserves, clothing and everything that they could desire." Then in what many would call "their 4th of July celebration," the remainder of the goods were put to the torch by the Regiment.
The last to board a vessel, members of the 18th watched flames lick the sky from the rails of the Cornelius Vanderbilt as it pulled away from the dock and began its descent down the Pamunky River. Hours later all sight was lost of the billowing clouds of black smoke when nightfall intervened, shrouding all in darkness. Drown out by the level of chatter filling the decks, the Vanderbilt's anchor plunged into the Pamunky's brown water, signaling the end to the day's chapter.
On the knife's edge, Porter's Fifth Corps saw the sun rise that morning over the Trent Farm, the former site of McClellan's now abandoned headquarters. Those who got a peek were astonished at the luxuries the General Commanding had surrounded himself with. It was here, too, that McClellan announced to his Corps commanders in the wee hours of the morning his plan to secure a change of base along the James River. In the coming days, that retrograde movement would amount to a footrace between Lee and McClellan, with the former attempting to cut off the latter before he could reach the safety of the James and would fuel the remaining battles of what collectively became known as the Seven Days.
Two hours after the midpoint of the day, the First Division of the Fifth Corps began it's march toward Savage Station, followed by the Second Division at six, and finally the Third at nine. That movement was almost painfully slow as "the labor of rebuilding causeways and bridges over swamp and stream, the darkness of night, intensified by rain, and the condition of the narrow roads, cut up and blocked by trains and herds of cattle, all combined to retard the march."
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
In the dead of pre-dawn hours those who had dosed off during the night were prodded awake and once more assumed vigilance against the possible approach of Rebels. Fires were strictly prohibited and most wrapped woolen blankets around themselves to ward off the damp chill. Soon after first light, small parties set out in search of berries and stumbled across their fill of “cherries, currants, raspberries, &c.” While Stoneman’s force hadn’t yet been discovered by Confederates, slaves from nearby plantations were fully aware of their presence and arrived loaded down with milk, hoe cakes, and butter for quick sale.
The column was in full motion by 10, headed toward Cold Harbor. A mile into their march there were confirmed sightings of a rapidly approaching enemy, an indicator to Stoneman that he was now being followed in force. He ordered Major Joseph Hayes and 200 men from the 18th, along with two squads of cavalry, to act as a rear guard in support of two artillery pieces which were planted in the middle of the road they were traversing. As the column moved off at the double quick and continued onward they were joined by ever increasing numbers of stragglers from McCall’s Third Division. All the while voluminous musketry and cannonading, as well as heavy smoke, could be heard and seen coming from the Gaines Mills area.
Hayes and his small band backpedaled keeping a distance from Stoneman’s main column which ultimately slowed to a more leisurely pace. “The march was performed in good order.” Few straggled as there were “occasional rests” and “time to get plenty of water.” One mile shy of completing a marathon, the column was halted at Tunstall’s Station just before sundown.
Once there initial reports told of near disaster for Fitz-John Porter’s Fifth Corps at Gaines Mills. 27,000, later reinforced to 34,000, had attempted a stand against nearly 60,000 Rebels. The first of the Confederate assaults had been launched at two in the afternoon and were, for the most part, conducted piece meal by Division and Brigade over a five hour period. But all that changed at 7. With James Longstreet's and Stonewall Jackson's Corps fully in place, Lee went at Porter full throttle. The latter's left wing, composed of troops from the First Division, crumbled under the weight of sheer numbers and the rout was on. Pushed back like a receding tide, only grim and resolute determination, and the mercy of a setting sun, saved the Fifth Corps from being completely rolled up and annihilated.
The bloodiest and most costly of the Seven Days battles, with it's 15,000 in dead, wounded, missing, or taken prisoner, would end with the night time evacuation of Porter's Corps to the south bank of the Chickahominy. So, too, would end George Brinton McClellan's dream of sipping tea in Jefferson Davis' parlor.
At Gaines Mills, unbeknownst to their comrades at Tunstall's Station, the camp of the 18th Mass. was now a smoldering ruins after having been completely overrun. Of those who had been left behind in the Regiment's hospital, eight were now prisoners and would soon be on their way to Belle Isle in Richmond with 2,500 others. Some distance away from the camp, 16-year-old Joseph Jordan, a Dedham, MA Cabinet Maker lay dead, the first from the Regiment to fall in battle. The full details of his death wouldn't be disclosed to his family until 1893 when a story by 18th Mass. veteran Erastus Everson was published in the Boston Journal.
According to Everson, who was detailed as part of Brig. General Charles H. Martindale's personal body guard at the time of the battle, Jordan left his sick bed when firing first erupted on the left of the Fifth Corps' line, found a musket, and fell in with the 22nd Massachusetts. But then conflicting stories emerge. Everson heard that Jordan was shot down before the 22nd fully positioned itself, while a nephew wrote in response to Everson's story that he fell during a bayonet charge. The nephew's version was backed by a July 14, 1862 letter published in the Dedham Gazette, except that letter stated Jordan was mixed in with the 9th Massachusetts. Everson himself may have fallen victim to supposition, as in a letter to his mother, written nine days after the battle, he disclosed he was "within a quarter mile" of Jordan. In the end the truth was there and the truth in all its uncertainty couldn't be denied. How or why, Jordan was dead and a father and mother were left to grieve his loss and the loss of another son two years later when he was flat lined by a sniper's bullet at Petersburg.
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Drop your co*ks and grab your socks! Move it! Move it! Move it! Though it’s unknown as to the exact words used by officers and sergeants, there would have been a definite sense of urgency to shake everyone out of their tents at 3 in the morning and get them ready to march in two hours time. The orders were that once on the march the Regiment was to move quickly in light marching order, therefore no one was to carry more than their woolen and rubber blankets, haversacks, canteens, muskets, and forty rounds in their cartridge boxes. Exempt from all the scurrying around were those in the hospital and a very small number, mostly those unable to withstand the rigors of a march, who were detailed to guard the camp.
At 5 a.m. the 18th Mass. and 17th New York left Gaines Mills in their dust without so much as a backward glance at their host William Fleming Gaines. Nine hours later, when they rendezvoused with Gen. George Stoneham’s cavalry squadron and light artillery battery near Old Church, some fifteen miles from camp, it became crystal clear this was not a picket assignment. Stoneman’s combined force of 2,000 men was charged with monitoring the movements of Stonewall Jackson’s estimated “10,000” troops and where possible to “engage and hinder, by every possible device the union of the dreaded Jackson’s’ command with that of Lee at Richmond.”
Stoneman immediately deployed his infantry by companies in line of battle and as a support to the artillery, posting both on “open high ground,” in order to disguise the small number of troops under his command. The cavalry in the meanwhile was sent out to patrol and “give notice of the enemy’s advance.”
Quiet prevailed in the immediate vicinity, but toward late afternoon musket and cannon fire could be heard in the direction of Mechanicsville, which at best guess was an estimated five to seven miles distance. When the scouting parties returned close to dark they reported “the enemy [had] advanced so far as to cut off” the small force “from the main army.” Stoneman decided to pull back another half mile and still later, under cover of darkness, “stole away” another two and a half miles. Few slept. Most peered into the darkness, muskets at the ready, waiting for stars to provide some semblance of light whenever a break appeared in the clouds. No one’s voice dared rise above a whisper.
If men from the Regiment had been able to peer through the darkness for the eight to ten miles distance to Mechanicsville they would have understood the firing they first heard well up in late afternoon. They would have seen the dead and wounded, would have heard the pitiful cries of the latter calling for water, or wives, or mothers. Those were the fallen from the 10,000 Confederates of A.P. and D.H. Hill’s divisions and the 5,000 Union defenders, including the 18th’s own First Brigade.
Monday, June 25, 2012
On what was described as a pleasant day the bodies of Zephaniah Britton and Patrick Kiley were officiated over by "the Chaplain from some other regiment" whose remarks and discourse "were very ably delivered" at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. The burials, usually conducted near sunset, had been pushed up to an earlier time so as not to interfere with an inspection and dress parade scheduled for six and six thirty respectively.
Funerals, inspections, and parades were to be put on hold for a while as after dark Special Order No 203, drawn up at Fitz-John Porter's headquarters, was delivered to Brigade commanders Charles Martindale and Daniel Butterfield directing them to detail one regiment each for duty with Cavalry Commander George Stoneman. The 18th Massachusetts and 17th New York were selected and thereby ordered to provide infantry support to Stoneman while he reconnoitered Stonewall Jackson's "strength and positions" on the right flank of Union lines which then stretched to the banks of the Pamunkey River. As Major Joseph Hayes would summarize later, the reconnoisance, which was scheduled to start out the morning of June 26th, "was to be an interesting and exciting service."
Sunday, June 24, 2012
A severe thunderstorm struck in the early morning hours leaving the lower part of the 18th's camp and, in particular. the area where companies A and F had pitched their tents "entirely flooded, the water being near 4 and 5 inches in depth."
Other depths were to be measured as well. As feared the previous day, Lt. George M. Barnard's prediction that Zephaniah Britton would not survive his bout with measles and typhoid fever came to fruition. Britton, the married father of two children, passed just minutes before 19-year-old Patrick Kiley of Co. A. Sorrowful news was also waiting for Capt. Frederick Forrest of Co. I upon his return from White House Landing. His brother-in-law David Stewart of Co. I had died three days earlier, yet another victim of typhoid fever. Forrest, acting on a promise made to his in-laws, bore the associated costs of embalming and returning the body to Farmington, ME by himself.
Forrest also had a tale of his own to tell based on what four Rebel officers who had deserted told him. Four days of half rations had left Confederate troops convinced that unless they could break Union lines within the next ten days "the game was about up." Even though "there are deserters from the rebel side nearly every day," not everyone was convinced the Confederacy was crumbling. "So much for the story [Forest] has, as time will tell."
Much later that evening Charles Rean, who had wandered into Union lines claiming to have been captured at Winchester and making good on his escape attempt near Lynchburg, Virginia, finally fessed up under severe interrogation. A member of Stonewall Jackson's command he had been sent on a spy mission to ascertain the "strength and location of the troops upon the Union right." It was the first anyone knew that Jackson had given the slip to three Union Corps commanders. The alarm raised, Union forces began entrenching along Beaver Dam Creek near Mechanicsville. The thunder that was Lee was fast approaching.
Saturday, June 23, 2012
Note: the Regiment remained in camp near Gaines Mills
1st Lt. George M. Barnard, himself not well enough to stand guard duty, visited his men from Company C who were diagnosed with measles or typhoid fever and confined to the Regiment's hospital. Bringing a gift of lemons he assisted in nursing them, limiting each to three sips of water. "It is too bad to see all the sick stretched out on the ground with nothing but Rebel blankets beneath them, tormented by flies and having miserable medical attention." Barnard was especially concerned about Zephaniah L.P. Britton, who had been his servant during the six months the Regiment spent at Hall's Hill, confiding to his mother he didn't expect Britton to pull through. "Everybody gets so blunted by the constant repetition of death and suffering that a sick man don't get much consideration out here."
Opposing artillerists were on the other hand paying considerable attention to one another, rocketing shells back and forth throughout the day. That cannon fire continued even in the midst of a late afternoon sun shower accompanied by thunder. During the 15 minute storm "our own and the rebel guns were booming away, as if trying to drown the noise made by heaven’s artillery."
Friday, June 22, 2012
With Chaplain Benjamin De Costa having long been absent from camp due to illness, the Episcopal Chaplain of another regiment extended an invitation to the 18th to attend services at 10 a.m.. Colonel James Barnes didn't order mandatory attendance, but was hopeful at least half the Regiment would avail themselves of the opportunity. "Not many attended, however, as the reading of the Episcopal lessons is what we have listened to all winter...I often hear [the men] say they should like to attend an old styled prayer meeting at home, or a good sermon."
What President Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton needed, according to one officer, was a sermon on the necessity of reinforcing the Army of the Potomac. "Our ranks are daily decreasing from sickness and exposure, all from want of reinforcements." Unless those troops, particularly those assigned to Irwin McDowell, were funneled to the Peninsula it was likely the Army would remain stationary, particularly since the Confederates "greatly outnumber us, and are daily throwing up trenches and batteries right opposite our army."
That apparent lack of support for the General Commanding, the officer charged, could be squarely placed at the feet of "the Abolitionists in Congress," who had "a great deal to do with this," and were "purposely protracting the war in order to render emancipation necessary." McClellan's critics would have dismissed 1st Lt. Stephen Weld's thoughts as pure nonsense. They, on the other hand, were suspicious that McClellan's handling of the army was only part of his grand design to eventually manuever himself into the White House. One thing that Weld was certain of, aside from the sun rising in the morning, was not only that McClellan "would not accept the Presidency if it were offered to him," but at war's end "a history of these facts will come out, which will fully vindicate McClellan and show up Stanton and Co. in their true light."
Thursday, June 21, 2012
On what was considered a very pleasant day companies honed their skills as skirmishers by running through drills. "We now have tactics of our own," which were an amalgamation of the Scott, Hardee, and Ellsworth manuals. "Some of our manual can not be found in any book."
One of the soldiers from the 25th New York who had been struck by lightning on May 30th finally succumbed to his injuries. If that regiment's Descriptive List Book was anything like that kept by the 18th Mass. his passing was most probably noted with this brief entry: "Died in the hospital June 21st."
Hospitals, to which the sick and wounded were being evacuated to, were still a place of distrust among the rank and file. Sgt. Solomon Beals spoke for many when he voiced concern over how supplies donated by civilians for the care of patients were being utilized. A "box of brandy which would last the hospital for a month is broken open, one bottle set out for the wounded, the others drank up in a night by the stewards and doctors. Preserves are frequently on the hands of hospital officers, but they are not seen in the hospitals." The situation was allegedly the same with donated clothing as the better quality pieces seemed to wind up on the backs of "a set of as heartless men as disgrace the medical faculty." Beals was not casting dispersions on all medical staff, however. "I suppose there are surgeons who are not rascals in the army."
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
The 18th moved their camp for the third time in three days, shifting a mile and a half to the right in order to absorb new regiments, including George A. McCall's Division that had been reassigned from the First Corps the day before and now formed the Third Division of the Fifth Corps. The new accommodations were in the middle of corn stalks rising about a foot high, but "some distance from water." Close by was a pine forest where "trees average 1 1/2 to 3 ft. in diameter with no underbrush and clear of limbs for 10 or 20 ft. from the ground." The day fairly bid to be a scorcher as the noontime sun, which hung directly overhead, "casts no shaddow."
Casting no shadows either were large swarms of common house flies. "They congregate very thick in our tents. Thicker that I ever saw them in any house." The reverberation from Union cannons and incoming Rebel shells didn't seem to have any effect on the pests. Whether they'd still be around to greet the 32nd Massachusetts, who had recently arrived in Washington, was a matter of conjecture. That regiment had sent word to the 18th "they are eager and ready for the fray. After they have smelt powder a few times they wont talk after that fashion."
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Note: the 18th was situated once again near Gaines Mills
The Fifth Corps could have appropriately sung "one is the loneliest number," as they watched the Sixth Corps cross to the south bank of the Chickahominy. With that transfer Fitz-John Porter's Corps now found they were holding the north bank by themselves, a decision that would soon have the Confederate command salivating as they surveyed a reconfigured chessboard.
The First Brigade was salivating as well as 25 ration laden wagons made their appearance. Less appealing to the palate was the water supply, which " of late has been whitened with the clay which is washed into it by the rains. Our coffee looks very good, the clay giving it a color like cream but it tastes rather rough." That discoloration didn't stop anyone from imbibing though, as each man continued to consume a half-pint of non-ground beans that were issued every three days.
While Joseph Lapham continued in a drunken stupor to ward off the effects of his snake bite the Regiment also drew additional clothing from the wagons and at 4 p.m. stood another one of the seemingly endless Company inspections. While those inspections were routine and old hat many in the Regiment looked forward to spending their evening in a prayer meeting, while those with a more literary bent gathered for another of their weekly discussions and election of officers. Sgt. Solomon Beals wrote home with pride that he had been honored by being named Treasurer.
Monday, June 18, 2012
Daylight brought a good view of the Regiment's new surroundings. Although there were "some very fine plantations, the land seems nearly worn out." Those who resided in the area, including in the village of Mechanicsville itself, which consisted of "four or five dwelling houses, a meetinghouse, court house, blacksmith shop, cabinet manufactory, lathes for iron & wood, flour mill," had apparently fled from homes that were "more or less mutilated by shot and shell." Wheat and oat fields stood ready for the scythe, but with no one around to swing one it was readily apparent the entire crop would go to rot.
The view changed later in the morning when the 18th received orders to relieve a New Jersey regiment posted on picket seven miles from camp. The latter felt snubbed when the 18th simply took their posts without exchanging greetings, newspapers, or drank coffee with them, but that was all in keeping with the day's strict order prohibiting fraternization. Once posted the Regiment's pickets engaged in a starting contest with their Rebel counterparts some of whom were not more than 500 feet away. In spite of their close proximity to one another, the situation was fairly relaxed and no one felt compelled to keep their finger on the trigger or target anyone dressed in blue or gray. "The men had some conversation with the Rebels and swung their hats at them, lay their rifles down, walked about, looked at one another, at the same time keeping their eyes open as they had a battery about 600 yds to front of us. We also have one behind our pickets."
A moccasin snake, however, decided the flesh between Joseph Lapham's trigger finger and thumb was an inviting target. There was almost a biblical parable at work here, as the snake lashed out while Lapham was picking up apples he had knocked out of a tree. Though his arm quickly ballooned in size, quick action by Surgeon William Holbrook, who also administered whiskey over a 12 hour period, helped the 19-year-old Quincy, Mass. butcher to pull through and ultimately live another 61 years.
That snake bite also saved Lapham from having to march on foot back to Gaines Mills when the Regiment was relieved from picket duty by the 4th New Jersey at five in the afternoon. Whatever the alarm bell or intended strategy had been the night before, the Regiment only knew they were biding Mechanicsville adieu and under orders to return to their former digs near Gaines Mills. Needless to say that march was conducted in the midst of a rain storm that seemed to match the Regiment step for step until they reached the Mills at 10 p.m.
Sunday, June 17, 2012
Those in the Regiment who were native to Massachusetts were keenly aware their kin at home would be in a celebratory mood to mark the 87th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. "A great many of the boys were wishing they were there today." One unsubstantiated rumor did cause some celebration in camp, though. Jefferson Davis was reportedly under arrest in Richmond, "Some say for trying to remove his effects and Cabinet and make his Capital in a more southern city."
Camp life was in many ways beginning to resemble those that had existed during the siege of Yorktown as a certain monotony and state of permanence started to set in. Over a week's time men had trenched around their tents and company streets, "turnpiked the streets," and set out shade trees. Too, there was growing conjecture that George Brinton McClellan planned to repeat his Yorktown strategy by besieging the Confederate capitol. Whether that was McClellan's plan or not, the sound of thundering gun boats on the James River served to remind everyone a war was still being waged in spite of the quiet that prevailed in the 18th's camp. That quiet allowed "the drums of the enemy [to] be heard to beat at this camp" in the evening "when the wind is right."
All notions of boredom and quiet were dispelled when at half-past ten at night the Regiment was given an hour and a half to pack up its entire camp and fall into line with the rest of the First Brigade for what would ultimately be a seven mile march that would take them through and a mile beyond Mechanicsville. Rumors, which had a tendency to spread like unattended wildfires, at first suggested an attack on Richmond was in progress. But, when the force veered away from the city and finally halted, Fitz-John Porter's First Division found itself anchoring the extreme right of the Army of the Potomac where there was a decided lack of turnpiked Company streets and potted shade trees.
Saturday, June 16, 2012
Note: the 18th Mass. continued to reside in unhealthy climes near Gaines Mills
All in the regiment, excepting those who had just come off or were going on guard duty, were trotted off into the swamps to chop down trees with which to corduroy roads. The number of mosquitoes were thankfully reduced by the coolness of a "good breeze," but all were hoping to be back in camp before the swarms increased toward dark. "It is not very pleasant work in the swamps at night. The mosketoes are plenty and hungry, regular blood suckers." Still there was a certain amount of beauty in the swamps which were filled with magnolia trees and the sweet scent of their blossoms.
Those other blood suckers, better known as Sutlers, had run into difficulties of their own as a large number of them, including the 18th's own, S.S. Mann, along with his son, were now reported to be guests of the Confederates. Though the charred remains of Mann's empty wagon had been located no one in the 18th's camp was shedding any tears. "There is not much sympathy for sutlers as their prices are terribly high."
Friday, June 15, 2012
At 10 a.m. the Regiment, with the exception of those already assigned to duty, gathered to hear the Episcopal service for the dead conducted by the Chaplain of the 25th New York. The spirits of Elbridge Shaw and George W. Bailey were commended to the Almighty, their bodies returned to the earth.
We are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Four hours later the freshly dug earth that covered Shaw and Bailey compacted into a slight concave bowl when a heavy three hour rain storm broke across the region.
The other sixteen who lay in the Regimental hospital with measles had seen Shaw's body removed from their midst. Some must have considered their own mortality and rued the potential consequences of a disease reserved mostly for children would lead to a similar pathetic and inglorious end to their lives. For those in Company I who were to stand guard duty over the next 21 hours and those engaged in the construction of roads in the outlying swamps there was appreciate personal thanks for being healthy enough to do so.
Thursday, June 14, 2012
Companies G and F which had been assigned to stand guard to the rear of the First Division's line returned to camp in late morning and reported all was quiet. Further reports filtered in to the 18th's camp all day regarding the previous day's raid including those from wounded troopers of the 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry. One of their number stated two regiments of Confederate cavalry had killed almost all their officers and burnt their camp, while at Garlick Landing "two steamboats, two schooners, and twenty wagons belonging to Butterfield's Brigade" had also been put to the torch.
Toward late afternoon five companies were detailed to construct "a coudury road across the Chickahominy swamp and river for the supply train." While three companies called it a day at midnight, Companies C and E continued their labors in the midst of "a beautiful moonlit night" until well after the sun rose the following morning.
Laboring for breath in the Regiment's hospital were 21-year-old Elbridge Shaw of Carver and 18-year-old Englishman George W. Bailey. Bailey's struggle against Typhoid Fever would end in mid-afternoon, while measles would claim Shaw at 5:30 p.m.
Wednesday, June 13, 2012
The day which broke warm and pleasant grew increasingly hotter with each passing hour, not only from the sun but artillery wise as well . At eight a.m. Major Joseph Hayes led a battalion assigned for picket duty over a bridge spanning the Chickahominy. The men crossed by twos so as not to draw artillery fire, and, after completing the crossing, gathered themselves into formation for a three mile inland march where they took up their assigned posts.
The danger to pickets had been minimized as there was now a mutual agreement that individual soldiers would not be fired upon. Officers, on the other hand, were still considered fair game as were two or more of the enemy who attempted an advance. "Of course there was an occasional officer scattered among the men, though he had to dress like a private and behave like one, or take the chance of having a hole bored through him."
A contingent from the 4th Michigan arrived unexpectedly at 3 p.m. thus releasing the 18th for a return to camp. That recall was part of Fitz-John Porter's order for the First Division to form a line to the rear to guard against "a Guerilla party [which had] attacked our subsistence trains, transports, etc." That line was never fully formed as reports quickly circulated that "two Regts of Rebel cavalry [that] had been through our lines...had retired." The loss in material supplies from the raid was considerable. Over the next few days Secesh newspapers would brag about an estimated "$3,000,000" in supplies that had been destroyed by J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry during their dizzying circular ride around the whole of the Army of the Potomac.
Note: to find out what David Meechan of Co. E experienced on this day visit his Facebook page.
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Although the weather was still pleasant temperatures were starting to rise again. The dog days were approaching and that was appropriate as one Private complained he was leading "a real dog's life. We are here in camp, nothing to do at all but have an inspection at 4 o'clock daily. Those that like it I hope will get their fill."
For those in need of a refill of clothing that need was partially met when new uniforms arrived for distribution, but "not enough to go round. Some of the men are very ragged. At home they would be considered indecent."
What everyone wanted most, though was to be filled in on news from home. Mail deliveries had been erratic of late which left most in the dark about day to day life in New England. The folks at home would be best able to answer questions on how recruiting went in recently reopened offices. Rumors flew that each new enlistee was promised a month's pay in advance and a month's furlough, but none in camp knew for certain. They also didn't know whether the corn had come up, if crows were a nuisance, how gardens grew, or when their fellow townsmen thought Richmond would fall. "A letter is hailed with the greatest delight and read some dozzen times."
Monday, June 11, 2012
While the Regiment didn't draw any work details those assigned to picket duty had a "rough" go. Some had to stand in three feet of water in the swamp though most were shielded behind trees as Rebel pickets were in sight. Unlike most picket duties where one normally walked their post, the objective here was to stay low and keep a watch on the other side of river, though both sides "amuse[d] themselves" by trading occasional pop shots. "But very few are hit."
"When Richmond falls..." When, when, when. Civilians all across the North were again losing their patience with McClellan and expressing that directly in letters. All they had to do was point to the fall of Memphis five days previous as an example of what could be accomplished and only wonder why the Army of the Potomac "is doing nothing and that their delay here is a criminal waste of time and money." Such comments couldn't be ignore. The record had to be set straight with all those who were "not informed in military operations" and conversely didn't have a clue as to what they were talking about. "To all such I say wait a while...Those are just the persons that will soon cheer McClellan and admire his Generalship."
All was not quite so quiet as civilians assumed, though. A muffled cannonade from McClellan's "big guns" could be heard in late morning. Too, Henry Warren of Company D was certain he heard Gunboats on the James at play while picking green huckleberries. After stewing and sweetening them with sugar he had no doubt "it tasted most like civilized fare than anything I have ate for some time."
Sunday, June 10, 2012
The 18th Mass relocated their camp a short distance away and quickly put things in order. "I have got my tent fixed up in good shape. My bed is one foot from the ground." Life was in some ways very, very good. "We manage to enjoy ourselves and make the time pass sociably and pleasantly as possibly."
For others, whose turn it was to pay the piper for their transgressions, life was neither good nor pleasant. A storm out of the Northeast may have mirrored their feelings. Standing before a Regimental Court Martial presided over by Major Joseph Hayes, Daniel Bickford learned that his gambling was going to cost him three dollars from his next pay. Henry Kenyon and Dudley Hathaway, who been busted with Bickford, would have five dollars less to spend at Sutler S.S. Mann's rolling 7-Eleven. Maurice Nelligan had his Corporal's stripes ripped from his sleeve for mouthing off to Capt. George Ruby, who had gotten on him for "not having his equipments in proper order."
Somebody in Company A was very happy that Ernest Jennings was in front of Hayes, because that opened up a promotional opportunity. Jennings was a two time loser. Not only had he already been reduced to the ranks on a previous charge, but his enthusiasm in urging dice to 'come to Papa' was going to cost him an additional three dollars and also earn him the privilege of policing the entire camp for two weeks.
Most frowned upon for "Neglect of Duty" was Gilbert McCallum of Co. I, who had lost his cartridge box and percussion caps while on the march from Hanover Court House. Whether it was because he had half a brain or simply tired of carrying that piece of equipment, the government was going to save half a month's pay to one Private.
Saturday, June 09, 2012
As had happened a few days previous the oppressive heat had lifted, replaced by cool and pleasant weather. It was the kind of day that placed everyone in a good mood and anxious to strut their stuff in front of foreign generals who had come to see for themselves George Brinton McClellan's Army of the Potomac. Fitz-John Porter's Fifth Corps, "consisting of regulars and volunteers, both artillery and infantry" fell under the watchful eyes of the distinguished Spanish General Don Joaquín Baldomero Fernández-Espartero y Alvarez de Toro, 1st Prince of Vergara, 1st Duke of la Victoria, 1st Duke of Morella, 1st Count of Luchana, 1st Viscount of Banderas, or General Prim for short, and his staff. Third Brigade commander Daniel Butterfield, who spoke fluent Spanish, translated for Prim, who was astonished these were not professional soldiers, so ramrod straight and able to maintain perfect unified step when passing in front of him as they did.
The Fifth Corps was equally impressed with Prim, who was on leave from commanding Spanish forces in Mexico. "His uniform was all covered with gold & silver laces on his breast...His cap I should think was made of silver lace altogether." Though born of ordinary parentage and of ordinary height, there was nothing ordinary about this man who had turned his back on the priesthood to join the Spanish army when just 13. Humble circumstances overcome he had emerged as one of his country's leading progressive reformers and conversely would die a very wealthy and powerful man.
George Brinton McClellan, who himself was not from humble circumstances, had for his part taken a lump of clay and by sheer force of will molded farmers, laborers, mechanics, carpenters, butchers, barbers, fisherman, and violin makers into disciplined soldiers. Mutual pride fairly beamed. "I wish you could have seen the troops to day. It would be a sight worth seeing to you folks at home." Gone were the flabby bellies and soft hands. "The Regts here all look like bronzed veterans as they realy are."
Friday, June 08, 2012
Even cannons recognized this Sabbath day as one for rest and entered into meditative pause. The thought it was almost too quiet never entered anyone's head, including the General Commanding. "McClellan keeps the seventh day unless the rebels meddle with him."
Band leader Cyrus Vaughn visited the 12th New York's camp to price brass instruments. He "wanted to buy all the horns that there was in the band." After scribbling down notes Vaughan promised to return after running the information past Major Joseph Hayes. The rest of the regiment was comparison shopping as well by eyeballing Sutler S.S. Mann's selections. The most affordable items were cookies at 2 cents apiece and eggs, "half rotten at that," selling for three to four cents each. One officer, had he been able to afford it, which he couldn't, would have opted for "boiled lobster, oysters, and clams sealed in quart cans. " Even at a buck to a buck and two bits per can he could have used the contents to bulk up, having lost twenty pounds since leaving Yorktown. "That is about the average right through and it is not to be wondered at. This has been a terrible campaign and a very long one."
Thursday, June 07, 2012
Note: the 18th remained encamped near Gaines Mills
People marveled at the speed at which technology could transmit a June 5th newspaper from a Philadelphia printing press to the Peninsula in just two days time. For 15 cents readers were able to follow the lead story which announced that "Beauregard and his army have skedaddled from Corinth." More attention grabbing good cheer was laid out in another column. Union general Nathaniel Banks was close to grabbing Stonewall Jackson by the proverbials in the Shenandoah Valley. Between sips of morning coffee the general concensus was "Banks is not so big a fool after all."
Large work parties, including 250 from the 18th Mass., were sent out to build roads across the swamp in cooperation with engineers who laid down pontoon bridges. Those tasks were made even more difficult when the heavens dumped more rain into an already swollen Chickahominy which continued to direct its overflow into ever expanding wetlands. The work parties went about their business fairly unmolested and under the protective eye of Federal gunners who pulled the lanyards whenever Rebels showed themselves in any number.
Wednesday, June 06, 2012
Reinforcements arrived from Fortress Monroe, including the 1st Michigan, which was assigned to the 18th Mass' Brigade. While it would have been good to have added a third Old Bay State regiment, the 16th Massachusetts wound up in Daniel Butterfield's Third Brigade.
A Surgeon, fresh from the Fair Oaks battlefield, visited camp and told all those within earshot "the Rebels left more than 2000 dead on the field. Their loss must have been enormous. Ours also heavy." The actual numbers, though lower than the doctor's estimates, were as grim as the expression on his face. 790 Union and 980 Confederate soldiers were no more. Those numbers did not include those of the 8,500 wounded from both sides who would later succumb to the minie balls and shell fragments that had penetrated their bodies.
Tuesday, June 05, 2012
The 18th Mass. was standing like a bull in a field pawing its hoof against the earth, flaring its nostrils, and itching to get at it. Inactivity wasn't going to kill them or wound their feelings. Battles would. Though they had experienced shells flying over their heads at Yorktown, had heard the staccato rattle of a distant musket volley, and had seen the dead and wounded from both sides, none, save Capt. George C. Ruby of Co. B, a former Sergeant Major in the British army, who carried a long scar on one cheek from a Sepoy sword, had ever immersed themselves in the pure evil of an armed fight. No others really had any idea of how they would hold up under fire or what they would feel if their tent mate, cousin, or brother fell. The only thing they knew, in a world where men were dying and bleeding to their south, was that they were "still liveing here doing nothing, waiting for the word." They only knew the Peninsula as "a most terrible place for rain." Still they chomped at the bit "most heartily anxious for the grand battles," most certain that the Fifth Corps, "the flower of the whole army" would achieve "great things."
Those great things, still limited to the imagination, would, of course, include the surrender of the Confederate capitol. "I don't believe the army will do much of anything after taking Richmond, as it is getting rapidly used up and I think that we shall be encamped near the city for a couple of months in order to recuperate." Exactly how the city would fall, that was the question. "If we can shovel them out so much the better but I am in hopes we shall get into Richmond without so much trouble."
In the interim one didn't need to use their imagination to appreciate the marvels of nature. "It is astonishing how fast every thing grows here."
Monday, June 04, 2012
Note: the 18th Mass. remained in camp near Gaines Mills
Rain that had started the night before continued without interruption causing the waters of the Chickahominy to rise and mingle with those of neighboring swamps. Fitz-John Porter's Corps wasn't going anywhere thus there was little for anyone to do except make an attempt to stay dry. The highlight of the day for Josiah Ripley of Co. C was purchasing sweet potatoes from one of William Fleming Gaines' slaves who peddled vegetables from a handcart.
Gaines, a 57-year-old medical doctor and owner of the plantation on which Porter's Corps was encamped, had decided to stay put when Yankees showed up on his doorstep because, according to his daughter Fannie, who wrote about the family's war time experience fifty years later, her father claimed he had no where else to go. There was little for he or his family to fear at the time, however. Fannie acknowledged Union soldiers were "always kind and polite to us" and aside from an initial search of the main house none ever stepped foot inside. The family's movements were closely monitored, including the posting of guards at each of the house's three doors, and with good reason as Gaines, an ardent secessionist, was suspected of spy activity. While Gaines complained Union troops had "despoiled of his corn" and other crops, his wife Jane made a business by selling milk at 25 cents a quart, as well as vegetables and flowers from the garden.
In spite of their apparent non-threatening presence, Union soldiers had disrupted the daily workings of Gaines' plantation and he was "furious" about it. His 68 slaves, including 37 who were over the age of 14, perhaps influenced by abolitionists in the Union ranks, "refused to work any more." Unbeknownst to Gaines at the time, his troubles would magnify themselves ten fold in 23 more days.
Sunday, June 03, 2012
Note: the 18th Mass. remained in camp near Gaines Mills
Still situated on the north bank of the Chickahominy, Fitz-John Porter's Corps remained in the dark about what was happening with the rest of the Army of Potomac. Periodically the friendly guns positioned on the river would let loose a barrage and it was supposed "they were shelling the woods up on the opposite side."
During dress parade the Regiment stood at ease while they were read a message from George Brinton McClellan. The speech was McClellan at his best; stirring the soul, spurring the spirit to such a degree that the lowliest of privates felt the hand of the General Commanding on their shoulder. There was no greater love than that which was reserved for this man who stood at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside, Hooker, Meade, and Grant, all of whom would follow in his wake when he was forced to the sidelines five months later, would never know such heart felt affection, would never hear such a sounding of cheers as when his final word was spoken on this day. "Fancy a hundred thousand men cheering by regiment after regiment along a line of seven miles."
Soldiers of the Army of the Potomac: ...You are now face to face with the rebels who are held at bay in front of [their] Capital. The final and decisive battle is at hand. Unless you belie your past history, the result cannot be for a moment doubtful. If the troops who labored so faithfully, and fought so gallantly, at Yorktown, and who so bravely won the hard fights at Williamsburg, West Point, Hanover Court House and Fair Oaks, now prove worthy of their antecedents, the victory is surely ours.
The events of every day prove your superiority. Wherever you have met the enemy you have beaten him. Wherever you have used the bayonet, he has given way in panic and disorder.
I ask of you now one last crowning effort. The enemy has staked his all on the issue of the coming battle. Let us meet him and crush him here, in the very center of the rebellion.
Soldiers, I will be with you in this battle, and share its dangers with you. Our confidence in each other is now founded upon the past. Let us strike the blow which is to restore peace and union to this distracted land. Upon your valor, discipline and mutual confidence the result depends.
Saturday, June 02, 2012
Note: the 18th Mass. remained in camp near Gaines Mills
While the word was out that the bridge across the Chickahominy had been completed and the 18th Mass. was ready to move at 4 a.m. the overflow of the river had created a vast swamp, which now required the engineers to construct roads.
The delay was fortuitous as one of Professor Thaddeus Lowe's balloonists had gone aloft and reported that 30,000 Rebels were lying in ambush in a belt of woods waiting for Fritz-John Porter's First Division to cross. "Nothing could have saved us from complete destruction."
In the interim men sought shelter in the best way possible to escape the overhang of an oppressive sun. Some who stood the heat better discovered a barn with a large quantity of tobacco. Taking their cue from Morris Fisher, a cigar maker, and others familiar with the process, they dampened the leaves and braided it, while the more skilled rolled cigars. "They make them up in as good styles as the best of our cigars at home."
Friday, June 01, 2012
Note: the 18th Mass. is stalled by the Chickahominy River
The Regiment was called out at 3 in the morning and, after rolling their blankets, overcoats, and tents in sling like fashion, relaxed for the next six hours while they waited to begin their march. Halting in a field about a mile later, they started off again at 11 and thereby completed the final half-mile stretch which brought them to the north bank of the Chickahominy River. Once there the Regiment, along with an artillery battery, were posted to protect engineers struggling to erect a new bridge across rapidly flowing water.
Union forces of the Second, Third, and Fourth Corps, having crossed over on Saturday before an existing bridge collapsed and was swept away by the Chickahominy, were now into the second day of a life and death struggle at Fair Oaks. The 18th could only listen to the distant musketry and artillery fire of two armies "going like the devil." Over time the sounds seemed to recede, a good indicator the Rebels were being pushed back, but no one could really be certain.
At dark, with the bridge still in an unfinished state, Companies B and I were ordered to remain with the engineers while the rest of the First Division returned to their former camps.
Under candle light Corporal Levi Hawkes reached out with a plea to his brother-in-law John Stephens, a fellow plumber in Cambridge, Mass. "If you know of any young men with good moral character that are on their fight just send them out here & they can satisfy themselves devilish quick." Hawkes went on to point out that the Regiment was being "used up fast" due to "sickness & death since we left Hall's Hill." The 18th was now down to 561 effectives. Company C alone reported just 51 fit for duty. And the worst, as with virtually all regiments raised in 1861, was yet to come.