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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

Note: the 18th Mass continued its search for Stonewall

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.

Joseph Madison Jordan (from an engraving of a Carte de Visite)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Note: the 18th Mass goes looking for Stonewall

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

Note: the 18th Mass remained in camp near Gaines Mills

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

Note: the Regiment remained encamped near Gaines Mills

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

Note: the Regiment remained in camp near Gaines Mills

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

Note: the Regiment remained in camp near Gaines Mills

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

Note: the 18th continued in camp near Gaines Mills

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

Note: the 18th Mass begins their day at Mechanicsville and ends it elsewhere

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

Note: the Regiment leaves Gaines Mills after receiving very short notice

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

Note: the 18th remained encamped on Virginia's Peninsula near Gaines Mills

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.