OF A PRIVATE
by Warren Lee Goss
Published in The Century, Illustrated
Monthly Magazine Vol. VIII, May 1885 to October 1885. Copyright 1884
by The Century Co, New York; F. Warne & Co., London.
RETIRING FROM THE CHICKAHOMINY
The Camp Kitchen (From
On the 25th of June preparations
were made for a general advance from our position at Fair Oaks. Our pickets
on the left were moved forward to an open field crossed by the Williamsburg
road, and our lines then pushed forward beyond a swampy belt of timber,
which for several days had been contested ground. Our troops, going in
with a dash, met little serious resistance. The ground was so marshy in
places that our men were obliged to cluster round the roots of trees or
stand knee-deep in water. On the 27th (the day of the battle of Gaines's
Mill) and the 28th the enemy in our front were unusually demonstrative,
if not active. Our pickets were often so near the enemy's outposts as to
hear them talk. One of my comrades told me of a conversation he overheard
one night between two of the "Johnnies."
"Uncle Robert," said one,
"is goin' to gobble up the Yankee army and bring 'em to Richmond."
"Well," said his comrade,
with a touch of incredulity in his tones, "we uns'll have a right smart
of 'em to feed; and what are we uns goin' to do with 'em when we uns catch
"Oh," said the other,
with a touch of contempt, "every one of we uns will have a Yank to tote
On the 27th, one of my
comrades, while on picket, heard orders given as if to a large body of
men - "From right of companies to rear into column - right face. Don't
get into a dozen ranks there. Why don't they move forward up the path?"
These commands excited our vigilance. What puzzled us was that we could
not hear the tramp of men, which is usual in moving large bodies of troops,
when near enough to hear their voices. Later we knew that the Confederates
in our front were keeping up a big show with a small number of troops.
We heard the heavy booming of cannon, which told of Porter's battle on
the north side of the Chickahominy, and on that day a balloon was seen
over the Confederate capital. Every sign pointed to unusual activity in
our front. Then Porter followed us to the south side of the Chickahominy,
and the whole aspect of affairs was changed.
Details were made to destroy
such stores as could not easily be removed in wagons, and some of our officers,
high in rank, set an unselfish example by destroying their personal baggage.
No fires were allowed to be kindled in the work of destruction. Tents were
cut and slashed with knives; canteens punched with bayonets; clothing cut
into shreds; sugar and whisky overturned on the ground, which absorbed
it. Some of our men stealthily imitated mother earth as regards the whisky.
Most of our officers appreciated the gravity of the situation, and were
considerate enough to keep sober, in more senses than one. Early on the
morning of the 29th the work of destruction was complete, our picket-line
was relieved, and with faces that reflected the gloom of our hearts we
turned our backs upon Richmond, and started upon the retreat. The gloom
was rather that of surprise than of knowledge, as the movement was but
slightly understood by the mass of the army, or for that matter by most
of the officers.
The weather was suffocatingly
hot; dust rose in clouds, completely enveloping the marching army; it was
inhaled into our nostrils and throats, and covered every part of our clothing
as if ashes had been sifted upon us. About nine o'clock line of battle
was formed near Allen's farm. Occasionally the report of a sharp-shooter's
rifle was heard in the woods. Some of the troops took advantage of such
shade as was afforded by scattering trees and went to sleep. All were suddenly
brought to their feet by a tremendous explosion of artillery. The enemy
had opened from the woods south of the railroad, with great vigor and precision.
This attack after some sharp fighting was repelled, and, slinging knap-sacks,
the march was again resumed over the dusty roads. It was scorching hot
when they arrived at Savage's Station, and there again they formed line
Franklin's corps, which
had fallen back from Goldings's farm, joined us here, and a detail was
made as at other places to destroy supplies; immense piles of flour, hard
bread in boxes, clothing, arms, and ammunition were burned, smashed, and
scattered. Two trains of railroad cars, loaded with ammunition and other
supplies, were here fired, set in motion towards each other, and under
a full head of steam came thundering down the track like flaming meteors.
When they met in collision there was a terrible explosion. Other trains
and locomotives were precipitated from the demolished Bottom's bridge.
Clouds of smoke rose at various points north of us, showing that the work
of destruction was going on in other places.
Here, awaiting the approach
of the enemy, we halted, while wagons of every description passed over
the road on the retreat. It was now five o'clock in the afternoon (though
official reports put it as early as four), when dense clouds of dust, rising
in long lines from the roads beyond, warned us of the approach of the enemy.
Soon they advanced from the edge of the woods and opened fire from the
whole mass of their artillery. Our guns responded. For nearly an hour not
a musket was heard, but the air vibrated with the artillery explosions.
Then the infantry became engaged in the woods. Even after the shadows of
night covered the scene with their uncertain light, the conflict went on,
until nine o'clock, when to the deep-toned Union cheers there were no answering
high-pitched rebel yells.*
Station I had the ill-luck to be taken prisoner, and in consequence was
"unavoidably absent" from our lines until August, when we ere exchanged.
I afterwards learned from my comrades their experiences and the gossip
of the intervening half-dozen weeks, which is briefly outlined in what
follows. - W.L.G.
Our regiment occupied till
after sundown a position opposite the hospital camp near the station. It
was then ordered to charge the enemy, which was done under cover of the
heavy smoke that hung over the field. At nine o'clock they began to care
for the wounded, and to carry them to the amputating-table. our "Little
Day" was wounded through the arm, but bandaged it himself. Wad River got
another slight scalp-wound, which led him to remark, "Them cusses always
aim for my head." Pendleton got what he called a ventilator through the
side of his hat, the bullet grazing his head. One of the chaplains was
indefatigable in his care of the wounded, and finally preferred to be taken
prisoner rather than desert them.
Turning their backs upon
the battle-field and the hospital camp of twenty-five hundred sick and
wounded, who were abandoned to the enemy, the troops resumed their march.
The long trains, of five thousand wagons and two thousand five hundred
head of beef, had by this time crossed White Oak Swamp. The defile over
which the army passed was narrow, but it possessed the compensating advantage
that no attack could be made on the flank, because of the morass on either
side. As fast as the rear-guard passed, trees were felled across the road
to obstruct pursuit. Before daylight the Grand Army was across the swamp,
with the bridge destroyed in the rear.
During the early morning
hours of Monday, June 30th, our regiment was halted near a barn used as
a temporary hospital. The boys lay down weary and footsore with fighting
and marching. They were aroused about eight o'clock and resumed their march.
At eleven they were halted near Nelson's farm. The country here began to
change from swamp and wood to cultivated fields.
McCall's division, now
numbering only about six thousand men, was formed nearly parallel to the
New Market road, with his batteries in the rear of the infantry. Kearny
was within supporting distance on his right, guarding the space between
the New Market and Charles City roads, while our corps, Sumner's with Hooker's
division, were formed in the rear of McCall's advance line. To force the
Union army from this key position and divide it, Longstreet gave battle.
At 2:30 P. M., advancing with A. P. Hill by the Charles City road, he attacked
with fury McCall's division. A heavy force of the enemy, passing through
the woods, was hurled upon General Seymour's brigade, holding the left,
who maintained a stubborn fight for two hours, finally cashing him to fall
back. Knieriem's and Diederichs' batteries were badly demoralized at this
point. One of their officers blubbered outright. "Are you wounded?
Are you killed?" asked hooker's ironical jokers. "No; mine battery disgraces
me vorse than det," was his reply.
When McCall's division
gave way the enemy, who had turned the left of the Union line, came down
upon Sumner's troops, who soon received the order, "Forward, guide right";
and at double quick, while the batteries n the rear threw shot and shell
over their heads into the ranks of the enemy, they pressed forward upon
them. For a few moments the enemy resisted, then broke for the cover of
the woods and melted away in the twilight shadows gathering over the field.
Our artillery continued to shell the woods, and the din of musketry did
not cease until long after dark. This Union victory insured the safety
of the army, which until that hour had been in peril.
During the night many
of the enemy's stragglers were captured. Hooker's men, who heard them in
the strip of woods calling out the names of their regiments, stationed
squads at different points to answer and direct them into the Union lines,
where they were captured. "Here by the oak," our men would say in answer
to their calls, and thus gathered in these lost children of the Confederacy.
Our regiment captured five or six stragglers in much the same manner. Many
of them were under the influence of stimulants. It was current talk at
that time - to account for the desperate, reckless charges made during
the day - that the Confederates were plied with whisky. I am not of that
opinion, as whisky will not made men brave. Those captured wore a medley
of garments which could hardly be called a uniform, though gray and butternut
were the prevailing colors. Some of them had a strip of carpet for a blanket,
but the raggedness of their outfit was no discredit to soldier who fought
as bravely as did these men.
Franklin's force, which
had been disputing the passage of White Oak Swamp during the day, at dark
retreated from that position, which made it prudent to retire our whole
force from Glendale, for Jackson's forces at White Oak bridge would soon
be upon us. By daylight began our march to Malvern, the pioneers
felling trees in the rear.
Acres and acres of waving
grain, ripe for the reapers, were seen on every side. The troops marched
through the wheat, cutting off the tops and gathering them into their haversacks,
for, except in more than ordinarily provident cases, they were out of rations
and hungry, as well as lame and stiff from marching. The bands, which
had been silent so long before Richmond, here began playing patriotic airs,
which had a very inspiriting effect. As they neared the James River and
caught sight of our gunboats, a cheer went up from each regiment. About
eleven o'clock in the morning they took up position on the Malvern plateau.
The morale of the
army, notwithstanding its toilsome midnight marches and daily battles,
with insufficient sleep and scanty food, was excellent. Its comparatively
raw masses were now an army of veterans, tried in the fire of battle
Supplying the hungry
army at Harrison's Landing.
(From a sketch by A.
R. Ward made at the time)
Our stragglers, their
courage revived by sight of the gun-boats, came up the hill, seeking their
regiments. One squad encountered half a dozen of the enemy's calvary and
charged them with empty muskets. Another squad came in with a Confederate
wagon, in which were several wounded comrades rescued from the battle-field.
Another squad had their haversacks filled with honey, and bore marks of
a battle with bees. During the morning long lines of men with dusty garments
and powder-blackened faces climbed the steep Quaker road. Footsore, hungry,
and wearied, but not disheartened, these tired men took their positions
and prepared for another day of conflict. The private soldiers were quick
to perceive the advantages which the possession of Malvern Hill gave us,
and such expressions as "How is this for Johnny Reb!" were herd on every
hand. Wad Rider, complacently and keenly viewing the surroundings, said,
"Satan himself couldn't whip us out of this!" As soon as it was in position
near the north front of the hill, our regiment was given the order, "In
place - rest," and in a few minutes the men were asleep, lying upon their
Early in the forenoon
skirmishing began along the new line. Some of the troops, while going up
the hill to take their positions n the field, were fired upon by the enemy's
batteries. Small parties advanced within musket-shot, evidently reconnoitering
our position, and fired from the cover of the woods on our men. Shells
from our gun-boats on the James came hoarsely spluttering over the heads
of the troops. Occasionally hostile regiments appeared from the woods
below the crest of the hill, as were as often driven back by our artillery.
The fighting of the day
might be described as a succession of daring attacks and bloody repulses.
Heavy firing began at different points soon after noon, followed by a lull.
About three o'clock there was heard an explosion of artillery, with the
will-known rebel yell, followed by the cheering of our men. The crash of
artillery was even at this time terrible. Soon it partly died away and
was followed by roaring volleys, and then the irregular snap, crack,
crack of firing at will of the musketry. It was the attack of G. B.
Anderson's brigade of D. H. Hill's division upon Couch's front. In a hand-to-hand
struggle at this time, the Thirty-sixth New York captured the colors of
the Fourteenth North Carolina and a number of prisoners. Couch then advanced
his line to a grove, which gave a stronger position and a better range
for the musketry. An assault at the same time was made along the left,
but was speedily repulsed by the batteries. At four o'clock there was quiet.
But the storm of battle at six o'clock burst upon Malvern cliff.
Brigade after brigade came up the hill with impetuous courage, breasting
the storm of canister, grape, and shell which devastated their ranks. Half-way
up they would break in disorder, before the destructive cannonade and the
deadly volleys of musketry. Vainly they were rallied. It was more than
human courage could endure.
A Part of the fortified
camp at Harrison's Landing.
(After sketch by A. R.
Ward made at the time)
After D. H. Hill, Magruder
made his attack. Our guns, grouped around the Crew house, opened upon the
Confederates, as with fierce yells they charged up the slope. In some instances
our infantry, being sheltered by the inequalities of the ground in front
of the guns, withheld their fire until the charging column was within a
few yards of them. Sometimes the enemy attacked from the cover of the ravine
on the left, but they never reached the crest. Night came, yet the
fight went on, with cheers answering to yells and gun answering to gun.
The lurid flashes of artillery along the hostile lines, in the fathering
darkness; the crackle of musketry, with flashes seen in the distance like
fire-flies; the hoarse shriek of the huge shells from the gun-boats, thrown
into the woods, made it a scene of terrible grandeur. The ground in front
of Porter and Couch was literally covered with the dead and wounded. At
nine o'clock the sounds of the battle died away, and cheer after cheer
went up from the victors on the hill.
During the battle of Malvern
Hill the infantry where my regiment was posted was not brought into active
opposition to the enemy. They lay on the ground in front of the guns, which
threw shot, shell, and canister over their heads. Several times after three
o'clock brigades were sent from this position to act as supports where
the attack was heaviest on Couch's lines. Just after three o'clock the
artillery fire was heavy on our brigade, but the loss was light, owing
to the protection afforded to the infantry by the inequalities of the ground.
Between six and seven o'clock our company was detailed to guard prisoners;
and about that time, as one of my comrades said, General Hooker road by
on his white horse, which formed a very marked contrast to his very red
face. He road leisurely and complacently, as if in no alarm or excitement,
but looked very warm. Behind a bluff, not far from the Crew house, was
the extemporized hospital towards which stretch-bearers were carrying the
wounded; those able to walk were hobbling, and in some instances were using
a reversed musket for a crutch.
All of the prisoners were
"played-out" men who had evidently seen hard service with marching, fighting,
and sort rations. Some of them were morose and defiant. The most intelligent
were generally the best natured. The Virginians would usually remark, "You
uns will never conquer we uns." In general they were poorly clad.
Thus ended the Union advance
on Richmond. The grand "Army of the Potomac: forced its way to within sight
of the enemy's capital, only to fall back, in a desperate struggle of seven
successive days, to the James River. Yet it preserved its trains, its courage,
and its undaunted front, and inflicted upon the enemy heavier losses than
it sustained. Through crowded back in the final movement, our army defeated
the enemy on every battle-field but one during the seven days. The moral
advantage was on the side of the Confederates; the physical on the side
of the Federals. We had inflicted a loss of about 20,000 on the enemy,
while sustaining a loss of but 15, 849. The North was in humiliation over
the result, while the Confederates rejoiced.
ON THE JAMES
The next morning at daybreak
our regiment moved with its squad of prisoners down the road to Haxall's.
Here, for some reason, they were halted for two or three hours while regiments,
trains, and cattle moved over the narrow defile, jumbled in confusion together.
There were loud discussions as to the right of way, and a deal of growling
among the soldiers at retreating, after giving the "rebs" such a shipping;
but most of them seemed to think "Little Mac" knew what he was about, and
the enthusiasm for him grew in intensity rather than decreased. The halt
gave leisure for talk with the prisoners. One of them was a good-looking,
intelligent fellow about twenty-two years of age. He informed one of my
comrades that he belonged to a North Carolina regiment. He was a college
graduate, and the prospect of spending a summer at the North did not seem
to displease him. He confidentially said that he had been a Union many
just as long as he could, and finally went into the Confederate army to
save his property and reputation and to avoid conscription. He added: "There
are thousands in the South just like me. We didn't want the war, and resisted
the sentiment of secession as long as we could. Now it has gone so far
we've got to fight or sever all the associations with which our lives are
interlinked. I know it is a desperate chance for the South. Look
at your men, how they are disciplined, fed, and clothed, and then see how
our men are fed and clothed. They are brave men, but they can't stand it
forever. Southern men have got fight in them, and you will find them hard
The Westover Mansion,
camp at Harrison's Landing, July 1862
One lean "Johnny" was
loud in his praise of Stonewall Jackson, saying: "He's a general, he is.
If you uns had some good general like him, I reckon you uns could lick
we uns. 'Old Jack' marches we uns most to death; a Confed that's under
Stonewall has got to march."
"Does your general abuse
you - swear at you to make you march?" inquired one of his listeners.
"Swear?" answered the
Confederate; "no. Ewell he does the swearing; Stonewall does the praying.
When Stonewall wants us to march he looks at us soberly, just as if he
was sorry for we uns, but couldn't help it, and says, 'Men, we've got to
make a long march.' We always know when there is going to be a long march
and some right smart fighting, for Old Jack is powerful on prayer just
before a big fight."
"Did you ever see General
Lee?" I inquired of one of them.
"Yes, I was a sort of
orderly for 'Uncle Robert' for a while He's mighty clam-like when a fight
is going on.
About ten o'clock in the
morning the regiment resumed its march. It reached Harrison's Landing about
four in the afternoon, just as it began to rain in torrents. Here they
were relieved from guard duty and allowed the privilege of making themselves
as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. The level land which
terminates in bluffs on the James River was covered with hundreds of acres
of wheat ready for the harvest. The process of cutting for the army began
without delay, and before night every blade of it was in use for bedding
and forage; not a vestige remained to tell of the waving fields which had
covered the plain a few hours previous. The fields whereon it stood were
trampled under foot; not even a stubble stood in sight. Great fields of
mud were the resting-place of the army. It was almost as muddy as if the
waters of the deluge had just receded from the face of the earth. Mules,
horses, and men were alike smeared and spotted with mire, and the ardor
of the army was somewhat dampened thereby.
Harrison's Landing, James River.
(From sketch by A. B.
This house was the birthplace
of General (afterward President) William Henry Harrison. During the month
of July, 1862, it was used as a hospital and as a signal-station, the scaffolding
about the chimneys having been built for that purpose.
At Harrison's Landing
the army settled down to a period of rest, which was much needed. The heat
during the day was intolerable, and prevented much exercise. Men lay under
their shelter, smoked, told stories, discussed the scenes and battles of
the previous month, and when evening came on visited each other's camps
and sang the popular songs of the day. Those vampires of the army, the
sutlers, charged double prices for everything they had to sell, until the
solders began to regard them as their natural enemies. No change smaller
than ten cents circulated in camp. It was the smallest price charged for
anything. Sutlers' pasteboard checks were in good demand as change, as
were very useful in playing the game of "bluff." Thus the army whiled away
the month of July.
During August some of
the prisoners captured from us on the seven days' retreat arrived in our
lines for exchange. They were a sorry-looking crowd - emaciated, hungry,
sick, ragged, and dirty. They did not have a high opinion of the entertainment
they had received at Belle Isle and Libby prison.
During one of those quiet,
still August nights, dark, and as close and muggy as only a night in "dog
days" can be, some time after midnight, the whole camp was roused by the
furious and rapid bursting of shells in our very midst. Imagine, if you
can, a midnight shelling of a closely packed camp of fifty thousand men,
without giving them one hint or thought of warning; imagine our dazed appearance
as we rolled form under our canvas coverings, and the running and dodging
here and there, trying to escape from the objective point of the missiles.
Of course the camp was a perfect pandemonium during the half hour that
the shelling lasted. We soon discovered that the visitors came from a battery
across the James River, and in twenty minutes a few of our guns silenced
them completely. Most of these shells burst over and amongst us who occupied
the center of the camp, near the old Harrison's Landing road. This road
was lined on either side with large shade-trees, which were probably of
some assistance to the enemy in training their guns.
While at Harrison's Landing
there was a great deal of sickness. But, more than any other ailment, homesickness,
was prevalent. It made the most fearful inroads among the commissioned
officers. Many sent in their resignations, which were promptly returned
disapproved. One, who had not shown a disposition to face the enemy proportionate
to his rank, hired tow men to carry him on a stretcher to the hospital
boat; and this valiant officer was absent from the army nearly a whole
year. We believed at that time that some of the hospitals at the North,
for the sake of the money made on each ration, sheltered and retained skulkers.
In contrast with this was the noble action of men who insisted on joining
their commands before their wounds were fairly healed, or while not yet
recovered from their sickness.
Bathing and swimming in
the James was a luxury to us soldiers, and did much, no doubt toward improving
the health of the army. Boxes with goodies from home came by express in
great numbers. One of my friends at one time received a whole cheese, and
for a week was the envy of the company.
Dummies and Quaker
guns left in the works at Harrison's Landing on the Evacuation by the Army
of the Potomac.
(From Sketch at the time
by A. R. Ward)
Hooker's brigade moved
towards Malvern Hill on the second of August, and on the fourth attacked
the enemy near Glendale. On the fifteenth all was bustle and confusion,
getting read for some movement - perhaps another advance on Richmond. But
instead we took up our line of march down the Peninsula. The people on
the way openly expressed hatred of us and sympathy with the rebellion.
No guards were posted over the houses as heretofore, and we used the fences
to cook our coffee, without reproach from our officers. At one house, near
the landing, a notice was posted forbidding the burial of a Yankee on the
estate. That house was very quickly and deliberately burned to the ground.
Steamboats and wags were crowded with out sic. After rapid marches we arrived
at Hamnpton, and embarked again for Alexandria.
Warren Lee Goss