I woke this morning of Easter thinking of my great grandfather and where he might have spent Easter during his years as a soldier in the Union Army. He makes no reference to the religious holiday even though he was a deeply religious man. However, I found a passage in his memoir, Civil War Journal of a Union Soldier, from April 4-6, 1861, that tells the tale of springtime during war.
He and Michigan’s 2nd regiment had been encamped near the Black River, five miles from Newport News Point, Virginia, for almost two weeks. They endured two weeks of almost solid rain before receiving the word it was time to march through the mud to their next camp. Here’s his story of those few days in early April, one hundred and fifty-three years ago.
In my great grandfather’s words:
April 4 – The long expected forward movement was begun at last. The clouds that had poured rain upon us so long and continuously had rolled away, and a fiery sun shone down upon
us with all the fierceness of full summer. We crossed Back River and took the road up the peninsula between the York and James rivers.
The roads were heavy with mud, and the soldiers were fain to relieve the tiresome march by reducing the weight of baggage carried upon their backs. Believing summer had come to stay, they began to throw away their overcoats, and some their blankets and soon the roadside was literally covered with these castoff articles. The route step of vigorous, fresh troops soon brought us through a wooded country to Little Bethel. We were some surprised to see nothing but a small church, for General [Benjamin F.] Butler’s movements of last June had given the Bethels a place in history.
[From P.C. Zick: It’s noted that General Butler was one of the first to employ observation balloons during the Civil War, but his reputation as a terrible tactician was proven on June 10, 1861, at Big Bethel, Virginia, which was the first land battle of the Civil War. Despite outnumbering the Confederates, his men fired on each other, which accounted for one-third of the Union casualties in the defeat.]
Late in the afternoon, we came upon Big Bethel. Here as before, there was a church though a little larger than the other Bethel. Some deserted rebel earthworks stretched away into the woods on each side of the road, but as there were no rebels about there was little of interest to us. Two miles beyond Great Bethel, we bivouacked for the night, sleeping beside our arms, for it was known that we were very close to the enemy.
April 5 – At an early hour, the column was on the move. The men, in high spirits, pushed eagerly forward, the dominant thought being that every step brought us nearer the enemy. The road lay mostly through heavy timber. In the after part of the day, the country became low and swampy and the roads soft, the mud coming often to our knees. The distant booming of artillery freshened our lagging zeal as we came upon higher ground, but a brief delay, during which the sounds of strife at the front became more animated, raised hopes that once more we were to have some practical experience in warfare. As the firing died away, we moved on and soon learned that the enemy had made a feeble attempt to check our advance at Worms Mills.
Late in the day, the occasional discharge of cannon sounded nearer, and as we emerged from the woods onto an open plain, we could see the smoke of the guns rise from a dim line of earthworks on the opposite side. That we were within range of their artillery was evident from the shots that now and then screamed over our heads and clipped the limbs from the trees in our rear. Just at twilight, our brigade was moved to the left and camped between the woods and a pool of water. Beside the pool were Professor Lowe and his balloon. As we approached, he was being pulled down from his lofty place of observation, a thousand feet high. This was one of McClellan’s favorite ways of gaining information of the enemy’s movements.
As we had experienced a long and hard march, the cooks were ordered to serve coffee with dispatch. Being in a strange locality close to the enemy and already dark, the cooks took water for the coffee from the pool. When the coffee was served, each man, as he took some in his mouth, quickly spit it out again. Everyone declared it bit his mouth so they could not swallow it. Investigation showed that they had taken the water from the same spot where the refuse vitriol used in manufacturing gas for the balloon had been emptied. A storm of indignation was raised against the cooks and some curses were hurled at the balloon, but I doubt any of us could have done better under the circumstances.
We were now before Yorktown and on the border of the plain where Cornwallis surrendered his forces in Revolutionary times. Yorktown is a walled town of the old style to which the rebels added a long wing of earthworks that entirely covered the available route up the peninsula.
After eating the remnant of food in our haversacks, we lay down with the thought that on the morrow we should surely assault the enemy and severely punish him.
April 6 – With the dawning of a new day, the encampment was astir, anxious to get a glimpse of the surroundings by daylight. The first object that met my gaze as I crawled from my shelter tent was the forms of General [Hiram G.] Berry and two staff officers stretched upon the bare ground under a tree, without other covering or shelter than its spreading branches while their horses gnawed at neighboring saplings. The baggage train that should have brought the general’s tent and equipage and our rations, had been delayed by the bad roads. The prospect for something to eat was dubious. The majority of the men had eaten the last from their haversacks the night before. Roused by the bustle of the camp, the general and his aides arose and kindled a small fire and put something to cook in a quart cup. Three of us who messed together pooled our rations and found we had six hardtack for the three. We voted to give the general and each of his aides one apiece and have one each for our own breakfast. Upon tendering them to the general with the information that it was half we had, he accepted on condition that we take half of the rice they were cooking which was all they had. It was a great consolation to us that for once the general and his soldiers fared alike.
Notwithstanding our eager expectation, the day passed without any action. The next day and the next passed in inactivity and no rations.
[From P.C. Zick: Elsewhere in the war, General Ulysses S. Grant’s troops are surprised by a Confederate attack at Shiloh on the Tennessee River. More than 23,000 men are killed or wounded.]
April 8 – The troops were moved back into the woods and picks and shovels came to the front. Our spirits were dampened by the prospect of more shoveling. For many days, camp life was broken only by the regular rotation of picket duty and an occasional turn at shoveling in trenches, which were to form a regular approach by means of parallels to the enemy’s works.
The camp of our brigade in the woods lay between two swamp holes, the waters of which we were compelled to use for washing, cooking, and drinking purposes. Very soon around the entire edges of the ponds was a wide circle of dirty soapsuds where the men had washed their clothes and their persons. Water to drink was procured by walking as far out as possible on a log and dipping up the filthy swamp water, and even there it tasted of soap. We knew of no better water, and if we had perfectly patrolled, that if a man strayed from his own camp, he was sure to go to the trenches to work instead of finding water. Drenching rains fell most of the time, rations were scarce, and the miasma of the swamps sickened the men so that our ranks were depleted faster by disease than they would have been by assault upon the works at Yorktown. At intervals through all these days, the rebels sent shot from their heavy guns over us and around, but nobody was ever hurt by them. Working parties pushed the fortifications day and night under the direction of experienced engineers. By day, the work went on behind the woods and in other places out of rebel observation and by night parallels were dug across the open spaces by the aid of white lines. Each morning, the enemy awoke to find some new piece of Yankee impudence right under their noses.
One dark and rainy day, I was ordered to take out a working party of forty men. The engineer conducted us to a narrow strip of woods that projected into the plain on the same level and in full view of the walls of Yorktown. On the edge of the wood, next to the enemy, was a fine growth of underbrush. Through this as close as possible to the open ground, the engineer ran his line, his own men cutting off the fine brush and standing it up to thicken the screen that concealed us. It was our work to follow and cut out the trench, one spading deep so that a larger
force could throw out the remainder at night without the aid of lights. With a wholesome respect for the frowning guns before us, we did not draw a single shot from the rebel batteries.
As fast as works were completed, men were detailed to man them for twenty-four hours at a time. It was my fortune to be in the same trench several times during the thirty days siege of Yorktown, and I witnessed two or three amusing incidents. It was the custom of the rebels to fire a shot once a half hour over this work, and sometimes it hit the work and at others, it clipped the treetops. Just behind us was a low spot where grew some lofty elms. Through these, one day came a straggling soldier leisurely surveying the surroundings. He paused in a comfortable attitude under one of the elms and seemed to be enjoying himself very much when a shot from the enemy cut a limb as big as his body directly over his head. He did not wait for the limb to fall, but started on the jump for camp and had not slackened his speed nor looked behind when he entered the wood on the opposite side of the plain. At another time, General Phil Kearney and three other generals rode up to this part of the line and stopped to gaze through the thin growth of timber at Yorktown. As they looked, a puff of smoke shot up from the rebel works. Quick as a flash of light, the four generals were off their horses and flat upon the ground. When the deadly missile has passed, they arose and remounted. Kearney remarked with a pleased smile, “I never before saw generals so quickly reduced to the ranks.”
I came on duty once with a captain of the 3rd Michigan. After lookouts had been posted and everything was arranged for the night, the captain and myself wrapped our blankets around us and lay down on the shelf of the trench, feet together, while the other men were disposed conveniently near. In the night, a big shell buried in itself in the breastwork near the point where our feet met, and burst, sending a great amount of dirt into the air. As the earth came down, it buried both under a heavy load. With some exertion, we both released ourselves and met in the darkness, he being sure it had torn him to pieces. Investigation showed that no one was hurt, and we returned to our slumbers to be disturbed no more that night.
Time brings all things to an end and at last the earthworks were completed, the cannon and mortars mounted, and it was currently rumored that the bombardment would take place in a day or two. Our sharpshooters were so close to the walls of Yorktown that they could pick off the gunners whenever they attempted to serve their guns, and their keen eyes were always strained to detect an animated mark for their aim.
Civil War Journal of a Union Soldier by Harmon Camburn as presented by P.C. Zick is available at the following locations. Click below to purchase.
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