Articles View Hits
Part 2 of Recollections of a Private by Warren Lee Goss


Recollections of a Private - II. BY Warren Lee Goss 

While we were in camp at Washington in February, 1862, we were drilled to an extent which to the raw "thinking soldier" seemed unnecessary. Our colonel was a strict disciplinarian. His efforts to drill out of us the methods of action and thought common to citizens, and to substitute in place thereof blind, unquestioning obedience to military rules, were not always appreciated at their true value. In my company there was an old drill-sergeant (let us call him Sergeant Hackett) who was in sympathetic accord with the colonel. He had occasion to reprove me often, and, finally, to inflict a blast of profanity at which my self-respect rebelled. Knowing that swearing was a breach of discipline, I waited confidently upon the colonel, with the manner of one gentleman calling upon another. After the usual salute, I opened complaint by saying: "Colonel, Mr. Hackett has --" The colonel interrupted me angrily, and, with fire in his eye, exclaimed: "Mister? There are no misters in the army." "I thought, sir--" I began apologetically. "Think? Think?" he cried. "What right have you to think? I do the thinking for this regiment! Go to your quarters!" 

I did not tarry. There seemed to be no common ground on which he and I could argue questions of personal etiquette. But I should do injustice to his character as a commander if I failed to illustrate another manner of reproof which he sometimes applied.

One day, noticing a corporal in soiled gloves, he said: "Corporal, you set a bad example to the men with your soiled gloves. Why do you?
"I've had no pay, sir, since entering the service, and can't afford to hire washing."

The colonel drew from his pocket a pair of gloves spotlessly white, and, handing them to the corporal, said: " Put on those; I washed them myself!"

This was an unforgotten lesson to the whole regiment that it was a soldier's duty to attend himself to his personal neatness.

In a camp of soldiers, rumor, with her thousand tongues, is always speaking. The rank and file and under-officers of the line are not taken into the confidence of their superiors. Hence the private soldier is usually in ignorance as to his destination. What he lacks in information is usually made up in surmise and conjecture; every hint is caught at and worked out in possible and impossible combinations. He plans and lights imaginary battles. He manoeuvres for position, with pencil and chalk, on fanciful fields, at the same time knowing no more of the part he is actually performing in some great or little plan than the knapsack he bears. He makes some shrewd guesses (the Yankee's birthright), but he knows absolutely nothing. It is this which makes the good-will and confidence of the rank and file in the commander so important a factor in the morale of an army.

How we received the report or whence it came I know not, but it was rumored one morning that we were about to move. The order in reality came at last, to the distress and dismay of the sutlers and the little German woman who kept the grocery round the corner. We left her disconsolate over the cakes, pies, and goodies which had been liberally purchased, but which were yet unpaid for when we fell into two ranks, were counted off, and marched to conquer the prejudices of other sutlers.

We took the cars on February 25th and were hurried through a number of little sleepy-looking villages of Maryland. The next morning found us at Sandy Hook, about half a mile from Harper's Ferry; thence, after about three hours' delay, we marched to a place opposite the promontory on and around which is situated the picturesque village of Harper's Ferry, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. It was cold at our camping-place, between the canal and the river; there were no rations awaiting our arrival and we were suffering from the hunger so common to soldiers. Who ever saw one off duty who was not in pursuit of something to eat? We couldn't get anything for love or money. We had at last reached a place where the people showed some of the distress incident to war, and a strong disinclination to feed or believe in us. We were grieved, but it couldn't be helped.

The bridge from the Maryland to the Virginia or Harper's Ferry shore had been destroyed by fire, leaving only the granite abutments (which were afterward built upon again), and we were soon set at work conveying some flat-bottomed scows from Sandy Hook to Harper's Ferry. As early as 9 o'clock about one hundred men came down opposite the ferry, just above the old bridge, and broke into little groups, in military precision. Four or five with spades and other implements improvised a wooden abutment on the shore; another party rowed against the stream, moored a scow, and let it drift down until it was opposite the wooden abutment; then a party of ten advanced, each two men carrying a claw-balk, or timbers fitted with a claw, one of which held the gunwale of the boat, the other the shore abutment. Twenty men now came down on the left with planks, one inch thick, six inches wide, and fifteen feet long, narrowed at each end; these they laid across the five joists or balks, and returned on the right Another party meanwhile moored another boat, which dropped down-stream opposite the one already bridged; five joists, each twenty feet long, were laid upon the gunwale by five men; these were fastened by those in the boat by means of ropes to cleats or hooks provided for the purpose on the side of the scows, which were shoved off from the shore until the Shore end of the balk rested upon the shore boat. These were covered with planks in the same manner as before; side-rails of joists were lashed down with ropes to secure the whole. So one after another of the boats was dropped into position until a bridge several hundred feet long reached from the Maryland to the Virginia shore, for the passage of artillery and every description of munitions for an army. Owing to the force of the current, a large rope-cable was stretched from shore to shore fifty feet above the bridge, and the upper end of each boat was stayed to the cable by a smaller rope. The rushing bent the bridge into a half-moon curve. The clock-like precision with which these men worked showed them to be the drilled engineers and pontoniers of the regular army. After the bridge was built, a slight, short man, with sandy hair, in military dress, came out upon it and congratulated the engineers on their success. This unassuming man was George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac.

It was on this boat-bridge that the army of General Banks crossed to the Virginia shore in 1862. Officers were not allowed to trot their horses; troops in crossing were given the order, "Route step," as the oscillation of the cadence step or trotting horse is dangerous to the stability of a bridge of any kind.

I crossed the bridge soon after it was laid, visited Jefferson Rock, the ruins of the burned armory, and the town in general. The occasional crack of a musket among the hills on the other side of the Shenandoah told that the enemy's scouts were still there. Colonel Geary's men were engaged in driving them from the hills, preparatory to the advance of General Banks. During the day fifteen or twenty were captured and marched through the town, presenting a generally shabby and unmilitary appearance. They did not impress me, as they did afterward when charging on our lines, with their unmusical yell and dauntless front.

The ruins of the burned armory of the United States were noticeable from the Maryland shore; also the masses of men moving in ceaseless tramp over the long and almost crescent-like bridge. The murmur of many voices, the mellow, abrupt call of the negro drivers to their mules, the glistening arms of the infantry reflected in the sunlight, the dull rumble of artillery wheels and baggage-wagons, live in memory to-day as one of the pictures of "war's wrinkled front," framed in the routine of more ordinary scenes.

The next day we were sent by rail back to Washington, and into camp upon our old grounds. A few mornings afterward an inspection was ordered. It came with the usual hurry and parade. Knapsacks and equipments were in shining order; every musket, bayonet, and button, boot and belt, as bright as rubbing and fear of censure or police duty could make them. Inspection over, the last jingle of ramrod in resounding musket was heard, and we were dismissed, with an intimation that on the morrow we were to go on a march. 

The sun rose through the mists of the morning, - one of those quiet mornings when every sound is heard with distinctness. The waters of the Potomac were like a sheet of glass as we took up our line of march across the Long Bridge, making the old structure shake with our cadence step. Our moods varied: some laughed and joked; some, in suppressed tones, talked with their comrades as to their destination. Not much was said about fighting but I, for one, did a great deal of thinking on that tender subject. 

After we passed the fort, which commanded the bridge on the Virginia side, we encountered one of the most powerful allies of the enemy, particularly during the winter and spring campaigns in Virginia, -- MUD. No country equals a Virginia road for mud. We struck it thick, and sometimes knee-deep. It was verily "heavy marching." The foot sank insidiously into the mud, and came out again reluctantly; it had to be coaxed, and while you were persuading your left, the willing right was sinking as deep. The noise of walking was like that of a suction-pump when the water is exhausted.

The order was given, "Route step"; we climbed the banks of the road in search of firm earth, but it couldn't be found, so we went on pumping away, making about one foot in depth to two in advance. Our feet seemingly weighed twenty pounds each. We carried a number six into the unknown depths of mud, but it came out a number twelve, elongated, yellow, and nasty. Occasionally a boot or shoe would be left in the mud, and it would take an exploring expedition to find it. Wad Rider declared that though Virginia was once in the Union, she was now in the mud. The boys called their shoes "pontoons," "mud-hooks," "soil-excavators," and other names not quite so polite.

The mud was in constant league with the enemy; an efficient ally in defensive warfare; equivalent to reinforcements of twenty thousand infantry. To realize the situation, spread tar a foot deep all over your back-yard, and then try to walk through it; particularly is this experiment recommended to those citizens who were constantly crying, "Why doesn't the army move?"

Mud took the military valor all out of a man. Any one would think, from reading the Northern newspapers, that we soldiers had macadamized roads over which to charge at the enemy. It would have pleased us much to have seen those "On to Richmond" people put over a 5-mile course in the Virginia mud, loaded with a 40-pound knapsack, 60 rounds of cartridges, and haversacks filled with 4 days' rations.

Without exaggeration, the mud has never had full credit for the immense help it afforded the enemy, as it prevented us from advancing upon them. The ever-present foe, winter and spring, in Old Virginia, was Mud. Summer and fall it was Dust, which was preferable; though marching without water, and with dust filling one's nostrils and throat, was not pleasant.

That first night out we went into camp near a small brook, where we washed off enough of the mud to recognize our feet. We had hard-tack and coffee for supper. And didn't it "go good!" What sauce ever equaled that of hunger"! Truly the feast is in the palate. How we slept! Feet wet, boots for a pillow, the mud oozing up around our rubber blankets, but making a soft bed withal, and we sleeping the dreamless sleep of tired men. I would be willing, occasionally, to make another such march, through the same mud, for such a sleep.

At early daylight we fell in for rations of hot coffee and hard-tack. Immediately after, we took up our line of march, or, as Wad Rider expressed it, "began to pull mud. "With intervals of rest, we "pulled mud " until about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, when we halted near Manassas Junction. Who has not heard of the "Quaker guns " at Manassas? We met the logs mounted on wheels, around the fortifications of Manassas, and can assure you they were not so formidable as the mud.

After thoroughly inspecting our enemies, -- the logs, -- we re-formed our ranks and took the back track for Washington. The rain soon began to fall, coming down literally in sheets; it ran down our backs in rivulets, and we should have run had we met the enemy about that time -- that is, if the mud had permitted; for there is nothing which will so take the courage out of a soldier as to wet the seat of his trousers. On we went pumping and churning up and down in the mud, till about 10 o'clock, when we pitched camp near the roadside, as wet and bedraggled a set of men as ever panted for military glory, or pursued the bubble reputation at the wooden cannon's mouth. We arrived at our old camp near Washington the following evening.

Virginia mud has never been fully comprehended. To fully understand it you must march in it, sleep in it, be encompassed round about by it. Great is mud -- "Virginia mud."

In the early spring of 1862, when the Army of the Potomac was getting ready to move from Washington, the constant drill and discipline, the brightening of arms and polishing of buttons, and the exasperating fussiness on the part of company and regimental officers during inspections, conveyed to us a hint, as one of our comrades expressed it, that "some one higher in command was punching them to punch us." There was unusual activity upon the Potomac in front of our camp. Numerous steam-tugs were pulling huge sailing vessels here and there, and large transports, loaded with soldiers, horses, bales of hay, and munitions for an army, swept majestically down the broad river. Every description of water conveyance, from a canal-boat to a huge three-decked steamboat, seemed to have been pressed into the service. At last, when drills and inspections had made us almost frantic with neatness and cleanliness, our marching orders came. We formed in two ranks and boarded a little steamer lying at the wharf near by. All heavy baggage was left behind. I had clung to the contents of my knapsack with dogged tenacity; but, notwithstanding my most earnest protest, I was required to leave about one-half of them, including a pair of heavy boots and a choice brick from the Harper's Ferry engine-house. To my mind I was now entirely destitute of comforts.

The general opinion among us was that at last we were on our way to make an end of the Confederacy. We gathered in little knots on the deck: here and there a party were playing "penny ante"; others slept or dozed, but the majority smoked and discussed the probabilities of our destination, about which we really knew nothing, except that we were sailing down the Potomac.