Charles E. (Charles Edward) Benton.

As seen from the ranks; a boy in the civil war online

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surrender by the latter of all the Confederate
forces then in North Carolina. At last it was
definitely stated that the terms had been
agreed upon, and only awaited approval by
the authorities at Washington, and the neces-
sary technicalities of red tape.

Now surely we could rejoice, and rejoice
we did without stint. Why should we go
early to bed? Rest was to fit us to endure
the hardships and fatigue, but now there were
to be no more hardships and fatigue. Peace
had come. There was plenty of wood ; why
should we not have huge fires lasting far into



THE DAWN OF PEACE 2/5

the night and lighting up the forest hke a
fairy -land ? Though they were no better than
the usual small fires, and not nearly as com-
fortable to sit around, they were much more
in keeping with our feelings, and in fact
served as one method by which to express
them. So the large fires we had, and shouted
with delight when the flames rolled the
highest.

The Signal Corps of the army of course had
a great amount of the material of their branch
of the service on hand, and they now joined
in making the nights resplendent. From all
the neighboring hills the rockets trailed their
fiery veils across the sky, crossing and re-
crossing with their red glare, and bursting
scattered showers of white, red, green, and
golden stars above the camps.

But just as our rejoicing was at its highest
there came flying through the camps a dark
and unbelievable rumor, yet it w^as soon sub-
stantiated, and was all too true. President
Lincoln and his Secretary of State, Hon.
William H. Seward, had both been attacked
with murderous intent. Lincoln died in a
few hours, but Seward eventually recovered.

Some years thereafter, in company with
Joel Benton, the poet and essayist, a very



276 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

pleasant time was spent with Seward in a
social visit.

A jagged and ugly-looking scar on his neck
still showed the track of the assassin's knife.
He may have seemed to us to take life quite
too seriously; but if so, what wonder? For
with all of his remarkable talents — he was
accounted by many to be the greatest states-
man of his day — his noblest ambitions
seemed to meet with nothing but disap-
pointment, and not the least of his trials was
the obloquy he was then sharing with Presi-
dent Johnson, and all through no fault of his
own. Because of the deficiencies of a man
not fitted to fill the high office of President,
but whom, as President, Seward was too
noble to desert, the blows of public censure
fell thick and fast on the devoted Secretary
of State.

It might have been more dramatically for-
tunate for him had the villain succeeded;
the two martyrs would have been enthroned
together in the memory of later generations,
and none may doubt that the stabs of the
assassin were less painful than the thrusts of
political enemies.

But history has been kinder than his con-
temporaries, and Seward is now recognized



THE DAWN OF PEACE 2/7

as the man who, more than any other one per-
son, jointly with Lincoln bore up the honor
and safety of the country through four long
years of as critical a period as any nation
ever passed through.

Yet he was not one of those great men of
whom it is written that they are "privileged
to be unprofitable companions." On the
contrary, we were received on our visit with
the greatest cordiality, and he evidently
tried to make it enjoyable to us; certainly in
this he succeeded.

Some time ago I was reminded afresh of
these incidents by finding, among the papers
of an old estate, a document of the date of
1839, which bore his official signature as
Governor of the State of New York.

As if the news of assassination was not a
sufficient dampener to our jubilant spirits,
there came trailing after, the word that the
terms of Johnston's surrender had not been
accepted at Washington, and that hostilities
would at once be resumed. Seemingly to
give it emphasis we had orders to march at
once, and packing our knapsacks again we
took our place in the marching column,
which was moving in the direction in which
the enemy was supposed to be.



278 AS SEEN EROM THE RANKS

But this last act of the war drama was
drawing rapidly to a close, and its culminating
events could not long be delayed. Before
we were given an opportunity to again come
in conflict with the Confederates another
halt was ordered, and now the news spread
that Johnston had really surrendered, this
time accepting the same terms as those ac-
corded to Lee by Grant.

At last the war was really over, but we
could not rejoice as we did at first, for there
was constantly present in our minds the
tragedy of the White House. Yet we had
become too much accustomed to tragedies to
be long depressed by them, and the army
was soon in excellent spirits again, though
public demonstrations were at an end. Soon
the orders were received for the home march,
and with faces set towards the north w^e
trudged patiently on, for there was yet a
long tramp before we should even reach
Washington.

The distance from Raleigh to Washington
does not seem very great when viewed on a
map of the United States, but it is nearly as
far as the distance we had already come from
Savannah, which had occupied the army for
two months. But the conditions of the



THE DAWN OF PEACE 279

march had more to do with it than the
distance. There no longer existed the neces-
sity for keeping the army in a defensive atti-
*tude, and the whole surromided by a strong
guard every night.

Now at night each brigade, with its wagon
train, just filed into the fields or woods, wher-
ever they happened to be when darkness
came on, and went into camp. There were
no laggards when reveille sounded in the
morning, for all were eager to push on, when
each day took us a day's march nearer home.

Occasionally the roads would become
crowded, for in the eagerness to push for-
ward which pervaded all branches of the
service, the wagons would sometimes crowd
ahead and fill the road, perhaps driving two
or three abreast. Then the infantry would
betake themselves to the fields and woods
until intercepted by a swamp. When this
happened some would crowd into the high-
way again, struggling with the mule teams
and quarrelling with the drivers, while other
regiments would make long detours, around
the swamp or to find a passage through it.

The army, as a whole, seemed to feel the
close of the war as an immense stimulus to
exertion, and the effect of the high spirits in



280 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

keeping up the physical strength was simply
wonderful. There was evident an entire in-
difference to fatigue, and we now began to
make the longest average marches of any
that we had made in the war, ordinarily cov-
ering from twenty-five to thirty-five miles per
day when there w^ere no hindrances.

But everything had to make way for the
pontoon train when it was ordered to the
front, and it would go rattling merrily past.
When it reached the place where the bridge
was needed the wagons were unloaded with
shouts and laughter, and the various parts
were put together and the bridge constructed
with a rapidity only acquired by long prac-
tice. The men whistled and sang as they
worked, for there was no danger now of in-
terruption by an unseen enemy who might
be on the other bank of the stream.

Our corps, the Twentieth, together with the
Fourteenth Corps, formed what was known
as the left wing of Sherman's army. It hap-
pened at one time on this homeward march
that the two corps were obliged to take the
same road, and there was much good-
natured rivalry as to which should have the
lead. By dint of getting started before day-
light and keeping the road so full that



THE DAWN OF PEACE 28 1

nothing could pass us we managed to keep
ahead for several days. But one night the
Fourteenth Corps must have marched all
night by some roundabout way through the
woods, and got to the main highway ahead
of us, for after we had got our usual early
start we did not go many miles before we
found they had supplanted us on that road.

There was a certain plantation where a
good-sized wagon-house stood with broad
doors to the highway. With this inviting
surface for a "canvas," some budding An-
gelo, who may have since saluted Fame, had
made a charcoal sketch, which was, to use a
comrade's expression, "As large as life and
twice as natural."

The symbolism of the picture it was not
difficult to understand; it meant that the
Twentieth Corps was not ahead on that day.
The fun of it was that from its conspicuous
position, the whole of our corps were obliged
to march past it and see it. But everything
was taken in the best of humor, and jokes,
even on ourselves, never came amiss.

We saw nothing of the paroled and scat-
tered remnants of the Confederate army on
the way, but pushed steadily forward until we
reached Richmond, crossed the river, and



282 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

passed the famous Libby Prison. Thence as
we climbed the city's seven hills and threaded
its streets we passed the house where General
Lee was then staying. He had been standing
in the front door but a short time before,
silently and sadly watching the victorious
army as it passed, but he had stepped inside
and closed the door just before we reached
that point, and the drawn curtains of the
windows gave us no glimpse of the famous
occupant within.

From Richmond our march took us over
some of the old battlefields of Virginia, first
those of the Wilderness and Spottsylvania
Court-house. The uncanny scenes presented
by these fields a year after the battles seemed
like desolation itself, though food for the
buzzards, and for the wild hogs that roam
untamed and unowned in all Southern forests,
had long since vanished. There were mounds
with sunken centres, where evidently many
had been buried together, and only slightly
covered at that, for portions of the skeletons
protruded from the soil. But there were
thousands still unburied, lying where they
fell, skeletons in belt and buckler, their white
bones peering from blue uniforms, in this
vast bivouac of the dead.



THE DAWN OF PEACE 283

" No rumor of the foe's advance

Now swells upon the wind:
No troubled thought at midnight haunts

Of loved ones left behind :
No vision of the morrow's strife

The warrior's dream alarms,
No braying horn or screaming fife

At dawn shall call to arms."

But wild Nature never mourns for man,
its subduer and raler. Birds were trilling
their springtime melodies to their mates as
ever, while the nest-building went merrily on ;
field-mice nested among the faded tatters
of blue, and perhaps anon gnawed through
the leather cartridge-box and smelled of the
mouldering powder and grease-covered leaden
balls, wondering what new products Dame
Nature had provided for her children ; while
over them all the fields and woods were being
clothed anew in blossoms and green.

Was it sodden brutality for our army to
thus leave its dead unburied? Nay, but
rather an appreciation of the realities of war,
and of the supreme necessity of devoting the
army to its prosecution, rather than to occupy
the time in covering with mould some de-
serted tenements. So these fiercely contested
fields and woods, suddenly abandoned by



284 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

both armies, were left to the kindly offices of
Nature. But it is pleasant to think that all
the remains were soon afterward removed
to the National Cemeteries near Washington.

How different all this had been conducted
under Grant from what it was at Antietam,
under McClellan, in 1862.

There were portions of these famous con-
flicts where the firing was so continuous and
heavy by both sides that large trees stand-
ing between the lines were literally cut down
by the leaden hail. I examined one tree in
particular, an oak about twenty inches in
diameter, which seemed to have been chipped
and slivered by bullets from the ground up
ten or fifteen feet, until it had finally fallen
over. How this could have been done in
regular battle I do not yet understand, but
there lay the tree prone on the ground, and
there was the mutilated stump. When I
next saw this stump, it was standing in the
Government Museum at Washington.

The battlefield of Chancellorsville also pre-
sented a similar spectacle, though it was then
the second year since that battle was fought.
It was here that a member of our brigade
found the remains of his brother where he
left him lying dead in that hasty retreat two



THE DAWN OF PEACE 285

years before. He was enabled to be certain
in the identification by some peculiarities of
the teeth.

At last we passed that sad State, once
called " The Mother of Presidents," but which
had now become world famous in ways less
to be envied, and had reached the Long
Bridge leading to Washington. Now came
the "Grand Review," as it was called, in
which the two largest armies of the war
passed in review in successive days before
the President, and before a city full of friends
and visitors. Unavoidably there was a cer-
tain incongruity, or mingling of emotions,
for the nation, while rejoicing in peace and
victory, mourned the untimely death of our
good Lincoln, and as the years rolled on there
was more and more cause to mourn the loss
of his wise and guiding hand.

Column after column passed the reviewing
stand, not with the quick and mincing steps
of militia, but with that far-reaching, swing-
ing stride which had carried its men around
and through and over the Confederacy, from
the Mississippi to the Atlantic, and north-
ward to Washington again.

As the artillery rolled along Pennsylvania
Avenue, its rumbling seemed the long-drawn



286 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

echoes of the innumerable conflicts of the
years gone by. The cavalry, with the horses'
manes clipped to the crest, rode stirrup to
stirrup with an alignment as perfect as that
of infantry, and many a nicked and stained
sabre was carried proudly to shoulder that
day.

Then followed the ambulances, with the
old blood-stained stretchers hanging on their
sides, and the rumbling of their wheels seemed
like a vast ghostly procession of the shrieks
and groans of that great host of suffering ones,
representatives of the nation's blood sacrifice,
who had ridden in them, many of them to
their last resting-places.

And so at last we passed beyond the city,
a city wreathed and draped in black, but
exultant and rejoicing as well, and went into
camp, awaiting our turn to be mustered out
of the service.



-^'^^^^^Q^^^^



CHAPTER XXVI



THE HOME-COMING



A Brief Review of the War — Regiment again at Pough-
keepsie— Only a Fragment of the Original Mem-
bership Join in the Home-Coming — An Honorable
Record — Dutchess County Welcomes its Veterans.

AS I have said, I am not writing a history
of the war. The utter futiUty of any
effort to comprehend such a thing in one
Httle volume would be seen at once by refer-
ence to the vast array of statistics on the
subject. But as columns of figures seldom
convey any adequate impression to the
understanding, let me use one illustration.

If a lecturer should attempt to describe all
the conflicts of the war, and for that purpose
should devote even one minute to each battle
or skirmish on land or sea, he would be com-
pelled to speak continuously for sixty minutes
in each hour, and six hours each day for five
287



288 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

or six days. Each of these conflicts cost
human Hves, sometimes only a few, and
sometimes several thousands.

And yet, while not writing a history of the
war, it may not be inappropriate to give a
brief resume of its progress towards its final
successful issue, in order that the reader may
keep in touch with events in the order in
which I have related them. To those in the
East who kept their gaze fixed on the armies
in Virginia, which struggled during the whole
four years most of the time in one State, the
Government seemed to be making no pro-
gress, but a comprehensive survey of the
whole field leads to different conclusions.

At the outbreak of hostilities in 1861 the
antagonists confronted each other on a line
which may be roughly outlined as following
the Potomac and Ohio rivers, and passing
through Missouri and the Indian Territory.
The remainder of the first year was mainly
occupied by both sides in making preparations
for the war, which all now saw was unavoid-
able, and the hard fighting done was incon-
siderable in comparison with that which
followed. Yet at its close most of the
Southern ports were blockaded, and the Con-
federates had been driven from that portion



THE HOME-COMING 289

of Virginia t?iat lies west of the AUeghanies.
The loyal citizens of that section immediately
made application to be separated from the
remainder of the State, which was done, and
the State of West Virginia was created.

The year 1862 saw great portions of Ken-
tucky, Tennessee, and Missouri wrested from
the enemy.

In the year 1863 the Mississippi was opened
and the only effective territory left to the
Confederac}^ was the Atlantic and Gulf States
south of the Potomac and east of the Mis-
sissippi. The Government forces had also
obtained an increased foothold at various
points on the coast. Though blood and
treasure continued to be wasted by both
combatants west of the great river, yet it
was waste in the fullest sense of the term, for
it had no eft^ect either way upon the progress
or result of the war.

In 1864 Sherman's campaign from Ten-
nessee to the coast made such wide-spread
destruction of railroads and other property
that another great piece was won from the
Confederacy, and the only effective resistance
remaining was in Virginia and the two Caro-
linas. The Southern leaders now began to
realize that their empire ambition was like



290 AS SEEN FROM THE RANKS

the prisoner in the fabled ''Iron Chamber,"
a prison cell of iron, which was so ingeniously
arranged that the sides periodically folded
and reduced the dimensions of the prison
until the unfortunate prisoner was finally
crushed in its folds.

When, therefore, in January, 1865, our
army was swung across the Savannah River
and began its devastating march northward,
it was the beginning of the end, for it was
approaching the rear of the last large army
of the Confederacy, the one then confronting
Grant in Virginia. Sherman says of this
campaign : ' ' This march was like the thinist
of a sword towards the heart of the human
body; each mile of advance swept aside all
opposition, consumed the very food on which
Lee's army depended for life, and demon-
strated a power in the National Government
which was irresistible."

On a June afternoon in 1865 there drew up
to Main Street Landing at Poughkeepsie the
steamer Mary Benton, and down her gang-
plank and up Main Street marched a body of
soldiers, bronzed and sunburned to the last
degree. It was all that remained of the
"Dutchess County Regiment."



THE HOME-COMING 29 1

It had been strengthened by the enHstment
of new men from time to time, and once a
portion of another New York regiment,
which had been disbanded, had been merged
in it. But of the whole number who marched
down Main Street with us in 1862, how
many marched up the same street in 1865, I
have not been able to ascertain, yet it was
but a small fragment of the original one
thousand.

Of the others some had been discharged
for disability, while many were still lying in
hospitals with sickness and wounds. Some
had starved in Southern prison pens, and
some, exchanged, had come home to die.
The dead were buried at Gettysburg, and in
Maryland and Virginia. Some were slain by
the rifles of guerillas in Tennessee, and from
there to Atlanta their graves form a continu-
ous line over the whole route.

A few fell in the skirmishes from Atlanta
to the sea, and more in the siege of Savannah
and the skirmishes in the Carolinas. On the
battlefields of Averysborough and Benton-
ville rest our dead, and they were buried also
from the hospitals of Alexandria, Washington,
Baltimore, Nashville, Chattanooga, King-
ston, and perhaps others.



292 AS SEE A' FROM THE RANKS

Our experience was not unusual, either in
hardships endured or the numbers lost, but
the regiment had an honorable record, having
accomplished every task assigned it, and
never once in its whole term of service did it
take part in a retreat.

The corps to which it was attached, the
Twelfth (afterw^ard designated the Twenti-
eth), had a remarkable record, for it was the
only corps in our whole army from whom the
enemy never captured a cannon or a flag.
At the grand review at the close of the war
they swept past the reviewing stand with
every gun and flag in place.

Ours was one of the few regiments that was
permitted to return and be mustered out in
its own State, and that fact drew out to
welcome us even greater crowds than had
bidden us farewell when we started for the
seat of war.

Of parading the streets, which were fairly
canopied with banners and mottoes; the
spread in the park; the tears of joy for the
living and of sorrow for the dead: all these
are incidents of peace, and may be omitted
from an account of war experiences.

THE END



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Online LibraryCharles E. (Charles Edward) BentonAs seen from the ranks; a boy in the civil war → online text (page 14 of 14)