Charles E. (Charles Edward) Benton.

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

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upon relating my experience I was comforted
by the assurance that I had been fortunate,
for I might have been picked up by Confed-
erate scouts, who were supposed to be watch-
ing our army from every favorable peak of
that range.

It was a whole month after the battle of
Gettysburg before we reached the Rappa-
hannock at Kelley's Ford, and here we estab-
lished a more permanent camp. We were no
longer the clean and handsome regiment of a
few weeks before, whose dress parades were
the delight of the Baltimore belles. This
first campaign in the midsummer of an un-
usually hot season had been very trying, and
we were foot-sore and tired, thin in flesh and
ragged in clothes. The novelty of soldiering
was gone and our line was sadly shortened
by death and sickness, and now we were
beset by the malarial fever of those lowlands,
which proved more deadly, in the worn down


condition of the regiment, than the enemy's
bullets had been.

The river here is a deep-flowing stream of
considerable breadth, with a strength of cur-
rent that made it impracticable for rapid and
easy fording, hence it formed a natural front
for the army. We were now some distance
from the mountains, whose blue outlines
formed the western horizon and suggested at
once where they got the name, " Blue Ridge,"
and the country about us was level or rolling
in its general character, but without any con-
siderable elevations. With the habit of my
life my first estimate was from the agricul-
tural standpoint, and from this view Vir-
ginia (then and later when I tramped it from
end to end) w^as a disappointment. With
the verdant fields of Dutchess in my mind,
these old lands, most of them with little or
no grass, looked desolate indeed.

Under the system of farming in vogue in
the slave States, they had been depleted of
the wealth of fertility which was there
when the country was new, and nothing had
been done to restore it. When fields had been
thus reduced beyond the profit limit they
were left to themselves, when nature imme-
diately took charge and began a system of



restoration by planting a thick growth of
pines which soon covered the plundered soil
with forest again.

Once in several miles would be found a
planter's residence. Most of them were
plain wooden structures, no better in any
respect than farmhouses in the north, and
generally not as good. But that whole
country had been ridden over, tramped over,
and fought over by the contending armies
for two years ; and fences, being the favorite
material for camp-fires, had disappeared,
while many — so many — homesteads were
marked only by stark chimneys standing
lonesome guard over the family cemetery.

Most of the plantation houses which re-
mained were occupied, but no white men
were to be seen, only women and a few
negroes. The men were doubtless in the
Confederate service, but the lot of their fam-
ilies was a hard one at the best, and bitterly
though they hated us, and probably played
the spy on every opportunity, yet in the in-
terests of humanity our commanders did
what they could to prevent them from being
disturbed in their homes.

The midsummer weather was excessively
sultry during the day, but with the coming of


night „the water sprites rose from the river in
the form of a mist which spread over the
land, seeming to chill us to the very bones.
The great increase of sickness caused a
change to be made ; we were moved from our
open field camp on the river to a pine-covered
hill a mile back, and here we suffered less
from the fever-breeding night chill of the
river bottom-lands.

The men had now begun to learn that to
become veterans required something more
than to endure hardships. It required a
patient learning of sanitary camp and cam-
paign methods, especially those of systematic
and thorough cleanliness. This may sound
strange to the reader who has noted that in
our daily marches we had been alternately
immersed in mud and dust, but it is never-
theless true that it is almost impossible to
maintain any degree of health in campaign-
ing unless every opportunity is improved to
make the body and all its surroundings clean.
We soon learned, too, that it is not well in
that malarial country to sleep on the ground
when it can be avoided. In this camp we
set crotches, and with saplings for bed-slats
and pine boughs for mattresses we had beds
a foot or so from the ground. Defective


culinary education was probably also re-
sponsible for much sickness.

Yet, despite all the precautions the Medical
Director could suggest, or the Colonel could
have carried out, the sick list was very large.

In connection with our stay at this camp
there was a curious incident which deserves
to be recorded. Among the sick was Albert
Reed of my own company. His father, the
late Newton Reed, learning that he was sink-
ing, hastened to Washington, and procuring
a pass to enter the lines took the railroad to
Bealton, then its limit. Here he secured
permission to ride on an army baggage wagon
some ten miles farther. Finding himself still
some miles from our camp, he inquired the
direction and struck across the fields on foot.
As he passed to the rear of an old plantation
house he came to the family cemetery, and
his eye was caught by a familiar name ; paus-
ing, he read :

"Anna Maria Taylor.
Born in Amenia, N. Y."

In my early childhood Miss Taylor was a
near neighbor. She was a young woman of
excellent qualities of mind and character, and


she cherished a noble ambition, quite in ad-
vance of her time, to do something for her-
self and make her way in the world. With
this in view she completed her education at
the Amenia (N. Y.) Seminary, then one of
the best educational institutions open to
women. Soon afterward she was offered and
accepted an engagement as teacHer in the
family of a Virginia planter. In her new
surroundings she made many friends, but she
sickened and died before the war, probably
never dreaming that dozens of her school-
mates and friends would camp within sight
of her grave, and I deem it a most singular
coincidence that her neighbor and personal
friend should have found it in such an un-
expected manner.

Since then a still more striking coincidence
has come to my knowledge. Just before the
war a young German, John Lauth by name,
came to this country and made it his home
for a time with his married sister, who was a
near neighbor of Miss Taylor's mother. Upon
the breaking out of the war he took the field
in defence of his new-found country, enlist-
ing in a New York regiment. In August,
1862, his sister received a letter from him in
which the following incident was related.


His regiment, then in Virginia, had been
engaged in a sharp skirmish with the enemy.
His company's position was such that he was
in a small cemetery plot near a plantation
house, and directly in front of him was one of
the marble slabs. During the engagement
the man on his right was killed, and the one
on his left was mortally wounded. The lat-
ter gave his expensive gold watch to Lauth,
and told him to keep it in remembrance of
their friendship. But the young German,
unaccustomed to American usages and not
knowing whether he would be permitted to
keep it, nor, in fact, whether he might not be
made a prisoner before the conflict was ended,
with his bayonet dug a hole next the stone
and wrapping the watch in an old handker-
chief buried it there. After the fight was
over he went to the front of the stone in order
to be able to identify the place. First he
noticed that a bullet, probably intended for
himself, had flattened against it. Then he
copied the inscription as follows :

" Taylor,

Born in Amenia, N. Y."

Even the gravestone of the Northern girl



had seemed to stand in silent protest, stop-
ping the bullet aimed at the Northern soldier.
Lauth's sister related these facts to Mrs.
Taylor (the letter was written in German),
and thus twice during the war did the wid-
owed mother receive a message from her
daughter's grave in the Southland.

It only remains to be added that Mr.
Lauth returned to Virginia after the war and
secured the watch, which he still has.



Forward to the Rapidan — A Military Execution, and
how it was Conducted — Moved to the Western
Army — Incidents on the Way — Guarding Rail-
road in Tennessee — Topography of the State.

IT was a tedious x\ugust and September that
we passed in Virginia. The Rappahan-
nock was our front, and daily there sat on his
horse the enemy's picket, in plain view of
our camp. It seemed that nothing was
being done. But all unknown to us a new
element had taken control of the war. The
Vicksburg campaign had shown Grant to be
possessed of military talents of the highest
order. The Mississippi "flowed un vexed to
the sea" once more, and his forces were even
then marching to the relief of the beleaguered
Chattanooga and Knoxville. The crisis of
disaster was past and the march to victory



begun, though there was still a year and a
half of the bloodiest months of the war to

One day, in the cooler air of autumn, there
was a stir and bustle in camp, rumors of
something to be done, and soon it became
known that we had marching orders. Great
scows were floated out and anchored in a line
across the river, and timbers laid in succes-
sion from one to the other were covered with
plank, forming in an hour an army pontoon
bridge. It was strong enough to sustain
the heaviest artillery, but danced and swayed
in the current in a way quite bewildering to
horses unaccustomed to such things. Soon
there was pouring across for hours in succes-
sion a solid column of men, horses, wagons,
and cannon. But we moved only a few
miles south and again went into camp, this
time on the north bank of the Rapidan, at
Raccoon Ford.

It was while at this place that we witnessed
a military execution, one of the very few that
I saw. For military offences the penalty
provided, in a majority of cases, is "death,
or such other punishment as a court-martial
may determine." In this case the court-
martial had imposed the extreme penalty for


desertion. It was an aggravated case for it
was the third offence and was ' ' in the face
of the enemy." It was deemed necessary,
therefore, to make it an example.

One forenoon we received the order, ' ' Fall
in without knapsacks," and were marched to
a broad, open field. Here the division was
formed on three sides of a hollow square. On
the fourth side there was a new grave and
beside it stood a coffin — a rough pine box.
The guard came marching in with the culprit
accompanied by the chaplain. He was
placed facing the grave, with the coffin be-
tween. We were not near enough to hear
what was said, but we presently saw the firing
detail arranged on the other side of the
chasm. Then the prisoner was blindfolded
and the guard withdrew, and after a little
time the chaplain walked slowly to one side.

There was a pause of suspense, and in an-
other moment the poor fellow was suddenly
hidden from view by a cloud of smoke from
the guns, while the crash of the volley, rolling
back in solemn echoes from the forest, was his
only requiem, and the tragedy was ended.
But from a military point of view this was
not sufficient; the execution was for moral
effect, and the troops must have their object-


lesson completed. So the corpse was ar-
ranged in the coffin, with the clothing opened
on the breast to show the ghastly bullet
holes, and the whole division was marched
past, parting ranks and passing on each side
of the remains. Then the bands, which had
played dead marches in the assembling,
struck up quick-step tunes and we marched
away to the camp by lively music.

In after conversation with the men I
learned some of the details of these execu-
tions. The American citizen soldier was of
so different a character from the European
model, that to get him to play the role of
executioner of his comrades was not always
easy, and the exercise of some ingenuity was
necessary in order to accomplish it. As a
rule he w^as not afraid of his officers, and was
not abashed or humble in their presence.
While he submitted to military discipline as
a necessary part of the service, both the priv-
ates and officers knew that their relative
positions were but temporary at the best.
To be coldly selected for the task would be
considered a degradation, and would awaken
a feeling of animosity that no officer liked to
kindle against himself, for privates some-
times have w^ays of getting even.


So the detail, in order to give an appear-
ance of perfect impartiality, were selected by
lot. Even then they were not permitted to
load the guns themselves, but they were
loaded beforehand and brought to them.
Half of them were loaded with ball and the
remainder with blank cartridges, so that even
in the firing each might think that perhaps
his own shot was a blank; that perhaps he
did not really take the life after all.

After remaining in this camp for a week,
we again strapped our knapsacks and this
time marched northward for several days
until we came to the railroad. Here we
loaded into freight cars at the rate of fifty to
the car, and sped on northward over Long
Bridge and through the city of Washington,
— then scarce a prophecy of its present self,
— and away westward by the Baltimore &
Ohio Railroad. Our course took us past
Harper's Ferry again, — haunted by its al-
ready historic tragedies, — where the river
which we saw a few hours before floating a
navy on its calm bosom here assumes the
role of a roaring giant as it dashes through
the narrow gorge, where it so abruptly deserts
the Cumberland Valley.

We followed up the river, which, as we


Sped on, changed its character with the con-
summate skill of a harlequin. From the
foaming main it changed to the peaceful
expanse flowing between brown meadow
banks ; then shrunk to a creek, the creek to
a mountain torrent, and the torrent to a
brook which was finally lost to view, and
presently we found ourselves gliding down
the western slope of the Alleghanies and
speeding away through the endless corn-
fields of Ohio and Indiana to Indianapolis.
Thence our course was southward through
Kentucky and Tennessee, until we finally
disembarked in the northern edge of Ala-

It must not be supposed that our train was
an express, either in its equipment or its
method of travel, and the journey was by no
means as brief as my description of it might
lead one to suppose, for it had consumed
more than a week. To move an army a
thousand miles by rail, mostly over single-
tracked roads that are doing other business
at the same time, was a ponderous task that
must have taxed the executive ability of both
government officers and railroad men, for
ours was but one in a long succession of trains.
Sometimes we would be side-tracked for


hours at a time, and I do not think a day
passed in which our train was not halted
an hour or two somewhere near woods and
fields. This gave us an opportunity to do a
little cooking, and if a convenient creek was
at hand hundreds of naked forms would soon
be seen glistening in the sunlight, for the men
were eager now to improve every opportun-
ity to bathe.

But the scenery was not all of the charac-
ter of fields and woods, for we sometimes
came to great rivers, and ever and anon the
train trundled through city streets where our
eyes, so long Hmited to scenes of camp and
field, would be refreshed by the glad sight of
ladies and children in holiday attire, attracted
by the novel sight of freight trains loaded,
both in the cars and on top as well, with sol-

We reached the Ohio River at Ben wood,
four miles below Wheeling, and here we dis-
embarked and crossed the river on a pon-
toon bridge to a train we found in waiting
on the other side. At Zanesville, Ohio, there
was an incident which, though trivial in it-
self, managed to linger in the memory, per-
haps because of its suggested but unrevealed
background of possible tragedy.


The train had halted, and at the risk of
being left behind I walked and ran a mile to
the market to secure something appetizing.
Attracted by some fresh-looking water-
melons I selected two, but when about to pay
for them I was anticipated by a lady who
stood near, though she had not spoken to me
before. I thanked her, but assured her that
I had plenty of money for present needs, but
she would not be refused, and as she still in-
sisted I could not do otherwise than acqui-
esce. She was pleasant and ladylike in her
appearance, dressed in the deepest black, and
in age I judged was on that vague neutral
ground called "middle life." But what im-
pressed me most was that over her pale, re-
fined face there flitted never the ghost of a
smile, even when I bade her good-by.

The act of good-will towards a Union
soldier, the dress of deep mourning, and the
sorrow-imprinted face; what was the story
behind it all? I never knew.

When we reached Zenia we found a condi-
tion of organized enthusiasm in the town,
which was made evident by a band of ladies
that passed along the train as soon as it
halted, armed with packages which they dis-
tributed among us. Each package contained


a sandwich and some added delicacies, and
lest the food should not prove to be a suffi-
cient indication of their good-will, as soon as
the distribution was completed they collected
in a body on the platform at the station and
sang patriotic airs as the train moved out.

The novelty of the ride, and the ever-
changing scenery and experiences as we sped
along, was refreshing after our dreary round
of duties in the Virginia camps, and the ba-
rometer of regimental spirits rose perceptibly.
This mountain region of Northern Alabama,
where we had finally disembarked, with its
springs and cascades, its mountain valleys
and towering crags, and the deep-flowing,
silent, and majestic Tennessee River, was in
striking contrast to the desolate sun-baked
plains we had just left. We had been more
than a week on the road, and now began a
series of marchings to and fro and up and
down the railroad, seemingly following order-
less orders and undirected directions.

But I have no doubt that all this rest-
less moving about from point to point was
deemed necessary, for— though we in the
ranks did not know it — we were not far from
a vigilant enemy, and it was necessary to
keep an active lookout at a time when there


was necessarily much confusion attendant
upon unloading such quantities of troops and
stores. In time, order was evolved out of
chaos, and the two army corps transported
from the Army of the Potomac were once
more on their feet and able to take the offen-
sive or defensive at a moment's notice.

Our division (the First) was now detached
from its corps (the Twelfth), marched north-
ward into Middle Tennessee, and posted along
the railroad leadine: from Nashville to Chat-
c\''tanooga, to guard it from "guerillas," wan-
c^ dering bands of lawless men who were not
^ enlisted in any army. Their object was
usually robbery, and they employed the
methods of assassins and incendiaries. The
remainder of the corps pushed on to
the vicinity of Chattanooga, and there par-
ticipated in the victories of Missionary
Ridge and Lookout Mountain.

Those who are interested in these vagrant
recollections will be well repaid by a brief
glance at the map to refresh their memories in
reference to the locality of which I wrj^. Ten-
nessee is bounded on the east by a pqjf ion of
the Alleghany Mountains, while the Cui
land Mountains divide the State fromQc
east to southwest. Between these paj^




ridges of the Appalachian range Hes the valley
known as "East Tennessee," with Chatta-.
nooga at its southern extremity. The Ten-
nessee River, flowing southward across the
State in East Tennessee, washes the base of
Lookout Mountain, which stands in Georgia.
At this point it turns westward and begins its
tortuous course by which it makes its way
through the Cumberland Mountains, passing
through Alabama, carving a corner from
Mississippi, and again crossing Tennessee to
the north.

This breaking through the mountains by
the great river made a natural highway for
armies, for near the southern part of East
Tennessee are also the headwaters of the
Oostenaula River, flowing southward, and
hence Chattanooga became known as a point
of strategic importance, the "gateway to the
Confederacy." In November, 1863, there
were great struggles for the possession of this
point, which became known as the battles of
Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, and
the gatew^ay became ours from that time on.



The Country was Then New — Characteristics of the
Natives — Did n't Know the Flag — Leaves from
an Old Magazine — The Regiment Makes its Own
Bread — Interviewing Confederate Prisoners.

MIDDLE Tennessee has a fine rolling sur-
face resting on limestone formation.
I shall always remember its pleasant little
valleys, divided by rocky ridges full of minia-
ture caves, affording the greatest variety and
beauty of landscape. It was then essen-
tially a new country, and there were miles
and miles of stately forest unshorn by the
axe, where wild turkey and deer were still
abundant, and that truly antipodean quad-
ruped, the opossum, was plentiful and
toothsome. Our headquarters for the win-
ter was in the little hamlet of Normandy, of



which one of the boys wrote in his home letter
as follows :

"Normandy is a little village which formerly
supported a store, blacksmith's shop, and fifty or
sixty hounds, besides cur dogs too numerous to

This pithy sentence seems to give an illum-
inating view of the outward aspect of the
place, and if I quote a little further from the
same letter it will serve to show one at least
of the characteristics of the rising generation
in that Tennessee village. The letter con-
tinues as follows:

"The use of tobacco by the native population
here is astonishing, even to a soldier, especially
when we see the other sex chew 'navy plug'
while they mix bread; or indulge in smoking,
varied by rubbing snuff on the gums. A boy
from back in the country stayed with us one
night, who called himself thirteen years old. As
we sat around the fire in the evening he asked
for a ' chaw.' After one had been given him and
he had placed it in the aching void we asked
him how long he had used the article.

"'Wall,' said he, 'I reckon as how I've used
it about ten year.' Let no one hereafter call
nicotine a poison."


These neighbors of ours were the typical
farmers of Middle Tennessee; quite a differ-
ent class by the way from the blue-grass
landlord of Kentucky with his thousands of
acres, or the cotton planter of Alabama who
numbered his slaves by hundreds. Some or
most of them had probably been in the Con-
federate service, but they took good care not
to mention it to us, and our relations re-
mained pleasant and neighborly throughout
the winter.

But with them the national thought had
been so little cultivated that they were not
even familiar with the nation's flag. One of
them asked one day if the ' ' blue spot in the
corner" was "suthen new." "Reckon I
do'n' remember to have seen it befo'." Any-
where else such infantile ignorance would
have excited suspicion at once as being an
attempt at guying. But to suspect one of
those stolid and ignorant Tennessee farmers
of such talent for humor would be inadmis-
sible. No, the truth was that they had prob-
ably never seen a United States flag before
the arrival of our troops, for before the war
our flag was seldom seen in the South outside
the cities.

A curious sidelight is thrown on this atti-


tude of the South towards the nation years
before the war, by an article which strangely
travelled around until it finally reached the
person about whom it was written. During
the winter of our stay there an expedition

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Online LibraryCharles E. (Charles Edward) BentonAs seen from the ranks; a boy in the civil war → online text (page 5 of 14)