Frank Wilkeson.

Recollections of a private soldier in the Army of the Potomac online

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Online LibraryFrank WilkesonRecollections of a private soldier in the Army of the Potomac → online text (page 1 of 13)
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Press of

G. P. Putnam's Sons

New York


•"^ROM Barracks to Front i

n^Q^Jsjl' AT Brandy Station 21


iTiiE Battle of the Wilderness . . . .55

Fighting around Spottsylvania .... 81
The Flank Movement from Spottsylvania to the

North Anna River o^

Studying Confederate Earthworks at North

Anna „o

The Battle of Cold Harbor 124

Fighting around Petersburg 153

Condition of the Army of the Potomac after

Petersburg ^^

How Men Die in Battle lo-

Early in Front of Washington .... 208
The Military Prison at Elmira . . . .220

In the Southwest 231



THE history of the fighting to suppress the
slave-holders' rebellion, thus far written,
has been the work of commanding generals. The
private soldiers who won the battles, when they
were given a chance to win them, and lost them
through the ignorance and incapacity of com-
manders, have scarcely begun to write the history
from their point of view. The two will be found
to differ materially. The epauletted history has
been largely inspired by vanity or jealousy, sav-
ing and excepting forever the immortal record,
Grant's dying gift to his countrymen, which is as
modest as it is truthful, and as just as it is modest.
Most of this war history has been written to
repair damaged or wholly ruined military repu-
tations. It has been made additionally un-
trustworthy by the jealousy which seeks to
belittle the work of others, or to falsify or ob-
scure it, in order to render more conspicu-
ous the achievements of the historians. The
men who carried the muskets, served the guns,


and rode in the saddle had no military reputa-
tions to defend or create, and they brought not
out of the war professional jealousy of their
comrades. They and they alone can supple-
ment the wonderful contribution made by Grant
to the history of the struggle to suppress the
rebellion. Who beside the enlisted men can tell
how the fierce Confederates looked and fought
behind their earthworks and in the open ; how
the heroic soldiers of the impoverished South
were clothed, armed, and fed ? Who beside our
enlisted men can or will tell their countrymen
how the volunteers who saved the republic
lived in camp ; lived in the field ; on the
march ; what they talked about ; how they
criticised the campaigns, and criticised their
officers and commanders ; how oft they hun-
gered and thirsted ; how, through parts of cam-
paigns, and through entire campaigns, they
slept unsheltered on the ground, and too often
in snow or mud ; how they fought (honor and
glory for ever and ever to these matchless war-
riors ! ) and how they died ?

I was one of these private soldiers. As one
of them, I make this my contribution to the
true history of the war. And I call on those
of my comrades in the ranks who yet survive,


in whatever part of the country they served, to
make haste to leave behind them as their con-
tributions, what they actually saw and did, and
what their commanders refused, or neglected or
failed to do. Very many of you were the equals,
and not a few of you were the superiors, of your
officers in intelligence, courage, and military
ability. Your judgment about the conduct of
the war, by reason of the vastness of your num-
ber, will have the force of public opinion. That
is almost invariably right. The opinion of the
rank and file of an army of Americans will be
equally right. The grumbling of a single soldier
at a camp fire may be unreasonable and his
criticism abusive. The criticism of 100,000
American soldiers will be absolute truth.

I am conscious of imperfect performance of
the task I set to myself in the writing of this
book. In a later edition I hope to have the
opportunity to correct my short-coming. Mod-
eration and forbearance of statement and
opinion have been my error. Occasionally I
ceased to write as a soldier in the ranks. Too
frequently I wrote as a generous narrator a
quarter of a century after the events. I ought
to have written from title-page to cover as if I
were still in the ranks. And the limited com-


pass of the book forbade the consideration of
two subjects about which I feel deeply, and
which I propose hereafter to treat with what
strength I possess. For much thinking ovei
my experience as a private in the Army of the
Potomac has confirmed me in the belief I then
entertained, that the two capital errors in the
conduct of the war on the Union side were ;

First. The calling for volunteers to suppress
the rebellion, instead of at the outset creating
armies by drawing soldiers ratably and by lot
from the able-bodied population, between the
ages of twenty and forty, of all the free States
and territories.

Second. The officering of the commands in
the various armies with West Point graduates
by preference, on the assumption that they
knew the art of war and were soldiers, and
were therefore the fittest to command soldiers.

It is my purpose in the future edition of this
book to show how the resort to volunteeringj
the unprincipled dodge of cowardly politicians,
ground up the choicest seed-corn of the nation ;
how it consumed the young, the patriotic, the
intelligent, the generous, the brave ; how it
wasted the best moral, social, and political ele-
ments of the republic, leaving the cowards.


shirks, egotists, and money-makers to stay at
home and procreate their kind ; how the Lex-
ingtons being away in the war, the production
of Lexington colts ceased.

Again, I carried out with me from the ranks,
not only the feeling, but the knowledge derived
from my own experience and from the current
history of the war, that the military salvation
of this country requires that the West Point
Academy be destroyed. Successful command-
ers of armies are not made. Like great poets
they are born. Men like Caesar, Marlborough,
Napoleon, and Grant are not the products of
schools. They occur sparingly in the course
of nature. West Point turns out shoulder-
strapped office-holders. It cannot produce
soldiers ; for these are, as I claim, born, and not
made. And it is susceptible of demonstration
that the almost ruinous delay in suppressing
the rebellion and restoring the Union ; the
deadly failure of campaigns year after year ;
the awful waste of the best soldiers the world
has seen ; and the piling up of the public debt
into the billions, was wholly due to West Point
influence and West Point commanders. They
were commanders, but they were not soldiers.

Frank Wilkeson.




I WAS a private soldier in the war to sup-
press the rebellion. I write of the life of
a private soldier. I gloss over nothing. The
enlisted men, of whom I was one, composed
the army. We won or lost the battles. I tell
how we lived, how we fought, wli^t we talked
of o' nights, of our aspirations and fears. I do
not claim to have seen all of Grant's last cam-
paign ; but what I saw I faithfully record.

The war fever seized me in 1863. All the
summer and fall I had fretted and burned to
be off. That winter, and before I was sixteen
years old, I ran away from my father's high-
lying Hudson River valley farm. I went to
Albany and enlisted in the Eleventh New York
Battery, then at the front in Virginia, and was



promptly sent out to the penitentiary building.
There, to my utter astonishment, I found eight
hundred or one thousand ruffians, closely
guarded by heavy lines of sentinels, who
paced to and fro, day and night, rifle in hand,
to keep them from running away. When I
entered the barracks these recruits gathered
around me and asked, " How much bounty
did you get ? " " How many times have you
jumped the bounty?" I answered that I had
not bargained for any bounty, that I had never
jumped a bounty, and that I had enlisted to go
to the front and fight. I was instantly assailed
with abuse. Irreclaimable blackguards, thieves,
and ruffians gathered in a boisterous circle
around me and called me foul names. I was
robbed while in these barracks of all I pos-
sessed — a pipe, a piece of tobacco and a knife.
I remained in this nasty prison for a month. I
became thoroughly acquainted with my com-
rades. A recruit's social standing in the bar-
racks was determined by the acts of villany he
had performed, supplemented by the number
of times he had jumped the bounty. The so-
cial standing of a hard-faced, crafty pickpocket,
who had jumped the bounty in say half a dozen
cities, was assured. He shamelessly boasted of


his rascally agility. Less active bounty-jump-
ers looked up to him as to a leader. He com-
manded their profound respect. When he
talked, men gathered around him in crowds
and listened attentively to words of wisdom
concerning bounty-jumping that dropped from
his tobacco-stained lips. His right to occupy
the most desirable bunk, or to stand at the head
of the column when we prepared to march to
the kitchen for our rations, was undisputed. If
there was a man in all that shameless crew who
had enlisted from patriotic motives, I did not
see him. There was not a man of them who
was not eager to run away. Not a man who
did not quake when he thought of the front.
Almost to a man they were bullies and cow-
ards, and almost to a man they belonged to
the criminal classes.

I had been in this den of murderers and
thieves for a week, when my uncle William
Wilkeson of Buffalo found me. My absence
from the farm had caused a search of the New
York barracks to be made for me. My uncle,
finding that I was resolute in my intention to
go to the front, and that I would not accept a
discharge, boy as I was, did the best thing he
could for me, and that was to vouch for me to


the major, named Van Rensselaer, I think, who
.was in charge of the barracks. He knew my
family, and when he heard that I had run away
from home to enlist, and that I would not
accept a discharge, he gave me the freedom of
the city. I had a pass which I left in charge of
the officer of the guard when not using it, be-
cause I was afraid I would be robbed of it if I
took it into the barracks. The fact of my
having a pass became known to the bounty-
jumpers, and I was repeatedly offered large
sums of money for it. In the room in which I
slept, a gang of roughs made up a pot of $1,700,
counting out the money before me, and offered
it to me if I would go out and at night put my
pass in a crack between two designated boards
that formed a portion of a high fence that sur-
rounded the penitentiary grounds. I refused
to enter into the scheme, and they attacked
me savagely, and would have beaten me, per-
haps to dea- n, if the guards, hearing the noise,
had not rushed in. Of course they swore that
I had madly assaulted them with a heavy bed
slat, and, of course, I was punished, and, equally
of cours/b, I kept my mouth shut as to the real
cause of the row, for fear that I would be mur-
dered as I slept if I exposed them. In front of


the barracks stood a high wooden horse, made
by sticking four long poles into large holes
bored into a smooth log, and then standing it
upright. Two ladders, one at each end, led up
to the round body of the wooden steed. A
placard, on which was printed in letters four
inches long the word " Fighting," was fastened
on my back. Then I was led to the rear ladder
and told to mount the horse and to shin along
to the other end, and to sit there until I was
released. The sentinel tapped his rifle signifi-
cantly, and said, earnestly : '' It is loaded. If
you dismount before you are ordered to, I shall
kill you." I believed he meant what he said,
and I did not get off till ordered to dismount.
For the first hour I rather enjoyed the ride ;
then my legs grew heavy, my knees pained
dreadfully, and I grew feverish and was very
thirsty. Other men came out of the barracks
and climbed aloft to join in the pleasure of
wooden horseback riding. They \ ughed at
first, but soon began to swear in low tones, and
to curse the days on which they were born. In
the course of three hours the log filled up, and
I dismounted to make room for a fresh offender.
The placard was taken from my back, and I
was gruffly ordered to '' get out of this." I


staggered back a few yards, stooped to rub my
lame knees, and looked at the gang who were
sadly riding the wooden horse. Various words
were printed on the cards that were fastened to
their backs, but more than half of them an-
nounced that the bearers were thieves.

On my urgent solicitation Major Van Rens-
selaer promised to ship me with the first de-
tachment of recruits going to the front. One
cold afternoon, directly after the ice had gone
out of the Hudson River, we were ordered out
of the barracks. We were formed into ranks,
and stood in a long, curved line i,ooo rascals
strong. We were counted, as was the daily
custom, to see if any of the patriots had
escaped. Then, after telling us to step four
paces to the front as our names were called,
the names of the men who were to form the
detachment were shouted by a sergeant, and
we stepped to the front, one after another, un-
til 600 of us stood in ranks. We were marched
to the barracks, and told to pack our knapsacks
as we were to march at once. The 400 recruits
who had not been selected were carefully
guarded on the ground, so as to prevent their
mingling with us. If that had happened, some
of the recruits who had been chosen would


have failed to appear at the proper time. The
idea was that if we were kept separate, all the
men in the barracks, all outside of the men
grouped under guard, would have to go. Be-
fore I left the barracks I saw the guards roughly
haul straw-littered, dust-coated men out of mat-
resses, which they had cut open and crawled
into to hide. Other men were jerked out of
the water-closets. Still others were drawn by
the feet from beneath bunks. One man, who
had burrowed into the contents of a water-tight
swill-box, which stood in the hall and into
which we threw our waste food and cofTee slops,
was fished out, covered with coffee grounds and
bits of bread and shreds of meat, and kicked
down stairs and out of the building. Ever after
I thought of that soldier as the hero of the
swill-tub. Cuffed, prodded with bayonets, and
heartily cursed, we fell into line in front of the
barracks. An officer stepped in front of us and
said in a loud voice that any man who at-
tempted to escape would be shot. A double
line of guards quickly took their proper posi-
tions around us. We were faced to the right
and marched through a room, where the men
were paid their bounties. Some men received
$500, others less ; but I heard of no man who


received less than $400. I got nothing. As
the men passed through the room they were
formed into column by fours. When all the
recruits had been paid, and the column formed,
we started to march into Albany, guarded by a
double line of sentinels. Long before we ar-
rived at State Street three recruits attempted
to escape. They dropped their knapsacks and
fled wildly. Crack ! crack ! crack ! a dozen
rifles rang out, and what had been three men
swiftly running were three bloody corpses. The
dead patriots lay by the roadside as we marched
by. We marched down State Street, turned to
the right at Broadway, and marched down that
street to the steamboat landing. Previous to
my enlistment I had imagined that the popu-
lation of Albany would line the sidewalks to
see the defenders of the nation march proudly
by, bound for the front, and that we would be
cheered, and would unbend sufficiently to ac-
cept floral offerings from beautiful maidens.
How was it ? No exultant cheers arose from
the column. The people who saw us did not
cheer. The faces of the recruits plainly ex-
pressed the profound disgust they felt at the
disastrous outcome of what had promised to be
a remunerative financial enterprise. Small boys


derided us. Mud balls were thrown at us.
One small lad, who was greatly excited by the
unwonted spectacle, rushed to a street corner,
and after placing his hands to his mouth, yelled
to a distant and loved comrade: '' Hi, Johnnie,
come see de bounty-jumpers!" He was
promptly joined by an exasperating, red-headed,
sharp-tongued little wretch, whom I desired to
destroy long before we arrived at the steam-
boat landing. Men and women openly laughed
at us. Fingers, indicative of derision, were
pointed at us. Yes, a large portion of the
populace of Albany gathered together to see
us; but they were mostly young males, called
guttersnipes. They jeered us, and were ex-
ceedingly loth to leave us. It was as though
the congress of American wonders were parad-
ing in the streets preparatory to aerial flights
under tented canvas.

Once on the steamboat, we were herded on
the lower deck, where freight is usually carried,
like cattle. No one dared to take ofT his knap-
sack for fear it would be stolen. Armed sen-
tinels stood at the openings in the vessel's sides
out of which gangplanks were thrust. Others
were stationed in the bows ; others in the dark
narrow passage-ways where the shaft turns ;


still others were on the decks. We were hemmed
in by a wall of glistening steel. '' Stand back,
stand back, damn you! " was the only remark
the alert-eyed, stern-faced sentinels uttered, and
the necessity of obeying that command was
impressed on us by menacing bayonets.
Whiskey, guard-eluding whiskey, got in. Bot-
tles, flasks, canteens, full of whiskey, circulated
freely among us, and many men got drunk.
There was an orgie on the North River steamer
that night, but comparatively a decent one. In
spite of the almost certain death sure to ensue
if a man attempted to escape, two men jumped
overboard. I saw one of these take off his
knapsack, loosen his overcoat and then sit down
on his knapsack. He drew a whiskey flask from
an inner pocket and repeatedly stimulated his
courage. He watched the guards who stood by
the opening in the vessel's side intently. At
last they turned their heads for an instant. The
man sprang to his feet, dropped his overcoat
and ran to the opening and jumped far out into
the cold waters of the river. Instantly the
guards began to fire. Above us, in front of us,
at our sides, behind us, wherever guards were
stationed, there rifles cracked. But it was ex-
ceeding dark on the water, and I believe that


the deserter escaped safely. Early in the morn-
ing, before it was light, I again heard firing. I
was told that another recuit had jumped over-
board and had been killed.

In this steamboat were two mysterious men
clad in soldiers' clothing, whom I had not seen
until after we left Albany. Their appearance
was so striking, they were so alert and quick- > _.
eyed, so out of place among us, that my atten- f ^^
tion was attracted to them. One of these menf '. " -^
was an active, trim built, dark-eyed, blacl*^ | ^
haired, handsome fellow of 25 years. The other S \ Q^
was a stocky, red-faced blonde of about 36^^ PQ
They moved quickly among the recruits. They\ii. ^
made pleasant, cheerful remarks to almost every'^^V^^
man on the steamboat. They told stories
which were greatly enjoyed by the recruits who
heard them. ^' Where did those two men join
us ? Where did they come from, and who are
they ?" were questions I musingly asked my-
self over and over and over again, as I sat on
my knapsack in a corner. Finally I walked to
a guard and asked who they were. He eyed me
suspiciously for an instant, and then furiously
answered : '' Stand back, you bounty-jumping
cur ! " and he lunged at me with his bayonet as
though to thrust me through. I stood back,


and then I sat down on my knapsack in a cor-
ner and wondered musingly if I were a patriot
or simply a young fool.

Morning came, and we disembarked in New
York, and were marched, still heavily guarded,
to the low, white barracks, which then stood
where the post-office now stands. There we
were securely penned and decently fed. The
men fretted and fumed, and burned to escape.
Many of them had previously jumped bounties
in New York. They knew the slums of the
city. They knew w^iere to hide in safety.
Dozens of them said that if they could get out
of the barracks they would be safe. But they
could not get out. This time they were going
to the front. The officers and men, in whose
charge we were, were resolute in their intention
to deliver one consignment of bounty-jumpers
to the commands they belonged to. That
afternoon five days' cooked rations were issued
to us, and we were escorted by a heavy double
line of guards down Broadway to the Battery.
There we turned to march along a street that
led to a dock where an ocean steamer lay. The
head of the column was opposite the dock, when
four recruits shed their knapsacks and ran for
the freedom they coveted. One of these men


marched two files in front of me. He dashed
past the guard, who walked by my side, at the
top of his speed. Not a word was said to him.
The column halted at command. The guard
near me turned on his heels quickly, threw his
heavy rifle to his shoulder, covered the running
man, and shot him dead. Two of the remain-
ing three fell dead as other rifles cracked. The
fourth man ran through the shower of balls
safely. I thought he was going to escape ; but
a tall, lithe officer ran after him, pistol in hand.
He overtook the fugitive ju&t as he was about
to turn a street corner. He made no attempt
to arrest the deserter, but placed his pistol to
the back of the runaway's head and blew his
brains out as he ran. The dead man fell in a
pile at the base of a lamp-post. That ended
all attempts to escape. We marched on board
the steamer, a propeller, and descended narrow
stairs to between decks, where the light was
dim and the air heavy with a smell as of damp
sea-weed. There were three large hatches,
freight hatches probably, in the deck above us,
through which the heavy, cold, outside air sank,
and through which three systems of draughty,
sneeze-provoking ventilation were established
as soon as the air in the hold became heated.


Tobacco smoke arose from hundreds of pipes
and cheap cigars, and the air grew hazy. At
short distances the forms of men Avere indis-
tinct and phantom-Hke. In this space were
about 600 men. False history and dishonest
Cons^ressmen who desire to secure re-election
by gifts of public money and property to voters,
say they were brave Northern youth going to
the defence of their country. I, who know,
say they were as arrant a gang of cowards,
thieves, murderers, and blacklegs as were ever
gathered inside the Avails of Newgate or Sing

Money was plentiful and whiskey entered
through the steamer's ports, and the guards
drove a profitable business in selling canteens
full of whiskey at $5 each. Promptly the hold
was transformed into a floating hell. The air
grew denser and denser with tobacco smoke.
Drunken men staggered to and fro. They
yelled and sung and danced, and then they
fought and fought again. Rings were formed,
and within them men pounded each other
fiercely. They rolled on the slimy floor and
howled and swore and bit and gouged, and the
delighted spectators cheered them to redouble
their efforts. Out of these fights others sprang


into life, and from these still others. The noise
was horrible. The wharf became crowded with
men eager to know what was going on in the
vessel. A tug was sent for, and we were towed
into the river, and there the anchors were
dropped. Guards ran in on us and beat men
with clubbed rifles, and were in turn attacked.
We drove them out of the hold. The hatch at the
head of the stairs was closed and locked. The
recruits were maddened with whiskey. Dozens
of men ran a muck, striking every one they came

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Online LibraryFrank WilkesonRecollections of a private soldier in the Army of the Potomac → online text (page 1 of 13)