John Harrison Mills.

Chronicles of the Twenty-first regiment New York state volunteers: embracing ... online

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When informed, in terms more forcible than choice, that a
single spark applied to one of those exposed fuses, ' would
considerably hasten their anticipated expedition to " Canaan," " or
words to that effect," they turned pale, almost, and abandoned that
base of operations with commendable haste, thus declaring their
preference of the " overland route " to a short cut in the direction
referred to.

We pitched our tents upon a kind of natural terrace in front of
the mansion, the finest camping ground it had yet been our lot to
occupy. Below us spread like a map the scene of thp late battle,
to the far East the eye swept a boutidless expanse of undulating,
forest tufted country, while Northward, and to the West, the dim,
cloudlike ranges of the Blue Ridge and Bull Run Mountains, with
here and there a sharply defined peak standing out boldly by itself,
bounded the vision. The landscape was heavenly in its beauty,
most so at sunset, when the Western sky, blazoned with glory, tinted
the woods and hills, and masses of brown and gray shadow relieved
the outline of rocky piles with their matchless broidery of foliage,
and nestled softly in the valleys, while but for the lines of blue, and
glittering steel, visible here and there upon the plain, and the tap
of drum and scream of fife at " retreat," nothing told of war and
carnage, and all was serenely and gloriously beautiful.

There we passed a few pleasant days, enjoying the deceitful
calm, regardless of what it presaged. This was one of the green
spots in our desert, one of those pages in the record of every
soldier, where memory turns down the leaf, and to which in '
retrospective moments we all love to turn back. For this was one
of the last of our camping places before death moved many a good
comrade to his last bivouac.

By the morning of the i8th of August, General Pope became
satisfied that nearly the whole force of the enemy from Richmond
was assembled in his front, along the South side of the Rapidan,
and extending from Raccoon Ford to Liberty Mills. Our cavalry
had captured, on the i6th, near Louisa Court House, the Adjutant
General of the rebel Stuart, who himself narrowly escaped. Among
the papers taken was an autograph letter of General Robert Lee, to
General Stuart, dated Gordonsville, August 15th, which manifested
the position and force of the enemy, and their determination to fall
upon and overwhelm us before any portion of McClellan's peninsular
army could reinforce us.

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On the 1 8th, it became apparent to General Pope, that this
advanced position with the small force under his command, was no
longer tenable, in the face of the overwhelming forces of the enemy,
and he determined, accordingly, to withdraw behind the
Rappahannock with all speed, and, as he had been instructed, to
defend as far as practicable the line of that river.

Clouds of dust, rising above the forests on our left, had told us
on that morning of a movement among Reno's forces ; but we little
thought that the retreat from this blood bought position had already
begun. At that moment his trains were already on their way to
the Rappahannock, while hi» whole corps, with the exception of the
cavalry left at Raccoon Ford to cover the movement, would soon
follow. During the day, rumors of the intended retreat, rumors
which had been idly circulating for days past, but which no one
cared to believe, gained credit ; and finally, when we learned that
General Banks had already dispatched his trains (by way of
Brandy Station), and that ours of the third division were preparing
to follow them, all doubt was at an end. Then we were ordered to
prepare for a forced march, knapsacks were packed, everything
superfluous rejected, rations of hard bread and coflee stowed away
in our haversacks, with a trifling quantity of bacon, and it only
remained to strike and pack the tents. In the warmth of the
summer afternoon the men stood in little groups discussing the news
of the hour, or wandered aimlessly around the spot soon to be
relinquished to the foe, or hurried to the spring for a last supply of
fresh water. At last came the tap of the drum and the bugle call
for parade, and, while the lines was being formed, came the order
to ** strike tents ; " already the troops were gathering in masses at
the foot and rear of the mountain, awaiting the hour when the trains
should be safely in the distance, to take the same route.

Slowly down the mountain side, in the full blaze of the setting
sun our column took its way, then halted, closed up in column by
division, stacked arms, and settled down upon the plain to wait for the
darkness. The sun went down in what seemed a broken mountain
of fire, with a sea of blood at its foot, and then darkness hid the
horizon, and the hills, and the woods ; and we could only hear the
hum of the thousands overlying the plain.

Soon a camp fire twinkles in the distance, then another, and
another, and now they multiply as though a detachment of vagrant
stars, wandering inland from the horizon, were making their bivouac
with us. And now they cover the plain as far as the eye can reach,

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the more distant glimmering dimly through the smoke, which lifts
lazily in the damp night air ; men magnified into shadowy giants
pass and repass before them, and phantom horsemen seem to stalk

Near us, in an orchard, barrels of salt beef stands where they
were unloaded, the wagons have gone, and we help ourselves, for
what we leave will fall into the hands of those whom we do not care
to feed. Over some of the fires are huge kettles, brought from the
neighboring farm houses, and around others are groups of men,
watching their tin cups, in which a savory morsel is boiling and
steaming, and slowly attaining a condition of gastronomic
practicability. Others are making coffee, and along the line of
stacked muskets, with knapsacks for pillows, and swathed in blankets
begemmed with fallen dew, lie rows of sleepers, dreamless as those
whose covering is the emerald sod. But many are sleepless, for
the hour seems made for thought, and coming events perhaps cloud
not a few of the dark faces around these fires ; others beguile the
hour with song and jest, but chiefly song ; and what so likely as
that the singers should choose old themes, fragments from many
past happy hours, and that many a soldier listener should silently
turn his face from the light, with something upon his cheek heavier
than the night dew. How many of us will look back to this, as the
last social hour passed with some one who watches by no more
earthly camp fires !

At twelve, a scarcely apparent stir passed like a wave across
the fields; there is a subdued bustle as of preparation, and the
lowering fires flare up brightly. The retreat has begun. The fires
are replenished and multiplied to deceive the wary watchers who
may chance to be in our front, * and silently as possible, " left in
firont,'* the column begins to form and move away into the darkness.
The sleepers are roused from under the stacks with a few judicious
kicks and shakes, and rise to their places without a question. But
our time is not yet come, so again we stack arms, and lie down. All
night men are rising by regiments, and moving silendy and swiftly
to their place in the line and passing to the rear, and when the
morning dawns they are not yet all gone. So we cook our
breakfast, and eat it, and smoke, and lie around, and make ourselves

♦ We afterwards learned that the advance guard of the enemy, took our brightening fires and
other demonstrations, for the signs of an intended advance against them, and immediately fell back
five miles to a stronger position. To this fact we owe the accomplishment of the unmolested retreat
of the main force to our new line.

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as comfortable as though we were not a rear guard, ^ waiting for the
line to get out of our way, and a hot-footed enemy coming
somewhere between us and the sun.

At about nine o'clock-, we again fall in, sling knapsacks, "take '"
arms, and bid good-bye to Cedar Mountain.

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A weary march. — Night, and a halt. — No postponement on account of the weather, — Behind the
Rappahannock. — The Buffalo at bay. — Battle of the 21st of August. — Guarding fords by
night. — A demoralized contraband. — March to Warrenton.

THIS was Tuesday, and the 19th day of August, on which we
took our place in the rear of our division, and followed on
toward the Rappahannock. Weariness, trial and suffering were
before us ; all knew it and husbanded their resources. And behind,
grim and relentless as fate, we knew the rebel hordes were already
on our trail, and eager for our destruction.

A short rest, just before we reached Culpepper, the canteens
were filled, and then we waited while Sigel's corps, which had
followed in our rear thus far, passed on, to take a different route, as
we soon discovered, thus leaving us the extreme rear guard
of our own. *

Again the knapsacks were resumed, and for the remainder 01
the day, and most of the succeeding night, we did not again lay
them down. No halts were allowed, except when some obstruction
checked the speed of the line, far in our front, and caused a few
minutes delay, during which we sometimes got a breathing spell ;
but these were rather spoiled by the necessity which immediately
followed, of increasing our speed for some distance, until the column
was again closed up. Evening approached, but no halt. Still we
plodded wearily along, our knapsacks growing heavier with each
step, until it seemed as though the tired feet could no longer bear
their weight, and hunger began to gnaw at our strength ; but still
no halt.- Again the stars canle out and looked down through the

♦Reno had taken the Stevensburg road, by which he came, and which led him back to Kelly's
Fofd, some six miles below the railroad crossing. Sigel, after following us to Culpepper, took the
Warrentown Road to the White Sulphur Springs crossing, six miles above the railroad. Banks' corps
had preceded ours by way of Brandy Station, and thus it was that ours became the rear guard of the
line. Bayard's Cavalry alone remained to cover the rear guard, but this we did not discover until
next day.

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trees, as we threaded the forest of pines, and the cool air of night
helped to eke out the last remnant of our energies, as we still moved
on, some staggering like drunken men, and all nearly at the point
where duty and habit alike succumb to physical necessity.

Finally, near midnight, after a succession of abrupt halts and
ineffectual efforts to keep the line closed up, we filed off by
companies upon the grass by the roadside, and were told that we
would be allowed a short time for rest, while the right of the line
should cross the river.

I have a faint recollection of an order to stack arms, but no one
could obey. For myself I can only say that I shall never forget the
intense effort that accomplished those last few steps out of the road,
or the blissful relief in allowing, all at once, every muscle to relax
to its utmost, as I sank upon my musket, — my loosened knapsack
falling by chance just beneath my head, — and resigned myself to
oblivion. Had my grave yawned there I must have fallen just so,
and my sleep could not have been deeper.

We might have lain thus for an hour, — it could not have been
much longer, — when the bugle sounded the ** fall in," but it might
as well have been blown in a grave-yard. Here and there, indeed,
an officer whose ruling passion, duty, proved strong even in sleep,
arose dreamily, distributed a few inconsequent kicks and incoherent
curses, which might as well have been expended upon so many
logs, and then, like a sensible man, settled himself with a grunt for
another nap. It was of no use. A pursuing army might have
broken their shins over our prostrate bodies, and we should have
been none the wiser. So the bugler went to sleep again, and it was
not until the gray of the dawn that we at last arose, satisfied and
refreshed, and drenched with the chilly officiousness of the
night dew.

We fell in, without waiting to breakfast ; for no supplies could
be got this side the river, and, except a ration of coffee, and perhaps
a few hard- tack, our haversacks were empty. It was not far, and
by sunrise we had reached our position behind the bluff at
Rappahannock Station, the rations were drawn and distributed, and
we broke our long fast.

There, within a mile around us, lay the different divisions,
crowded together in what seemed inextricable confusion ; for, in the
hurry of the arrival, and with the necessity of interposing the river
between us and our officious friend Genergl Lee, little attention had
been paid to proper grouping. And we were none too soon.


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The last of our brigades has just crossed, and the cavalry,
Bayard's detachment from one of the Ira Harris regiments, make
their appearance, emerging from a belt of wood not more than a
mile away. A few scattering shots are heard. Suddenly they
wheel, and their sabres flash in the sun as with a wild yell they go
charging back. A rattling discharging of carbines, and then
another line appears in the smoky front of the wood, and rapidly
bears down to meet them.

By this time the high blufls which shelter our position, are
quite crowded with eager lookers on. It is a glorious sight. We
have hardly time to realize that those are really our long expected
foes, that it is all in earnest, and not one of those sham charges with
which our division drills at Bailey's last year made us familiar, and
which it so much resembles, when, with a shock and a clash they
meet. We can not see much of what follows for the confusion is
dire ; but sabres flash in the smoke, and, here and there, a riderless
horse gallops away ; and one line has turned back : — it is not ours,
— and the trees hide the rest, except a few dismounted men limping
away or being helped upon a comrade's saddle.

They returned, not long after, covered with dust, and their tired
horses showing unmistakable marks of the severe service they had
done during the last forty-eight hours. It had been necessary to
repeat this manouvre of charging and falling back, many times, to
check the enemy's advance, and give our tired footmen time to
reach this shelter. And now our pickets were drawn in, the cavalry
crossed the bridge, and, at last, the entire army had, without severe .
loss, reached its new line of defense. *

That day, August 20th, was passed in disposing the troops
regularly and to the best advantage. It was desirable that the
Rappahannock should be held as long as possible, to gain time for
the troops coming up the Potomac to join us, and particularly those
coming by way of Aquia Creek and Fredericksburg, who would be
liable to be cut ofl*, should we give up the river before their arrival.

The Rappahannock, says Pope's report, above the mouth of
the Rapidan, is an inconsiderable stream, and fordable at most
seasons, every few miles. The third corps (^ours; was posted at and
above the railroad bridge, which had been so arranged as to serve
for artillery and cavalry.

♦Our regiment lost one man, Joseph Alexander, of Company " K," killed on the 19th, by the
upsetting of one of the wagons. He was buriea on the spot.

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Sigel's corps was on our right, and Banks and Reno occupied
the left, the extent of the whole line, at the time, being about six miles.
All the strong positions were held by our batteries, with heavy
supports of infantry, and, along the river, the pickets of the two
armies grimly regarded each other across the narrow stream. By
night-fall, it became apparent that the whole rebel army was
swarming in the woods beyond, and preparing, like ourselves, for a
day of severe trial.

Just at sunset yre were ordered to fall in, and marched about a
mile north of the statipn, to our place in line. It was about half a
mile from the river, and a few belts of wood and low hills were
between, where lay some of our batteries, in sheltered positions,
ready to wheel into their places and belch destruction upon any
hostile approach, at a moment's notice.

Next morning, August 21st, we were ready by sunrise, with a
good breakfast of bacon, hard -tack and coffee, stowed away under
our belts, and a hundred rounds of cartridges to each man.

Just in our front was a ford, called, I think, " Newman's," and
the first above the railroad crossing. A battery and a regiment of
infantry from Banks' corps had been sent to guard this on the
evening before. There, about day-break, the enemy made his first
attack. The battery was disabled, and, with its supporting force,
driven back by the fury of the onset, the enemy gaining the woods
and a corn field in our immediate front. At this moment we were
ordered forward. We had heard the firing, but were totally
ignorant of the fact that the enemy had crossed the river, until,
emerging from a wood which had masked our advance, a troop of
cavalry, and a battery, showed themselves momentarily, hurrying
across an opening in our front, the cavalry to 'cover, and the guns
destined to take position in the corn field I have mentioned. Our
regiment had advanced unsupported thus far, and now formed in
line of battle, fronting the apparent position of the enemy. Hardly
was this accomplished when it was discovered that the wood on
our right was also full of dismounted cavalry, threatening an attack
on our flank.

Back, through the woods again, and, while forming line for the
second time Colonel Rogers received orders to support a battery
which had taken posit;ion upon our left. * It was necessary to cross
a meadow to reach the position, and while doing this the enemy


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opened upon us with musketry from the wood where the right of
our first line had rested, but at too long range to do much
execution ; although the first ball narrowly missed our Colonel, who
had not dismounted and then passed through the colors. Hardly
had we reached our place in rear of the guns when the cannonade
became furious. The shell screamed through the air over our
heads, striking almost invariably just in rear of the slope upon which
we lay, or tore long furrows between our lines, throwing up the
earth and sending their fragments whistling above us in a most
uncomfortable manner. One struck among a group of stretcher
bearers who were hurrying after the ambulances, as they sought a
sheltered position, and the ground and lofty tumbling that
immediately followed was intensely amusing, especially as no one
was injured.

I know of no more severe introduction to field service than that
we were just then experiencing. In the rush and whirl of the
charge, or the more slow and steady advance of the skirmish line,
or even in standing where the fast thinning ranks hold their place in
the face of the rattling musketry, and the bullets sing around the
ears, suggesting swarms of angry bees blindly seeking a victim,
there is infinitely more of danger; but the excitement of active
participation hides it from, the soldier. Not so when he lies,
exposed, and with nothing to do but to listen to the horrid rush of
shot and shell, waiting with the expectation that the next one will
want to make a path just where he Hes.

But soon there is relief for a few of us. The enemy's
sharp-shooters in the cover of the woods have got near enough to
begin picking off our gunners. One ball narrowly misses a little
group among the guns, our good old General, Colonel Rogers, and
Colonel Lord of the 35th, striking, and instantly killing the horse
of the latter officer. General Patrick cooly turns and calls for
" some of the boys who are good marksmen " to come up to the
fence in front and try to pick off " some of those fellows." Half the
regiment are instantly on their feet, but only a few can be sent from
each company. At the same moment Captain Lay ton is ordered
out with his . own company, " K," and " H ; " the latter under
Lieutenant Minnery, Captain Hayward having been sent to hospital,
from Fredericksburg. These two companies deploy immediately
by the right flank, and the long snaky looking line disappears in
the woods.

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The scene grows more and more exciting as the hour wears on,
and we get accustomed to the situation. The fence is lined with
those of the boys who liked the fun of practicing at animated targets,
even with the slight drawback occasioned by the necessity of
caution in its indulgence. Some are interestedly watching the effect
of the shot fired from that section of the battery in our immediate
front, and others run with cartridges from the caissons.

About noon the rebels, beginning to find their quarters too hot,
suddenly limber up and make for the river, leaving two pieces, or
rather their fragments, as evidences of the accuracy of our practice.
Our line is shifted to the woods on our right again, and the cooks
who have been waiting for a lull in the melee, bring up kettles of
boiled beef, upon which we make a hearty dinner, with a dessert
from the huckleberry bushes among which we are lying. All the
while the batteries across the river are sending random shots
whistling and crackling among the trees, but none of them fall
near us.

At about two p. M. we are ordered down to the river again, to
oppose an expected attempt of the enemy to cross a second time.
Layton and Minnery, with their little line of skirmishers have been
doing nobly, as we shall shortly see, and now we hasten to join
them, where, ranged along the fence .of the corn field skirting the
river, they hotly contest the possession of the ford.

The Twenty-Third and ours occupy each a side of ravine, the
foot of which is the threatened point, and protected by what I may
call the shoulders of the ridge, on either side, from the enemy's
sharp-shooters. Our own are still exchanging the courtesies of
warfare with these all along our right, and, occasionally, some
grayback who has a secure berth in a commanding tree top, sends
a reminder of his good will whistling among our heads, upon which
we all bow, vqry politely, if not with dignity, the latter being
entirely unnecessary on these occasions, though some fellows will
persist in the most ludicrous efforts to maintain it.

Our position here soon became anything but comfortable.
Several batteries were brought to bear, and, in trying to get our
range, swept the ravine with a perfect shower of projectiles.
Several attempts were made to carry the ford under cover of them,
but each succeeded only in clogging the shallow stream with the
victims of our sharp-shooters, who were jealously watching it.

About dusk General Patrick discovered that the enemy were
planting a battery in a position to rake us with murderous effect,

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and immediately gave the order to fall back to the position we
occupied in the morning. As we rose to obey, the battery opened
fire, with such precision as to plant two or three shell apparently in
the very midst of the Twenty-Third, who were moving in double
column to the rear up a slope of about thirty rods, cutting one man
in two and wounding many. We were more fortunate. With that
calm readiness of conception which accompanied his perfect
comprehension of the bearings of any emergency, however sudden,
a quality which can not be too much admired, and which won the
entire confidence of his men. Colonel Rogers determined, instead of
moving directly to the rear, to make a flank movement so as to
retain the shelter of the ridge until we could reach that of the
woods on our right, which ran across the rear of the ravine. We were
in double column at half distance, the center division being in front,
and it was necessary to deploy so as to expose but its width of four
files, while we marched by the right of the column. But to deploy, .
the first regular movement of the manouvre, would have been to
expose the whole left wing to the enemy's fire. All this passed
through every mind in a second of time. But we were in the hands
of a man equal to the occasion.

Battalion, fight face, forward march I — The regiment moved

Online LibraryJohn Harrison MillsChronicles of the Twenty-first regiment New York state volunteers: embracing ... → online text (page 24 of 39)