«MAJ. GEN. CHARLES S. HAMILTON HISTORY of THE THIRD REGIMENT of WISCONSIN VETERAN VOLUNTEER INFANTRY 1861 — 1865. BY EDWIN E. BRYANT Late Adjutant. ...»
Here we received our arms, old muskets, smooth-bore, with percussion locks. The disgust of many of our men was emphatically expressed. To give marksmen, expert with the rifle, such weapons was simply to delay us in the work of annihilating any hostile force. We could finish up the rebellion much more speedily, it was thought, if we only had rifles. Not long afterward we were furnished with the rifle musket, a much more effective arm; though, now, they would be deemed unserviceable by any civilized nation. But those old smooth-bores, with their cartridges of round ball and three buckshot, gave a reasonable chance of hitting a barn door at short range. The arm that we were furnished later, and which we carried through the war, was the Springfield rifle musket, made by inserting a steel sleeve rifle into the old smooth-bore barrels of earlier manufacture. The cartridge had the conical ball, and that and the charge were rolled in paper greased to prevent moisture. The barrels of the rifles were unstained, and to keep them from rusting required much rubbing and polishing. It was common remark among
-18the “boys” that it took more time to keep a gun clean than it required to keep a horse well groomed.
We were ordered to march on the 19th, having been supplied more wagons to haul our luggage than in the later years of the war were allowed to a division. We had little idea where we were going but unbounded curiosity.
Each of the men had a plethoric knapsack, a haversack with two day’s rations in it, the musket and a huge cartridge box to hold forty rounds of the bulky cartridges of those days; and each had a canteen filled with water. We moved southward on a pike. The wagon trains had powdered the macadamized road to a dry penetrating dust that soon hung over the marching column like a cloud. The day was intensely hot, no air stirring; and the fiery rays of the July sun smote us. The romance of war began to assume a phase not altogether comfortable. We pushed on six miles without a halt and then stopped, stacked arms and ate our dinners. The knapsacks, one by one, found their way into the wagons for the latter part of that day’s march. Sixteen miles were stepped off that day; and we went into camp near Rohrersville, a little hamlet in Maryland, just north of the northern end of Maryland Heights. A large detail was put on guard; and the rest pitched tents, got out the camp kettles, made coffee, ate suppers, and the camp after dark was unusually quiet. A shower in the night, deluges our tents, and taught us the lesson, not afterwards forgotten, to dig little trenches about each of the tents, if we wished dry ground inside. The good nature, the cheery spirit with which these disagreeable incidents of service were met by the soldiers, the quaint and witty remarks they made furnished much amusement, and prevented much realization of the truth that military service was not play.
Early next morning we resumed out march, skirting southward along the western side of South Mountain. The march soon brought us into a narrow valley, between the mountain last named and Maryland Heights. A progress of some eight or ten miles, on a road that led over hills and along the margin of deep ravines, brought us in sight of the Potomac river, about a mile below Harper’s Ferry.3 On the other side was Virginia, the bold face of the Blue Ridge, overhanging the river and frowning at us in defiance. We moved up the river a mile or so, then turned up a steep mountain road, and in a sloping, stony field some three hundred feet or more above the river, on the southeastern slope of Maryland Heights, we established our camp. The scenery The reason we were sent to Harper’s Ferry is explained in a letter of Gen. Robert Patterson, to the War department, July 18, 1861. He says, “I sent Capt. Newton, to-day to Harper’s Ferry, to arrange for defense and establish communication with Maryland; also, the (Second) Massachusetts regiment. The Third Wisconsin will soon be there.” ~ ~ ~ On July 21st, to the Department, he wrote, “The Third Wisconsin will be placed temporarily on the canal, which parties have attempted lately to destroy, and will remain till I am provided with troops for active service.
-19about us was grand. Here the Potomac river, flowing southeasterly, is joined by the Shenandoah, which flowed northeasterly down the valley of Virginia, and through a huge gap in the mountain chain called the Blue Ridge, the united waters seem to have forced a passage and continued their course easterly. The Blue Ridge on the south abuts close up to the river bank in a bold, rocky face, called Loudoun Heights. On the northern side of the river, the Maryland Heights, a continuance of the Blue Ridge, overhang the shore in beetling cliffs, leaving barely space on the banks for the canal, the track of the Baltimore & Ohio railroad and a narrow roadway. On the western side, in Virginia, is the little village of Harper’s Ferry, then a famous spot, on a little tongue of land between the two rivers, part of the town being down on the banks of each stream, and part on higher land, a little back from the shores.
Here John Brown had made his raid in 1859, and on the banks of the Potomac, and above the confluence, were then the ruins of the arsenal in one of the brick buildings of which he had entrenched himself, and from which he was dislodged by a party of United States Marines, commanded by Robert E.
Lee. The place was in a wretched state of dilapidation when we were there.
The Confederates had been obliged to abandon it a few weeks before and had destroyed the United States arsenal, which formerly had been the main support of the little community. The few inhabitants who remained, when we were there, got a precarious support by selling villainous pies to the soldiers.
Our camp on the hillside was named Camp Pinkney. Here we were put to drill and instruction in the manual of arms. The issues of government rations soon made us acquainted with the soldier’s bill of fare. It was really an excellent ration — good coffee, brown sugar, bacon, hard-tack, and dessicated [sic] vegetables, which were a preserved form of cabbages, parsnips, and other like roots. We had an abundance; it would have been better, perhaps, if we had had less. But the men craved other dainties, took unkindly to hard-tack; the transition from the wholesome plenty of home was too sudden; and the peddlers of pies made of green peaches drove a brisk business. Soon there was much sickness in camp. The change of climate, the water, the heat of the day, and the sleeping on the ground at night, brought on that worst foe with which the soldiers had to contend, the camp diarrhœa. Under its debilitating effects the vigor and strength soon vanished;
men wasted to skeletons; and while most of its victims still clung to duty, did their drilling and guard duty, it was in weakness and languor. When it became chronic, as in many instances it did, the poor victim, with a face like shriveled parchment, eyes wandering, form shrunken, lips bloodless, and nearly paralyzed with sheer, muscular weakness, was an object pitiful to see. Of all the hardships endured during the years of field service, the veterans of that war will agree with unanimity that from this fell disorder they suffered most;
-20that it aggravated and made harder to endure the hardships and privations incident to service in the field. The measles, too, broke out in camp and gathered in all who had not in their childhood had this disease, when it was “going around the neighborhood.” In our camp on the hill we heard faintly but distinctly the cannonade of the first battle of Bull Run, fought July 21st. When the reports came in next day of the disaster and the most exaggerated details of the slaughter and annihilation of Union regiments, all ideas of holiday soldiering vanished from our minds. Few men in the regiment then saw much hope for a close of the war in the three years for which we had enlisted. The Bull Run disaster was a great humiliation, but a blessing in disguise. It awakened the people of the North to the magnitude of the struggle impending, and better still, it for the time silenced those northern editors, who, without a single idea of what was feasible or practicable in war, were clamoring for forward movements and immediate attacks, with an unceasing din. This class of strategists, keeping themselves clear of danger and ignorant of the real situation, made “On to Richmond” the theme of editorials of savage criticism of the military authorities; and to their unreasoning demand, the country owes the shame and sorrow of the first battle of Bull Run.
The day after our arrival at Camp Pinkney, Gen. Patterson’s column fell back upon us, marching in through Harper’s Ferry and down the canal tow path along side the Potomac. A number of regiments under his command were “three months’ men,” and they refused to serve longer;4 having had a taste of war quite sufficient for themselves. But, it is true, that on returning to their homes nearly all the three months’ men enlisted again in the three years’ regiments. But when we saw them in July, after their bootless and nearly bloodless campaign in the valley of the Shenandoah they were glad enough to return to their homes, and their zeal to do so made our men feel for a moment a little homesick, it must be confessed.
On the 23rd, the little command in the Harper’s Ferry region were thrown into no little excitement by the telegram to Patterson from Gen. Winfield Scott, then general-in-chief, that it was “useful and perhaps highly important, to hold Harper’s Ferry. It will probably soon be attacked, but not, I hope, before I shall have sent you adequate reinforcements.” This report spreading through the camps, and not at all shrunken in transmission from mouth to mouth, soon became the basis for a story that a large Confederate army was just ready to In a letter to the War department, dated July 18, Gen. Patterson says, “I to-day appealed almost in vain to the regiments to stand by the country for a week or ten days. The men are longing for their homes, and nothing can detain them.” The gallant First Wisconsin was not one of these regiments, it is a pleasure to record.
-21pounce upon us. This state of expectancy kept us in readiness to jump to arms at a moment’s notice. On the 5th of August, a spirited firing of musketry was heard on Maryland Heights just above us — for the steeps of the Heights abutted close up to our camp — and presently Col. Hamilton galloped into camp and ordered the regiment under arms. It was bu the work of a moment to parade the companies, and the general belief was that in five minutes we should be engaged in close contest with the foe.
It must be borne in mind that at this time we were ludicrously “green” as soldiers, and that our credulity was constantly played upon by a myriad of camp rumors, none of which, however ridiculous, seemed either improbable or unlikely. The firing that had alarmed the camp was the discharge of the arms of some guard that had been relieved in another camp. Col. Hamilton was simply putting our alacrity to the test.
Gen. Robert Patterson was severely censured for letting Gen. Johnson [read: Johnston, Joseph E.] escape from him, and marching to help Beauregard in the battle of Bull Run. He was accordingly retired from the service, and roundly abused by that class of patriots who stayed at home and demanded victims to be sacrificed to the popular indignation.
On the 10th of August, our colonel was commissioned brigadier of volunteers, and soon after was assigned to the command of the brigade in which our regiment was serving in Banks’ command. He remained for some time with the regiment, making the headquarters of his brigade in our camp.
His brigade, as at first constituted, was composed of the Third Wisconsin, the Ninth New York, and Twenty-ninth Pennsylvania, two companies of the First Artillery Battalion, U.S.A., with a battery of guns. Efforts were made to have other Wisconsin regiments assigned to the brigade, but they appear to have been unsuccessful. Col. Ruger was promoted immediately to the colonelcy.
About these days an order was issued prohibiting the harboring of slaves in camps. Colored men flocked to our camps and were anxious to be cooks, servants, anything “to be wid de sojers.” Loud complaints were made by slave owners; and in those days the slavery question was touched quite gingerly. One or two poor colored men had been in our camp, and “the boys” became quite interested in them. The slaves were turned out of camp in obedience to the order, but were supplied with provisions and started northward to the Pennsylvania border.
On the 19th of July, an order of the War department (No. 46), directed that Patterson be honorably discharged on the 27th, and that Major General Nathaniel P. Banks proceed to the valley of Virginia, relieve Patterson and assume command of the army of Pennsylvania, — as Patterson’s command had been called — and that Banks’ department would then be called the department of the Shenandoah, headquarters in the field.
-22Gen. Banks appeared on the scene on the 25th day of July. Other troops were gathering in the locality, and some joined us during these days from July 18th to August 17th, with whom the regiment was afterward to participate in many a march and battle.
We were glad enough to get away on the day last named. Our regiment moved out in the morning and marched back from the Potomac several miles, into a pleasant country, and bearing southeasterly down the river. The Second Massachusetts was left to guard the crossings of the river at the ferry.