STORY OF A REGIMENT
A RECORD OF THE MILITARY SERVICE
FIFTY-SEVENTH NEW YORK STATE
WAR OF THE REBELLIN
1861 - 1865.
GILBERT FREDERICK, D. D.
LATE CAPTAIN 57TH N. Y. V. I.
HARRISON’S LANDING AND MARYLAND.
JULY 1ST TO SEPTEMBER 16TH, 1862.
IT was now the privilege of the army to have a month of solid rest, indeed no rest was more needed and no month more enjoyed. The army was here re-enforced by a multitude of recruits called grey-backs. It is not to be understood, however, that up to this time there were none of these pestilent fellows in camp. The severe marching had long before reduced many of the men to a single suit of under garments and as wash-day had. been much broken up by marching and fighting the blessed duty of cleanliness had been sadly neglected. This, however, was no great disadvantage to the grey-backs. Colonel Zook called the attention of Surgeon McKim to the fact that the men were infested with these vermin, of which fact the doctor expressed his doubts, whereupon the Colonel in a few emphatic, though perhaps not elegant words replied “Why the whole army is lousey, you are lousey, I am lousey, McClellan is lousey.” The Colonel was not far from right, though the men, at first from very shame, would scorn the idea that it was any.thing but prickly-heat that ailed them. As time wore on, however, the disease wore on also and from mere desperation they would go out into some secret thicket of the woods for self examination. As more time wore on shamefacedness disappeared and what could not be easily cured was made an occasion of mirth. Some of the boys, even though high privates, commanded a regiment of their own, had regular morning roll calls and battles in which the slaughter was fearful. It was no uncommon thing to see the edge of a woods or the bank of a stream lined with soldiers, half stripped, engaged in these roll calls. One of the boys, in a moment of delerium, imagined that he was calling the roll of the Fifty-Seventh and his greybacks that day answered to such immortal names as Zôok and Chapman and Parisen and Throop and Kirk. It was said of an old. garment that was missing that they had moved a little way down the river and were going into winter quarters.
Whether this latter statement be truth or fiction the following is fact. An officer of the Fifty-Seventh was leading his men into a battle and at a certain point came under fire of grape and canister. A charge was made and this gallant officer, for such he was, ran out in front of his men, raised his sword high in the air with his strong right arm, cheered and led on his men, but his left hand had unconsciously gotten under his right arm and was there digging away with energy sufficient to divert the attention of the company he led from the hail of grape and canister that greeted them.
On the 15th of July, private Collins of company “C” died. There never was a steadier or truer soldier than he whom the boys, with affectionate respect, called “Old Man Collins.” Though perhaps one of the oldest men in the regiment he was never behind on the march or in battle. His body was embalmed, as were hundreds of others, by Dr. Thomas Holmes who had established an embalming depot in a large barn at the Landing, thus making it possible for friends to carry the remains of dear ones to home burial places. The 16th of July was a welcome day, for the paymaster had arrived and the troops were paid for the months of March and April.
Brigadier-Generals Sumner, Richardson and Sedgwick had been advanced in rank to Major-Generals and the announcement was read on dress parade. These promotions were praised by the entire army, as the additional star had been fairly won by each of these capable officers on the field of battle. Drinking water was very scarce and poor at Harrison’s Landing and the. Fifty-Seventh under great difficulty dug a well, securing thereby better water. The diet also was improved by the addition of cabbage, tomatoes and dried apples to the usual army rations. It was on the last day of this month that the episode occured wherein a rebel battery, planting itself on the south side of the James River vigorously shelled Harrison’s Landing. This batteiy was not long in getting out of reach after the blue-coats started for it, and the position was thereafter occupied by our troops.
Much has been the wonder that the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac in. reviewing the Peninsular Campaign did not begin to doubt the ability of General McClellan to fight a large army, but if any did they were few. Throughout the North there was a howl of disappoiñtment at the way the army had been permitted to be beaten in detail and finally driven into a defensive position. It evidently was not the fault of the Union soldier for at both Fair Oaks and at Gaines’ Mill they withstood double their number and the seven days of retreat were days of severe punishment for the enemy. It had become a stereotyped declaration south that one southerner could whip six Yankees, but the Peninsula Campaign demonstrated the fact that this proposition would have to be reduced five-sixths at least, so far as the men were concerned, since all that had been gained thus far by Lee’s army was the result of superior generalship. The northern soldier in most unfavorable situations had done as well as the southern soldier had done in most favorable situations. It is not as much credit to the sixty thousand grey-coats at Gaines’ Mill, to have driven thirty thousand blue-coats three miles in one afternoon, as it is to the bluecoats that they held their ground so long in the face of such odds and were not totally destroyed.
The army remained at Harrison’s Landing until about August 7th, when General Hooker advanced with his corps, supported by Sedgwick’ s division of the Second and Couch’s division of the Fourth, toward Malvern Hill. By this time there appeared unmistakable signs of a movement by General Lee’s forces toward Washington, by way of Manassas, and the whole army of the Potomac was ordered to move to the Capitol. We marched down the James to Charles City, thence to Williamsburg, crossing Chickahominy River at Barrett’s Ferry, thence to Yorktown and then to Newport News. On the 25th of August we were aboard the steamer S. R. Spaulding anchored in Hampton Roads. At three o’clock the next morning, weighing anchor, we moved toward and up the Potomac River and on the following morning, after breakfasting, disembarked at Acquia Creek, but on the same afternoon re-embarked, and on the next morning, the 28th, landed at Alexandria and marched as far as old Camp California. It was on the trip around from Newport News that the Company books were lost. The afternoon of the 29th found us on the Alexandria road, at Arlington heights and the Aqueduct Bridge. We passed the residence of the Lees, whence the view of Washington and Georgetown and the Potomac river enchants the beholder. Resting over night the regiment moved again toward Bull Run, reaching Fairfax CourtHouse the same night, and Centerville the next day, but on the following fell back with the rest of the army upon Washington. At the Court-House a slight skirmish occured in which the enemy’s shells made themselves somewhat offensive, but this was the only part taken by the regiment in what was called the second battle of Bull Run.
This battle, fought by General Pope, was an attempt to delay and defeat the invading army of Confederates who were on their way to Pennsylvania. Whatever faults General Pope may have had he was plucky enough to stand and fight the whole of Lee’s army with his inferior force. If he had been quickly and properly supported by Porter and if General Hallock had been less afraid of the capture bf Washington, the result of this battle would probably have been to stop Lee’s invasion. Then the name of Antietam as a battle field would be unknown to history.
The uncertainty of Lee’s movements at this time, and the necessary disposition of troops to meet several possible contingencies, is set forth by Palfrey. “By this time McClellan knew that the niass of the rebel army had passed up the south side of the Potomac, in the direction of Leesburg, and that a portion of their army had crossed into Maryland, but he had no means of determining whether Lee proposed to cross his whole force with a view to turn Washington by a flank movement, down the north bank of the Potomac, to move on Baltimore or to invade Pennsylvania.” This uncertainty made it appear to him necessary “to march cautiously and to advance the army in such order as to keep Washington and Baltimore continually covered, and at the same time to hold the troops well in hand so as to be able to concentrate and follow rapidily if the enemy took the direction of Pennsylvania, or to return to the defenses of Washington. If, as was generally feared by the authorities, the enemy should be merely making a feint with a small force to draw off our army, while with their main forces they stood ready to seize the first favorable opportunity to attack the Capitol.”
Changes had come to the army in the transference and promotion of officers since our last record. General French, the first live brigadier we ever knew, who had commanded the Third Brigade since its organization, had given drill and discipline to us when raw recruits, had led us into our first battle and taught us how to fight, was now ours no longer. He had been transferred to the command of the newly created Third Division of the Second Corps. General William Henry French, was born in Baltimore, Md., January 13th, 1815 and graduated from West Point, July 1st, 1837. He entered the army as Second Lieutenant of Artillery, served in the Seminole war in Florida and in the Mexican war on the staff of General Peterson. He was appointed Brigadier-General of volunteers in September 1861, and took command of the Third Brigade of Sumner’s Corps in 1862. He was appointed Major-General just before the battle of Fredericksburg. At the battle of Gettysburg he commanded the Third Army Corps and served in this capacity until he was mustered out of the volunteer service in May 1864. After this he served in the regular army on the Pacific Coast, at Baltimore and elsewhere.
Colonel Brooke of the Fifty-Third Pennsylvania, had been made Brigadier-General and was put in command of the Third Brigade in the place of General French. Nelson A. Miles, a lieutenant in the Twenty-Second Massachusetts, was promoted to be Lieutenant-Colonel. of the Sixty-First New York in our brigade, a remarkable leap upwards, on account of distinguished services in the Peninsula campaign. This remarkable man, afterwards commander of our division, began his military career in the line and before the war was over became a majorgeneral.
Of the Fifty-Seventh, Quartermaster J. McKibben died of disease in New York city, May 17th; J. S. Warner resigned; Thos. C. White was promoted to Second Lieutenant and C. H. H. Brown became Quartermaster. J. H. Bell ranked as Captain from June 14th, J. H. Erickson as Second Lieutenant from July 17th, Thos. Britton as Second Lieutenant from July 29th, and George H. Smith from August 2nd. George Mitchel was First Lieutenant from August 2nd, George W. Jones. Captain from same date, Nelson Neeley Assistant Surgeon from August 25th, and Sergeant 0. T. Middleton First Lieutenant of Company D, dating from June 1st.
When it was finally understood that Lee had entered Maryland, the Second Corps crossed the Potomac by the Chain Bridge and moved to Tennallytown, five miles north of Washington. This was the 4th of September. From here we went on to Rockville, Clarksburg and Urbana, arriving at Frederick City September 13th. All along this route the boys in blue were greeted with cheers and sent forward with a God-speed. The country itself was different from that part of Virginia through which we had previously passed. The fields were highly cultivated, the stacks of hay were many and high, the stalks were full of corn, the homes tidy and the barns large. It was a welcomed change, also, to be greeted with smiles instead of frowns.
At Frederick our passage was one ovation; the houses were fairly covered, with flags; everybody was out waving handkerchiefs, dealing out cold water and saluting the colors. We rested beyond Frederick over Saturday night and on Sunday morning pushed through Middletown toward South Mountain. All day long we could hear cannonading, indeed the evening-before it was quite distinct. Now also were visible the puffs of smoke from booming artillery along the mountain summits. Some of the boys amused themselves by measuring the seconds that intervened between ‘the flash and the report of the cannon, thus calculating the distance between themselves and the battlefield. It was a beautiful landscape that lay off toward Turner’s Gap looking south and west along the valley with its cultivated fields and wooded mountain sides.
A soldier’s letter written on the 16th, speaks of the view froni the mountain tops whence could be seen beautiful valleys spreading away as far as the eye could reach, of the long rows of towering peaks, of Sugar Loaf and Blue Ridge, of the Middletown and Boonsboro valleys, all adding their mite to make a “picture of unrivalled beauty and grandeur.” It says, “we have ascended mountains until lost in the clouds, followed forsaken paths and crossed rich green plains that resembled gardens decorated with flowers.” There is no doubt that this is the most beautiful part of Maryland and a spot hardly to be surpassed for natural scenery and cultivation. After leaving Frederick going west the ascent of the Catoctin hills is made. From these hills the valley in which Middletown lies is spread out until the eye ascends South Mountain. It was here we got our first view and saw the smoke of the South Mountain battle. Then passing through Middietown and crossing the hills beyond we come upon another view almost, if not entirely as beautiful, stretching far away to the Potomac river and the North Mountains. The well cultivated farms were divided with fences, each division of corn or pasture or orchard presented a different color, while here and there were groups of white dwellings and red barns. The roads could be traced by their bareness and sometimes by the dust and canvas of wagon trains, while the course of the creeks was told by the long winding streaks of shrubbery.
Singular experiences come to a soldier sometimes from what usually are to him very ordinary causes. To see men lying around dead, in every shape and in every degree of repulsiveness, torn to pieces, black and bloated, is nothIng to a man of battles, yet such a sight coming in an unexpected manner or out of time has all the shock natural to such an experience. The soldier will sleep soundly amid the dead and the ‘groans of dying comrades will not keep him awake if it be on a battlefield, but let him lie down among the dead at the hospital and he is likely to feel cold chills creeping over him, he will be restless, will rise and seek companionship. So at South Mountain a soldier is climbing through the woods with head down, slowly dragging his weary limbs after him, when suddenly his thoughtless sight rests upon the form of a dead soldier, with bulging eyes and swollen face, lying directly at his feet. The shock stuns him, the blood rushes to his heart and his lips quiver. When he turns out and goes on he instinctively looks back to see if the man has moved. Of such stuff are mortals made.
The battle of South Mountain was a victory for our forces but the Second Corps came up too late to have a part in it. At three Gaps: Turner’s, Fox’s and Crampton’s, the battle raged on the 14th of September. The enemy had the positions but were driven at nearly every point, though not without hard fighting and after a determined resistance. The success of Franklin on the left endangered Lee’s communication’s, thwarted his purpose to push into Pennsylvania, and compelled him to give battle near the Potomac. It also gave the Union Army that esprit de corps which victory always brings. South Mountain was a forerunner of what followed at Antietam.
A detail of the Fifty-Seventh which was sent to scour the woods at South Mountain after its evacuation by the enemy found many stragglers with grey coats, some trying to hide and others trying to get to their regiments. They were taken as prisoners of war and sent to the rear under guard. Their guns were broken over stumps and thrown away. Many rebels were thus picked up. Later on others were found hiding in houses along the slope or in the valley and received the same treatment.
From South Mountain to Antietam was a constant running fire between the two armies, the one falling back and the other persuing. The light artillery would mount a hill and fire at the advancing blue-coats, holding its position as long as it dared and then, limbering up, would run beyond to the next eminence and repeat the maneuver. So the day of the 15th passed until the night brought its partial but welcomed rest.
Passing down the western side of South Mountain the division comes to Boonsboro, Keedysville, and finds the enemy massing its forces behind Antietam Creek. It is now evening twilight and the Fifty-Seventh takes position behind an enbankment in support of a battery which is shelling the woods beyond. Before dark one man in Company B is killed by a piece of shell. During the night the men sleep well and awaken on. the 16th greatly refreshed. It js Tuesday, a heavy fog covers the ground and everything is quiet; we cook our coffee, toast our pork, fall in and take position on the battle line along the Creek, our left resting on the Sharpsburg road.
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