The Army Moves Back to Kearnstown - Early Fillows Far as Middletown - Sheridan's Cavalry Drives the Rebel Cavalry - Early Returns to New Market - Anecdotes - The Twelfth Moves to Stephenson's Depot - Salutes for Gen. Thomas's Victories - The Twelfth Sent to the Army of the James - Put into the Twenty-fourth Corps - The Opposing Pickets - Lieut. Co. Northcott's Resignation - Grant Reviews Our Corps - Gen. Turner Commands the Division - It Moves to Aid Sheridan - Asst. Surg. Neil's Lecture.
(540) While the Twelfth remained at Newtown, there was nothing of special interest occurred other than has been mentioned. As winter and bad weather were approaching, in order that we might be closer to our base of supplies, the infantry moved back from Cedar Creek on the 9th of November to Kearnstown, the next day the cavalry followed and late in the evening of this same day, and lost of all, the two remaining regiments of our brigade moved down and joined our corps with the army. The next day we put up our tents. The Sixth Corps and the Nineteenth, worked at throwing up fortifications all day.
(541) The next day after Sheridan's army left Cedar Creek, Early thinking that perhaps our force had been withdrawn to send part of it to Grant, moved his army down from New Market to Middletown. He was thus on the day, the evening of which the Twelfth left its camp at Newtown, within five miles of us at that piece Sheridan was ready to meet him; and sent out the cavalry on the 12th against the Rebel cavalry. Merritt's and Custer's divisions on the right of the pike, and Powell on the Front Royal road. They drove the Rebel cavalry back. Powell attacked McCausland's brigade at Stony Point and routed it capturing its two guns and 245 officers and men. The army was ordered to be prepared for battle the next day; but, though Early had, according to the reports of citizens been considerably reinforced after the battle of Cedar Creek, he had by this time acquired a wholesome regard for the fighting qualities of Sheridan's army; and finding that it was still in the Valley in force, he concluded not to risk a battle, but returned to his camp at New Market the 14th.
(542) The Twelfth remained with the army at Kearnstown for two weeks. On the 19th - the day of the month in each instance, on which Sheridan's two great battles were fought, the battle of the Opequon and the brittle of Cedar Creek - orders were read to our regiment from Gen. Sheridan naming this army, the Army of the Shenandoah, and the camp here, Camp Russell. On the 23rd the boys of the Twelfth had abundance of chicken sent them from somewhere for Thanksgiving dinner.
(543) Here is a somewhat characteristic anecdote of an Irishman of the Nineteenth Corps: It is believed that it was while the Twelfth was at Camp Russell, that this Irishman, who had evidently been embibing freely of the ardent, was noticed sauntering through the camp singing as he sauntered an apparently impromptu song, and staggering considerably as he sauntered and sang. His corps had suffered heavily in the battle of the Opequon. And his song related to the part it had taken in that battle. This much of the song is remembered:
(544) The following is an amusing episode of soldier life that will he appreciated by the boys generally, and some of them will no doubt remember it. In order that a better understanding of it may be had by others than soldiers it may be well to say that, as is well known by all soldiers who campaigned in the Valley of Virginia, the guerrila Mosby was a dangerous enemy, and a terror to all soldiers disposed to straggle. Sheridan once remarked that Mosby was as good to keep up his, Sheridan's, stragglers as would have been a regiment for that purpose; Mosby was also something of a bugaboo, and a subject of jest among the soldiers.
"The nineteenth of September
In eighteen sixty-four,
Is long to be remembered
By the Nineteenth Army Corps."
(545) It was perhaps while we were at Camp Russell that one day a merchant tailor came into camp from Wheeling, to see the officers of the Twelfth with a view to taking orders for new uniforms. He wore a plug hat. Now when a stranger appeared in camp in citizens' dress, that fact was sufficient to excite in the minds of the soldiers a suggestion of a possible spy in the person of the stranger; and Mosby being an ever present bugbear in the minds of the soldiers, his name would naturally be associated with that of the stranger. So when the Wheeling man appeared on the streets of the camp wearing his plug hat, the boys raised a general yell of Mosby! Mosby! Mosby mingled with some remarks about the plug hat. Men can stand almost anything better than derision, especially when it comes from a great crowd; and quickly "catching on" to the fact that he, the Wheeling man, was the object of the noisy attention, he shot into an officer's tent and would not come out until he had exchanged his plug hat for a slouch hat, which some officer managed to get for him.
(546) The Twelfth marched from Camp Russell on the 24th to Stevenson's Depot, five miles northeast of Winchester. The railroad track had recently been relaid to that place. We remained here over three weeks. The duty at this place was heavy, our brigade having to unload all the cars which brought supplies to the army and do picket duty besides. On the 16th of December one hundred guns were fired at Camp Russell in honor of Gen. Thomas's victory the day before at Nashville. When we heard the firing at first we thought the enemy had attacked our forces at the front. But before long a dispatch came from Sheridan telling the reason of the firing. The next day another salute was fired at the front in honor of Gen. Thomas's victory in the second day's fighting at Nashville, and the fall of Savannah and its occupancy by Sherman.
(547) Before the middle of December, Early, having sent the bulk of his command to Lee, the last of the Sixth Corps lead gone to the Army of the Potomac, and on the 19th the Third Brigade of our division took the cars at Stevenson's Depot for the Army of the James. Later the same day our brigade followed, having to ride in filthy cattle cars. Owing to a scarcity of cars some of the men had to ride on top of them, and, the weather being cold, they suffered considerably, especially those who rode on top of the cars. We got to Washington at eight o'clock a. m. the next day, the cars landing us at the wharf. The men would have been glad to see the city, but they were not permitted to do so. While we were waiting for a few hours to be marched on board a transport, some citizens standing about were, as was natural, making remarks about us. One fellow was overheard to volunteer the pleasant reminder concerning us, that "There are more of those fellows going to Grant's army than will ever get back." And this citizen's tone seemed to indicate that he exulted in the thought. May be, too, the wish was father to the thought.
(548) About 12 o'clock m. our regiment went aboard of the transport. A part of us went on a small craft called the Putnam. This vessel was soon on its way down the Potomac. As we passed down we got a view of Mount Vernon. About 10 p. m. we anchored for the night. We started at daylight the next morning, the 21st. We ran into the St. Mary's River at about 4 o'clock p. m. that day, and cast anchor on account of the high wind. We were now 100 miles from Washington. All the next day we were detained here by the high wind; and owing to some mismanagement we had not rations enough, and the men ran out of them.
(549) At daylight the 23rd our vessel weighed anchor and a run of ten miles brought us to Point Lookout at the mouth of the Potomac. We stopped here and drew three days' rations. Twelve thousand Rebel prisoners were confined here at that time. From this point we passed down the Chesapeake Bay, and some time in the night anchored near Fortress Monroe. We started up the James River early the next morning and arrived at City Point on the south side of the river, about dark. Changing boats here we ran up 20 miles farther, 80 miles from Fortress Monroe, and landed on the north side, near the Dutch Gap canal.
(550) Before the soldiers of the Twelfth went to Grant's army they had a somewhat exaggerated idea of the fierceness and fatality of the fighting there. They had sonic kind of a vague idea that, like the fly in the spider's parlor, in the story of the "Spider and the Fly," where they got into it once, there was an excellent chance of not getting out of it again alive. But in so great an army as Grant had naturally soldiers would be going to and from it all the time: and somewhere on the Potomac or Chesapeake Bay, we met a vessel with a number of soldiers aboard, going to the rear. When the returning soldiers were noticed Major Brown remarked in a kind of seriocomic way in an illusion to the supposed extreme unhealthiness of the service in Grant's army: "Well, I notice that some fellows at least are getting back from the army before Richmond alive!"
(551) The next morning (Christmas) after landing we got off the vessel and the other transport with the rest of the Twelfth having arrived, the regiment marched about four miles to where the other troops of our division were camped, and took the quarters temporarily vacated by Gen Butler's troops, who had gone to attempt the capture of Fort Fisher. We remained in these quarters several days, during which there was nothing occurred worthy of mention except that the enemy kept throwing shells at short intervals at our men working at the Dutch Gap canal; and once when there was heavy cannonading toward Petersburg we were called out in line, the general in command on our side of the James apparently fearing an attack.
(552) On the 30th some of the troops that had been on the Fort Fisher expedition returned and we had to vacate our quarters and move some three miles farther to the right and put up winter quarters. The Fifty-fourth Pennsylvania, the Twenty-third Illinois and the Twelfth West Virginia, January 1st, 1866, were brigaded together and designated as the Second Brigade, Col. Curtis commanding. Our division was known as the Second or Independent Division, Twenty-fourth Corps, Col. T. M. Harris, afterward succeeded by Gen. John Turner, commanding the division; and Gen. John Gibbon commanded the corps.
(553) When the Twelfth was transferred to the Army of the James, Gen. Butler was in command of it, but having failed in his expedition against Fort Fisher, he was relieved and Gen. Ord was put in command of it, which consisted of two corps, the Twenty-fourth and the Twenty-fifth, the latter being colored troops. The Dutch Gap canal referred to was Gen. Butler's project. The object of the undertaking was to make a channel across a narrow neck of land, made by a long horse-shoe bend in the river, so as to enable our vessels to avoid obstructions in the bend, and pass up to Richmond. Of course, the enemy tried to prevent work at the canal and to this end, as before stated, firing shells at intervals at the workers (colored men) was kept up; but the work went on. The men dug holes in the side of the canal, which they called gopher holes. There was also a high lookout nearby from which a man kept a constant watch, and when the Rebels fired a shot he would cry out "Gopher hole!" and the "darks" would bounce into the holes and remain there until the shell exploded. Then they would come out and go to work again. It used to be great fun for the boys to watch the "darks" run for cover when the lookout man gave notice of a shot by the enemy. This working and shelling was kept up for perhaps a month after we had gone to the Army of the James. But the canal when it was completed as far as it could be tinder the circumstances, proved to be a failure, no considerable volume of water passing through it, at that time at least.
(554) When we got to the Army of the James we witnessed a condition of affairs different from anything we had hitherto seen. On the left of our lines in front of Fort Harrison the pickets were probably not more than 50 yards apart. They paced bacward and forward on their several beats as though all was serene between the opposing pickets. If, however, either side had advanced, or perhaps, if one man had shot at the enemy, a bloody ball of battle would have opened; but the one man did not fire; and all was quiet on our side of the river, while on the opposite side there was constant firing going on night and day, between the pickets there.
(555) Our duties in this army consisted of making "corduroy" roads over the soft and muddy ground, the cutting and hauling of firewood, drilling a little and preparing for inspections, going on picket about once a week, besides for the greater part of our time here, having to stand in line of battle, just outside of our works, for an hour or so from awhile before day each morning. However, our service this winter in the Army of the James was as easy as any we had had, and very much easier than some of our previous soldiering. The picket duty was comparatively light, and then we were here free from the exhausting, killing marching connected with much of our previous service.
(556) On the 7th of January Lieut. Col. Northcott made us a farewell speech, his resignation some time previously tendered, having been accepted. Owing to the high regard and esteem the Twelfth had for him, both as a man and as a soldier, the command parted with him with regret. Major Brown and Capt. Burley of Company A were both promoted on the Twelfth, the former to be Lieutenant Colonel and the latter to be Major, this making the second promotion for Brown and the third for Burley.
(557) On the 17th an order came around announcing the fact of the capture of the Rebel fort, Fort Fisher, by the combined attack of our land and naval forces, the former under Gen. Terry, and the latter under Admiral Porter. A salute was fired here At 12 o'clock this day in honor of the victory. Our brigade was inspected on the 22nd, and the Twelfth, having passed the best inspection of any regiment in it, was excused from duty for one week. On the 24th, there having been heavy cannonading not far off all the night before, an order was promulgated saying that the Rebel gunboats had come down the James that night and our batteries commanding the river had sunk one, and caused two others to run aground. An attack was expected this night and we had orders to be ready to form ranks at a moment's notice.
(558) From this time on, while the opposing armies faced each other here, desertions from the enemy were of growing frequency. February 4th, a lieutenant colonel and captain deserted from the Rebels in front of the pickets of our division. When desertions of officers of their rank were taking place, it began to look like "the beginning of the end." A few days later Richmond papers obtained from the Rebel pickets an account of the failure of the Peace Commission, composed of President Lincoln and others on the part of the Government, and Vice President Stephens and others on the part of the Rebels, which met at Hampton Roads. It was exceedingly fortunate and well for the future of the country that the fatally blind obstinacy of the Rebels, that had characterized them from the first caused them to refuse to consider any proposition of peace except on the basis of their independence.
(559) Concerning the Peace Commission, Gen. Grant tells a story of Lincoln, which will bear reproduction. Stephens was a very small man, but it seems that he wore a large overcoat on the occasion of the meeting of the commission. Some time after this Lincoln, being on a visit to Grant, after a little previous conversation, the talk turning on the commission, asked Grant if he had seen that overcoat of Stephen's. He replied that he had. "Did you see him take it off ?" said Lincoln. "Yes," said Grant. "Well," inquired Lincoln, "didn't you think it was the biggest shuck and the least ear that ever you did see?"
(560) Camp life here was anything but dull. There was always something occurring of an exciting character. Besides the operations of the armies here, the booming of cannon for instance, that was not unfrequently heard, causing a lively interest as to what it signified, we had orders at various times announcing victories of our armies at other places, and salutes fired in their honor. And then a camp rumor startling in character could be heard at almost any hour, by which the soldiers were not much startled, however, being used to them. In fact, there are few if any pursuits in civil life calculated to keep up the tension of excitement like life in a camp of a great army in time of war. On the 9th a soldier who was a deserter and bounty jumper was taken outside the works and shot in the presence of a whole division. The night following three of the Tenth Connecticut Infantry substitutes deserted to the enemy, passing through our lines, where some of the Twelfth were on picket. One of them shot at tile deserters, but missed them. The enemy had issued an order saying that all deserters from our army should be sent through the lines North, and that was the reason those fellows deserted.
(561) On the 21st our division was reviewed, and this same day one hundred guns were fired from Fort Harrison on the north side of the James and near the camp of the Twelfth, in honor of the taking of Charleston and Columbia, S. C., by Sherman. The next day a salute was fired in honor of Washington's birthday. Twelve days later, March 7th, the news was received in camp of Sheridan's victory at Waynesboro, in the Valley, over Early, in which nearly all the latter's force was captured. No doubt Sheridan's cavalry, the loyal people everywhere and especially the citizens along the Baltimore & Ohio railroad in the Valley were jubilant over this final elimination of Jubal.
(562) On the 17th our corps was reviewed by Gen. Grant and staff, accompanied by a number of distinguished gentlemen and ladies. Among them was Admiral Porter, Secretary Stanton, Mrs. Grant and many others. An incident of this review is remembered. The troops were closely massed by brigades perhaps. The Fifty-fourth Pennsylvania commanded by Major Davis, belonged, it will be remembered, to our brigade. Davis was a nervous, excitable man. As Grant and staff were passing rapidly in front of the troops, the various brigades and divisions, greeted them with a great volume of cheers. This excited Davis, and as Grant drew near, the former, his eyes shining and apparently bulging out, in an excited and vehement manner, gave the command to his men to cheer, throwing in a simile more forcible than polite, saying, "Cheer like - men!" causing the whole brigade to burst forth in laughter. Sad to say this officer was afterward killed at the capture of Fort Gregg.
(563) The boys generally made up their minds on the occasion of this grand review that something was about to be done. Experience had made them shrewd in interpreting transactions relating to the army in general; in putting this and that together. And right here it may be well to speak of what was regarded as a possible undertaking before the Army of the James. In front of and along part of our lines quite near to us and in plain view were the Rebel breast works with abatis in front. Back of these were numerous forts mounted with cannon, the forts commanding each other so that if one were taken it would be under the fire of the others. Besides, as was generally known after the capture of Richmond, there were torpedoes planted in front of their forts to make them still more impregnable. Looking at the Rebel defences from our side, it seemed that to undertake their capture it would be like rushing into a death-trap. And yet our men fronting them regarded this desperate task as far from improbable.
(564) On the 19th eight deserters from the Palmetto Sharpshooters, all from one company, came into our division headquarters. They, it seemed, had got a sufficiency of "rights," also about all the dying-in-the-last-ditch they cared for, and as to the "stars and bars" and "The Bonny Blue Flag" - well, they were willing to part from them for a time at least.
(565) On the 22nd Gen. Turner was assigned to the command of our division, Gen. Harris thereafter to command the Third Brigade. Two days later we received orders to be ready to march at 6 o'clock the next morning, the 25th. We moved out at daylight that day, Sheridan, being on his return from the Valley to Grant's Army, and as the evening might, it was supposed, try to intercept him, our movement was in aid of him. We went as far as the Chickahominy, passing over a part of McClelllan's old battlefields; but we saw nothing of Sheridan, he having crossed farther down the stream. We returned to out camp in the evening. In passing over the ground of the Seven Days' Fight, numerous bones of the fallen brave could be seen. A rather grotesque incident occurred on this march to and from the historic Chickahominy.
(566) Asst. Surgeon Neil of the Twelfth at that time was something of a wag. Moving slowly and cautiously along over the battlefield, as we did, he had ample time to pick up a skull, which he did. There was a round hole in it, just as such a musket ball would make, and it needed no telling that that was what made it. The command coming to a temporary halt, he held up the skull, and assuming an air of solemnity, began a sort of mock lecture somewhat after the manner of a phrenologist. He said in substance about as follows:
(567) "Gentlemen," said he, "examining the bumps upon this cranium hastily, yet as carefully as circumstances will at present permit, assisted by the light of past and passing events, I think that I may say, with a confidence amounting to conviction, and that vote will be justified in accepting my statement as an assured fact, that the original possessor of this poll was evidently of a more or less combative disposition. And gentlemen, judging from the light of current history, and the apparent time that this skull has lain where it was picked up, and the patent, convincing, ocular evidence sustaining me in the assertion, I have no doubt that the wearer of this cranium died of a gun shot wound."
(568) The boys within hearing smiled, some audibly, and as the march was resumed their arms and equipments felt less heavy on account of this display of waggishness.