VARIOUS EXPERIENCES AT SUFFOLK
Table of Contents
We can only glance at the more prominent incidents of our army life in this old-fashioned Southern village, where we, as raw recruits, were transformed into a well disciplined and effective regiment, destined, before the expiration of our term of service, to be participants in some of the hardest-fought battles and severest campaigns of the war, and earning a reputation for fighting qualities second to no regiment in the service.
At the very mention of Suffolk, what a host of memories come trooping up. At the period of our occupation it was a sleepy though the somewhat aristocratic place of fewer than two thousand people, and like those at Norfolk, intensely disloyal in sentiment. Almost without exception, the white population were of a sour countenance and not disposed to be social with our soldiers. Many of the men were away in the rebel army.
Aside from its strategic position, it was a place of no great importance. But owing to its geographical location at the junction of two railroads, together with its access by water to the seaboard, and covering the land ward approaches to Norfolk, virtually commanding all that portion of Virginia and North Carolina east of the Black Water and Chowan Rivers, its importance as a base for military operations was at once apparent. That the Confederates regarded it as a point of great military importance is clearly evinced, not only by their official reports and correspondence, to which we now have access but by the many desperate efforts they constantly put forth for its recapture during our sojourn there.
Our first work was the clearing up of a campground, removing old logs and stomps, grubbing out laurel bushes, and leveling up the surface. During our first week at this work occurred our first experience with a Virginia rainstorm, with no shelter but small “pup tents,” and not even a rubber blanket. The rainfall continued without cessation until our clothing became thoroughly saturated. 0, how it poured. We were reminded of the days of Noah when the “foundations of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.” If any had been skeptical regarding the story of Noah’s flood, all now admitted not only its possibility but probability. The newly dog-over camp was soon churned to deep mud, and the men were literally daubed from head to foot. Altogether a more melancholy and bedraggled set of mortals it would have been hard to find.’ Some swore, the homesick ones almost cried, while the more philosophical ones tried to put on a cheerful face, and jokingly inquired, “Who wouldn’t be a soldier, and die for his country?”
Do you ask how we slept? Well, we didn’t sleep much, for the water had flowed into our tents and saturated the bedding; but by putting the brush on the ground under the blankets, and using knapsacks for pillows, we did the best we could, but found our sleeping accommodations quite different from the comfortable beds we left up North. As the men fell in for roll call the next morning, they had the appearance of chief mourners at a funeral.
In this connection, the writer recalls an act of kindness that has never been forgotten. While sitting in the little tent, shivering and trying to satisfy hunger with a piece of pork and hardtack, a man, I think from the Sixty-second Ohio, passing on our street, said to me: –
“Rather tough, ain’t it, pard?”And then added, “I’ve gotta good fire over at my tent. Come and get warm.”
Never was an invitation more gladly accepted. Not only did the tire dry the wet clothing, but a cup of hot coffee and a dish of beans and soft bread gladdened the appetite.
We had two camps while there, the first on the Edenton road, east of the village, and in the immediate vicinity of the Great Dismal Swamp, a locality rendered famous by Tom Moore’s exquisite poem entitled “The Lake of the Dismal Swamp,” his description of the place being perfect:-
“Away to the Dismal Swamp, he speeds-
His path was rugged and sore,
Through tangled juniper, beds of reeds, Through many a fen where the serpent feeds.
And man never trod before.”
Almost immediately sickness began to prevail, owing to the use of wretchedly poor surface water and the deadly miasma floating in the atmosphere. The doctor declared it was no wonder sickness was prevalent, when the noxious effluvia were so dense it could be sliced off with a knife.
The improvised hospitals were quickly filled, and notwithstanding the most skillful medical aid, the grim messenger gathered his harvest of victims. Almost daily the death march and muffled drums were heard, as some poor boy was borne by loving comrades to his last earthly resting place until the muster roll of every company bore the legend, “Died in hospital at Suffolk.”
Among the victims was Capt. Jeremiah Hatch, of Co. F, a man loved and respected by all. At home, he had been prominent as an educator and member of the Wyoming County bar, and also active in the organization of the One Hundred and Thirtieth New York. His loss was sincerely mourned by all. His son, Judge E. W. Hatch, has long been an honorary member of the regiment, and a favorite speaker at their reunions.
Notwithstanding sickness, the regiment was rapidly perfected in military practice and discipline, and our camps were models of neatness.
Our first hospital accommodations were very meager indeed, an old barn being utilized for that purpose, in which from fifty to a hundred of the poor, sick boys were confined, with corn stalks for bedding. The hospital headquarters were at an old house near the barn, but comforts for the invalids were scarce at either place. Our overtaxed surgeon chafed under this condition of affairs and did all in his power to correct matters, but his every step was blocked by red tape and the bullheadedness of certain officials who seemed more in sympathy with the secesh element than the sick Union soldiers. An extract from a letter written on Oct. 5, 1862, illustrates the condition of things:-
“Near our camp lives a rich and very aristocratic old secesh, who, it is hoped, will be ordered away, and his house and grounds confiscated for hospital purposes. It seems too bad to keep our poor boys in the old leaky barn and let this insolent old traitor and his family stay here, and not only freely express their rebel sentiments, but constantly heap insult and abuse upon us. Some of his women remarked the other day that the old barn was too good for such low-born Yankee trash, and the old chap says they may cut his tongue into strings before he will take the oath of allegiance. A sick man dragged himself over there yesterday to try to buy some milk, but only received a torrent of abuse, and yet this rank old secessionist has guards constantly detailed by order of our milk-and-water commander to protect his property. You ought to hear Dr. Kneeland express his opinion of what he terms ‘a damnable outrage upon our men.’ If Doc. had his way, that shameful nest of treason would soon be cleaned out, and our sick placed in comfortable quarters.”
Quite naturally there was more or less complaint in regard to the commissary supplies dealt out to the regiment, but our efficient regimental quartermaster, Abram B. Lawrence, did all in his power to furnish the best the government provided; but no old soldier need be told that even the best seemed to the boys, just from homes of plenty, very poor stuff to subsist upon. Quartermaster Lawrence also provided us with “A “tents, which were set upon log foundations, and with log fireplaces plastered with mud, made comfortable quarters.
Soon after our arrival at Suffolk, our new colonel, Alfred Gibbs, came to us and assumed command of his regiment. He had been appointed at the suggestion of General McClellan (his classmate at West Point) and brought with him the experience of twenty years’ service in the regular army. Though a rigid disciplinarian, his kindness of heart soon drew the regiment to him in a strong bond of confidence and respect. That these feelings were reciprocated we never had reason to doubt. After his promotion to brigadier and brevet major-general, he always referred to the Dragoons as “my boys.”
Our regiment was also fortunate in other field officers, Lieut.-Col. Thomas J. Thorp and Major Rufus Scott both had served a year under McClellan and bore honorable scars of the Peninsular Campaign.
The splendid record attained by our regiment was largely due to the bravery and skill of these two young but efficient officers, who so gallantly led us in many a hard-fought battle. It is also proper here to voice a sentiment which doubtless is in harmony with the view of every dragoon, that no regiment bad a more faithful surgeon, or our boys, all through their trying experiences, a better friend, than Dr. Benjamin T. Kneeland.
We were no idlers, for even before our camps were completed, large details were made by General Peck for fatigue duty, and the boys became proficient in the use of a pick, shovel, and ax in the construction of forts and long lines of rifle pits. One comrade writes: “We performed the shoveling and chopping with good grace, but kicked vigorously when turned into horses, and were compelled to haul large logs for the breastworks.”These vast lines of forts and breastworks extended for miles around Suffolk.
In this connection, an amusing incident occurred. As the commanding general was passing our camp on the main road to South Quay bridge, a witty Irishman, Owen Caragher, who had been on many detailed digging forts, was on guard. Not being correctly saluted, the General halted and brusquely ordered him to present arms properly. This he did, when the General remarked: –
“See here, my man, you have a rusty gun.”
Scrutinizing the gun carefully, Owen remarked: –
“Sure, Gineral, indade, it’s a bit rusty for want of use; but bedad it ‘s mesilf as has a spade down at me tint, bright as a new shillin’, that yez can see yer face in like a lookin’ glass,”
The General saw the point, and as he rode away, smilingly replied:
“You may soon have a chance to brighten your gun also by use.”
But we had numerous duties besides building forts. Daily drills of the severest kind, picket guard, and various camp duties, interspersed with long and tedious tramps to the Blackwater or a grand review. The camp streets and parade grounds must be kept as clean as a parlor floor. Arms and accouterments must be furbished and kept bright, for Colonel Gibbs bad brought with him the rigid requirements of West Point, and we were taught that no excuse would be accepted for dirt, disorder, or disobedience.
Early in December, at the argent request of Surgeon Kneeland, oar camp was removed to a healthier location, a mile or more west of the village and near the South Quay bridge, which crosses the Nansemond, and all oar work expended on the other camp had to be done over. When completed, however, it was pronounced the model regimental home of the department. (See Google Maps Location of the second camp here)
A regimental infantry camp covered several acres and was laid out in accordance with army regulations. Each of the ten companies had a short company street of its own, about two rods in width, with a row of tents on either side facing the street. This brought the tents of the several companies back to back with a small space between, with the exception of the outer rows of the two end companies. In front of these rows of tents, and running at a right angle was the color line. This marked the line of our parade ground, where the regiment formed for the dress parade, and where guard mounting and various drills were held. A few paces to the rear of each row of tents were located the company cook houses. A few paces farther to the rear came the company_ officers’- quarters in a line at right angles with the company streets. The field and staff officers’ quarters were still farther back, and on a line parallel with the company officers, all tents facing the regiment. With us, the musicians were located in line with the field and staff.
Regarding our long and often tiresome drills, a word of comment will be in place. Many of us felt them un necessarily frequent and severe. Company drills in the morning and battalion drills all afternoon, putting the men through every evolution Hardee ever put in print or dreamed of, so that after our evening dress parade the men were as weary as after a hard day’s work in the harvest field or shop. Later on, we learned that these drills were just what we needed. By the way, boys, pause a moment. Listen! What familiar strain do we hear as it comes floating down through the years? Ah! we all recognize the melodious voice of ” Col. Tom, “and his ringing command, “Double-quick!”
While we were sweltering in the heat, intensified by our rapid exercise, some of the other regiments were quietly resting in the shade or gathering on the borders. of our drill ground to chaff us. But a march to the Blackwater is to be made: let us take note of the various regiments. Those easy-going fellows started out nimble as kittens, and for the first few miles marched with columns well closed up, and were a jolly set; but they soon began to lag, and the orders were, ” Close up there, you men! “Their tender feet began to blister, and they soon became such a sorry, straggling set, that a detail of the One Hundred and Thirtieth New York was put in their rear, with fixed bayonets, to keep them from lining the road with stragglers. It was now our turn to laugh. Our constant drilling had accustomed us to such hard exercise, while they were as tender as babes. Many a time also did we see the benefits of our splendid discipline when on the field of battle. As our gallant officers gave their commands there was a quick response, and no confusion occurred from a misunderstanding of orders.
Regarding our army organization, the department was commanded by Gen. John A. Dix, with headquarters at Fort Monroe, the forces at Suffolk being commanded by Maj.-Gen. John J. Peck. Although the latter never made a reputation for himself as a noted warrior, his skill and experience fitted him for the requirements of that place, our position being one of danger and requiring strong fortifications.
We were first attached to the brigade of General Spinola, remembered by many not so much for his generalship as for his big white-collar, which the boys ungal lately dubbed “the flag of truce.”. Afterward, we were assigned to the provisional brigade commanded by our Colonel Gibbs, and still later to the brigade of Gen. Alfred Terry, of whom we have pleasant memories.
We all doubtless recall our first experience with the “long roll, “occurring soon after our arrival. Lieutenant-Colonel Thorp, for disciplinary purposes, determined to try the effect of a false alarm upon the regiment; and so, at midnight, when all were wrapt in profound repose, he ordered the “long roll “sounded. The result was ludacris in the extreme. The men awakened from a sound sleep, and as they heard the r-r-r-r-r-r-r of the drum, tumbled out of their huts in great haste, in various conditions of dishabille, and began loading their muskets to meet the foe, whom they supposed was about to swoop down upon them. Some trembled so with ·excitement that they could scarcely put the caps on the nipples of their guns. A few weak-kneed ones broke for the woods back of the camp. One big fellow, as he was pulled out of the laurel bushes about noon the next day, tremblingly asked, “Have they come, have they come 1″The ruse served a good purpose, however, for the men never afterward lost their heads in either a false or a genuine alarm; and some of the men who at first were pitifully timid, made splendid soldiers, never flinching when bullets were flying thick and men were falling all about them.
Our fears upon the occasion just mentioned were intensified by assurances from some of Colonel Spear’s veteran cavalry, who, hearing the racket, had strolled over to our camp, and fairly paralyzed some of the greenies with their descriptions of the situation.
“Be we going to have a fight?”
“You’re jest right we are. The rebs have driven us fellers all in, and surrounded the place. It won’t be more’ n an hour ‘fore they’ll be here and kill every son of a gun of ye.”
THE LOST MUSTER ROLLS
The incident of the lost muster rolls, occurring during our homesick period, will also be recalled. In some manner, the original muster rolls of the regiment had disappeared. Members of the old Thirteenth Indiana learning of this assured our boys that owing to the absence of those documents, we would be released from service to the government by refusing to answer at roll call. Unfortunately, some of the regiment acted upon the suggestion, and a spirit of insubordination manifested itself in certain quarters; however, after explanations by Colonel Gibbs and General Spinola, the excitement subsided, and when the men were called into line, all but a few answered promptly to their names.
“NO CHAPLAIN NEEDED HERE”
I recall but one instance where many of the men felt, and still feel, that our grand Old Colonel Gibbs was really deserving of censure. Many in the regiment were from Christian homes and expressed a desire of the Colonel for the appointment of a chaplain. During the spring of 1863 many applications for the chaplaincy had been made, and all were coldly rejected. A visiting minister, well known to many, was even refused permission to hold a service in camp. At this time the writer was directed by Colonel Gibbs to obtain the largest board to be found, and in bold letters paint the words, “No chaplain needed here.”This sign was put in the most conspicuous place, attracting much attention and unfavorable comment from newspaper reporters, as well as arousing an undercurrent of righteous indignation through out the regiment; so much so, that one morning the obnoxious sign was missing, having been torn down by the indignant men. These men were loyal, patriotic, and brave, and would have followed their gallant colonel into the very jaws of death, but would not submit to such an insult, even from one of the best officers in the army. The Colonel evidently realized he was treading on dangerous ground, as he made no special effort to search out the despoilers of his sign.
Of the other regiments at Suffolk, we recall the One Hundred and Twelfth, One Hundred and Thirty-second, One Hundred and Sixty-second, One Hundred and Fifty-fifth, Sixteenth, Sixty-ninth, and Ninety-ninth New York; the Sixty-second and Sixty-seventh Ohio; the Fifty-eighth, Eighty-fifth, One Hundred and Seventeenth, One Hundred and Sixty-seventh, and One Hundred and Seventy-fifth Pennsylvania; the old Sixth Massachusetts,-Hawkins’s Zouaves; Corcoran’s Legion; and during the siege, the whole of Getty’s division of the Ninth Corps.
Of the cavalry, we remember more particularly that gallant old fighter, Col. Sam Spear, and his Eleventh Pennsylvania troopers; also Dodge’s Mounted Rifles; both regiments performing valuable service in reconnoitering the outlying territory about Suffolk, closely watching all movements of the enemy.
As the One Hundred and Thirtieth saw much of Colonel Spear, the following sketch from a San Francisco paper by an interesting writer of war reminiscences, Lieut. J. N. Flint will be appropriate: –
”The officer who stood among the highest in the estimation of the rank and file for bravery in the field, was Col. Sam Spear, of the Eleventh Pennsylvania Cavalry. He was absolutely a stranger to fear, a veritable Paul Jones on land. An unwritten military code did not permit cavalrymen to sharpen their sabers more than ten inches from the point, but the gallant old colonel, always conspicuous for reckless daring in a saber fight, had a queer habit of cutting off men’s ears. At the conclusion of a skirmish in southeastern Virginia, I saw at least half a dozen Confederate prisoners bearing his peculiar earmarks. Spear was never content without some kind of a fight.”
A transaction, characteristic of the man, was witnessed by many of our regiment during a lively skirmish out on the Blackwater. As some of the men were trying to dodge the whistling bullets, Spear became impatient, and stepping out in plain view, shouted to the Johnnies,
“Try old Spear.”Of course, this challenge drew their fire, but not a ball touched him; and after standing as a target a short time, he coolly started along the line, telling the boys “Give them fellows over there h-1.”
Aside from our general officers were several people of note, among them Lieutenants ¥c Ardle and James, engineers in the construction of several forts. But perhaps the most unique character, and most generally known, was the famous Ned Buntline (Z. N. Judson), who before and during the war had gained a wide reputation as a writer, in the New York Ledger and other papers, of wild-west, war, and sea-stories. He served as a private in the First New York Mounted Rifles, but his associations were to quite an extent with various officers of the department, none of whom outranked him in the consumption of commissary whisky. In that respect, his capacity was almost unbounded. The writer once saw him staggering in the streets of our regiment, stupidly drunk, and heard him remark, “Well, I must sober up and write my next chapter for the Ledger.”His army adventures furnished inexhaustible material for his stories, some of which were located along the Nansemond, in the vicinity of Suffolk and the Dismal Swamp.
Our soldier life at Suffolk was frequently enlivened by the presence of citizens from the North. Many of the sick will recall the smiling face and kind words of Mrs. Brifton, mother of our Captain Britton. Several of the officers’ wives made short visits. But perhaps no lady will be better remembered than Mrs. Mandana Thorp, the accomplished wife of our “Colonel Tom,”who spent considerable time with us, and who always had a pleasant smile or a cheery “Good morning”for all the boys. Later on at our reunions, no one received heartier greetings than this elect lady, not merely as the wife of our colonel, but because of her own intrinsic merit. Mrs. Thorp was a graduate of Alfred University. Her liberal education, combined with fine natural qualifications, has made her conspicuous in various reform movements since the close of the war. She has also raised a family, and cheerfully aided her husband in his business enterprises. At the grand review in Washington, in 1865, with her full eagle, she rode at the bead of the regiment, honored and respected by all.