SUFFOLK TO MANASSAS – ‘THE PENINSULAR CAMPAIGN
Table of Contents
IT may be well to designate this as the second Peninsular campaign, in distinction from that of McClellan the previous year. Doubtless, this was designed by the war department as an important demonstration in favor of General Meade, by drawing off troops from Lee; bot just what the head of our department expected to accomplish by the expedition has ever been to the writer a mystery. One thing, however, is certain, the affair was a miserable failure. In studying the subject we learn that our historians differ materially. Greeley regarded it as a bona fide movement for the capture of Richmond, while Lee was invading the North, and believed it could and should have been accomplished. Headly says: “It was only a faint movement, but should have been a real one.”It was surely a very faint affair. One writer says: “It was one of the most ill advised, worst executed, and fruitless military movements of the war,”a statement which no one present will for a moment dispute.
It is a fact, however, that no army ever started with brighter expectations of great accomplishments, and which might have been realized had the expedition been managed by competent and determined leaders. We had learned of Lee’s northward movement, also of the comparatively defenseless condition of Richmond, and were animated with the thought that our mission was none other than the capture of the rebel capital. This feeling of anticipation was shared alike by officers and men. It cheered our hearts and lightened our steps as we made the tedious march up the Peninsula from Yorktown to White House Landing, over McClellan’s old route. While Meade was racing with Lee up in Pennsylvania, it would have been an easy matter for this large and well disciplined army, gathered at the doors of ·Richmond, to have walked into that devoted city, defended by a force, not over a third as large as ours, and composed largely of exempts organized as militia.
General Dix, commanding Fortress Monroe, had the general oversight of the enterprise, while General Keyes directed the movements in the field. In front of them lay opened a golden opportunity to strike a telling blow toward the crushing of the Rebellion. No man ever commanded a more enthusiastic army, eagerly awaiting the. opportunity to execute the movement. But we were doomed to bitter disappointment. Instead of a bold and determined attack, our timorous general only puttered around, skirmishing a little here and there, and accomplished nothing worthy of the cost of the movement. At the very moment when Grant was receiving the surrender of Vicksburg, and Meade hurling back the forces of Lee at Gettysburg, this most shameful farce was being enacted in front of Richmond.
During our three weeks of “masterly inactivity”on the Peninsula, we can record but one really brilliant achievement; namely, the bold dash of the gallant old Colonel Spear, with a force of 1,050 cavalrymen, within the rebel lines, to Hanover Courthouse and elsewhere, destroying many bridges, capturing or killing one hundred and twenty-five of the enemy, besides securing a large number of horses and mules, army wagons, sets of a new harness, rebel stores, and $15,000 in new Confederate bonds. Among the prisoners were twenty officers, including Brig.-Gen. Wm. H. F. Lee, son of the rebel chieftain.
Had the entire command on the Peninsula devolved upon this capable leader, instead of the weak-kneed Keyes, the record of our doings would have been very different. The brave old colonel chafed under the restraint, and the writer personally heard him tell Colonel Gibbs, “Give me ten thousand men, and I will guarantee the capture of Richmond within three days, and release our prisoners.”Certainly, with a splendid army more than double that size he could have done it. Yea, he would have done it.
General Getty, with about eight thousand men, also visited Hanover Courthouse later, leaving the White House the last of June and returning July 7. Aside from the destruction of a few miles of railroad, nothing of
importance was accomplished. He, too, according to Secretary Stanton’s letter to General Dix, magnified the rebel forces to his front.
In cooperation with Getty, at Hanover, General Keyes with six thousand men, the One Hundred and Thirtieth New York included, marched in the direction of Bottom’s Bridge. But for five days the doughty commander cautiously skirmished around, apparently trembling in every limb lest perchance be might catch sight of a Johnny Reb. July 4 we had a tilt with the enemy at Baltimore Cross Roads, the only occurrence of the trip having the semblance of a battle. The farce over, we were hurriedly marched back to Yorktown, reaching that place July 10, 1863, and the next day took boats for Washington. The following quotation from a nursery rhyme gives the sum total of our Peninsular campaign:-
“The king of France with twice ten thousand men. Marched up the hill -and then marched down again.”
Just who was most responsible for the failure, it is hard to decide; but one thing is sure, the correspondence be tween Dix and Keyes showed incompetency in both, and it makes one tired to read their wishy-washy reports as given in the “Official Records of the War.”The following will show how the war department regarded the matter:-
WAR DEPARTMENT, WASHINGTON, July 7, 1863.
Major-General Dix, Fort Monroe.
Sir: We feel a good deal chagrined at the slight results of the late operations In your department. G1meral Getty in all probability multiplied the enemy’s force two or three times, for his representations do not accord with the condition of things shown in Davis’s letter to Lee. The great murmuring in every quarter at the waste of force in your command will probably be a good deal aggravated by this last disappointment.
EDWIN M. STANTON.
Among the pleasant recollections of the Peninsula are our visits to various localities of historic interest in two wars. At Yorktown were the extensive works of Mc Olellan and those of the enemy; but what most interested us were the grounds made famous on account of Revolutionary associations, in the surrender of the English army under Lord Cornwallis to Washington. We also recall the old church, farther up the Peninsula, where Washington was married. Neither do we forget the refreshing change of diet afforded us by the delicious blackberries found in almost unlimited quantities.
While at Yorktown, Colonel Gibbs received papers from Washington to the effect that if the regiment would furnish half the horses needed, the transfer to cavalry might be made. The regiment, on being called into line, quickly pledged the horses, and a dispatch was forwarded to Washington accordingly.
YORKTOWN TO MANASSAS
Leaving Yorktown on July 11, we arrived in Washington the next afternoon. After supper at the Soldiers’ Retreat, we embarked on cars for Frederick City, Md., at which place we remained until the evening of the 16th. Here we were assigned to General Patrick’s command, and especially to General Meade’s headquarters. When Colonel Gibbs reported to Meade with his regiment, the General was so favorably impressed by its fine appearance that he at once appointed it to this post of honor.
About this time Lee was crossing or had crossed, the Potomac at Falling Waters, and a large portion of the Union Army was in the vicinity of Frederick. It will be remembered that when the fact became known that Lee had been permitted to escape into Virginia, there went up a loud wail of bitter disappointment from the men who had just whipped the traitor army at Gettysburg, and who had hemmed in on the banks of the swollen river, where it could have been almost destroyed. They felt very much as we did over our recent shameful retreat from before Richmond because of the miserable cowardice or mismanagement of Dix and Keyes. It became known that, at a council of corps commanders, Meade expressed his desire to attack Lee, and was sustained by Howard, Wadsworth, and Pleasanton, while Sedgwick, Slocum, French, Hayes, and Sykes opposed. The three who favored the attack were extolled, while the five who opposed were denounced in unmeasured terms. The rank and file knew it meant another year of fighting.
Before starting upon their march, July 16, the regiment relieved itself of knapsacks, storing them at a farmhouse.
Up to this time the writer had been on every march and expedition of the regiment, and was never away from it; but circumstances entirely beyond control now compelled an absence of twenty-six days, twenty-four of which were spent in the United States hospital at Frederick City, Md. The brief description of what transpired on the march from that place to Manassas, via. Warrenton is gathered from Lieutenant Flint’s pamphlet, the diary of Comrade E. R. Robinson, the notes of Major Smith, and some other sources.
In starting upon the march the boys had a great laugh at the expense of the field officers, who usually ride. For some reason, their horses had not arrived in time, and greatly to their discomfort and chagrin, colonels, major, adjutant, and doctors had to take the “shoemakers’ line;” but just how far they had to “hoof it”is not stated. Although they were not very good-natured about the mishap, some of the boys could not resist the temptation to do a little chaffing by inquiring if they were walking out for their health, or taking a little exercise to settle their stomach.
By a forced night march the regiment overtook the Potomac army at Berlin. Crossing the Potomac River on pontoons it shared the exciting race of the two armies on parallel roads, back as far as Warrenton,· toward their old position on the Rappahannock. The course took them through Union Town, Upperville, Piedmont, past Snicker’s and Asby’s Gaps, and Salem, reaching Warrenton on the 25th. Here most of the men were gladdened by the receipt of the first mail since leaving the Peninsula. Here also occurred the burial of Alonzo Hodges, of Company D.
One contributor of incidents relates to how a certain lieutenant of our regiment was overmatched by a sergeant in a little flirtation episode at Warrenton. At a house near the camp were two rather pretty girls, with whom some of the boys formed an acquaintance, the lieutenant being particularly impressed with the charms of the older one. One evening one of the boys from the One Hundred and Thirtieth and a sergeant from another regiment called upon the young ladies. The sergeant was entertained in the sitting room by the older girl, while the younger girl and the other chap retired to the adjoining parlor. Matters were progressing nicely when the lieutenant called and was greatly irritated to discover a plebeian interfering with his plans and purposes. But a bright idea struck him, by which he hoped to get rid of the obnoxious sergeant. He informed the intruder that he was on provost duty, and required to arrest all soldiers without a pass. He however generously offered to let the offender off this time, providing he would at once return to his regiment. The man took his departure but soon thought himself that the officer was without a sword or other badge of authority, and not on duty. Re-entering the house, and finding his rival comfortably seated in a large rocker, he boldly charged the shoulder-strapper with trying to play a measly trick on him, adding, “Mister, when doing the military duty you rank me, but when it comes to sparking, I’m just as good a fellow as you are, and if you don’t get out of here, I’ll mop the floor with you.”The poor lieutenant being the weaker man, deemed “prudence the better part of valor, “and retired; but the man from the One Hundred and Thirtieth who witnessed the affair from the darkened parlor considered it too good a thing to keep from the boys.
But the circumstance, which above all others occurring at Warrenton, and which aroused t4e regiment to a high pitch of enthusiasm and rejoicing, was the welcome announcement that the long-ta]ked-of and hoped-for transfer from infantry to cavalry had been made. The strenuous efforts of Colonel Gibbs had at length been rewarded with success, and our regiment was the recipient of honors bestowed upon no other in the history of the war. There were regiments of mounted infantry, but no other instance in which an absolute transference from infantry to cavalry occurred. The special orders from the war department touching this transfer bears date July 28, 1863, and five days later the following order of instructions was received:-
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, Aug. 2, 1863.
Special Order, No. I06.
The One Hundred and Thirtieth New York Volunteers, Col. A. Gibbs, having been converted by Special Orders No. 335, of the 28th ultimo, from the war department, into a regiment of cavalry, will proceed to Manassas Junction, and there form a camp of instruction for the purpose of being recognized and receiving its arms and equipment. I will be put In a condition for active service in the field with the least delay practicable. The regiment is attached to the cavalry corps, and reports and returns will hereafter be rendered accordingly.
By command of
MAJOR GENERAL MEADE
In obedience to orders, the regiment moved by rail, August 3, from Warrenton Junction to Union Mills, and on the 6th established its first camp at Manassas Junction, entering with great acts upon the work of adapting the regiment to the cavalry service.
In concluding this chapter your historian takes advantage of the privilege accorded to all dragoons, to introduce several incidents of personal experience. It is done, in part, however, as a tribute of respect to two honored and beloved members of the regiment, Colonel Gibbs and Surgeon Kneeland.
It may be remembered that on our last Black-Water march when returning to Suffolk that very hot day, with the rest of the band I had repeatedly run ahead and brought to the roadside tubs and pails of cool water for the boys, whici1 was very exhausting work. The next day I was overtaxed in packing my own effects and marking all the regimental baggage. Reaching Yorktown, I was sick, but kept on duty while on the Peninsula and until reaching Frederick City. For over a month I had suffered continuously with that well-known “army complaint,”and was literally reduced to a skeleton, being so weakened as to be able to walk only with the assistance of one of my band boys. Colonel Gibbs noticing this, remarked, “Bowen, you are in no condition to march farther; but I want you with the regiment, and will get you into an ambulance or wagon. Lie down by the fence, and I’ll send Doctor Kneeland.”
”Jim,”said the doctor, “you’re a mighty sick man. Why in the devil haven’t you reported to me? You’re neither fit to walk or ride, and I’m afraid you’re past saving, but we’ll get you into the hospital and give you a chance.”
While yet by the fence, the colonel came to bid me goodbye, and during the short conversation I learned that though a rigid disciplinarian he had a heart susceptible to the tenderest feelings, even to the shedding of tears. As he shook my band he handed me a two-dollar bill, remarking, “Take this; a little money may come in handy.”
On reaching the hospital, a doctor examined me, and soon after “Sister Agnese,”our ward nurse, inquired if there was any word I wished to send my friends; also what I wanted to be done with my blanket, fife, etc. In explanation, she informed me that the doctor said I could not Iive until morning.
Next came a priest, who said I was at the point of death, and he would administer extreme functions.
“What’s that? “I inquired. With some surprise, he asked: ” Are you not a Catholic?”
“No, I’m a Methodist.”
At this, he left me as though I had smallpox.
Instead of dying, I gradually improved, until soon able to sit up a little. One morning a man came through the ward with some milk. No drunkard ever hankered for liquor worse than did I for milk. He would neither give nor sell, but said that near the hospital gate was a family where milk could be had. With the help of a man on either side, I was taken to the house, where I met a lady who proved to be the “good Samaritan “whom I have ever believed was, more than all others, instrumental in my restoration to health, and whose acquaintance, through correspondence, has been maintained to the present time. I could not have received greater kindness had she been my own mother. I was placed on a conch, and served with a deliciously refreshing drink of cool, sweet milk, better to me than the “nectar that Jupiter sips.”Through the influence of the hospital musician, I, fortunately, secured a pass enabling me to spend part of nearly every day in this hospitable borne of Mrs. Lucy Reich, cordially welcomed by herself and her husband. From her hand, I received nourishing food and home remedies, which worked like magic in restoring me to health. The surroundings were also more congenial than at the overcrowded hospital with its eighteen hundred to two thousand patients, where everything was run on the ” red tape “line; and where every official and employee, from the chief manager down to the “contract doctors “and bummer nurses, acted the part of petty tyrants. These sneaks, too cowardly to go to the front, were the most contemptible specimens of humanity I met during my three years of war experience.
This tyranny of bossism became so unbearable that a mutual agreement was made between a large number of soldiers not to salute any of the pompous officials, especially the contract doctors, a slight which they took prompt measures to suppress, by arresting all offenders and compelling them to remain in bed. In passing one of the doctors without a salutation, he turned savagely upon me with,
“Why don’t you salute your superiors?“
” I always do, sir,”was my reply.
A few minutes later, for the first and only time in the service, I was put under arrest. I had become personally acquainted with the officer in charge of the grounds, who was in full sympathy with us and sent him a note regarding my arrest. It was. not long before he sent the officer of the day, who demanded my prompt release. The only persons connected with the affairs of the hospital, of whom I have pleasant recollections, are the camp guards, the drummer, and the Sisters of Charity.
One day some officers, accompanied by our ward doctor, took the names of several convalescents, mine with the rest. In answer to my inquiries, the doctor informed me that I had been assigned to the invalid corps. I remembered, but he said that it was of no use; I must go. That day the following letter was mailed to Colonel Gibbs:-
UNITED STATES GENERAL HOSPITAL, FREDERICK CITY, MD., Aug. 10, 1863.
Col. Alfred Gibbs.
Respected Sir: I have just been informed by our ward doctor that I am assigned to the “dysentery corps, “but wish to say that I emphatically protest against being taken from our regiment, and I appeal to you, Colonel, to save me from such a fate if it is in your power to do so. I am on the gain and think I can go to the regiment without danger now. Respectfully Yours,
JAMES R. BOWEN.
Dr. Kneeland informed me that he was in the Colonel’s tent when my letter reached him and that he seemed much affected. Passing the letter over to the Doctor, he remarked very feelingly: “Doctor, that’s a sample of the men of which my regiment is composed.”The Colonel answered the letter by sending Captain Thorp with full authority to bring me back with him. Our pompous doctor stormed and protested that I would never be fit for duty in the field. “Can’t help it, “replied Thorp; “my orders are to take him with me.” And with him I went, having had an all-sufficiency of hospital life.