Saturday, September 7, 2013

From Fredericksburg to The Crater till the war's end, Private Don E. Scott believed God was by his side

During a recent interview for The Daily Beast, Marc Wortman asked the Civil War historian James M. McPherson what stood out from his reading of thousands and thousands of letters written by soldiers. McPherson answered:

Private Don E Scott (Photo courtesy
of Anthony Mincu. Thanks!)
“The patriotic and ideological convictions of so many soldiers, which kept them in the ranks and fighting for two, three, four years despite their homesickness and fears of the consequences of death or wounds for themselves and their families. I was also struck by the religiosity of many soldiers.”

This mirrors my own reading of soldier letters. But like many other students of the war, I am far more interested in the soldiers' political views and battle experiences than in their religiosity. Perhaps this reflects the skeptical, secular age we live in.

I was reminded of this divide as I read the letters of Don E. Scott, a soldier from Warner, N.H. The letters are at the University of North Carolina, which has posted them online, and my friend David Morin transcribed them.

Scott’s father died when he was young, and his mother, Hannah, married Daniel Warren, a Congregationalist pastor, in 1856. Warren was called to a pulpit in Warner the following year, and Don moved there with the family. He was 13 years old.

At the age of 18, Scott volunteered to go to war. He had been a student at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden and joined the 9th New Hampshire Volunteers in the summer of 1862. He transferred to the 11th New Hampshire before the regiment left Concord. Although the letters do not explain the transfer, it is possible he preferred the 11th because its ranks included many men from Warner and the nearby towns of Henniker, Sutton and New London.

Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside led
the 9th Corps, which included the 11th
New Hampshire during much of
Don E. Scott's service.
Scott fought with the 11th at Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862, and during the siege of Vicksburg in the summer of 1863. The following spring, with the 6th and 9th New Hampshire in the New England brigade of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s 9th Corps, the 11th fought in the Wilderness and participated in the siege of Petersburg. Scott wrote a stirring account of the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864, in which he participated.

Scott’s religious beliefs appear to predate his mother’s marriage to the pastor. In his letters from the front, written mostly to his mother, he almost never mentioned his stepfather. He also wrote little about why he was fighting. He felt persecuted for his open expressions of godliness, and he tended to judge others by his perceptions of their faith.    

The Scott letters begin in Concord just before the 11th New Hampshire left for the South. “I have opportunity to come home but will not for I have already bidden the good people of Warner goodbye and don’t care to see them till I come home from the war a timeworn and honored patriot,” he wrote.

Moses N. Collins, the 11th’s major, hired Scott as a butler but soon sent him back to the ranks. Scott assured his mother that Collins found no fault in him but also complained that the major and others had ridiculed him for his Christian practices.

“My time is now my own & I am free to go where I please within the limits of the camp,” he wrote. “I can read, can write, can go by myself in the woods or elsewhere and pray. I can be gone an hour or two without thinking all the time what the major will want. I can now read my testament without fear of being ridiculed. I think I have written you before that instead of finding the major a Christian I very often have heard him make light of religion & religious persons & often I have been the object of his derision & the mark at which he aimed his shafts.”

Scott believed losing the butler’s job was God’s will. “I am removed from evil influence which bore upon my morals, [and] it is a kind Providence that removed me. . . . I feel confident it is for the best that God’s hand is in it, & that He would protect my defenseless head in every time of danger and he will also preserve my faith when open to exposures upon guard duty. . . . I shall patiently endure all things trusting in God, & knowing that he loves & cares for his children.”

After the battle of Fredericksburg, Scott penciled his mother a note that he was all right, then wrote her again on Dec. 21, eight days after the battle:

“It is the Sabbath but nothing has transpired to remind me of its sacredness. No familiar ringing of church bells reaches my ears – no tinkling of sleigh bells . . . as they warn the wayside churchman of the encroaching hour of worship. . . . Not even a prayer have I heard offered on this Holy day save from my own lips. You must be assured that it is trying to the Christian soul to be thus deprived of all religious advantages.”

During the battle Scott had somehow become separated from his regiment, a common occurrence for Union forces at Fredericksburg. The 11th New Hampshire marched up under artillery fire and halted for a half hour before hearing the order, “Forward, 11th.” Cannon fire slowed the charge, and “the infantry, protected by their rifle pits, poured in a murderous fire upon our advancing column,” Scott wrote.

“Everything was in uproar and confusion. The booming of cannon, the bursting of shell, the roar of musketry, the groans and cries of the wounded and dying, the wild cries of officers encouraging their men forward & the cheering of the men as they rushed upon the foe all combined to make a scene that is highly exciting to say the least. . . . God grant that I may never witness the like again.”

Because he “lost” his regiment, Scott worried that he might have been reported missing, causing his mother to worry. “I could tell you of my many hair breadth escapes but it will do no good & I am only grateful, more so than I can express, for the safe deliverance from the dangers of the battlefield. My courage is still good & in God I place my trust.”

Indeed both his mother and sister wrote to him to express concern. He responded that his mother’s letter was “fraught with the deepest anxiety for the welfare of a son which she had no means of knowing was alive or dead.” He found in her words love, comfort and cheer that only a mother could offer.

A few weeks later, in early January 1863, Scott’s tent-mate, Private William Wadsworth of Henniker, died of disease. “I’ve been acquainted with him since I first went to Henniker to school,” wrote Scott. “He was not I believe a professing Christian. Poor fellow! I hope he was prepared for his final charge.”

Five members of Scott’s company were now gone. “God only knows whose turn it will be next,” he wrote. “It is not impossible that before these lines meet the eye of the intended reader, the hand which is now penciling this may be cold and stiff. . . . Although God I believe in his infinite love and mercy will spare my life & enable me to return at some not very distant day to my home & friends; yet the fortunes of war are so changing & life is so uncertain, I dare not attempt to tell what a day may bring forth.”

He believed God cared for him “not for any worthiness of my own but for Jesus’s sake He loves me, loves me with such a love as mortals never feel. . . . If death seizes me for its victim, I cannot wish for life, for God thus wills it.”

By late January 1863, Scott had two new tent-mates, Privates William G. Harriman and George Clark, both of Henniker. He judged them on the basis of belief and behavior.  “One is a moral fellow & the other I’m afraid to say is profane and ungodly,” he wrote. “His mother is a Christian & would blush to hear her son thus profane. I may do him good.”

He missed church. “O God only knows how I long to enjoy even one Sabbath in the house of God, to attend unmolested the house of prayer,” he wrote.  “. . . But although I am deprived of frequent religious meetings & society, yet no man can deprive me of the privilege of communing in secret with my God.”

He found pleasure in his Bible. “Every night the last thing before lying down I take out my testament & read a chapter & before closing the book look at your likeness which I carry in it & giving it one long press with my lips return it to its place. How many times I have done this, & wished I could embrace the original you can never know.”

Like Scott, Walter Harriman, colonel of the 11th
New Hampshire, was from Warner. 
In late February Scott had a visit with Almira Harriman, wife of Walter Harriman, colonel of the 11th New Hampshire. The Harrimans were from Warner, and Almira had brought a message from his mother. His return message was a kiss.

“The kiss I gave her was the first civilized act I have done since I came into the army, or so it seems,” he wrote. “It seemed so good to kiss a woman that I did not get over the effects of it for a good while. I am highly pleased with your opinion of a soldier, a true soldier. I think as you say, there is no one deserving the name of a soldier but he who bears a gun, & enters the battlefield & does not shrink when danger is nigh. . . . I love to think of my mother as being so patriotic & noble possessing such self-sacrificing devotion to her country as to freely give her only son for its good, & to feel glad that he was a true soldier & exposed to danger.”

In the spring of 1863, things began looking up for Scott. The town of Warner approved a $150 enlistment bonus for him, and his regiment moved to Kentucky, a safer place where he at last got his wish to go to a real church.

O I cannot tell you what pleasure I experienced yesterday,” he wrote home. “For the second time since I left home I have had the opportunity of worshiping God in His own house and more than this I had the opportunity of observing the sacrament of the Lord ’s Supper. Our chaplain by invitation preached in the morning & directly after the services communion was holden. It was a blessed season to me & made me long for home & all the comforts & privileges of which I have been deprived. But thanking God for this manifestation of his goodness & mercy, I will try & wait in patience the arrival of that good time coming when peace shall be declared, & those now in arms shall lay them down & return to their loved friends and home.”

Soon the 11th was on the move again, this time to Mississippi to build fortifications for the siege of Vicksburg. “We are becoming acclimated somewhat, & we can endure the heat better than we could; and if the yellow fever & other contagious diseases do not come upon us, and we do not get in the way of the bullets, we shall come out of this awful hole all right,” he wrote home in June. He prayed for Vicksburg’s fall. “I know not how long the besieged city can hold out but I am willing to labor & wait, leaving events with God.”

Brig. Gen. Simon G. Griffin of Keene led the
1st Brigade of the 2nd Division of Ambrose
Burnside's 9th Corps at Vicksburg. Scott's 11th
New Hampshire served in Griffin's brigade.
This plaque in Vicksburg honors Griffin. 
After the rebels surrendered on July 4, the 11th pursued Gen. Joseph Johnston’s troops across Mississippi. Scott arrived in Jackson, the capital, after its sacking: “It is called a city but it is only what we would call in N.E. a country village. . . . The state capitol buildings & prison are here, but such ruin & desolation I never saw before. Whole blocks of buildings were burned down & some of the finest establishments in the place. The prison buildings were all destroyed by fire & in fact every house that was not burned was more or less injured by cannonballs & ransacked & plundered by soldiers both rebel & Federal.”

Scott’s religious beliefs did not keep him from joining in the plunder. “The larger share of the citizens had quitted the place – some leaving most splendid houses & furnished beautifully,” he wrote. “Nice pianos adorned the parlors & oil paintings the walls, & reading rooms were crowded with books. I thought it not wrong to come in for my share of the spoils so I took a splendid volume of Young’s Night Thoughts & a wine glass-tumbler and ‘An Essay’ on peace by Rev. John P. Campbell, a ‘secesh’ refugee from Nashville, Tenn. The ‘Essay’ was printed in Jackson & I think is very interesting as it shows so plainly the feeling of the Southern people.”

After moving farther north again with his regiment, Scott became ill. While recovering in Union hospitals, he fell in love with a woman named Nancy Smith. When he went back to the 11th in the spring of 1864, the regiment had joined Grant’s army for the brutal Overland campaign. As Scott prepared for this, he wrote his “dear friend” Nancy that he was returning to the fray with God watching over him.

“I most earnestly hope and pray I may be spared in life and health during this national struggle, & be returned in God’s own time, to my home and friends free from mental, moral and physical evil, and at the same time I try to say thy will be done,” he wrote. “I think of the uncertainty of life while a soldier, & try & hold myself in readiness for the final sermons which shall summon me to the presence of my God. . . . I don’t know as a soldier has any more reason to hold himself constantly in readiness for death than others, for if I think dangers are as thick about the pathway of the citizen as the soldier and the same kind God watches over all, & has power to protect alike the soldier & the citizen.”

From the trenches before Petersburg in July 1864, he described another Sabbath without church. “I have been all day the unwilling listener to blasphemous & frightful oaths – low & vulgar conversation – the ‘zip’ & ‘sting’ of the deadly bullet as it passes over our heads or strikes in the breast-works – the shrieking & bursting of shell & the whirring of broken fragments all combining, making us feel that we are upon the battlefield face to face with a determined & resolute foe. By the mercy of God I still live & am in the full enjoyment of health.”

As part of the New England brigade under Brig. Gen. Simon G. Griffin of Keene, the 11th New Hampshire fought in the Battle of the Crater near Petersburg. Pennsylvania soldiers had tunneled toward rebel trenches and planted a charge. On July 30, after the explosion blew a hole in the Confederate line, the 11th moved in with other troops. The attack was poorly coordinated and resulted in a large loss of life.

Scott described the battle to his mother:

“There is, or was, a fort directly in front of our division in the enemy’s first line of defense & at a point where the two opposing lines are not more than 150 yds apart. This fort we have been undermining since the first of July. . . .

“There were three mines placed under the fort containing powder variously estimated at from 2 to 5 tons. . . . The night of the 29th-30th was employed in marching and counter-marching troops & massing them in the ravine. . . . We lay at 3 AM of the 30th waiting in breathless silence for the explosion of the mine. The plan was to have the mine sprung at 3 o’clock precisely and that was to be the signal for all the guns & mortars that could be brought to bear upon this portion of the line to open. . . .

“It was 4 AM before we felt the ground heave under us, saw the air filled with dirt & smoke & one great sheet of flame. Almost instantaneously 20 mortars & 50 guns, 12 of them 32 pounders, burst forth in one deafening blast & upon that instant our brigade sprang over our pits & were the first to rush upon the rebel fort. Our advance to the fort was made under heavy fire upon both flanks as well as in front & we lost heavily.

“By this movement, we succeeded in breaking the enemies lines only at the fort & their pits. They could fire right down their pits on either side upon us & also upon all who should attempt to come up to the fort from our lines. While in the fort a part of the negroe troops in our Corps came up & together with our brig. occupied the traverse pits in the rear. . . . The rebels still occupied some of the traverse pits & the negroes were ordered to charge them, which they did, & carried them. Soon, however, the rebels rallied in their main line of works & jumped upon them suddenly.

“The appearance of the fort when we entered it beggars description. There were huge lumps of dirt weighing tons thrown up from the depth of 15 ft or more to the surface & loose dirt was thrown over an acre of ground. There was a large hole made in the center of the fort, fully 15 feet deep. . . . Half buried guns, carriages, wheels, swab sticks & countless artillery appertainances were lying about in the greatest confusion. But the greatest sight was to see men half buried alive – some with their heads downward & their feet & legs protruding – others with their feet down & buried to their waists & even shoulders with one arm out, and some with neither. Very many were very likely buried entirely while alive & others were mangled & torn to pieces. Rebel prisoners say 500 were in the fort when it went up. A flag of truce was granted yesterday to bury the dead between the lines. There were 8 found alive who were too badly wounded to drag themselves off & there have lain 48 hours without food or water with the burning sun pouring down on them.

“I plainly saw them the day after the battle make fruitless attempts to crawl away & at last sink down exhausted. The dead of both sides were buried between the lines. There were a few rebels killed by their own men while attempting to reach our lines as prisoners. These the rebels made negro prisoners bury. Prisoners say the blowing of the fort was a d—d Yankee trick & that we killed women and children in Petersburg & also set the city on fire. We had 12 32 pounders which threw into the city & it may be true. They were very bitter against us for that & because we have negro soldiers in our Corps. . . .

“It would certainly be the height of ingratitude not to acknowledge the unseen hand that preserved me amid the dangers to which I was exposed & brought me out of the battle’s din & fury unharmed.”

“The unseen hand” protected Scott throughout the war. He was mustered out of service on June 4, 1865. The following year in New York City, he married Nancy Smith. They had two daughters, Rogene and Ella, and by the 1870s the family had moved to Kansas. Scott worked as a book dealer. He died in Topeka in 1923 at the age of 77.

1 comment:

  1. A fantastic read. Thoroughly enjoyed this even though from a personal viewpoint I may be a bit biased after having spent many hours with Don Scott and his letters.