Tuesday, August 18, 2015

4. Winter of '62: ‘it takes but little to make us comfortable’

[Previous chapter]

In the age of modern conveniences “winter quarters” sounds like a peaceful rest with little toil or danger. Although neither army in the East sought a battle during the winter of 1861-62, the hiatus was anything but restful for the men of the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers.

Eldad Rhodes, postwar photo
To read this fourth installment of the diaries and correspondence of Cutler Edson and Eldad Rhodes of the 5th is to understand the labor and resourcefulness required to achieve basic creature comforts in the mud and snow. It is to realize how eager the men’s commander, Col. Edward E. Cross, was to teach then to march and fight and endure. Cross also made foraging a key part of their work. From the countryside around them, in competition with thousands of other soldiers, he expected them to find and take what they needed to eat, sleep and shelter themselves well.

Later in 1862, after the regiment had been tested in battle, Cross gave this account of winter in the hilly countryside three miles west of Alexandria, Va., known as Camp California: 

“The regiment soon commenced doing picket and outpost duty at the front, and established the first line of pickets on the line fronting the enemy at Fairfax Court House. In the intervals of picketing and scouting, whenever the weather would allow the men were thoroughly drilled, not only in regimental but brigade drill, also in the bayonet exercise. The commissioned officers were also drilled in the practical part of this duty.

“Schools were established by the Colonel and Lieut. Colonel, for the instruction of officers and sergeants during the winter evenings. A common school,’ for such of the boys in the regiment as needed instruction in elementary branches, was also put in operation, the necessary books being donated by the Sanitary Commission.

“All through the winter my regiment furnished heavy details to build roads, repair bridges, and cut timber. The pioneers were also instructed in making gabions, fascines, and other engineering work. The good effect of this drill and instruction has since been apparent to officers and men on many trying occasions. ”

This chapter of the 5th New Hampshire story told through the diaries and letters of the bugler Edson and Sgt, Rhodes begins with a letter from Edson to his pastor’s wife back home.

January 19, 1862: Cutler Edson letter

[To Mrs. Horace F. Folsom, a fellow member of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Enfield, N.H. The letter is datelined Camp California, the 5th’s base in Volusia, Va., during the winter of 1861-62.]

We have had a very unpleasant time on picket on account of the weather. When we started last Wednesday, there was about 2 inches of snow but the ground not being frozen it soon became soft and muddy as it was quite warm and rainy. We marched from Camp Sumner on Edsel’s Hill, the headquarters of the Regt when we are on picket.

and now sister imagine for a moment our situation and comforts. We were marched in to the edge of an oak grove and halted (all but 2 co. which went on to the old line that we occupied when we were here 6 weeks ago) and ordered to  make our selfs comfortable. Raining stedy, mud about 2 inches deep, not a board to cover our selves with nor a tent except a little one for each co. for the officers. our overcoats wet nearly thru and our selves weary with our march carrying our knapsacks with our blankets.

but this is no time for yankeys to sit down and fold their hands, but they went to work with one mind, some shopping wood, some clearing away the snow and preparing for camp fiers. Some went about ½ a mile to the railroad and stripped boards from the fenced and luged them on ther sholdors to build us sheds. others went still farther to a corn field and got corn stalks  and came to a hay stack and got armes full of hay to sleep on and in the coars of 2 or 3 hours we had good fires started, our shanties built and began to feele quite our selves again.

Ira McC. Barton, later in the war
it takes but very little here to make us comfortable if we can only think so. On Friday there was a scouting party of about 40 men under Capt Barton of our co. sent out to reconoitor. We went to Burks Station which is about 10 miles & very near the Rebbel pickets. Here we took 1 horse and 10 head of cattle & a lot of Ducks and Chickens. It was this mans daughter that gave the signal out of the window to the Rebbels when some of our troops were passing quietly that way by the house and 6 of our men were taken prisoners. He has a nice house and plantation which will all probably be confiscated to the union.

We have had a very wet muddy time but we are flattering our selves that we have bin here on picket duty for the last time as we are expecting to make an advance soon.

You spoke of sickness and death at your place. We are having a great deal of it here. 6 died since we left last Wednesday, making 18 in the whole since we left N.H. There is a good many sick now. Many refus to go in to the army for fear of being shot but I think that we shal loose many more by sickness than we shall by the hand of the enemy.*

The whole Regt is expecting to go out on a forreiging expedition this week in the direction of Fairfax court house. We expect to start Wednesday.

Had a very good prayer meeting although but very few in. Thank God there is some faithful soles here in the armey.

[*The 5th New Hampshire in fact earned its nickname, the Fighting Fifth. It lost 295 men killed or mortally wounded in battle, the highest total of any of the estimated 2,000 Union infantry regiments that fought in the war. The death toll from illness was 135.]

Eldad Rhodes diary

Sunday Jan. 19, 1862: Was cold and rainy as usual  We were relieved by the Penn Regt. about noon  We marched back five miles on the Rail Road to camp  Many men were down at the heels before we got back  All were tired and glad.

Monday 20: We had a funeral today and layed a soldier in his narow house with his Martial Cloke around him. Did not drill on act of the rain.

Tuesday 21: did not drill to day on account of the mud. I wrote a letter to Geo Stockwell to day at Lancaster.

Thursday 23: Weather much improved. We went over the line after brush for our tents, had dress parade in the Evening, had orders to be ready to march at fifteen minutes warning; –  presume we shall leave soon.

Friday 24: We had a skirmish drill in the fore noon under Crafts* and a battalion drill in the after noon in which all the Regiments in the brigade participated.

[*Welcome Crafts, first lieutenant of Rhodes’s Co. B of the 5th New Hampshire.]

Saturday, Jan. 25, 1862: Weather stormy and cold.  did not drill to day; had dress parade in the Evening; I have the teeth ache these times; wrote home to day; Every thing is prosperous.

Sunday 26: e went out on inspection in the forenoon; had no grate excitement; I went up to the second tent to day as Sargeant of the tent.  two men died today in camp.

Monday 27: we had a good drill to day by Batallion under Howard*; I acted as second Sargeant in the forenoon and third in the afternoon.

[Brig. Gen. O.O. Howard, the brigade commander.]

Tuesday, Jan. 28, 1862: We drilled to day, Brigade drill under Howard. had a good display and all the Regts manuevered well. heard heavy firing on the lower Potomac at night.

Wednesday 29: I was Sargent of general police to day, and did not drill. I drew wood for the Hospital today.

Thursday 30: did not drill at all as I and the orderly were in the Captains* Tent writing some of the time to day.

[The captain of Company B was 40-year-old Edmund Brown of Lancaster. Col. Cross dismissed him from the regiment a few days later.]

New Hampshire Gov. Nathaniel Berry
Saturday Feb. 1: Mr. Libby from Whitefield was here to day; – he was after the Body of Parker* from Whitefield.

[Bailey A. Parker, a 20-year-old Company B private from Whitefield, had died of disease on Jan. 18.]

Sunday 2: Weather rather pleasant.  we had a Brigade inspection by Howard to day. Gov Berry and Lecretius Tenney were here to day from N. Hampshire. they reviewed us on dress parade.

[Gov. Nathaniel Berry, a Republican, had assumed office in June 1861. Allen Tenney was New Hampshire’s secretary of state.]

Tuesday 4: We had a Batallion drill under Howard, was put over the road in good style. after drill in the afternoon we buried (Morse)* from our Co. who died saturday.

[*Aurin B. Morse, an 18-year-old private from Randolph, N.H.]

Wednesday 5: We went on a Napsack drill out toward Edsels Hill 3 miles from camp; we got back about noon. soon after my Brother* arrived in camp from the second NH Regt. was glad to see him I assure the public.

[*This was the wonderfully named Freedom Rhodes, a sergeant in the 2nd New Hampshire, which had fought at Bull Run in July in the first major battle of the war. Freedom was two years older than Eldad.]

Freedom Rhodes
Thursday, Feb. 6, 1862: Weather cold and stormy. I and Freedom were up until a late hour in the Capt and Adjts tents on Wednesday eve last; – he left for Alexandria early this morning in order to take Boat for Washington at 7 OC.

Friday 7: we drilled in forenoon. Company drill likewise in the afternoon. had good news in the evening from Fort Henry*. it was taken with 25 cannon 17 mortars 2 Brig Generals, Cols and Capts & c

[*Forces under Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant took Fort Henry on the Tennessee River on Feb. 6. It was the first big victory for Union forces in the West.]

Saturday 8: We had Company drill in the forenoon, went after Brush in the afternoon. Frank Cross arrived from Lancaster.

[Francis L. Cross, an 18-year-old volunteer from Lancaster, was Col. Edward E. Cross’s brother. He served as a private in Company D until mid-1862.]

Monday 10: I was Sergt of the guard to day. our brigade went on nap-sack drill out toward Fairfax Court House. I do not fancy guard deauty much.

Tuesday 11: I did not drill in the forenoon. had bayonet drill in the afternoon. nothing further occured to mar the harmony of Camp life.

Wednesday, Feb. 12, 1862: Weather very fine. drilled all day. had good news in the Evening from the west. heard that Price* was taken and all his forces. do not put much confidence in it.

Gen. Sterling Price
[*Confederate forces in Missouri under Brig. Gen. Sterling Price were bent but not broken at this time. The Battle of Pea Ridge in March 1862 ended Price’s hopes of mounting a new offensive in the state.]

Thursday 13: in the eve I went over to the Brigade Hospital, after a hard days drill; – had good news in the evening from Fort Donalson Ky.

[Grant’s troops were attacking Fort Donelson on the Tennessee-Kentucky border. The fort surrendered on Feb. 16. The taking of Forts Henry and Donelson opened the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers to Union forces.]

Saturday, Feb. 15, 1862: We were unable to drill on account of the Snow. we went into the woods afternoon Valley Forge like; – Storm on, oh peevish nature, hide thou from sight this black land of slavery by thy virgin mantle.

Sunday 16: we had an inspection and went into the woods after brush and small trees. it bids fare to storm tomorrow.

Monday 17: we did not drill on account of the Storm. had very good news from the west – Fort Donelson.  the Band came out and gave a serenade and Cheer after Cheer ran the whole length of Regt.

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