Tuesday, August 25, 2015

6. 'heavy firing in the Afternoon towards York Town'

In a March 14, 1862, circular to the Army of the Potomac, Gen. George B. McClellan assured his troops: “The moment of action has arrived.” His men were trained, hardened and ready. But how ready was their commanding general?

You have to read between the lines of the diaries of soldiers like Cutler Edson and Eldad Rhodes to get a true picture of the futility of the first month of McClellan’s Peninsula campaign. Edson was a 42-year-old bugler, Rhodes a 21-year-old sergeant in the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers. It was not what they did during April 1862 but what they didn’t do that told the story of McClellan’s siege of Yorktown, Va.

Musicians did double duty tending to the sick, wounded and dead. Naturally caring and old enough to be the father of many men he served with, Edson embraced this role. His diary shows firsthand the consequences of shipping a large army to a warm, pestilent climate and expecting it to thrive. He passed many nights – “knights,” as he called them – holding the hands of sick and dying comrades.

Rhodes’s daily life was different: he dug and lugged, building roads and barricades. His weapons were a shovel and a pick. This betrays a different but no less damning result of McClellan’s failure to seize any advantage his army’s swift move to the Peninsula had gained.

Distant artillery shelling kept both men up some nights – the sound of battle but no actual battle. Then, a month into the campaign, they awoke one morning and the Confederate army was gone. It was also reinforced. And its leaders had developed a strategy to defend Richmond, their capital, from an attack from the east.

A Civil War steamer of the kind  that joined the motley flotilla that transported troops to the Peninsula
Cutler Edson’s diary

Friday, April 4, 1862: got up this morning and went to Camp California to Mr Richards and got my  pay. When I returned the Regt was all redy to go abord the Boat Stemer Croton. just wrote a letter and sent home to wife. We left here about 3 oc. we have 300 on bord this boat. the rest of the regt  in 2  others. passed fort Washington on the Md shore. this is a  beautiful Fort  built of  stone.  

We then passed Mount Vernon on the Va side, a lovely looking place for the father of our country to sleep. had a fair view of the old mansion. it is a long brick building with several smaller out houses with a large number of fruit trees. Sailed till about 9 oc and anchored for the knight.

Mount Vernon in 1860
Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Friday, April 4, 1862: Weather as calm and scerene as the morn of Creation; – we marched down town and got aboard the Government Boat Danalson; and in company with many other Steemers and schooners Steemed down the grand old river Potomac; – passed Mt Vernon at eve the home of Washington. Saw the ancient mansion and the tomb of Washington and here the Potomac sighs beside the Patriot Heroes grave.

Saturday 5: Weather stormy. we were at anchor most of the night; – I was Sargt of the guard; – we got into the Bay at noon, steemed down the Bay at a slow rate for we had a good load. on guard all night

Cutler Edson’s diary
Saturday 5: a little rainy & Foggy which presents a very bright prospect from the shore. Past Port Tabacco on the Md side the river is quite wide here and we had but a very faint view of it. Salt Watter gets back nearly to this place. began to grow rough and we anchored off St. Maryes river.

Sunday 6: Started this morning about 8 oc. a very fine day for saling threw the Chespeke Bay. had preaching on board by Bro Wilkins from the text take my yoke upon you and learn of me &c. Anchored at Fortress Monroe  about dark. this seams to be quite a place. seanery in the harbor this eve is delightful.

Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Sunday 6: we reached Ft Munroe in the afternoon. layed by for orders and coal and then steemed up the Bay toward York River; – Saw many vessels and Troops at the Fort.

Monday April 7, 1862: Weather stormy and cold. we ran up the York River, landed on the beach, waided a shore, marched back to a pine wood and encamped. everybody buisy. heavy guns are heard at YorkTown where the Rebels are cornered by McLellan.

Cutler Edson’s diary

Monday 7: wrote to wife yesterday. lade here in the harbor all day waiting for cole. this has been a cold stormy bad day. we have nothing but raw meet and hard crackers to eat and sleeping any where that we can get a chance, yet I dont feele to complain.

John Tyler
Tuesday 8: orders came this morning to land us at Hampton Rodes about 3 or 4 miles from here and then march to York town. When we got there the order was countermanded and they are to cary us there in this boat. we returned to Fortres Monroe and then took in cole.  Hampton rodes has bin pritty much all distroyed by fire by the rebels. Saw the old mansion of vic President Tyler.* Newport News is about opposet this place. these hav all bin seans of battle and blood shed but is all in the hands of the union now.

[*John Tyler, the 10th president, lived at Sherwood Forest Plantation in Charles City on the James River from 1842 until his death on Jan. 18, 1862, less than three months before Edson steamed past his house.]

Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Tuesday 8: Weather still clowdy and stormy. Remained in camp with nothing to molest or make us afrade. Many troops are stiring – and wagons moving to and from our Grand Army near York Town.

Wednesday 9: I was detailed as Sargt on the road today laying logs to support the wagons. rained in Afternoon. got very wet. returned to my rubber tent. found a good fire awating.

Thursday, April 10, 1862: wrote a letter home &c. heard heavy firing in the Afternoon towards York Town; – am to work on the road tomorrow.

Friday 11: Working on the Road; Freedom* came over to see me as the 2nd Regt N.H.V. were stationed near by; – the boys were looking well. I went over in the evening and had a good long chat with Freedom.

[*Freedom Rhodes, a sergeant in the 2nd New Hampshire, was Eldad’s brother.]

Cutler Edson’s diary

Friday 11: Started this morning about 3 oc. and anchored at Ship point about 6 oc this morning where we are waiting for further orders. ordered to  land just below Ship point about 9 oc where the shore is  lined with soldiers going toward york town. we have bin on the water 1 week and we was very glad to get our feet on teriferma again.

Saturday 12: Saw Esq. Liscom* from Lebanon. was glad of the privelige of meeting an old acquaintance. we are camped near the beach where we get oisters and clams which go first raight after living on raw meat & hard bread.

[*Elisha P. Liscomb, a founder of the Northern railroad and a justice of the peace, lived in Lebanon, N.H. President Lincoln had appointed him allotment commissioner for the state in March 1862. In that capacity he traveled to the front to check on sick and wounded soldiers, but his main task was to bring home soldiers pay to support their families. Liscomb no doubt took a special interest in the 5th, as his son Charles was a 19-year-old corporal in Company C. Charles Liscomb was later wounded at Antietam and died of disease while the 5th was stationed at Point Lookout, Md., guarding Confederate prisoners.]

Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Saturday 12: still working on the Road. the 2nd are still in camp neer by; had a hard days work. Confound this way of working for the Union. we hope soon to be relieved.

Sunday, April 13, 1862: we are to desecrate the sabath by working on the Road; – and this by Gen Howard, A pretended Christian. the 2nd moved today.

Cutler Edson’s diary

Sunday 13: by the request of the President we had prayer to day at 12 oc, which was to be threw out the army. it was very appropriate. I enjoyed it very much.

Monday 14: had a good time washing myself & cloaths. orders came from Gen. McLelon to have no bugle calls or drum beting.  the rebels have bin throwing shels wherever they have  heard them.

Tuesday 15: got up feeling poorly this morning. think my constitution is very much broken in  concequence  of the exposure we have had the first 6 or 7 weeks. I hope by the grace and mercys of God that I shal have health and strength to carry me threw the campaign. When I am not well I think much of the comforts of a quiet home.

Lord Cornwallis
May God grant that the time is not far distant when I shal have the privelige of enjoying it. I feel that God is my portion and my all. how comforting & consoling it is to the christian to feele that his treasure is not of this world. A little before morn we had orders to pack up and start in 1 hour. we marched about 6 miles on  to  very near the spot where  Lord Cornwalice delivered his  sword to Gen Washington the 19 of Apr 1776*. this is a large beautiful plane with but few houses present & apple trees are in blossom.

[*Edson was slightly confused on the details. It was Gen. Charles O’Hara, Cornwallis’s adjutant, who surrendered at Yorktown on Oct. 19, 1781. Washington declined the proffer of O’Hara’s sword, deferring to Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, his own second in command.]

Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Tuesday 15: We went on to the Road to work. at about noon we were ordered to march in to camp as our Regt was under marching orders. we left camp about 2 and marched about 6 miles back into the Country toward York Town and encamped.

Wednesday, April 16, 1862: we were in Camp untill 4 OC doing nothing but what most pleased us; – when we were ordered to march we marched back about a mile and encamped for the night. heard fireing at York Town.

Thursday 17: Awoke much refreshed; the sun arose in all the splendor of a Northern Mid Summar. the birds Caroled in the trees with all the melody of Natures Songstress; and the very air seemed to sooth us to rehope. heard heavy fireing occasionaly.

Friday 18: we are still here in Camp sweltering beneath a hot sun. hear fireing every day. on this very ground 80 years ago Gen Bragoin Surrendered to Gen Washington and on this spot Americas destiny was decided in favor of Liberty.*

[*See previous note.]

Cutler Edson’s diary

Friday 18: heavy fireing this morning in the vicinity of York town which commenced about ½ past 1 oc  and was kept up by intervals the rest of the knight. Mr Liscom left here to day for home. the name of this camp is Winfield Scot.    

Saturday 19: 6 months to day since I was mustered in to the Service of the U.S. I went out about 2 miles  where  I could see the rebel works and saw our bateryes shell them. drew our new tents to day. they are quite convenient and we like them very much.

Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Saturday, April 19, 1862: to day is a day ever to be remembered by America. 87 years ago to day the battle of Lexington was fought.  A year ago to day the Mass 6th was fired on while marching the streets of Baltimore by a mob of Rebels.

Henry O. Kent
Sunday 20: Weather still cold and rainy by inervals. was buisy writing a letter to the Republican which I commenced yesterday. don't know how it will take or whether it will take at all with H.O. Kent.*

[*Henry O. Kent was editor and publisher of the Coos County Republican, the weekly newspaper in Lancaster, Rhodes’s hometown. Col. Edward E. Cross had worked at the paper, then known as the Democrat, in his youth. Kent was Cross’s best friend in the 1850s; they regularly corresponded during Cross’s western adventures. Kent also helped the state of New Hampshire organize regiments for the war and had eased the way for Cross’s appointment as colonel of the 5th.]

Monday 21: had a Division Drill under Richardson* in the fore noon which was very fatiguing. had dress parade in the after noon. as usual heard fireing occasionally through the day

[*Brig. Gen. Israel B. Richardson commanded the 1st Division of Maj. Gen. Edwin “Bull” Sumner’s 2nd Corps. Brig. Gen. O.O. Howard’s 1st Brigade in Richardson’s division included the 5th New Hampshire.]

Tuesday, April 22, 1862: we had inspection by a US Officer to day. heard heavy cannonading on the right wing of our forces at York Town; – went over to Gen Richardsons head quarters with documents from our Regt.

Wednesday 23: had a drill in the fore noon. heard occasionaly heavy fireing at York Town; – The Rebels are to make a stand at the best of their ability.

Cutler Edson’s diary

Wednesday 23: Went out with the company on skirmish drill with out playing. the first time I have drilled for nearly 2 months. wrote to wife  today.

Thursday 24: built an oven to day for the left wing, a very large one.* made me a trowel out of a piece of board and found plenty of good clas and poor Brick. Lit it and baked a nice batch of beens for breakfast.

[*Edson was a brick mason.]

Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Thursday 24: had a Regiment drill and very good one too; fireing still goes on daily at York Town. Many of our men are dangerously sick at the Point. the Lieut went down in the evening to visit them. found them very sick.*

[*The first lieutenant in Rhodes’s Company B was Welcome A. Crafts. The hospital was at Ship Point, where the 5th New Hampshire had been the first regiment of Howard’s brigade to land on April 6.]

Friday, April 25, 1862: Joseph Call died at the hospital last night and Robert Cummings died to day at 10 OC and one more will probably die soon.* this is the fruit of our hardships on our march to the Rappahanock and back to Manassas without food and shelter uncared for by the Physicians.

[*Cpl. Joseph Call, a 26-year-old from Colebrook, N.H., died at Ship Point April 23, 18-year-old Private Robert Cummings of Northumberland on April 24. Both were in Company B.]

Cutler Edson’s diary

Saturday 26: Waited upon Bro Strong over to the Brigade Hospital about 1 mile. he was quite sick but stood the walk  better  than I expected. the hospital is one of the rebel Baracks. hope he will soon recover.* just recd letter from Bro & Sister Folsom. am glad to learn that we have got so good a preacher at Enfield. I hop God will abundantly bless & prosper his labours in sanctifying the church and the convertion of many soles. this is my constant and sincere prayer.

the Regt  are out on patrol duty to day. Drummer is over to the hospital getting wood & watter for them and I am here sheltered from the rain in my little tent. I feele very grateful to God for his goodness to me.

[*Pvt. Louis J. Strong was a 20-year-old native of Canada who lived in Enfield, Edson’s hometown. He was discharged disabled six months later.]

Sunday 27: Went to the hospital to help chop wood and brot watter and took care of the sick all day.   the first Sunday that I have bin oblijed to work all day since I came into the army. our hospitals are in Old rebel Baracks but they are fixed up so they are quite comfortable but it is very hard to be sick from home.

Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Sunday 27: we were rousted up early in the morning and orderd to be in readiness to march at 7 OC. we were on hand in Season; – and after a march of 3 miles we came to a halt and made our camps; we are to make fascines or gabions.*

[*The 5th was making fascines and gabions (brushwood bundles and barricades) for use in McClellan’s siege of Yorktown.]

Monday, April 28, 1862: we went out to make our gabions for the first time today – had poor luck – heavy fireing and musketry can be distinctly heard. even the whistle of Cannon Balls and shells can be heard.

Cutler Edson’s diary

Monday 28: this is our pay day. got our pay up to the 1st of March, $24.00. went down to the hospital to see the sick and caried them some Oranges which pleased them very much.

Tuesday 29: choped &  carried wood &  watter for the cooks.

Harrison Young of the 2nd N.H.
Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Tuesday 29: we were at work making gabions. had prety good luck. some Boys from the 2nd were up to day. every thing goes on prosperously. we are out of our place up here in the woods building Eel pots

Wednesday 30: hear heavy fireing at night and during the day. we are still at work and still liked to be.  Sergt Hilliard and Lieut Young were up from the 2nd to day.* had good luck building gabions.

[*Like Rhodes, Sgt. Henry S. Hilliard and 1st Lt. Harrison “Harry” Young were from New Hampshire’s North Country. Rhodes probably knew Young, who was just a year older than him and came from the same town, Lancaster. Young and Hilliard were in Company F of the 2nd New Hampshire. Hilliard left that regiment for an officer’s commission in the 5th in late 1863. He was captured at Farmville on April 7, 1865, during the 5th’s last battle of the war. Young was wounded at the second battle of Bull Run on Aug. 29, 1862.]

Thursday, May 1, 1862: We were up by times and had our quota of gabions out by noon. had a Co inspection at night; – heard fireing during the day toward York Town and beyond. hope Banks will be up in their rear with Mc Dowel soon.*

[*Gen. Nathaniel Banks’s troops were occupied with Stonewall Jackson’s in the Shenandoah Valley. The White House withheld Gen. Irvin McDowell’s forces to protect Washington. McDowell’s absence in particular gave McClellan an excuse to claim Lincoln was thwarting his Peninsula campaign. Many Army of the Potomac soldiers believed this as well. But historians have come down firmly on Lincoln’s side. In the view of most, McClellan mounted the Yorktown siege against a creative but much smaller Confederate force, and his dallying gave the rebels time to devise and strengthen their defense of Richmond.]

Cutler Edson’s diary

Thursday, May 1: Sat up with the sick boys at the hospital last knight. Sent 25 dollars for my self and 30 for Bro Strong home by Mr Liscom. helping about the camps to day.

Friday, May 2: called out last knight at 12 o.c. to go with the wagons to the Regt and get there lugage for they were ordered back to camp and be redy to moove to the front at a moments notice but after every thing was all here the order was repromanded and the Regt returned to there work.

Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Friday 2: We were rousted up at 1 OC in the morning and ordered to be in readiness to march immediately back to our old Camp which we did. we suppose the Battle is to come off soon; – we did not march to battle but did march back to our work; a fools errand.

Saturday 3: We worked getting polls for facines. – Freedom was up to see us from the point. Prof Lowe made a reconnaisance and the Rebels fired at him. A heavy cannonade was kept up all day and evening; the Rebels seem to think they can damage us – poor fools, we will teach them.
The Great Stone Dwelling (now a museum) at the Shaker Village in Enfield, N.H., Cutler Edson's hometown.
Cutler Edson, from letter to Mr. and Mrs. Horace F. Folsom

[Horace F. Folsom was Edson’s pastor back home in Enfield, N.H. The letter was dateline York town, Va., May 3, 1862]

You say you shal expect me home by autumn. that is something I cannot tell but I expect to be home to selibrate the 4th but there seems to be one large cloud between this period and that. If we pass safely through that, I think the struggle will be over and peace soon restored to our distracted nation and we that have come out here to do service and battle for our nation will have the privilege of returning to our quiet homes.

that cloud is the two great contending armyes at this place. we are daily looking for the battle to commence as our army are making great preparations and the enemy are doing the same. I suppose they calculate to do there best here for you know they are pretty much a used up mess and unless they should lick us here and at Corinth I think they will give it up.

There was conciderable fireing along on the line last knight and there is this morning. This is to keep the men from working on the fortifications which is mostly done knights.

Albert G. Cummings
Albert Comins has been promoted 2 months ago. he was put in Sergeant Major and now he has taken another start. he is second Lieut. in Co. A. Mr. Wire is agoing to have his discharge and go home I understand. don’t know but he has started now.*

At 11 oc at knight finds me here agan at the hospital watching around the sick. I1 has died since I was here and I believe he was prepared to meet his fate. There is 2 others that I think must soon fo. I told one of them just now I did not think he could live. he said he wished he had someone to pray with him. I told him I would. I asked him if he was willing to die. he said he was but I fear he is deceived.

A sick bead is no place prepare for this great work. He was very wicked before he was sick and the most of the time since, poor fellow, he hardely knows what he says.

There was part of our sick that were able to be moved [and] started yesterday for N.Y. probably they will get better care there than we can give them here. one of them was Charles Tolcott that used to be with the Shakers.**

There is a great deal of heavy cannonading to knight by the rebels. I can here shells whistle threw the air. think they must fall very near our camp which is about a mile from here. I think little Mc. will be ready to give them all they nead.

It is most 1 o.c. and I must close for the knight and try and try to fill this out tomorrow. I have been quite buisy the most of the time to knight. There is a great deal of work in taking care of 7 sick men.
Sunday morning the 4th. Slept but little last knight. A good deal of fireing all knight but seems quite still this morning.        

[*Albert G. Cummings of Enfield had made first sergeant in November, and his lieutenant’s commission was dated May 12. He was later wounded at Fair Oaks, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville but served out his three-year term of enlistment and was discharged as a captain. He lived in Harrisburg, Pa., after the war. Thomas Wier enlisted from Enfield at age 43, leaving his daughters with the Shakers. Some months after his discharge, having failed to secure the return of his children, he walked into the Shaker village and shot Caleb Dyer, the head elder, mortally wounding him.]

[**Charles L. Tolcott, a 21-year-old private from Plainfield, N.H., died of disease in Philadelphia.]

Cutler Edson’s diary

Saturday, May 3:  Went to the hospital to knight to sit up with the sick. found some of them very sick.   one had died since I was here  last. I think ther’s  others that will die soon. there has bin a great deal of  cannonaiding threw the knight. wrote to Bro. Folsom. returned to camp in the  morning.
Sunday 4: just had news that York town is evacuated and for us to take 3 days rations and persue them. got all ready to start and orders came to pitch tents agan and stop for the  knight. Bugles blowing, the Band playing, which makes it much pleasanter.

* *

Support crew fills Professor Lowe's balloon with hydrogen.
The “Prof Lowe” in Rhodes’s Saturday diary entry was Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, who was also a native of Coos County in New Hampshire’s North Country. His reconnaissance by hot-air balloon delivered the news – shouted down by his passenger, Union Gen. Samuel Heintzelman, that the rebels were gone.

All the men’s digging, tree-chopping and barrier-building during McClellan’s siege of Yorktown had been in vain. Still, most soldiers put a positive spin on this. Lt. James Larkin of the Fifth New Hampshire wrote to his wife Jenny in Concord: “Once more our army is victorious without a battle. The Rebels have fled before us without a battle and the national flag waves over Yorktown.”

The next day, May 5, the regiment marched to Williamsburg, where the 2nd New Hampshire was among the regiments involved in a sharp battle, but it turned out the 5th was not needed. “I fear that we shall always be the bloodless Fifth,” Sergeant George Gove wrote in his diary.

Such fears would be laid to rest soon enough.

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