Saturday, August 29, 2015

7. The rebels 'left this place in a great hurry'

Having achieved their objective of stalling Gen. George B. McClellan’s campaign on the Virginia Peninsula, Confederate troops abandoned Yorktown on May 4, 1862. For the next several weeks, the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers joined in  passive pursuit of them, Many of them still expected to occupy Richmond before the Fourth of July.

Cutler Edson
The 5th was a reserve regiment at a sharp battle in the rain at Williamsburg on May 5, but for the next 26 days, its chief enemies were disease, humidity and terrain.

On the day of the Williamsburg battle, bugler Cutler Edson of the 5th’s Company E took time to gather seashells in the York River to send home to his children. When the regiment left Yorktown he encountered the landmines he had heard rumors about. These were Confederate “torpedoes” buried in the road and rigged to detonate if stepped upon. Edson remarked on the ingenuity of the weapons.

Eldad Rhodes, the sergeant whose diary and letters are the second major source of this series, was ill for most of May but carried on. “The jaundice has a hold on me and I must drive it out soon, that is sure,” he wrote on the 12th.

McClellan was still maneuvering his army with excessive caution. Provisioning such a large force in enemy territory was a challenge, but the pace of the advance toward Richmond, a distance of 35 miles from Yorktown, gave the Confederates time to plot a vigorous defense of their capital.

The last days of May found the 5th sensing, correctly for once, that their first battle was at hand.

Cutler Edson’s diary

Monday 5: Struck tents this morning. packed up and marched in to York town, that place where there has bin much contention. it was evacuated and we had no difficulty in entering. We got here about 11 oc., pitched our tents and camped for the knight. rained all day. about 6oc. orders came to march. struck tents and packed up agan and started in persuit of the rebels who ware at Williams burg. marched till about 11 oc. threw the muddiest road that I ever saw. raining hard most of the time. halted and built camp fires. dryed us some then camped down for rest.

this has bin a hard march not on account of the distance for I dont think we marched more than 5 or 6 miles. gathered sea shells in york river for the children.

Tuesday 6: Started about 6 this morning and marched about 4 miles when we had news that the rebs had left Williamsburg in the knight. we halted and pitched tents. it has cleared off and has bin quite a pleasant day. saw the place at York town where Cornwallis delivered his sword to Washington. it is a small parcel of ground inclosed by a fence with a cedar tree at each end.

Wednesday 7: packed up and returned to York town where we pitched tents for the knight. expect to embark for Richmond when we get orders. we have had to use a great deal of caution whilst in this place. the rebels have planted Torpedoes around in different places. they have used a great deal of ingenuity. it is hard finding them but if one steps on them they explode and kill everything around them. we have lost a few men in this way but they have bin searched out the most of them and marked so that by caution they can be shund. they left  this place in a great hurry, leving there big guns not spiked.

The ironclad CSS Virginia (Merrimac)
Thursday 8: a fine pleasant day. went out and practised this fore noon, the first time I believe since we left Camp California. had dress parade here to knight. Saw one large peace of corn yesterday up 2 inches high. we here glorious news to knight. hope it is true. report is that the Marymack is sunk & that Norfolk is taken and this is good if true.*

[*Union troops took Norfolk on May 10. The Confederates blew up their ironclad Merrimac, which had been refitted as the CSS Virginia, the following day. It is possible that in catching up on his diary after the 5th’s march to and from Alexandria, Cutler mistook the day he had heard of the taking of Norfolk.]

Friday 9: another pleasant day. Sent a letter to wife. recd one from home with one in it from Sis Abbie and one from G. Hoit. went down to the river and washed my self and cloaths. at about 5 oc orders to pack up and march about 1 mile up the river and camped in a young peach orchard, a pleasant place.

Saturday 10: went out and practised 2 hours  this for noon and 1 in the after noon.

Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Saturday, May 10, 1862: [Before this entry there is a gap of several days in Rhodes’s diary, perhaps a result of the illness mentioned here.] we went out on Co drill in the fore noon; – I was still unwell, am not improving much if any; – our Camp is a very sightly one commanding a splendid view of the River for a long way down.

Sunday 11: A very warm day; we went on an inspection in the morning while on the ground. had orders to march and immediately marched back to camp and struck tents and marched down to the landing and shipped on board the Vanderbilt bound up River. Had a pleasant ride up &c.

The C. Vanderbilt, which took the 5th up the York River (1846 oil painting by the Bard twins, James and John)
Cutler Edson’s diary

Sunday 11: inspection this morning as usual on the field. prayer by the chaplin but in so low a tone that but few of us could here it. Orders have just come to pack up and be ready to march down to the wharf where we embarked on board the C. Vanderbilt. went about 6 miles beyond west point up the York  river and cast anchor for the knight. the weather was fine and the scenery was  delightful for this country. thus another Sabbath has past with great excitement and but very little religious devotion. feele that I am yet the Lords.

Monday 12: landed here this mourning and pitched our tents in a beautiful wheat field which stood about 10 inches high but was soon trampled down. wrote to  Sis Abbie. Lieut Read promoted to first Lieut., Sumner Hurd to Seckond. Baron Noice to Ordily Seargant.* tent companies divided off with a squad master to each.

[*Like Edson and Rhodes, all three of these men would remain with the 5th New Hampshire for less than a year from this date. Dexter G. Reed and Sumner Hurd were both Company E officers from Newport, N.H. Reed, 22, was soon to be wounded at Fair Oaks, ending his time with the 5th. Hurd, 24, lasted a little longer, resigning after wounds at Antietam and Fredericksburg. Sergeant Baron S. Noyes of Claremont was disabled and discharged in November 1862.]

Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Monday 12: we land above West Point* and encamped in a large field. I was quite unwell, wors than usual; – the jaundice has a hold on me and I must drive it out soon that is sure.

[*The regiment was moving toward Richmond. West Point is the Virginia Peninsula town where the Mattaponi and Pamunkey rivers merge to form the York. The town was also a new station on the York and Richmond Railroad.]

Tuesday, May 13, 1862: Weather very warm. I went to the Dr and got excused as I am quite unwell; –  had Brigade drill in the forenoon and inspection; – I felt quite down at the heel I assure you; a fine evening. been slop for dinner.

Wednesday 14: we were in Camp all day. think it probable that we may march soon. I am better of my Jaundice but my teeth are in a bad state.

Cutler Edson’s diary

Wednesday 14: had orders to knight to be ready for a march in the morning.

Thursday 15: Revalie this  morning at 2 oc. breakfast at 3 which consisted of hard crackers, Boiled Salt Beefe & Coffee. this is our common living. Struck tents, packed up and was on the march in the direction of Richmond before it was barely light. we marched till about 1 oc. and camped in the woods. rained some of the time very hard. just recd a good letter from wife.

Friday 16: laid here in the woods which is much pleasanter than marching in the mud.

Letter from Eldad Rhodes

Datelined Camp on the Road to Richmond Va., May 17th 1862

Dear Grandparents

I have never I believe written to you personaly since I left N Hampshire thinking perhaps that a letter to one was as good as a letter to each or all of the Family; – But I feel as though I ought to write to you and see if you Grandmother could write to me; – For what do you think when I tell you that I have not heard a word from home since I arrived on the Peninsula, a space of more than 6 weeks.

I sent $40.00 home some time ago directly after being payed off and am not a little anxious to know how it came out; – I can’t think that you have not written for so long a time. the letters probably have been miscarried but I know that your eyes are turned with grate anxiety toward this Peninsula. –

Here it was that Washington 80 years ago delt the death blow to the Lyon of England that had been for years prowling abroad in our Nation. I have seen with my own eyes old Revolutionary entrenchments with large trees growing in them to show their antiquity; –

You have heard ere this all about the evacuation of York Town and the Battle of Williamsburg, how the Rebels skedaddled and run for dear life. You have heard too of the torpedoes and infernal machines that the Rebels planted thinking to destroy us as we marched along after them but the cowardly knaves were foiled in their inhuman designs for but few were killed by them. I saw many guns on the Rebel fortifications with the swab stick in as though they left in grate haste; –

We were in the reserve and did not participate in the fight at Williamsburg but we had all the pleasure of the chase after them through the rain for one day and until mid night; – I have not heard personaly from Freedom [his brother in the 2nd New Hampshire] but have learned that he came out all right.

we after our wild goose chase after them came back to York Town and after remaining in camp 3 or 4 days took boat and rode 35 miles up the river and landed above west point; – day before yesterday we marched some 12 miles toward richmond and camped in a wood where we now remain awaiting further orders. we are some 25 miles from Richmond and if the Rebels will only make a stand then we will show you how to clean them out in a fair fight.

I cant tell much that is going about us. all that we get for news is the flying Camp story except when we get a paper for 25 cents now and then. Weather is very warm and corn is up high enough for howing. If father has not sent the box of sugar  I spoke of, he need not do it as I find that it would be a doubtful case its getting here except it comes by Adams Express; – I have been quite unwell for a fortnight back with the yellow jaundice but am now very much better. have been off from duty but one day with it when  if I had been at home I should have been sick a bed. I got help from pills and cherry and tree bark steeped; –

I dont see why I dont hear from you as other boys have as many letters as they ever did. write soon.

Rhodes diary, Sunday 18: We got orders to march in the morning and at 8 OC, were under way toward Richmond. weather extremely warm; encamped on a hill 5 miles from our last Camp; Freedom and Sergt Hilliard* came over and stayed with us over night. Hilliard had a wound.

[*Henry S. Hilliard had a slight wound from the Battle of Williamsburg. He later transferred from the 2nd to the 5th New Hampshire.]

Cutler Edson’s diary

Sunday May 18: packed up this morn and had another Sunday march. went about 3 or 4 miles and camped in a beautiful wheat field, a very warm day. thus has ended another Sabath in the armey with out any religious ceremony. may God grant that the time may soon come when I can worship God in my own native land.

White House Landing on the Pamunkey River was a supply and transportation hub during McClellan's Peninsula campaign.  
Monday May 19: our company marched to White house landing* some 3 or 4 Mi. a way. a very beautiful  place. this is said to be the house that Washington coarted and married his wife. one of the best farms I have seene in Va. our business here was to unlock bails of  cloathing. our Regt. started soon after we did and marched some 4 miles in the direction of Richmond  and camped near Saint Peters Church.

[*White House Landing on the Pamunkey River became a supply and communication base for McClellan’s slowly advancing army. Wounded men from the battles to come around Richmond were sent to a field hospital there and often transferred to larger hospitals in the North. The mansion on the bluff at the landing had indeed been the home of Martha Custis, whom George Washington courted there.]

Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Monday, May 19, 1862: Got orders to march at 10 toward Richmond. Freedom and Hilliard left in the morning for their Regt. rain began to fall before noon; when on the Road two Rebel officers were conducted by us with a flag of truce toward McClellans head quarters. camped for the night at New Kent Court House 4 miles nearer Richmond. Dont know what the flag of truce had to offer.

Tuesday 20: We remained in Camp all day near St Peters Church instead of Kent Court House –Washington was married in this Church to the Lovely Widow Custis who was living at the White House.

Cutler Edson’s diary

Tuesday 20: Started this morning and went to the Regt some 4 or 5 miles where we all remained thru the day. Glorious news in the papers to knight. the Gov of North Carolina called home her troops.*

[*The news was less than glorious. The governor to whom Edson referred was no doubt Edward Stanley, a North Carolinian with northern leanings whom U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had appointed to the position in April. After half-hearted and divisive efforts on the Union’s behalf, Stanley resigned soon after emancipation was proclaimed.]

Wednesday May 21: Revalee at 4 this morning. packed up and started in the direction of Richmond and marched 7 or 8 miles and pitched tents near the railroad,

Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Wednesday 21: We marched at Sun rise toward Richmond. weather very warm moved 8 miles in a hot scorching sun. passed Hookers Division. Saw many of the NH 2nd Boys who lined the road on either side to see us. saw Freedom, Young,* Hilliard &c.

[*Harrison “Harry” Young was a 22-year-old second lieutenant from Lancaster, N.H., the Rhodes brothers’ hometown.]

Thursday, May 22, 1862: Weather very warm untill afternoon when we experienced a heavy thunder storm which lasted 2 hours  much hail fell; – I was not very well to day.

Cutler Edson’s diary

Thursday 22: remained in camp all day. washed my pants &c. wrote to Wife. no particular news from the seat of war.

Friday 23: Marched about 6 or 8 miles and camped about the same distance from Richmond as we was when we started. passed some beautiful plantations, camped in an old deserted corn field.

Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Friday 23: Weather very warm. we struck tents at 11 OC and marched 5 miles over varigated country; – Encamped 14 miles from Richmond; – had a long letter from Home, the first I have had since I landed at Ship point.

Saturday 24: We expect soon to experience a terrible Battle near Richmond.

Cutler Edson’s diary

Saturday 24: Cold rainy day but I keep quite comfortable here in my little tent. just recd a letter from my good wife. commenced dealing out rations of Whiskey to the soldiers, ½ gil at a time knight and morning. this is ordered by Gen McLealon and approved of by our phisitions whilst we are here in this  low swampy land.

Sunday 25:  this has bin one of the most quiet Sabaths I have witnessed for a long time. had Sunday Morning inspection as usual then listened to a short sermon from our Chaplain. read the life of  Gen. Havorlock* and considerable in the Bible.

[*Probably British Gen. Henry Havelock, best known for his exploits in India. His statue is in Trafalgar Square.]

Monday 26: orders to get everything ready for a start at a moments notice but had no orders to march. it is rumered to knight that Richmond is evacuated.

Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Monday 26: had a Co drill of one hour in the fore noon. In after noon we were ordered to put our selves in light marching order; – the order was countermanded.

Tuesday 27: our Co with others went out working on a Road, worked until 3 PM. heard heavy firing which I suppose is McDowell; – The firing proved to be Porter who with 10000 men repulsed 15000 with grate loss to the Rebs.*

[*This was the battle of Hanover Court House, in which troops under Brig. Gen. Fitz John Porter, a native of Portsmouth, N.H., defeated a smaller Confederate force. The battle was fought to secure a route for reinforcements for McClellan’s army from the Shenandoah Valley. Because Stonewall Jackson’s army defeated Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks’s troops there, the reinforcements never showed.]

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