By Thomas H. Evans
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The most exasperating Civil War diary we ever read was that of a Confederate who during the Fredericksburg campaign "pulled" regular guard tours as sentry in front of the tent of General Robert E. Lee. This 1862 dough-head was often so close to the great man that he could have reached out and touched him. He saw such other immortals as Jackson, Longstreet, and Stuart, who came there almost daily for high-level conferences, and he must have overheard fascinating and significant fragments, at least, of their conversation. What comments did the diarist pass down to posterity?
Not a word, except brief records of the weather, his own discomfort from bellyache, and speculation concerning the folks back home. This is understandable. Most men away from home are concerned chiefly with such matters. An editor's delight may, therefore, be received with sympathy, if he whinnies over a soldier's journal describing people, places, and things with perception, sophistication, and showing an observant interest in the res gestae. Such a document is that of Thomas H. Evans, excerpts from which follow. It is even more unique in that it was written by an enlisted man of the Regular Army. A century ago such soldiers were not noted for their educational attainments and literary ability. No small number had enlisted chiefly to learn to speak English.
Thomas H. Evans came to the United States from his native Wales eleven years before the Civil War, and enlisted in the Regular Army; but not to learn English, for he was educated, and apparently trained for the ministry. Until 1861 all his military service, except for initial recruit training, was as a teacher in an army post school on Governor's Island in New York Harbor. He says he was still drawing a private's pay when, in November of that year, he was transferred to the newly formed 12th U.S. Infantry and promoted in one jump to regimental sergeant major.
The regiment was shipped to the Peninsula below Richmond to participate in McClellan's spring campaign against the Confederate Capital. Evans apparently became orderly sergeant, which was the same as today's 1st sergeant, of one of the companies. The regimental commander was Major Henry B. Clitz, and the unit was assigned to Sykes's division of Porter's corps. Their first real fighting was in the Battle of Gaines's Mill, which Evans describes in this excerpt from his memoirs, written in December 1862. A general account of the battle was published in our April 1964 issue. CWTI is indebted to Mrs. Angela Evans Todd of Indian Head, Maryland, granddaughter of the author, for permission to publish portions of the journal. - Editor
After the battle of Fair Oaks, in which our regiment was not engaged, and until June 26, 1862, we were continually in observation of the enemy. He was here, there, and everywhere. Sometimes the Rebels would amuse themselves and startle us by plumping a few live shells among us. At other times they would fire 30-pounder shells filled with sand and plugged so as to substitute for solid shot for their rifled guns. They would run up a light battery to some obscure corner of the woods beyond our picket lines and fire a few rapid shots, sometimes doing mischief but more often not, then limber up and be off almost before we knew their whereabouts.
On the 25th the enemy were reported to be in force on our right, and were expected to attack. We were moved out in light marching order, with two days' rations. We were expected and ordered to have at this time three days' rations in our haversacks, but like many other suppositions this was seldom the case. Beef, with warm blood still in it, as we always got it, was not a tempting food, neither were the adamantine crackers [hardtack]; and even in camp the fresh meat was often thrown away. The stomach rebelled at it, and the reserve of salt meat (generally bacon) was substituted.
Soldiers are proverbially careless. They require as much looking after to keep their wants supplied as children. "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" seemed to be their favorite axiom. Some men can never keep food on hand any more than others can money. Once in their possession it seems to create perpetual hunger, and they keep eating until all is gone, heedless of whether they want it, trusting to luck for future supplies, or to their comrades' generosity.
Sometimes too it was not surprising that men should try to lighten their loads in some way. With a full knapsack, a greatcoat, woolen blanket, painted tent blanket, musket, bayonet, and accouterments, 100 rounds of ammunition, three, four, or five days' provisions in their haversacks, and canteens containing three pints of water, with the temperature over 100 degrees in the shade-with all these, men will carry as much of their rations as possible in their bellies.
On this occasion the haversacks were light. We marched to Old Church, did not find any enemy but did find some superb cherries. We bivouacked in the woods and returned to camp the next day.
I had just started making up the morning report when the order came to strike tents. Wagons were hitched up, rations hurriedly issued, tents and stores packed, and knapsacks piled on the parade ground by company. Grand excitement prevailed. We did not know precisely what the commotion meant, but in fact the whole Rebel army was coming down on us, and the next day the celebrated Seven Days Battles commenced.
We thought that the engagement on June 26 (Battle of Mechanicsville) was an enemy reconnaissance-in-force, and didn't realize that momentous events were starting. We were in reserve, but heard brisk musketry to the west, which kept up until dark, when I overheard an aide telling one of our officers that "we had held our own." Two of our companies were detailed on outpost duty on a bridge to our right, and the rest of us lay down under arms. Two fine aloes were in bloom in the field where we were posted, the first I had seen in America.
At 2 a.m. on the 27th orders came to fall in and return to Camp Lovell. No fires had been allowed, and we marched out in the darkness, reaching our old camp shortly after sunrise. Many of our men would never see another sunrise. The old camp looked lonely and deserted. Here and there a tent had been left standing, belonging mostly to sutlers, who had no transportation at hand. There was also our big hospital tent-empty, since the sick had been turned out of it. As many of these men could not walk, they had been placed in wagons and am-bulances; the others were started on the road to keep up with the regimental train as best they could.
No fires were burning, no little knots of men stand-ing about.The knapsacks were in piles where we had left them. The general headquarters had been vacated. On the site of the brigade commissary were boxes of hard bread, barrels of flour and pork, and a large quantity of miscellaneous stores piled in a huge heap. In and out of the sutlers' tents officers were passing with boxes of cigars, collars, clothing, tobacco, and various fancy articles, and handing them to the men. The noncommissioned officers were told to take anything they wanted, either for them-selves or their companies. A match was then put to the tents and thousands of dollars' worth of property was burned. Barrels of whiskey broken over the piles made the whole a blazing mass.
Knapsacks were then slung and we started off again with so much plunder that our battalion could have engaged in the sutling business. Every fourth or fifth man had a box of cigars under his arm and every man had a cigar in his mouth, puffing away like a steam engine. Officers' coats that had been selling at $18 were now scarcely worth bringing away. Packages of soap, more than enough to keep the whole army in lather for a month, were crammed into pockets or anywhere that offered room. Razor strops were carefully stowed away, even by men who never shaved. Pots of pomade and bottles of oil were carried off to the extent that if opportunity had been given, most of the men would have been as greasy-faced as Aaron after the anointing.
It was evident that the army was in full retreat, and that we should not go far without a battle. Our lines had been extended too far, as Stuart's ride around the whole army and the enemy attack at White House had proved. We could not defend our whole line, and the repeated requests for more men had passed unheeded.
Whether the Southern generals knew that by continually falling back from Yorktown they would get us entangled in the Chickahominy swamps, to lose a third of our men by ague and typhoid fever, and then they would assume the offensive, may be a mat-ter of doubt. They could have held Yorktown for a considerable time. Here, at any rate, we were-Porter's corps, numbering about 30,000 men, acting as rear guard for the retreating army. We were on this day falling back to select a position from which to fight a delaying engagement in order to hold the enemy in check until our trains could get out of reach. We met our wagons at an angle of the road and transferred the knapsacks to them.
We took up a position in a large field. A worm fence was directly in front, and beyond that was ground sloping down to a bit of white oak swamp. Still farther to the front was a belt of thick woods in which the Zouaves (5th New York) had been de-ployed as skirmishers. On our right was another belt of woods into which we also sent a company to pro-tect our right flank. Our regiment and the 14th U.S. Infantry were holding the extreme right of the whole line. On our left and in our rear, beyond the field, a byroad extended around and past the front of our position. On the roadside to our left was McGhee's house, a substantial brick structure in and around which some of the hottest fighting was to occur.
Early in the afternoon the enemy drove in the skirmishers in our front, and emplaced a battery in the corner of the woods. They commenced shelling the belt on our right and opened heavily on our battery in position to the right of the McGhee house. This artillery fight at long range was kept up for some time. The officer commanding our battalion sent our captain with the company into the woods to support the artillery, but this officer found the shelling too hot and abandoned his men. The first lieutenant of the company got separated from us but afterwards turned up with the 6th Infantry. Thus the company, in its first engagement, was leaderless. The Orderly Sergeant [probably Evans] brought the company in and formed it in reserve in rear of the battalion line.
Musketry began to mix in briskly. Batteries all around opened upon the woods, which were full of enemy soldiers, and the enemy guns, having now got good range, replied rapidly and effectively. The lines of Zouave skirmishers and the 3d and 4th Regulars were withdrawn and formed in line. The enemy brought up his battalions in good order and we op-posed battalions to them.
The Zouaves, on our left front, behaved splendidly. There was no flinching, no dropping to the rear. They stood like heroes to their work, under a murderous fire. Continuous volleys now followed each other in quick succession along the whole line. About 3 p.m. the battle was raging, and the enemy made a bold push with his infantry. The 3d and 4th U.S., strongly pressed, were unable to hold their ground. The Zouaves were also driven back, and a company of the enemy's skirmishers were thrown forward directly in our front. They annoyed us considerably for a few minutes.
We received an order to charge and relieve the other two regiments. The worm fence seemed to go down by magic, and down the hill we went at a double-quick with fixed bayonets. The 3d and 4th fought their way back splendidly, their faces to the enemy, their colors in front waving in full view of both lines. A shower of canister from our battery on the left and our line of steel sent the enemy back at a run. The 3d and 4th took post on the road and the Zouaves again occupied their old place on the crest.
Still, hour after hour the work of death went mercilessly on. Many of our men, being wounded, had gone to the rear. Fresh regiments passed to the front, and the enemy were equally prompt in replacing theirs. The time during which we had been ordered to hold the position had almost elapsed, but with the overwhelming masses in front we could not fall back safely during daylight. Our blood was up, comrades had fallen, and all the recklessness of life and abandonment of self, common to the heat of an engagement, were in full play. Could we make a victory out of this battle? But it was out of question. The enemy was strongly posted and nothing would tempt them into the open until their own time. And with our need to replace battalions every fifteen to twenty minutes, the odds were too great.
But we fought on, shells bursting, shot rushing through the air, minie balls hurled with their peculiar zing. Some bullets stopped with a sickening thud as they entered the bodies of our comrades. The ringing of the smooth-bore balls and buckshot as they whistled past us made a deadly music.
We had changed front since our charge down the hill, and now faced the woods on our right flank. The 14th was on our right, the two regiments nearly joining. At 5 o'clock, amid a perfect hurricane of shot, a whisper passed slowly along the line that the left of the corps had fallen back. I say "whisper," for if Stentor had been there he could not have heard himself shout except during lulls in the firing. We judged what the message was from lip motions and gestures.
Yes, the left had fallen back and the center followed, but immediately formed a second line along the next ridge to the rear. We are now on the extreme right, and the enemy is pushing up a column concealed by the woods directly in our front. Not only do they try to hurl us back frontally, but at-tempt to turn both our flanks and cut us off. Now the Zouaves are falling back and all our men of the 12th and 14th are lying down. Suddenly a yell as from a thousand Indians breaks from the woods, and shots strike thick and fast from a new direction. Our rifled cannon at the house send their shells close over us and into the Rebel battery on our left, which has been repeatedly reinforced. Our battery on the road to the rear opens with case and canister so close to us that we cannot move until they cease firing. I don't know of any more nervous position than to be in front of a battery firing canister, case shot, or grape. Its peculiar cracking sound is sharply menacing, and in this instance was so close that some of our men were wounded by our own fire.
The enemy in the woods form four deep and send in their bullets closer and closer. But still we hold on. The 14th Regiment rises, pours in a volley, and falls back in good order to the road.
"Keep up your fire, men," cries our major. The 14th are halfway across the field. They halt and fire another volley.
Now comes the order to us: "Rise up!" Instantly every man is on his feet, some only to fall again and rise no more, as a fresh burst comes from the enemy. Now our gallant commander cries, "Ready, aim low, men. Fire!" Every piece is discharged in a withering volley. We pull back quickly and are halfway across the field before the enemy recover sufficiently from our volley to fire at us. Then we see another column moving up the slope to take us in flank and rear. There is too much smoke for us to distinguish who they are. Some call out that they are our own men, and hesitate. But we are soon decided, for they give us a volley.
"Step now, men, if you ever stepped." Thank God, the fence is close at hand. But great gaps have opened in our ranks. Directly in front of me six men fall in quick succession, so rapidly that I have to pause an instant to avoid trampling on them. I pass into one of the gaps, and soon we are over the road and forming behind the second fence in McGhee's orchard. The 14th have opened fire on our pursuers. We rally our shattered ranks. Every post, bush, and tree now covers a man who is blazing away as fast as he can load and fire.
We hold our position here in advance of the second line. One of the color bearers is down and the other one brings me the colors. I have to find another color bearer, which requires time, as I am gathering squads of men to form in rear of Griffin's battery as a support. That accomplished, we call in our scattered men. The enemy attempt to cross the road and take this battery in rear, but two regiments have reformed to the right of the house and hold them in check. Our artillerymen are straining every nerve to keep back the enemy columns, who are rushing on in frantic masses and trying to sweep the whole crest.
All the open space below us is a sea of men. Column after column forms and charges up to the very muzzles of our guns, which belch forth grape and canister in a continual stream. Column after column melts away like smoke, but is quickly reformed and again rushes on.
The day is fading. This is the final struggle. Colonel Griffin rides along and says, "Men, this battery must not be taken. I will not abandon my guns. I cannot cover your retreat; you must cover mine." And there we stand, the shot and shell plowing through us until darkness closes in. The enemy's fire slackens and abruptly ceases. In the sullen silence the Rebels again seek the cover of the woods.
Our ammunition is nearly exhausted, and had they another hour of daylight the enemy might have scattered us like chaff. Our artillery limbers up and the second peremptory order to fall back comes (the first passed unheeded) with scarcely two companies left out of the battalion. Smoke-begrimed and choked with dust and powder fumes, we fall back a few hundred yards, and the Irish Brigade takes our place. We throw ourselves on the ground to rest.
The Battle of Gaines's Mill has been fought with about 21,000 men against the enemy's acknowledged 65,000 under three of his best generals, Ewell, Longstreet, and Jackson. We have held our ground three hours longer than the time specified, and the main body of our army and our trains are safely miles away.
But our gallant commander is down and we fear dead. One officer we know is dead and several others wounded. We are obliged to leave all to the mercy of the enemy, and we shall not know our losses accurately for some time to come.
We do not rest long; new troops have been ordered up as a rear guard and we are again on the march. About 11 p.m. we halt. We are half famished, and a cup of coffee in the chilling night air would be nectar. But we can only scoop up a little dirty water, throw down our blankets-those who have been fortunate enough to retain them-and try to sleep. At 3 a.m. we are roused and go out again into the night. Lanterns are flitting about everywhere, at every outhouse and under every tree, telling us where the surgeons are attending the wounded who are lying about in sad and sickening numbers. By daybreak we are in Porter's old camp close to the Chickahominy and in another hour the men are sitting over their breakfasts recounting the events of yesterday.
We remain in rear of our arms stacks all day. Batteries are out on the road, cavalry videttes are in the woods, and infantry scouts along the riverbank.
I find myself revolving in my mind the ludicrous portions of the previous day's work, and singular as it may seem, they were many. Here are two recollections of this kind:
Two Zouaves were waiting to have their wounds dressed. Both were wounded in the left arm, and as their turn was long in coming, they became impatient. One said to the other: "Joe, let's go back and get wounded in the other arm." His companion agreed, and with only their handkerchiefs tied over the wounds they both returned to the line and neither came back again.
There is no use trying to dodge shot. No one hears the whistle of the ball that hits him, any more than a man sees the flash of lightning that kills him. He is aware, however, of those that pass him so closely that he is certain he will be hit, and to which the strongest nerves seldom acquire sufficient steadiness to prevent an involuntary shrinking movement. One of our men dodged right into the path of a shot. He had already been wounded, and while going off the field one or two shells passed uncomfortably close. The next time this happened he crouched, and his head was shattered to atoms.
In the afternoon of the day after the battle, a gill of whisky was served to each man, and in the evening we again went on. It is dark when we ar-rive at Savage Station and there find huge piles of knapsacks. Some regiment ahead of us had taken ours. Each man takes one anyway. There is no time to unpack. We strap them on and commence the passage of White Oak Swamp. We flounder and splash about, get entangled in the vines and briars, stumble along somehow, half asleep, all night. After an hour's rest we go on again.
When day dawns we can see that the road ahead is strewn with letters, old clothes, and a good many ambrotypes. The knapsacks of those ahead have been opened and lightened, and at our first halt we do the same. In such a lottery the most laughable contrasts occur. Some careful soldier has a knapsack full of rubbish, and he curses heartily for having carried it so far and so uselessly. Some other, a confirmed sloven, draws twice as much clothing as any other man in the company, yet no matter how the tailor tries, they never fit him.
There are now the appropriations from the sutler. All are left behind except the tobacco in our pockets and perhaps a cake of soap. But we go on, laughing. We have been under fire and have come out more than creditably. Months afterwards while in camp near Fredericksburg we learn that Major Clitz, our commanding officer, and Captain Stanhope had been wounded and captured, then taken to Richmond but were soon exchanged. The major was made commandant at West Point; Captain Stanhope rejoined the regiment two years later.
I read the official report of the battle as forwarded to the War Department, and my name is first on the list of noncommissioned officers to be commended for their behavior on that hard-fought field.
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