Camp Benton, Poolesville, MD

[Ed. – This letter appeared in the Newburyport Herald on October 15, 1861.  Less than a week later, the Battle of Ball’s Bluff would occur sending many Massachusetts boys to their death.  The 19th Massachusetts was largely an Essex county regiment, commanded by Col. Edward Hinks, a former Know-Nothing newspaper editor from Maine.  The author of this letter is Ogden Hoffman Smith, a shoemaker from Lynn.  His is an interesting story.  He enlisted in Co. A of the 19th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on 28 June 1861.  He deserted the regiment on 19 September 1862.  A month later he enlisted in the Navy, serving onboard the USS Colorado and the USS Ohio until honorably discharged 10 February 1864.  On 19 September 1864, using the alias Frank Devereaux he enlisted as a private in Co. G, 29th Maine Volunteer Infantry.  Smith was honorably discharged from the 29th Maine on 31 May 1865.  On 28 February 1865 he received from the hands of President Lincoln a pardon for any desertion in prior service on condition that the was honorably discharged from the 29th Maine.  However, in 1906, when he applied for a pension, Smith was denied on condition that he did not receive an honorable discharge from all of his service regiments (namely the 19th Massachusetts).  The court held that while he could not be punished for his desertion by virtue of the Presidential pardon, the pardon cannot and does not act as an honorable discharge.  However, under legislation passed in 1906 by joint resolution from Congress to correct veteran’s incomplete records, his case was re-adjudicated and a pension was given based upon his last two enlistments.]

Camp Benton, Pooleville, Md., Oct. 7, 1861

The past week has been one of excitement in this camp, caused by an anticipated attack from the rebel forces under Gen. Johnston.  Several companies of the 19th Regiment have been on guard on the banks of the river since last Thursday night, sleeping upon loaded arms, and ready at any moment to give the alarm which would bring twenty thousand soldiers to their aid.  Friday at sunrise the rebels commenced during across the river, but they did no harm.  This invitation to commence hostilities was answered by the Rhode Island battery, which caused their pickets to retreat.  Fighting on the upper Potomac may be expected at any moment.  From present appearances I am inclined to think there will soon be a blow struck, an advance movement and a glorious victory; but it will be a costly job to cross the river.

At the point in the river where Company A is stationed there is a large island of about 300 acres.  Two hundred troops were put upon that island the other night, and at once commenced entrenchments, working noiselessly by night, and “Lying low” by day.  When the work is completed it will be one step in advance and good batteries can protect a large force in crossing the river.

balls-bluff
Plan of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff by Robert Knox Sneden.  The position of the 19th Mass. is clearly marked on Harrison’s Island.  Camp Benton is just off the right margin of the map.

A man belonging to Company G died a day or two since, and was buried with military honors at Pooleville yesterday.  His name was Phelps, a native of Sutton, N.H.  The whole company, with the band, attended his funeral, and if we remain here long enough, a member of Company A will carve a stone with appropriate devices, and erect it over the grave of the soldier and patriot.  He had no friends here except those formed by his connection with the company.  Deaths are rare, much more so than we could expect.  I think if the names of 800 men at home were taken, two month’s time would not pass away without carrying with it more than have died in this regiment.

It is surprising how fast the “grand army” is increasing in numbers; yet it should swell up much faster than it does.  When I remember the vast multitude of young men who are to-day hanging around the streets of the cities and villages of Massachusetts, who are anxious to perform a soldier’s duty, and who have said so much about the North being backward in its movements, I cannot refrain from asking why they do not shoulder the rifle and march to the field, ready to fight for those principles they call so dear, and about which they talk so earnestly:

        “Give us action; — speech no longer
        Cheereth fellows to the prey;
        Words are well, but dees are stronger –
        Out yourselves and lead the way.

        Have you wives? – do soft eyes, pleading,
        Hold you with their gentle spell?
        Other hearts are torn and bleeding –
        Other men have homes as well.”

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A view of Harrison’s Island from the Virginia shore.Photo taken by the author, October, 2011.

Not being able to join in my company in their expedition to the river, I have to rely upon others for an account of the trip.  Capt. Stanwood returned to camp to-day, and tells me that the enemy have retreated from the position they held when the company went there.  He saw two regiments with wagons and camp equipage moving southward yesterday, and a man who lives upon a high hill near by and has a fine view of the other side, says they were moving during the whole day.  Perhaps they are going to Harper’s Ferry, with the intention of crossing: if they do, the “bobbin boy” will give them a warm reception.
I must close.  I hope my next will be dated from Virginia’s “sacred soil.”

Yours, &c.                    O

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