I am Neither a Penman or a Politician

[Ed. While most of the letters found in Massachusetts newspapers are from Massachusetts regiments, some are from out-of-state regiments in which sons of the Old Bay State are serving.  The Massachusetts-born soldier is serving in the 2nd New Hampshire Infantry.  Aside from Regimental news, this author delivers a good description of troops heading into winter camp and the sheer volume of wood it took to keep the troops warm.  It is no wonder that Southern fences and outbuildings suffered so during the war.  The author also introduces us into the art of relic collection, which was a tremendous pastime for soldiers in the field – a tradition that continues until this day.  One wonders how they got it all home.  During the 1863 New England Sanitary Fair in Boston there was an entire army tent set up in what is now the Orpheum Theater filled with relics from the Battle of Gettysburg.  Of course, I am reminded of the episodes from M*A*S*H where Cpl. Walter “Radar” O’Reilly took apart a jeep and mailed it home piece by piece, so really, what are a few un-exploded pieces of ordnance?  I was also amused to see that the price of the shells ran as high as $10.  In 1863 the Ames Mfg. Co. of Massachusetts was selling 12-pounder shells to the US Government for about $3 per shell.]

Second Reg. N. H .Vols, Camp Beaufort,
Lower Potomac, Jan. 19, ‘62

Mr. Editor, — I am neither a penman or a politician, as you will plainly perceived when you read the few lines I write.  I belong to the N. H. Second Regiment, and am a member of Co. A., Captain Barker.  I am a “low private,” and, as the boys say, in the rear rank.  We have a good Captain.  Capt. Barker is loved by the regiment, and by all who know him.  He is a father to his company.  What is not good enough for him, he says, is not good enough for his men.  He has had a chance by promotion, to be raised to a higher rank, but he did not hesitate to refuse the offer.  Why?  Because, when he enlisted his men at Keene, N. H., he told them he would be their Captain as long as the war lasted, and return with them to New Hampshire, if God spared him and their lives, and nobly has he kept his word thus far, and he is worthy of all the praise that is bestowed upon him.

Capt. Tileston A. Barker

I will not forget to mention the Lieutenants, Titus and Cobb.  They are both kind, generous and brave, and we have no cause to regret the day they took their position at the head of the company, to lead us on to glory and fame.

I will now speak of the several camps on the Potomac.  There are the Massachusetts First and Eleventh, the Pennsylvania, Twenty-Sixth, then the Jersey regiments, Sickles Brigade, and any amount of cavalry and batteries, among others, Doubleday’s from N. Y; I don’t recollect the names of the others.  These are stationed near Rum Point and Budd’s Ferry, but a force is scattered along the Potomac to the lower flotilla, near Port Tobacco.  The regiments here have first-rate winter quarters; some have built log houses, plastering up the cracks with clay and straw; others have built a foundation five logs high, and set their tents upon them, building chimneys on the front side, about eight feet high, — a barrel with both ends taken out placed on the top of each.  A large fireplace is constructed, about four feet wide, in the real old Vermont style.  It takes a pretty good pile of wood to last a regiment a month, but that does not trouble the privates much, except when they are detailed to cut it, and men are detailed every day from each company with teams for hauling it.  Each company, on an average, burns about four cords per day, making forty cords; but the wood is plenty and not far from camp, and one team draws from four to eight cords a day.

An example of winter camping in the Union Army.

On the Virginia shore, opposite to our camps, the rebels have build a number of batteries, and they are continually firing at our battery, and the Massachusetts camps, but no serious damage has been done on either side.  Our guns are only eight-pound rifle guns, but with these the boys give the rebels some excellent shots, throwing, now and then, a shot plump into the enemy’s batteries. – Schooners occasionally pass up and down the river laden with hay and grain.  These the rebels open fire upon from their batteries sometimes throwing as many as twenty or thirty rounds of shell and solid shot at a schooner, without doing the least damage.  I watched them one day when they were firing, and I think they must have very poor gunners for they made bad shots.  Some of their shots struck about midway across the river, while others burst two hundred feet in the air above the schooner they were firing at.  Others came screaming through the air and dropped into the Massachusetts camp, over half a mile from the mark.  These things are of every day occurrences.  Last Saturday night, between eleven and twelve o’clock, the Pensacola, a war steamer of forty-four guns, ran by the batteries.  The rebel lines opened fire upon her, firing twenty-four rounds of shell and solid shot, but not a single one hit the steamer, which did not return the fire.

But there is one saucy little battery, which the rebels have lately built on a high bluff near Rum Point, and in range of the Jersey camp, which is close by the river, and in plain sight of the rebels who can see every move the Jersey boys make, in or about camp; and for three weeks past the rebels have amused themselves by throwing shell into the camp – this suits the Massachusetts and New Hampshire boys.  They stand on the bank and watch the shots, and when one of them falls in or near the camp, they make a grand rush for the spot, spade in hand, and dig it out if it does not happen to burst.  Some have already been sold for ten dollars each.  The officers send them home to fill the showcases in their stores or shops.  Some of the shells from this battery weigh sixty-four pounds each. – They explode by percussion, the cap being the picked end.  They have been known to go three miles.  Sometimes a shell buries itself eleven feet under ground.  One was lately found by some of the boys at a distance of four miles from the rebel batteries, nine feet under the ground.  It was fired from a sixty-four pound rifle gun.  Not many of these shells burst, the ground being too soft to explode them when they strike, or else some cunning Yankee among the rebels is playing a game upon them.  Be it so or not, it remains to be told by somebody that knows; but one thing is sure, that when opened some have been found filled with white sand.

The Jersey boys camped on the river bank have not been in the field long, and are rather green, and are a little fearful of gunpowder, especially the officers.  Sometimes the powder comes in the shape of a rebel shell, and for this reason the officers do not like to have the boys stand on the bank, for fear they will cause the rebels to fire upon them; but not withstanding this, the boys always make a rush for the bank at the sound of the first gun.  A few days ago the rebels commenced firing at a schooner which was passing up the river.  The sound of the first gun was the signal for the boys to made a rush for the river, each one trying to outrun the other, but no sooner had they reached the bank of the river than they heard the drums beat, and out rushed the officers of the day, sword in hand, followed by a whole body of Jerseys armed to the teeth, determined to disperse the crowd or take them prisoners.  The order was given for the crowd to disperse to their camp, but the order was greeted with – you had better look out for that flag, or the rebels will fire at it; and why don’t you take out the whole regiment to drive us to our camp?  The officer was about to give the order for his men to make a dash at us, when, fortunately for us, at this moment, a shell fired by the rebels – a sixty-four pounder – came screaming over our heads and landed a few yards distant near the flag-staff, causing the officer and his crew to halt and stare at each other in astonishment.  Three more shots came in rapid succession, — this time a little nearer than the first one; but this was enough for the officer, and most of his men started for their quarters at double quick, never once looking round, but all intent on getting out of reach of the screaming shells, — the boys screeching and yelling at the top of their voices, who, being satisfied with the fun they had had soon returned to their camp, but determined on having more fun the first opportunity.

On the same day, as myself and three of my comrades were cutting and loading wood, a short distance from camp, a shell passed directly over our heads and fell near the cavalry camp, half a mile beyond.  Soon we heard another whistling through the air; it fell within seven rods of where I and my friend were standing, each of us thinking the shell was intended for himself.  We soon found the spot, and two of the boys commenced digging it out, and after three hours hard labor their spades struck the rebel, who had hid himself nine feet in the ground.  It weighed sixty-four pounds.  It has been sent by Captain B. to a friend of his in Keene, N. H.

The weather is very bad here now; it has rained most of the time for six days, and rains hard this afternoon.  Some of the boys have dug cellars to their tents.  The water runs in, completely soaking them out.  The boys are bailing out the water with kettles and pails, to prevent the fires being put out.  The mud is so deep that we had no dress parade for a week.

The Second New Hampshire regiment is well officered, and every officer knows his duty and tries to do it as well as he is able.

Center H. Lawrence, who formerly lived in Cambridgeport, Mass., and who so bravely carried the stars and stripes safely through the battle of Bull Run, is now Adjutant to the regiment.

W. A. H.


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.

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.”

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