“Canonicus”, 2nd Rhode Island Infantry (?), On the March to Manassas (1)

27 09 2011

Fairfax Court House, Va., July 18.

I write this letter upon the ruins of a table in the late hospital of the Confederate army.  I use a rebel pen, upon insurgent paper, and the thoughts of Canonicus shall find conveyance in secesh ink. The place is utterly deserted. The rebel troops are far away, and families have fled in terror. A small body of men from the 21 New Jersey regiment, who came as escort to the provision wagons, have attacked their guns over the way, and now loll upon the dirty piazza of the deserted Farmer’s Hotel. A squad of Ellsworth’s Zouaves have strolled over this way from their encampment, and are roaming from house to house, clambering in at the windows, scaling fences, and otherwise exhibiting their red fezzes to much advantage. From them I learn that their regiment is hard at work upon the railroad, repairing the destructive ravages of the rebels. Burnside’s brigade, with other troops of the centre column of the grand army under McDowell, left early this morning in pursuit of the flying (ahem) South Carolinians! They will be overtaken at Manassas. Long trains of wagons are slowly passing along the road, and I remain behind to send as brief an account as possible of our expedition so far, to anxious friends at home.

We never expected to leave Camp Sprague. Bets were offered at considerable odds that we wouldn’t, but found few takers. So often had marching orders been issued and then countermanded, that our patience was exhausted, and we made up our minds to chew our rations to the last barrel, and then go home. Home! I hope that we all will again see the little State of Rhode Island, but I am afraid that many of our boys will fall upon Virginia soil.

We left Camp Sprague Tuesday afternoon with as little baggage as possible, and with three days rations stored in our haversacks. We joined the other regiments of the brigade on Pennsylvania avenue, to wit: the New York 71st and New Hampshire 2d, and then marched over Long Bridge to take our position at the head of one of the columns of Gen. McDowell’s army. The bands played Dixie as we marched over the lengthy fabric, and the structure shook under the hammer-like foot-falls of four thousand mud sills on their way into secession.

We touched the sacred soil, which looks not different from any other average quality of dirt, and passed through the solid gateways of strong picket fences, and under the shadow of Fort Runyon, and took the Columbia road. Pressing on steadily we left Falls Church and Arlington Mills behind. At intervals along the road we would pass the pocket guards and exchange salutations with them. About ten miles from Washington we halted at Davis’ Cross Roads, and made preparations to bivouack for the night. The men munched away on their unpalatable crackers and junk, and wrapping themselves in their blankets sought soft places on the turf and went to sleep. Strong guards were posted all around, and pickets sent out and the men slept with their guns in grasping distance.

No alarm occurred during the night, and in the morning the men arose, and after watering the horses and filling their canteens, again they started.

We now went directly towards Fairfax Court House, with a column nearly 12,000 strong. At intervals along the road we would come to places where the enemy had filled up the pathway with felled trees. These obstacles were speedily cleared away by the sappers and miners of the regular army, and we, with our wagons and teams, kept on the even tenor of our way. One tree, an immense one, had been so placed that its butt rose high in the air. The rebels undoubtedly thought that it would present an insuperable obstacle for at least a while. We merely removed the fences at the roadside and marched around it, with no delay whatsoever.

As we neared the stronghold, we all expected to fight. The report had gone around that the picked regiments of the Southern army, (there were at least three from South Carolina) were strongly entrenched – that they numbered 8000 men, and had cannon in plenty, so planted as to rake every conceivable avenue of approach. The Colonel – our own Burnside – rode in amongst us, told us to be cool, not flustered, and to obey every order of our officers. The men smiled grimly, and took a tighter clutch on their muskets. Two companies of the Second Rhode Island Regiment were sent out as scouters. The Rhode Island Regiments had the right of the column, and had there been an engagement must have suffered terribly. But we marched into Fairfax unmolested. As we approached along the road, and discerned the earth redoubts, and looking on either side would see the high embankments behind which we knew the most desperate resistance could be made, we could hardly credit the fact that the enemy had fled. Many even then thought that the enemy redoubts were only a piece of strategy to lure us further on. The earthworks are about ten feet high, and were constructed of sand bags. It was doubtless the labor of many days to build them.

So precipitate had been the flight of the enemy that they left behind their camp equippage, large amounts of provisions and hospital stores, with which our men speedily made free.

I must reserve for another time a filler description of our entree, and conduct in the place. I write now in haste to send this back by a detachment on its return.
We lived well the night we halted in Fairfax. Yankee stomach digested the dinners prepared for the chivalry, and Northerners lived as Southerners calculated to. Our dirty fingers were plunged into jam pots, and we drank their whiskey, tea and coffee, ate their sardines and pickles with gusto, and hunted indefatigably for relics. In one yard a whole company threw away their knapsacks. Searching these, we appropriated whatever struck our fancy. We found pistols, Sharp’s rifles and bowie knives, and the owners not being present to reclaim the same, we took care of them; and here I will advertise that if any South Carolina gentleman has lost a gridiron, with a label attached marked, “J. V. Quitman Guards, 2d Regt. S. C. V.,” he can have it by applying to the undersigned, (if he can get it.) I picked it up in the road. It is handy to sling by your knapsack on a march, and bully to broil pork by the camp fire.

The place, when we took possession, was utterly desolate. Every man, woman, chick and child had cleared out, and ll that welcomed us were a few old darks, who verily thought it was the custom for ‘dem Northerners” to be addicted to cannibalism, and in the habit of satisfying the pangs of hunger with niggers, raw, roasted, and on the half shell.
The half of what I wish to say, I cannot write – I haven’t time. The enemy have fled, and are [ends]…

Providence Evening Press 7/22/1861

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3 responses

27 09 2011
Chris Evans

Very interesting read.

It seems that the 2nd Rhode Island had some very literate soldiers with Sullivan Ballou, Elisha Hunt Rhodes, ‘Tockwotton’, and possibly ‘Canonicus’ writing for them.

Chris

27 09 2011
Coming Up… « Bull Runnings

[...] on Canonicus. That is, what’s a [...]

27 09 2011
Canonicus « Bull Runnings

[...] anonymous author of this letter to the Providence Evening Press signed his name as Canonicus. Like Tockwotton, Canonicus is a name [...]

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