Capt. (Acting Maj.) Thomas Francis Meagher, Co. K, 69th New York State Militia, On the Campaign (Part 1)

4 03 2022

LAST DAYS OF THE 69TH IN VIRGINIA.

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A NARRATIVE IN THREE PARTS.

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PART THE FIRST.

As far back as the 12th of July, if I recollect rightly, the 69th received orders from General McDowell to hold themselves in readiness to march at a moment’s notice. Knapsacks were to be packed, as well as trunks, and together with the rest of the heavy baggage of the regiment, were to be marked with the name of the company, and so forth. These were to be sent to Alexandria and there stored until the return of the regiment. The men were to get themselves into light marching order, taking with them sixty rounds, at least, of buck-and-ball cartridge, and three days’ rations, whenever the order to march was given. Such were the general orders or instructions, and they served as notes of preparation, and as very ominous signs and admonitions of something war-like looming in the future, and that not far off.

The aspect of the Camp, within and without Fort Corcoran, all this time, though animated, full of exciting and picturesque life, such as one finds in a camp, and that on the eve of battle, was not without its mournfulness and solemnity. In every tent men might be seen – some seated on kegs, others on their knapsacks, others again on rude blocks, and two or three on drums – writing their last letters home. Hundreds were sending to their wives and families, through Father O’Reilly, their beloved Chaplain, the greater portion of their two month’s pay, which they had just received – and in this way $25,000 were sent to New York by the regiment – whilst morning and evening hundreds were slowly passing through the little chapel within the Fort, making their confession and receiving absolution. The men, too, had come to love the Fort, the huge walls of which they had cemented with their sweat. They had become familiar with it, and with all the deep ravines and beautiful woods and streams around it for a circuit of -three miles – their constant scoutings and out-post duties, generally speaking, being within that range – and hence it was with a prevailing gloominess of heart that they prepared to bid good-bye to it, perhaps for ever.

The evening of the 15th of July – the regiment being drawn up in close column on parade – Colonel Corcoran read the special order for the next day’s march. The regiment was to march at 2 o’clock, p.m., – blankets were to be rolled up close and slung over the left shoulder under the right arm – muskets were to be in the best order – cartridge-boxes full – each man to carry three days’ rations in his haversack – the rations to be delivered early next morning. All that evening up to tatoo, the brave fellows busied themselves with their preparations, and did so with laughing hearts; and long after that, when the lights were extinguished throughout the Camp, and the Stars and Stripes, damp with the heavy night dews swayed heavily on the tall flagstaff above the ramparts, and the lone sentinels paced to and fro in the clear full moon-light, many a suppressed voice came from the hushed crowd, laden with memories and hops and prayers sacred to the homes that were left forlorn and sorrowful far away; and yet again these voices, more than once gave way to cheerier ones, rudely musical with all the proverbial spirit of the Irish soldier, his pride, recklessness and love. Snatches of songs – mostly those that Davis wrote for us – broke at times through the subdued buzz and hum of those darkened ranks, and it was close on dawn when all was still.

The first news the morning ushered in, however, was that we were to march that day at 12 o’clock. This, of course, took the regiment by surprise, and the last preparations for the march were violently hurried. Nevertheless, at the appointed hour the 69th left the Fort by Companies, and assembled on the parade-ground – a fine rolling meadow fronting it – a thousand strong, not including officers. An hour after, the regiment was on the road towards Fairfax, the Corps of Engineers, under the command of Capt. Quinlan, being in advance. This splendid body of men – intelligent, muscular, active and thoroughly hardened to the roughest work – presented a very striking appearance, indeed, each man being uniformed in a reddish gray flannel blouse, and having a large forest axe slung over his back. Lieutenants D’Hommergue and M Quade accompanied the Engineers, both being officers in the Corps. Next came the drummers, ten in number, the eldest not more than twenty, and the youngest little more than eight years old. Two or three fifers – jovial, reckless-looking old fellows – preceded them, and both together rattled us out on the road, and for miles along it, as though it were to a fair or a dance, or something else of the sort they were leading us – so brisk and saucy and get-out of-the-way-Old-Dan-Tuckerish was the music. After the drummers and fifers acme the Colonel, the Rev. Father O’Reilly, the Chaplain of the 69tj; Doctors Smith and Barron, the accomplished Surgeons of the Regiment; and the writer of this narrative, who had been detailed as special aid to the Colonel. All these officers were mounted. The main body of the Regiment immediately followed, the several companies – ten in all, and numbering one hundred men each- being under the command of their respective officers – Captain Haggerty acting as Lieutenant Colonel, and Captain Nugent acting as Adjutant, both well mounted, bringing up the rear.

Striking the Fairfax turnpike, immediately on leaving the parade-ground, the Regiment moved on to the village of Fall’s Church – a mile from Fort Corcoran. The camps of the First Wisconsin and 13th of Rochester looked dreary enough – both these regiments having preceded us, leaving only a small guard behind them in charge of the tents and other regimental property – and beyond these again, at intervals of two, three, five and seven miles, the camps of the Second New York, of the two Ohio Regiments, of the two Connecticut and the First Maine, wore the same desolate look. These three latter Regiments had taken the lead under Acting-Brigadier Keyes, Colonel in the regular army.

Four miles this side of Fairfax, Sherman’s Brigade, t which the 69th Regiment were attached, turned off and leaving Fairfax well to the left, hastened on to Vienna, which village, after an exhausting march, they entered an hour and a half after sundown. A mile outside the village, we were delighted to find Acting-Major McKeon, and Paymaster Kehoe, galloping up to the Regiment. Under the misapprehension of the hour the Regiment was ordered to march, they had gone to Washington on business, but hearing there that the 69th had left the Fort, swept after us as fast as their horses could carry them. Passing through Vienna – a straggling dozen or two of cottages, with a church, a tavern, a store, a pump and a forge here and there – the Regiment, under the direction of Brigadier Sherman, struck into a swampy field to the left, and were ordered there to stack arms and bivouac for the night.

It was a damp, cloudy, mysterious night – the first night the 69th felt they were in for a bloody conflict, and yet knew not, nor could they in the least divine, where or how soon the impending blow would be struck. All round us was the deep hum of a camp of 10,000 men – for Schenck’s and Tyler’s forces had passed through Vienna in advance of us and bivouacked in the fields further up the road – and when one looked up from his reeking bed in the marsh, to which the 69th had been politely shown for the night, there were the bivouac fires burning luridly through the shifting darkness, and the dense exhalations of the sunken lands in which we lay. After such a night’s prostration in mud and fog, it was absolutely refreshing for us to hear the reveille, and be set upon the march again. Our poor fellows, as they rose from the long dripping grass and rushes, looked as though the blood in their veins had been turned to water, and their bones been frozen into stones. They had been assigned by Brigadier Sherman the very worst position for their bivouac – the dampest and the rankest – and that many of them did not suffer severely and immediately from this cruelty, is to me the vaguest wonder. Yet, as they rose, rolled up their blankets, unstacked their muskets, rubbed them dry, and then hastily partook of their rations of hard bread and coarse coffee, there was the rollicking laugh, the sharp joke, a hundred queer and humorsome sayings breaking and flashing in every direction in the ranks, just as if they, our boys, had had the driest and warmest of lodgings for the night, and had yawned up to the most satisfactory breakfast imaginable.

Taking me one side, while the men were at their bread and coffee, Father O’Reilly told me the 69th were to lead the Brigade on that day’s march, and that in two hours, perhaps, out work would begin in earnest as there was a formidable battery little more than two miles or so ahead, which it was imperative for us to take in our line of march. At this moment, the several regiments forming in the fields beyond us and all round – the trumpets of the cavalry ringing piercingly and thrillingly in the sunny air – the lifted colors at various points glowing through the crowded scene – the field batteries rattling and rumbling up the road – the bands striking up the “Star Spangled Banner,” and rousing every heart – the dark and towering woods frowning all along our left and beyond us, far as the eye could reach – contributed to form, on a bold and sweeping scale, a picture far more stricking and exciting than any I had ever seen. War, assuredly, has its fascinations as well as its horrors, and there is and enchantment in these brilliant and exhilarating preparations for the conflict which blinds one utterly to the ghastly penalties that have to follow them, and some emboldens and spurs the tamest into heroism.

It was fully 10 o’clock, the morning of the 17th of July, when the 69th came in sight of Fairfax Court House, the road along which the Regiment passed being obstructed, every half mile almost, with enormous heaps of fallen trees, which the Confederates had levelled and massed together, and which had to be cut through by our axe-men, before the slightest progress could be made. It this rough and dangerous pioneering, the Engineers of the 69th, under the command of their high-spirited young Captain, did quick and clear work, splendidly maintaining their character with the Regiment for usefulness, promptitude and boldness. Arriving in sight of Fairfax Court House, and within an easy cannon-shot of it, the 69th, leaving the Ohio and other Regiments drawn up in line of battle along the road, striking off at right angles to the left of the main line of march, passed on so as to flank the village and cut off the retreat of the Confederates.

Proceeding in the execution of this movement, we came in sight of a portion of the enemy, apparently from 1,000 to 1,500 strong, drawn up in line of battle outside the village in a field directly fronting our line of march. The order to halt was promptly given, the right wing of the 69th was thrown into the fields to the left, and uniting there with the 2d of New York – as vigorous and spirited a body of men as any one would wish to see – moved rapidly upon the enemy. As they neared him, however, he retreated into the village, and then out of it towards Centreville, leaving it to be peacefully entered, a short time after by the forces from Arlington House, and the encampments between that and Alexandria, and beyond it. The fine battery of the 8th, N. Y. S. M., sent three or four complimentary adieux, in the shape of shell and round-shot, upon the retreating Southerners, which, I learnt afterwards from ex Governor James Lynch, who modestly and manfully served with the battery as a private, seemed to quicken their departure from Fairfax. Two or three shots, also, were dropped into them from Ayer’s battery, which rattled up from the rear of our brigade, past our regiment, for the purpose: and the same splendid battery threw two or three more discharges of cannister and grape, right and left, into the woods ahead of us with the view of starting any skirmishers or pickets that might be lying low in so suspicious and entangling a quarter. Nothing, however, turned up, and the enemy having retreated from Fairfax, the line of march was resumed, a considerable deviation to the right and southward of this town being observed.

It was one of the short halts on this march that Captain Breslin was severely wounded in the right shoulder, a stack of muskets being accidentally overset, and the full charge of one of them striking him as he stood within a few feet of them. At first it was feared, from the dreadful appearance it made, that the wound was a fatal one; but the surgeons hurrying up from the right of the regiment as fast as their horses could carry them, allayed our fears, whilst they did all in their power for the sufferer. The wound being dressed, the ambulance was ordered up, and from that out until the evening preceding the last battle at Bull Run, poor Breslin was jolted along to Centreville in the rear of the regiment – an unnecessary torture, it seemed to us all, which he bore most patiently and bravely, and for which our Brigadier, Colonel Sherman, a rude and envenomed martinet, is alone responsible – he having, with the utmost spitefulness of tone and feature, forbidden the 69th more than one ambulance, and it being vitally necessary that this solitary one should follow the regiment, and keep close to it wherever it went. Had there been a second one allowed, Captain Breslin might have been easily taken back to Fairfax, and thus been spared the agonizing jolting he was forced to endure. Whatever his reasons for it were, in this and other instances, Col. Sherman exhibited the sourest malignity towards the 69th. Hence he was hated by the regiment just in the same degree his predecessor, Colonel Hunter, was loved – a gentle, high-bred, noble gentleman, in every respect the bright reverse of his successor.

About half an hour after this accident to Captain Breslin occurred, the march was resumed, our destination being Germantown. As in the earlier part of the day, the road ran through lofty woods, the spaces between the trees being thickly overgrown with shrubs and under-brush. Skirmishers were thrown out, flanking the regiment three or four hundred yards to the right and left. And, as in the earlier part of the day, also, enormous barricades of fallen trees frequently interfered with our progress, and rendered it exceedingly slow and tedious. The Confederates had this most effectively provided for their retreat, so much so, that not a gun or cartridge even fell into the hands of the Federal troops. What added to the wearisomeness and exhaustion of this obstructed march, was the intensity of the sun and the billows of red dust which the tramping masses, of cavalry as well as foot, incessantly rolled up; the soldiers were often in the agonies of thirst, and when a pool of stagnant water glimmered in the ditches either side of the road, or in some mud hole in the road itself, it was impossible to retain them in the ranks. Spite of every entreaty, remonstrance, or threat, they broke loose, and, throwing themselves flat upon their faces, lapped and gulped the seething draught with the fiercest eagerness. At last, a tremendous shout was heard ahead, and word passed down the column that the enemy had abandoned their fortifications at Germantown and had fled still further on. This news instantly revived the poor fellows, and with an elastic step and bounding heart they pushed forward, utterly heedless of the heat and thirst, and all the other pangs of that broiling march. At 12 o’clock the Green Flag was planted on the deserted ramparts of the Confederates at Germantown, and the Stars and Stripes were lifted opposite to it at a distance of fifteen paces, and between the two beautiful and inspiring symbols – the one of their old home and the other of their new country – the 69th passed in triumph, hats and caps waving on the bayonet points, and an Irish cheer, such as never shook the woods of old Virginia, swelling and rolling far and wide into the gleaming air.

Last Days of the 69th in Virginia

Thomas Francis Meagher at Wikipedia

Thomas Francis Meagher website

Thomas Francis Meagher at FindAGrave





Pvt. Edmund K. McCord, Co. C, 2nd Wisconsin Infantry, On Preparations for the Campaign

4 03 2022

Letter from Second Regiment.

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Arlington Heights,
July 12, 1861.

Friend Cover: – The coast is now clear; all’s well, and I must write you. We are all in good spirits to-day, as we have had a refreshing shower. It has been very warm for 3 or 4 days; in fact, too warm to drill. The prospect of a forward march, with a day or two, “enlivens all.” We have orders from headquarters to be ready to sling our accoutrements at a moment’s warning; thus you will hear soon that a rebels nest is broken up at Fairfax. It may be well for me to remark that we have been strutting about for a day or two with our summer uniform; it is light and durable and is an addition to our comfort one hundred per cent. It appears that Uncle Sam has taken some notice of us, as he has placed General McDowell over our Brigade, and is making ready to pay us up in gold, (not depreciated bills worth 50 or 60 cents on the dollar,) and too will soon give us the U. S. uniform. The uniform first received from Wisconsin is of no use to us now or will not be at the words “forward march,” for it is pronounced by Gen. Scott himself as a facsimile uniform of the Confederate States Army.

We are within 12 miles of Fairfax, where it is reported 4,000 rebels are fortified; yet some of our scouts are somewhat disbelieving. We are between Prof. Lowe’s Balloons, which is a grand sight, and whish we think represents the American Eagle to perfection, which he has a bird’s eye view of the enemy.

The invalids of the regiment were examined yesterday with a view to send home such as we were not constitutionally able to stand the trip. Four of our company were examined and pronounced sound. We want no exaggerations, such as we have received from home about us. Since we started no one has been killed, no one mortally wounded, and not a single fight, not even a fist fight; we are peaceable here. Doubtless when we move we will be one Regiment among 10 as an advance guard, and should we meet of force of 40,000 remember our backing. Our good Captain understands his place as well as we could wish, and thus our company moves off with even (?) with any of rest. Col. Peck is spoken of by the whole Regiment with praise; indeed! we are all proud that we can have so gallant a man as our leader. Hoping that all my friends will consider themselves indebted to me in Grant, wishing all to write, address, Company C, Second Regiment, Wisconsin Volunteers, Washington, D. C., care of J. D. Ruggles, Quarter Master.

Yours truly,
E. K*. McCord

Grant County (Lancaster, WI) Herald, 7/24/1861

Clipping Image

Contributed by John Hennessy

* McCord shows in the roster with middle initial K. He shows in records as Edward K., Edmund K., Edwin K., and Edmund H. His (likely) tombstone reads Edwin Kimball McCord.

2nd Wisconsin Infantry roster

McCord at Ancestry

McCord at Fold3

McCord at FindAGrave