Capt. (Acting Maj.) Thomas Francis Meagher, Co. K, 69th New York State Militia, On the Campaign (Part 2)

5 03 2022

LAST DAYS OF THE 69TH IN VIRGINIA.

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A NARRATIVE IN THREE PARTS.

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PART THE SECOND.

Defiling through the deserted earthworks at Germantown, our Brigade bore off to the left, taking position in line of battle in the open fields spreading northward from the village. Skirmishers were thrown forward, and the village also being found deserted, the march was renewed, the position of the Regiments being altered – the First Wisconsin taking the right and the 69th bringing up the rear of the Brigade.

Over the streaming bayonets, through the swaying colors and clouds of dust rolling densely upwards from the trampled earth, riding at the head of the 69th beside our Colonel, I saw a handful of little wooden houses, known as Germantown, rise up and dilate before us. One house, however, particularly struck me, even at the distance, and notwithstanding the dust, confusion and tumult through which I noticed it. A two-storied house, well proportioned, with a white, cheerful face, roses and woodbine, as I took them to be, coiling and clustering about the trelissed porch, young ornamental trees in front of it, a clear and handsome feature in the clouded picture against which we were moving – it was the first pleasant object, of the quieter and friendlier order of things, we had fallen in with since we pushed on that morning from Vienna.

“That house is on fire,” Father O’Reilly, our Chaplain, hurriedly observed as he whipped his horse up beside the Colonel.

The words had scarcely fallen from his lips when a round mass of black smoke rolled out of the windows of the house and buried it in darkness. Another moment, the red flames were leaping through the smoke, and the crackling of timbers, pieced and rifted with the fire, was heard distinctly above the tramp and tumult of the march. The only ornament of the village, in hot haste and fury, was plunging into ashes. In half an hour it would be, at best, a heap of smoldering charcoal. Whose was the scurvy and malignant hand that fired the deserted homestead? It is for the Regiments of the Brigade, in advance of the 69th, to answer. With them rests the responsibility of this savage riotousness and mischief. The house was doomed irrevocably when the 69th came up. The Irish Regiment swept by the blazing ruin, cursing the ruffians who had played the barbarous prank, and maddened with the thought of the disgrace it would bring upon the Federal Flag.

Nor did the wickedness of the moment content itself with the destruction of an unprotected dwelling. Pigs were shot down and cut to pieces, the dripping fragments being pounced upon and carried off in triumph by the butchers. Turkeys and chickens shared the same fate. Everything left behind them in the village by the retreating inhabitants, whether useful or otherwise, was seized and swept away. I saw a private of the Wisconsin Regiment stumbling along with a feather bed across his soldiers. I saw another with a sledge hammer taken from a vacant forge. A third had a large looking-glass under his arm. A fourth had a patched quilt or counterpane wrapped about him – a curious piece of needle-work, gaudy enough to please a Carib prince, and sufficiently heavy for a winter’s night in Nova Scotia. A frenzy of depredation seemed to have seized many of the soldiers in advance of us; and the wanton passion appeared to grasp at everything with an utter disregard of its usefulness or absurdity. In vain did the officers of the offending Regiments strive to check the lawlessness of the men. The raw levies looked on Germantown – the abandoned bantling of a village – as their lawful prey, and the flames of the burning house, widening rapidly and fiercely, alone compelled them to desist.

Hurrying past the scene – leaving the house a bursting pile of smoke and fire, for it was impossible for us to save it, and having assured two South Carolina soldiers, who lay in an adjoining shed, sweltering in the dirtiest of blankets and deadly sick with measles, that they should have our protection and whatever relief we could render them, and to fear no harm – the 69th in a few minutes gained the road from Fairfax to Centreville. It was now close on one o’clock – the sun was fierce – the dust blinding and stifling – we had been trampling it since a little after sunrise – tramping it on the paltriest allowance of biscuit and coffee – no time for any further refreshment had been allowed – and here, parched and blistered, most of their canteens empty, not a drop of water within reach, the men were ordered to close ranks and in double-quick time sweep ahead. The belief that the Confederates were not more than an hour, at most, the better of us, and that following them this rapidly and incessantly, we should soon be up with them, alone encouraged the soldiers in that headlong pursuit and held them to work. But for that belief, hundreds of them, at all events, must have staggered from the column and thrown themselves against the trees and fences, either side of the road, utterly baffled and overpowered. As it was, hundreds used to break from the ranks whenever a farm-house held out to them the promise that water was at hand, and not merely disregarding, but defying, every effort of their officers to restrain them, made fiercely for the spot where their agonies were to be assuaged. In many instances the poor fellows were ruthlessly doomed to disappointment, the retreating Southerners having cut the ropes which held the buckets in the wells, or broken the chains, as the case might be. It was enough to force hot tears from the sternest eye to see the sufferers, panting and breathless almost after their wild race, looking hopelessly down those dark, deep wells, the forbidden water glimmering sixty feet or more below, and the fevered and crusted lip quivering with a redoubled pang. Nevertheless, it was a splendid panorama, those four miles of armed men – the sun multiplying, it seemed to me, the lines of flashing steel, bringing out plume and epaulette and sword, and all the finery of war, into a keener radiance, and heightening the vision of that vast throng with all its glory. The sun which parched those quivering lips, which drew the sweat in streams from many and many a scorching brow, which drank the blood of thousands on that desperate march, and bred from van to rear a mutinous thirst – the same stood there above us steeping all those swaying banners and all those haughty arms in a flood of splendor, and blending in one long wonderous wave of dazzling light all the gay deceptions and the worst privations of a soldier’s life. Most of the Regiments were accompanied by their bands; and as the bold music sprang up at intervals along the line, many a drooping heart leaped up with it, and despite of the heat and dust and thirst, it was, after all, a cheerful crowd that sped along.

About five o’clock in the afternoon, the toils and troubles of the day were at an end. Before the sun went down, and army of 12,000 had stretched itself to rest in a wide, deep valley, in the shadow of lofty woods which held it in a perfect zone.

Batteries of flying artillery – troops of cavalry – huge weapons with white awnings – ambulances and hospital carts – a farm-house here and there – these, dispersed at different points throughout the valley, relieved the monotonous masses of infantry with which the ground was darkened. A cool and abundant stream flowed through the sloping meadows over which these masses were extended, to the right and left of the road to Centreville; and the long fresh, covering the meadows, furnished a luxurious bedding for the heated and harassed forces of the Union. The night, however, was not without its discomforts and alarms.

There was a very heavy dew, which, though not as dense and drenching as the one we had to sleep through in the marshes outside Vienna, was bad enough for the toughest soldier to endure. It was all the worse for us, inasmuch as many of the 69th had that morning, during the flanking movement upon Fairfax, which they went through with a rush, flung off their blankets, whilst several of them flung off their coats as well. How these poor fellows managed to keep their bones from aching, and how, with light hearts and lighter limbs they leaped into the ranks next morning, as though they had been comfortably housed instead of being wringing wet all night, it would be difficult for me to say. That two or three men were violently seized with cramps, and that the doctor had to be hunted up and the regimental medicine chest explored, just a little after midnight, and that there were moans and writhings mingled with the healthier snorings of that densely crowded and encumbered valley, from that out till sunrise – all this I know, for I myself felt sick and restless all that night, and failed to have one hour’s unbroken sleep.

It was, also, a little after midnight, that one of the horses belonging to a Commissariat waggon broke loose, and, dashing furiously through the camp, heedless of where he struck, sent hundreds of stacked muskets rattling and flying along the lanes or rows in which our soldiers lay. In an instant, five thousand men were on their feet, ready to grapple with the cavalry of the enemy, for that a dash of dragoons had been made against the federal camp, and that they were tearing and slashing through it, a thousand strong at least, was the conviction which at first flashed through the startled ranks. The jingling of the bayonets, as the stacked muskets tumbled one after another, confirmed for a few minutes this conviction, the sound was so like that of sabres slapping against the heels and spurs of charging troopers. The darkness of the hour, moreover, and the difficulty of discovering what to guard against or what to strike, heightened the alarm and threw the camp into the vaguest and wildest uproar. Several shots were fired at random – the trumpets of the artillery and cavalry rang out clear and piercingly through the agitated valley. It was fully half an hour before the alarm passed off – an hour, at least, before the disordered troops sank into deep sleep again.

The thick, gray vapor one always sees in lowlands in hot climates, was still sluggishly rising from the bed of the valley, and the air was still damp and raw, when a squadron of United States dragoons trotted out briskly on the road to Centreville, heading the division under General Tyler, of which the First Wisconsin, the 13th Rochester, the Sixty-Ninth and Seventy-Ninth Regiments formed the Second Brigade. In less than two hours – our march having been through those same interminable woods we had known the last two days – the column halted. To the right and left of our Regiment were marshy bottoms and coarse meadow-lands, flanked by lofty thickets and seamed with running waters, clear and sweet and plentiful; and sweeping right before us in a bold curve were the high hills, on the southern slope of which, looking towards Manassas, lay the dingy, aged little village of Centreville. To the left of the road stood what seemed to be a large and massive house. Between this house and the road – a space of three hundred yards – a formidable earth-work frowned upon the advancing troops. To the right, cresting the hills of Centreville, were the huts of the Confederate Camp; and just above these withered structures, but miles away, blending softly and glowingly with the richly-tinted sky, the loftier undulations of the Blue Ridge met the view. The Brigade, under Colonel Hunter, from Alexandria, pouring down the valley from the belt of woods behind us on the extreme left, with its varied uniforms and waving colors, suddenly threw a glittering stream of life into the solemn picture where it was needed most. Every part of it was now lit up – lit up with broad veins of bayonets – lit up with sacred ensigns studded with the symbolic Stars of the Republic – lit up with the glorious sun which seemed to turn everything in the vast landscape into gold – the green woods, the brown waters, the red hills, the yellowish wastes of wilted pasturage and meadow which formed the valley, in the heart of which we halted, awaiting the return of the dragoons who had galloped towards earth-works on the hill.

A shout, hearty and prolonged, soon told us that Centreville, also, had been vacated. The huts, creating the rising ground on the left, were stripped to the very leaves and branches of which they had been built. The redoubt between the house and the road was emptied, too, nothing falling into the possession of the Federal troops but a few ammunition boxes. It was a clean sweep the Confederates made, as they fell back, abandoning position after position, until they fiercely stood their ground in that fatal labyrinth bristling, four miles a-head, between us and Manassas. It was there they wanted us; and their abandoned positions – at Vienna, at Fairfax, at Germantown, at Centreville, wherever they had been grouped between Bull Run and Fall’s Church up to the evening of our advance – were but so many artifices, elaborately arranged along our line of march, to entice us headlong, breathless and breadless almost, to destruction.

At noon, the 18th of July, the Stars and Stripes were flying over Centreville. The regiments under Colonel Keyes, accompanied by Brigadier General Tyler, moved down the southern slope of the hills already mentioned and disappeared. Sherman’s Brigade broke into the fields to the right of where we halted on the road – arms were stacked – haversacks and canteens were brought into play – and the sore-footed volunteers, their blankets spread above them on rails and muskets, so as to shade them somewhat, enjoyed a lunch of biscuit and hot water, and four hours’ repose.

Little they seemed to heed the cannon which at long intervals – intervals of from ten to twenty minutes – when it first began to boom, off there in the hazy woods below, told them the enemy was found at last. One might have thought that every man of the 69th had been a hardened and callous veteran, so coolly, so indifferently, so lazily did they take those dread intimations that death had commenced his havoc amid the lightenings and with all the pomp of war. Not a pulse seemed to quicken – not an eye to flash – not a heart to quail – not a mirthful thought or word to falter – as those subdued thunders rolled upward from those enormous masses of foliage under which hill and valley, ravine and river, lay buried about four miles in advance of it, for a league at least. Nor was it that the fatigue, occasioned by those swealtering marches of the last three days, had deadened them so thoroughly that they had become insensible to the excitements and dangers of the conflict now actually begun, and were incapable of emotion or activity. Harrassed, indeed, they were. Weakened, too, they were for want of sufficient food, it being impossible for them, on such a stretch of road as they had to take with such rapidity, to carry their three days’ rations far – the more especially as once or twice upon the march they were ordered to prepare for action, and with the instinct of their race – as, for instance, when bearing down on Fairfax – they stripped themselves of everything but their muskets and cartridge boxes for the fight.

The fact is – what with constant alarms at Fort Corcoran, forced marches and precipitate expeditions two or three times a week, being under arms upon the ramparts every second night or so, lying in ambuscade at the Alexandria and Loudon railway from midnight until dawn, and undergoing all the hardships, violences, and most of the shocks of war – the men of the 69th had become familiarized by anticipation and analogy with the scent which, at that moment, was being played out with such terrible effect amid the beautiful green trees of Virginia, and on one of the oldest high-roads to her capital. Hence the strange coolness with which they heard those deep bellowings of the conflict, awaiting the summons that would fling them into its fierce currents, and whirl their banner into the blackest and wildest eddies of the storm.

At four o’clock in the afternoon that summons came. Sherman’s Brigade was ordered up to relieve the Regiments that had been under fire for five hours and more. The 69th led the way, and as they hurried up the hill, the elasticity and enthusiasm of their race seemed to pervade them thoroughly. Of those thousand men, sweeping on to battle, through choking clouds of dust and under that smiting sun, there was not one but carried himself right gallantly – not one who did not feel that the color of his race and its military character was staked that hour upon the conduct of the 69th, and who, feeling this and lifting his eyes in rapture to the Green Flag as it danced above the rushing column, did not swear to meet the thrusts of battle with a fearless heart. An hour’s rushing – for the marching of the 69th to Bull Run that evening cannot otherwise be described – brought the Regiment to the brow of the hill descending into the little meadow where the Federal troops, Regiment after Regiment, had faced and stood a tempestuous fire from batteries of rifled cannon – masked as well as naked batteries – the fire of rifle-pits – a downright torrent and whirlwind of balls and shot, all of the deadliest cunning and ripest pattern.

And here they encountered several of the 12th Regiment of New York Volunteers hurrying from the bloody arena in the woods below, some of them dragging dead or bleeding comrades along with them, others with bandaged heads or legs or arms, staggering through the dust and the vengeful storm from the rifled cannon which still pursued them. Here, too, they met the 14th Rochester on its retreat, this fine young Regiment having stood its ground until broken and overpowered. Seeing a body of men making through the woods from where the murderous hail was pouring in upon them thick and sharp and fast, and taking them to be the Southerners in pursuit of the 12th New York, the boys of the 69th instinctively brought their bayonets to the charge, and were on the point of plunging upon the 13th when Capt. Haggerty dashed along the line a struck the bayonets upward with his sword. It was the bold act of a cool. Strong, decisive brain, and in an instant it stayed the 69th with an iron hand, as it were, and held it in a masterly suspense. The next moment we were ordered to lie down in double file, in the wood overlooking the field of battle, with our faces and muskets to the road, and in that position, keeping perfectly silent and collected, to await further orders. For more than three-quarters of an hour did the Regiment keep its position there – without a word from the ranks – without a breath almost – whilst shot and shell, and every sort of hellish missile, swept and tore, whizzed and jarred, smashed and plunged through the trees all about and close to us, overheard in hurtling and deafening showers, on either flank, in front and rear.

In the meantime the troop of United States dragoons that had been sent down the hill to protect our battery, wept up the road back to Centreville at their top-most speed, and were quickly followed by the battery itself – that commanded by Captain Ayres – his ammunition having given out. For three hours did this gallant officer keep his guns hot upon the Southern batteries. For three hours did he sustain the heroic regiments, which in that deadly maze of forest relived each other, and swept on every side by the fiercest fire, held their footing against a foe, which visible nowhere, seemed to be thick as the very leaves that sheltered them. For us, it was fighting in the dark. Worse than this, it was fighting an enemy who had full view and command of us, whilst we had to strike at random, not knowing for a second even where he was. The battery lost two men, and had its flag shorn to a ribband with rifle shots. Captain Ayres’ Lieutenant was painfully wounded in the foot. I spoke to him as he quietly rode back to camp, the wounded foot dangling below the stirrup, stripped of its boot, bandaged and bleeding freely.

Whilst we lay under the torrent and hurricane of round-shot, spherical ball, shell and cannister, which rent and spilt the sturdiest trees all round, struck deep into the earth, and harrowed it far and wide, knocking over the Wisconsin men who were drawn up in line across the road at right angles with the left of the 69th, and shaving the ear clean off one of our own boys – whilst we patiently submitted to this butcherly rain, Captain Haggerty stood upon our extreme right, contemplating with undisguised satisfaction the perfect coolness and subordination of the men, the Colonel taking it just as coolly in the centre as though he had been dictating some unimportant order in his imarqueei at fort Corcoran, with a pitcher of ice water close at hand. On the left of the Regiment stood Paymaster Kehoe, Quarter-Master Tully and one or two other officers of the Staff, smilingly commenting upon the perplexities and chances of our situation. In the meantime, the Surgeons, Doctors Pascal Smith, Barron, and Nowlan, were to be seen at their post, a few yards in the wood, above the left of the Regiment – Father O’Reilly standing with them – the poor fellow who had lost his ear, moaning on a mattress in the rear of the ambulance, his wound dressed and every comfort possible at the moment given him – while adjutant McKeon, who had been all day completely disabled by an attack of gastric fever, was making the best of his way down the road to take his share of whatever was going. In the meantime, moreover, Gen. Tyler, accompanied by his Staff, used now and then leisurely ride past our line, and pulling up just about where poor Haggerty stood, bend in the saddle, raise his field glass to his eyes, pry into the raging woods, and then, grinning very curiously, as leisurely ride back. Colonel Sherman, too, used to take and observation at moderate intervals, and having satisfied himself – or rather having failed to satisfy himself – used to ride back up the road a-bit, grinning likewise, and apparently giving way to a private and exclusive snarl. Between six and seven o’clock, General McDowell came upon the ground with a brilliant escort, including the young and chivalrous soldier, Governor Sprague, of Rhode Island, and he, comprehending at a glance the situation of affairs, the sheer deadliness of the conflict and the utter fatuity of attacking the hidden enemy in his lair, ordered the 69th to return to the hill overlooking the little village of Centreville, and there await further orders, which would be forthwith issued.

Last Days of the 69th in Virginia

Thomas Francis Meagher at Wikipedia

Thomas Francis Meagher website

Thomas Francis Meagher at FindAGrave


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