MILITARY REMINISCENCES OF THE CIVIL WAR
BY JACOB DOLSON COX, A.M., LL.D.
Formerly Major-General commanding Twenty-Third Army Corps_
NOVEMBER 1863-JUNE 1865
WINTER BIVOUACS IN EAST TENNESSEE
Blain's Cross-roads--Hanson's headquarters--A hearty welcome--Establishing field quarters--Tents and houses--A good quartermaster--Headquarters' business--Soldiers' camps--Want of clothing and shoes--The rations--Running the country mills--Condition of horses and mules--Visit to Opdycke's camp--A Christmas dinner--Veteran enlistments--Patriotic spirit--Detachment at Strawberry Plains--Concentration of corps there--Camp on a knoll-A night scene-Climate of the valley--Affair at Mossy Creek--New Year's blizzard--Pitiful condition of the troops--Patience and courage--Zero weather.
The Twenty-third Corps was encamped at Blain's Cross-roads, seventeen miles northeast of
Knoxville, on the road to Rutledge, where Longstreet was supposed to be. The Fourth Corps, under General Granger, and the Ninth, under General Parke, were in the same neighborhood. The cavalry corps covered the front and flanks on both sides of Holston River. A concentration of the Army of the Ohio and its reinforcements had been made there to meet a rumored return of the Confederates toward Knoxville after an affair at Rutledge in which Longstreet had captured a wagon-train loaded with supplies for us. I left Knoxville on the morning of the 21st of December, accompanied by my staff officers, and rode to Blain's Cross-roads. I found the corps under temporary command of Brigadier-General Mahlon D. Manson, of Indiana, who had commanded one of the divisions in the preceding campaign. Manson occupied an old log house too small for himself and staff. There was but one bed in it, and at night the general occupied this, whilst his staff slept in their blankets on the floor. We had travelled leisurely, as I wished to study the country between
Knoxville and the camp, and we reached the corps too late to make any arrangement for the night, and had to cast ourselves on our comrades' hospitality. I was most heartily welcomed by General Manson, who did the best he could for me by offering me the half of his own bed, whilst the staff took similar lodgings with his officers in a shed veranda at the back of the house lying snugly together, wrapped in their blankets. Manson was a burly, whole-souled man, brave and loyally unselfish, and turned over the command to me with a sincerity of subordination which won my confidence at once. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xxxi. pt. iii. pp. 462, 463.] It was not a comfortable night in the overcrowded log house for either hosts or guests, but it was made cheery by the hearty soldiers' welcome we received, and we sat late around the crackling fire in the stone chimney after we had eaten with a relish, known only in camp, the best supper which the meagre rations of the army could furnish.
Our first occupation next day was to establish my own headquarters, for a military man does not feel at home until his little camp is set in some decent nook with the regularity and order which shows good system, and with the sentinel pacing before the entrance. I have always found it most comfortable and most healthful to live under canvas, even in winter, in the sparsely settled parts of the country. It might be different in Europe or in the more densely peopled States at the East, but in the West and South a house cannot always be found in proper proximity to the line, and changing from house to tent and back again is much more dangerous to health than adherence to what seems the more exposed kind of life. There is also a question of discipline and _morale_ involved, and the effect of example at headquarters is felt through the whole command. With no little difficulty we found four old tents without flies, but these were carefully pitched in a clean place accessible to all parts of the corps, and when we were installed in them we had a real satisfaction in being at home and ready for business. Our difficulty in procuring four poor tents was simply an index of the scarcity of all supplies and equipments. The depots at Cincinnati and Nashville were packed with everything we wanted, but there had been no time to get them forward when the siege began, and now the impassable mountain roads cut us off as completely as a circle of hostile camps. We especially felt the lack of the flies for the tents in roughing it. This extra roof makes as great a difference in keeping a tent habitable in wet weather, as an extra cape or a poncho does in keeping the rain off one's person, or in civil life the omnipresent umbrella. Our overcoats and ponchos kept out the wet in the longest march, but without a fly the tent roof and walls would drip with moisture. In Captain Day, however, I had a quartermaster whose indomitable energy would not be long baffled, and in his journeys to and fro in charge of the supply trains of the corps he kept a sharp eye out for whatever would make our headquarters outfit more efficient. The warehouses at Knoxville were searched, and a better tent found in one place and a fly in another gradually brought our little camp into what soldiers regard as a home-like condition. The clerical work and the official correspondence of the command could then go on; for the headquarters of an army corps in the field is as busy a place as a bank or counting-house in a city. It is the business centre for a military population of 12,000 or 15,000 men, where local government is carried on, and where their feeding, clothing, arming, and equipping are organized and directed, to say nothing of the military conduct in regard to the enemy, or of the administration of affairs relating to the neighboring inhabitants.
The troops were in bivouac, generally in the woods about us, where shelter could be made in ways well known to lumbermen and hunters. The most common form was a lean-to, made by setting a couple of crotched posts in the ground with a long pole for a ridge. Against this were laid other poles and branches of trees sloping to the ground on the windward side. The roof was roughly thatched with evergreen branches laid so that rain would be shed outward. A bed of small evergreen twigs within made a comfortable couch, and unlimited firewood from the forest made a camp fire in front that kept everybody toasting warm in ordinary weather. The regimental and company officers had similar quarters, improved sometimes by a roof of canvas or tarpaulin beneath the evergreen thatch. There were but few days in the East Tennessee winters when such shelter was not a sufficient protection for men young and accustomed to hardship. It was in fact more comfortable than life in tents at division and corps headquarters, but with us tents were a necessity on account of the clerical business which I have mentioned.
The want most felt was that of clothing and shoes. The supply of these had run very low by the time
Burnside had marched through Kentucky and Tennessee to Knoxville, and almost none had been received since. Many of the soldiers were literally in rags, and none were prepared for winter when Longstreet interrupted all communication with the base of supplies. Their shoes were worn out, and this, even more than their raggedness, made winter marching out of the question. The barefooted men had to be left behind, and of those who started the more poorly shod would straggle, no matter how good their own will was or how carefully the officers tried to enforce discipline and keep their men together.
The food question was in a very unsatisfactory way, but had improved a good deal after the siege of Knoxville was raised. Some herds had been brought part of the way, and had been kept together, so that they were driven in as soon as the road was open. Some were captured and some were lost, but enough arrived so that the meat ration was pretty regularly issued in full weight. A large amount of pork had been salted and packed at Knoxville, and was issued as an occasional change from the ordinary ration of fresh beef. The "small rations" of coffee, sugar, salt, etc., were almost wholly wanting, and our soldiers had been so accustomed to a regular issue of these that the deprivation was a very serious matter. As to breadstuffs, none could be got from our depots and we were wholly dependent upon the country. We put all the mills within our lines under military supervision, and systematized the grinding so that the supply of meal and flour should be equitably distributed to the army and to the inhabitants. As the people were loyal, there was no wish on the part of the military authorities to take corn or other grain without payment, and the people brought in freely or sold to us on their farms all that they could spare. Still the supply was short, and was soon exhausted in the vicinity of the army, so that we had to send forage trains to great distances and with very unsatisfactory results. During the whole winter we rarely succeeded in obtaining half rations of bread, and oftentimes the fraction was so small as to be hardly worth estimating. In such a situation corn could not be taken for horse-feed, and as the long forage in our vicinity was exhausted, the animals were in pitiful condition. In many instances artillery horses dropped dead of starvation at the picket rope.
The Fourth Corps was no better off than ourselves. Granger had left the
Army of the Cumberland immediately after the battle of Missionary Ridge, and although the situation at Chattanooga had been a good deal mitigated, no considerable supplies of clothing had then arrived. The distress was therefore universal in our East Tennessee army. Learning that Sheridan's division was encamped not far from us at Blain's Cross-roads, I rode over to find Colonel Emerson Opdycke of the One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Ohio, who was in that division. He was a townsman of mine, and our families were intimate, and other neighbors and friends were with him. I could give them later news from home than any of them had, for until the end of the year the newspapers I brought from Cincinnati were the latest in camp. I found Opdycke's camp like our own. He was in the woods, under a lean-to shelter such as I have described, with a camp-fire of great logs in front of it. He was just opening the first letters he had got from home since the battle of Chickamauga in September, and these had been a long time on the way, for they had gone to Chattanooga and had come by casual conveyance from there. His statements fully agreed with the reports I had got from the Twenty-third Corps officers in regard to the condition of the troops. It was the same with all. They would not suffer greatly if they could remain in the forest encampments till shoes and clothing could come to us, but any active campaigning must produce intolerable suffering.
Our mess wished to celebrate Christmas by a dinner at which a few of our comrades might share the luxury of some canned vegetables and other stores we had brought from Ohio, and we sent a man with a foraging party that was going twenty miles away for hay and corn. After a diligent search he succeeded in getting a turkey and a pair of fowls, and we kept the festival in what seemed luxurious style to our friends who had been through the campaign. The spirit of officers and men was all that could be wished, for they thoroughly understood the causes of their privation, and knew that it was unavoidable. Their patriotism and their moral tone were magnificently shown in the re-enlistments which were at this time going on. The troops of the original enlistment of 1861 were now near the end of their term of three years, and it was the wise policy of the government to let the question of a new term be settled now while the winter was interrupting active operations. Regiments whose term of service would expire in the spring or summer of 1864 were offered a month's furlough at home and the title of "veterans" if they would re-enlist. The furlough was to be enjoyed before the opening of the next campaign, and the regiments were to be sent off as fast as circumstances would permit. We knew that the home visit would be a strong inducement to many, but we were astonished and awed at the noble unanimity of the popular spirit of the men. Almost to a man they were determined to "see it out," as they said. The re-enlistment was accepted by companies, but there was great pride in preserving the regimental organization as well. The closing week of the year was devoted to this business, other duty being suspended as far as circumstances would permit. When a company had "veteranized" by the re-enlistment of a majority, they announced it by parading on the company street and giving three rousing cheers. These cheers were the news of the day, and the company letter and the number of the regiment passed eagerly from mouth to mouth as the signal of a new veteran company was heard. Some companies re-enlisted without an exception. In one regiment there were only 15 men in the ten companies who did not sign the new rolls. In fact only the physically disabled with here and there a discontented man were omitted in the veteran enlistment. It was a remarkable incident in the history of the war and a speaking one. It illustrates better than anything, except the original outburst of patriotism in 1861, the character of the men who formed our rank and file. Could we only have had then an efficient system of filling up these veteran regiments by new recruits, the whole would have made an incomparable army; but, alas, we were to see them reduced to a handful while new regiments were organized, only (as it looked to us in the field) to give the "patronage" of the appointments to politicians, or to reward successful recruiting instead of soldierly ability tested in action.
Soon after General Foster was assigned to the department he reissued an order which Burnside had made earlier but had revoked, by which Brigadier-General Samuel D. Sturgis was appointed to the command of the cavalry corps. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xxxi. pt. iii, p. 394.] Sturgis had commanded a division of the Ninth Corps in Maryland and Virginia, and was one of those whose dismissal Burnside had demanded for the insubordination which followed the battle of Fredericksburg. Good policy would have dictated that he should be sent to some other command; but he was ordered to report to Burnside, and had no active employment until Foster arrived. The cavalry corps had had several lively engagements with the Confederate horse, and was now concentrated near Mossy Creek, where it was supported by a brigade of infantry from the second division of the Twenty-third Corps, in command of Colonel Mott of the One Hundred and Eighteenth Ohio. [Footnote: _Id_., pp. 488, 489, 562.] Our information showed that Longstreet's forces were now concentrated about Morristown, and that nothing larger than scouting parties came across to the west side of the Holston. It became prudent, therefore, to transfer part of our forces from the Rutledge road over to that which runs from Knoxville along the line of the railroad to Morristown. Both the railroad and the wagon-road cross the Holston at Strawberry Plains and go up the valley on the east side of the river by way of New Market and Mossy Creek. On the 24th and 25th I was directed to send two more brigades to Strawberry Plains, [Footnote: _Id_., p. 490.]one of which was put over the river to cover the reconstruction of the railway bridge which was going on. This was the long trestle which had been burned by Sanders in the preceding summer, and had since been repaired and destroyed by the opposing armies alternately. On the 27th I was ordered to move the other division of the corps to Strawberry Plains, thus concentrating my command in that vicinity. Our distance from Knoxville would be about the same as at Blain's Cross-roads, but the divergence of the roads made our march some six or eight miles across the country.
It was a great hardship to the men to abandon the huts they had made with a good deal of labor, and which were the more necessary for them by reason of the destitution which I have described. Nor was it pleasant for us at headquarters, for we had got our own establishment into a condition of tolerable comfort. Some brick had been got from a ruined and abandoned house, and with them a chimney with an open fireplace had been built at the back of one of our tents, which thus made a cheerful sitting-room for our mess. It is a soldier's proverb that comfortable quarters are sure to bring marching orders, and we were only illustrating the rule. The march was made in the afternoon through rain and mud, and we reached Strawberry Plains just before nightfall in the short midwinter day. The Plains were a nearly level space in a curve of the river, though the village of the name was on some rough hills on the other bank at the end of the long trestle bridge. The level lands had been for some time occupied by the cavalry, and were so cut into mud-holes and defiled in every way as to be unfit for an infantry camp. A little on one side, however, was an isolated gently rounded hill covered with a mixed forest of oak and pine. With a little crowding this would make a clean and well-drained camp for the division I had brought with me. The brigades were placed so that they encircled the hill on the lower slopes with openings between leading to the top, on which I placed my headquarters. The little quadrangle of tents on the top, the forest-covered slopes, the busy soldiery below making new camps for themselves, made a romantic picture despite the discomforts. I cannot better show the impression made at the moment than by quoting from a letter written home the next day: "When we arrived, the rain was pouring in torrents, the dead leaves, wet and deep, soaked our boots and made it slow work to kindle a fire, and as we stood about in our overcoats heavy with water, we were not especially impressed with the romance of the scene; but when we had found a few old pine-knots to start the fire with, and the heavy smoke of the damp leaves changed to a bright flame,--when the tents were pitched, a cup of hot coffee made, and we sat about the fire watching the flashing light on the deep green of the pines and the beautiful russet of the oak leaves with the white of the tents beneath, the few square yards about us were made as lovely as a fairy scene shut in by the impenetrable gloom beyond. The old witchery of camp life now came over us, we forgot rain and cold, singing and chatting as merrily as if care were dead, till finally rolling in our blankets under our tents, we went to sleep as sweetly and soundly as children."
A day or two of bright mild weather followed, and the troops got themselves fairly well sheltered again. The cutting of trees for huts and for firewood thinned out the forest, and the elevation of the camp above the surrounding country exposed us to the wind, as we soon learned to our cost. Whilst the fair days lasted, we had a favorable example of an East Tennessee winter, as is shown by the further quotation from the home letter just cited. "I am sitting in the open air," I said, "before the camp-fire of great logs, writing upon my atlas on my knee, which is more comfortable than doing it in the chilly shade of the tent. I wish you could have seen our camp last night. We were grouped around the fire, some sitting and lolling on the logs drawn up for fuel, some in camp chairs. The smoke from the camps about us made the whole air hazy. Over the tents through a vista of pine-trees the moon was rising red through the thickened air, while overhead the stars were shining. The wonderful perspective the firelight makes in the forest, here brought out and deepened the mass of color of the evergreens, there made the bare trunk and limbs of a leafless oak stand like a chalk drawing against the black background, and again it gave rich velvety warmth to the brown of the dead leaves which hung thick on some trees, while the gloom beyond and the snug enclosure of our little quadrangle of tents shut us in with a sense of shelter, and completed a picture that would have made Rembrandt die of envy." We were hardened by our continuous exposure so that we felt no discomfort in sitting thus in the open air till late in the evening, though we woke in the morning to find the dead leaves which made our carpet stiff and crisp with the frost. Still, it was much milder than the Christmas weather of northern Ohio, or we could not have taken it so easily.
On the 29th the cavalry had a lively affair with the enemy at Mossy Creek, some twenty miles above us. General Sturgis was making a reconnoissance of the country between the French Broad and the Holston rivers, sending the cavalry partly toward Dandridge on the former stream, under command of Colonel Foster, and partly toward Morristown, under Brigadier-General W. L. Elliott of the Cumberland army. Elliott was supported by Mott's brigade of infantry, part of which acted under his orders. Foster found no enemy, but Elliott had advanced about three miles beyond Mossy Creek when he encountered the cavalry corps of the Confederates, advancing, apparently, with a purpose similar to ours. The infantry were posted by Sturgis upon a ridge half a mile beyond the railway bridge at Mossy Creek, and the cavalry with the artillery were ordered to retire slowly to the same position. The enemy under Major-General William T. Martin consisted of two divisions of horsemen and two batteries of artillery. They closely followed our retiring troops, who made cool resistance and drew back slowly and in order. When the position of the infantry was reached, the whole force was halted to receive the Confederate attack. Sturgis had two batteries of artillery with his corps, but had sent a section of each with Colonel Foster, and Elliott now placed the remaining sections on right and left of the road, each supported by infantry. Martin boldly attacked till he found himself confronted by Mott's infantry, which opened upon him with a withering fire. The artillery also fired canister upon the advancing enemy, and our horsemen, dismounting, extended the line and did good execution with their carbines. The first assault being repulsed, Martin was unwilling to give it up so, and bringing his artillery into better position renewed the fight. A sharp skirmishing combat was kept up for several hours, when the enemy retreated. Darkness came on soon after, and the pursuit was not pushed far. Our losses had been 17 killed and 87 wounded. That of the enemy was reported to be much more severe. The result of the engagement was to repress the enterprise of the Confederates, so that Mossy Creek remained for some time our undisturbed outpost in the valley. [Footnote: Official Records, vol. xxxi. pt. i. pp. 625-641.]
On New Year's eve we had a change of weather which rudely broke in upon our dream of a steady and mild winter. It had been raining nearly all day, and we had just turned in about ten o'clock in the evening when a sudden gale sprung up from the northward. The water-soaked ground did not hold the tent pins very well, and the rattling of canvas warned us to look after the fastenings. The staff were all quickly at work, the servants being, as usual, slow in answering a call in the night. The front of our mess tent blew in, and the roof and sides were bellying out and flapping like a ship's sail half clewed up. I caught the door-flaps and held them down to the pole with all my strength, shouting to the black boys to turn out before the whole should fly away. Then we had a lively time for an hour, going from tent to tent to drive the pins tighter and make things secure. We had just got them snug, as we thought, and began to listen to the roaring of the wind with something like defiance, when a "stick-and-clay" chimney, which Colonel Sterling and my brother had at the back of their tent, took fire and was near setting the whole encampment in a blaze. This made another shout and rush, till the chimney was torn away from the canvas and the fire extinguished. The gale was so fierce that the sparks from the camp-fires rolled along the ground instead of rising, and we should have burned up had not the rain kept the tents soaking wet. It grew cold so fast that by the time we had made the encampment safe, the wet canvas froze stiff. It must be confessed that we did not sleep well that night, and we got up in the morning aching with cold. It still blew a gale, though the sky was clear and the thermometer had fallen to zero. It was a typical cyclone coming as a cold wave from the North, and, as we afterward learned, was exceptional in its suddenness and bitterness along the whole line from Minnesota to northern Georgia.
The soldiers in the camps had slept but little, for they were obliged to keep awake and near the fires to escape freezing. No one who has not lived in tents or in bivouac in such a time can understand what real suffering from cold is. Exposure by day is easy to bear compared with the chill by night when camp-fires burn low and men lie shivering, their teeth chattering, while extreme drowsiness makes exertion painful and there is danger of going off into the sleep that knows no waking. On New Year's day morning the ground was frozen solid. All huddled about the fires, but the gale was so fierce that on the windward side there seemed to be no radiation of heat, so completely was the fire blown away from that side of the logs. On the leeward side the smoke suffocated and the sparks burned one, and men passed from one side to the other doubting which was the more tolerable.
I spent a good part of the morning going through the regimental camps and giving such encouragement and cheer as I could. The patience and courage of the troops were marvellous, though many of the men were in a pitiable condition as to clothing. They were tatterdemalions in appearance, but heroes at heart. Some had nothing but drawers upon their legs, their trousers being utterly worn to rags. Some had no coats and drew their tattered blankets about them, sitting upon their haunches, like Indians, about the camp-fires. I do not recall a single querulous or ill-natured complaint. It was heart-breaking work to see their misery, but they were so intelligent that they knew as well as I did that it had grown out of the inevitable fortunes of war, in spite of the utmost efforts of their commanders to get supplies forward as soon as the siege of Knoxville had been raised. I estimated that fully one-third of the command had lost and worn out some material portion of their clothing, so as to be suffering for lack of it. A little thing which added greatly to the discomfort of the men was that in some whole brigades they had been without soap for two months. This made cleanliness impossible, and clustering about the fires as they were forced to do, they became so begrimed that a liberal supply of soap would have been necessary to restore their color and show to what race they belonged. Yet, hungry, cold, ragged, and dirty, they responded cheerily to my New-Year's greetings, and at this very time the "veteranizing" was going on without a check until nearly every one of the old regiments re-enlisted for another term.
At our headquarters on the hill-top we realized that our picturesque situation had its disadvantages, for we were doubly exposed to the force of the wind. We were on a high dome, as it were, with nothing whatever to make a lee or break the power of the icy gale. In one or two of the tents, furnaces or stoves of stone had been made, on the pattern of those we had used in West Virginia in 1861. The trench in the ground with flat stone covering level with the tent floor and connected with an opening on the outside, proved the most successful device. We collected in these, and used every manner of pastime to kill the tedious hours till the subsidence of the wind made our usual outdoor life and activity possible again. Our efforts at meals were a woeful sort of failure. Cooking under such difficulties was more a name than a fact, and we left the mess tent shivering and hardly less hungry than we entered it. But all things have an end, however tedious they seem in passing, and the 2d of January seemed pleasant in the comparison, for the "blizzard" was over, and the weather was calm though cold.