Saturday, July 9, 2016

Major Wilder Dwight: March 13, 1862

Camp Near Winchester, March 13, 1862.

At last! My prophecy of yesterday found its fulfilment rapidly enough. Half an hour after my letter went on its way, Colonel Andrews brought the news that Hamilton's and Williams's brigades were in Winchester, as quietly and easily as if no hostile force had ever held it. Jackson left the night before, having held Hamilton and us in check all the previous day by slight demonstrations of cavalry. It is as I have always supposed, though this general exodus from Manassas and the whole line is more sudden than I believed possible. It gives us a stern chase, perhaps a long chase. After lunch the Colonel and I determined to gallop down from Berryville to Winchester to call on Hamilton and see the place, — a pleasant ride of ten miles. We approached the town from the east. The only symptom of fortification was a long rifle-pit, with a few platforms for guns, and one broken gun “truck,” or ship carriage. We found General Hamilton in command, and in tranquil possession. Jackson cleverly slipped away, carrying with him everything, — guns, stores, men. He had been moving for a fortnight, and has gone to the railway at Strasburg. I think we have lost time uselessly in our over-caution. Our own twenty-four hours' delay at Berryville is inexplicable to me. The effort, I think, should have been made by a movement to Millwood, and so across to the Strasburg pike, to cut off Jackson. A bold game would, perhaps, have bagged him. Still, while the position at Manassas was held, a bold game was too full of hazard. After the broad hint furnished us by the evacuation of Leesburg, however, I think we might have pushed on our intercepting column fearlessly. At any rate, the movement is without brilliancy or effectiveness or fruit, and only postpones and unsettles the time of our success. We got into the saddle again at half past five to return.

Just at dusk we came near Berryville. Whom should we meet but General Abercrombie. “The whole brigade is moving,” said he. “I have a telegraphic despatch from General Banks, that Hamilton is engaged with the enemy at Winchester. Shields has been taken prisoner, and the loss, on our part, is very heavy. We are ordered to march at once to his support.” “But it's all a mistake,” said we. “We just left General Hamilton safe and happy at Winchester, and no enemy within twenty miles.” “Never mind,” said the General; “I have my orders.” It was no use; he would not let us turn the regiment back, as we desired. There was nothing for it but to yield. We stopped and got some supper, and then followed the regiment, overtaking it at about eight o'clock, as it was crossing a stream. At about ten o'clock, wet and cold, we turned into a field near Winchester to bivouac for the night. A cold time we had of it. To-day we have got into camp near the town. I rode out this afternoon to see their vaunted fort on the road toward Bunker Hill; a poor affair enough. Everything tells me that if Patterson had had courage instead of caution, an army instead of a mob, we should have walked into Winchester last July as we have to-day. But we needed the lessons of that campaign to prepare for this.

I must not omit to mention the arrival of the boxes of clothing, from Mrs. Ticknor, on Saturday last at Charlestown. They came, like their predecessors, most opportunely. It was the morning after our night march over rough and muddy roads. Our camp was scourged by a blustering and piercing March wind. The boxes opened their warmth upon men who longed for it. Give our cordial thanks to all the ladies whose kindness has done so much for us.

Great news from Arkansas! Howard is in luck.

My last night's bivouac, after so many previous sleepless nights, has made me rather sleepy. Our regiment turned into a thick pine wood. Colonel Hackleman's Indiana regiment was just in our rear. They brought along with them the hens and chickens of the neighboring farms, and the feathers flew briskly about their beds. Old Hackleman calls them his “boys,” and they, in turn, call him “pap”; and he has a happy, noisy family about him. As they lay by our side last night, I was led to the remark, that Hackleman's babes were in the wood, and Robbin Henroosts had covered them with softer covering than leaves. Our regiment is in perfect condition, and the men have really become practised and expert soldiers. Our train came up this morning, and at about one o'clock we went into camp. Before sunset ovens were built, and we had a perfectly organized camp. We may not stay here a day, but everything takes shape at once. The men march easily and rapidly, and I am more than ever pleased and contented with the Second Regiment.

Have we not a Monitor afloat? Was not her providential arrival at Norfolk an effective admonition to the Rebels? Check to their king. Private enterprise has done what our Navy Department could not. What a glorious trial trip!

Just beyond the field in which we are encamped are the remains of the camp of the Second Virginia. An omen, perhaps; but this peaceable succession to vacant camps has in it little of the element that feeds martial ardor or rewards the ecstasy of strife! But how silently and surely we are dealing with slavery. The post at which I placed my grand guard yesterday was near a fine old farm-house. Its Rebel owner left with haste, as threw his shells with brilliant courage at four men and a threshing-machine which his distempered fancy had imagined and exaggerated into some new engine of destruction. All the negro servants were left in charge of the other property. This leaving one kind of property in possession of another kind of property hath in it a certain logical and natural inconsistency, which doth not fail to show itself in the practical result. “Massa's gone to Winchester. He in a big hurry. Yer's welcome to the hams and the other fixins. Massa very hospitable man.” So the negro makes free with his fellow-property with every right of succession and enjoyment that belongs to a next of kin. Why will he not also learn to make free with himself?

If he fails to do so, it will not be for the want of a good deal of rough but sage counsel from the “boys” of the Sixteenth Indiana Regiment, who were posted there. The Hoosiers have very vague notions of property and Rebel ownership at the best. They have not the capacity to rise to the height of contemplating human ownership. A long row of beehives were humming their peaceful labors in the front-yard. I hear that they soon fell into disorder, and that the Hoosiers had a ration of honey! Sic vos non vobis mellificatis apes! My Latin may be lame, but the sense is clear.

I send you a Richmond Enquirer, from the Winchester mail, seized yesterday; I send you also a paper published by the Twelfth Indiana on their advent to town. It is dull enough, but an odd institution, — a sort of turning of the Rebel batteries against themselves

The origin of General Banks's error about a battle at Winchester, which gave us our night stampede, is supposed to have been in the signal corps. Some one blundered a signal or forged one, we have not yet learned which; an investigation is going on.

SOURCE: Elizabeth Amelia Dwight, Editor, Life and Letters of Wilder Dwight: Lieut.-Col. Second Mass. Inf. Vols., p. 206-10

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