A narrative of service with the Third Wisconsin Infantry/On the trail of Stonewall Jackson

On the trail of Stonewall Jackson

At length the long-wished-for came. On the morning of February 25, 1862, we bade adieu to the barracks that had sheltered us so long, and boarding the cars moved to Sandy Hook, where we went into camp on the ground that we had left six months before. During the night there arrived a train of cars with a pontoon bridge, in charge of a detachment of United States engineers; and General McClellan came from Washington by special train, personally to supervise the movement. Our Regiment being largely composed of lumber men and raftsmen from northern Wisconsin, who were accustomed to running rafts on the rivers of our State, readily made up a detail of a hundred experienced fellows to assist the engineers in laying the bridge. By noon it was constructed, 1300 feet long, in a swift current and our Regiment, the advance of the army, was on its way into Dixie.

We moved rapidly on to Bolivar Heights without seeing anything of the enemy, and halted there for the night, happy in the thought that at last we were doing something. On February 28 a strong reconnoitering party of infantry, artillery, and cavalry, moved forward, and without opposition occupied Charlestown. It was a village of national reputation at that time, for there John Brown was tried and hung. It was one of the hottest secessionist spots in the State, any Union sentiment that might have existed, being carefully concealed. We remained there for several days quartered in the various churches and public buildings, while I improved the opportunity to visit the many points of interest. On March 2 came my commission as Second Lieutenant of Company D.

On March 11 we once more moved forward in the direction of Winchester, the advance guard skirmishing with the enemy occasionally, but meeting no serious resistance. The next morning we turned out at four o clock, and advancing through fields and woods for about an hour, came at length in sight of the entrenchments of Winchester, about a mile to the front. Our right and left companies were thrown forward as skirmishers, in preparation for a fight, but met with no resistance, and were soon clambering over the parapet of the deserted fort. They pushed on into the town, the remainder of the Regiment following closely after, and received from the mayor the formal surrender of the municipality. It was the first surrender of this interesting city, which is said to have been captured and recaptured more than thirty times during the war. We found here an apparently strong Union sentiment. As our Regiment marched in with colors flying and band playing, the citizens were rejoicing everywhere over their deliverance from the Confederates. Innumerable handkerchiefs were waving to welcome us, and in some instances the stars and stripes were displayed. We learned from citizens that General Stonewall Jackson had with 6,000 men, retreated the night before toward Strasburgh, taking with him quite a number of the Union citizens of the town.

We now went into camp a short distance south of Winchester, where we remained until March 22. Continually we were hearing of the glorious successes of the Western Army, and becoming more and more anxious that our Army of the Potomac should be given an opportunity to rival its achievements. A number of changes in the organization of the Division were made while we were here in camp. The only one of importance to us was the transfer of the Second Massachusetts to our Brigade in place of the Ninth New York, giving us Colonel Gordon of the Second Massachusetts as brigade commander in place of General Hamilton, our old leader. This circumstance was little liked at the time; but it was the beginning of our friendship with the Second Massachusetts, that remained very close throughout the war.

On March 22 our Division left Winchester to proceed, as we believed, to Manassas Junction. At the end of a two days march we were camping for the night about three miles east of Snicker's Gap, in the Blue Ridge. Rumors here began to circulate, that there had in our absence been considerable fighting at Winchester. It was reported that the Confederates had been defeated, but that General Shields had been wounded in the battle. We were not, therefore, surprised, the next morning, to be ordered to march back over the identical road upon which we had come. We reached Winchester the same night after a hard march of twenty-five miles, and learned from its citizens that there certainly had been a fight. We were informed that General Jackson had learned of our departure from Winchester, but had not heard that Shields was still encamped north of the city. Jackson had made a hasty move to recapture Winchester, but had been confronted by Shields near Kernstown. Here the Confederates had been completely routed and driven beyond Strasburgh, with heavy loss in killed and prisoners.

On the morning after our arrival at Winchester, I went out to take a view of the battle-field, and was able to gain some idea of what the future held in store for us. The wounded had already been cared for, and some of the dead had been buried; but sixteen of our dead remained on the field, and something over three hundred of the enemy's. In one part of the battle-ground, covered with small timber and underbrush, where the enemy had for a time made a stubborn resistance, scarcely a bush or a tree but showed the marks of bullets at a height of from three to six feet from the ground. In my inexperience, I then wondered how any man could have lived in that thicket; and in truth, not many did live there long, for the ground was strewn with the dead.

Returning to camp at noon, I found that we were again under orders to march. We started out near sundown, moving that night to Strasburgh, and found the bridge over Cedar Creek, two miles this side of Strasburgh, destroyed. It had been burned by Jackson at the time of his first retreat from Winchester. This precaution had in the recent fight proved to be his undoing, for in his hasty flight before Shield's Division, his army, which up to that place had preserved good order, was completely disorganized and suffered a loss of two hundred prisoners.

We remained at Strasburgh for several days. During that time I was detailed on a general court martial to try some soldiers who had been arrested for depredations on private property. Their offence, as I was informed, consisted in stealing chickens and honey, against which stringent orders were at that time in force. The court convened in all dignity, and sent word to the General that it was ready to try the culprits. In a few minutes Adjutant Wilkins appeared, presented the compliments of the General and informed us that the prisoners had escaped. We were requested to adjourn until they had been recaptured. As that court was never reconvened, it may be taken for granted that the prisoners were never recaptured.

On the first day of April we again moved forward, driving the enemy in such haste that they left their dinners cooking on the fires. Several times during the day, they opened on us with artillery, but a few shots from our battery would quickly send them on again. On the 17th we made another attempt to get at Jackson's army, by moving one Division up the Shenandoah River on the west side, and the other into New Market from the southwest. Our Regiment was with the latter Division. After fording a river up to our armpits, and finding it as cold as melting snow from the mountains could make it, we found that the enemy had again shown his heels and once more was away to the south.

During the next month we followed the retreating army of General Jackson to Harrisonburg, and then came back to Strasburgh. Here we made some little show of fortifying; but in the main, we were as easy and unconcerned as though the war was over. And in fact, the good news received from all quarters, and the orders from the War Department to stop all recruiting, led us to believe that the contest was nearly ended. In camp, bets were freely offered, with no takers, that the Regiment would be back in Wisconsin by September. I remember writing to a friend, about this time, that my part of the work of suppressing the Rebellion seemed to be about done. How sadly were we mistaken!