A narrative of service with the Third Wisconsin Infantry/Service in Maryland
Service in Maryland
On the morning of July 17 we broke camp and started for Harpers Ferry, thirty miles distant. Now for the first time I began to realize what it was to be a soldier. I carried a knapsack laden with the various things that kind friends at home had thought necessary for a soldier's comfort, a haversack containing two days rations, a musket with accoutrements, and forty rounds of ammunition, altogether weighing not less than fifty pounds. The weather was extremely hot and the roads very muddy, so that by the time we had gone fifteen miles I was entirely ready to go into camp.
Our camp was pitched on the side of a hill. Our mess, in order to find as level a sleeping place as possible, pitched the tent in a low place, and in our ignorance of camp life we neglected to dig a ditch around it. A sudden shower came up soon after we had gone to sleep, and in a short time we found ourselves lying in a pool of water. And as if this were not misfortune enough, our tent pins, loosened by the soaking of the ground, suddenly pulled out, and down came our canvas shelter. Subsequent experience enabled me to sleep in wet blankets, or in no blankets at all, just as well as in the best bed; but at this time it was impossible. So gathering a rubber blanket around my shoulders, I found a large stone, and remained upon it for the rest of the night. In the morning we continued the march toward Harpers Ferry. Our camp for the next night was pitched on a bit of comparatively level ground on the east side of Maryland Heights, overlooking the little village of Sandy Hook, and about a mile distant from Harpers Ferry. A more thoroughly used-up lot of men than ours that night, it would be hard to find.
My first military duty was to guard the ford at Harpers Ferry and the bridges across the canal. The region was historic ground, and I took this opportunity to visit the old arsenal, then in ruins, and the old engine-house where John Brown had battled so bravely for his life. I made it a point also to visit Jefferson's Rock, the view from which Jefferson, in his Notes on Virginia, says is worth a voyage across the Atlantic to see.
On September 15, while encamped in the vicinity of Darnestown, we were ordered, late in the day, to break camp and take the road toward the west. Our destination was not disclosed to us, and there was a great deal of speculation among the men as to the object of this secret and hurried march. The next day we found out from citizens along the road that we were on the way to Frederick City, the capital of Maryland. We arrived there late on the afternoon of the 16th, and received an enthusiastic welcome from the citizens of that loyal town. Early the next morning, guards were stationed on all roads leading out of town, and detachments of men, accompanied by detectives, proceeded to arrest the members of the Maryland Legislature, who had assembled there for the purpose of passing an ordinance of secession. It was thus that Maryland was saved to the Union by the promptness of General McClellan. Her secessionist legislators found themselves, shortly after, assembled at Fort McHenry, with leisure to meditate upon their schemes.
The Regiment remained in camp at Frederick City until late in October. The usual monotony of camp life, with its drills, dress parades, and guard mountings, was broken only by the arrival of the paymaster with crisp new greenbacks of the first issue, and by the appearance of new blue uniforms in exchange for our tattered array. To the old grey we bade adieu without a sigh of regret, and proudly donned the blue of United States soldiers.
One interesting incident occurred during our stay here, which gave us a subject for discussion for several days. News had been brought to us of a large quantity of wheat, stored in a mill in Harpers Ferry, which was about to be ground into flour for the use of the Confederate army. An expedition to capture it was soon organized under command of Colonel John W. Geary of the Twenty-Eighth Pennsylvania. It was composed of a detachment of two hundred men from our regiment under command of Captain Bertram, with similar detachments from the Twelfth Massachusetts and Twenty-Eighth Pennsylvania, besides a section of artillery. The expedition was successful; the wheat was safely removed to the north side of the river, and the command was ready to return, when a large force of the enemy appeared, seemingly disposed for a fight. Our men were quite willing to accommodate them, and moved up the hill toward Bolivar Heights, where the enemy was already strongly posted with artillery. Skirmishing immediately commenced. But this soon proved too slow for our impatient men; they charged the Confederate position, and soon had the satisfaction of seeing the last of the Southerners disappear in the direction of Charlestown, leaving their artillery in our hands.
In this engagement the heaviest fighting fell to the detachment of the Third Wisconsin; the piece of artillery was brought off by them as a trophy. This command also sustained all of the loss, having had six men killed and four wounded. The dead were brought back and buried with military honors in the cemetery at Frederick City. The fight had in a large measure been unnecessary, for the entire object of the expedition had been accomplished before the enemy appeared in force; yet the moral effect on the men was good, since it increased their self-confidence.
On November 1 we rejoined the Division of General Banks, near Darnestown, where we remained until the beginning of the next month. The whole Division then moved to the vicinity of Frederick City, our Regiment being detailed in the city as provost guard. We built our barracks in the old barrack yard, and settled down for the winter to the regular routine of guard duty. Two companies were detailed each day—one for the guard-house, the other to patrol the city and preserve order. The snow, rain, and mud kept the ground in such condition that drilling was impossible; thus we had little to do but kill time with chess, checkers, cards, and dominoes. The winter wore slowly away in this uneventful manner. In January news was received of the victory of General Thomas at Somerset, Kentucky; also the capture of Roanoke Island, by General Burnside, and immediately after this, in February, the great victories of General Grant at Forts Henry and Donelson. The enthusiasm of the command over these successes knew no bounds, and our impatience to be on the move could scarcely be restrained.