Letter from Cruikshank, Robert

Soldier: Cruikshank, Robert
Allegiance: Union
Unit/Service Branch: 123rd Infantry
Home State: New York
Date Written: Friday, May 8th, 1863
Location: Camp near Stafford Court House, VA
Correspondence Type: Letter
Subjects: Battlefield, Combat Description, Commanders, Comrades, Daily Life, Eastern Theater, Family, Suffering, Warfare, Wife/Girlfriend

Dear Wife,-

I now take this first opportunity in two weeks to write you. We have had no mail going out until now. I have written this as I had time and have dated it the day of mailing. No doubt you have been looking for a letter for some days and this will explain why you have not received one and I hope will relieve you of the anxiety which I know you have suffered. I have passed four fearful days and nights since I last wrote you. We have had the hardest fought battle of the War and gained nothing but suffered defeat with a terrible loss of life and property. The enemy's loss must have been greater than ours as they made the attack. I am as well as could be expected considering the physical, mental and nervous strain that I have passed through. I have seen all that there is of war; I have been well initiated having been under fire for three consecutive days. It is very lonesome for me, there are so many of the men missing, some never to return. Brother Will was severely but not dangerously wounded. He was wounded by a musket ball which passed close by my head passing entirely through one of his thighs, entering the other until it struck the bone, then passed downlodging near the knee on the opposite side. When he was wounded I was on my knees tearing cartridges, holding his ramrod and getting out his caps for him. He would drop on his knees while loading, would then rise to his feet and fire. He was standing when wounded. The ball entered the right leg first. He was wounded early Sabbath morning and the ball was not removed until Tuesday, thanks to Dr. Kennedy for removing it. I am proud of such a cool, brave brother. I will speak of him farther on or in another letter. I will now give you a detailed account of our march and battle if I am not broken off by having an opportunity to mail this. I have written you that we were under marching orders and supplied with eight days' rations from April 15th until the 27th, when we broke Camp and started on a march under light marching orders. The morning of the 26th dawned clear and warm and as the sun arose the roll of drums was heard in every camp. The bugle sound of attention was heard from afar and near. Company officers were calling to their men to fall in. The Colonel and his staff were moving to the right of the parade ground. The men with knapsacks, haversacks, canteens, guns and accoutrements were formed in what had been their company streets. The roll was called. Company after company filed out and formed in the line of the battalion. Our Company's place was at the left of the Colors and is called the Color Company. Each company has its place in the battalion from right to left according to the date of rank of the commanding officer of the company. The Colonel and staff mounted and the Regiment marched away and took its place in the great moving army of men, with cavalry in advance, artillery, ambulances and baggage wagons following. The barrel and bayonet of every gun was polished, I might say burnished, accoutrements were in the best of order, with clothing neat and clean, and as this great army moved away, keeping step, with their guns at right shoulder shift, all in the same position, the movement of the step causing reflection in the sunlight, it was one of the grandest sights ever looked upon. In starting out the men were in the best of spirits, singing and jesting, enjoying the change of being relieved from the monotony of the Camp. But as the day advanced it grew warmer and some of the men had not obeyed the order to abandon all unnecessary clothing, to take but one blanket or overcoat and one change of underclothing, they began about noon to throw them away, and the road was covered with them. One could pick up thousands of dollars' worth of these goods. The men were very tired when we camped for the night, within one mile of the Hartwood Church, which looked more like a district school house than a church, as it was about like one of our northern schoolhouses. All was quiet during the night and the men had a good night's rest. As the night was clear and warm they spread their blankets on the ground and slept without covering. A strong picket line was thrown out but no alarm was given. The next morning, April 28th, was like the morning before, clear and warm, but the men, having relieved themselves the day before of some of their load, were in good marching order and after having a breakfast of coffee, hardtack and pork, they started on their second day's march. The roads were good and the men were not hurried and at noon they had plenty of time to cook coffee, pork and hardtack, and take a rest. In the afternoon the cavalry met the enemy but they fell back as we advanced and at night we camped within one mile of Kelly's Ford on the Rappahannock River which it was supposed the enemy would try to hold. A strong picket line was thrown out and all was as quiet as the night before and the next morning, after a coffee, pork and hardtack breakfast, we crossed the Ford without opposition. This was the morning of April 29th. The forenoon and until two o'clock we pushed on not halting for dinner, until we were within about half a mile of Germania Mills on the Rapidan River where we halted for dinner and a rest for an hour. The cavalry in advance of our column had taken possession of the Mills and Ford with the loss of one man. They captured two hundred men and two officers. They were guarding the Ford and framing a bridge to replace one that had been burned. After I had my dinner I strolled down to the river where the troops were fording the stream. The water was high and running swift and was up to an ordinary-sized man's armpits, and short men would lose their footing and be carried down stream but would be rescued by the mounted cavalry men who were stationed in the river below the Ford. Often small men would catch hold of the cannon and caisson and limber of the artillery and be drawn through the river onto dry ground. Several officers had gathered at the river to watch and wait their turn when General Kane, he who commanded our Brigade when we were in Pleasant Valley, Md., rode up and inquired for Colonel McDougall and asked him if his regiment could not build a bridge that the troops could pass over on. The Colonel replied that his regiment could do anything and would build the bridge. They went at work in earnest as they did not like the idea of fording the river and in two hours had a bridge on which the troops crossed in safety. This bridge was not built on the abutments as they were high and the span was long, and we could not take time to build a safe bridge on them, so built a floating bridge by lashing timbers together one on the other and letting them rest on the water on the upper side and against the abutments. Then we laid the plank on and nailed them fast to the timbers, and again lashing other timbers onto the plank. We crossed the bridge two and two, about six or eight feet between, marching with route step so as not to sink the bridge under water. After crossing the bridge we marched about two miles and went into Camp about sundown. On each day of our march we had started at sunrise and marched until six o'clock P. M. The next morning, April 30th, our fourth day, we marched at eight o'clock and marched until twelve o'clock M. when we were ordered to take another road to make a reconnoiter where we were fired into by a Rebel battery. We were ordered to charge and silence it which we did. It proved to be a cavalry battery and as it fell back when it reached the top of another hill they unlimbered, fired two shells at us which passed over the Regiment and exploded a few feet in rear of Company A. This was our first under fire and the men showed no fear. Of course we had to all make a bow when they passed over our heads but if the battery had stood its ground we certainly would have captured it. We guarded this road until the wagon train had passed, then joined the Brigade. The 28th Penna. Regt. had a skirmish with the cavalry and lost one man (killed). Where we had the skirmish was on the Wilderness road. We marched until five o'clock, then went into Camp near Chancellorsville, about seven miles from Fredericksburg, Va. Chancellorsville proved to be the battleground. Our fifth day, May 1st, we did not move until 12 o'clock M., when we made a reconnaissance to the east of the Chancellorsville House about two miles and was here under the fire of a battery. It being so far away we could not return it, we were ordered back to where we had camped the night before. At four o'clock P. M. we were attacked by the Rebel infantry. Lieutenant A. T. Mason with Company A, Lieutenant Marcus Beadle with Company I, and Captain Orin S. Hall in command, assisted by Adjutant Geo. H. Wallace, were sent out in our front to establish a picket line. The right of this line was to rest on the Spottsylvania Court House road and extend through a piece of woods and cleared field to a tobacco house on the east, which was the left of the line. Lieutenant Beadle had passed along to the left of the line and had posted his men. Capt. O. S. Hall was at the extreme right of the line and had inspected it, while Lieutenant Mason and his company were in reserve to support either part of the line. The line had only been established when the enemy's cavalry made an attack on the right of the line and drove in four picket posts. Captain Hall had extra men with him and commenced reforming the line and placing his men closer together to strengthen it when he saw the Rebel infantry advancing in line of battle. Lieutenant Mason with the reserve hearing the firing went to Captain Hall's assistance and was placed in the center by Adjutant Wallace who was mounted. The pickets held their ground as long as they could but were soon driven in. The Regiment, hearing firing on the picket line, received orders to advance and pushed forward over a fence where we were exposed to the sight of the enemy, when they opened fire on us. We could not see the enemy in the woods and did not fire on them until we had taken position on the top of a cleared hill in sight of the enemy, when they came to the edge of the wood.

As soon as our men saw them, Colonel Norton stepped upon a stump swinging his sword, gave the order to cheer and to commence firing, and fell to the ground. He had received a mortal wound by a rifle ball. The Rebels answered our cheer by their shrill yell. There was sharp firing on both sides and the pickets between. The Adjutant's horse came back riderless and we supposed he was killed, but he soon came in laughing and saying he had to dismount to save himself but thought he had lost his horse. Captain Hall and Lieut. Beadle with their Company (I) filed to the right and came back under cover of the woods while Lieutenant Mason with Company A fell back through the open field and suffered severely, having to come up a hill to get to the Regiment. Colonel Norton was carried to the rear never to return again to the Regiment by whom he was beloved. The enemy soon got their artillery into position and commenced shelling us when we fell back into the woods where out artillery was brought up and replied to the enemy. This brought on an awful artillery duel and for nearly an hour it was kept up. Trees and limbs fell crashing to the ground; shell went shrieking over our heads or bursting near us. The roar of cannon and roll of musketry was terrific and it was no wonder that some of the boys that were behind the largest trees in the woods (and there were some enormous ones) began to move back to look for larger, but were observed by Major Rogers who started for them with drawn sword (he is quite a small man but carried a very large cavalry sabre), calling out to them saying, "The first man who leaves his post, I'll run him through." This declaration astonished the men as they had seen but little of Major Rogers while Colonel Norton was with us as his duties were light. The men called him the fifth wheel, in comparison to the extra wheel carried on the limber of a caisson of artillery. In case one on the carriage of a cannon should break down, this one would be used. So the boys thought with a Major. If the Colonel or Lieutenant Colonel were disabled, the Major would come into active use and so it proved and we could not have a better officer as he saved the Regiment twice before the battle was over. Dark came on and the firing ceased. Our loss in the Company that day was two wounded. The loss in the Regiment killed and wounded was twenty-two. All night we lay on the ground and the men kept their guns in their hands expecting to be surprised at any moment. Saturday morning, May 2nd, was clear and beautiful and at early dawn troops were moving here and there taking up new positions, building breastworks, and preparing to hold the ground they were occupying. Our Regiment was held in reserve all day until four o'clock when we were ordered to make a feint toward Fredericksburg so that the right could advance their line to a better position. The day before when we made a feint to the east of the Chancellorsville House, it was to enable Gen'l Hooker to take possession of the United States ford across the Rappahannock River as that was our only way of retreat. At four o'clock we formed in line of battle and advanced into the woods I should think for about an hour until we came to a clearing. We could hear sharp musketry on our left and see the enemy advancing in column and firing, but could not see any in our front, so we did not open fire. We remained here about half an hour when the right wing of our Regiment moved away, breaking at the Colors, leaving the Colors with us. In a short time Major Rogers rode up and asked Captain Crary where the rest of the Regiment was, and was told that they had moved to the right and rear but as he had no orders he remained. The Major rode in the direction pointed out, but soon returned not finding anything of Colonel McDougall and the five right companies. He then ordered us to move to the rear by the right flank, he leading us. When we were going back there was sharp firing on both the right and left of us. When we returned within our lines we found that the 11th Corps had broken and the enemy were closing in on us and there was only room for Major Rogers to come in between the two columns that were closing up the space between. Had he been five minutes later or had he gone either to the right or left, he and the five companies with him would have been captured by the enemy. Colonel McDougall did not know that we were left behind until he had got within our lines. When he received the order to fall back he gave the order and ordered it to be passed down the line from one company to another and was passed until it came to our Company. It stopped at Company C. When we got back it was dark, and when we came out of the wood where our line was formed we beheld a sight that I never will forget. Just before dark the enemy in front of the Eleventh Corps massed their infantry and made a charge on them, breaking their lines and driving them back, capturing on of their batteries which they turned on them, demoralizing them still more. This battery was replied to by one at Chancellorsville House about a half mile distant which drew the enemy's fire on them, and shell were flying from one to the other and exploding, which made a grand fireworks. The enemy did not hold this battery long for our troops made a charge on them and recaptured it. At this time we were formed in the front and placed behind some breastworks at the left of the swamp about a quarter of a mile at the left of the plank road, where we remained about two hours, when we were moved to the right until the right of the Regiment rested on the plank road. We were in the front line and were ordered to build what breastworks we could. We worked all night cutting down trees and gathering stumps and piling them in front of us. Toward morning we rested awhile. We could build no fires to cook coffee and had eaten nothing since the morning before. Just before light no sound could be heard but the whip-poor-wills and there seemed to be thousands of them in the woods in front of us. In the morning I noticed that I had been on this very ground twice before. Friday noon while at dinner Colonel Norton was with us and remarked that perhaps that was the last time that the officers of that mess would dine together. Then again in the afternoon when we returned from our feint when General Hooker had taken possession of the United States ford, our Regiment was called to an attention and his profane order read to us and was also published to the whole army which was this: "I have got the enemy where God Almighty cannot save them." Do you wonder I could not forget the place. Could a General expect to succeed and defy the living God. I was shocked when it was read and thought perhaps God will save them. General Hooker knew that the enemy must make the attack, which they did on the evening of May 2nd, and broke the Eleventh Corps, that nearly caused a disaster. Sabbath morning when the sun arose it looked like a ball of fire, at which time the enemy made his first attack on May 3rd, 1863. He did not send out any skirmish line but massed his infantry on the plank road and made desperate effort to break our line. We had our pickets out and when they were driven in we were ready to receive them. They appeared in one solid mass of living grey. The whole woods in front of us seemed to be full of them. For five long hours we held our ground and with but a single line of infantry backed by forty pieces of artillery which stood on the hill in front of Chancellorsville House, that kept up a continual firing over our head. The enemy charged on us in solid column again and again, their battle cry sounding above the roll of musketry, the roar of cannon and bursting and crashing of shell. The enemy would come so far, when their ranks would become so thinned that they would fall back a little to fill them up again. When our men would see them giving way cheer after cheer would then be heard. It would be only for a moment as the empty places in the enemy's ranks would be filled and on they would come again. On this road was the point where the enemy were determined to break our line which was our centre; at this point was where all the heavy fighting was done and why did not General Hooker send us support and save the disaster that must come if we do not get it. Our ammunition was becoming exhausted and our men worn out and weak from hunger, having had nothing to eat in twenty-four hours, not even a cup of coffee, and at nine o'clock one-half of our men were among the killed wounded and missing. At this time there was a lull as the enemy had fallen back. I went to see all of the men of our Company that were wounded that were on the field and asked them if there was anything they wanted, or any word they wished to send to friends which I would do if I lived to get where I could do so. Some had been taken from the field and some were able to get away themselves. Brother Will had gone. Dr. Richard S. Connolly, Assistant Surgeon of our Regiment at the opening of the battle had taken possession of the shade of a tree only a few feet back of our line and attended to the wounded there while no doubt his prompt attention saved many lives. Here I found William H. Dennison (Sergeant) who had been shot through the body, mortally wounded; William E. Stewart (Corporal) shot through the arm; Garrett W. Briggs (Corporal) wounded in the hip and had gone to the rear; John S. Dory shot through the face with tongue nearly cut off; Archibald Johnson mortally wounded; Mitchell McFarland shot through the neck, - he had gone to the rear; John A Perkins was wounded in the hip; William L. Rich mortally wounded, shot through the body,- I thought he was dying; Alvah Streeter wounded through the arm; Charles E. Wood wounded and gone to the rear. Several others were missing from the ranks who could not be accounted for at that time. Captain Crary, all through the march, had not been well and had been quite sick all night and during the morning and at this time was not able to attend to his Company. Colonel Ross of the 20th Conn. Vols. was in command of our Brigade when the battle commenced and was wounded and taken from the field. This brought Colonel McDougall in command of the Brigade by seniority of rank and this brought Major Rogers in command of the Regiment, which at this time was fortunate for us, he being a veteran officer.

During the lull I have spoken of, General Knipe, who commanded the First Brigade in our Division, advanced his brigade into the woods, then came to Colonel McDougall and ordered him to advance his regiment into the woods also, and be in readiness to make a charge. The Colonel ordered us over our works and into the woods about five or six rods and there we reformed. Major Rogers came after us calling for Colonel McDougall and inquired of him where he was going with those men. The Colonel replied he had received an order to charge into those woods.

The Major asked, "Who gave you that order?"

The Colonel replied, "General Knipe gave me the order."

"And who is General Knipe?" inquired the Major, and then said to Colonel McDougall, "You are not subject to General Knipe's orders; he is in command of the First Brigade of our Division and you are in command of the Second Brigade. Colonel Ross has retired from the field and I am in command of this Regiment."

The Colonel than ordered Major Rogers to get us back to our works and assumed command of the Brigade. Major Rogers ordered an "about face" and ordered us to march back to our works. We had only commenced to move back when the enemy made a charge on us, firing into our backs and yelling like so many demons. When we got back to our works we could not halt the men there, but on they went until they got to a creek about twenty rods from our works. Here we got them checked and about faced, charged back and retook our works.

Charles Marshall and John A. Mains were, I think, shot down in this charge as I saw them both and spoke to John after we commenced to advance, but they were never seen or heard of afterward. They were both good soldiers.

This was the last struggle to hold our ground, but we could not do it. Our line had become so weakened we were not much more than a skirmish line and on the right of the road they had suffered as much as we had. The enemy came on to us closed in mass, backed and driven in by their cavalry. Their centre was on the Plank Road and extended on either side about a quarter of a mile. On the remainder of their line on both flanks they kept up a skirmishing so as to keep General Hooker from reinforcing his center. We gained our works and held them for a few minutes.

At this time I was with and was looking after the left of the Company and Lieutenant Culver was with the right of the Company. Captain Crary was so sick he had to leave the field. He left just before we were ordered into the woods by General Knipe. I was so engaged that I did not notice what was going on at my right. It was the hottest time of the fight. Every piece of artillery behind us was worked as rapidly as possible and their shell seemed to graze our heads and I suppose that they came as close as they could and not hit us as the enemy were but a few feet in front of us. I looked to the right and what did I see! All were in grey uniforms, close to me. The right of the Regiment were gone; the Colors were gone and Lieutenant Culver with the right half of the Company were gone. I ordered my men to move backward and to the left, the left of the Regiment giving away at the same time. We fought the enemy until we got back to the Creek, then broke ranks and went back up the hill to the Chancellorsville House. While we were going back the enemy opened on us with shell and solid shot, which made it rather warm for us. The enemy came as far as the Creek and as soon as we were out of the way our artillery opened on them with canister which they could not stand before. They did not make another charge. Another line was formed in support of the artillery. I found Lieutenant Culver near the Chancellorsville House with the right of the Regiment where we were reformed again.

In going back I was so worn out that I could not quicken my pace although solid shot and shell were flying all around. One shell struck a caisson and exploded it, killing several men and stripping the clothes entirely off of one, burning him terribly and blinding both eyes. He was crying for some one to kill him and put him out of his misery. We had to leave our dead on the field and all of the wounded who could not get off themselves. From where we were all the way back the ground was strewn with the dead, dying and wounded. On my way back I looked among them in my path to find brother Will. I did not know where he had gone or how badly he was wounded at the time. I also told Captain Crary when he went back to try and find him. I saw nothing of him. All kinds of army implements and munitions of war were torn, broken and scattered as by a tornado. Riderless horses bridled and saddled were running loose, not knowing which way to run for safety. The ground looked like it had been ploughed and re-ploughed.

I was amused at one time and really had to laugh amidst all these scenes. A fellow in front of me was going back as fast as he could walk with knapsack on his back, well filled, and gun in hand. A solid shot struck the ground several feet behind him, bounded into the air and struck him under the knapsack, raised him several feet from the ground turning him entirely over, seating him heavily on the ground. I thought at first that he was killed but soon changed my opinion when I saw him spring to his feet, catch up his gun, look behind him both to the right and then to the left to see if there were any more coming, then start on a run to the rear as fast as his legs could carry him.

After the Regiment had been reformed near the Chancellorsville House we were marched to one place and then another until about two o'clock when we halted long enough to cook coffee and eat some hardtack and then commenced moving about again. As we were passing through the woods I noticed a place a little way from us where posts were driven into the ground and poles laid across them and branches of trees laid on, to keep out the sun. I heard some one call my name and looking about I saw brother Will resting on two sticks he had cut and was using them as crutches. He told me how badly he was wounded. I could not stop but for a moment, so I told George H. Edie, of our Company, to stay with him and get him to a hospital and not to leave him until he did. Then I went on and joined the Company, feeling relieved from my anxiety about him.

We were kept moving about all afternoon until near night when we,- what was left of the Regiment,- took a position on the extreme left of the line of earthworks near Banks Ford on the Rappahannock. That night we had a very good rest and did no work the next day, Monday, May 4th, except to keep out a strong picket line. The next morning a heavy rain storm set in and it rained all day and night. Our men were without covering as they did not have time to get their knapsacks when they were driven back Sabbath morning, and had but very little to eat. I had eaten nothing from Saturday morning until Monday evening except a cup of coffee and hardtack that was given me by one of my men Sabbath afternoon in the woods. Monday evening I heard where beef was being slaughtered and gave one of our men half a dollar and told him to get me some as I was already famished. He returned in about an hour and brought me a piece of liver half the size of my hand saying it was all he could get for the money, there were so many wanting it. I placed it on the end of a stick, held it in the fire to cook it and ate it without salt. I would not take any of the men's rations as they had but little and we did not know how long we would be without supplies.

The rain slackened Tuesday morning. We built fires and dried our clothing. Rations of fresh beef and hard crackers were issued to the men. Tuesday night we built fires and lay down around them until about five o'clock Wednesday morning when we were ordered to get ready to march, and about six o'clock on the morning we were noiselessly marched to the United States Ford and across the Rappahannock on pontoon bridges. About eight o'clock A. M. we took up our line of march for our old Camp at Stafford, not stopping long enough to cook coffee, where we arrived about five o'clock P.M., marching in the rain all day, making a distance of twenty-five miles.

We were glad to get into our old quarters and get some rest. Our cook had got back to Camp some hours before us. The baggage wagons also had arrived. We put the covering on our tent, built a fire in the fireplace to dry it, and had provided a good supper of soft bread, sweet potatoes, beefsteak, coffee and sugar.

With the recollections of enjoying these I will close this narrative from,

Your affectionate husband,

R. Cruikshank.