Dirty, ragged, hungry, and footsore: a view of Fremont's army from a lieutenant of the 82nd Ohio
The net effect of Stonewall Jackson’s successful Shenandoah Valley campaign served to flummox General George McClellan’s campaign outside of Richmond by tying up thousands of Federal troops who otherwise would have assisted in the drive upon the Confederate capital. Perhaps less noted was the impact that this campaign had upon the armies that waged it- many regiments finished the campaign down to half or one-third of their numbers of which they started. But it generally wasn’t combat that drove thousands of men into the hospitals- they often fell victim to the hardships engendered by strenuous marches along the difficult mountain roads, substandard rations, and near constant exposure to the vagaries of the weather.
|Unknown private from a New York or Pennsylvania regiment |
For the men of General John C. Fremont’s Army of Virginia, the Valley campaign was their first exposure to heavy marching and as the men at this stage of the war tended to overburden themselves (and the army) with impedimenta, the men broke down in droves under the load. To be sure, the proclivity of the army to amass an immense wagon train proved a considerable impediment to John Pope’s campaign in Virginia later that summer and eventually led to a significant reduction in the number of wagons that each regiment could possess. (During Pope’s campaign, regiments often had 15 wagons served by a total of about 40 men drawn from the ranks as teamsters; one of McClellan’s final acts was to reduce this number to six per regiment; later commanders reduced it further.)
But for the troops on this campaign, the wagons lagged far behind the scene of action which left the men few options short of shedding equipment. A soldier of the 32nd Ohio wrote that “there was nothing for any poor fellow who wearied out on the way to do but to follow on, until some town was reached, and then wait until he should be rested enough to follow on.” (see letter from “Seneachie,” in Urbana Citizen & Gazette, July 3, 1862, pg. 2) In so doing, the regiments shed men from the ranks by dozens. The further the army advanced up the Valley, the more its combat strength was diminished due to the inability of many to keep up the brutal pace.
|Campaigning in the Shenandoah Valley, circa 1862. Photo courtesy of William A. Keesy's War as Viewed from the Ranks.|
First Lieutenant Charles P. Wickham of Co. D, 55th Ohio described life on the march thus: “All the tents and baggage of the army were left at Petersburg before the march was commenced. The men had nothing along but their rubber blankets and some of them didn’t even have them. We were compelled to sleep with our clothes and boots on. Mine were not off for two weeks,” he related. “We made coffee and boiled meat in the same kettles and used cups and coffee pots without washing them. We sometimes had a few crackers issued for a day, sometimes none; sometimes we had meat issued, and sometimes none. We were hungry most of the time and yet had more toil and exposure than we ever had before.” Second Lieutenant Edward C. Culp of Co. G, 25th Ohio complained in the same vein that “we have not had a change of clothes for three weeks- not even a shirt and have been on the tramp every day, wet or dry, without tents or shelter of any kind. So you can imagine what kind of a looking object I am!” (see Wickham and Culp letters in Norwalk Reflector, June 24, 1862, pg. 2) Captain Julien E. Curtiss of the 8th West Virginia described his comrades at the end of the march as “a harder set of mortals I think never existed- muddy, tired, and black with powder; we looked as though we had just been ‘dug up.’” (see Gallipolis Dispatch, July 9, 1862, pg. 1)
Private William Keesy of the 55th Ohio remembered the Valley campaign as utterly exhausting. “I have marched for whole days scarcely noticing even the general lay of the country because I was too tired,” he wrote in 1898. “Everything seemed a task. My gun was cutting into my shoulder. My accoutrements felt like great iron bands. My knapsack was a load. The 60 or 120 rounds of cartridges were a dead weight, and my canteen and haversack were very cumbersome as, footsore and weary, sometimes hungry and thirsty, we dragged along.” (see War as Viewed from the Ranks, pg. 36; The hardships of the Valley campaign got to Keesy- he developed a malignant form of diarrhea and his health eventually collapsed such that he was discharged for disability about six months later, only to be drafted in the final months of the war and serve with the 64th Ohio in the western theater). Private Edward P. Stephenson of Co. E, 60th Ohio commented that early in the campaign, the men were ordered to roll up their blankets and throw them over their shoulders. “We had proceeded but a short distance before we were informed that our knapsacks, and everything else that could not be put into the wagons, had been placed into a pile and burned. Thus went everything we had to wear, save what we carried on our backs.” (see Springfield Republic, June 25, 1862, pg. 1)
|Private William A. Keesy, 55th O.V.I.|
Dirty, ragged, hungry, sickly, footsore, and yet determined to do their duty- this would be a fair description of both armies as they clashed at Cross Keys on June 8, 1862.
The following letter, written by Francis S. Jacobs, a regular correspondent to the Ashland Union, who was then serving as the first lieutenant of Co. K, 82nd Ohio Infantry, speaks to the effect of continued hardships upon his regiment in some detail and gives voice to the weariness and frustration felt by many soldiers that served in Fremont’s army following the unsuccessful campaign. His letter, describing not only the Battle of Cross Keys but the Valley campaign in general, was published in the July 2, 1862 edition of the Ashland Union. Jacobs’ sense that there was “something rotten in Denmark” was spot on- before the Union published his letter on July 2, 1862, the Lincoln Administration had relieved both Generals John Fremont and James Shields from their respective commands, in part for their shortcomings evidenced during the Valley campaign.
(To provide additional context, the 82nd Ohio formed a part of General Robert Schenk’s “First Ohio Brigade,” consisting of the 32nd, 55th, 73rd, 75th, and 82nd Ohio regiments, along with Captain William L. DeBeck’s Battery K, 1st O.V.L.A., Rigby’s Indiana battery, and a battalion of Connecticut Cavalry under Captain Erastus Blakeslee.)
Headquarters, 82nd Regt. O.V.I.
Camp at Strasburg, Virginia, June 22, 1862
I have just been informed by a “reliable” gentleman that this is Sunday; if it is, it is the first one we have spent in camp for so long a time that “the memory of man runneth not to the contrary.” Our heaviest marches have been invariably on that day and the principal portion of our fighting also. Four weeks ago today we started on this tramp with no tents, baggage, cooking utensils, or anything to make us in the slightest degree comfortable- the supposition being at that time that we would not be gone over five days and here we are in ten times worse condition than we were when we started out.
I am not and have not grumbled at anything that we have been ordered to do, hard as it may have been, but when I see our men getting lousy, dirty, and filthy (as they are), our ranks being decimated by disease for want of proper treatment and care, I begin to think that there is something “rotten in Denmark;” that there is inefficiency in some department that should and must be remedied, or we will all go to rack and ruin. I know that our own regimental and brigade surgeons have done everything that they could to make our men comfortable. I know that General Schenk has done and is doing everything he possibly can to have us treated as white men, but it is all a failure.
|Brig. Gen. Robert Schenk led the Ohio Brigade at Cross Keys|
Library of Congress
Our regiment has been on the move continually since the 4th day of May and since that time we have not slept in our tents a half dozen times, have had no rest of any consequence, have lived on quarter and half rations the principal portion of the time, and as a natural consequence, out of 900 men, we have not 300 efficient fighting men today. The same may be said of every regiment in the brigade. The picture is a gloomy one, but nevertheless true. I don’t presume that there has been harder marching done in the whole campaign than has been done by this division since the 24th of May, the date of the commencement of this march. The first nine days it rained almost incessantly, and some of the most terrific thunder and hailstorms I ever witnessed and have had them semi-occasionally ever since. The first couple of nights that the big pattering drops of rain came splashing down my face and a stream of water running down my back awakened me and caused a slightly disagreeable sensation, but I soon got accustomed to that and can now sleep as comfortable in the rain and water as in the best feather bed. Think of some sleeping in the Shenandoah as I believed we have become: impregnable to wind, water, or fire.
You have probably got ere this all the news and more, too, in regard to our march up this valley and it would be very hard for me to attempt to give you any kind of description of the fight outside of the part our own brigade acted. We could hear the firing of cannon and rifle and took no part in any of the engagements with the enemy. At the Battle of Cross Keys, our brigade occupied the extreme right and the infantry portion of it was not engaged at any time.
We laid in a wheat field for about 15 minutes when the Rebels got very good range on us and then several shells fell in pretty close proximity to us, causing us to dodge down into the wheat in rather an amusing manner; fortunately none of them burst. We then advanced into a piece of woods and remained there until we were ordered off the field about 4 o’clock. We marched back about half a mile to where the Rebels had first taken position and been driven from; there we formed a line of battle, posted our batteries, and waited for them. Pretty soon we heard a sharp hissing sound and saw a shell strike near Captain DeBeck’s battery, then two more came in rapid succession. By that time, our batteries opened their whole force upon the enemy and silenced them completely in less than five minutes. That closed up the fight for that night.
|Map of the Battle of Cross Keys from my book Alfred E. Lee's Civil War (Map by Hal Jespersen)|
The next morning when we got up the bird had flown again; we started after them, the men being cheered up by the heavy cannonading we heard in front of us, supposing that Shields and his force was engaging the enemy at Port Republic and keeping them from crossing the bridge and that we had him bagged certain. When we arrived at the river, we found him and his whole force across the river and the bridge burned. Shields’ force only consisted of one brigade and had been repulsed and badly cut up. If we had only got there an hour sooner, we might have saved the whole thing. Our batteries opened upon them there and played a very lively turn for about half an hour, shelling them out of the woods.
When we first arrived at the river, we saw a force of about 5,000 drawn up in line of battle below us and on the opposite side of the river. We supposed that they were Shields’ men from the fact that they had blue clothes on and that we expected his force to come in from that direction, so we did not open upon them. We soon found out that their clothes were some that they had captured at Front Royal. If we had known who they were, we could have shelled them out in less than five minutes, but before we found out, they got into the woods and we saw nothing more of them.
The next morning, we “advanced backwards” and have finally brought up at this point and it is impossible to tell how long we will remain here. We are in hopes that we will be ordered to Richmond. The last Ashland Union dated May 25th came to hand the day we landed on the banks of the river at Port Republic and at the time our batteries were shelling the woods on the opposite side. It was our first mail in two weeks and you can bet they were welcome. I read everything in it, patent advertisements and all. There is only one thing we soldiers do not like to see in the papers, and that is the “Strawberries and Ice Cream” and “Schneidam Schnapps” advertisements. It is a great aggravation I assure you and ought to be prohibited; the government ought to consider it contraband news and have it suppressed.
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