Waist Deep in Mud and Water: The 25th Massachusetts at the Battle of Roanoke Island
Most soldiers approached combat in the Civil War with a high degree of trepidation, and a soldier’s first time under fire remained one of the most vivid memories of their wartime experience. For Private Edwin Goodell of the 25th Massachusetts, he first saw the elephant February 8, 1862, during the little remembered battle of Roanoke Island. It marked his first steps in the making of a veteran volunteer.
“I wish you could have seen me when the battle was over,” he later wrote to a friend. “All mud and water up to my waist, my face completely blackened with powder and mud, clothes nearly torn off, and on the whole in a rather sorry plight. I expected to be sick after being knocked about for 43 hours in the rain and cold without anything to eat but a few hard crackers, but I am happily disappointed. I don’t know that I ever felt better or was ever in better spirits than I am today. I feel very thankful that I came off all right. I don’t know that I felt the first sensation of fear. I fired 30 balls at the rascals- how many took effect I cannot say- but I sincerely hope that I was the means of sending some of them to their long account.”
The 25th Massachusetts mustered into service in early October 1861 and after about a month of drill was sent south to Maryland where it was attached to General Ambrose Burnside’s division. In January 1862, the regiment sailed south as part of Burnside’s expedition to the North Carolina coast and fought in its first engagement at Roanoke Island. The Bay Staters would remain in North Carolina until returning home to veteranize in early 1864, then they served with the 18th Army Corps at Bermuda Hundred and with the Army of the Potomac at Cold Harbor where 76% of the regiment was lost in that horrific battle.
Edwin Goodell’s account of Roanoke Island first saw publication in the February 28, 1862, edition of the Southbridge Journal.
Headquarters, Co. D, 25th Massachusetts Regt., Roanoke Island, North Carolina
February 9, 1862
My dear friend,
As I have an opportunity, I will just write a few lines so that you may know that I am well and all right after the fight. I shall give you a short account of the particulars of the engagement. The battle commenced Friday February 7th at about 10 a.m. by our gunboats shelling the forts. The bombardment continued until sunset when they commenced to land our troops upon the island which occupied nearly all of the night. The flag of the 25th Massachusetts was the first one planted on the Rebel shore. After landing, scouts were immediately sent out to ascertain, if possible, the position of the enemy. We built campfires and stood around them all night in the rain which we thought was rather tough on the whole.
Early Saturday morning, we were startled by the Rebels firing upon our scouts. The troops formed in line with the 25th Massachusetts at their head and started for the scene of action. After marching about two miles, we were saluted with a volley from a masked battery of the Rebels. The fight then commenced in earnest. Our regiment went in advance and stood their ground nobly- not a man was seen to flinch from his duty although it rained a perfect shower of bullets and men were falling thick and fast on all sides. The 25th fought desperately for about three hours when the 21st regiment was ordered to take our place. We fought waist deep in mud and water, the balls from the battery striking all around us; some in the mud, and others in the trees just above our heads.
|Sergeant James Graham|
Co. F, 25th Massachusetts
The loss in our regiment is 13 killed and 40 wounded. Captain Foster was wounded in his head; the ball struck his right temple and came out of the eye. The surgeon says he will have to lose his eye without a doubt. After the 21st Massachusetts took our place, the roll was called and every man in the company answered to his name- not a wounded or missing man except our captain who faithfully did his duty. He led us on until we were within 20 rods of the battery. The last order he gave, he jumped on to a stump and waved his sword and cried, “Come on my boys!” Then he was struck with a bullet and carried off the field. About noon, the battery was charged upon by the 9th New York Zouaves and the enemy could hold out no longer. At half past 12 the stars and stripes waved in triumph over the battery.
After leaving the battery, the Rebels made for the beach hoping that some of their schooners would be in readiness to take them off, but in this they were disappointed as our troops came upon them too soon for this. Seeing that it would be useless to prolong the fight, they surrendered the island and gave themselves up as prisoners. There were about 2,500 Rebels, 30 good cannons, with a large supply of army stores consisting of flour, meal, sugar, molasses, hard bread, pork, coffee, lard, etc. Last night we stayed in the barracks of the Secesh and had a nice time.
“They are a curious-looking people. They do not talk or act like Yankees and are very ignorant and slovenly, not half of them capable of reading or even writing their own name as their muster roll will show. They have no uniforms and if we can judge by what they say, a great many of them were pressed into the service and are glad to get rid of the fighting.” ~ Private John G. Leach, Co. C, 25th Massachusetts
I wish you could have seen me when the battle was over; all mud and water up to my waist, my face completely blackened with powder and mud, clothes nearly torn off, and on the whole in a rather sorry plight. I expected to be sick after being knocked about for 43 hours in the rain and cold without anything to eat but a few hard crackers, but I am happily disappointed. I don’t know that I ever felt better or was ever in better spirits than I am today. I feel very thankful that I came off all right. Where I stood the balls came thick and fast. I could think of nothing but a storm of hail stones rattling among the trees. I don’t know that I felt the first sensation of fear. I fired 30 balls at the rascals- how many took effect I cannot say- but I sincerely hope that I was the means of sending some of them to their long account.
|Map of the battle of Roanoke Island|
I have conversed with some of the prisoners. They seem to be very well contented and say they are glad to get rid of fighting. They are the most slovenly, dirty set of men I ever saw. Their clothes are very poor and over half of them have no uniforms. It is impossible to state the loss of the Rebels as they sunk their men in the water as fast as we killed them.
Letter from Private Edwin D. Goodell, Co. D, 25th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Southbridge Journal (Massachusetts), February 28, 1862, pg. 2
Letter from Private John D. Leach, Co. C, 25th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Southbridge Journal (Massachusetts), March 14, 1862, pg. 1
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