CIVIL WAR BOY SOLDIER
|NOTE from the 15th webmaster: This article was originally online at a site in Maine, and the link disappeared. When I found it the second time at a new link, I saved a copy. As of July 2001, the link has again gone. Since I've not been able to find the original source of this article, I am posting a copy locally. If there is a copyright issue here, please contact me. slh July 2001|
|[original] EDITOR 'S NOTE: Ithiel T. Johnson was a Massachusetts native and a Methodist minister in Bowdoinham for many years. At the age of 74, he sat down and penned his experiences as a young messenger boy in the Civil War. Here we reprint portions of his amazing, true-life adventures with the troops of the Grand Army of the Republic. FDC|
|When the war broke out in 1861 I
was 12 years old and reckless enough to be right among the men as they drilled, and when
they went away to be in their camps, I persuaded my parents to let me go with them and
camp for a few days. I made myself handy waiting on the officers, soon became well liked,
and received invitations from several to join them on the trip south to war.
I was pleased by the invitation and rushed right home to get ready. At home, however, my parents informed me I could not go, and when I continued to tease for permission, they took away my good jacket, trousers and boots, thinking I would be ashamed to return to the camp in my shabby barn clothes. But I was determined to go, so I slipped away, barefoot and destitute, ready and willing to help reunite the precious union.
I didn't go directly to the camp, fearing my father would go there first when he discovered me missing. I was a crafty one, I hung around the horses and baggage until evening of the day before the troops were to go south.
I hid in the baggage as the regiment boarded the train, and it wasn't until we started to move that I dared to jump on. As we passed through Oxford [Massachusetts, which was Johnson's hometown] the townspeople were out to say farewell to the soldiers. I peered from my hiding place and saw mother among the faces, but she didn't see me. I was sure that one of mother's friends saw me however, and I was sure she told mother I was gone.
We reached the boat landing at Norwich, Conn., late in the evening, and loaded directly aboard a transport steamer for New York City. Aboard ship I was discovered by a Captain Charles Watson, who gave me a severe lecture and then ordered me to return home on the next boat back. I did not obey him, instead I chose to keep myself hid until we reached Philadelphia.
In Philadelphia the citizens fed our regiment and I chose to come out of hiding, suffering from a powerful hunger. I had seen nothing to eat except hardtack since leaving home the previous day.
We left for Washington DC the next day, and were given orders to load our guns as we approached Baltimore. The 6th Massachusetts [Regiment] had been fired on in Baltimore by a mob just days before, so we were told to be ready for attack. We were not molested however, forgiving some hoots and insulting remarks as we rumbled through.
I kept close to my old friends Cy Dodd [a teamster he had met on the boat] when we reached Washington, and soon we were pitching tents in a bivouac we called Camp Callaramer.
Here I was again brought before the officers. I must have been a sight to behold, still bare foot and wearing my tattered overalls.
A Lieut. Bartholomew asked me if I wanted to be a soldier, and when I said yes, he said, "Then you must be dressed like one." He took me into the capitol and bought me a boy's soldier suit. He had them embroider 15th Massachusetts Regiment on the front of my cap.
I was assigned as Bartholomew's boy and was a favorite among the men of Co. E, as most of them came from my hometown. My parents were told of my whereabouts, and promised that I would be escorted home at the earliest possible date. In the meantime however, I would be a soldier.
We slept in the woods on the first night out of Washington. Lieut. Bartholomew was taken sick on the march and had to be taken by ambulance wagon to a field hospital. His condition worsened each day as I visited him, his brother came to take him home but the trip proved too much for him, I am told he died near Philadelphia.
I was the youngest man in the regiment, and I took great pleasure in watching the men drill and conduct the sham battles fought between our regiment and the 19th and 20th Massachusetts. Often the men would put me in a blanket and, with a man at each corner, would toss me into the air.
I was next placed in the charge of Capt. Watson. I would go with him and the teamsters to Hagerstown, Maryland, after grain, and each day we would make it lively for the turkeys and geese we would see on the plantations along the way.
Once on our way home we saw a flock of turkeys. I was off the wagon like a shot, got my eye on a bird and caught it in a cloud of feathers. But as I pulled the bird back to the wagon, I chanced to notice some officers approaching from across the river. General Stone had issued strict orders forbidding foraging, so I set the bird free, then jumped upon a fence feigning innocence.
Those officers came up and as I saluted, one of them said, "Boy, why didn't you hang onto that turkey, are southern birds too much for you?" I jumped off that fence without a word, went back into the meadow and returned in two minutes flat with the same turkey in hand. The officers seemed pleased and rode off.
I used to carry the newspapers into camp each morning. Once as I picked up my papers, I met Col. Charles Devens' negro servant boy, who I disliked very much. Several times he had bothered me and called me names, and I had warned him he could expect a booting if he didn't change his ways.
As I came up he called me a name, so I sprang on him with a vengeance, kicked him and then smashed a basket of fresh eggs I knew he was carrying to the colonel. He ran away crying, "I'll tell massa Devens on you."
I was in the habit of delivering a paper to Col. Devens, but this day, I decided I'd best stay away. The next day I approached the Colonel's tent slowly, hoping he was off some where. He wasn't, he came straight out of that tent, right to me and asked where I was the day previous. I lied and said I was sorry, I had sold all of my papers before I got to his tent.
That colonel gave me a look that could kill and said, "Young man, I don't care how often you lick my slave, but don't you ever break my eggs again."
On October 21, 1861, we wakened at two in the morning to the beating of drums. The regiment had orders to march immediately to Conrad's Ferry, nine miles away. We reached the Potomac River at dawn, and I was ordered not to cross. Moments later I heard guns firing, and I decided I must go and see.
I walked to a spot where Col. Baker and his staff were talking on the shore. I heard him say that General Stone wanted him to move his troops to an island before us, and to wait there until fighting began at Edward's Ferry. We could then cross over to take Leesburg and cut the enemy's retreat.
But Baker disregarded his orders. He moved his troops to the island, and then ordered them to proceed to the Virginia shore immediately. I was in in Col. Baker's boat to the island, but I decided to follow him no further.
The men crossing to the Virginia side came under heavy fire from Col. Even's confederate troops. The men were in open boats and were showered with bullets. Many were hit, it was a sight never to be forgotten. Bullets fell around me like hail.
I ran to the middle of the island, stray bullets striking all around me. I crawled under a fence for shelter, and was there when the chaplain came by and asked me why I was on the island. I wanted to tell him I was afraid, but just then a bullet slammed into the post by my head. I came out of there rather lively, never stopping to finish my talk with the chaplain.
I walked down to a house the surgeons had converted to a field hospital . . . and I saw my friend Capt. Ward, who had been shot in the leg and had to have it amputated as I watched.
The doctors were all very hard at work, the wounded pouring in steadily from the front. I saw a file of amputated arms and legs outside a window of the house, the pile measured more than five feet tall, and made me sick to look at it.
About 3:40 p.m., I saw Col. Baker's staff rowing his body back to the island, he had been shot by a sharpshooter. Shortly after this came the order to retreat. We had lost the day.
Two freshly-landed companies of New Yorkers climbed the bluff to cover the withdrawal, and Col. Devens ordered his command to deploy for the same purpose.
There was skirmishing until dark, when all the men remaining on the Virginia shore were rushed by the rebels and either killed or captured. When Col. Devens saw this, he told his men to retreat and save themselves. Many were shot trying to swim for safety, their muskets strapped to their backs. Others hid in the woods, waiting for a chance to steal across the river when the confederates withdrew.
Baker's command lost 49 killed, 714 missing or captured. This loss fell on about 1700 men who had crossed to the Virginia shore that morning. The confederates that day reportedly lost 148 either killed or wounded.
I left the island on the same boat used to carry Baker's body and a number of wounded men back to the Maryland shore. This boat was the last to leave the island that night, the one following sunk because it was overloaded with desperate, wounded men. As I neared the boat, the chaplain stood by with drawn revolver, vowing to shoot the first man who tried to get aboard if he was not wounded.
Just then I saw Antonne Phillips limping toward the boat. I had not heard that he had been injured, so I asked him, and he said he had been shot. I took him by one arm, the Chaplain took the other, and we helped him into the boat. I slipped in beside him.
When we reached the Maryland shore, to my surprise Antonne Phillips leaped from the boat, slapped his leg and ran into the trees saying, "Antonne is saved again."
On the Maryland side I fell in with some of the men who had made their escape. We walked through the night, ever fearful that the calamities of the day might give the Confederates courage to cross over in pursuit. Fortunately, they did not.
We reached Poolsville about one o'clock at night and I caught several hours of troubled sleep. The next morning was a sad gathering indeed, as we first came to realize that our ranks had been sadly depleted. There were only about four hundred of us left, the rest either killed, captured, wounded or missing.
During the next few days, a number of the missing managed to find their way back to camp, among these came Capt. Watson, who I was so delighted to see.
Capt. Watson, a man weighing about 210 pounds, was forced to hide out between the floor timbers of an old mill when he was over taken by the enemy. He hid there motionless for 24 hours; he said once the enemy came into the old mill and ate their breakfast, and he could plainly hear their talk as they gloried over their victory.
During the next few days, all the available men in camp were occupied with the wounded, and my time was taken up waiting on them. The attack we all feared never came.
Our ranks as a company, had been so decimated that Sergeant Shumway was ordered back to Oxford to enlist recruits. As soon as I heard this, I asked permission to return with him, and that permission was granted. I took two nice fat Maryland opossums north with me, planning to have them as pets in Massachusetts.
When I landed in town I was beset on every hand by mothers, lovers, sisters and wives, all asking for the latest news from their men at the front. To some I was obliged to recount the death of a loved one, and to others I had to tell of hospital beds, and of some who were known to be prisoners.
I lived about a mile from the station, and while I was talking with the people, a boy preceded me home shouting through the streets, "Ithiel has come, Ithiel has come." So when I came in sight of my house, my precious mother stood in the doorway, weeping for joy at the thought of her boy returning to her whole and safe.
She came down the walk to meet me, put her great loving arms about me and gave me a great kiss of welcome. She said, "Ithiel my boy, I am glad you have come." She never once mentioned my running away from home.
[original] EDITOR'S NOTE: In 1864, Johnson returned south and took a job with the Washington Chronicle. He was there for Abraham Lincoln's last inaugural, and he was there when the President was assassinated. We'll tell that story in next year's edition of the Bowdoinham.
Bowdoinham Advertiser. FDC