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NP: July 5, 1864 Green Mountain (VT) Freeman: A Soldier’s Letter, June 19

Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Bryce Suderow and is included in a collection of articles from the Green Mountain VT Freeman.  His transcription of this article is published here with his written permission.

A Soldier’s Letter — No. 65

Near Petersburg, Va. June 19th, 1864

Editor Freeman:
Another flank movement has been made by the army, and today we find ourselves within a mile of Petersburg with our old enemy in front. For three days there has been pretty severe fighting here, but this time our corps escaped the worst of it. Our division reached the front night before last. The Second Regiment was sent at once on to the skirmish line, from which we were relieved last night after twenty-four hours’ hard duty.

We left Coal Harbor the night of the 12th. It was a bright moonlight night, just right for marching, except that the air everywhere was filled with choking dust, which the dampness of evening could not lay. We fell into line at the order, and most of us guessed where we were going, but our calculations were a little puzzled when, instead of marching off to the left, we started out “right in front” and marched back on the right flank. It soon became evident that we were sent there only as a rear guard, and after remaining behind good breastworks till midnight, we changed our course towards the Chickahominy. The interval we improved the best we could in catching a little sleep. It was short, and less satisfactory than sweet, severely better than none, for it makes a fellow feel more stupid than ever to call him up suddenly from a refreshing sleep just begun. At daylight we halted an hour for breakfast, then pushed on again through the dust and heat till night. We crossed the Chickahominy at Jones’ Bridge just before sundown, but continued our march a number of miles further before we came to a halt. I don’t know exactly how far we marched. It is variously estimated at from twenty to twenty-five miles, but the choking dust and heat and the many crooked turns we made, made the march doubly difficult. We were completely exhausted before we bivouacked for the night. Those last miles were doled out in suffering by inches. If a man wants to know what it is to have every bone in his body ache with fatigue, every muscle sore and exhausted, and his whole body ready to sink to the ground, let him diet on a common soldier’s fare till he has only the strength that imparts, and then let him shoulder his knapsack, haversack, gun and equipments, and make one of our forced marches, and I will warrant him to be satisfied that the duties of war are stern and severe, whether we march or face the enemy on the field of battle. A fellow feels very much like grumbling at such times as that, and when we march on and on, expecting every minute to halt but still hurrying forward, when every spark of energy seems about to be extinguished, and the last remnant of strength gone, tired, hungry, sick and sore, who blames a soldier if he finds it hard work to suppress thoughts of a quiet home he has left behind him, with its comforts and endearments, and if he sometimes turns his thoughts to himself and wonders if he, as an individual, will ever be compensated for the sacrifice he is making. What if the rebels are whipped and what if they are not? How does it matter to him? One blunder of General Grant’s may make final victory forever impossible and all our lost toil go for nothing. I tell you some of our hard marches put one’s patriotism severely to the test. It finds out a fellow’s weak points if he has got any, and we don’t claim to be without them.

About ten o’clock that night we were ready to lie down for our night’s rest, and about four in the morning we were called onto our feet again. We advanced towards James River, just before Harrison’s Landing, where we had a camp two years ago. It would have been quite a treat to have visited that old camp again, but we did not have the opportunity. We crossed the James River the night of the 16th on a pontoon bridge, and came directly to this place. Our first and third divisions of this corps, more fortunate than ourselves, were carried to City Point on transports while we made the distance on foot. The whole movement was well planned to save time.

As we were coming on to this ground, we had positive assurance that Petersburg was taken, and of course felt highly elated at the cheering news, but we found when we got here that the news was not quite so good as reported, although we had captured their outer line of fortifications and were almost within musket range of the city. Burnside’s negroes claim a large share of credit in taking these works. They made a splendid charge, capturing the whole line of works, thirteen guns, and some prisoners. The negroes were remarkably well pleased with their prowess on this occasion. It was a glorious day for them. They won great favor in the eyes of white soldiers by their courage and bravery. I am sure I never looked upon negroes with more respect than I did upon these soldiers, and I did not hear a word of disrespect towards them from any of the boys. Yesterday they made another charge here, and it was done in excellent style. The best military critic could hardly find fault with it. In a steady straight line they advanced right over the crest of the hill and right up to the enemy’s works, under a terrible fire, but without wavering or faltering, compelling the enemy to leave his works in the hands of the blacks. The stream of wounded that came pouring back, some leaning on a comrade and some carried on stretchers, told of the bloody work they had done. Our picket reserve was in the road where they passed by. They captured some prisoners and brought them off. The proud Southerner might have felt a little humbled to be taken prisoner in open fight by a class of people that they refuse to recognize as men, and be conducted off the field in charge of a negro guard. But this they had to submit to the best they could. One of the guard, a small, comical looking darkey, rolling up his large white eyes and looking at a tall rebel with a peculiar expression of triumph inquired, “Who rides a horseback now?” The rebel did not deign a reply. He bore the shout that followed with philosophical coolness. Sometimes the negroes treat their prisoners rather roughly in remembrance of Fort Pillow, and similar outrages. I have no doubt, if the truth were known, that many a rebel lost his life at their hands at the taking of the first line of fortifications after they had fallen into our hands. Their wrath was especially directed against the officers. The rebels would plead with them, tell them they had no desire to harm them, but the negroes would say, “How was it at Fort Pillow? and pay no attention to their entreaties. One of our officers who was a free mason, told of rescuing a rebel brother mason whom the negroes decided to kill. He drew his revolver and peremptorily ordered the negroes who had gathered around him to disperse, and had the wounded rebel cared for. Otherwise he would have counted as one to pay the terrible bill of retaliation that we have against the enemy. Such a kind of warfare is too horrible to contemplate, though we cannot blame the negroes under the present circumstances.

Notwithstanding the negroes fight so well and show so much bravery, they have hereto been allowed but the bare pittance of seven dollars a month. Chaplain Hunter, of the 4th U.S. colored troops, a colored man of remarkable ability, enhances with just indignation this rank injustice. He says there are men in his regiment who have left families at home, and seven dollars a month, in times like these, is not enough to keep them from actual suffering. In a conversation with a Major General a short time since, he said he asked him in a case of a battle where all the commissioned officers were killed or wounded in a company or regiment, who would take the command. (Commissioned officers are white, but the non-commissioned officers may be black, but a negro is never commissioned — miserable compromise to an unreasonable prejudice). The General replied that it would devolve upon the ranking non-commissioned officers of course. Then, said the chaplain, when the regiment comes to re-organize, and new officers be chosen, what will you do with those men that, according to military custom, are entitled to the position they have filled, and who have proved they are worthy of it. Well, said the General, a little puzzled at the annoying question, Congress will have to settle that.

And Congress has wrangled over that question all winter, trying to settle it. It seems strange that a question where justice and injustice, right and wrong, are so plainly apparent, should require any wrangling or debate at all. They seem to think that it is degrading to the white soldiers to pay the blacks equally as well. Do they think we are afraid of fair competition with the blacks? If negroes can fight as well as we, can we not have magnaminity enough to acknowledge it? Certainly to propose especial legislation to keep our status ahead of the blacks is acknowledging them our superiors and in a most humiliating way. Whether it suits our tastes or not, it is doubtless true that the golden rule applies to colored as well as to white people, and Congress as well as everybody else will do well to bear this in mind and act accordingly.

Anti Rebel
[Montpelier, Vermont]
Green Mountain Freeman1


  1. “The Second Howitzers,” Green Mountain (Vermont) Freeman, July 5, 1864, p. 1 col. 1; taken from “Letters of Wilbur Fisk 1862-1865 Wilbur Fisk Collection, Library of Congress
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