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Life With The Thirteenth Massachusetts

        The 13th Massachusetts was organized in Boston shortly after the attack on Fort Sumter and, after brief training at Fort independence, left for New York in July i86i. The story of the march southward to the fields of battle is told in these pages of diaries put together by the regimental historian, Charles E. Davis. The regiment fought in the Valley campaign, at Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Petersburg. Davis himself was wounded and imprisoned at Manassas. It is no exaggeration to say that this is on the whole the most interesting of all the many regimental histories.

        1861. Thursday, Aug. 1, Hagerstown: After tents were pitched some of the men turned in and went to sleep, though the novelty of the thing was too great for most of us, who straggled back into town. During the day one of the boys brought in a Virginia paper in which it was stated that one "Southerner could lick five Northern mudsills." It was not so very comforting to feel that we were to be killed off in blocks of five. Nothing was said to us on the 16th of July, the date of our muster-in, about this wholesale slaughter. There was a kind of airy confidence as well as contemptuousness about the statement that made our enlistment look a little less like a picnic than when we marched down Broadway. It was hard to realize that we had come so far from home merely to solve a problem in mathematics, yet so it seemed to the writer of that philippie.
        Some time during the night an alarm was sounded by the beating of the "long roll," and we were ordered into line to drive the terrible foe, who was thought, even then, to be in our midst. Immediately everything was excitement and confusion. We can afford to laugh now, but then it was terribly serious, and no doubt we did some silly things; but it should be borne in mind that this was very early in the war. When it was discovered, as it shortly was, that all this excitement was caused by a pig who strolled into camp and was mistaken by the officer of the guard for the rebel army, many of us were imbued with a courage we hardly felt before. There was little sleep during the balance of the night, as the matter had to be discussed and talked about, as most things were in the rank and file of the Thirteenth, particularly when it related to the foolishness of an officer.
        Although orders awaited us, on our arrival in Hagerstown, to march to Harpers Ferry, we were delayed on account of the bad condition of the roads from recent rains. This kind of consideration went out of fashion very soon after, we are sorry to say.
        About sunset we struck tents and marched to Boonesboro, fourteen miles, arriving there at the witching hour of night when it is said churchyards yawn. We were led into an empty corral, lately occupied by mules, to bivouac for the night.
        Ordinarily a mule-yard would not be considered a desirable place in which to spend the night, but it was midnight, and we were weary with marching, and worn out with excitement and loss of sleep. This was our fifth night from home. The first night was spent on a Sound steamer, the second on our way to Philadelphia, the third en route to Hagerstown, and the fourth in driving pigs out of camp, so that this old mule-yard, as far as we could see it, appeared the most delightful place in the world. At eighteen to twenty years of age little time is wasted in seeking sleep. It comes quickly and takes entire possession of your soul and body, and all we did was to drop in our tracks, making no inquiries about camp or picket guard, but let Morpheus lead us to the land of pleasant dreams. This being our first bivouac, occurrences made a deeper impression than at any time afterward. When reveille was sounded, and our eyes opened to the bright sunlight, we looked about to see where we were and who were near us. The bright red blankets of the regiment made the place look attractive. Many of the boys were still stretching themselves into activity, while others were examining their bed to account for sundry pains in the body from neglect to brush the stones aside when they laid down. How we all laughed when we saw where we were! Many and many a time while sitting round a camp fire have we recalled this night in the mule-yard.
        Saturday, Aug. 3: A very hot day. Shortly after breakfast we left for Pleasant Valley, sixteen miles, where we arrived in the afternoon, and where we bivouacked for the night. A good many of the men were overcome by the heat, and didn't reach camp until after dark. The size of the knapsack was too heavy for men unused to carrying such a weight. It must be reduced, and there were no mare Bibles. Just what to throw away it was difficult to decide, as many of the articles we carried were connected by association with those we held most dear. Some of the boys had dressing-cases among their luxuries. They hated to dispense with them, but it had to be done.
        Among the articles provided us by the State were "havelocks," commonly used in hot countries by the English army. The havelock was named after Sir Henry Havelock, a distinguished English general. It is made of white linen, to be worn on the head as a protection from the rays of the sun. As it was made sufficiently large to cover the neck and shoulders, the effect, when properly adjusted, was to deprive the wearer of any air he might otherwise enjoy. An Englishman would melt in his boots before he would give up a custom enjoyed by his grandfather. Not so a Yankee. The motive which prompted the State to supply them was a good one, as was also the suggestion that prompted their immediate transfer to the plebeian uses of a dish-cloth or a coffee-strainer, which suggestion was universally adopted,--a dish-cloth or coffee-strainer being the only things in the world, apparently, we were unprovided with.
        Friday, Aug. 23: While at Sandy Hook we received the hats and uniform coats issued to us by the State, and which were forwarded by express. The coat was much too heavy, with the thermometer in the eighties. It was made with long skirts, and when fitting the wearer was not a bad-appearing garment; but as very few of them did fit, our personal appearance was not improved. They were made large in front, to meet an abnormal expansion of chest. Until we grew to them, it was a handy place to stow some of the contents of our knapsack.
        The hats were neither useful nor ornamental. They were made of black felt, high-crowned, with a wide rim turned up on one side, and fastened to the crown by a brass shield representing an eagle with extended wings, apparently screaming with holy horror at so base an employment. On the front of the crown was a brass bugle containing the figure 13. Now it so happened that the person who selected the sizes was under the impression that every man from Massachusetts had a head like Daniel Webster--a mistake that caused most of us much trouble, inasmuch as newspapers were in great demand to lessen the diameter of the crown. Those of us who failed to procure newspapers made use of our ears to prevent its falling on our Shoulders. As will be seen later on, they mysteriously disappeared....
        September 13: A man in one of the Connecticut regiments was shot today for sleeping on guard. It was not pleasant to feel that a quiet nap, on picket, might be followed by death, so we swore off sleeping while on guard.
        It was at Darnestown that we were first made acquainted with an article of food called "desiccated" vegetables. For the convenience of handling, it Was made in to large, round cakes about two inches thick. When cooked, it tasted like herb tea. From the flow of language which followed, we suspected it contained powerful stimulating properties. It became universally known in the army as "desecrated" vegetables, and the aptness of this term Would be appreciated by the dullest comprehension after one mouthful of the
abominable compound. It is possible that the chaplain, who overheard some of the remarks, may have urged its discontinuance as a ration, inasmuch as we rarely, if ever, had it again.
        [1862]. Wednesday, March 12: The rattle of drums and the sweet singing of birds announced that morn was here. The army was to move on Winchester at once, so we hastily cooked our coffee, and as quickly as possible ate our breakfast. There was no time to spare, as orders to "fall in" were heard in every direction. Orders were received for the Thirteenth to take the advance of the column as skirmishers. Winchester was four miles away, occupied by 25,000 troops under Stonewall Jackson, and well-fortified by earthworks. As soon as we were out of the woods the regiment was deployed as skirmishers, and marched in that order in quick time across fields, over fences and stone walls, fording brooks or creeks, preserving distances and line as well as we could under such disadvantages.
        The sensations we experienced on this bright, beautiful morning are not likely to be forgotten. It was very warm, and the march a hard one, because the line was irregularly obstructed. That is to say, while one part would be marching on the smooth surface of the ground, another part might be climbing a fence or wading a brook. To keep the line tolerably straight under such exasperating circumstances was very trying and perspiring work. In addition to this we were, for the first time, in line of battle, and in plain sight of the rest of the division, who were watching our movements as they followed in close column.
        Situated as we were, there was no opportunity for obeying, without disgrace, those instincts of discretion which are said to be the better part of valor, and which prompt human nature to seek safety in flight. Those of us who omitted to sneak away before the line was formed, but who afterward showed such ingenuity and skill in escaping the dangers of battle, found no chance open for skulking on this occasion. Yes! like other regiments, we had our percentage of men who dared to run away, that they might live to fight some other, far distant day.
        We saw those dreaded earthworks a long time before we reached them, and wondered at the enemy's silence, but concluded they were reserving their fire until we should be close enough for the greatest execution. Whatever the boys felt, there was no faltering or wavering. Within a short distance of the earthworks we formed in close order, and with a yell and a rush we bounded over them to find, after all our fears and anticipations, they were empty. We were soon formed in line, and marched, in columns of companies, into town, being the first Union regiment that entered Winchester. We felt proud enough at our bloodless victory.
        We had hardly entered the main street of the town when General Jackson and Colonel Ashby were discovered on horseback, in front of the Taylor House, waving an adieu with their hats. An order was immediately given to fire, but we were not quick enough to do them harm or retard their flight. This was a daring thing to do, though common enough with such men as Jackson and Ashby.
        We marched down the main street, the band playing patriotic airs, while the people scanned our appearance to see what a Yankee looked like. Some who were prepared to scoff could get no farther than "How fat they are!"
        After the companies were assigned to quarters the officers met at the Taylor House, and dined on the meal provided for Jackson and his staff.
        Tuesday, July 22: In passing through towns and villages, and even on the high-roads, we naturally attracted a good deal of attention. We frequently noticed among the crowds so gathered, the scowling faces of women, who, upon learning we were from Massachusetts, saluted us as "Nigger lovers," and other opprobrious epithets, while it occasionally happened that by grimaces only could they express the intensity of their feelings.
        The remarks we heard from the bystanders as we marched along often became by-words in the regiment. We were no exception to the generality of mankind, of liking to see a pretty face, even if it did belong to a woman of "secesh" sentiments. When the boys at the head of the column discovered a pretty girl, if she was on the right side of the road, "guide right" would be passed along the line; and "guide left" if on the left side of the road. By this ingenious device we were enabled to direct our eyes where we would receive the largest return for our admiration.
        Various were the devices adopted by the boys to relieve the monotony of weary marches. On these occasions, as conversation was allowed, stories were told, gossip repeated, discussions carried on, and criticisms made on the acts of public men, as well as on the merits of our commanders. An occasional silence would be broken by the starting of a familiar song, and very soon the whole regiment would join in the singing. Sometimes it would be a whistling chorus, when all would be whistling. Toward the end of a day, however, so tired we were all, that it was difficult to muster courage for these diversions, then our only reliance for music would be the band. When a temporary halt was granted, it was curious to see how quickly the boys would dump themselves over on their backs at the side of the road as soon as the word was given, looking like so many dead men. There was one thing we were thankful to the colonel for, and that was his freedom from nonsense on such occasions, No "right--facing, no "right--dressing, no "stacking arms," to waste valuable minutes, but "get all the rest you can, boys," and when the order was given to "forward," each man took his place in line without confusion or delay....
        It would often occur, when we were tired and dusty from a long days march, "Old Festive" would ride by, when suddenly you would hear sung:

"Saw my leg off,
Saw my leg off,
Saw my leg off--
SHORT! ! !"

        There was another man in the regiment who contributed a large share of fun for the amusement of others, and that was the "Medicine man"--the man who honored the doctors sight-drafts for salts, castor-oil, etc., delicacies intended for the sick but greatly in demand by those who wished to rid themselves of unpleasant duties. He was the basso profundo of the glee club, and could gaze without a tremor at the misery of a man struggling with castor-oil, while at the same time encouraging him to show his gratitude at the generosity of the Government by drinking the last drop. "Down with it, my boy, the more you take the less I carry."
        Saturday, Aug. 9: The last place to look for a stock company would be among a regiment of soldiers. After being deprived of camp kettles, mess pans, etc., each man was obliged to do his own cooking, as already stated, in his tin dipper, which held about a pint. Whether it was coffee, beans, pork, or anything depending on the services of a fire to make it palatable, it was accomplished by the aid of the dipper only. Therefore any utensil like a frying-pan was of incalculable service in preparing a meal. There were so few of these in the regiment, that only men of. large means, men who could raise a dollar thirty days after a paymasters visit, could afford such a luxury.
        In one instance the difficulty was overcome by the formation of a joint-stock company, composed of five stockholders, each paying the sum of twenty cents toward the purchase of a frying-pan, which cost the sum of one dollar. The par value of each share was therefore twenty cents. It was understood that each stockholder should take his turn at carrying the frying-pan when on a march, which responsibility entitled him to its first use in halting for the night. While in camp, it passed from one to the other each day in order of turn. It was frequently loaned for a consideration, thereby affording means for an occasional dividend among the stockholders. The stock advanced in value until it reached as high as forty cents per share, so that a stockholder in the "Joint Stock Frying Pan Company" was looked upon as a man of consequence. Being treated with kindness and civility by his comrades, life assumed a roseate hue to the shareholders in this great company, in spite of their deprivations. It was flattering to hear ones self mentioned in terms of praise by some impecunious comrade who wished to occupy one side of it while you were cooking.
        On this particular morning, when we started out, expecting shortly to be in a fight, the stock went rapidly down, until it could be bought for almost nothing. As the day progressed, however, there was a slight rise, though the market was not strong. When the order was given to leave knapsacks, it necessarily included this utensil, and so the "Joint Stock Frying Pan Company" was wiped out.
Source: "The Blue and The Gray" by Henry Steele Commanger, From Charles E. Davis's, "Three Years in the Army".

This Page last updated 01/17/04


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