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December 1, 2011
Roads to Leesburg (4)By Greyhawk
Sunday, October 20, 1861: Nothing but ten miles of road separated the men of Colonel Nathan Evan's Brigade, Confederate States Army, from Brigadier General George McCall's Division of Union troops to their east. Even closer to hand was Brigadier General Charles Stone's Division - ten thousand or so more Yankees, just across the Potomac. All totaled there were six Union infantry brigades in the vicinity of one Confederate; to call the situation confronting the southerners a tight spot would be an understatement. From all indications battle was imminent, and barring some miracle its outcome predictable. "General Evans and Colonel Featherstone both gave us a short speech," Private Robert Augustus Moore of the 17th Mississippi noted in his diary that day (Evans' subordinates had promoted him one rank; rumor had it his superiors might, too), adding "The General said if we died here he would die with us."
Commanders didn't always deliver on promises, regardless of their rank - but it seemed likely Evans would fulfill that one.
Three days earlier Moore had scratched out "camp west of Leesburg" at the top of his diary entry for October 17th and replaced it with "on Goose Creek." They'd been awakened at 3 AM that day "by the beating of the long roll," he wrote. But it wasn't a call to battle. After weeks of facing off against the Yankees across the river - mostly monotony broken by occasional skirmishes - it was time to move elsewhere. Fortified with a bread and water breakfast they began their march, though "we did not know whither we were going until we arrived at this camp."
"Have pitched our tents near Carter's mill. A very fine residence near by said to be that of Mrs Carter. 13th and 18th camped in sight of us. Some think we will go back to Leesburg tomorrow. Raining very hard tonight."
"Some" in that case were almost right. Moore's diary entry for the following day, however, was made from the same location. The widow Carter's mill on Goose Creek was about an eight mile walk south of Leesburg, though closer to five miles as the crow flies. Or as the cannonball doesn't - Stone's long-range artillery pieces on the Maryland shore were a factor in selecting this new location.
On the other hand touring historic Virginia was not, but some of the Mississippi troops took the opportunity to do so.
It was a hands-on interactive display. "Rocked in his old chair," Moore reported - adding that they left with some souvenirs of the former president, deceased three decades before: "several books a few piano keys and string."
Their history tour was not yet completed; "some" mistimed the effort but they indeed had more marching to do. Moore's diary entry the next day was made from "camp near ex-Mayor Swans" - an estate north of Leesburg owned by Thomas Swann. They reached it at the end of a longer march than the last (though "some" were right again; it mostly was a repeat of the last - in the opposite direction - which did little to sooth the souls of any soldiers desiring reason in their lives) but as a camp site it would prove especially gratifying to the most staunch Confederate hearts. Its owner was not present; after completing his term as Mayor of Baltimore the year before, Swann had declared himself a Union man and declined to return to his stately Virginia home.
"This looks to be a very fine camping place," Moore noted (though he'd only seen it in the dark of night) - but other than that, things were not going well.
"Some of the boys are a little mad," he added.
That was late on Saturday, the 19th. Moore and his fellow soldiers wouldn't see their camp site in daylight the next day either; before dawn they upped and moved again, abandoning the opulent grounds of the Swann estate for "camp in the bushes on Goose creek."
Whether believed or not, if the courier's information was accurate McCall had left three of his available infantry regiments behind when he'd moved his division's three brigades westward from Langley - but as Evans' Brigade consisted of just four infantry regiments, assorted cavalry and a few pieces of artillery the force now located just down the road a bit was overwhelming even so.
Or at least potentially overwhelming - as events (or lack thereof) would mandate the qualifier be used. Moore didn't know it, but the courier's information had also revealed that McCall's troops were not bound for Leesburg, would not even be remaining in place, but instead would return to Langley the following day. Still, the events of Sunday, 20 October 1861 were auspicious enough for Moore to make multiple entries in his diary throughout the day, eventually dedicating three of his pages to recording them - perhaps anticipating his life story was near finished, his remaining pages unneeded and destined to stay eternally blank.
"Left this morning without breakfast. Received some meat and bread about 11 o'clock. The first meat I have had since yesterday morning. When we got here Gen. Evans & Col. F both gave us a short speech. The Gen. said if we died here he would die with us...
"It is between 11 and 12 o'clock A.M. while I am writing. We are not expecting a fight today but would not be surprised if something was done to-morrow..."
Later in the day, however, Stone's troops crossed the Potomac. But for whatever reason, they returned to their side of the river before Evans' boys could give them a proper welcome.
"The enemy cannonaded us this evening but did no injury to us. Were ordered down to the Ferry at 9 o'clock to drive back some Yankees but when we got there they were not there. Camped near the Ferry for 1/2 hour when orders came to go back to our same position on Goose creek. I & (?) had gone to sleep when the orders came and were left behind. Waked up 2 hours after they left. Got lost and did not get back until 4 o'clock A.M. "
"We all thought we were going into a battle when we were going down to the Ferry," he concluded. "The boys all tore up their letters this evening thinking they were going into battle. I laughed at them."
They likely didn't join in his laughter - but their precautions would seem less humorous soon enough. The 17th Mississippi had been at Manassas for the big battle last July 21st ("It was the largest battle ever fought on the American continent," Moore wrote that day) - on the field if not in the thick of the fight. They had a better idea than most - and certainly than the men of Stone's Division they would soon confront - of what being in battle was like. Though he saw no need to enter a new date (the passing of midnight being less a requirement for acknowledging such than his as-yet unclaimed few hours sleep), Moore completed his October 20th entry on the 21st, exactly three months to the day from Manassas, in the pre-dawn darkness of what would indeed be the day of his second battle, another day that would require multiple pages of his diary to record.
He was ready for it. But even if he'd gained a few strands of historically significant piano string on the way, whatever yearning he might once have felt for the glories of war was fading, right along with the leaves on the trees and the first calendar year of the war. Previously - from in camp west of Leesburg, late in a day not long before - he'd expressed a desire in the pages of his diary that summed up his then-current thoughts on the whole great adventure:
But they would not. Rather soon some would cross the Potomac again. This time they'd meet Private Robert Moore and his fellow soldiers, tired and sore and hungry and sleep-deprived and more than a little fed up with their situation, and - complaints about food and rain and mud and their officers (most of whom they'd elected as such in the first place) aside - ready to vent their frustrations most violently on those they believed more responsible for their woes.
(More to follow...)
James Monroe's house: Moore's reference is to Oak Hill, located just south of Carter's Mill, though his visit seems to have been to a house nearby where some of Monroe's property was stored. "His residence is but a quarter mile distant from the old house," Moore wrote, adding that he wished he could visit it, "but do not know who owns it."
Piano wire, it should be noted, would be highly useful to a soldier, much as 550 cord is today.
Posted by Greyhawk / December 1, 2011 10:28 AM | Permalink
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
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