O Shenandoah! Country Reckoning

paintingO Shenandoah! Country Reckoning

"The Bulldog's Bark" -- Part 3

By James R. Wiley

This story is based on the participation of Mr. Wiley's great-grandfather in the Battle of New Market, May 15, 1864. It is a blend of fiction and fact with transitions between the actual text of his great-grandfather's letters and historical notes bound by an imaginative tale.

If you missed earlier sections, they're archived in Word Preserve as Part 2 and Part 1.

The Confederates had defeated superior Union forces at the first Battle of Bull Run, but the Western Army of the Union made slow progress in Missouri. Each state, North and South, rushed to replenish its contingent of militia and volunteer units. Ohio and Pennsylvania supplied large numbers of German and Bavarian troops and officers who had fled abortive revolutions in Austria. The Union army of the Civil war was a patchwork quilt of states and nationalities, trying to become an army. Nationalities and regions competed with each other for recognition, sporting unique regimental flags and uniforms. What was sorely lacking was a cohesive unitary force and leadership.

By the time A. J. and Nelson Berson enlisted with the 1st West Virginia, most of the rest of the able-bodied men and older boys had already come down from the mountains to Wheeling to sign up. Within a year of the first enlistment in 1862, fully one third of the enlistees were dead, of disease, mostly. Life in the Union camps under General Franz Sigel, one of the many expatriate Germans, was marked by tedium, drilling, malnutrition, more drilling, and constant fatigue. Camps became muddy, filth and disease-ridden hell holes after a few weeks' spring rains, and sweltering dust bowls as summer wore on. A. J. and the rest of the Ohio and West Virginia men expected occasional furloughs to visit their homes and families, but furloughs were few as the war in the Shenandoah intensified.

The war was beginning to take more fortunate turns for the Union here and there, and that Spring of 1864 marked the beginning of a major push against the Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley. While his wounds healed, A. J. took advantage of the spare time and available note paper, bought from camp hucksters, and wrote home near the end of May, 1864.

May 28, '64

It has been a terrible time for us. I have more time to write now because I am given time to convaless while we make camp again. At least it was not my good hand that was injured. The massed armies moved into Virginia earlier in the month, Gen Seagle still commanding the Army of West Virginia though many officers have refused to serve under him. Some say he is a tyrant as well as a fool. Colonel Schoonmaker did as well as he could under the circumstances, as we all did, men and officers. At least now we have an American officer in Maj. Gen D. Hunter instead of that Seagle.

We crossed the Shenandoah the eve of the 14th in the rain after sevral days of heat and continued marching to Cedar Creek. We were on our feet for two days before that and then were on half rations until we were to make camp. As always we were exhausted and hungry, I don't know which was worse tho. We marched 21 miles in about 7 hours in oppressive heat with only one break of about ten minutes. That was a Saturday. We hoped for respite on the Sabbath but we were marched to New Market where I was wounded. I can tell you I never experienced anything like that, though we have been in some terribul and confusing times.

We took a high spot and the artillery established their positions. We slogged through mud the whole time. It has been raining very hard here and the creeks and streams are very trecherous. There were thousands of West Virginia and Pennsylvania men on that rise North of a farm orchard. That was at New Market. We were at the fore of the battle lines by late morning. The 54th PA was behind us on our left. On our right the 34th Mass - the unit that Seagle cussed so much for obeying his orders. They marched and marched right into the swamps. Behind us the 12th W Va. It was still very damp in the air and wet as a bog below. I can't recall events exactly now but I recollect the Rebs charged us first. We were ordered to attack after the artillery opend up.

I will never get used to the sounds of battle and I pray I never hear them again. The Rebs began first, with their terrible yelling. Then our artillery opened up in earnest. The rebs were so close that our artilery used cannister shot. It makes a god-awful sound. First the cannon fires. Then the shells go out and they explode. Everywhere men are firing their rifles, shotguns, pistols and muskets. We fired in volleys. First one line then another and another while the first line reload. My God it is loud and unceasing. Col Aug. Moor was first to advance with parts of the Ohio 123 and some W Va men, but they had to fall back despite a valiant charge. And still the Rebs came at us. The command came to our lines to attack with bayonets fixed, them that had them.

We could not see where we were headed what with the cannon smoke and the fog and rain. We could hardly move, the mud being so thick. We fell back as the Rebs continued to advance. I could taste the sulfur and mud in my mouth, noes and eyes. The soldier to my left was shot and kilt shortly after we began our advance. I didn't even know it at the time. My eyes were fixed upon the enemy and it was awl I could do to reload and fire. I only reloaded once, as our lines were so close.

Then is when I knew it Becky. Some of those advancing on us were not men, but boys too young yet to shave. They turned out to be cadets from Winchester. But they could shoot a rifle and they were. One came right at me brandishing his bayonet as I beleve he had spent his ammunition. He was barefoot having lost his shoes in the field below. There was a look on his face I shall never forget. He looked strait at me as he came and I raised my rifle at him. Ther was nothing else to do, and may God forgive me, I believe I kilt him. He could not have been more than a couple year older than Homer and Edwin. I cannot forget how I watched him fall. The young lad fell and clawed at his blouse, atearing it open to the wound I had caused. Everytime I recall it I know what I have done and thot at the moment and still feel that I want no more of this.

I had not much time to reflect on it atall. The 1st W Va were at the fore & center of it & moved forward in the mud. We could go no further then a hundred yards or so until we saw we were not supported on either flank & we retreated as slowly as we had advanced. The battle went back and forth until mid afternoon when They gave the call to retreat, and we fought our way backwards. The mud was near up to my knees. No sooner than we had reformed near our original positions than we were told to advance again, but our right flank was exposed. Even I knew that. We have very little confidence in our officers here. At least the Generals. That little Dutchman, he was incompetent. Half the time he cussed us in German and we have no idea what he was on about. At least our own officers Col Weddle & Major Stephens are tolerable and we can understand them, but that Seagle. He was no damn good. I believe he got more of us kilt than was likely under a more competent general.

I am very tired. I must stop now and will write more as opoturnity permits.

(to be continued next month... )

James Wiley is an Ohio-born and raised writer and amateur genealogist, working with cousins from Maine to California to research their ancestry. With his wife, Lu, Jim visits the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge mountains every year, enjoying the scenery, warm hospitality, and personal attachment to the vivid history of the Shenandoah Valley. Besides his several ancestors who lived in Virginia from early colonial days to distant cousins of the present, Jim shares the history of many Americans whose families were split over the Civil War, sometimes pitting them against each other in battle.

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"The Bulldog's Bark" James R. Wiley June, 1997. All rights reserved.