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