Narrative of a Private Soldier » Chapter I » Pennsylvania Buck-Tails

My great-great-grandfather, Charles Lewis Francis, arrived from Wales in 1860, at age 17, and shortly thereafter participated in the action of the Civil War. In 1879, he wrote and published a memoir of this period. I’ve scanned in the text and made it available as raw PDF scans and as an incomplete full-text PDF. As I correct the OCR’d chapters, I’ll be posting the sections to my blog. This is the sixth section of Chapter I.

Battle of Drainsville
December 20, 1861
301 total casualties

Again I went on a expedition to Virginia with a column of troops. We did not know where we were going to what we were going for, but at a miserable place called Drainsville, it was a question whether, in the skirmish that took place, we got beaten or were victorious. At any rate we came back without having accomplished any specific object that I know of. I believe this was undertaken by the troops of General McCall’s Pennsylvania Reserve Corps.

During the rest of the winter of 1861–2 I was engaged in going from camp to camp, and in the habit of staying away from home for days and weeks together. Of course it was very wrong and all that, and I invariably got lectured upon my return, but after all, I had many interesting experiences during that time, and besides, amid such scenes it would be hard to control a youth of eighteen, especially as a wide and treacherous ocean existed between him and direct parental authority. So I had very much my own way.

I encamped at Tennalytown — a little beyond Georgetown — with the celebrated “Buck Tails” of Pennsylvania, and made many acquaintances among the men of the various regiments. I was in a position to return services for entertainment, because, military discipline being rigidly enforced, few of the officers or men were allowed to go beyond the grand lines of their respective brigades or divisions, whereas I was not so amenable to arbitrary orders, and could go and return nearly as it suited me, and thus was enabled to perform many little commissions for those with whom I associated. There were four or five regiments in the brigade of “Buck Tails,” and these, with several others, and a battery, commanded, if I remember well, by a Captain McClure, formed what was known as the “Pennsylvania Reserve Corps.” The whole was commanded by General McCall.

I became very intimate with several men in the Forty-sixth Pennsylvania regiment. Indeed, I think it was that regiment that had whole companies of Welshmen in it. One of the men of this regiment was sadly homesick, and, as he had a sister who was a domestic in the family of Galusha A. Grow, the then Speaker of the House of Representatives, I was duly commissioned to interview her and lay his case before her in such a way as, that she should duly communicate the same to her august employer, for relief.

Whether my mission or her labors were ever successful I never learned, but I do know that then I reached home and told where it had been, I received the severest correction short of a thrashing I had ever had, from my aristocratic great aunt for communing with a “servant.” It was very shocking to her when she saw how quickly I had blossomed into so democratic a flower.

Dear, high-minded old aunt! If she had but recalled history then, or was alive now to know as much as we do about the inside springs that move great men, she would have realized that “servants” had before controlled, did then, and no doubt would thereafter wield no small influence in shaping the policies of those whom they serve — all the way between presented a good or bad dinner, guarding secrets well, and the other extreme, allowing themselves to be courted by newspaper correspondents or other — spies. But that is not a narrative, and ought, if printed at all, to be placed in parentheses, and it would have been, if I had not been advised by very respectable authority to entirely discard the use of them in the kind of writing described in my title-page.

I visited the camps and fortifications on both sides of the river. I was very much interested in the organization of the Sixth (or Fifth) United States Cavalry. The regiment was encamped on the great plain east of the capitol and not far from the Congressional burying ground. General Hunter was the Colonel and General Emory was the Lieutenant Colonel. As a matter of fact, there were few officers of the regiment between generals and second lieutenants. I had very lively times as I scampered over the plain with the regiment, engaged as it was in “breaking in” both men and horses.

After half a dozen lucky falls and a score of other mishaps, I became quite expert as a rider, and I do not know but that I might have been a sub-altern in the regiment had I not been dissuaded from making an application by the highest domestic authority, who declared that in all her experience of sixty to eighty years, “none but scapegraces ever went into the army.” That was equal to a lawful veto, and bad as I was, I determined, although two generations removed, and a recent importation of the blood at that, not to voluntarily make of myself the traditional scapegrace of the family. Like arguments caused me to desist a short time after, when at Camp Carroll, just outside of Baltimore, I was found dressed in a blouse, wearing a jaunty cap, and drilling a squad of men of the Fifth Maryland Volunteers, over whom I hourly expected to be placed in command.

Narrative of a Private Soldier » Chapter I » First California Regiment

My great-great-grandfather, Charles Lewis Francis, arrived from Wales in 1860, at age 17, and shortly thereafter participated in the action of the Civil War. In 1879, he wrote and published a memoir of this period. I’ve scanned in the text and made it available as raw PDF scans and as an incomplete full-text PDF. As I correct the OCR’d chapters, I’ll be posting the sections to my blog. This is the fifth section of Chapter I.

It might have been a little before that that I went with some couriers who delivered at Poolesville certain despatches for General Stone. It was rather late one afternoon that we left Washington by the Rockville road, and it was almost dark when we galloped through Rockville, the county seat of Montgomery county, Maryland. The town bore an appearance of old age and decrepitude, and there were no attractions for us to stop, even if our orders had not been imperative not to do so. Later, we arrived at Muddy Branch, or Darnstown. Darnstown was no town at all at that time, but I remember that Muddy Branch was very muddy.

There were only two or three houses in the town, but they were “on the Pike,” and there was a cross-road leading to a ferry on the Potomac river a few miles to the south. There were ten or twelve regiments of infantry encamped thereabouts, and shortly after our arrival nearly all of them took up the line of march for Poolesville, a few miles further on. It was late fall or early winter, and the night was very cold. About midnight we arrived at Poolesville, and the General received his despatches.

Battle of Ball’s Bluff
October 21, 1861

We did not know, at least I did not know, the contents of our papers, but early that morning Colonel Baker, of the First California Regiment, was across the Potomac river, and the battle of Ball’s Bluff was fought and lost. I went over after the battle, and penetrated nearly to Leesburg. I was, at times, inside the enemy’s lines, but did not know that until I had got out again. That was the first time that I had actually seen men killed and wounded on a battlefield, and, it may seem strange, but I do not remember that I experienced the peculiar feelings to be expected. It was not until Winchester that I did so. But of that as I get on with my story.

Soon after the repulse and defeat the body of Colonel Baker was recovered, and I returned to Washington with its escort, having been absent about three days. There was deep feeling manifested upon the death of Colonel Baker. He was extremely well liked by the men under him, and their lamentations were loud. Although this regiment was called the “First California,” it is not to be concluded therefrom that it was composed of Californians. It was not so to any great extent. Colonel Baker had been a Senator from Oregon, or California, I forget which, and I believe represented one or the other in the Senate of the United States at the outbreak of the war.

I saw the regiment when it was being organized. It was encamped on the Bladensburg road, just outside of the corporate limits of Washington. Its organization was different from that most other regiments in this, that there were seventeen or eighteen companies, four of which at least had been recruited in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and more in various other cities in unequal proportions — this I know, because I witnessed scenes of emulation, to designate it lightly, between the men of different States. Besides his regiment, he had several others at Ball’s Bluff. There were, I think, the Nineteenth and Twentieth Massachusetts, and I have an impression that I recognized the Fifteenth regiment from the same State.

Colonel Baker was an Englishman by birth, but had been brought to this country at a very early age. In person and appearance he was large and heavy; he had a full face, florid complexion, and he wore a full beard and whiskers, with this he had a kind, benevolent, and fatherly expression of countenance. It was generally remarked that he was too good a man to be recklessly exposed to danger, and there was manifested a strong disposition toward having an investigation to ascertain whether the Colonel’s next superior officer was not to be blamed for the disaster.

you blockhead

news from 1982

I am proud to report on the completion of my latest mini-project, confiming that certain classroom scenes from the 1983 Dan Ackroyd feature, Doctor Detroit, were filmed in the building I work in, Swift Hall at Northwestern University, now home of the Psychology department.

Stills from the movie:

Recent pictures of the classroom (Swift 107):

Narrative of a Private Soldier » Chapter I » Battle of Ball’s Bluff

My great-great-grandfather, Charles Lewis Francis, arrived from Wales in 1860, at age 17, and shortly thereafter participated in the action of the Civil War. In 1879, he wrote and published a memoir of this period. I’ve scanned in the text and made it available as raw PDF scans and as an incomplete full-text PDF. As I correct the OCR’d chapters, I’ll be posting the sections to my blog. This is the fourth section of Chapter I.

After General McClellan assumed command, and had reorganized the army, there was a grand review of the troops held at Ball’s Cross Roads. In order to get there we first had to procure a formidable pass from the Headquarters of the Army, and this pass was made no less formidable by the oath attached to it then by the terrible looking signature placed at the bottom. It was that of “Drake De Kay,” who was an aide-de-camp at headquarters. I am sorry I have lost that pass, because it would now be a real curiosity, and I would have liked very much to have been able to give a copy of it in this place. However, armed with this formidable pass, I went with the rest of the sightseers, crossed the river at Georgetown, thence to Munson’s Hill in Virginia, where our people had a signal station communicating with another situated on the top of the dome of the Capitol.

From there we went to Ball’s Cross Roads, but I saw no Ball’s or other notable crossroads. I simply saw from a favorable position immense masses of troops of all arms: long lines of infantry, now in echelon, now in masses, and again formed into line of battle extending for miles, and at times two or three deep. Squadrons and regiments of cavalry galloped through openings in the woods, crossed the depressions, and quickly disappeared into other openings in the forests; then whole parks of artillery dashed into the fields, and in and out through the woods, meanwhile performing the most intricate and mysterious of manouevers.

One time I thought that the hill we were standing upon was to be carried by storm, but a division of New York troopers flanked us and passed on. It was an awfully grand sight, and fascinated me. I could not help fixing my gaze upon the scene before and on both sides of me. There was everything of real battle except smoke, noise, and suffering. The generals and their staff officers were gayly dressed, and the horses they rode reared and pranced as if they were conscious of the fact that the eyes of the civilized world were upon then, and that the great majority of men trusted and expected that their riders would be carried upon their backs to victory and triumph. It was a beautiful day, clear and cold, and the sun shining upon the well burnished arms and accoutrments of the men, withal, made a picture with which the finest I ever saw on canvas was not to be compared for beauty.

I saw the youthful commander twice on that day. He was surrounded by a hundred staff officers, while scores more were flying hither and thither with orders to the different division commanders. His escort consisted of about five hundred picked troopers, and this body guard prevented us from getting too near their chief. He himself stood up with a glass almost continually at his eye, and, if he thought to making a striking picture of himself, I must say that he succeeded in impressing me by his attitude and reminding me of a famous picture of his alleged prototype.

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