Recollections of the Civil War
...experiences of a Melrose boy from enlistment to Andersonville
by William Riley
This article was written by William Riley, who fought in the Civil War from August 1861 until December, 1864 when he was released from Andersonville Prison. His brother, James, was captured in Virginia and died in Libby Prison. This account was dictated to William's daughter, Marguerite, about 1902. Both gentlemen -- Cornelius Casey, who has written a separate account of his experiences, and William Riley -- felt that they could not repeat the more horrifying stories of what they had encountered in the battles and, especially, in the prison camp, to a young lady like Marguerite.
At the breaking out of the Civil War I lived in Melrose and, of course, got the war fever as soon as anybody else. Being so young, it was difficult to enlist, not having reached the age of eighteen. I made several attempts to enlist with the men that were going out, because I wanted to go with those I was acquainted with. At that time there were so many who wanted to enlist that they only took the best that the could find. I began to think that Uncle Sam didn't want me anyway, I had been refused so many times. Finally, one morning I left home, not letting anybody know where I was going, but my mother surmised I would enlist, so she sent my stepfather (John Heaton) after me to bring me home. Not having my car fare, I walked to Boston, and walking along towards Somerville a train passed me and who should I see on the back platform but my stepfather. I ducked down behind some brush beside the track and he was so busy watching some men who were mowing that he didn't see me, so I walked on into Boston.
Going up Portland Street on my way to the Common, I stopped at the corner of Sudbury Street and saw a sign, "Wanted for the U.S. Army." I stood and looked for a minute, and a Sergeant standing in the doorway said, "Do you want to enlist?" and I said, "Yes." He told me to go in, so I did and saw the officer and he asked me how old I was. I hesitated for a minute, and he said, "You are 21, aren't you?", and I said, "Yes." After reading the Articles of War, I was duly enlisted for three years, the 13th day of August 1861 in the llth U. S. Infantry. In about an hour, I was housed in Fort Independence, Boston Harbor. We stayed there until October doing what they called garrison duty, that is, drilling and doing guard duty.
About that time we were ordered south to Perryville, Maryland, which is directly opposite Havre de Grace on the Susquehanna River. This place was used for breaking in mules for the army so we had a great deal of duty to do, as the teamsters there, who were not enlisted men, were very riotous.
There were six companies of us and we drilled and did guard duty through the winter. About the first of April, 1862, we started for the front under command of Major Delancey Floyd Jones. The rebels were at Manassas at the time and we were directed that way. By the time we got there we found that the enemy had evacuated and fallen back to Richmond.
We stayed there about a week and were called back to Alexandria to begin the Peninsula Campaign under General McLellan. We arrived at Fortress Monroe the day after the celebrated battle of the Merrimac and Monitor. We started up towards Yorktown through Hampton, passed through Big Bethel, where General Butler had his famous battle. We arrived at Yorktown and we met no opposition from the enemy on the way there. We expected every day that an attack in force would be made on the place, but they seemed to know that we could not take the place by storm, and the general in command made up his mind that he would have to force them out of it by a regular siege. Then began the work, digging a trench by night, and drilling day times. We continued for about four weeks, and when we finally got ready to storm the place, lo and behold! the enemy had evacuated.
There was a soldier in my Company found asleep at his post, and he was put in the Guardhouse, tried by a court martial and sentenced to serve five years in the penitentiary at Washington. In expectation of moving, it was hard to spare any of the officers for escort to Washington, and it was decided that a non-commissioned officer and a private should be the two who should escort him to Washington. I was the private from Company A, and the Corporal was from Company B. We started with our prisoner by boat to Baltimore and from there to Washington and handed him over to the penitentiary.
It happened that my second Lieutenant, whose name was Bates, father was Attorney General in President Lincoln's Cabinet. The Lieutenant gave us a message to his father, and in that way I was introduced to the Attorney General in President Lincoln's Cabinet.
We started back the next day to join the army. When we landed at Yorktown we found that the whole army had moved forward after the enemy, so we had nothing to do but tramp after them until we caught up, which we did at Williamsburg about 12 miles from Yorktown, after the battle had been fought there two days before. We joined our regiment and marched with it up towards the Chickahominy, resting at Whitehouse Landing for a day. When we got to the Chickahominy, we went into camp, which we named Camp Lovell. We stayed there about a month doing picket duty mostly.
Dictated by William Riley to his daughter, Marguerite Riley.
On the Chickahominy we were on one side of the river and the rebels were on the other. A detail used to go out for three days at a time. We would exchange shots occasionally, but not so often as I have seen them do. I happened to be on picket there on the 26th of June.
Along in the evening before dark we heard a tremendous firing up above us towards Mechanicsville, which proved to be the opening of the Seven Days Fight before Richmond. We were very much disturbed that night on account of the firing which was more or less during the night. The next morning we had orders to fall in and join our commands. It unfortunately happened that our three days on picket was up that morning. Consequently we had no rations, and when we joined the regiment on the battlefield at Gains' Mill, I was entirely out of rations, while the regiment before they broke camp were supplied with three days rations. We formed there in support of a battery of artillery laying behind it most of the day. This battle was one of the heaviest for the forces engaged during the whole war. The 5th Corps, to which I belonged, lost in this battle, according to history, about 9,000 men.
A short time after we took our position there was a Battery Wagon belonging to some Artillery driving by on the jump. It was loaded with what looked like knapsacks. As it was passing our front, it jounced considerably and a knapsack fell off. I thought it was just my chance to get some rations so I jumped up and made a bee-line, and captured the haversack. On examination I found that it contained coffee and sugar but no hard tack, so I had to do the best I could and trade with some of the boys, coffee and sugar for hard tack.
The next day we went across the Chickahominy on our retreat towards Harrison's Landing. There was a good deal of fighting during the seven days. About the first of July, the 5th Corps took a position at Malvern Hill and waited there for an attack from the rebels, which began about four o'clock in the afternoon and it was hot and heavy until dark. The rebels were repulsed handsomely at all points.
The next morning we started for Harrison's Landing and it was about the toughest march you could imagine, mud and slush up to your necks wherever you went. At last we reached the Landing and went into Camp. We lost our clothes and knapsacks by order of the Commanding Officer, when he told us to pile them on Malvern Hill. We were unable to get them again. We were in need of clothes when we got to the Landing. In about a week the Government issued clothes for those we lost.
About the 15th of August we broke Camp and started down the Peninsula towards Newport News, at which we arrived the next day to take shipping for Aqua Creek, and started for Fredericksburg. We found out at this time that we were going to reinforce General Pope. After a good deal of marching and countermarching, we finally got to the front, and there was a great deal of fighting going on around that place and it was hard to tell just where the enemy was and where our men were.
The 30th of August, 1862, we finally arrived on the Battlefield of Bull Run, where we had some pretty hard fighting. My Company lost three men killed and five were wounded. As we could not hold our ground we fell back towards Centerville, marching all night, and arrived at Fairfax Courthouse the next day, about as demoralized a set of men as anyone could see.
Just at this time our old Commander, General McLellan, came to meet us, as he had been appointed Commander of the Army again. We heard that General Lee had crossed over into Maryland and we started to meet him. We travelled all the time. When we got to South Mountain we had quite a battle there. General Reno of the 9th Corps was killed at this place. We kept on until we came to Antietam Creek, where we found the enemy ready for battle. September 17th, the battle of Antietam was fought, which for one day's battle was considered the hardest battle of the war. As history gives it, about thirteen to fourteen thousand were killed and wounded. General Lee fell back, however, crossed the Potomac and we waited quite a while to get clothes and shoes. After we were supplied we started after Lee again, crossed the Potomac at Harper's Ferry, up through the Shenandoah Valley until we got to Warrenton. There one evening on dress parade, the general order was read, relieving General McLellan and appointing General Burnside to command the army. All the soldiers felt sorry to lose General McLellan. He seemed to have the good will of the whole army.
We lay before Fredericksburg for about three weeks, watching the enemy fortifying their position while we were drilling and eating hard tack. About the 13th of December, General Burnside concluded that he would cross over and storm their position at Fredericksburg. The battle began the next morning and it was about the worst place to attack that ever was. The men were sent against the stonewall, which was about all they could see, while the rebels behind them poured shot as fast as they came up. The men got discouraged as they could see no chance of success. The night of the 13th my regiment was sent out to occupy the front line. We took our position about midnight and stayed there the whole of the 14th, with a good deal of firing back and forth. About four o'clock I received a bullet through my left thigh, which ended my connection with the army for some time. I was brought to Washington, put in a hospital with thousands of others. There I was made as comfortable as possible. After three months in the hospital, I was considered strong enough to receive a sixty day furlough to come home. So I started for Melrose, Massachusetts, and was very glad of the chance to come home. After my furlough was up, I reported at the headquarters of my regiment, which was Fort Independence, Boston Harbor. I stayed there doing garrison duty and drilling.
About this time the riot broke out in Boston on account of the draft, and we were called up from the fort to preserve order, and as far as I was concerned I would rather have been in Virginia facing the rebels. It was too near home to do any real shooting or killing. It didn't seem like war to me and I was glad when order was restored in the city.
After all was quieted down there was a regiment of troops assembled on Boston Common to be sworn into the U. S. Service. They enlisted with the understanding that they should receive a bounty of $300 before being sworn into the service. They were going to be sent off without having been paid this bounty and the men rebelled against it. There was a great deal of confusion and disorder amongst them. Finally, the Colonel had occasion (or whether he did or not) to shoot one of the men with his revolver. Then everything was all mixed up. They arrested ten of the ringleaders. They were court martialed and sentenced to be shot. One day when the boat came down to the landing at the Fort, they had these ten men on board to be delivered there. After about a week, while they were there, a reprieve came for nine of the men and they had a lighter punishment. The man who was the smartest was a Sergeant whose name was Lynch. His sentence was approved by the General in command of the department and signed by President lincoln. He was placed in close confinement for about a week. Then he was taken out one morning, a firing party detailed, and unfortunately I happened to be one of that party, a position which I didn't want by any means. Still, I had to obey orders. It was about the worst feeling I ever had in my life to fire at that man. There were twelve of us lined up, all with a loaded rifle, except one which had a blank cartridge. None of us knew who had the blank. We were placed thirty feet from him and it was hard to miss him. He was a brave man and spoke a few words to us before we had orders to fire. He said, "Men, I know you have to do your duty. Take as deliberate aim as you can." The order was given, ready, aim, fire, and the poor man had nine bullet holes through his heart.
About the last of September, 1863, we started for the front again, about 200 recruits and about 300 conscripts and bounty jumpers. We were to guard them until we got to Washington. Everything went along all right until we got to New York, then the bounty jumpers got very restless and they wanted to desert very badly. owever, we got on the train, all hands on board, and the next stopping place was Philadelphia, where we stopped for about one-half hour. Then we started for Baltimore. I was detailed as guard outside one of the doors of the train and, as it was speeding along pretty lively, I got tired of standing on my feet so long so I thought I would try to sit on the brake. I placed my gun against the car while I jumped up on the brake, and just then the car gave a jerk around a curve and before I knew it my gun, fixed bayonet had fallen off the car before I could get time to grab it. I immediately reported to the officer that my gun had fallen off the car and he said, "You are a d--- pretty fellow to lose your gun." I went outside, sat down, until we got to Washington. He said, "You are out $14, as you will have to buy a new gun."
We landed at Washington in the evening, and we were going to stay there until the next day. As soon as we got off the car, there was a regiment assembled there. Their guns were stacked and I noticed them, and I thought to myself that perhaps I might get a gun. There is always a loose gun on every stack. About 12 o'clock that night I got up, went outside, examined the line of guns and kept my eye on the sentinel, who was marching up and down. While he was at the further end of the line of guns, I crawled towards the other and took the loose gun from one of the stacks and came back to my quarters and nobody knew anything about it.
The next morning we fell into line, marching on to Alexandria, and the officer looking over his men, noticed me with a gun on my shoulder and he said, "Riley, where did you get that gun?" I told him that I found it. I didn't feel like paying for a gun when there were so many lying around in different places.
The last of October we marched through Alexandria and along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad until we came to the Rappahannock Station, where the army then was. We joined the different Companies to which we belonged. I found a great change in the arrangement since the last time I was with them. A Company to which I belonged having been reduced in numbers and they were consolidated into other Companies. I was put into Company F and stayed there until I was discharged. General Meade had command of the army at that time and with filling and backing with General Lee, each trying to get the best position for the battle, we were marching and countermarching until we were completely tuckered out.
About the middle of November '63, we started for the Mine Run, a position which Lee held, and which was well fortified, as he usually was when we wnt to assault his position. Everything was ready for an attack about the last of November. The position was reconnoitred by our engineers who pronounced it very strong, but thought we might break through them at some place. It was very cold there at this time and we were allowed to build no fires but had orders to fall into line about 3 o'clock in the morning. My regiment was in the front line of battle, right behind the skirmishers. The signal for attack was to be the firing of a cannon, and the boys were pretty blue when daylight appeared and they saw what they were up against. So we waited for the signal and about 8 o'clock it was rumored that there was going to be an attack as some of our leading Generals expressed an opinion that he could not take the position in his front. That evening we started our retreat back towards the River, marched all night, and the next morning we crossed the River. That ended our Mine Run Campaign.
We went into camp along the Orange and Alexandria Railroad at a place called Bealton, and started to build Winter Quarters for ourselves as we knew there would be no more campaigning before Spring. We got them partly built, working hard at them, when we got orders to break camp and take cars for Alexandria, where we were issued tents for our Winter Quarters. There we stayed during the Winters of 163 and 164 doing guard duty on the trains that ran between the Alexandria and Brandy Stations, which was the headquarters of the Army at that time. We enjoyed ourselves very well, had plenty to eat, etc., until about the last of May. We heard then that we had a new Commander, General U. S. Grant, and from what we had heard we thought that there would be something doing. May 3rd we broke camp and started to find Lee again. We crossed the Rapidan on the morning of the 5th and marched about a mile when we met the rebel skirmishers and half were held in reserve. I was in the reserve and we followed the skirmishers as well as we could which was very difficult to do, on account of the underbrush, briars, etc. We tried our best to keep up with them and the first thing we knew there was a line of rebel guns pointed at us and we were told to surrender. Every man turned as quick as he could and started for the rear and I can tell you there was some music behind us. We joined the regiment and the skirmishers joined us later. There was very heavy fighting along the line all day and I honestly think that most of the soldiers thought that we would recross the river as most of the men were used to doing. However, we had a General whose motto was to advance, so we marched all that night towards what they called Spotsylvania, and we took position at a place called Laurel Hill where we found the enemy posted as usual in our front. There was quite a severe battle fought there. The next stand that they made was Spotsylvania, where there was another big battle fought on the 12th of May, in which we lost one of our leading generals, General Sedgewick. Any soldier who was not in a campaign under General Grant did not know what real fighting was. It was march and fight day and night. We next advanced towards North Anna, and it was surprising how the rebels allowed us to cross these rivers without more opposition. We crossed the river about 5 o'clock that afternoon and marched for a quarter of a mile, and then came upon the enemy again, and attacked immediately, and as usual, it was give and take. We stayed there two days.
The next place we met them was at Bethesda Church which is part of Cold Harbor. This was about the 2nd of June, and it was one of the worst battles Grant ever fought. He says in his memoirs, "If I fought this battle over again, I would make some changes." We had built two lines of breastworks as we most always did when we came upon the enemy, and we felt that we could take care of anything that came up in our front. About 4 o'clock in the afternoon, there was a heavy assault made on our right which we did not think much about at the time, but pretty soon we saw our Division Commander jump on his horse and ride away as if something had happened. About that time I began to feel rather skittish as I didn't want to be taken prisoner and I wanted to get away from there. However, my company held the breastworks. I told Sergeant Meade that I would not stay any longer as the regiment had fallen back. He wanted me to, but I didn't, and so I fell back to our second line, supposing that my regiment was formed there, when looking under the underbrush, lo and behold! I saw a line of Johnnies there. I instantly knew that the game was up and a couple of rebels said to me, "Hello, Yank, you will have to come along with us," and I had nothing to say. This ended my campaign with the Army of the Potomac.
They took me to the rear and there I found that fifteen of my company had been captured in the breastworks after I left. We slept on the field that night, and the next morning we marched to General Lee's headquarters, which was about a mile. There we were drawn up in line, about three hundred of us. We unslung our knapsacks and threw them on the ground with our haversacks and the rebel officers went through them and took what they liked. They took all of our coffee and sugar, and our blankets and whatever else they took a fancy to. This was all done in the presence of General Lee. Taking a soldier's blanket and exposing him to that kind of weather was killing him by inches. We took up our march towards Richmond, which was about eight miles distant. There was quite a crowd in the streets to see us marching along. Some of the women and boys would call out, "Hello, Yank, you'll get no sugar in your coffee, now."
They put us in a tobacco warehouse called the Pemberton Building and we stayed there for about two weeks, living on a little corn bread and some pea soup. They fed us twice a day. In this place they again searched us for what they called arms, such as pistols, etc., and they really wanted to take any valuables they could find on us.
About the 15th of June they took us out and marched us to a railroad station, and when boarding the cars they gave us a little piece of cornbread as a days' rations, and it had to last us three days. We didn't know where we were going and didn't care much. We finally started and rode night and day in box cars, about ninty men in a car. There was no room to lie down or even to sit down. They allowed us to get off the car once to stretch our legs for about two hours. We went through Salisbury, North Carolina, and our next stop was at Columbia, South Carolina. They fed us again there. We started again and after a day and night we came to Andersonville, Georgia, which was one of the worst prisons in the whole confeder acy. We were counted off in detachments and sent inside the stockade.
The prison was enclosed by a high fence made of logs set end-ways in the ground close together. We had nobody to tell us of any regulations about it and it seemed that it was "each man for himself" in that place. We asked some of the old prisoners and they told us wherever we could get space enough to lie down was our property. We did finally get a place which was ours, and we had to back it up with our fists if it became necessary. In this way we got along from day to day. Prisoners were coming every three or four days, which, of course, made it more crowded all the time. They fed us once a day here. They would feed us on mush mostly. A double mule cart would drive into the camp with a couple of barrels of mush in it with no salt, which was about the most tasteless food anybody could eat. Each Sergeant would draw rations for his squad of ninety men. They would deal it out as equally as they could. We did nothing from day to day but plan an escape and try to keep clean. Very soon we began to be affected with what they called scurvey, which is caused by having no salt or vegetables. The flesh would get black and all drawn up so that the men couldn't stand up straight.
About the first of August there was quite a batch of General Sherman's men got in there and they were allowed to bring their haversacks with them. They were not in there very long before there was an exchange between General Hood and General Sherman for 1,000 fighting men to go back into the ranks again.
In the little time they were in there some of the men were taken sick and the night of the exchange my bunkey, Sergeant Meade, thought he would try to get out with them. He found that one of the Sergeants was sick and he thought he would try to take his place and in that way get out. When it was time to go out, the names were called and each man as he passed out gave his name, regiment, and state, and when this Sergeant's name was called, Sergeant Meade answered, giving his name, regiment, and state, and passed out. I told him I didn't think he could do it but he said he was going to try anyway. I didn't see him again until after the war, and then he told me how he got out.
About the first of October they issued an order that we were going to be exchanged and they were going to take us to Savannah. We were very glad to get out of there, no matter where we were going. They put us on board cars with one days' rations and we started for Savannah, supposing we were going on board our own ships, when the first thing we knew in marching through the streets we ran into another stockade. Then we knew how much truth there was in what they told us. I suppose they told us that so that the men would not try to escape. hey marched us inside the stockade again in Savannah which was about like the other. We stayed there for about two weeks and were taken out again. It was said that the citizens protested against keeping us there on account of disease spreading. They took us halfway back towards Andersonville to a place called Mellin, where there was another stockade. This was a new place and it was refreshing to get into the new woods. Our food was just about the same wherever we went, corn meal and mush. It was corn all the time and not half enough of that. We stayed there until about the last of November, 1864, when there was about 10,000 prisoners to be parolled, all sick and wounded. Myself being among the number, as I could not walk at all with the scurvey. When I moved, I had to do so on my hands and knees.
So the day came and we were called out just as we were at Andersonville, name and regiment given. They were to go one thousand a day and fortunately I happened to be one of the first thousand. Then we didn't believe what they told us unti we say our vessels in Savannah Harbor. Then we believed we were going to be sent home.
That flag was the grandest sight I ever saw in my life. The Stars and Stripes. Each man was furnished with a new uniform as he went aboard the boat and the old clothes were thrown into the Savannah River.
In about a day and night sailing we arrived at Annapolis where we had a good bath, which we needed very much.
My time having expired four months before, I immediately looked for my discharge, to come home to Melrose, which I got in a very few days, on December 17th, 1864.