The Sacred Soil of Virginia (March 30, 1862)

sunday_mercury_title_1865[Special Correspondence of the Sunday Mercury.]


Camp Tennally, Washington, D. C., March 23.

Anxiety to March — Orders Issued — Affection of the Soldiers for their Colonel — Crossing the Chain-Bridge — A Halt — Heavy Rains — Rumors of New Movements — Back Again in the Old Camp.

After a hard week’s march to the sacred soil of Virginia, thank God! we are in our old camp again. It may be sacred for some, but I would rather be in Tennallytown, as it is bad enough, God knows, as the mud answers for bootjacks. I will give you a sketch of our march, as it is no harm, after the march is over for the present. On the eve of March 9th, the boys got orders to march on the 10th. We also got orders to carry four day’s rations in our haversacks. On the morning of the 10th, everything was in readiness; but, as is usually our luck, it rained; however, the boys were so anxious to go, that the rain did not mar their feelings. But there was one thing that cast a gloom over the whole regiment, and that was when we heard that our colonel (Riker) was not going with us. We were formed in line-of-battle  on the parade-ground, and cheer after cheer rent the air for Riker. It was feared at one time that the regiment would not leave the ground without the colonel; but as the major (Dayton) rode along the lines, he explained to us the reason why we could not have the colonel with us. He told us that the colonel would follow us the next day; and, as the major was going with us, it made things look somewhat brighter. Although the regiment moved off, there was still some wanting, and that something was our gallant colonel. It was evident that, if we had to fight, we would fight better with Colonel Riker at our head; but if we had to fight without him, we would leave our mark on the battle-field as well as the rest of the regiments in the army, and I hope the day is not far off when we will prove it to your readers and yourselves.

I will now return to our march. We moved off at 10 o’clock a. m., with the Fifty fifth Regiment, N. Y. S. M., in advance of the brigade. We took the Chain-Bridge road from Tennallytown, and arrived at the bridge at 1 o’clock. We crossed the bridge, and marched to Langley, where we halted about an hour, and then marched about two miles further to a place called Prospect Hill. We were ordered to halt there for the night. We here lay down to have rest. Morning came, but no orders to march. Another and another morning came, and no order; the boys began to think that we had reached our destination; but on the morning of the 15th, the assembly beat, and the whole division moved toward Chain-Bridge again.  When we got about two miles form the bridge, we were ordered to halt, and night came on, and, as it is our luck, rain came with it. We got orders to do the best we could for that night, as it was about the last night that we would be out from under cover, for we were going on gunboats. This cheered the boys up a little. There was a great demand for sleep, but rain spoiled the sales, as it seemed to have it all its own way. The rain came down heavy all night steady, as if it was designed to do us harm. The fires would not burn, and it seemed that daylight would never appear. About 7 a. m., on the 16th, the sun made its appearance, and everything appeared was bright again. About 9 o’clock, we got orders to form a line of march, and orders came that we were going back to our old camp at Tennallytown, and it cast a gloom over the whole regiment. As we have had so many orders to march, and, when we were ready, they would be again countermanded, the boys give up all hopes of ever leaving Tennallytown.

We are at present under marching orders, with three days’ rations, uncooked and packed, and three days’ cooked, to be kept in haversacks. If we ever leave, it will be the best thing that ever happened. Nothing would please the boys more than to enter the field of action; and if they ever do, with Colonel Riker and Major Dayton (better known as little Put) at their head, you may rest assured that they will leave their mark.

Yours,           M. C., Fifth Ward 

Letter to the Sunday Mercury, March 30, 1862 

J Tierney’s note: The writer who identifies himself only as “M. C., Fifth Ward,” (one assumes he was a resident of New York City’s Fifth Ward which adjoined the notorious Sixth and was bounded roughly by the Hudson River to the East, Reade Street to the South, Broadway to the East and Canal Street to the North) gives a slightly irreverent but detailed account of the Advance on Manassas by Keyes’ division between March 10 and 16, 1862. Checking against accounts of the same movement in both De Trobriand’s Four Years with the Army of the Potomac and Penrose Mark’s history of the 93rd Pennsylvania, Red: White: and Blue Badge, shows that this appears to be a very accurate description of the Advance on Manassas. In so far as the chronology is concerned it is actually more accurate than Mark’s version of the event which contains clear calendar errors.

A similar account by Sergeant Robert F. Beasley of the division’s Advance on Manassas had appeared in the Sunday Mercury a week prior but it did not contain the level of detail which this letter does.

Identifying the writer is a little difficult as there were two men in the regiment at the time this letter was written with the initials “M. C”.

One candidate for authorship is Michael Carroll who enlisted as a private into company “C” on June 1, 1861 in New York City at the age of 40. His service in the regiment seems to have been uneventful, mustering out at Petersburg, VA. on June 29, 1864.

The other is Martin Coughlan who enlisted as a private into company “A” on May 3, 1861 in New York City at the age of 22. He was promoted to corporal on December 1, 1861 but was reduced to private at some stage for reasons unknown. He was transferred to Captain David J. Nevin’s company “D” on the regiment’ s mustering-in day, July 3, 1861, meaning that he saw no actual front line service in company “A”. Coughlan deserted on October 21, 1862 at Hancock Station, VA.

It is interesting that the writer has such a high opinion of both the Colonel and the Major but fails to mention the Lieut. Colonel who, at this time, happened to be Nevin who had been promoted from the Captaincy of company “D” in October of the previous year. This oversight could be used to support an argument that the writer might have more likely been the mature Michael Carroll of company “A” than the youthful Martin Coughlan of company “D”.

One of the most interesting incidences related in this letter is the description of the near mutiny in the regiment when it was discovered that Colonel John L. Riker would be unable to lead the regiment on its march to Prospect Hill. While the writer says the reason for Riker being unable to lead his men was explained by the Major, he does not elaborate on this for the readers of the newspaper. However, we now know that at this time Riker was under arrest and facing a court-martial on several embarrassing charges including neglect of duty, creating a false muster, attempting to sell a commission, receiving illegal rebates from a sutler and keeping a woman in his quarters. Riker was found not guilty of the charges and while he did not join the regiment at Prospect Hill his was able to lead it to the Peninsula. A 140 page transcript of the case against Riker may be found in file II 813, in the Court-martial Case File, Records of the Judge Advocate General’s Office (Army) entry 15, Court-martial Case File in the National Archives Record Group 153.


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