Notes from "History of the 124th Regiment NYSV"
The "Warwick Boys", as Company D of the 124th was known, served with the Army of the Potomac. This was the major Federal army in the field and in the words of Charles LaRocca, they "forged a reputation in fire and blood." This was no supply regiment or one kicking its heels in an undisputed area, but one that saw service in many of the fiercest battles of the war: At Fredricksburg; Chancellorsville, where 2/5 of the regiment was killed or wounded; Gettysburg; the Battle of the Wilderness; and Spottsylvania Courthouse.
by Charles H. Weygant
Red Diamond Edition, 1995
The following highlights and quotes are presented in recognition of the fact that few copies of this rare book are available. Reading the entire text as written by an eyewitness to the events offers far greater appreciation of the war than these few notes can, and is very much recommended. The "primary document" portions below are the indented sections in quotes, which are directly from the account written by the commanding officer.
Recruiting "The Warwick Boys"
The Civil War had already lasted a year, and for many in the North much effort, money, and human life had been sacrificed to very little effect. The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) was apparently failing in its mission of bringing the South back into the Union and complying with the abolition of slavery. Belief in the cause of the war had waned to barely a flicker, and supporters of the South's claims were heard ever louder. Then on July 1, 1862 President Lincoln called for 300,000 volunteers to sign up for "the long haul"-- three years of service to help advance the cause abolition, and to protect the North, which was now in danger of invasion from the exuberant Confederacy. A committee to raise volunteers was formed in Orange County, including John Cowdrey and Thomas Welling of Warwick. The main recruiters for Warwick were James W. Benedict and Daniel Sayer.
At first it was very difficult to find volunteers from the dispirited residents. Men were reluctant to make a commitment for three years: who would provide for their families when they were gone, and how would the pay due to the soldiers make its way back home where it would be needed? Then local activists began raising money to support needy families of those who should volunteer, and the North began to rally as the very real threat to the south made an impact. By August 23rd, the regiment was fully enlisted and organized under Captain A. Van Horne Ellis. Most of the volunteers from Warwick were organized into Company D, "The Warwick Boys", and mustered at Goshen on August 16th, 1862.
Joining the Army of the Potomac
On Thursday, August 26th, the ladies of Orange County presented the colors (flag) they had sewn to the regiment. A great crowd gathered that day at Camp Wickham in Goshen to bid farewell to the recruits, and stuff their knapsacks with extra provisions and keepsakes. After a brief wait, the regiment departed on Sept. 6-- still without arms, which had just arrived for them in New York.
"We moved through throngs of weeping ones to the depot...and at 2 PM the heavily laden train, with wild shrieks to warn away the clinging multitudes, moved off, and we were on our way to the seat of war...At every depot crowds with loyal hearts sent after us shouts of approbation, and ever and anon as our train shot along, we would catch from the sweet voices familiar notes of patriotic songs." (p. 32)
After an arduous journey of hot marches with too much weight, finding troop train connections, and sleeping on city streets, the regiment reached Washington and for the first few nights camped on Capitol Hill, among the granite blocks that were waiting to become the Capitol's north wing. (p. 34). At Washington they assisted in guarding the capitol. The troops were as yet so 'green' that they did not recognize the bugle call for "Strike Tents" when it came, and several fights erupted when more seasoned soldiers began pulling down the regimental tents. After a brief time they were ordered to join the Army of the Potomac under General McClellan, to replace troops lost at Harper's Ferry and Antietam.
The troops had their first sight of what had been a battleground in October, less than a month after the battle:
"South Mountain battle-ground was not far away, and one day several of us visited it...Arriving on the field we came to a board fence near a road. This fence was pierced full of bullet-holes; in some places they were so close together we covered seven and eight at a time with the palm of one hand...The Federal battle-line must have stood just behind this fence, for the graves of our men were thickest there; and the pieces of cracker-boxes, with the names of those who slept beneath them written, sometimes in ink, sometimes with pencil, and occasionally roughly cut in, were sticking from the ground in all directions." (p. 49)
It was a miserable, wet fall and winter in the South that year, and the troops had been sent without adequate food and shelter:
"On the 18th we pushed on again through the mud and rain, making about twelve miles, and halting, just before dark, near Hartwood church. This was in many respects the severest march we had made-- all were exhausted and as wet as the rain could make us. At nearly every halt those who wore boots pulled them off and poured water out of them...the men threw themselves on the wet ground, and had they been permitted most of them would have laid there until morning without putting up tents, building fires, or cooking any food, and not a few of them did lay in that condition until daylight." (p. 58)
The first time the Orange Blossoms came under fire was at Fredericksburg:
"About ten o'clock the sun broke through, dispelling the mist...as the sky cleared, the guns on the opposing heights opened with a terrible fury: while from the left came the crackling of musketry, which increased suddenly to heavy prolonged volleys, and ere long settled into a continuous roar that spread along the front and soon seemed to come from every direction, telling that the work of death had begun in earnest...we lay down awaiting the order to charge. But fortunately for the Orange Blossoms, it never came. Our time was not yet...All day the battle raged and the deafening roar continued; but as night came on it gradually slackened, and finally almost entirely ceased. At dusk were yet lying on the ground in front of the enemies batteries." (p. 67)
That ill-fated offensive, which Gen. Burnside pursued for many days, ended in disaster as artillery and troops mired in mud at the river. Confusion reigned as the troops eventually pulled back, having lost 13,000 men. A group of four men of Co. A. were not informed of the withdrawal, and were left at their post and trapped:
"Just after daybreak the enemy advanced a heavy line of skirmishers, and after firing two rounds we concluded to fall back to our main line; but when we got where it was, it wasn't there. Then we started for the reserve, but they too had gone, and so we made for the bridge, but that also had disappeared. At first I thought I must have fallen asleep at on my post, and was dreaming, but just then I saw several Johnnies advancing toward us, and heard one of them shout, 'Halt, you d---- Yankees, or we will blow your brains out.' I don't know what became of the others, but I was the farthest away from the gray-backs, and jumped down the river bank on which I was standing, ran half a mile up the shore, and hid in some brush...As soon as I made my appearance on this side of the river, I was arrested by some of the Second corps pickets, marched off to their corps head-quarters, and taken before the General...who ordered his provost-marshal to let me go." (p. 78)
The continued cold, wet, and lack of shelter of that action took its toll, and at its conclusion half of the 850 of the 124th needed a doctor's care. Nearly 100 were put on the sick list, many of which never returned to duty. Later on, members of the regiment attributed their survival to the inferior arms they carried-- heavy, old-fashioned rifles ("blunderbusses") which had resulted in their not being called to a charge. (p. 80)
The account notes that on January 29th, five months after enlisting, the army paymaster visited for the first time and gave the troops one and a half months of the pay due them. After Gen. Burnside was removed from command and replaced by Major-Gen. Joseph Hooker on Jan. 26th, immediate improvements to their situation were made: they withdrew from the riverside mud, went to higher ground, and made winter quarters of log cabins. After waiting the rest of the winter out in relative comfort, on April 8 President Lincoln visited to inspect the Army of the Potomac. Of all the troops assembled that day-- 40 regiments of infantry plus mules and supply personnel-- there were only three regiments that Lincoln commented on as being especially pleasing to him. The 124th was one of them.
With the spring of 1863 came renewed offensive efforts. The next major action for the 124th came at Chancellorsville:
"Looking down the road, I discovered that it was filled with moving artillery, and through the woods could be seen their advance line of infantry. At this juncture my weak line of skirmishers opened fire, but its only perceptible effect was to hasten the approach of the enemy who...hastened forward... On came the solid lines of the foe, who...were not forty yards away...the men of my two little companies came together in battle line, in front of them. Then for the first time I had visions of rebel prisons. There we stood, on the open ground, one hundred facing ten thousand. A single volley would have swept us out of existence... (I) whispered the order, 'Every man for his life.'... A moment later Sickles' artillery opened in a most furious manner, and the shells were screeching past us and crashing into the woods beyond... We were caught between the lines, and the terrible Sunday morning's battle of Chancellorsville burst over us. Turn right or left, grim death stared at us. The heavens above seemed filled with hot-breathed, shrieking demons. Behind us was an advancing sheet of flame... The knoll beneath us shook like a thing of life. The air was deadened by the continuous booming of guns, which covered the high ground all about us, and ceased not to eject the huge doses of powder and iron which begrimed cannoneers continually rammed down their black, gaping throats. Thick, stifling clouds of smoke rolled back over us, filled with fragments of bursting shells which tore up the ground all around and among us, mangling the bodies of the gallant men of the old Third corps who almost covered it, and whose dying groans mingled in horrid discord with the piteous whinnyings of wounded beasts and the shrill shouts of those who were conducting the fight. Soon whistling bullets from the desperate foe added new horrors to the scene... I heard amid the tumult, in the familiar words and voice of Ellis, the order, "Forward, my tulips," and saw moving away through the smoke, our regimental colors."
Several times during that battle the regimental flag of the Orange Blossoms was the last to be seen at the fore, rallying and holding, with Confederate troops in front and on either side, until they were forced to fall back. At dusk the battle for the Union under Hooker was nearly done, as the 124th passed another sleepless night as pickets for the fresh troops resting in the woods at their rear. Monday night they were permitted to sleep for a few hours. During the last parts of this conflict, the "Warwick Boys" had become so used to the battlefield that whether one lived or died seemed of no consequence:
"...Captain Benedict, of Warwick, Company D, was reclining on his elbow; a discharge of grape (shot), about a bucketful, ploughed up the ground and threw some on him; he looked around and muttered something, I did not hear what; but he would have moved more if a hen in scratching had thrown a little dirt on him." p. 131
The conflict was far from over at the end of Chancellorsville, and the 124th found themselves on a forced march to Gettysburg, arriving on the eve of that great battle of July 1, 1863. By this time in the war of the over 850 Orange Blossoms which set out with fanfare from Goshen, only about 240 remained in the regiment. (p. 172). The second day of the battle found them on a hill, facing down upon the enemy:
"Presently Ellis by a simple nod gives the desired permission, at which Cromwell waves his sword twice above his head, makes a lunge forward, shouts the charge, and putting spurs to his horse, dashes forward through the lines. The men cease firing for a minute and with ready bayonets rush after him. Ellis sits still in his saddle and looks on as if in proud admiration of both his loved Major and gallant sons of Orange, until the regiment is fairly under way, and then rushes with them into the thickest of the fray.
The conflict at this point defies description. Roaring cannon, crashing riflery, screeching shots, bursting shells, hissing bullets, cheers, shouts, shrieks and groans were the notes of the song of death which greeted the grim reaper, as with mighty sweeps he leveled down the richest field of scarlet human grain ever garnered on this continent.
The enemy's line, unable to withstand our fierce onset, broke and fled, and Cromwell--his noble face flushed with victory, and his extended right arm waving his flashing sabre--uttered a shout of triumph. But is had barely escaped his lips when the second line of the foe poured into us a terrible fire which seemed in an instant to bring down a full quarter of our number.
Once more we hear our loved Cromwell's shout, and once again we see, amid the fire and smoke, his noble form and flashing blade; but the next instant his brave heart is pierced by a rebel bullet, his right arm drops powerless, his lifeless body falls backward from his saddle...Again the onset of Orange County's sons becomes irresistible, and the second line of the foe wavers and falls back; but another and solid line takes its place, whose fresh fire falls with frightful effect on our now skeleton ranks. So terrible is it that two-thirds of the artillerymen in our rear are either killed or wounded and the balance driven from their guns, by the shells and bullets which pass over and through our line.
Lieutenant Colonel Cummins, with the experience and eye of an old soldier, realizes that a skirmish line without reserves, be the men who compose it never so brave, must eventually be swept away by a continually renewed solid battle line, and unwilling the regiment should be disgraced by the loss of guns it is expected by protect, attempts to get them started to the rear, and while in the act is so badly injured by a shell...that he is carried from the field. But our brave Ellis yet remains, now seen in bold relief, now lost amid the clouds of powder smoke. A moment longer the central figure, he directs his regiment. Again the rebel line begins to waver and we see his proud form rise in his stirrups; his long sharp sword is extended upward, a half uttered order escapes his lips, when suddenly his trusty blade falls point downward, his chin drops on his breast, and his body with a weave pitches forward, head foremost among the rocks; at which his wounded beast rears and with a mad plunge dashes away, staggering blinkly through the ranks of the foe, who is now giving ground again, firing wildly as he goes. But we are too weak to follow him, yet with desperate effort the Orange Blossoms struggle forward and gather up such as they may of the wounded, and with them and the bodies of Ellis and Cromwell, we fall slowly and mournfully back to the main line, from which we should never have advanced--and there reform our shattered bleeding ranks, and prepare to receive as best we may the next onset of the foe. Three times we have beaten him back, but now we are exhausted." (p.176-78)
A short time later, the 124th pulled back to the woods to rest and new reinforcements arrived to take up their position and continue the conflict. Finally, after a loss of nearly 40,000 Union and Confederate soldiers, the report came in that the North had won.
As Lee retreated, The Warwick Boys and their regiment were among those who followed his army back to Rappahannock, encountering skirmishes along the way.
New Recruits and Later Battles
By mid July, a group from the 124th had been sent north to recruit new soldiers, as the ranks had been decimated by prior battles. Among the recruiters was G. Bertholf of Company D. The recruiters understandably had difficulty in finding volunteers, and most were never able to return to active duty with the regiment (p. 215) Eventually a number recruits were found to fill in some of the spaces left by fallen and wounded comrades. Eventually some replacements would be found to better fill the ranks. By now the 124th was a veteran force, known for its bravery, resourcefulness, and high casualty rate, and "The Warwick Boys" had become part of a grimly determined group of seasoned soldiers.
The regiment participated in numerous smaller battles, campaigns and skirmishes during the rest of the war. For almost two years after Gettysburg they marched, charged, froze, and hung grimly on. They fought in the Wilderness campaign, Spottsylvania Court House, and Petersburg. We hear of two officers of Company D, arriving at the field hospital where Weygant was being treated, after the battle of Spottsylvania Courthouse in May of 1864.
"On arriving at the hospital I found that a vanguard of wounded Orange Blossoms had preceded me, and following close after came a score or more of others. Lieutenant Houston, of Co. D., came staggering in with a bloated face, the blood running from his mouth and trickling from a hole in either cheek. He was one of the most brave, and had always been regarded as the most unassuming and quiet officer in the regiment. But now he could not talk if he would, for a bullet had passed through his face and his jaw was terribly shattered.
Upon returning from his convalescence in Newburgh in early July, a poignant scene greeted Col. Weygant:
Then came Captain Benedict of the same company, borne on a stretcher-- his swarthy complexion, which had never faded in battle, now almost fair from loss of blood. He had been shot through the hips-- the bullet entering one side and coming out at the other. There he lay as helpless as an infant; and it was the general opinion of those who saw him that he could not survive his injuries. One of his brother officers, however, naively remarked 'Oh no, old Whortleberry is too contrary to let a bullet kill him, he will come around, you will see;' and he was right. James Benedict's place as captain of his company 'D', of which he was justly proud, was not to be declared vacant while the war lasted..." [p. 331]
"On approaching near enough to see the dingy shelter tents in among the trees, I heard the shrill notes of a fife, accompanied by the tappings of a single drum; and galloping forward my eyes rested on a sight I shall never forget. Captain Travis...was holding, in honor of the day, what was intended to be a dress parade... just two months and two days before...the line consisted of upwards of three hundred and fifty cleanly clad and fresh looking men. Now there stood, drawn up before me, less than a hundred ragged, dirty, tired looking veterans, that was my regiment-- all that was left fit for duty of the fighting men of the Orange Blossoms. In the centre of their line floated the new and pretty flag which had been sent them from the ladies of Orange, just before the campaign opened. Yes, it was new and beautiful still, though its stripes were rent with shell, its field riddled with bullets, and its splintered staff wound with twine. Every star was there and it was yet borne aloft by a noble son of Orange County..." [p. 357]
In the last part of the war in Virginia, the Confederate army sought to hold its bastions of Petersburg and Richmond. The land before the besieged Petersburg took on a nightmarish quality as the Orange Blossoms and their fellow regiments sought safety in trenches and earthworks:
I wish I could give you a correct idea of the face of the earth about Petersburg, but that is impossible to me with a pen. I really believe it would cost at the present price of labor, a thousand dollars an acre to level and prepare the ground for agricultural purposes again. Immense furrows follow each other over a strip of ground nearly a mile wide, and the principal ones are about fifteen miles in length. I have seen a line of works that would reach from Newburgh to Cornwall and back (10 miles) built in a single night. This belt of earthworks is fringed with road pits which run back toward the rear, and are built in a zigzag fashion, like rail fences at the north, with the dirt thrown up on the side toward the enemy. They have been made for the protection of the [wagon] trains..."
The massive confusion of the last months is made plain by the description Weygant gives of taking refuge in a wooded area when wounded:
"The farther we went the harder it rained and the darker grew the night. Every few moments we would pass or be passed by a little band of men who, like ourselves, were wandering they knew not where. A little later a considerable body of mounted men came along, but I did not like the sound of their voices and moved out of their way. It turned out afterward that these woods were filled with the wounded men and straggles of both armies. A little farther on I heard another body of horsemen approaching, and on listening attentively recognized the voice of Captain Benedict.
The captain...was not able to walk...and by talking continually we managed to keep together (on horseback)...The rest of the party were strangers and for aught we knew half of them were Confederates..."
As the year wore on and the war stretched interminably and impossibly through another winter, the Orange Blossoms received a valuable and much treasured gift:
"About Christmas, we received from the 'Ladies of Orange' a case containing upwards of five hundred sleeping caps, which were greatly appreciated by all, not only for the reason that they added to our comfort, but because they assured us that our sacrifices and sufferings for our country were appreciated, and that we were yet kindly remembered by friends from whom many of us had been long separated." [p. 403]
A letter, indicating that the prime moving force behind the caps was Mrs. Dr. Jane, of the Village of Florida.
accompanied the gift
Victory and Home
Finally, the following spring, Petersburg and Richmond fell. The Warwick Boys were now part of force, which pursued the fleeing army of Gen. Lee. Their last engagement before Lee's surrender was at the Battle of Sailor's Creek on April 6, 1865. (p. 439)
"As wagon after wagon (of the enemy force) fell into our hands my men became fairly wild with excitement, and it was with great difficulty that I could hold back that portion of the skirmish line moving nearest the road... Occasionally the enemy's rear-guard would about face and send a volley or two toward us and every now and then one or more of my men would go down, but their comrades would only quicken their pace, yell the louder and load and fire the faster. For miles the boys moved so rapidly that I was obliged to keep my horse on a jog trot to keep up with them."
The morning of April 9th brought with it word that Grant and Lee were arranging terms for the South's surrender:
"As strange as it may seem, no one shouted, but instead many a stalwart fellow turned pale. All believed the report but yet wanted it officially confirmed...Our old commander's face for once wore a smile. Behind him cheers like the mingling din of battle settled into one continuous roar, but in his front men held their breath until they heard from him the assurance that Lee and his followers had lain down their arms. The scene in our brigade after General Meade passed was absolutely indescribable. Men shouted until they could shout no longer, the air above us was for full half and hour filled with caps, coats, blankets, and knapsacks, and when at length the excitement subsided, the men threw themselves on the ground completely exhausted." (p. 442)
The Orange Blossoms headed home triumphant, only to receive a last horrifying blow from a rebel sympathizer in the early morning hours of April 15:
"About two A.M. I was aroused from my slumbers by Travis, and, on opening my eyes, saw him standing in front of me, with a candle in one hand and a paper in the other. His face was colorless, and in a tone of voice expressive of deep anguish, he was repeating over and over again these words: 'My God! can it be, can it be!' Grasping the paper, I read: 'President Lincoln and Secretary Seward have been assassinated, and it is reported that General Grant has also been murdered."
During the following day it was confirmed that Seward would live and that Grant was safe, but the death of Lincoln made bittersweet the surrender of one after another of the posts and armies of the failing Confederacy. Finally, on Tuesday, June 13th, the Orange Blossoms, what remained of them, arrived home to Orange County on the decks of the Mary Powell:
"When the Powell reached the Cornwall dock the enthusiasm of the boys began to be stirred afresh...When the cannon on the long dock began to roar the boys involuntarily set up a shout of delight...Every place which commanded a view of the river seemed to be crowded with eager spectators. Flags were flying, bells ringing, cannon booming, innumerable handkerchiefs waving...The boys looked on all this display with undisguised delight, and gave vent to their feelings in repeated cheers." (p. 448)
It was reported in contemporary papers that day that of the original force of over 850 that had set out so gaily three years before, only 130 were marching in the regiment when it returned. (p. 452) Of the 91 "Warwick Boys" that had set out in Company D, it appears that only about 25 escaped the casualty or wounded lists; every man in the regiment who survived had been through one of the most horrifying conflicts the world has known.
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