This writing is from the book of Doubleday staff officer George F. Noyes – getting near the end of his book and his service time. As I had written in a recent post, Doubleday had moved on very recently to a new command in another division, but Noyes remained with the 1st Division of the 1st Corps.
He begins by talking about breaking camp on the 20th of December: “…we struck tents, and by noon the division was on the march. If I may judge from my own observation and the opinions of brigade commanders, the men were never in better spirits, never more ready to do their whole duty. They marched forward well knowing that another attempt to cross the Rappahannock and to attack the enemy was before them, and everybody was willing to lend his best help to secure, this time, an entire success. But about 4 P.M. it began to rain; not a gentle shower which lays the dust, and is rather refreshing than disagreeable, but a cold, driving storm, which, aided by the gale, penetrated the clothing and cut the faces of the men as they staggered on. The deep-cut Virginia roads became in two hours quagmires, through which artillery and wagon-trains were with difficulty dragged at the rate of a mile an hour.
It was after dark when we reached Stoneman’s Switch on the railroad, near which the brigades were bivouacked in the woods, made fires, and sought a watery repose. By the light of lanterns we pitched a couple of tents on a bleak and exposed plateau for division headquarters, where at every step we sank deeply into the mire. For at least half an hour our patient cook sought to work out a rather difficult problem, viz., how to make a fire of green wood in a mud puddle out in a driving rain. Fire and water were here brought into fierce opposition, but fire finally got the best of it, and we were soon standing in the mud around a table in the general’s tent, supping on coffee, canned meats, and hard bread. The large office-tent had been put up as a common bedchamber for the staff; our cots were brought in, and, when put up, looked like islands of refuge surrounded by water. My servant had located mine in one corner; beside it was a lake growing gradually larger; a gentle rivulet meandered through the middle of the tent. The scenery was peculiar, though not picturesque. How to get one’s boots off, and where to leave them, except in a mud-puddle, was the first question. Some of the staff immediately went to work digging trenches and canals for drainage purposes; and having, in the mean time, gotten into my bed as into a bag, lest the wind, now eddying under and through our canvas walls, should tear away my blankets, I looked out from the top, considerably interested in these new experiments in hydraulics. Our cots sank down, of course, into the mud; but, as long as they did not float off, we were safe.
Only one trouble now disturbed us. The storm had evidently determined that our canvas roof should not stand; the ground was too wet to hold the tent-pins securely, and the whole affair was now swaying from side to side like a balloon impatient to be off on its aerial travels. As I was in the windward corner, my sleep was agreeably diversified by being roused several times to grasp the fluttering canvas, and scream for the guard to pin it once more down. At last, about three in the morning, with one wild yell of triumph, the eddying storm tore up our tenement, sent its frail rafters clattering about our ears, and carried it off bodily in its arms, leaving us delightfully exposed, out on a naked hill-side, to the pitiless tempest. At first I resolved to remain in my bag Unfortunately, it opened the wrong way, affording free entrance to the rain and wind, which rushed in so desperately as to compel me to leave. Rising, I groped my way to the general’s tent, which had long since lost shape and symmetry, and was flapping about like a ship’s topsails in a calm. He was sleeping so comfortably that I did not disturb him, but, after putting in a pin or two more to restrain his bedchamber from flying away, I went into the orderlies’ tent, where we passed the rest of the night in trying to keep our feet as much as possible out of the mud.
On the whole, this was a very proper introduction to our campaign in the mud. Very early next morning, after a cold and hurried breakfast, the troops began to wade on to glory. The rain still deluged the earth, the usual mud-holes became miniature lakes; to get the pontoons, the artillery, and the ammunition wagons along was next to impossible. It was painfully evident that, to succeed in this movement, our men and our horses ought to have been made web-footed. After an aquatic excursion of about five miles, the division reached at 3 P.M. our stopping-place for the night; but the batteries were still plowing up the mud in the rear, and did not get up until the next day. The whole country about us was full of troops; but the main supply trains of the entire army had been left behind at their old parks, our own being in charge of the lieutenant who so handsomely brought off the pickets after the late battle. The men had time to build for themselves rustic dens and huge camp-fires before night shut in, while the general and staff bivouacked on the lower floor of a comfortable roadside house. That night our bedchamber did not blow away.
Thursday, January 22nd. The division remained today quietly in the mud, but I passed most of it in the saddle, having to retrace my steps on the old business. It was a most slow, uncomfortable, and splashy ride, out of which my horse and I came looking more like an equestrian statue done in clay than like living beings. Shipwrecked wagons, dead and dying mules and horses, pontoons stuck in the mud, guns dragged along by doubling up their usual teams, a few regiments on their dismal march, and mud-encased staff officers like myself filled the roads, and imparted a doleful look to the whole picture. It was on this day that some facetious rebels erected, on the opposite side of the river, for the delectation of our pickets, a signboard with the legend, “Burnside stuck in the mud.” …
… Very early next morning we were on our return. The men were anxious to secure their old huts and articles of comfort, and marched through the mud as I never saw men march before. As we once more erected our canvas houses on the well-known ridge, the sun burst forth from the clouds, its first greeting – since we commenced our ill-starred enterprise. And so ended the celebrated campaign in the mud.”
As I’ve written before, I’ve read few people who could so colorfully write a story as well as George Noyes! Come back tomorrow for a similar story from roughly the same location of Mud March experiences.