Campaigns of a Non-Combatant

This is a memoir by George Alfred Townsend, a war correspondent with the New York Herald. You can download and read it for free here, here, or here. Only 20 years old, he traveled with the Army of the Potomac. He went to Europe in 1862 and tried to be a lecturer, but found that his views in favor of the Union weren’t popular at the time. He returned to the United States in 1864 and became a correspondent for the New York World, covering Sheridan’s Valley Campaign.

Townsend tells us of his first day as a correspondent in 1861: “The new Secretary, Mr. Edwin M. Stanton, referred me to a Mr. Sanford, ‘Military Supervisor of Army Intelligence,’ and after a brief delay I was requested to sign a parole and duplicate, specifying my loyalty to the Federal Government, and my promise to publish nothing detrimental to its interests. I was then given a circular, which stated explicitly the kind of news termed contraband, and also a printed pass, filled in with my name, age, residence, and newspaper connection. The latter enjoined upon all guards to pass me in and out of camps ; and authorized persons in Government employ to furnish me with information.” [p. 16] He then joined the army in the field, delivering his letter of introduction to Brigadier General George A. McCall. “I told him that the contents of the letter would explain my errand; but he had, meantime, relapsed into abstractedness, and winked, and warmed his hands, for at least, five minutes. At the end of that time, he read the letter very deliberately, and said that he was glad to see me in camp. He intimated, that if I was not already located, I could be provided with bed and meals at headquarters. He stated, in relation to my correspondence, that all letters sent from the Reserve Corps, must, without any reservations, be submitted to him in person. I was obliged to promise compliance, but had gloomy forebodings that the General would occupy a fortnight in the examination of each letter. He invited me to breakfast, proposed to make me acquainted with his staff, and was, in all respects, a very grave, prudent, and affable soldier. I may say, incidentally, that I adopted the device of penning a couple of gossipy epistles, the length and folly of which, so irritated General M’Call, that he released me from the penalty of submitting my compositions for the future.” [pp. 28-29]

Townsend was billeted with the quartermaster, Captain Kingwalt. “I passed the second and third days quietly in camp, writing a couple of letters, studying somewhat of fortification, and making flying visits to various officers. There was but one other Reporter with this division of the army. He represented a New York journal, and I could not but contrast his fine steed and equipments with the scanty accommodations that my provincial establishment had provided for me. His saddle was a cushioned McClellan, with spangled breast-strap and plump saddle-bags, and his bridle was adorned with a bright curb bit and twilled reins. He wore a field-glass belted about his body, and was plentifully provided with money to purchase items of news, if they were at any time difficult to obtain. I resolved inwardly to seize the first opportunity of changing establishments, so that I might be placed upon as good a footing. My relations with camp, otherwise, were of the happiest character; for the troops were State-people of mine, and, as reporters had not yet abused the privileges accorded them, my profession was held in some repute. I made the round of various ‘messes,’ and soon adopted the current dissipations of the field, —late hours, long stories, incessant smoking, and raw spirits. There were some restless minds about me, whose funds of anecdote and jest were apparently inexhaustible. I do not know that so many eccentric, adventurous, and fluent people are to be found among any other nationality of soldiers, not excepting the Irish.” [pp. 33-34]

Townsend soon accompanied Kingwalt and some other soldiers on a foraging expedition. “The Captain stopped at a spruce residence, approached by a long lane, and on knocking at the porch with his ponderous fist, a woman came timidly to the kitchen window ‘Who’s thar ?’ she said, after a moment. ‘Come out young woman,’ said the Captain, soothingly; ‘we don’t intend to murder or rob you, ma’am!’ There dropped from the doorsill into the yard, not one, but three young women, followed by a very deaf old man, who appeared to think that the Captain’s visit bore some reference to the hencoop. ‘I wish to buy for the use of the United States Government,’ said the Captain, ‘some stacks of hay and corn fodder, that lie in one of your fields.’ ‘The last hen was toted off this morning before breakfast,’ said the old man; ‘they took the turkeys yesterday, and I was obliged to kill the ducks or I shouldn’t have had anything to eat.’ Here Fogg so misdemeaned himself, as to laugh through his nose, and the man Clover appeared to be suddenly interested in something that lay in a mulberry-tree opposite. ‘I am provided with money to pay liberally for your produce, and you cannot do better than to let me take the stacks: leaving you, of course, enough for your own horses and cattle.’ Here the old man pricked up his ears, and said that he hadn’t heard of any recent battle; for his part, he had never been a politician; but thought that both parties were a little wrong; and wished that peace would return: for he was a very old man, and was sorry that folks couldn’t let quiet folks’ property alone. How far his garrulity might have betrayed him, could be conjectured only by one of the girls taking his hand and leading him submissively into the house. The eldest daughter said that the Captain might take the stacks at his own valuation, but trusted to his honor as a soldier, and as he seemed, a gentleman, to deal justly by them. There could be no crop harvested for a twelve-month, and beggary looked them in the face. I have never beheld anything more chivalrously gallant, than the sturdy old quartermaster’s attitude. He blended in tone and face the politeness of a diplomat and the gentleness of a father. They asked him to return to the house, with his officers, when he had loaded the wagons; for dinner was being prepared, and they hoped that Virginians could be hospitable, even to their enemies. As to the hay and fodder, none need be left; for the Confederates had seized their horses some months before, and driven off their cows when they retired from the neighborhood.” [pp. 36-37]

Townsend is valuable for his observations of what he saw and with whom he interacted. He entered Yorktown, Virginia with the Army of the Potomac during the Peninsula Campaign and recorded what he experienced. “I visited, in the evening, the late quarters of General Hill, a small white house with green shutters, and also the famous ‘Nelson House,’ a roomy mansion where, of old, Cornwallis slept, and where, a few days past, Jefferson Davis and General Lee had held with Magruder, and his associates, a council of war. It had been also used for hospital purposes, but some negroes were now the only occupants. The Confederates left behind them seventy spiked and shattered cannon, some powder, and a few splintered wagons; but in all material respects, their evacuation was thorough and creditable. Some deserters took the first tidings of the retreat to the astonished Federals, and they raised the national flag within the fortifications, in the gray of the morning of the 4th of May. Many negroes also escaped the vigilance of their taskmasters, and remained to welcome the victors. The fine works of Yorktown are monuments to negro labor, for they were the hewers and the diggers. Every slave-owner in Eastern Virginia was obliged to send one half of his male servants between the ages of sixteen and fifty to the Confederate camps, and they were organized into gangs and set to work. In some cases they were put to military service and made excellent sharpshooters. The last gun discharged from the town was said to have been fired by a negro.” [p. 70]

After the Battle of Hanover Courthouse, Townsend was able to talk with some confederate prisoners. “The Confederate Major was of the class referred to in polite American parlance, as a ‘blatherskite.’ He boasted after the manner of his fellow-citizens from the county of ‘Bunkum,’ but nevertheless feared and trembled, to the manifest disgust of one of the young Captains. ‘Majuh!’ said this young man, ‘what you doin’ thah! That fellow’s makin’ notes of all your slack; keep your tongue! aftah awhile you’ll tell the nombah of the feces! Don’t you s’pose he’ll prent it all?’ The Major had, in fact, been telling me how many regiments the ‘old Nawth State, suh,’ had furnished to the ‘suhvice,’ and I had the names of some thirty colonels, in order. The young Captain gave me a sketch of General Branch, and was anxious that I should publish something in extenuation of North Carolina valor. ‘We have lost mo’ men,’ said he, ‘than any otha’ Commonwealth; but these Vuhginians, whose soil, by ___! suh, we defend suh! Yes, suh! whose soil we defend; these Vuhginians, stigmatize us as cowads I We, suh I yes suh, we, that nevah wanted to leave the Union, — we cowads! Look at ou’ blood, suh, ou’ blood! That’s it, by ___! look at that! shed on every field of the ole Dominion, — killed, muhdud, captued, crippled! We cowads! I want you prent that!’ I was able to give each of the officers a drop of whiskey from my flask, and I never saw men drink so thirstily. Their hands and lips trembled as they took it, and their eyes shone like lunacy, as the hot drops sank to the cold vitals, and pricked the frozen blood. Mingling with the privates, I stirred up some native specimens of patriotism, that appeared to be in great doubt as to the causes and ends of the war. They were very much in the political condition of a short, thick, sententious man, in blue drilling breeches, who said — ‘Damn the country! What’s to be done with us?’ One person said that he enlisted for the honor of his family, that ‘fitin the American Revolution;’ and another came out to ‘hev a squint et the fightin’.’ Several were northern and foreign lads, that were working on Carolina railroads, and could not leave the section, and some labored under the impression that they were to have a ‘slice’ of land and a ‘[n-word],’ in the event of Southern independence. A few comprehended the spirit of the contest, and took up arms from principle; a few, also, declared their enmity to ‘Yankee institutions,’ and had seized the occasion to ‘polish them off,’ and ‘give them a ropein’ in;’ but many said it was ‘dull in our deestreeks, an’ the [n-words] was runnin’ away, so I thought I’ud jine the foces.’ The great mass said, that they never contemplated ‘this box,’ or ‘this fix,’ or ‘these suckemstances,’ and all wanted the war to close, that they might return to their families.” [pp. 106-107]

During George B. McClellan’s retreat to Harrison’s Landing during the Seven Days Campaign, Townsend met a farmer from New York: ” ‘You are a Northern man?’ I said, inquiringly. ‘How do you know?’ ‘There are no such dairies in Virginia; a Virginian never dipped a mug of milk after your fashion; you haven’t the Virginia inflection, and very weak Virginia principles.’ The man laughed dryly, and filled himself a cup, which he drank sedately. ‘ I reckon you are correct,’ he said; ‘pretty much correct, any way. I’m a New Yorker, from the Mohawk Valley, and I have been showing these folks how they can’t farm. If there’s anybody that farms better than I do, I want to know the man!’ He looked at the flowing water, the clean slabs and walls, the shining tins, and smacked his lips satisfactorily. I asked him if he farmed with negroes, and if the prejudices of the country affected either his social or industrial interests. He answered that he was obliged to employ negroes, as he had thrice tried the experiment of working with whites, but with ill success. ‘I would have kept ’em,’ he added, in his great voice, closing a prodigious fist, ‘but the men would not stay. I couldn’t make the neighbors respect them. There was nobody for ’em to associate with. They were looked upon as [n-words], and they got to feel it after a while. So I have had only [n-words] latterly; but I get more work from them than any other man in these parts. If there’s anybody that gets more work out of [n-words] than I do, I want to know the man!’ There was a sort of hard, hearty defiance about him, typical of his severe, angular race, and I studied his large limbs and grim, full face with curious admiration. He told me that he hired his negro hands from the surrounding slave-owners, and that he gave them premiums upon excess of work, approximating to wages. In this way they were encouraged to habits of economy, perseverance, and sprightliness. ‘I don’t own a [n-word],’ he said, ‘not one! But I don’t think a [n-word]’s much too good to be a slave. I won’t be bothered with owning ’em. And I won’t be conquered into ‘the institution.’ I said, when I commenced, that I should not buy [n-words], and I won’t buy [n-words], because I said so! As to social disadvantages, every Northern man has ’em here. They called me an abolitionist; and a fellow at the hotel in Richmond did so to my face. I knocked him into a heap, and nobody has meddled with me since.’ ‘Of course,’ he said, after a moment, ‘it won’t do to in- flame these people. These people are like my bulls, and you mustn’t shake a red stick at ’em. Besides, I’m not a fanatic. I never was. My wife’s one of these people, and I let her think as she likes. But, if there’s anybody in these parts that wants to interfere with me, I should like to know the man!’ ” [pp. 199-200]

Townsend later made his way to England, arriving in Liverpool in October of 1862, and he embarked on a speaking tour which didn’t go well for him. Disillusioned, he returned to the US in time to cover Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign. After the end of that campaign he went to the Richmond/Petersburg area, and was available at Richmond’s fall to enter the city. “The morning came; the Confederates were gone; cavalry in blue galloped up the streets; a brigade of white infantry filed after them; then came the detested negroes. Behold! the victors, the subjugators, assist to quench the flames, — and Richmond is captured, but secure! Many of the churches were open on the Sunday of April 9, 1865, and were thinly attended by the more adventurous of the citizens, with a sprinkling of soldiers and Northern civilians. Mr. Woodbridge, at the Monument Church, built on the site of a famous burnt theatre, prayed for ‘all in authority,’ and held his tongue upon dangerous topics. The First Baptist Negro Church has been occupied all the week by Massachusetts chaplains, and Northern negro preachers, who have talked the gospel of John Brown to gaping audiences of wool, white-eyeball, and ivory, telling them that the day of deliverance has come, and that they have only to possess the land which the Lord by the bayonet has given them. To-day, Mr. Allen, the regular white preacher, occupied the pulpit, and told the negroes that slavery was a divine institution, which would continue for-ever, and that the duty of every good servant was to stay at home and mind his master. Half of the enlightened Africans got up midway of the discourse and left; the rest were in doubt, and two or three black class-leaders, whom the parson had wheeled over, prayed lustily that the Lord would keep Old Virginny from new ideas and all Yankee salvations; so that in the end the population were quite tangled up, as much so as if they had read the book of Revelation. I attended Saint Paul’s, the fashionable Episcopalian church, where Lee, Davis, Memminger, and the rest had been communicants, and heard Doctor Minnegerode discourse. He was one of the Prussian refugees of 1848, and, though a hot Jacobin there, became a more bitter secessionist here. He is learned, fluent, and thoughtful, but speaks with a slight Teutonic accent. Jeff Davis’s pew was occupied by nobody, the door thereof being shut. Jeff was a very devout man, but not so much so as Lee, who made all the responses fervently, and knelt at every requirement. This church is capable of ‘seating’ fifteen hundred persons, has galleries running entirely around it, and is sustained at the roof within by composite pilasters of plaster, and at the pulpit by columns of mongrel Corinthian; the tout ensemble is very excellent; a darkey sexton gave us a pew, and there were some handsome ladies present, dark Richmond beauties, haughty and thinly clothed, with only here and there a jockey-feathered hat, or a velvet mantilla, to tell of long siege and privation.” [pp. 346-347]

The book is pleasurable to read, though he does make some errors. For example, writing about Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, Townsend writes, “He was first brought into notice at Winchester, where he fought a fierce battle with Banks, and derived the sobriquet which he has retained to the present time.” [p. 247] As we know, Jackson got his nickname at the First Battle of Bull Run, well prior to the First Battle of Winchester. Townsend does have the racial prejudices of his day, and his battle descriptions shouldn’t be considered primary sources. I can recommend this book for those who would like to see some candid observations of things and people away from the battlefield.

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