Recollections of a Private

This is a book by Warren Lee Goss, who started out as a private in the US Engineers, was captured on the Peninsula and later exchanged, then discharged. After spending a year working as a clerk, he reenlisted and was a sergeant in the 2nd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery. You can download and read it for free here. This book is a combination of Goss’ recollections and what he had been told by other Union soldiers. While his own recollections can be regarded as primary source material, the other portions of the book are hearsay, and are not primary source material. He tells us, “The title of these papers, ‘Recollections of a Private,’ must not be read literally. In them the writer has availed himself of the reminiscences of many comrades known by him to be trustworthy. For convenience and to give a greater sense of reality to the descriptions, he has often made use of the first person in chronicling the recollections of his comrades.” [p. iv]

Those who are familiar with the Ken Burns miniseries on the Civil War will recognize this part describing the First Battle of Bull Run, which he heard from another soldier named Jim Tinkham: “The next thing I remember was the order to advance, which we did under a scattering fire; we crossed the turnpike, and ascending a little way, were halted in a depression or cut in the road which runs from Sudley’s ford. The boys were saying constantly, in great glee: ‘We’ve whipped them.’ ‘We’ll hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple-tree.’ ‘They are running.’ ‘The war is over.’ About noon there wasn’t much firing, and we were of the opinion that the enemy had all run away. There was a small wooden house on the hill, rising from the left-hand side of the road as we were going, where, we afterward heard, a Mrs. Henry, an invalid, had been killed in the engagement.” [pp. 12-13] Goss tells us of his meting a Virginia woman on the Peninsula: ” ‘Are you’n Yanks goin [sic] to interfer [sic] with our servants?’ asked she imperiously. I answered that I didn’t know, but if so, there would, doubtless, be compensation given to Union people whose negroes were liberated. I thought, from the expression of her face, that the idea of compensation was not an unfamiliar one to her. ‘What is your black girl worth?’ I inquired, curious to get an idea of the valuation of such property. ‘Thet yer?’ looking the girl over from head to foot, with the cool, calculating look which a Yankee farmer would give an ox or cow, ‘I recon IT is worth five hundred dollars.’ It is needless for me to say, the word ‘IT’ in this connection struck a Northern boy as having a business and property basis which he had not been accustomed to hearing applied to human souls and bodies.” [p. 30]

Goss tells the story of talking with another Virginia woman: “I visited one of the dwelling-houses just outside of the fortifications (if the insignificant rifle-pits could be called such) for the purpose of obtaining something more palatable than hard-tack, salt beef, or pork, which, with coffee, were the marching rations. The woman of the house was communicative, .and expressed her surprise at the great number of Yanks who had ‘come down to invade our soil.’ She said she had a son in the Confederate army, or, as she expressed it, ‘in our army,’ and then tearfully said she should tremble for her boy every time she heard of a battle. I expressed the opinion that we should go into Richmond without much fighting. ‘No!’ said she, with the emphasis of conviction, ‘you all’s will drink hot blood before you all’s get thar!’ I inquired if she knew anything about the skirmish which took place at Big Bethel. She replied by saying,  ‘Why, Major Winthrop died right in yer!’ pointing to a small sleeping-room which opened from the main room in which we were. She added, ‘When you all were fighting, Major Winthrop was way ahead and was shot; he was a brave man, but we have brave men too.’ I asked her if she knew who shot him, and she replied that a colored boy belonging to one of the officers shot him. During the engagement, the colored boy, standing by his master, saw Winthrop in advance, and said, ‘See that officer! Can I take your rifle and shoot him?’ The master assented, and the boy shot Major Winthrop. He was then brought to this house. One or two days after the fight, she said, the boy was ‘playing over yon, in that yer yard,’ pointing to the yard of a neighboring house, with his mate, when the rifle they were playing with was accidentally discharged, and the colored boy who shot Winthrop was killed.’ How old was the boy?’ I asked. ‘About forty,’ she replied. At the right of the road was an open, marshy piece of land, and it was over this Major Winthrop was leading his men when shot. The woody intervale just beyond the marshy land was occupied by the enemy’s works, which consisted of five rifle-pits, each a few rods in length, and one of them commanding the marshy opening mentioned. This is but one of several different accounts as to the manner of Winthrop’s death.” [pp. 31-32] This is signifiant for a couple reasons. She gives an account of a “colored boy” [who, we find out, is actually a 40-year-old man, according to what Goss reports she said, shooting a Union officer, though she wasn’t there at the time and didn’t witness it herself. This is one version of that officer’s death, with many other different versions also circulating, and the 40-year-old black man is referred to as if he was a child, “playing” with a rifle as if it were a toy. This is an insight into the racial attitudes of some white southerners of the time.

He also talks about a house of a woman whose husband was a captain in the confederate army: “No other building at Big Bethel was so devastated, and I did not see another building so treated on our whole route. The men detailed to guard it declined to protect the property of one who was in arms fighting against us.” [p. 33] In another passage about the army on the Peninsula, he tells us, “The march up the Peninsula seemed very slow, yet it was impossible to increase our speed, owing to the bad condition of the roads. I learned in time that marching on paper and the actual march made two very different impressions. I can easily understand and excuse our fireside heroes, who fought their or our battles at home over comfortable breakfast-tables, without impediments of any kind to circumscribe their fancied operations; it is so much easier to manoeuvre and fight large armies around the corner grocery, where the destinies of the human race have been so often discussed and settled, than to fight, march, and manoeuvre in mud and rain, in the face of a brave and vigilant enemy.” [p. 34] He also tells us about a conversation he had with some confederate soldiers: “Near New Kent Court-House, a little settlement of two or three houses, we came upon several Confederate sick. One of them was full of fighting talk. I asked him what he was fighting for. He said he didn’t know, except it be ‘not to get licked!’ ‘I reckon you uns have got a powerful spite against we uns, and that’s what you uns all come down to fight we uns for, and invade our soil!’ I could not argue with a prisoner, and a sick man at that, on equal terms; so I replenished his canteen, and induced one of my comrades to give him some of his rations. From the number of interviews held at different times with our Confederate prisoners, I gathered the general impression that their private soldiers knew but very little about the causes of the war, but were fighting ‘not to get licked,’ which is so strong a feeling in human nature that I may say it will account for much hard fighting on both sides. In one of the little cabins surrounding the principal residence were a mulatto woman and her children. She was quite comely, and, with her children, was pretty well dressed. She was a bitter Yankee-hater, and, we inferred, the domestic manager of the household. She declared that ‘the colored people didn’ want to be [n-word]s for the Yanks!’ ” [p. 43] He later spoke with a confederate prisoner: “The halt gave leisure for talk with the prisoners. One of them was a good-looking, intelligent fellow about twenty-two years of age. He informed one of my comrades that he belonged to a North Carolina regiment. He was a college graduate, and the prospect of spending a summer at the North did not seem to displease him. He confidentially said that he had been a Union man just as long as he could, and finally went into the Confederate army to save his property and reputation and to avoid conscription. He added: ‘There are thousands in the South just like me. We didn’t want the war, and resisted the sentiment of secession as long as we could. Now it has gone so far we’ve got to fight or sever all the associations with which our lives are interlinked. I know it is a desperate chance for the South. Look at your men, how they are disciplined, fed, and clothed, and then see how our men are fed and clothed. They are brave men, but they can’t stand it forever. Southern men have got fight in them, and you will find them hard to conquer.’ ” [p. 69]

Goss, we find, was a big fan of George B. McClellan, as were most soldiers of the Army of the Potomac. “As the Union army fell back by squads, companies, and broken parts of regiments and brigades, for the defences of Washington, McClellan came out to meet them. To every brigade, regiment, or only a squad, he met, his only words were: ‘Boys, go back to your old camps.’ The regard the private soldiers felt for McClellan arose from a deep conviction that he would not needlessly throw away our lives; that, with all his faults, he understood his trade. Two days after our second defeat at Bull Run, while yet the roads were crowded with stragglers, and despondency over- shadowed all, McClellan reassumed command of the army. It was the morning of September 2d, 1862, and reorganization began at once. … In no direction was the ability of McClellan so conspicuous as in organizing. Even before the soldiers knew he was again in command, they began to detect a new influence around them. In order to bring the troops upon ground with which they were already familiar, they were as far as practicable ordered to the camping- grounds occupied by each corps before the movement to the Peninsula. In a few days the morale of the army underwent an astonishing change for the better. On the 5th of September, with shoes worn out, clothing in rags, and destitute of the necessaries for effective duty, the Army of the Potomac again left the defences of Washington, while the work of reorganization went on as it marched into Maryland to meet the enemy.” [pp. 94-96] Goss, however, was no admirer of Henry W. Halleck. “McClellan, in taking command, had to confront both the enemy and Halleck. The latter was constantly telegraphing his doubts, and fears, and advice. September 9th, he telegraphed that he feared the enemy’s object was to draw off the mass of our forces and then attack from the Virginia side. As late as the 13th, he telegraphed: ‘Until you know more certainly the enemy’s force south of the Potomac, you are wrong in thus uncovering the capital.’ On the 14th, ‘I fear you are exposing your left and rear.’ As late as the 16th, he wrote: ‘I think you will find that the whole force of the enemy in your front has crossed the river.’ On September 10th, McClellan wrote to Halleck asking that the ten thousand men garrisoning Harper’s Ferry be ordered to join him by the most practicable route. Before he left Washington he had advised that the garrison be withdrawn by way of Hagerstown to aid in covering the Cumberland valley; or cross the river to Maryland Heights, the military key to the position. Halleck chose to consider the possession of the town as of the first importance, and the whole campaign pivots around this fact, which resulted, as might have been expected, in the, capture of the garrison. But it also had another far-reaching result not intended, for Harper’s Ferry was the point whereon Lee miscalculated and miscarried in his plans. He did not propose to make any direct movement against Washington or Baltimore, but first establishing his communications with Richmond by way of the Shenandoah Valley, and by menacing Pennsylvania, he expected that McClellan would uncover Washington, and be led from his base of supplies.” [pp. 97-98] In discussing the Fredericksburg fiasco and the pontoon bridges’ failure to arrive on time, he wrote, “Without entering into the controversy as to who was to blame for their non-arrival, Halleck had displayed in his ‘circumlocution office’ at various times, so much of the science of ‘how not to do it’ that the disposition to attribute the blame to him is almost irresistible.” [pp. 120-121] More than once, he refers to Halleck as of the “How not to do it” school.

Goss also has observations of confederate soldiers in general, on the one hand calling them “heroes in rags” [p. 97], but on the other saying, “I noticed a marked difference between Southern and Northern men in bearing pain. A slight wound often caused the Southerner to wail and groan, and call out for help and care, while our Northern men were more self-controlled; the wounded would seldom groan, or give any noisy expression to suffering, but clench their teeth and bear it uncomplainingly. The difference was that between a warm Southern race, and the cool, phlegmatic, enduring race of the North one, formed to endure and bear; the other, for sharp and brave encounter. … The Confederate soldiers, throughout the war, were keen for plunder. They stripped and robbed the dead habitually; took their watches, greenbacks, and valuables for their own use, without any deed of transfer but their own. A battle-field won meant a harvest of gain to them, and hence every incentive to win was theirs. There were some plunderers in the Union army, more particularly among its camp followers; but the bodies of the rebels slain did not present great inducements to those actuated by avarice.” [pp. 117-118]

When Joseph Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac after Ambrose Burnside was relieved, Goss noted the almost immediate changes for the better. “Hooker soon showed himself in a new phase, that of an able administrative officer, and under his energetic administration many long-needed reforms took place. He stopped desertions, before which the Army of the Potomac was melting away like an iceberg in the tropics, by instituting a system of furloughs to the most deserving. ‘These,’ as Joe said, ‘allowed some of the boys to go home and brag how they fit.’ They proved beneficial in inspiring good conduct and cheerfulness, and also aided in checking desertions by removing the real cause. General Kearney, at Fair Oaks, had ordered his soldiers to sew a piece of red flannel on their caps so that he might recognize them in battle. This idea General Hooker expanded into a system of corps badges of immense utility to the service. The cavalry, which had hitherto been so non-efficient in its character as to call out the stinging criticism from Hooker, ‘Who ever saw a dead cavalry-man?’ was now consolidated under efficient leaders, so that henceforth it was able to assert its superiority over that of the enemy. Franklin, who had been a stumbling-block, declaring that ‘Two thousand cavalry was enough for the whole army,’ was sent to the army of the Southwest, and the cumbersome ‘Grand Divisions’ organized by Burnside done away with. The new commander wisely deferred grand military movements during the wet months of winter. From January to April the army was occupied with drill, while its ranks were filled by the return of absentees and recruits. By the first of May the Army of the Potomac was in superb condition, numbering in infantry and artillery one hundred and twenty thousand men; its artillery, a powerful force of four hundred guns; its formerly despised cavalry had become a finely equipped and well-drilled body of twelve thousand. The boast of Hooker, that ‘It was the finest army on the planet,’ was not without truth.” [p. 141]

Many soldiers blamed the XI Corps, a corps that contained many German immigrants, for the defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Goss defends them, though. “It has been fashionable since, as it was at the time, to attribute this disaster to the cowardly elements which were supposed to exist in the Germans of the Eleventh Corps, and to their dissatisfaction over the displacement of Sigel by Howard. This is a great injustice to many brave men. Only a few cavalry, less than a company, cleared the front of the Eleventh Corps. There should have been at least a brigade. This was Hooker’s mistake. The great weight of blame, however, falls upon Howard, who did not take those precautions so essential to the situation, and allowed himself to be surprised.” [p. 153]

The Federal forces usually recruited new soldiers into new regiments, because that allowed the governor of the state to bestow patronage in the form of commissions. Goss points out the folly of this policy, as well as the inefficient stationing of troops in various places: “The sad experiences of the war had failed to induce our authorities to abandon a useless and wasteful scattering of troops. They had not learned, with all our reverses, to discontinue or reduce the useless number of posts and consolidate their men into one army. As an illustration of this, at the beginning of the Gettysburg campaign, when men were so much needed, a whole army corps was left at Port Royal, one division at Newbern, two at Suffolk, with no army in their front except one of mosquitoes. There were six thousand cavalry at Manassas and Milroy’s division in the Valley receiving orders from Halleck, Hooker not even knowing what orders they received, or but vaguely. Under this shiftless system of ‘how not to do it’ our superior numbers effected but little. Another reason, it seems to me, for the greater efficiency of the Southern army was that they were nearly all veterans. When the Southern army had made a soldier they kept him. There was no ‘expiration of term of service’ among their men. A hundred veterans, accustomed to hardship and battle, are worth more than a thousand untried or partially tried men, because it is known almost to a certainty what can be done with them. With raw troops this can never be foretold.” [p. 172]

During the Gettysburg Campaign, many Union soldiers had harsh things to say about the Pennsylvania farmers with whom they came into contact. Goss wrotes, “An officer belonging to a Pennsylvania regiment said: ‘These Dutch farmers care for nothing but their hogs and cabbages.’ Even after the fight they took money for bandages used for the wounded, charged a dollar for a loaf of bread, or a quart of milk, even set a price on water, and asked exorbitant prices for carrying wounded men to the railroad depot in their hay carts. … In Maryland the people gave food; here in Pennsylvania the greed and avidity with which the people took pay for everything was a contrast. Near Gettysburg we met a Dutchman running away who had his pockets and hat full of Confederate money. ‘Vil der United States takes dis and gives me goot moneys?’ asked the Dutchman. We assured him it would not bring its weight in cord wood. ‘Der rebs dey takes mine horse and cow and potatoes and says we pays you well, and gifs me dis. If der govment at Vashington don’t gives me goot moneys for dis, mine Gott, I’m ruined!’ blubbered the Dutchman. ‘Buy Copperhead votes with it,’ said Wad suggestively, as we marched by him.” [pp. 179-180]

Goss blames Halleck for Hooker’s resignation at the beginning of the campaign and for Milroy’s defeat at the Second Battle of Winchester. “Lee’s army was thus divided into three parts, separated from each other by a distance of thirty-five miles on one side and sixty-six on the other, and stretched out over a hundred miles. In this daring situation Hooker planned to interpose a large force between Hill’s corps and Longstreet, and overwhelm the former before Longstreet could come to his support. This bold and eminently proper move would naturally result in destroying Hill, or, if not successful in that, in recalling Lee from his designs of invasion. Before this movement was developed, Hooker asked authority for the execution of such a plan and was denied. President Lincoln voiced the objections of Halleck in this quaint and striking allegory: ‘I would not take the risk of being entangled upon the river like an ox impaled upon a fence and liable to be torn by dogs in front and rear without a fair chance to gore one way or kick the other!’ Thus Hooker’s hands were tied by Halleck’s interference, at the very inception of the campaign, and the surest way of recalling Lee from his design of invasion rejected. Instead of treading upon the tail of the Confederate serpent, stretched out a hundred miles along the Potomac, to make him turn his head in defence, Halleck proposed that the Union army follow in its wake, and at the same time cover Washington. No one could guess the direction Lee might take, and the impossibility of doing both will be seen by any military novice. Hooker had thus no alternative but to modify his action. He wisely asked, however, that all the troops available for the defence of the free States be placed under his command. This was denied, and the country in the midst of her peril witnessed the spectacle of wise measures defeated by those who should have been their chief supporters. The forces under Milroy at Winchester, and Tyler at Harper’s Ferry, occupied posts of no strategic value. The enemy could pass around these into Maryland, as had already been demonstrated. Halleck refused to be taught by the disaster of Miles, or the defeat of Fremont. When, on the 13th, the unlucky Milroy found himself threatened by a Confederate force, he naturally concluded it was simply a raiding expedition of the enemy. How should he imagine it possible that he was confronted by a portion of Lee’s army, outnumbering him three to one, without Halleck having been informed and notifying him? Yet Milroy has been blamed on the one hand for the feeble defence he made, and on the other for not retreating before he did. … In vain Hooker urged that Harper’s Ferry did not defend anything, and that the earthworks remained after the troops were withdrawn; that the public property could be secured and the troops marched to points where they could be of service. Like Nero, fiddling when Rome was burning, Halleck quibbled and obstructed while the destinies of his country were imperilled [sic] by his inaction. These objections may have been made to compel Hooker’s resignation, or they may have been the result of stupidity. They were, in any case, ill-timed. Hooker saw that Halleck’s enmity was perilling the national interests, and patriotically resigned rather than prove an obstacle to its success. Hooker has been blamed for resigning at this critical period, but obstructed in his action on every side by Halleck’s interference, he preferred to sacrifice his own military career rather than the interests of his country. Halleck, on the other hand, seemed determined that the army should fail rather than succeed with Hooker in command. It is shown that Halleck’s objections were made for the purpose of obstruction, as he allowed Meade to do the very things to which he objected with Hooker. Hooker resigned because he recognized, with Napoleon, that one poor general was better than two good ones. Let it always be remembered of Hooker that he sacrificed his own career in the interests of his country, and that he was unwilling the personal animosities, of which he was the victim, should again compromise the army. It was the bravest act of his life.” [pp. 183-186]

This is really an excellent book. Goss weaves the accounts together to provide us a very smooth narrative. It’s useful for seeing the enlisted man’s view of the war. Goss no doubt did a great deal of research on the war between the end of the war and his writing this account. That is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, he’s able to fill in details he couldn’t tell at the time; on the other hand, it makes the account less his recollections and viewpoint. The same can be said for the accounts of others he included in the narrative. Altogether, though, I can highly recommend it for serious students of the war.


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