Three Years in the Sixth Corps

This is a book by George T. Stevens, who was a surgeon in the 77th New York during the war. He began working on this book right after the war, and as a result the things he wrote about were still fairly fresh in his memory. You can download and read the book for free here or here.

Stevens has some excellent observations of what happened during his time in the Army of the Potomac. For example, he talks about when African-Americans crossed paths with the soldiers: “Some scouts brought from the house a couple of negresses whom they led to General Keyes. They communicated their information with an earnestness that proved their sympathies were not with their late master. It was a picturesque scene; those tall negresses with their bright red turbans and long white woolen gowns, telling with earnest gestures what they knew of the position of the enemy, while the generals and their staffs listened eagerly to their words. They said that when we passed over the little hill just in front, we should be under fire from the batteries of the rebels, who were in large force; ‘but laws a massa, noting like all dese yer,’ said they, pointing to the troops of our division.” [pp. 34-35] and “Great numbers of negroes flocked to the roadside, to welcome the Union army. Their expressions of joy at seeing us were wild and amusing. All hoped we would shortly overtake and destroy the rebel army, their own masters included. Those who had hitherto regarded the relation of master and slave as one of mutual affection, had only to witness these unique demonstrations of rejoicing at our approach, and the seemingly certain destruction of the slave owners, to be convinced that the happiness and contentment claimed for those in servitude was but a worthless fiction. The negroes, gathering in crowds along the wayside, would grasp the hands of the Union soldiers, calling down all manner of blessings upon them, and leaping and dancing in their frantic delight.” [p. 59] He tells us, “Whatever information the slaves could give concerning the movements, numbers, or probable intentions of the enemy, was communicated gladly, and although this information was not always reliable for accuracy, it was always given in sincerity, and was very often of great service.” [p. 60]

Unlike most soldiers of the Army of the Potomac, Stevens didn’t idolize McClellan. He also gives us views of what happened that we don’t normally see. Once the army retreated to Harrison’s Landing after the Seven Days Campaign, Stevens tells us, “There, crowded together, were the immense caravans of wagons, ambulances, guns and pontoons, hugging the river, and the multitude of men swarming over the plain. Long processions of sick and wounded men, leaning on canes and crutches, their heavy steps and sunken faces now for a moment lighted up at the thought that their melancholy pilgrimage was nearly ended, filed by us; and battalions of cooks and special duty men were wandering about in search of their commands. The river was full of transports and gunboats, giving it the appearance of the harbor of some commercial metropolis. Many of the hungry men, without waiting for their rations to be brought by the commissary, plunged into the stream, swam to the boats and there procured the coveted food. But the greater number of our men, their powers completely exhausted, without waiting for food, or to provide comfortable quarters, lay down in the bed of mud and. were soon in heavy slumbers.” [p. 112]

Stevens was an admirer of Joseph Hooker, who took command of the Army of the Potomac after Ambrose E. Burnside was relieved of command. “The energy of the new commander soon began to be manifested in the reconstruction and reorganization of the whole army. The first step in the progress of reconstruction, was the revocation of the order making three grand divisions of the army. By the abolition of the grand, divisions. Generals Sumner and Franklin were relieved, from their commands; and the corps commanders, no longer subject to intermediate commanders, were again directly responsible to the general-in-chief of the army. Doubtless General Hooker had seen that the creation of these grand divisions had much to do with the failures of General Burnside. The cavalry next engaged the attention of the general. The whole force was thoroughly reorganized and put in an efficient condition, under command of Major-General Stoneman. Hereafter, men were not to ask, ‘Who ever saw a dead cavalryman?’ To General Hooker, the cavalry of the Array of the Potomac owes its efficiency and. the glorious record it from that time made for itself.” [p. 179] He tells us about improvements not only in the cavalry but also in his field of expertise, the medical department. “Their strength lay in their union. The rebel cavalry was organized from the beginning; ours was an incoherent mass of men, having no proper relations or dependencies within itself. From the day that it became organized, the superiority of the rebel cavalry passed away forever. We had always better horses, and our men were certainly never inferior to the rebels. All that was needed was the proper combination of action; and, as soon as this was secured, our cavalry became the finest in the world. The business departments were also thoroughly renovated. The changes in the medical, quartermasters’ and commissary departments were such as to bring each to a standard of perfection, which had never before been reached by those departments of any army in the field. No army had ever been provisioned as was ours that winter. Soft bread, potatoes, beets, carrots, onions, fresh beef, flour, sugar and coffee, constituted the regular rations of the men, and facilities were afforded for procuring luxuries not in the regular supply. The medical department became so thoroughly systematized, that wounded and sick men were cared for better than they had ever been in an army before. This radical change had commenced under General Burnside; but was perfected under General Hooker, by the efficient and earnest medical director of the army, Dr. Letterman; to whom belongs the honor of bringing about this most desirable change. By the new system, the surgeons were enabled to accomplish a far greater amount of work, and in much better order than under the old; and the wounded were better and more quickly cared for. By this system the hospital of the division was the unit. From the division, a medical officer of good executive ability was selected, to whom was assigned the general oversight of the hospital. One or more surgeons of well known skill and experience were detailed from the medical force of the division, who were known as ‘operating surgeons;’ to each of whom was assigned three assistants, also known to be skillful men, who were either surgeons or assistant surgeons. To the operating surgeons all cases requiring surgical operations were brought, and thus the wounded men had the benefit of the very best talent and experience in the division, in the decision of the question whether he should be submitted to the use of the knife, and in the performance of the operation in case one was required. It was a mistaken impression among those at home, that each medical officer was the operating surgeon for his own men. Only about one in fifteen of the medical officers was intrusted with operations. From each brigade an assistant surgeon was detailed to provide food and shelter for the wounded. His duty was to superintend the erection of hospital tents as soon as there was a prospect of an engagement, and to have hot coffee and rations of food ready for the wounded as soon as they came to the hospital; he was to attend to their clothing, bedding and rations as long as they remained in the hospital. Another assistant surgeon from each brigade was selected to keep the records; to take the name and character of wound of every one who was brought to the hospital, with the operation, if any; and the list of deaths, the place of burial, and all other matters necessary to record. An assistant surgeon was to remain with each regiment, and attend to getting the wounded from the field into the ambulances, and to arrest hemorrhage in case of necessity. Thus, all labor was systematized. Every officer and nurse knew exactly what to do: each had his own part of the work assigned to him, and there was no conflicting of orders or clashing of opinions. Our ambulance system was also very perfect—so complete, indeed, that, after a year of trial in the Army of the Potomac, congress adopted it as the ambulance system of the United States. To Doctor Letterman, also, belongs the honor of originating this system. The ambulances of each corps were under command of a captain, who acted under directions from the medical director of the corps. A lieutenant commanded the ambulances of a division, and a second lieutenant those of a brigade. To each ambulance was assigned a driver, and two stretcher-bearers; and to three ambulances a sergeant, mounted. The ambulances of a division always went together, behind the division, and on the march were attended by a surgeon, an assistant surgeon, a hospital steward, a cook, and three or more nurses, who were to attend to the wants of the sick in the ambulances, and at night, if any were unable to return to their regiments, to erect tents for them, and supply them with food and bedding. In an engagement, the stretcher-bearers of each regiment, with the sergeant, reported to the assistant surgeon in attendance with the regiment. As soon as a man was wounded, he was brought to the medical officer, put into an ambulance, and taken to the division hospital. By this means, ordinarily, every man was carried to the hospital of his own division.” [pp. 180-182]

Stevens also tells us about one of Hooker’s most popular innovations. “Just before leaving camp for the campaign just closed, General Hooker had issued an order assigning to each corps and division its badge, which was to be worn by every officer and soldier connected with either of the corps. The men of the Sixth corps now regarded their cross with greater pride than had ever ancient knight looked upon the heraldry which emblazoned his arms. It had been baptized in blood, and amid wonderful achievements of heroism. Every member of the noble corps felt an exulting pride in his relation to it, and regarded his badge as a mark of great honor. The introduction of these badges became of great service to the army. Every man could easily recognize the corps and division of any other one in the army; and each corps learned to feel a pride in its own badge. We had seven corps in the army; First, Second, Third, Fifth, Sixth, Eleventh and Twelfth. The badge of the First corps was a lozenge, that of the Second a shamrock, of the Third a diamond, of the Fifth a Maltese cross, of the Sixth a Greek cross, the Eleventh a lunette, and of the Twelfth a star. The badge of the First division of each corps was red, that of the Second white, and of the Third blue. All wagons and ambulances were marked with their appropriate badge, and the sick soldier who fell to the rear with a pass to the ambulances, had no difficulty in finding his own train; and quartermasters and others connected with the trains were greatly assisted in their duties by this ingenious device.” [p. 215]

In writing about picket duty in 1864 along the Rappahannock River, Stevens tells us, “One of the characteristic features of our picket duty on the Rappahannock, was the great number of contrabands who came through our lines. Squads of gray-headed old negroes, young negro women and children, carrying in bundles all their worldly store, constantly applied for permission to enter the lines on their way to the north. The cavalry who scouted in front on the south side of the river, returned with wagons loaded with little darkies, whose mothers and elder sisters and grandsires trudged along on foot. All wagons going to Warrenton without other lading were filled with these refugees from slavery, old and young, some black, some olive and some white; some with black curly wool, some with wavy black hair, and some with brown ringlets. Our northern soldiers had, by this time, begun to look upon slavery in its true light. They had also learned that the negroes were their friends. It required a long schooling to teach them this lesson, but it was thoroughly learned at last. We heard now no jeering and hooting when a negro or wagon load of negroes went by. The soldiers treated them with the greatest kindness, and aided them in every way to get off to the north. While our boys did not hesitate long to take from the white inhabitants any articles that they thought they were in need of, it was considered an act of outrageous meanness to take a chicken or any other property from the negro people. While passing through Orleans, on our way to the present camp, a great many slave children were standing along the streets watching us. Many of these children were nearly white. The attention of one our captains, who was one of the last relics among us of that class of men who were loyal to their country but despised the negro, was fixed upon a beautiful child of olive complexion and wavy hair, who stood gazing in innocent wonder at the passing column. The child was indeed a picture of unadorned beauty, in her long coarse garment of ‘negro cloth.’ The captain turned to a staff officer and as a tear stole down his rough cheek at the thought of the degradation of the beautiful child, he exclaimed, ‘Isn’t it horrible.’ It is hardly necessary to say that the captain’s sentiments from that moment underwent a radical change, and ever after there were none more ready to afford assistance to the needy refugees, than our generous but hitherto prejudiced captain. Many of these colored refugees had the greatest faith in what they deemed the promises of the Bible. There was an almost universal faith in the ultimate overthrow of the south by the north, and this belief was founded in most cases upon their supposed Bible promises. One of these people, a gray-haired negro, bent with age and leaning heavily upon his staff, who hoped to spend the evening of his life in freedom, said to the writer: ‘Our massas tell us dat dey goin to whip de Yankees and dat Jeff. Davis will rule de norf. But we knowd it warnt so cause de Bible don’t say so, De Bible says that de souf shall prevail for a time and den de norf shall rise up and obertrow dem.’ Where the old man found this strange prophecy he did not say, but many of the slaves declared this to be Bible truth and all asserted it in the same way.” [pp. 273-275]

Additionally, Stevens was impressed with Major General Philip H. Sheridan, who commanded the Army of the Shenandoah in 1864, of which the Sixth Corps was a part. “One thing pleased us at the start. Our new general was visible to the soldiers of his command; wherever we went he was with the column, inhaling the dust, leaving the road for the teams, never a day or two days behind the rest of the army, but always riding by the side of the men. His watchful care of the details of the march, his interest in the progress of the trains, and the ready faculty with which he brought order out of confusion when the roads became blockaded, reminded us of our lamented Sedgwick. Another feature of the new administration pleased us. When the head-quarter tents of the commander of the Middle Military Division were pitched, there was one wall tent, one wedge tent and two flies. This modest array of shelter for the general and his staff was in happy contrast with the good old times in the Army of the Potomac, when more than eighty six-mule teams were required to haul the baggage for head-quarters of the army.” [p. 388]

I highly recommend this book for the insights Stevens provides. Some of his facts regarding the battles themselves are wrong. For example, he claims that Longstreet’s corps reinforced Early in the Valley prior to the Battle of Cedar Creek. He no doubt thought it was true, but that shows the effect of the fog of war. But when he talks about events he specifically witnessed, his words have great credibility.


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