Accounts of War

Jeremiah E. Baker

Jeremiah E. Baker“Jeremiah E. Baker enlisted in the U. S. servce [sic] Aug. 8, 1862; served in Co. H, 131st Reg’t. Pa. Vol. Infantry, and was mustered out with his company May 23, 1863. A few days after its organization the 131st crossed over the Long Bridge at Washington—the famous bridge over which so many of the loyal and brave marched never to return—into Virginia, to confront the armies of treason and disunion. Our faithful relative soon began to see some of the dismal effects of war, as his regiment was at once engaged in picket duty, and helped to check the stream of panic-stricken stragglers from the ill-fated fields of Bull Run and Chantilly. As the Confederates were now moving to invade Maryland, the Third Brigade was ordered to recross the Potomac, and, after exchanging its Austrian rifles for Springfield muskets at the National Arsenal, joined the Third Division of the Fifth Corps, and then hastened forward as part of the Army of the Potomac to meet the now elated and greatly emboldened, but mournfully deluded, Army of Northern Virginia. After wearisome marches, meeting many stragglers, and passing many worn out soldiers unable to keep up with their commands, the corps reached the battle-field of Antietam, where it relieved the fatigued troops that the day before had so determinately and effectually checked the Confederate advance, and here J. B. first saw the distressing picture of a fiercely contested battle-field, sometimes as trying to the undisciplined as to be engaged in actual battle. Field hospitals had been quickly improvised on all sides, where the disabled were having their wounds dressed, and their shattered limbs amputated. The rebel dead were still unburied, as well as hundreds of dead horses, and the stench was beginning to be offensive. The painful evidences of savage struggle and unsparing destruction were everywhere visible.

“But there was no ordeal of veritable carnage here yet for the 131st, as the next morning the baffled enemy had fled. The regiment was then ordered into camp near Sharpsburg, and assigned to picket duty along the Potomac River. Here for several weeks the boys had the usual experience of camp life, cleaning up quarters and moving tents for sanitary reasons, cleaning their guns for the inspection of arms, drilling to acquire martial efficiency, standing guard for order and security, getting orders now and then to be ready to march at a moment’s notice, etc. The weather about this time was excessively hot, and many of the regiment were on the sick list. Every day had its excitement or diversion of some kind. Sometimes it was an observation balloon ascension, always an interesting sight. One day they got a large mail, and nearly every one had letters from the dear ones at home, some of which were read many times over. Another day they were deeply interested in heavy firing eighteen miles away, knowing that a brisk engagement was going on at Charlestown, and expected to receive orders at any moment to ‘fall in.’ Once a number of the boys ‘chipped in’ and sent to Sharpsburg for flour and apples, and had Henry Harris, colored, the company cook, get them up an apple-dumpling dinner—about which one of the participants of vigorous digestion wrote in his diary, ‘I filled myself with dumplings clean up to my ears.’ At last, on the 30th day of October, after having packed up half a dozen times, the brigade broke camp for good, and with much hearty cheering started back over the battle ground of Antietam, forward over hills and mountain, crossing the Potomac on a pontoon bridge, and on the evening of the 31st, after marching twenty-five miles, encamped about file miles from Harper’s Ferry. Once during the march that followed, the wagon train was delayed by heavy rains and mud, depriving the boys of rations for two days and one night, and subjecting them to an involuntary fast that did not very much promote their piety.

“After various experiences during November and part of December, as marching in dust, or in rain and mud—sleeping on the cold or west ground, or on more or less crooked and sharp-edged Virginia worm-fence rails, when such a luxurious bed was obtainable, as even fence rails became scarce where hostile armies tramped back and forth—being routed out of sound sleep by the sharp and inexorable command to ‘fall in,’ sometimes without rations, and no time to make a cup of coffee—all trials against which a patient is not supposed to demur even in a whisper—the Third Brigade, about four o’clock on the morning of December 11th, broke camp and moved to the vicinity of the Rappahannock, not far from Fredericksburg, ready to participate in what proved to be one of the most desperate and futile struggles of the war. The heights around Fredericksburg formed a stronghold that blocked the way to the Confederate capital, and the whole loyal North and West kept up an incessant shout, ‘On to Richmond.’ For two days following there was a constant booming of heavy guns, no less than one hundred and seventy-nine cannon having opened on the doomed town with shot and shell, the object being to drive out the sharpshooters, who interfered seriously with the crossing of the river. The concussions were so terrific as to make the solid earth tremble. On the 13th the brigades moved closer to the stirring scene, and for several hours lay in front of Chief Burnside’s headquarters, listening to the terrific artillery fire, the sharp rattle of the muskets, and watching the smoke ascending from the burning buildings. Again the imperative order to ‘fall in.’ The General in command in a few words said that the corps was the reserve of the Army of the Potomac, and that its duty now was to cross the river and close the battle with a decisive victory.

“Early in the afternoon the 131st, with its associated regiments, cheerfully crossed on one of the pontoon bridges, marched through the now deserted town under a heavy fire from the rebel batteries to a rise of ground along the road back of it, where, under shelter, the force waited until the line of battle was formed and all were ready for the grand assault. At the anxiously awaited word Forward, a prompt and resolute rush was made at a double-quick. But, sad to own, it was a useless and costly onset. About two hundred yards forward a line of Union troops lay prostrate on the ground, who had been severely repelled in a prior charge, and reaching this base the order to lie down likewise was by a general impulse obeyed,—the men had been hit about the head and shoulders; two of Baker’s comrades near him were shot in the mouth,—and while thus stretched out on the field commenced to fire upon the enemy, who was well protected behind a stone wall, and in consequence suffered but little. The troops, when finally ordered, with one accord jumped to their feet and made another determined effort to advance, keeping up a steady fire, and some of the men got within a hundred feet of the wall, but vain was the struggle, as the whole height around the town was crowned with strongly manned forts and intrenchments, absolutely unassailable by a direct, open assault, and the attempt, in the opinion of all who participated, should not at that time have been made. Besides the appalling fire from the forts and wall in front, a murderous, raking cross-fire came from batteries perched on the crest of the semi-encircling hill both on the right and on the left. It was to our army but a sickening field of slaughter. Nothing was accomplished by the splendid valor and the fearful sacrifice. Seeing the fearful loss and the utter hopelessness of the effort to drive or capture the enemy, the troops were withdrawn. Our kindred’s company went into the fight with fifty-three men, of whom twenty-two were either killed or wounded. Four of these hapless ones lay and died close by him. To one he gave his canteen, and from him received a message to take home to his wife. About this time he was himself wounded near the elbow of his right arm, not seriously, but the hurt became very painful, though it did not prevent him from keeping his place in the line.

“One of the company, William Willits, who was struck by a ball near the shoulder, asked Baker to lead him off the field. Baker told him that he did not then dare to leave the company, but said that he should go to the rear and that he would soon find some one there to take care of him. He never saw that stricken comrade again. It was not until sunset that the 131st was relieved, yet the afternoon, with all its excitement and horrors, seemed to him strangely as if lasting but one short hour. All were too much absorbed to think of the time of day. The regiment rested at night on the field, and the next day was quartered on the streets of the town. On the evening of the 15th it took a position to the right to support a battery of artillery, and at three o’clock the next morning, the town was quietly and willingly evacuated—as it was of no practical use to us with that stubborn rebel army back of it. The Confederates did terrible execution from behind their wall and intrenchments, but they were not just then anxious to follow up their successful resistance by risking a fight with such a valorous foe outside of their formidable works, and very obligingly let our troops have plenty of time to get away.

“Stephen Flick, one of the company, who was hit by a Minie ball in the mouth, was not seriously injured, though four of his teeth were knocked out, and, as Lieutenant De La Green, of Co. H, once informed me, ‘the ball knocked the boy head over heels.’ The ball was of course almost spent, as it lodged in the roof of his mouth, and was quickly removed by himself. He carried it about for months as a precious pocket piece, often displaying it to his not envious comrades, and insisting that he was the only man in the regiment who could perform the wonderful feat of catching a ball, shot from a gun, with his mouth.

“Baker was never again under so hot a fire as when in front of the heights of Fredericksburg, but he again saw something of the perils and hardships of war. After a short rest in winter-quarters, Burnside decided to attempt another campaign, but after some days of marching about in mud over shoe top, through rain and in chilling winds, building corduroy roads and moving trains, the movement was wisely given up, and the 131st marched back into new and better quarters, about two miles from the old camp. On the 28th of April it set out under Hooker on the memorable Chancellorsville campaign, of which Baker says he will ever have very vivid recollections. The roadside on the way was lined with stragglers from the columns in advance. Now and then one of the weaker ones would sink down, worn out, and die. Pack mules and horses were in like manner overcome and were unloaded and left to perish. The regiment, about noon on Friday, May 1st, arrived at the Chancellor House, where Gen. Hooker, who had succeeded Burnside, had established his headquarters. Baker now heard heavy firing, and realized that another great battle was about to be fought, and that he would be in it. He was delighted to see a lot of prisoners, who were being hurriedly pushed to the rear, and hoped Lee’s whole army would soon be in the same harmless predicament. He soon saw, however, that the Union forces were falling back, but persuaded himself that it was only to get a better position, or to draw the unfriendly Johnnies into a trap. The privates, and even the officers of companies and regiments, usually know little or nothing about the plan of battle, of the disposition and movements of the columns of a large army, that often cover many square miles of territory, of which they have but a limited view. ‘Where ignorance is bliss, “tis folly to be wise.” ’

“Hooker, with an army twice as large as Gen. Lee’s, started out confident of victory, and even issued an order of congratulation to his troops on the evening of April 30, in which he boastfully said, ‘Our enemy must ingloriously fly, or come out from behind his defenses and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.’ Lee’s army was then regarded as in a dangerous dilemma. Things were moving encouragingly for the Union army, and the men were eager for battle; but suddenly Hooker became alarmed, and sent very positive orders for his advanced columns to give up his ‘own ground’ and fall back to Chancellorsville. He thus lost the advantage he had gained, discouraged his soldiers, and was compelled to fight in self-defense on the unfavorable ground of the Wilderness. It is a matter of history that all of Hooker’s generals condemned his action. When referring to the service of the Donmoyer brothers, Lewis and Rudy, of the John Gernert branch of our family, one of the notable incidents of this great battle has already been mentioned. But the grievous result of the conflict is well known, and need not be rehearsed here.

“Baker’s company was detailed as Headquarters Baggage Guard, but through forgetfulness or some mistake was not ordered to the rear until a body of the rebels were within several hundred yards of the train, charging through the woods and yelling like so many demons. When they got into close range a general volley was poured into them that hurled them back, and punished them severely for their daring. The train then passed on to the rear, but was somewhat impeded by the maneuvering of the infantry and artillery, and the thick woods through which it had to move for some distance. The mules often added to the trouble by being contrary and getting tangled up by trying to get around the trees in their own mulish way. On the 2d the company was ordered to the left where the division lay, and from which heavy firing was heard all day. About six o’clock the noise of battle increased, and was kept up all night, charge after charge being made by both sides with a reckless fury that was terrible. The very ground on which the boys stood again shook, as it did at Fredericksburg, from the fearing booming of the many cannon. On the 3d they were ordered to cross the Rappahannock at United States Ford, while the battle was still raging, and camped a short distance from the river, in a clearing surrounded by pine woods, near the Union hospital, and where they had the gratification of seeing a body of 1,500 rebel prisoners under guard that had been taken during the night and morning.

“On the morning of the 4th Baker and his mess were rudely awakened by shells dropping and exploding around their camp. The first impression was that the Johnnies had got around in the rear, but it was soon ascertained that during the night they had sneaked up near enough through the woods to plant a battery of six guns within range, and at the dawn of day opened in a lively way on the camp and hospital. Five or six were killed and a number wounded, most of the casualties occurring in the hospital, but no one in Baker’s company was injured. One shell fell among the prisoners, by which one of them lost a leg. A detachment of cavalry quartered close by immediately formed and charged and captured the battery, and stopped the annoyance.

“The great victory that Hooker promised was not won. The wide-awake enemy did not ‘ingloriously fly,’ and he did not meet with ‘certain destruction.’ He followed up Hooker and made him fly. But it is just as undeniable that he was in the end himself so worn and crippled that he was again satisfied to let the Army of the Potomac get away very easy to the left bank of the Rappahannock. He was manifestly thankful to be rid of such an antagonistic visitor, and if in order would doubtless have given him a free pass to recross the Potomac. He did not even trouble Hooker’s rear guard, which got off as safe as the troops that crossed on the pontoons before it. The Union army had faith in the cause for which it fought, and had confidence in itself, and full assurance of its final triumph, but it had not yet found the right leader. It appreciated the valor, the loyalty, and the patriotism of Pope, of Burnside, of Hooker, and of McClellan, but it did not believe that either of them had all the qualifications that make a great chief for a great army.

“Several weeks after this last fruitless struggle the time of the 131st expired, and it received orders to go back to Harrisburg and be mustered out. Baker was at home only a few weeks when, in response to a call for volunteers to repel the rebel invasion of the North, he re-enlisted, and as a sergeant served in Co. E of the 37th Penn’a Vol. Militia. As I belonged to the same company, his part in the brief Gettysburg campaign may be known by turning back to the account given of my own slender war experience” (from Heinrich Gernhardt and His Descendants, pp. 216-224).

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