Accounts of War

Royal Rowland Clemons

Royal Rowland and Mary Jane Gilbert Clemons (5) with children Lorena Estelle and Lida Ethel Clemons (6)

“Royal Rowland Clemons enlisted in the cause of the Union on the 6th day of September, 1864. On the 15th of October he was assigned to Company E of the Ninth N. Y. Heavy Artillery, and four days later, on the 19th, in the battle of Cedar Creek, he was already initiated into the fearful consequences when hostile armies meet and ‘let slip the dogs of war.’ In the notes relating to the part of Chauncey Wichterman (5) Clarissa (4), Jacob (3), in the same engagement—the kin then had no knowledge of each other—the most important details of this great struggle are mentioned. Royal was but ten paces from the pike when Sheridan on his big black horse, then white with foam, came rushing through the confused line of battle, some distance in advance of his staff, and heard him shout, ‘You shall camp on the old camp ground tonight.’ He is also credited with having shouted something very uncomplimentary to the Johnnies. His appearance and fierce ardor instantly inspired the men with the same self-reliant spirit, and when, with fresh confidence, they rushed upon the exulting foe they retrieved the defeat of the morning by gaining a decisive and glorious victory.

“After the carnage ended, Royal alone ministered to thirteen of the seriously wounded, in an old log cabin but a few rods from Sheridan’s headquarters, from dusk until noon the next day. He gathered wood from among the dead and the debris of arms and knapsacks and clothes, on the field of slaughter, and made a fire to make the sufferers as comfortable as he could, and brought them water from a spring forty rods distant, to slake their thirst and to soothe their wounds. Several had their legs broken, and often had to be helped to change their uncomfortable positions on the hard, bare floors, with nothing under them but a blanket. One wretched comrade was shot through the bowels, and could not raise his head but he had to vomit. Another was shot through the bladder, another through the wrist—the latter suffered most intensely, all the time walking the floor and moaning—and every one had an ugly wound. All were strangers to Royal, and he has never to this day heard of the fate of a single one of the ill-starred thirteen. Thus did brave men shed their blood on the sacrificial war-altar of their country, for freedom and righteous government, and thus did the daring men, whom Fate spared, tenderly care for their hapless comrades. Royal had several bullets put through his clothes, but he suffered no material injury.

“The battalion to which R. R. belonged was detailed to guard the 1,400 prisoners taken in the battle—the nearly same number of Union soldiers the Confederates had captured in the morning were unfortunately not retaken, as they had at once been hurried off the field to some place of safety—and the next day his duty was to accompany the captive Johnnies on their first march, destined for Point Lookout. They started from Cedar Creek on the 21st and marched to the north side of Winchester, seventeen miles, and then encamped. At ten o’clock in the evening the order came to fall in immediately, and though it was then raining and so pitchy dark that nothing a few feet away could be seen, they were hurriedly marched eleven miles to Bunker Hill. The cause for this hasty night march, it was understood by the rank and file, was to prevent Moseby’s guerrillas from attempting to free the prisoners. This was another dismal war experience that will never be forgotten by Royal and his comrades. It was an intolerably irksome movement through mud so deep and slippery that the men often fell pell-mell into it, and all were covered with the mire from head to foot. It then suddenly grew cold, so that the dirt froze and made their clothing disagreeably stiff. After halting five hours at Bunker Hill, another hurried march of ten miles took them to Martinsburg, where their prisoners were loaded on cars and taken to Baltimore, and thence transported by boat to Point Lookout.

“Two days later the same detachment conveyed a supply train of mule teams back in the direction of Winchester, and by way of variety had a scrap with Moseby at Bunker Hill, but the foxy guerrilla seemed to decide that the detail was able to do its duty and only tarried for a short interview. December 5th found the Ninth New York with the Sixth Corps again on the fighting line, south of Petersburg, being sent there to relive the Fifth Corps, just then starting out on the well-remembered raid to tear up the Weldon Railroad, and complicate matters for the Confederates. There Royal’s regiment did its share of guard and picket duty until the taking of Petersburg and the evacuation of Richmond, April 2, 1865. Here our kinsman recalls an interesting incident, that shows that officers and men sometimes see things in a very different light.The first picket was detailed for three days, five men and a corporal being stationed at each post along the line. The posts were formed of pine brush in the shape of a horseshoe, breast high, the inside of the shoe open to the Union lines, three-fourths of a mile or less to the rear. The Confederate picket line was about 80 rods in front of the posts. One man of each post had to stand about 100 steps in front on guard for two hours, and was then relieved until his turn came again. The corporal in charge of the squad had to post the vidette, and march back to the post with the relief. One night when Royal was on picket duty—and luckily it was the third and last night for his detail—the comrade on guard imagined he saw some Johnnnies sneaking towards the picket line, discharged his gun and hastened back to the post. All instantly fell back from the fire so they could see better; but if there were any of the rebs about, none could be seen, and it was decided to be a false alarm. The officer of the day, failing to see the advantage of falling back, or too ready to exercise his authority, put the corporal under arrest for misconduct. The next night the enemy surprised five of the Union posts, killed one of the guards, and captured twenty-six, because they were compelled to stand by their fires and could not see. The censured corporal was at once reinstated, and thenceforth the pickets were expected to fall back from theirfires when assailed. Live and Learn in war as well as in peace.

“About March 25th A. P. Hill succeeded in breaking the Union line between the Sixth Corps and City Point, by which he obliged R. R. and his comrades to go without rations for several meals, but there was some satisfaction for this in the capture of about 2,500 of the adventuresome Confederates, and in keeping Grant’s lines intact. The picket line of the corps was now advanced, overlapping the enemy’s picket line, and pushing up close to his works. About the 28th the command broke camp, on the receipt of orders to be ready to move at one hour’s notice. On the 31st General Sheridan fought the battle of Five Forks with a part of Lee’s army, and made a big haul of 5,000 prisoners. The men of the Sixth Corps this day lay on their arms ready to be led into action at any moment. They knew that Grant’s plans were working deftly, and believed that the collapse of the Confederacy must soon come. On the following evening, when the shadows of night had fallen so as to conceal the movement, they were aligned in four lines of battle, ready for the proposed general assault, and lay thus on their arms through the night, a vigorous bombardment being meanwhile kept up on the defensive works about Petersburg, now the last great stronghold of the Southern federation, and before the break of day on the morning of the 2d of April they joined in the great general assault, taking the works in their immediate front. Many prisoners were taken, six of whom gave themselves up to Royal, tired of the war, and not a few completely realizing that theirs was a Lost Cause. In a little more than a week later the Army of Northern Virginia was dispersed, and the determined but useless struggle to found a government with the ‘sum of all villainies’ as a corner-stone, after spreading ruin and desolution all over the South, was brought to an inglorious end.

“But Royal was once more engaged in a clash of arms, as he had a hand on the 6th in the fight at Sailor’s Creek, at the time when nearly the whole army was in pursuit of the retreating Confederates, who had not yet agreed to surrender. It was on the 7th that Grant sent the first messenger to General Lee, demanding a surrender, reminding him that it was clearly evident he was now waging a hopeless war. Sheridan, supported by the Second Corps, on the 6th attacked Ewell at Sailor’s Creek, taking 16 guns, 400 wagons, and 6,000 prisoners. This was the last hard fight before the final surrender.

“Lee still, however, seemed to hope to cut his way through the now constantly tightening Union lines—notwithstanding that since the 29th of March 19,132 of his men had been taken prisoners, besides the large number that had been killed and wounded, and the many that had during the flight slipped from the ranks—but he soon realized the further resistance was useless, just as Grant had admonished him, and on the 9th was willing to accept the very lenient terms of surrender offered, his army now being reduced to less than 30,000 officers and men. Yet on the very morning of the 9th, when he asked Grant for an interview in accordance with the terms offered, he actually made a move to break through. It was of no use, however, and to save his men from a needless sacrifice it was quickly abandoned. Sheridan was just getting his men ready for a charge, when the white flag was held up, and—Royal did not get into another fight” (from Heinrich Gernhardt and His Descendants, pp. 254-258).

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