Great Description of the Work that Berdan Sharp Shooter “California Joe” did in Yorktown, Virginia in Killing the Enemy – Capt. Harry C. Fay, Co. H 92nd N.Y. Infantry, Yorktown, Va. July 6, 1862
This long 4 legal size page letter in nice dark ink was written by Capt. Harry C Fay. Enlisting on October 15th, 1861, the 92nd N.Y. Infantry headed for the Peninsula Campaign and found themselves at Yorktown. Capt. Harry (as lie signs the letter) was very impressed with the work of the Berdan Sharp Shooters and in particular “California Joe”. Here is the great content:
- Camp Dix, Yorktown July 5, 1862. Dear Old Bill, “There is a deal of trouble on the old man’s mind”. “Carrie for NY”. We don’t know what we will do next. We were all prepared to leave this horrid place, when behold: an order arrives, “Garrison the Fort; Hold Yorktown” and immediately all hands are at work, mounting cannon, throwing up new earthworks and all are engaged at the delightful task of “Spades and Trumps”.
- You are a curiosity hunter, and it would do you good to be here, and if I had any means of sending, could supply you with any quantity of relics, trophies, & etc.
- There was a monument on the spot where Cornwallis surrendered to Washington. It was quite a fine one, but alas: “nary” monument remains, only a small piece. It has been all taken as mementos.
- In another place was buried, two of Gen. Washington’s Staff Officers. A neat wooden railing surrounded the place at one time, but all you can find is a few stumps and a very little of either tombstones remain.
- The old entrenchments, thrown up by Washington, can still be seen. They are covered with grass and look like trenches dug in a swampy piece of land to drain it.
- But by far the most wonderful of anything seen in these parts, is the works of McClellan’s stretching from the York River south, almost to the James. Just leaving a hole from which the Rebels crept out. Had they given him three more days “they were lost”, and the “rebellion crushed”.
- Parallel upon parallel, he kept edging up toward the Yorktown entrenchments until his men could pick the men off from the Rebels Army as soon as they showed themselves from behind their sand bags.
- There is a large tree, (I should think it measured 13 or 14feet at the base, and must have stood in the time of the First Foreign Vagrant who came here); it will comfortably hold ten men inside. FROM THIS TREE “CALIFORNIA JOE” (YOU HAVE READ OF HIM IN THE PAPERS) SHOT SO MANY MEN – HIS “MODUS OPERANDI” WAS TO CLIMB UP INSIDE, AND HAVING FIXED A PLATFORM ON WHICH TO STAND, HE COULD SECURELY, PICK OFF THE REBELS WITH EASE.
- A negro thought to play the same game for the Rebels. There had been a house a short distance from Yorktown which had been burned down, and only the chimney remained. You are well aware that they built all houses down “Yere” with the chimneys outside the house. There was nothing standing but this chimney…
- …FROM THIS, THIS BLACK “S-0-A-B” SUCCEEDED IN KILLING A NUMBER OF OUR MEN, BUT HIS TIME WAS SHORT. CALIFORNIA JOE WAS SENT FOR AND HAVING RECONNOITERED, HE TOOK UP HIS “POSISH” IN A PIT, DUG FOR THE PURPOSE IN THE NIGHT. • THE NEXT DAY AT DAYBREAK, THE BLACK CAME TOWARDS THE CHIMNEY. JOE WAITED UNTIL HE STARTED TO CRAWL UP, AND THEN HE LET HIM HAVE TT. “HE NEVER SMILED AGAIN”.
- California Joe returned to his tree, and our men have been digging out the bullets, which were fired at him. The tree is perfectly riddled.
- Still “Old Joe Kicks it up a hind and afore” before Richmond and they have not shot him yet. • HE IS WORTH A WHOLE REGIMENT.
- At one time, years before the first F.F.V.s great, great, great, greatest grand-fathers, great mother was born, this place must have been the bed of a river. It may be that the James and York were one, for as you see, you turn up shells, and other things going to show it. The bank on the river (York) is 30 or 4o feet high, and you can see the shells deeply embedded in it, “Strata upon Strata”…
- The land is covered with shot and shell for miles, all kinds, solid shot as large as your head, case shot, grape, chain shot, bullets all kinds and digging the other day, a man in my company came across an old flint lock musket and an old spade, the woodwork almost gone – supposed to have been used in the Revolution.
- There is a large Rebel burying ground here, as also a Union site. When we first arrived here, they were burying the poor fellows, from six to ten per day. I suppose you are aware that this place has been used as a hospital for some time.
- On walking through the burying ground, you will see such tombstones (made out of wood and marked with lamp black and turpentine) as these… “Stranger of the Army of the Potomac”. Poor fellows, without friends without a home – how miserable must that person be who has not someone to look to, when far away from the place where he was born – no wife, mother, sisters, or friends, “Strangers in a Strange Country”. Perhaps they had to join the army to keep from starving. These indeed must be an unhappy lot.
- But I am getting solemn and that is something which does not agree with me – so I drink your good health and proceed. Yesterday was the fourth – all day long the boys were at work in Yorktown. In the evening when they came out, and into camp, they commenced to get ready to celebrate in a becoming manner the greatest day in the year.
- They have been saving their candles ever since they had been out so they had quite a large lot, every street was illuminated, and forming a procession with torches (made out of candles stuck in their bayonets) they marched with the full drum corps, to the Colonel’s tent, gave him three cheers, then they marched through the Company Officer’s street cheered them, then through the Company streets cheering all the time.
- Some devils started out, “ran the guard” and having collected a lot of brush, rail fences, & etc., set fire to the big tree of which I have spoken before. I was Officer of the Day, & it was my duty to see to such things – so I started off a guard with a barrel of water (fastened on 2 wheels) to put the fire out, of course when the men saw the “Machine” going they pitched in & helped put the fire out.
- Some of “Le Erb faus Pardrun” who are stationed at Yorktown, came down with an old fire engine. They had not more than arrived before our boys pitched into them in real style, and drove them off, seized the “Machine” and formed their procession again. They kept it up until 1/2 past 9 when the taps sounded and lights out. All was as still as if there never had been a Fourth.
- At the General’s Quarters in Yorktown, they had fireworks, music, “Whiskie” & etc. “Glouster”, a small town opposite to Yorktown, and vacated by everyone except Rats, Lice, Wood Ticks, and such like varmints, was set on fire early in the evening. The whole place was burned to the ground – it was a beautiful sight. You could see to read… the rockets from the fort looked pale.
- I am not positive whether we will remain here, return to Ft. Monroe and up James River to Was. or go to Aquia Creek. There are rumors for all three.
- If you write, (and I should be happy to hear from you) direct… Co. H. Fortress Monroe, Va. or elsewhere and I will get it. I am not certain whether you will ever receive this as the mails are very irregular, but if you don’t, “Write and let me know”. With respects to your mother, wife, sisters & brother. I am as ever; Your Old Friend, Capt. Harry
- Give my respects to Moe Williams and all the boys in the store and if you see Mullary, remember me to the Noble Camp. H.
A truly history filled letter with a wonderful description of California Joe.
#L7-5-62NY – Price $1,250