Lieut. William W. Wells, Co. F, 58th Pa. Infantry Writes from “Camp Suffolk, Va.” in December 1862 – He Describes & DRAWS A MAP of their Expedition to the Blackwater River – “IF THERE’S ANYTHING THAT WILL MAKE A MAN DODGE, IT IS A PARROT SHELL” – “A CURIOUS SOUND THEIR PARROT SHELLS HAVE. SOMETHING LIKE A RAILROAD CAR UNDER FULL MOTION” – “THEY CAME THICKER AND FASTER, BURSTING ALL AROUND US, TEARING OFF LARGE BRANCHES OF TREES AND STRIKING IN AMONG US.”
William W. Wells enlisted as a Private in Co. F of the 58th Pa. Infantry. He would be promoted to 2nd Lieut. on Feb. 13th, 1862 and that is his rank as he writes home to a “Dear Friend”. William would be wounded at the battle of Newbern, N.C. on May 26th, 1864 and have his leg amputated. He would need it re-amputated several weeks later and died from his wounds. The letter is 5 pages in nice dark ink with the hand-drawn map on the 6th page.
- Camp Suffolk, Va. Dec. 22, 1862. Ferry’s Brigade Peck’s Division. My Dear Friend, I received your last tonight and not being very busy, I take the opportunity to answer it.
- I must tell you about our last raid on the Blackwater. A week ago last Thursday morning, I was thinking what I should do to pass away the time when an orderly came into camp with the following. “58 Regiment will form on the South Quay Road at 12 a.m. with three days’ rations.”
- Then there was hurrying to and fro. Blankets & overcoats were rolled up. Haversacks filled and cartridge boxes replenished. By one o’clock the line was formed. It consisted of two brigades of Infantry, Foster’s and Ferry’s, parts of two regiments of Cavalry, Howard’s field battery, and a section of Follet’s.
- We were soon in motion and the day being warm and pleasant, we made good progress. Just at dusk we camped in a cleared field to get supper. In a few minutes the fence rails were blazing in hundreds of bright golden fires which lit up the dark. Groups of men gathered around. Running through the wild chaos were long lines of bright muskets stacked with mathematical precision.
- A tap of drums and the chaos disappears as with the strike of a magician’s wands and behind the bright stacks are long dark walls of men, each ready to play his part in the vast machine at which he is a member.
- At 8 we were again in motion. The division was reversed with the artillery and pontoon bridges in front and now commenced our troubles. The night was very cold, clear and frosty. The overladen pontoon wagons and artillery sinking in the mud delayed us at every step.
- There was hour after hour when we could advance but a few yards at a time. I got so sleepy toward daybreak that I would fall asleep as we were marching along until some sudden jolt would awaken me. It was sunrise before we reached the Blackwater. All was quiet and we went into the woods on the left of the road – “on the right by file into line.”
- We had hardly taken our position and we received orders to change it, and after 22 hours of almost continuous marching, we pushed down to the right of the line double quick. We filed to the right of the line into the edge of a cleared field, threw down the fence, stacked arms and prepared breakfast.
- We had just got our fires built when our parrots woke the echoes of the Blackwater in tones of thunder on our left, and then the scattering drops of musketry like the pattering of heavy rain drops before a shower announced that our skirmishes had commenced the action.
- Then a heavy volley from the Rebs in answer, but we were too busy just then to pay much attention to what was going on around us until we had finished our breakfast. There was a lull in the storm, and then it opened on our right, passed down the center and opened on the left fiercer than before.
- Again there was a lull and then the clear morning air was rent with deafening shouts announcing a charge. Just then an aid came up. “The 58th will support Howard’s battery on the right.” We went down the road and formed in line in the woods on the left of the battery. Line companies were deployed as skirmishers. Two pieces of artillery were planted at the railroad crossing and commenced firing on the Rebel battery across the river, which replied, but our skirmishers with their boisterous rifles soon made the place too hot for comfort and the Rebs left double quick.
- Our Col. and some of the men crossed over and brought away some guns and fresh meat which they lost in recrossing. THEY FOLLOWED THE REBEL CAPT. SO CLOSE THAT HE SHOT HIS OWN HORSE AND TOOK TO THE WOODS.
- Along the whole line we could hear the graybacks calling us all sorts of names and daring us to come over. All this time I lay on my back looking up at the sky about half asleep. But the artillery having ceased firing, I went down to the railroad track to see what was going on.
- With my glass I could see two or three groups of Rebs on the track a long ways off, while just to the left a group was very busily engaged among the low pines. A puff of smoke was the result of their labors. Then came the roar of a parrot shell which burst high in air half a mile short.
- At this moment Company D, which had been deployed as skirmishers, came up on the railroad embankment. The Rebs fired twice more at them, both shots falling short. I shouted to them that the Rebs were after them and they obliqued off the track.
- At this moment the artillery came back and the Lieut. wanted to know where their shots came from. I gave him my glass. At the same moment they fired again. THE SIGHT OF OUR RIFLED PARROT WAS TRAINED UPON THE SMOKE AND ERE THEIR SHELL HAD REACHED US, A REPLY WAS ON THE WAY. It fell short.
- Try them again, Corporal says to the Lt. AGAIN OUR RIFLE SENT FORTH ITS IRON MESSENGER. The cloud of smoke from the bursting shell mingled with that from the enemies’ gun. Well done, Corporal, says the Lieut. Give them another. He handed me back my glass and having no particular desire to be made a target of, I went back to the regiment.
- What’s up, Lieut.? Oh, nothing much. They cannot reach us. The words were hardly out of my mouth when a shell passed some 300 feet above our heads, striking nearly a mile beyond. Concluded they could reach us.
- WE NOW REQUIRED ORDERS TO RETIRE. THE REGIMENT WAS REFORMED. THE MOMENT OUR ARTILLERY WAS WITHDRAWN, THE SOUND OF A SHELL COMING STRAIGHT TOWARDS ME. NOW IF THERE’S ANYTHING THAT WILL MAKE A MAN DODGE, IT IS A PARROT SHELL. I KNEW THAT SHELL WAS COMING CLOSE TO ME AND I ALSO KNEW THAT MANY GUNS WERE UPON ME. IT PASSED SOME TEN FEET ABOVE MY HEAD AND BURST SOME 50 YARDS BEYOND WITH A LOUD REPORT.
- Half the company fell flat on their faces. I laughed at them for dodging after the shell had passed. Directly, another passed behind me, and THEN THEY CAME THICKER AND FASTER, BURSTING ALL AROUND US, TEARING OFF LARGE BRANCHES OF TREES AND STRIKING IN AMONG US. Our Col. seemed disposed to take things cooly until they began to come pretty close to him, breaking a musket and knocking over three or four men by his side. Hi yi, says he, I guess they are getting the range of us. “Right face, double quick march.” We went back to where we stopped in the morning. The boys grumbling about leaving without a fight.
- Concluded we would have some dinner. Had just unstrung out knapsacks when up comes an aid. The enemy are receiving reinforcements from Petersburg. We had heard the cars whilst skirmishing. The division will fall back to Windsor. The 58th will form the rear guard.
- Attention, Battalion. Take arms. Shoulder arms. Left face. Double quick march. I was not prepared to leave in such a hurry, and it cost me a good long run to catch up. It was dark when we reached Windsor and stacked arms in the field just beyond. We had been marching most of the time for over thirty hours, had nothing to eat since morning, so you may guess we were hungry as well as tired.
- It did not take long to distribute the fence rails and make a little coffee. Having eaten supper, I spread my blanket before the fire and was soon I struggling. But about that argument, etc., I think I could do the subject more justice now.
- A CURIOUS SOUND THEIR PARROT SHELLS HAVE. SOMETHING LIKE A RAILROAD CAR UNDER FULL MOTION. I like to hear them go. That is, when they are going towards the Rebs. Can’t say as there is much music in the sound, especially when they are shot out of a Rebel gun, and you have a uneasy conviction that they are going to land somewhere in your immediate vicinity.
- They are giving us plenty of work here now. I just came off picket this morning, and I have got to go on fatigue tomorrow. So good night and pleasant dreams to you. Give kind regards to all inquiring friends. Write soon. Your friend, Wm. W. Wells
ON THE FINAL PAGE IS A HAND-DRAWN MAP OF SKIRMISHING DESCRIBED IN THIS LETTER. A great action filled letter.
#L12-22-62 PA – Price $850