Nickerson’s Civil War Memoirs
In 1910, Mark Nickerson began writing a series of letters to his niece, attempting to share some of what he experienced during the Civil War. The following are excerpts from those letters, copies of which were donated to the Cornwall Historical Society by the Carmel Clay Historical Society.
August 26, 1910
…I heard of a Company being formed in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, so I determined to take the cars at Falls Village, 6 miles above West Cornwall for Great Barrington and join the Barrington Company. I didn’t want any of my friends to know anything about it, so in order not to meet anyone I knew who might ask me questions as to where I was going, I went over mountains, through woods and across lots most of the way to Falls Village which place I reached in time to take the noon train for Great Barrington. I soon found the Captain of the Company, who informed me that his Company was already full; but that he could find room for one more. I was under age but gave my age as 21, fearing I would be rejected if I gave my right age—So I was not as good a man as George Washington.
I was given a uniform and when I had put that on I felt that I was just as much of a soldier as any of them.
At first we occupied round Sibley Tents and were packed in like Sardines in a box—we slept with our heads to the outside of the Tent + our feet towards the center. If one man wanted to turn over, they must all turn over at the same time. To avoid confusion one man was appointed Cap’t of the Tent. If he waked up in the night + thought it time to turn over, he would sing out –Attention Company – Turn to the right or turn to the left, and every man was supposed to obey the order. If any man was too sound asleep to hear the order the man next to him would punch him in the ribs until he obeyed the order.
September 27, 1910
In the Spring of 62, McClellan was planing to move his Army to the Paninsula when the Battle between the Monitor + Merimac took place. After the Merimac was finally disposed of the Army of the Potomac went on board Transports + sailed down the Potomac and landed at Hampton, Va.
We found the roads in bad condition from the start, and frequent rains made them still worse, so for a considerable distance we had to build Corduroy roads, in order that supplies might be brought to us as we advanced. We were short of rations at times and had to hunt wild cattle + wild hogs in the woods. We had heard that the Rebels had a strong line of Forts and other fortifications at Williamsburg, and expected our first Battle would be there. The roads improved as we advanced, and after being well supplied with ammunition and rations, the Order came one night to be ready to march the next morning at daylight. Our Regt was near the rear of the column when we started on the march, but our Col. was ambitious for promotion and very anxious to get his Regt to the front to take part in the Battle which he thought was soon to come. He was continually urging the men forward. We passed Regt after Regt + Battery after Battery being obliged to turn out + go in the side of the Road in order to get to the front. Well along in the afternoon [of May 5, 1862] we heard the sound of Battle at the front. We filed out of the road into an open field where we could see the Rebel line of works. Our Colonel was more excited than ever, and led us rapidly across the field to where the fighting was going on, and were in time to see Hancock’s men capture the first Fort in the Rebel line of works by assault. As night was coming on the fighting for the day ended with the general understanding that the next Fort in the line was to be attacked at day break the next morning. We were awakened next morning some time before daylight and had orders not to build any fires. After a hurried Breakfast of Hard Tack + Pork, our Regiment marched around through the woods to the rear of the next For at a point where there was only a narrow clearing between the Fort + the Woods. Here we halted + fixed Bayonets, expecting every moment to be fired on from the Forts. As everything was quiet at the Fort, our Colonel was suspicious that the Rebels had set some trap for us, so he called for 3 or 4 men to volunteer to go forward + investigate. 3 men stepped out of the ranks, and moved forwart cautiously, stopping to listen when near the Fort, then they climbed over the breast works and disappeared inside the Fort. In a few minutes they returned with the information that the Rebels had evacuated the Fort during the night. The program was for 2 other Regiments to attack the Fort in front while our Regiment was to attack in the rear, but the Rebels evacuated their whole line of works and were in full retreat towards Richmond. Thus ended the Battle of Williamsburg and our Colonel had to wait a while longer for his promotion.
I had a chance to walk over the Battlefield while burial parties were burying the dead. About 30 dead men were thrown into a trench, 2 or 3 woolen blankets were thrown over them, and covered with about 2 feet of dirt. This was my first chance to see what war really meant, and I thought to myself, if this is war I have seen enough of it. But this was only the beginning, and before my 3 years was up I had to see war in its most horrid forms. As truth is stranger than fiction, so when you come to talk about the horrors of war the reality is far more horrible than any picture of the imagination. You may read about war, and hear others tell about it, but in order to know what war really means, you have got to be in it, and walk over a Battlefield after a big Battle + see them burying the dead, then visit a field Hospital where the worst cases of wounded are taken. Then you will begin to realize what war really means.
December 15, 1910
[Battle of Malvern Hill]
Many of the men dropped on the ground and were soon fast asleep— others were talking in low tons, telling their Chums what to do, or where to write in case they were killed. I had a package of letters I had received from my young Lady Friends—I tore them up into small pieces + scattered them on the ground. No one should read those letters if I was killed. As we lay there in the woods, the silence was oppressive—not a leaf stirred on the trees—not a puff of air—the only sounds we could hear, was the low subdued tones of the men talking to each other, + off to the front in the woods, we could hear at a distance what sounded like the tramping of Soldiers + giving of orders. It was the calm before the storm. As the ominous sounds in the woods on our front grew louder + seemed to be coming nearer, the men who were asleep were quietly awakened, + we were all told to examine our guns. The Rebs had set out on this Campaign to crush the Army of the Potomac + we knew full well that they would not give it up without another bloody Battle. So here we were awaiting the attack. We had been able to get but little snatches of sleep for 7 days + nights. Most of that time we had been on the move. Our Haversacks were empty + we had been out of rations for 24 + 36 hours. We were a hollow-eyed, wild looking set of men, + a dangerous set to tackle. Suddenly the storm broke in all its fury, like a thunder shower in Summer when the wind gets into it + brings it up from the North West, only a thousand times more fearful than any thunder Shower. At a given signal, Battery after Battery came out of their hiding place on a gallop, wheeled quickly into position + limbered up for action. The Infantry came out of their hiding places, + quickly formed in line of Battle. … As we were marching by the flank to take our place in line of Battle, I noticed running Black Berries on the ground and stooped down several times to pick a Black Berry, as I was hungry + Thirsty. The Orderly Sergeant spoke to me quite sharply, + told me to mind what I was about. I told him I knew what I was about, + before the Battle was over had had a chance to see that I knew what I was about.
Before reaching our lines the Rebs had to cross quite a large open field in range of our Artillery, and when near to our lines, they would be lost to our sight for a short time, as they crossed a lower stretch of ground, then they would come into plain view again on a level with our line of Battle. It seems terrible to think of now the way those brave men were cut down by the fire of our Artillery to say nothing of the Rifle fire from the Infantry, but we Just gloried in it then. Our fighting blood was up. They were after us—would kill us if they could—and the more we killed of them the better chance we stood for our own lives.
June 26, 1912
…and altho Antietam was a splendid Victory for our side, yet the Potomac Army was wellnigh exhausted with marching + fighting, and many of the men were in a very destitute condition in regard to clothing—some had one shoe, many had none at all. During my 3 years in the Army of the Potomac, I never saw that Army so destitute of Clothing as at this time.
Feb 14 – 13: Spottsylvania 2nd
It was indeed a sad day for the Army of the Potomac when the news spread from Regt to Regt that Sedgwick was dead. He was a very modest + unassuming man, and was universaly respected + beloved by the whole army, officers + privates. He was twice offered the command of the Army of the Potomac, but declined to take upon himself so great a responsibility. He was a Cornwall man, and his body was brought Home and burried in Cornwall Hollow near the Old Sedgwick Homestead. The death of Sedgwick changed Grant’s plans…
No Date: Cold Harbor
The 19th Conn stood the brunt of the fight on the part of the line where we were, and lost heavily, Col Kellogg being among the killed. The fight lasted only a short time but was very destructive while it lasted. Grant soon saw his mistake, and stopped the fight, and went to fortifying. We were in the 2nd line and our loss was comparatively small. After the 19th Conn withdrew we were in the front line, and were ordered to dig Rifle Pits which we were glad to do for our own protection.
Some men started a small fire a little in the rear of the Rifle Pits + cooked their Coffee. Others kept up the fire + cooked their Coffee in quart Cups or small pails. One man was bending over the fire to get his cup of Coffee when a bullet hit him in the head, and he fell on to the fire dead, killed by a Rebel Sharp Shooter up in a tree. His Comrades pulled the dead body off the fire, and others kept on using the fire just the same.
No Date: The Home Coming + Reception of 10th Mass
I couldn’t help but think of the time we paraded the Streets of Springfield on 4th of July before we went to War. Then the Regt was over 1000 strong, now there was about 250 left. More died from sickness and hard marching than were killed in Battle. The sadest thing about our Homecoming was the fact that so many went out with us in the pride + prime of life who didn’t come back with us + who never will come back.
I slept in the Soldiers Home that night, + the next morning the man in charge gave me enough money to pay my fare Home. My Home when I went to War was with my Aunt, an elderly lady + an Old Maid. She took me to bring up after my Father died. She was what was called at that time a Copperhead. She favored the South, and even advised me to run away from the Army. I think that she was glad afterwards that I didn’t follow her advice. Of course my Aunt was glad to see me Home all save + sound, but she felt bitter towards the Government at Washington and the reception she gave me was not very enthusiastic. After being home a week, we all went back to Springfield, and were paid off and mustered out of the service of Uncle Sam.
No Date, Antietam Campaign: legal size paper
Right after the Battle I helped carry a wounded man back to the Field Hospital where the wounded who required Surgical Operations were carried, + I had a chance to look around + see what was being done. Just outside the Hospital tent was a pile of legs + arms about 3 feet high. In the Tent one man was fastened to an iron frame, his leg had been taken off above the knee—and a Surgeon + his attendant were taking up the arteries. Another man, also strapped to an Iron frame, + a Surgeon was sawing off the bone of his arm above where it was shattered by an exploding Shell. A man was sitting in a chair with hands clasped tight to the sides of the chair, his teeth set, his face white as a Sheet, while a Surgeon was probing for a bullet among the cords of his neck. Another man lying on a cot arrangement with an eye partly gouged out by a piece of shell—2 Doctors were consulting as to whether the eye would have to be taken out entirely or put back in place. A large powerful looking man was lying on his back on a stretcher with a bullet hole in his forehead. He was only just alive, it was a mistake to bring him there. But I will stop or change the subject somewhat. Pardon me if I have gone too far in depicting the horrors of war. I never had any desire after that to look into a Hospital tent right after a Battle.