Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Road to Cold Harbor

Over the past few months I've spent quite a bit of my spare time turning my master's thesis into a journal article for publication. My thesis, Love at War: The Civil War Courtship of John L. Hoster and Josephine Cole, explores the impact that the Civil War had on courtship rituals by utilizing primary sources related to Sergeant John L. Hoster of the 148th New York and his future wife, Josephine Cole. In completing this project, I rediscovered how amazing it was to work with such a rich trove of primary source documents. While my thesis focuses particularly on the story of John and Josie's courtship, there are many other incredible aspects of John's story that I was only able to reference briefly, if at all.

As I picked up these sources again, I realized that these stories were ripe for exploring here on the blog. So over the next few months I plan to put together a few posts on John Hoster's wartime story. I hope you will excuse the diversion from Gettysburg.

A bit of background first. John L. Hoster was born on July 15, 1842 in Canoga, New York, a small Finger Lakes village. The 1860 Census lists John as a farm laborer living on his father's farm. In the summer of 1862 John enlisted in the 148th New York, and was elected to serve as a sergeant of Company A, which was recruited primarily from Seneca Falls, Geneva, Fayette, and Canoga.

The 148th left New York in September and was sent to Virginia, where it served around Suffolk and Norfolk in the Department of Virginia. After avoiding combat for much of its early service, in the spring of 1864 the 148th took part in Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler's campaign against Richmond and Petersburg as part of the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, 18th Corps, Army of the James. The unit saw action at Swift creek, Proctor's creek, Drewry's bluff and Bermuda Hundred. The campaign stalled however, as Butler's forces got "bottled up" between the James and Appomattox Rivers. With the Army of the James safe from attack but unable to make further progress, Grant looked to detach troops to send north of the James River to join with the Army of the Potomac in its bloody campaign against the Army of Northern Virginia.

The 18th Corps, commanded by William F. "Baldy" Smith, received orders to join Grant. To do so Smith's 17,000 soldiers would board transports and steam down the James River, round the tip of the Peninsula, and steam up the York and Pamunkey Rivers to White House Landing. Here his troops would disembark and travel the rest of the way overland to link up with the Army of the Potomac east of Richmond. The movement would begin on May 27th.

Throughout the war Sergeant John L. Hoster kept a diary, which he filled with daily entries. His diaries now reside in the Special Collections of the New York State Historical Association here in Cooperstown. Here's what John recorded of the movement to reinforce the Army of the Potomac:

Friday, May 27th
Warm. Received orders at 11 A.M. to be ready to march in half an hour with camp and garrison equipage. We left at 3 P.M. Our knapsacks were not carried for us as was first intended. We moved about 2 miles to the right and some to the rear, where we halted and encamped for the night. I pitched my tent with [John C.] Appleby and [Melvin] Tubbs. There is some prospect of a peaceful night. Appearance of rain this evening.

Saturday, May 28th
Very warm. Reveille about 4:30 this A.M. We had some applesauce for breakfast which I stewed last evening. I put some pockets in my jacket this forenoon. Received a letter from mother and one from Louisa. Potatoe soup for dinner. Fell in line at 2 P.M. I did not go out. Inspection at 4 P.M. I took [Peter] Muldoon's gun out, mine not being very bright. Each Company Commander inspected his own Company. Lt. Van [Lieutenant Cortland Van Rensselaer] is in Command, Capt. [Robert C.] Daly in Corps Hospital. At five o'clock we received orders to be ready to march at 6:15 P.M. Sergeant [Frederick S.] Gibbs drew 4 days rations of hardtack, but received an order from the Col. [George Murray Guion] not to issue but two. We had no sooner returned two days rations when we received another order to issue the whole. They could not be found in time to issue and failing to get transportation, they were left. Left camp at 6:15 - crossed Appomattox on pontoon bridge - marched to within one mile of point and halted for the night. Rained during the march.

Sunday, May 29th
Cool. Arose at 3:30. Resumed march before I could make coffee. Arrived at point at 5 A.M. Beautiful place, negroes doing duty. Embarked on "Thos. A. Morgan" river boat from Yorktown to Old Point and left soon after, proceeding down the river. Gen. [John H.] Martindale in command of Division, Arthur S. Baker from Seneca Falls and Capt.[Alexander] Gilchrist [Jr.] in his staff. I made some coffee for Appleby and me with three pieces of candle I found on the deck. At one o'clock we rounded to and proceeded up the river to the rescue of a transport that had run aground. Succor had been received from other vessels and we proceeded again on our downstream trip, arriving at Ft. Monroe at 3:30 P.M. Appleby made some coffee about 5 o'clock and we had a fine meal on hardtack. Left Ft. Monroe at 6:30 P.M. proceeding up the York River enroute to West Point, laying off at Ft. Monroe just long enough to get provision for the boat. Arrived at Yorktown at 10 o'clock, stopped long enough for the officers to go ashore. 2 A.M. found us anchored off West Point.

"Maj Gen Smith's Expedition disembarks at the White House," sketch by William Waud, May 30, 1864. Library of Congress.
Monday, May 30th
Warm and pleasant. Arose at daylight this morning. Part of the infantry and a portion of the cavalry landed. 6:30 A.M. again found us underway enroute for the White House. Appleby made a good cup of coffee after we started. Officers have good living inside. Truly shoulder straps are trump here. Arrived at White House at 2 P.M. Railroad bridge crosses Pamunky to the James. Saw several white citizens on the shore, both men and women, who waved their hands as we passed. Formed a line after landing and stacked arms and permission was given to make coffee. Indications of the presence of a large cavalry force here not long since, undoubtedly Sheridans. After sundown we moved a short distance to the left across the railroad, formed in column by Divisions and those who felt disposed pitched their tents. Appleby, Tubbs and I pitched ours together. 

Tuesday, May 31st
Very warm. Reveille roused us out this morning some after daylight. After breakfast I wrote a letter to mother, but was obliged to be brief partly because the Chaplain [Ferris Scott] wanted to go with the mail and partly because I learned that we were to get ready to march immediately. We lounged around all forenoon. Transports are continually arriving loaded with troops. We took our knapsacks down and stacked them near a clump of trees. After dinner Jack Rumsey issued an order for sugar and I furnished the money. Crushed loaf at 23cts. a pound. At 1 P.M. Sergeant Gibbs with a squad drew two days rations of hard bread, 4 of salt pork and five of sugar and coffee. We are to carry nothing but our rubber blankets and shelter tents. Occasional firing to the left. General Smith is with us. Left camp this afternoon at 3 P.M., proceeded up the railroad some distance, then striking the main road. The 8th Maine is with our brigade. Our regt. is on the left. We have but little artillery with us. Near dark we came across some of Grant's pickets. At 11 o'clock our regt. halted for the night. About 100 men are going on picket. We lay just in rear of the picket line. The day has been very warm.

 As Sergeant Hoster and his comrades waited through the heat of the day for orders to move out on May 31st, Maj. Gen. Smith awaited for his wagons and reserve ammunition train to arrive at White House. He also sought to clarify his instructions from General Grant, having not heard anything since receiving orders dated May 28th. As the hours passed, Smith began to change his mind, and determined to set out that afternoon without his supply and ammunition trains. Little did Hoster know that afternoon that he and the 148th were setting out toward one of the war's bloodiest one-sided engagements.

No comments:

Post a Comment