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Memoirs of the Civil War: Between the Northern and Southern Sections of the United States of America 1861 to 1865 by William W. Chamberlaine

Memoirs of the Civil War: Between the Northern and Southern Sections of the United States of America 1861 to 1865
William W. Chamberlaine

Service With the Infantry. 

In the year 1859 (I was then twenty-three years old) John Brown attempted to array the negroes in Northern Virginia against the white people, and with his followers, mostly negroes, took possession of Harper's Ferry. Troops were dispatched to the scene by the U. S. Government, as there was an Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, and after a short struggle John Brown and his followers were taken prisoners and turned over to the authorities of Virginia. There were some casualties during the fight, which was conducted by Col. R. E. Lee assisted by Lieut. J. E. B. Stewart, both of the Regular U. S. Cavalry and an officer of the U. S. Marines, on the part of the Government. That attempt of John Brown excited the Military spirit of the young men and Volunteer Companies were formed in different places in Virginia. 

At Norfolk, Va., a Company was formed by the young gentlemen of the City, and was called the Southern Guard and Company F. I had attended the Norfolk Military Academy in my youth, and was quite proficient in the School of the Company and of the Battalion. An election was held for officers, both Commissioned and Non-Commissioned, and I was elected Corporal. The Company was commanded by Captain Edmond Bradford, formerly an officer of the U. S. Artillery, with Harry Williamson, who had served in the War with Mexico, as First Lieutenant, and R. C. Taylor, a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, as Second Lieutenant. Walter H. Taylor was First Sergeant. 

The Company was drilled and paraded during two years following. In the meantime Sergeant Taylor had been promoted, by election, to Second Lieutenant to fill a vacancy and I was made First Sergeant. Then came the election of A. Lincoln as President. The Gulf States began to pass ordinances of Secession from the Union. In March following Lincoln was inaugurated and took his place at the head of the Government. Step by step in the next month acts were committed by the Seceded States and the U. S. Government which led to the War. A convention was in session at Richmond, Va. A majority of the members were opposed to Secession and great efforts were made to preserve peace, but when the President called upon the States for their quota of a force of seventy-five thousand men to coerce the Seceded States, the Virginia Convention decided to join the Gulf States and passed an ordinance of Secession. I was then staying at my father's house on E. Main Street, and that same night at twelve o'clock, there was a ring of the front door bell. It was a messenger with an order for me to assemble Company F at the Armory. Before 2.00 A. M., the Company having assembled, it was marched by Lieut. Williamson by way of Ghent to Fort Norfolk. The distance was two miles. At Ghent the command was given to halt and load. The muskets being loaded we proceeded to Fort Norfolk. 

On the way rumors were heard that other Volunteer Companies had preceded us to the Fort and had been attacked by U. S. Marines from the Navy Yard and cut to pieces. On arrival it was found that the rumors were false. Several Companies had reached the Fort and were removing ammunition; that being a Magazine of the U. S. Navy. During the rest of that night and all the next day, the work of removing the ammunition went on. There were some alarms during the day, but no effort was made by the U. S. officers to stop the work. There were several U. S. Ships at the Navy Yard, one mile distant, and one shell dropped near the Fort, I believe, would have caused a cessation of the work, because it might have blown up the whole Fort, by setting fire to the ammunition. By sunset the large stock of powder and shell had been hauled back one mile and piled on the land of Mr. Robert Searles. 

The men of our Company had now been at work about twenty hours and were much fatigued, so they were marched back to the Armory; when they arrived there the U. S. Navy Yard had been abandoned by the Ships, including the "Pawnee," which arrived during the afternoon, and was in flames. The Company remained on duty at the Armory until early in the month of May. Meantime Lieut. Williamson was promoted to be Captain, and I to be Lieutenant, by election. It was ordered to Craney Island. Lieut. W. H. Taylor was called to the Staff of General R. E. Lee, and E. M. Hardy and Duncan Robertson elected Lieutenants. 

The garrison of Craney Island was reinforced from time to time until the force reached the total of nine hundred men. Earth works were raised along the front of the Island and cannon from the Navy Yard mounted. Company "F" held the right of the right of the line, at the point where stood an old block house built of brick and the earth works enclosed the space. Captain Charles Dimmock, of the Engineer Corps, was in charge of the construction of the earth works and Captain H. Williamson was detailed to assist him. Our first commanding officer was Col. Richardson, an appointee of Governor Letcher. Captain Wm. McBlair and Lieut. Commander Fitzgerald of the Navy were also on duty there. I was detailed as Adjutant of the Post. Afterwards Col. Richardson was ordered to other duty and Col. F. H. Smith, of the Virginia Military Institute, was placed in command. He was accompanied by Lieut. Col. Preston and Major S. Crutchfield. At my request I was relieved from the position of Adjutant and returned to duty with Company "F," which I commanded (the Captain having been detailed as stated), until the month of May in the year 1862. Dr. H. M. Nash was the Surgeon of the Command. The Command was drilled regularly as Infantry and also at the Naval Guns. The young ladies of Norfolk sent a deputation to the Island and presented Company "F " with a very handsome silk Confederate States Flag, which was received with a most agreeable but solemn ceremony. The Enemy occupied Fort Monroe and Newport News, and had several Men-of-War at each place. Meantime the force at Norfolk and vicinity was organized into Regiments and Brigades. General Benjamin Huger commanded the Department and Generals Blanchard and Mahone the Brigades. In that organization our Company became Company ''G" of the 6th Virginia Infantry. Many times a small steamer came from Old Point displaying a flag of truce and our Commanding Officer would send a barge with an officer to meet the same. The Steamboat William Selden, Captain T. S. Southgate, made two regular trips from Norfolk to the Island. Sometimes she was replaced by the Kahukee, Captain Babel Taylor. One morning in the fall Lieut. Duncan Robertson and I went to the wharf on the arrival of the William Selden. As the lines were cast off for her departure, a newsboy named Bremmer made a leap to reach the deck of the boat, but missed and fell into the water at the end of the pier. The water was deep and he sank. A heaving line was thrown to him as he rose, but he failed to get it; then several pieces of cord wood. He sank out of sight twice. I could not bear seeing the youth drown, so I removed my uniform coat and plunged into the water with the purpose of taking the loose end of the heavy line and passing it to him. A man on the deck of the steamer held one end of the line, but the steamer drifted away. I swam to the loose end, then turned and swam to the boy who was struggling to keep above the surface of the water with a stick of wood, which was not enough to sustain him. I placed the line in his hands and it sustained him, then I swam to the side of the steamer and seized the loop of one of her large lines hanging from her sides. Thus young Bremmer and myself were supported by lines and we remained in that position until a small boat was rowed from the shore and took us both to the Island. The water was very cold, so I proceeded at once to my quarters and remained in bed for several hours and there were no bad results from my plunge. Bremmer's father was a member of the Company commanded by Captain Wilbern and was a tailor by trade. He was grateful for what I had done for his young son and took my clothes and dried and pressed them nicely. In the afternoon a flag of truce boat was sighted and I received an order to go out in the barge to meet it. I promptly obeyed the order and had the pleasure of escorting three ladies to Norfolk who had been permitted to pass through the lines. They were Mrs. General Wm. Martin, Mrs. C. M. Fry, formerly Miss Leigh, daughter of Benj. Wiatkins Leigh, of Virginia, and Mrs. Harvey, wife of an officer of the English Army, who was in the Federal Service and was among the missing at the Battle of Balls' Bluff near Leesburg, Va. Mrs. Harvey was permitted to pass through the lines in search of her husband. I have never heard whether she found him. 

By that flag of truce, also came the news of the seizure of Mason and Slidell on their way to Europe to represent the Confederate States. They had taken passage at Havana on an English Passenger Ship which was intercepted by a United States Man-of-War and Messrs. Mason and Slidell taken as prisoners. Towards the end of the year Colonel Smith was relieved and went back to the Virginia Military Institute, accompanied by Lieut. Col. Preston; Major Crutchfield was transferred to a regiment serving in the Western part of Virginia. Lieut. Col. J. A. DeLagnel, the hero of the battle of Rich Mountain, just released from Fort LaFayette, New York Harbor, assumed command and Major Mark Hardin, from the Stonewall Brigade, took the place of Major S. Crutchfield. Col. DeLagnel had served in the 2nd Artillery of the U. S. Army and was a very accomplished officer and was highly esteemed by the garrison. That garrison was fortunate to have had so many excellent superior officers. 

I turn aside for a moment from my own recollections to relate a story told me by Col. DeLagnel. When hostilities commenced he was on duty at the U. S. Arsenal at Fayetteville, N. C. The Arsenal was surrounded by a large force of North Carolina Soldiers and its surrender demanded. As it was manifestly useless to try to defend the place garrisoned by one Company, the Commanding Officer agreed to surrender, provided he would be permitted to march his Company away with their arms and baggage. Colors flying and drums beating, the Company was marched to the Steamboat landing and proceeded to the mouth of the Cape Fear River, and embarked on a schooner for New York City. They reached that place in due time, and then took a train for Washington, D. C. There the Company was turned over to the U. S. Authorities and DeLagnel handed in his resignation. His duty performed, he went to the Paymaster to settle his account, which was done, but to pay the balance due him up to that date, the Paymaster said he was ordered to give a draft on the funds which the U. S. Government had in the hands of the Officer of the Treasury at Charleston, S. C. The State of South Carolina having seceded, whatever funds had been there when hostilities commenced, were then held by the Confederate States Government. As he knew the draft would not be honored, DeLagnel refused to accept it. The balance remained to his credit until about 1886, when after the lapse of so many years it was finally recovered. 

When Major Crutchfield left the Island Col. Smith directed an escort of two Companies to go to Norfolk with him. Captain R. C. Taylor's Company and our own formed  the escort. That was the last time these Companies, as organizations, visited their native city. 

In our Company, now Company "G" 6th  Virginia Infantry, there were many of the  dear friends of my youth. As it was composed of young men of intelligence, many of  the best families of Norfolk, besides many  who came from other parts of the State, a  great many were eagerly sought for to fill responsible positions in the Confederate Army.  My friend, John H. Sharp, was appointed  Captain and Commissary of Subsistence. He  accepted at first, but afterwards decided not  to hold the position, and at his request my older brother, George Chamberlaine, was appointed in his place and was ordered to the Post of Craney Island. My friend, Theoderick A. Williams, was appointed Sergeant Major of the regiment, and as the Colonel, Wm. Mahone, and most of the companies were stationed at an entrenched camp near Norfolk, he reported at that Camp. There  were four brothers of the Urquhart family  from Southampton Co., F. M. Whitehurst,  from Princess Anne Co., two brothers, Robinson, from Washington, D. C, also two brothers of the Todd family, Henry and George M., I. Barry King and others. On the 8th of March, 1862, the "Iron Clad Virginia," rebuilt from the U. S. Ship "Merrimac," came down from the Navy Yard and passed our Fort on the way to Newport News. Colonel DeLagnel ordered the Command to Arms. The guns were manned and the result of the attack on the ships at Newport News was awaited with anxiety and excitement. Newport News, seven miles distant, is in plain sight of Craney Island, and the weather was perfectly clear. From our positions at our guns we could see all the maneuvers; could see the smoke of the guns, the Slinking of the ''Cumberland," the arrival of two Confederate Steamships from Richmond, and the attack on the "Congress." The "Virginia" was accompanied by the small armed ship "Beaufort" and several armed tug boats, all of which participated in the engagement. We saw the "Congress" hoist sails and attempt to slip away, but she ran aground near Newport News. After awhile we could see that she was on fire and was still burning, when fatigued by the excitement of the day, we fell asleep. We could see several of the U. S. Ships start towards Newport News to the aid of the "Congress." All, after having proceeded a short distance, returned to Old Point, except the ''Minnesota," which ship ran aground about three miles and a half from Newport News, that is, about half way from Old Point. At dusk the Confederate ships anchored off Sewall's Point. Next morning, the 9th, we were up early and I was told the Magazine of the "Congress" exploded about 4.00 A. M., but it did not wake me. Soon after daylight the "Virginia" proceeded to attack the "Minnesota," still aground. I saw a shell strike a tug boat lying alongside of the "Minnesota," and an escape of steam. Then the "Monitor" appeared and an engagement followed between the "Virginia" and the "Monitor" which lasted several hours. We could see the shots rebound from the ironsides of both vessels. The engagement ceased, but we could not see well enough to determine the reason, as both vessels were constantly changing positions. It was said the "Monitor" moved into shoal water, where the "Virginia" with her deep draft of water could not follow. That afternoon the Confederate Ships went up to the Navy Yard. Some weeks after the "Virginia" accompanied by several small armed steamers, passed down towards Old Point and captured a transport. 

The U. S. Vessels did not show any disposition to engage the Confederate Ships and the latter returned to the Navy Yard. In the spring of 1862, the Army of the Potomac was transferred from its line of defenses near Alexandria to a point on the Virginia Peninsula near York Town and commenced the seize of that place. On our side the regiments were reorganized. Elections were held according to the law in the Companies for Captain and Lieutenants, and then the Company-officers were convened to elect Field Officers. H. Williamson was re-elected Captain and E. M. Hardy, Duncan Robertson, and John T. Eester, Lieutenants of Company ''G." When the Company Officers of the regiment were convened for the election of Field Officers, Major George T. Rogers was elected Colonel, Captain H. Williamson Lieut. Colonel, and Captain Robert B. Taylor, Major, of the 6th Virginia Regiment of Infantry. 

Early m May, 1862, the Confederate troops were withdrawn from Norfolk and its vicinity and proceeded to Petersburg, Va. Early one morning my colored servant called at my father's house to inform me that the Federal forces were advancing on the City and the Confederate troops were leaving. I was not in the service at that time, having in mdnd the intention of becoming the Adjutant of a new Regiment, and in case that was not attained, to attach, myself to a Battery of Light Artillery to be raised by Major S. Crutchfield, who wished me to take the place of First Sergeant. Neither of those plans was carried out. A new Act of Congress forestalled the organization of the new Regiment and Major Crutchfield was appointed to a position on the Staff of Major General (Stonewall) Jackson. I went to Petersburg and lived at the Bolingbrooke Hotel two weeks, when I received a message from Captain Hardy that there was a vacant Lieutenancy in Company "G" and the Company desired me to fill it. I consented to the proposition and was duly elected and reported for duty to Col. Rogers at Drewry's Bluff, where Mahone's Brigade was in Camp. There the Brigade was on outpost duty below Fort Darling, which position was menaced by the Federal Gunboats. Towards the end of May the 6th Regiment was sent across the James River and attached to General Wise's Command', which was guarding the right flank of the Army under Gen. Jos. E. Johnson. On the 30th of May we saw President Davis and Gen. Jos. E. Johnson near our Camp examining the position. That night a very severe thunder storm came up with wind and a deluge of rain. Many tents were blown down and the camp flooded. The lightning was very sharp and the clouds hung over us for several hours. The Battle of Seven Pines occurred the next day. Seven Pines is about seven miles from Chapin's Bluff, where the 6th Virginia Regiment was at that time. The noise of that battle did not reach us. The other part of the Brigade was marched with Huger's Division to Seven Pines and was engaged on the second day of the battle — June 1st.

William W. Chamberlaine, Memoirs of the Civil War: Between the Northern and Southern Sections of the United States of America 1861 to 1865 (Washington D. C.: Press of Byron S. Adams, 1912), 5-16.


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