duckin’, dodgin’, and dirt

In the trenches at Cold Harbor.

The first part of this letter might be an example of gallows humor, especially since Chaplain Scott just missed getting shot in the head.

From a Seneca County, New York newspaper in 1864:

LETTERS from CHAPLAIN SCOTT OF THE 148th

We are permitted to publish the following extracts from private letters written by Rev. FERRIS SCOTT to friends in this Village [Seneca Falls]:

In my “Hole in the Ground,” in front of the Enemy, near Gaines’ Mills, Va., Friday, June 10, 1864.
Our boys in the trenches (may 25, 1864; LOC: LC-DIG-stereo-1s02548)

earlier trenches at North Anna (May 25, 1864)

MY DEAR FRIEND MONROE: *.* If you will excuse the past, I’ll go ahead and blot this already soiled sheet, just to let you know the beauties of my present situation. To realize my present position, you want to come and see. I will give you the directions. Say you are at Fort Monroe. Take the first boat up the York River to West Point, at the junction of the Mattapony and Pamunky, take up the latter to White House landing, thence westerly some fifteen or eighteen miles, and you will come upon the camping ground of the Army of the Potomac. Inquire for the 18th Army Corps, 2d Div., 2d Brig., 148th Regt. You will be shown to the front centre. You want to come into the front line of trenches, but there is some danger in getting in. The Rebs are strongly posted in front, within easy gun shot, and they are sending their leaden messengers of death all through the woods and fields in our rear. But you must not be frightened. – They may not hit you. The path to the right of our regiment is the shortest, but it is also the most dangerous. Five or six men have been hit every day, on that side for a week. I prefer the longer route to our left. You leave the main road, turn to the right, through a piece of woods, thence you come upon an open field; one of our batteries is just down to the right of you. Pass around to the left of it, where you will enter a partial clearing. Here you will find our Division Headquarters, and here you will hear the bullets whistle over you. You need not duck your head. Ha! Ha! I know you can’t help it. The first time I came through there I tried to stand up bravely, and I got a ball through my cap for it. Ever since, I dodge. But come on, the sooner we get through the better, [sic] Down through a small ravine; now turn a short corner to the right. Whist! Phiz! couz-zin! Lie down a moment. The Rebs see you. Here is the greatest point of danger. They have got a good range here; but it is only a little ways. Now is your time. Up, stoop low, run, double-quick. There, you are all right, – at the mouth of the first trench. (A trench is only a deep ditch, – the dirt thrown towards the enemy, forming a breastwork, which is a safe protection against bullets.)

Once in this trench, you are comparatively safe. But come on. The 148th are on the extreme right. You have entered on the left. You pass the 12th New Hampshire, the the 2d, then the 11th Conn., and you are in the camp of the 148th. Come on down the line to this side cut; turn to the right; ask for the Chaplain’s quarters; any of the boys will bring you to the mouth of my hole. It is four feet deep, three feet wide, seven feet long. Come in! I am glad to see you! Here you see is my hardtack box. I use it for a table, a writing desk and a cupboard. I sit on the ground. You will have to do the same. Still I am just as glad to see you. You will feel easy, here, I trust, for we are quite secure from harm, although we are just in a line between two opposing batteries that are engaged just now in sending shells at one another. We are just about half way between the two. Boom! goes a Yankee gun; the shell come straight over us and lands among the Rebs. It hardly reaches its spot before back comes another, and you can hear the limbs crack and break behind us as it ploughs through the woods to where our guns are. This heavy firing has been kept up since noon. There is no other way than to keep cool and not mind. Night and day since Friday last we have been under this sound; with the addition of musketry almost all the time. The loss in our Reg’t has been over one hundred in killed and wounded, in the last eight days. Boom! Boom! My head fairly aches from the jar and noise. Imagine, if you please, what it is to write, sitting in the path of a hundred-pound shell. Now the skirmishers are at it. Bang! crack! bang! go the rifles. Mercy what a din. but we get used to this, as we do anything else. You would have to laugh, I know you would, if you were here, just in front of my “hole” in the ditch. – Sitting square down on the ground, is a man cleaning his gun. A bullet just now passed along the ditch, close by the side of him. “Z-i-p!” Says he, “that was spiteful, wasn’t it?” – and goes right on with his work. The expressions of some of the men unde[r] similar circumstances, are most amusing.

The friends at home have but a slight idea of what soldiers have to endure. Life in the trenches is almost an entirely new phaze in a soldier’s existence. The principal feature of which is dirt. We sit in the dirt, we sleep in the dirt, (boom! another big gun,) we eat dirt; it sifts into our coffee, gets on our meat, fills our hair, clothes, gets begrimmed [sic] into our face and hands. Sometimes I have not washed for three days together. Our food is of the simplest kind, and not always plenty at that. We don’t live, we simply exist. We get no papers. We know less by far of what Grant is doing than you do at home. We move as we are commanded, for the rest we take little concern. My own duties have been greatly increased since the fighting began. I am, amid all, happy and contented. I want to see the war ended. I am tired of this slaughter and this sorrowful record of wounds and death. I feel for those at home as well as for the sufferers in the army.

I am as ever, yours very truly,

FERRIS SCOTT.

Walt Gable, the Seneca County Historian, referenced this letter in a good article he wrote for a modern newspaper about the 148th at Cold Harbor.

Mustered into the United States service in the fall of 1862, the 148th New York Infantry did garrison work around Norfolk and Yorktown until the spring of 1864. As part of Baldy Smith’s 18th corps

it took part in the short campaign of the Army of the James under Gen. Butler against Petersburg and Richmond by way of the James river, being engaged at Swift creek, Proctor’s creek, Drewry’s bluff and Bermuda Hundred. Its loss during this campaign was 78 in killed, wounded and missing. The 18th corps was then ordered to reinforce the Army of the Potomac and the 148th was heavily engaged at Cold Harbor, losing 124 killed, wounded and missing.

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