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Hannah and William, Part 2

Updated: Jan 31, 2022

(Click Here for Part 1)

After boarding the train, William Howe and the 116th Pennsylvania Regiment stopped in Washington, D.C. where it was ordered on account of the need for troops to reinforce General Banks in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. It reported to General Couch at Rockville, Maryland, but was immediately returned to Washington where it was assigned to the camp of General Franz Sigel at Fairfax Court House, Virginia.

On 6 October, the 116th broke camp at Fairfax and moved to Harpers Ferry. There they officially joined the Irish Brigade of General Thomas Francis Meagher. Colonel Heenan acquired the service of Patrick Carrigan as the Captain of Company A. As members of the Irish brigade, William and the men of the 116th could extend their military education, learning from the veterans of the Brigade. With the Irish, some of the Pennsylvanians joined in horse racing, all-night partying, scrounging, and other forms of non-military amusements. William fit right in.

The regiment returned to Washington, picked up overcoats and marched to Sandy Hook, near Harpers Ferry. They set up camp at Bolivar Heights, a cliff overlooking the Shenandoah River. The ground of their campsite was littered with debris from the battle that took place there in mid-September during General Robert E. Lee's Maryland campaign that ended with the Battle of Antietam. During their encampment at Bolivar Heights, the 116th was fortunate. Very few men got sick and no one died. Other Pennsylvania regiments camped near William's unit were plagued with almost epidemic fevers and there were many funerals. Diarrhea and its often fatal effects were caused primarily by ignorance. Many officers never established rules of sanitation and diet and where such regulations did exist, they were reluctant to enforce them. Since many of the recruits came from rural areas, they had never been exposed to the diseases common in cities. Thus, they never developed the antibodies that allowed them to resist the diseases and, shortly after exposure, they would drop like flies.

The soldiers' diet was not conducive to good health. Nutritious items, such as fruits, vegetables and milk were scarce. In addition, minimal attention and care was taken when camps were established. Tents were pitched close together and the "sinks" or latrines, were uncovered holes in the ground, often located upstream from the camp. William and the other members of the 116th were fortunate to remain healthy after living in the camp for a month and a half.

Colonel Heenan received orders on 15 October and left Harpers Ferry the next day at dawn as part of General Winfield Scott Hancock's division. The division moved southwest down Winchester Pike on a reconnaissance toward Halltown. After passing the town, the brigade formed into a line of battle, with the 116th positioned on the right. At that point, William, his regiment, and the other units in Hancock's division came under enemy artillery fire. After about half an hour, the line advanced and the Confederates withdrew from the field, allowing the division to enter Charlestown unopposed. They then returned to Harpers Ferry. It was William's first taste of combat.

William had not been paid so he had no money to send home. He had only received the $2 premium. Morale in the regiment was low. On the evening of 26 October, the regiment left Harpers Ferry and marched three miles before they halted and camped for the night. It was probably during the confusion and disorder that William's boyhood friend, Augustus Bitting, who had joined the regiment with him, deserted his army, his unit, and his friends under cover of the night. He had found he could not longer tolerate the lies and broken promises. His desire to see his family was greater than his wish to serve his country. Bitting was not the only one. Three other members of Company A were reported as deserters on 31 October.

They continued to march south, reaching Warrenton on 7 November, the day President Lincoln relieved General George McClellan of command of the Army of the Potomac. General Ambrose Burnside was placed in command.

The 116th Pennsylvania left Warrenton and marched forty miles in two and half days. By 17 November, William and his fellow soldiers were at Falmouth, Virginia. Thinking that the fighting was over for the year, the men started to build winter encampments. During November, the cold Virginia nights began to take their toll on the soldiers. Everything was frozen. The wood was wet. Blankets were scarce and shoes and clothing were worn out. Several deaths from exposure were reported. One night 6 pickets were frozen to death at their posts.

By Monday, 8 December, the situation has worsened. Burnside was indecisive about a plan of battle. It was intensely cold and there were two to four inches of ice in the Potomac and Rappahannock. The generals were convinced that any movement that would involve fighting would be impossible in the inclement weather.

On 10 December, the Irish Brigade received orders to issue each man three days worth of cooked rations and sixty rounds of ammunition. It was time for William and the soldiers of the 116th Pennsylvania to meet their destiny.

On the morning of 13 December, the Irish Brigade fell in along the bank of the Rappahannock River. The unit consisted of the 63d, 69th, and 88th New York, the 28th Massachusetts, and the 116th Pennsylvania. Brigadier General Meagher addressed his soldiers and then led them into the streets of Fredericksburg. There, withstanding the intense artillery bombardment of the city, they awaited their turn to advance against the Confederate defenses on Marye's Heights, about a half mile distant from town. At about one o'clock, after Major General William H. French's division had failed in its assaults, Meagher's men followed Brigadier General Samuel K. Zook's brigade and marched across an open field heavily exposed to Confederate batteries. Passing over the shattered remnants of brigades that had preceded them, the Brigade advanced to within thirty yards of the stone wall at the base of the heights. Behind the wall, Confederate infantry unleashed a devastating fire into the ranks until the advance stalled completely. At this point, the regiments either lay down or moved back, returning fire as best they could. Vulnerable to enemy bullets during the rest of the afternoon's failed Union assaults, the survivors staggered or were carried back to Fredericksburg after nightfall. All told, the brigade suffered casualties of nearly 50 percent.

Winding his way back through Fredericksburg, William could see that it was one vast hospital. Wounded men were crowded into every house, large building and church. William struggled through one of the stormiest nights of the winter. The wind pushed him along and tore at the loose edges of his clothing. He was lost in Fredericksburg.

He had experienced several severe bouts of diarrhea before the battle. Now his malady struck with devastating effect. He tried to gain admittance to the unit's hospital in Fredericksburg, but the hospital tent has been destroyed by cannon fire. Even if the hospital had not been destroyed, he would have had a difficult time gaining access due to the large number battlefield casualties. He watched silently was men continued to die from their wounds and disease and were buried near the camps at Falmouth.

During the battle, camp followers has robbed and ruined the makeshift huts of the encampment. Within a few days, it had been rebuilt. William and the other soldiers drew little comfort that another engagement was unlikely due to their depleted ranks, disease and exhaustion.

The winter seemed long to William and the other members of the 116th Pennsylvania. The weather was cold, damp and penetrating. There was little chance for drilling or anything else that could break the monotony as the days and nights at Falmouth seemed to stretch into eternity.

Despite the poor medical attention, William's spirits would have been revived by a visit home. Demands were made to return the sick and wounded to their home states. William suffered with his ailment, "looseness of bowels" as he called it, was a frightening and debilitating sickness. In some cases, it was accompanied by as many as forty to sixty movements a day. When symptoms included painful straining and hemorrhaging, it was diagnosed as dysentery. Diarrhea and dysentery (the terms were uses synonymously) killed twice as many men as Confederate bullets.

Victims usually had their systems purged and further irritated by large quantities of whiskey and frequent doses of salt or calomel. Doctors used opium to combat dysentery and, in some of the chronic cases, strychnine. Other medications included castor oil, camphor, turpentine, laudanum and blue pills made of mercury and chalk. By the standards of the day, the men who prescribed these treatments were considered competent.

William's bowels had bothered him long before the battle, but now, in the quiet and monotonous life at Falmouth, his illness intensified to the point of being unbearable. The thought of dying in Virginia must have terrified the young man. Besides his sickness, army life was not exactly what William had bargained for back in August when he enlisted. The army still owed him money and it did not seem likely he was ever going to collect it. He became despondent. What could he look forward to the way he was feeling? Continued sickness and maybe death? Then, around Christmas, he found a way to get to Washington. Along with several other purportedly sick men, he left Falmouth on Christmas Eve for the nation's capitol.

Once in Washington, he did not find much medical attention available. The lack of medical services led to a critical decision. It seemed logical to continue their journey and return home to get more personal and competent medical attention. The idea that he was deserting the army never occurred to him. He was more concerned with the state of his health than in fulfilling an enlistment contract. In short, he was more scared of dying than considering any punishment the army might exact. It is possible he did not think it was wrong to leave the army to go home to recuperate. Like many of the enlisted men of the time, William had little or no understanding of the implications of enlistment or of military discipline. Absent soldiers always meant to go back. Ultimately, the army would declare such men deserters; but, in their own minds they were not.

If William had been an officer, he could have simply turned in his resignation. But he was only a private. He could not resign anything, but he could go home. His inflamed bowels were destroying his body, rendering him useless to himself, his fellow soldiers and the army. He had watched as other men around him died from the same affliction. In addition, he had not been paid by the army. He felt cheated. He had signed an enlistment for three years. He was willing to hold up his side of the agreement, but it seemed like the army was not.

He was alone. Most of his friends and acquaintances were either dead or had left the unit. He could not turn to the chaplain for counsel since the chaplain was Catholic and William was Lutheran.

So, uncomfortable and seriously dehydrated from his illness, William left Washington and headed home to Hannah and his children.


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