A day in the life of a Civil War soldier, Part II

Theodore Hill Jr. is now in the hands of Confederate soldiers.

Theodore Hill after his service in the Union Army during the Civil War. Photo courtesy Frem Terou, Hill’s descendant and Plateau resident.

Theodore Hill after his service in the Union Army during the Civil War. Photo courtesy Frem Terou, Hill’s descendant and Plateau resident.

Editor’s note: In light of Veterans Day, this month’s Courier-Herald editions will include excerpts from a local Civil War soldier’s diary. To keep with the authenticity of the diary, misspellings have been kept in place, as well as words and phrases that would normally not be printed. This is part two of four.

The Civil War was bloody.

It’s estimated around 750,000 soldiers died during the conflict — more than the number of Americans that perished in the Revolutionary War, World War I, and World War II combined.

And all of that isn’t counting those injured and maimed in battle. The “minie ball,” which was the ammunition at the time, caused catastrophic damage; the bullet would expand on contact, splintering bone or rupturing intestines. Seventy percent of all injuries in the war were to extremities, often leading to amputation, and it’s estimated there were more than 700,000 amputations in the Union army alone.

And being sick, like Corporal Theodore Hill Jr. was when we left him in last week’s edition, was no walk in the park either. Dysentery alone killed around 100,000 soldiers, and Typhoid fever, malaria, and rheumatic fever were rampant, debilitating, and potentially lethal as well.

But Hill has more pressing matters at hand — he was just captured by Confederate forces at a sick house, though he’s about to learn your allies are sometimes worse than your enemies.

Sept. 3, 1862: Spent the night with a regiment of rebel Calvary. In the morning I was brought into Centerville where I was issued my parole and about sunset I started for our lines. About 10 p.m. I hid out in the woods until morning.

(Although the language indicates Hill escaped the Southern forces, at this time in the war, in 1862, it was agreed POWs would be first sent back to their respective armies, and then travel a demilitarized area in Annapolis, Maryland, for the formal exchange of prisoners. Called the Dix-Hill Cartel, there was an honor system in place that POWs would not resume fighting until they were formally exchanged, even though they were back in the company of their own armies. When the Cartel broke down, enemy soldiers were kept in atrocious POW camps.)

Sept. 4: Arrived at our lines about noon. Bought a pint of milk, a small piece of cornbread and a cup of coffee for dinner and it felt rather good to be able to rest and have a bite to eat.

Sept. 7: I got up first thing this morning. Had a beautiful wash or rather a bath and breakfast. The officers in charge on the trip here have deserted us so I went to an eating saloon and got a beef steak.

I reluctantly headed back to the barracks and was told by the officer-in-charge that he would be to see me at nine, but he has forgotten his promise and never came night again. It’s like they don’t want us either. Later another officer came, looked at our parole slips to be certain all were provided with one. He told us to take the railroad car at three. We are now at Annapolis Junction waiting for an engine to take us to Annapolis.

Sept. 11: The morning was cloudy with showers during the day. I went out to the bay to bathe this forenoon and came back across a plantation and by the house itself. It is a beautiful plantation with fine orchards. It has large corn and tobacco fields and many outbuildings.

But the war and the soldiers have nearly destroyed the orchards. Very few apples are left on the trees now and no peaches. I wonder who’s lovely home and land this is or was — will it ever know the beauty and serenity it must have known once.

(Despite being back with his army, Hill doesn’t try to hide his distaste for the officers in charge of the POW camp, specifically when it came to the lack of attention given to dress parades, a formal ceremony where roll calls were received and important orders were read.)

Held a dress parade tonight, or what passes for that, but is really nothing more than a performance.

(From this point on, Hill calls all ceremonies “performances,” possibly because Hill is becoming disillusioned of the glory of war.)

Sept. 15: Col. Dangster still continues to give orders. In many of them he oversteps the mark. He passes the boundary line of his power. Last night he gave orders to stop the rations of all those not present for “performance.” Tonight he wanted to crowd ten men into tents that are too small for eight as new prisoners continue to come in all the time.

Five thousand of them came today. They came from Richmond on Saturday and are a hard looking bunch of boys. Some of them are barefoot, some without shirts and some without pants. A dispatch from McClellan was read at “performance” tonight stating the capture of a large number of prisoners and General Lee was wounded. The boys all cheered. But I remember Bull Run.

(It is unclear what Hill is remembering about Bull Run to make him pessimistic toward this news, except for the fact the North lost badly both times.)

Sept. 16: Cloudy and wet all day. Good nows in the papers the eve. 1,700 prisoners captured. Rebels routed and Lee reported wounded. I was going to the city today but got jewed out of my pass. There is no place in the service that the soldier is not cheated out of his rights and all because there is a set of officers that don’t know other duty but their own conveniences.

Another large squad of prisoners came in today. It is reported Harpers Ferry has surrendered to the rebels. All other news is good.

Sept. 21: The Richmond prisoners still continue to lay on the ground without tents and many without blankets and no clothes drawn for them as yet. It can’t be the fault of the Government that they are so neglected, but the officers in charge! They don’t care how the men under them dare so long as they can wear their fine clothes and live as they please. It is disgusting and such officers should be dropped from the service.

No passes again tonight. All the prisoners are to be prisoners indeed if the officers can have their way about it, but if they won’t give passes I’m afraid the soldiers will go anyway and they aren’t to blame. If we are not allowed the privilege of going outside the camp why can the officers go? They are prisoners just as we are and should be subject to the same restrictions, but shoulder stripes will work wonders…

Oct. 1: Today the papers say that commissioners are on their way to Washington from the Confederate congress to stipulate for peace and it is all so contradicted, it is too good to be true.

If not true, it must be a get up of some reporter who is hard up for a subject to write upon and he should be treated to a coat of tar and feathers.

(News reporters during the Civil War wrote as much about confirmed military movements and battle recounts as rumor and hearsay, leaving it to readers to determine fact from fiction.)

Oct. 3: Quite an exciting affair took place here this afternoon. One of the men got drunk and began to disturb the camp and one of the paroled officers ordered his arrest. A guard was immediately sent to execute the order, take the man and convey him to the guard house. The crowd which had gathered by this time followed making the place hideous with their groans and hisses. They went so far as to club the officer when he gave orders to the guard to fire into the crowd. The guard did not obey and the crowd pressed on with increased noise till near the guard house they were halted by the officer, who had no authority to give orders being himself a prisoner.

The crowd in the meantime began to follow again and one of the guards raised his rifle, took deliberate aim and fired at one of the men. The ball entering the right side and lodging in the left. He died in two hours. He had taken no part in the affair, it was learned, having just been to the post office to deposit a letter and when shot was on his way back to where he belonged to the 2nd V Battery.

The guard that fired the gun was arrested and sent to the city to jail and the officer who gave the order was also put under arrest.

Oct. 27: Last night was a very bad night. The wind blew a gale and it rained hard mixed with snow. It is quite cold and we are now in want of overcoats and they are at the commissary. But they are not to be issues on purpose. They think it is not cold enough yet.

It has been 19 months today since our company was organized. One half of our time is up today and a rather hard year and a half it has been. Orders read at “performance” tonight. They were not of much account. Think the Col. must have been drunk or crazy… perhaps both.

(Thanksgiving passes, and Hill learns he is finally to be exchanged. Once this occurs, he expects to go home, but he is actually sent back to his old regiment.)

Dec. 15: Got orders last night to be ready at 7 this morning. Was ready in time and waiting for orders. At nine orders were given to fall in and march for the day. Arrived at the Navy yard at 10 a.m. Went on board the transport “Balloon” and it is now 4 p.m. and we are just leaving the wharf on the way back to my old regiment. It’s getting to be a long war.

Dec. 17: They boys all look well and everything about the same as when I left. There has been a few promotions. Went up on the hill and took a look at the rebels works. They are very strongly fortified and it is not much wonder that they have repulsed our army. It is pretty cold today, but life is about the same as before. Don’t see as I have forgotten much of what I learned.

Dec. 25: No roast goose — hard bread. January 1, 1863, and the army is not in a very fine place for amusement or holiday sport.

(All throughout January, it appears morale is extremely low; the papers are continually reporting about the Union defeats, and Hill’s regiment doesn’t seem to have much in the way of direction, and move around in a confused pattern. The winter is too cold and food is too scarce to actively engage the South.)

April 28, 1863: At ten this morning we got orders to march in one hour. At the time we were on the road. We marched to Falmouth and from there we went down river about four miles. Troops are going by now in two columns. All going toward the river.

At four, we broke camp again and started for the river with pontoons. Within a half mile of the river we took the pontoons off the wagons and carried them to the bank where we waited until about 4 a.m. After putting the pontoons in the water the 199th Pa. went across and then we started across.

At about half an hour after daylight the push began. The rebels reserved their fire until our troops got to the opposite bank. Then the battle began. The enemy fell back and our forces occupied the ground. So far our loss has been 3 wounded, and 3 wounded rebels captures.

(Falmouth, Virginia, was occupied by Union forces between 1863 and 1864, and served as the North’s headquarters during the Battle of Fredericksburg, Dec. 11 – 15, 1862, and the Battle of Chancellorsville, April 30 to May 6, 1863; the latter holds the record as being one of the war’s most bloody battles. Although known as General Robert E. Lee’s “perfect battle,” General Andrew “Stonewall” Jackson was hit in the arm by friendly fire, had it amputated, and died of pneumonia a week later.)

May 1: The pickets began to fire and a battery on the left opened up on us in the afternoon. One man of Co. B was wounded and one killed. At 6 p.m. we are ordered to advance. We drove the rebels to the opposite side of the flat. Four more men wounded. I tried to help one, but was ordered forward. At dark we were relieved and moved back to the third line. Spread down for the night, but at 11 p.m. we were called out again for the final push.

May 3: We were in Fredericksburg a little before sunrise. The rebels opened fire from a battery and several fellow soldiers are wounded. I am now in the front line with orders to be prepared to charge. A flag of truce went up a short while ago to carry in the dead and wounded. We are lucky as not a man from our regiment has been hurt in today’s heavy firing.

At half past ten we had orders to charge. We charged across a flat about 200 yards and our luck is running out. We managed to capture a battery but our loss was heavy. Major Hearcook killed. Captain Ballenger too also Col. Young Capt. Buck and Capt. Beach wounded. We lost nine men, but the rebels retreated and we followed them nearly a mile. We are now at 2 p.m. in line and I’m what the newspapers refer to as a member of the hard fought field.

Fresh troops coming in to relieve us. We had almost a two hour break and now we have started on again. Went about a mile and a half and found our front engaged.

A hot fight lasting more than an hour resulted. The 199th Pa. and the 95th Pa. have broke and ran. This gave the rebels an advantage for a while, but we were able to contain them.

About dark we fell back in line fourth from the front and bedded down. Exhaustion rides my shoulders. Tried to warm as best we could, our knapsacks being left behind.

May 5: (It is Hill’s birthday.)

Early this morning we were in line and sent here and there to different parts of the line. We went to the right, took up our position, held it about a half hour then we were withdrawn and marched to the river for the purpose of crossing — we’re told now our army is in full retreat. Got part way to the river and got orders to about face and we marched back. Took up our position a little to the right of our former position to cover the retreat. The 31st and the 4th on the left and the 3rd in the center.

The 31st gave up as soon as the enemy advanced upon them and they have surrendered thus giving them our position on the picket line. The rebels then advanced on the 45th surprising and capturing their pickets.

Then it was our turn, but we were ready for them and drove them back. Then before they could recover we were out of their way. We cut off from the main part of the army and owing to the Col.’s forethought and presence of mind we escaped by taking the side of the river.

We arrived at the crossing place about 2 p.m. with only 10 men lost. The color sergeant among them. I now carry the colors…

(Hill’s battery now makes camp away from the front lines, is given whiskey, and furloughed for a while before returning to battle.)

Corrections: In Part I of this series, Hill’s descendant is Frem Terou, not Fren. Additionally, Hill was incorrectly identified as a colonel, and was actually a corporal. The online version of the article has been updated.

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