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Following a Union private through the War
by Gene Owens



I've been walking through the Civil War with Private Caleb Bailey, Company E, 7th Massachusetts Volunteers, as my guide.

Caleb's great-great-great grandson is my friend Alan Bailey. While renovating the basement of his home in Kingston, Mass., Alan discovered an ancient scrapbook that included a hand-written journal of Caleb's war experiences. He brought it to South Carolina when he retired, and he lent them to this great-great-grandson of a Confederate private.

On June 15, 1861, at the age of 24, Caleb joined the Union army. Assigned to a camp outside Washington, he and his comrades built houses of "Logs and mud covered with tent cloth for the roof."

In March, after wintering in these huts, the unit was sent down Chesapeake Bay to Hampton, Va. From there it embarked with Gen. George McClellan on his campaign to move up the peninsula between the James and York rivers and enter Richmond through its back door.

At Warwick Courthouse northwest of Hampton, the Massachusetts boys encountered a reminder of the institution their efforts would bring to an end -- a slave auction block.

"The old block stands here that has been used for a long time," he wrote. "The print of the Negroes' heels are plain to be seen where they stood while being sold."

After a blood-letting at Williamsburg, the Yanks slogged through the swamps along the rain-swollen Chickahominy River, "digging, wading, swimming and eating hard bread and pork."

At the Battle of Seven Pines in the vicinity of Richmond, Caleb experienced "balls ... flying over my head all the time." During the Seven Days Campaign that followed, he wrote: "Josiah Crowell fainted and [was] carried to the rear.... Lieut. Bullock was killed last night by one of our shells. It exploded just after leaving the gun and tore off his side. He lived in great agony until he bled to death. Nearly 24 hours after."

After the Peninsula Campaign fizzled, and after the Union defeat in the Second Battle of Manassas, Robert E. Lee invaded Maryland. McClellan stopped him at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg in the bloodiest day of the war up till then.

Caleb never mentioned Antietam or Sharpsburg in his journal, but he was obviously referring to the battle when he wrote from nearby Boonsboro: "Here we are resting after our hard time. The killed and wounded will never be known."

When the cautious McClellan allowed Lee to escape back to Virginia, an impatient Abe Lincoln replaced him with Gen. Ambrose Burnside.

Lee fortified the heights above Fredericksburg, and Burnside foolishly attacked. Caleb's artillery unit provided covering fire while Burnside hurled 6,000 Union men to their deaths in a suicidal assault on Marye's Heights. Under a flag of truce, Caleb joined soldiers from both armies as they mingled to gather their dead and wounded.

"I conversed with a number of Rebs," he wrote. "They are sick of this kind of business."

Next, Burnside's replacement, Joe Hooker, tried to outmaneuver Lee and met defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Caleb's journal doesn't mention Chancellorsville by name, but he alluded to the slaughter in his May 3, 1862, entry: "This has been a sad Sabbath for many Massachusetts boys. Continually fighting all day. We loose (sic) heavily in men and horses besides having our pieces disabled." It was a sad day for the Confederacy, too, as friendly fire mortally wounded Stonewall Jackson.

Caleb's May 27 entry reads: "News has arrived today that Vicksburg has been captured. Great rejoicing in our camp."

The rejoicing was a bit premature. The Union siege of Vicksburg began on May 18, but the city didn't surrender until July 4 -- the day after the federal victory at Gettysburg. Caleb's entry of July 4, 1863, mentions neither of those triumphs. He celebrated the Fourth in Baltimore, en route to his new post at Harper's Ferry, W. Va., and called it "the first day of fun that I have had for a long time."

At Harper's Ferry, he enjoyed the perks of a quartermaster.

"I am having a good dinner cooked," he wrote on Oct. 5, 1863. "Roast beef, boiled cabbage and fried oysters. Who wouldn't want to be a soldier?"

Caleb played the tourist at Harper's Ferry, visiting the cave hideout that abolitionist John Brown had used. "Saw his bedroom hewed from a solid rock," Caleb wrote. "Have got a piece of the rock taken with my own hands."

In his Nov. 12, entry, he tells of seeking refuge in the "old John Brown arsenal" after a rainy day of foraging. His terse account reads: "Attacked during the night. John killed and I am very near." He emerged in possession of the knife his assailant had wielded. He remained out of action until January.

Almost a year of desperate fighting lay ahead for the Army of the Potomac when Caleb came to the end of his three-year enlistment. He had refused to take furloughs during the war, reasoning that if he went back home, he wouldn't want to return. He was discharged at Harper's Ferry on June 17, 1864.

Caleb pursued the blacksmith's trade after the war, and the building that housed his shop still stands in Kingston. He died on Aug. 6, 1908, at the age of 71. He asked that his journal and scrapbook be passed on to successive generations and that the knife used to wound him "shall go with this book forever."

Alan Bailey has the scrapbook. He doesn't know where the knife is.


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Gene Owens has been around the Southern journalistic scene for 48 years. He has been senior associate editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and editorial-page editor of the Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Va.

As senior editor for Creative Services, a management consulting firm in High Point, N. C., he ghosted more than a dozen published books for professional clients. For the past nine years he has been assistant managing editor, political editor and columnist for the Mobile Register. Register readers named him their favorite local columnist, and readers of the independent regional magazine, Bay Weekly, agreed. He was runner-up in the regional Green Eyeshades competition among writers of humor columns.

He has been on the board of directors of the National Conference of Editorial Writers and was editor of The Masthead, the NCEW’s national quarterly. He is in semi-retirement in Anderson, S. C.


Read more of Gene's entertaining columns:
A Tribute to Johnny Cash
Roy Moore at the Courthouse Door
All about Gene and Greasepit Grammar
Greasepit Grammar: Misplaced modifiers
Greasepit Grammar: Inertia can get you
Greasepit Grammar: Drinking and dranking
Greasepit Grammar: A Pronominal grand slam
The Wal-Mart Paradox
Taking a week off from retirement to do nothing
Insulation reduces mouse mortality rate
Flocking South with the snowbirds
Juicy Fruit will gum up the mole works
Dan Rather and the Texas truth
Putting on the dog!
Holly cheesetoast!
If only our forefathers had used attack ads
Decent 'dogs
Ah for the life of a Freegan

Write Gene Owens at 317 Braeburn Drive, Anderson SC 29621 or e-mail him at WadesDixieCo@aol.com
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