TWENTY-FIRST MASSACHUSETTS VOLS.,
Steamer Northerner, Pamlico Sound, April 21, 1862.
CAPTAIN: I have the honor to report that, in accordance with orders from Acting Major-General Reno, the Twenty-first Massachusetts Volunteers embarked on board the transport-steamer Northerner at 5 o'clock p.m. on the 17th instant, and proceeded to the mouth of the Pasquotank River, in Albemarle Sound, where we arrived about sunrise on the 19th.
The regiment was here transferred to the light-draught steamers, Ocean Wave and Massasoit, and afterward to small row-boats and launches, which were run in as near shore as possible at a point on the north bank of the river about 3 miles below Elizabeth City. Officers and men now cheerfully sprang into the water and waded to land, where the line was immediately formed and muskets loaded. We numbered 500 picked men, and were furnished with two days' rations and 60 rounds of ammunition.
Three regiments, the Ninth and Eighty-ninth New York Volunteers and the Sixth New Hampshire Volunteers, had been landed about 2 o'clock a.m. and sent forward, under command of Colonel Hawkins, to take possession of a bridge near South Mills, where are extensive stone locks on the Dismal Swamp Canal.
A little before 7 o'clock General Reno followed with the Fifty-first Pennsylvania Volunteers and the Twenty-first Massachusetts Volunteers, which regiments had been delayed about four hours by the want of suitable pilots to bring up the transports. The column advanced rapidly along an excellent road through a level and fertile district, halting a few minutes occasionally for water and rest. About 10 o'clock, as we were lying by the road-side, we were astonished to see a large body of troops coming down upon our left flank. "Attention" was immediately sounded by the bugle and the general rode out to reconnoiter. He was not a little chagrined to find that Colonel Hawkins, with his command, having been misled by his guide, had marched 10 miles farther than was necessary to reach this point, and instead of having surprised the enemy by an early arrival at the bridge had nearly exhausted his men by a wearisome march. The weather was now very oppressive, and the men began to suffer greatly from the heat and the want of water, as their canteens were emptied early in the day and there had been no opportunity of refilling them. As no halt had been made for breakfast, and hard bread and salt beef could not well be eaten without water, they were also faint from the want of food.
Before noon large numbers had fallen out from all the regiments, utterly unable to proceed, and General Reno, who was now in advance, with the Fifty-first Pennsylvania and the Twenty-first Massachusetts, was just about to order a halt for dinner, when most unexpectedly a brisk fire of round shot and canister was opened upon us.
The battery of the rebels was skillfully masked by the smoke from a dwelling-house and outbuildings on the highway, which had been set on fire for this purpose, and our advance guard was close upon it when the cannonade commenced. General Reno at once ordered the Fifty-first-Pennsylvania to take shelter in the woods on the left of the enemy's position, and sent back for the remaining regiments and the four howitzers which were under command of Colonel Howard of the Marine Artillery.
In consequence of the extreme exhaustion of the men considerable time elapsed before they could be brought into position for the attack, and the artillery of the rebels continued for more than an hour without interruption from us and without doing us much damage, as they had no shells and the range was too great for canister. Many trees and a few men were injured by their round shot, which were thrown with considerable accuracy.
The rebels had one light battery stationed on the main road behind the burning buildings, and another one about 50 yards to the right of the first, upon a road running in that direction. The batteries were supported by two regiments of infantry, numbering about 1,800 men, and 200 cavalry. The Third Georgia Volunteers was formed in line of battle in a grove of young pines some 300 yards behind and to the left of the burning buildings, and their skirmishers were thrown far into the swampy forest on their left to prevent us from getting in their rear.
By command of General Reno I advanced with my regiment as rapidly as the greenbrier and tangled underbrush would permit, marching by the flank toward the line of the Third Georgia until fired upon by their skirmishers. Two companies were then ordered into line and to fire several volleys into the swamp from which the bullets came, when the rebels retired. My regiment was now entirely in the rear of the batteries and very near the Third Georgia, whose traitorous flag was distinctly seen through the pines.
Company K, under Captain Davis, was sent forward into the swamp to follow up the rebel skirmishers and prevent any attack upon our rear. Company G, commanded by Lieutenant Wheeler, was then ordered to advance to the fence between the woods and the cleared field and open fire upon the Georgians. This difficult task was performed in the most admirable manner amid a perfect storm of bullets, and the company gallantly formed along the fence and drove out the skirmishers of the enemy, some of whom fired upon them from a distance of not more than 20 yards. The entire regiment was now ordered to form in line behind the fence and commenced firing as rapidly as possible, and the battle was fairly opened.
The position of my regiment was all that could be desired, as we were well protected by the fence and bushes were in the rear of the batteries and immediately upon the left of the Georgians, our line being at right angles to theirs, so that our fire was constantly right-oblique. Upon our left was the Fifty-first Pennsylvania, then the Ninth New York, and then the Eighty-ninth New York. About half an hour after the firing commenced the Ninth New York (Hawkins' Zouaves) charged across the open field toward the enemy, but were repelled by a destructive volley from the Third Georgia Volunteers. The Twenty-first Massachusetts, being thus temporarily relieved from their fire, immediately sprang over the fence into the open field and killed the color sergeant, who was defiantly waving his rebel flag several yards in front of his regiment.
Our entire line now advanced from the woods and charged with shouts and cheers across the cleared ground, while the Sixth New Hampshire, which had supported our howitzers in front of the enemy's position, poured in a tremendous volley by command of General Reno, who happened to be with them at the moment. The rebels fled precipitately to the woods and were seen no more.
As it was now nearly night and our forces were quite exhausted and as we had no cavalry, it was impossible to pursue them. The Twenty-first was at once formed in line, and having stacked arms, sat down upon the battle ground to rest Squads were now sent out from each company to pick up the killed and wounded and their weapons. Our hospital was established in a house near by and the regiment prepared to bivouac on the very spot in the forest which they had occupied during the fight, the fence which had served so well as a protection by day furnishing excellent fuel for campfires at night.
In consequence of the unfortunate delay referred to in the first part of the report it was impossible to carry out the original plan of the expedition. Accordingly, as we had neither provisions nor ammunition enough to do another day's work, the general reluctantly decided to return to his vessels, and, considering that the night was rainy and the men without tents or blankets and that the enemy might receive re-enforcements before daylight from Norfolk, which was only 30 miles distant, and harass us on our return with their cavalry and flying artillery, he resolved to make the march by night. Orders were therefore issued to build large fires around the battle-field and to provide transportation for such of the wounded as were able to be moved. About 30 of them were unavoidably left behind, in charge of Dr. O. Warren, assistant surgeon of the Twenty-first Massachusetts, who cheerfully remained, subject to the tender mercies of the rebels. The choice of surgeon for this duty was made by lot. Chaplain Ball labored as usual most assiduously to promote the comfort of the wounded both on the field and at the hospital, and especially on the return to the transports and on the voyage to New Berne, when, in the absence of any surgeon, he kindly dressed their wounds and administered such remedies as their circumstances required.
At 9 o'clock Lieutenant Reno, aide-de-camp, started with the Ninth New York Volunteers to take possession of a draw-bridge near Camden Court-House and prevent its destruction in case the enemy should attempt it. The other regiments silently left their places in the woods and moved along the road past the hospitals; the wagons, with their wounded, took their position in the center of the column, and the general followed with the Twenty-first Massachusetts as the rear guard.
Company D, under Lieutenant Barker, performed in the most efficient manner the very arduous and unpleasant duty of rear guard to the regiment. Not only were they obliged to be constantly on the lookout for the enemy, but they were compelled to labor incessantly to urge and assist forward the numerous stragglers who fell out from the various regiments. Between Company D and the rest of the Twenty-first Colonel Howard was placed with two howitzers.
A more wearisome march has been seldom made by any troops. The night was dark, the soft, clayey mud from 3 to 12 inches in depth, and the men worn out by the labors of the day, having marched 16 miles and most of them 26, besides passing through the excitement and fatigue of the battle. Nevertheless the greater part of them bore up manfully, and though terribly exhausted moved steadily to the landing, where the head of the column arrived about 5 o'clock in the morning.
I am happy to report that while the Twenty-first was unable to do much damage to the enemy they suffered a comparatively slight loss. Not a man was injured by artillery and but 15 by infantry, owing to our excellent position. Only two others failed to come up with the regiment, although the Twenty-first constituted the rear guard on the return march, and these both fell out before the battle. Notwithstanding the difficulties of the march every rifle taken from the camp was returned to it in good condition, including those of the killed and wounded, except one thrown away by an exhausted man and the two in the hands of the missing men.
On the whole I think I may safely say that nearly every officer, non-commissioned officer, and private did his duty to the extent of his ability. The members of the Twenty-first will remember with peculiar pride that on the 19th of April, 1862, just one year after the blood of Massachusetts men was first shed by the rebels of Baltimore, we conquered them at the battle of Camden, and we shall be no less proud of this name inscribed upon our war worn banner than that of "Roanoke" and "New Berne."
I am, captain, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
W. S. CLARK,
Lieutenant-Colonel, Comdg. Twenty-first Massachusetts Vols.
Capt. EDWARD M. NEILL,