1865 February 25: The Hampton Roads Peace Commissioners and Wisconsin’s Samuel Harriman’s Role in Escorting Them
The following is the first of several reports from Wisconsin regiments in the field. It comes from the February 25, 1864, issue of The Prescott Journal.
THE CAMPAIGN IN VIRGINIA.
Recent Battles South of Petersburg.
Affairs in Southwest.
The New Regime in Arkansas.
IMPORTANT MOVEMENTS OF TROOPS.
Affairs in Tennessee.
From the Thirty-Seventh Regiment.
The Situation before Petersburg—Deserters Stories
of Hard Times—A Great Scarcity of
Supplies—The Rebel Peace Commissioners—
Appearance of A. H. Stephens—His parting
words to Col. Harriman.
NEAR PETERSBURG, Va., Jan. 20.
Messrs. Editors :—It is clear and cold, with northerly winds, ground hard as a brick, noses turning red, white and blue, the smoke of our camps, when it does not stay below and get in you eyes, going up to heaven like the smoke of a furnace, the men all hutted, the Quartermaster’s teams all hauling wood, and the Army of the Potomac at rest.
The incessant picket firing which, up to a very recent period, had been the main drawback to our peace and happiness, has almost entirely ceased. Artillery duels are a tradition of the past, and the pieces of shell which, at rare intervals, drop into or around our camp, have taken of late not to hurting any one, and only remind us of anther kind of peace, which we are expecting to happen most any minute.
A steady dribble of rebel deserters continues to slop over their picket line, and trickle gently and easily into our lines. They all complain of short rations and want of clothing and shelter. Disaffection and discontent prevail throughout the whole army. They “don’t feel well,” they “want to go home,” for they fear the “bottom will fall out.” The fall of Fort Fisher is a terrible blow. A couple of Alabamians who came over last evening, say that for several months their rations have consisted of corn-meal, meat preserved in cans, and tobacco ; no coffee, no sugar ; and those rations, like a snake’s tail, or the hopes for the success of the cause, have, since the closing of Wilmington, been becoming “small by degrees and beautifully less, till now two “corn-dodgers” about the size of a piece of bread six inches by three inches, and an inch thick, with a quarter of a pound of meat, is considered by the Confederate authorities a generous ration for one man a day. This my informant stated was owing to our holding Cape Fear River, which he said “was the hole that moated the whole Confederacy and now we had plugged it.” He also related a ludicrous story of a man who deserted from the 8th Michigan because he could not get enough to eat and who tried to excite their compassion by a piteous tale of how he had only ten hard-tack or one loaf of soft bread, twenty ounces of fresh meat or twelve of pork with all the tea and coffee he could drink, for a day’s ration. Times in Petersburg he says are hardish.—Flour $5.00 a pound, wood $100 a cord, pens $3.00 a quart. Their teams and horses he says are used up, as the forage is excessively scarce, having to be hauled 100 miles. The South Side and Danville railroads are employed in hauling forage and rations for the cavalry and have hard work to keep them supplied as the engines and rolling stock are badly out of order with no means of repair and that they as well as the rails are about worn out. The canal along which wood is brought into the city in scows has been damaged by a freshet, as has also the Danville railroad and he thought that “times were getting hard in Virginny so he reckoned he’d travel.” And he did.
The 37th lieth still in the front line and it is waxing big and does picket duty, and there are added to it daily (by enlistment) such as shall be saved (from drafts.) Our only trouble is in getting a sufficient supply of fuel, as wood is not so plenty as it was, and so we have to haul a long distance over horrible roads. But we look for better times. Col. Harriman [Samuel Harriman] is now commanding the 1st Division of the 9th Army corps, and by his direction the South Coast Railroad is to be repaired and put in running order, which will furnish us with an unlimited supply of fuel.
The great event of the week was the arrival to-day of a flag of truce from Gen. Robert Lee, requesting the favor of a pass to City Point for Messrs. Alexander H. Stephens, of Georgia, R. M. T Hunter, of Virginia, and J. A. Campbell, of Tennessee. Rumor has it that this means peace, and we think rumor must have it bad, and cry peace when there is no peace, nor likely to be a peace till the Great Southern Skedaderacy is knocked to pieces.
To-day we have been an eye-witness of one of the strangest and at the same time most impressive of the many strange sights of this war. A flag of truce has been parleying with the rebels for the last three or four days, negotiating the admission of Messrs. Stephens & Co. within our lines. To-day the event culminated. About 5 o’clock P. M. the white flag went down to the front again, and soon the breastworks and picket lines were thronged with a crowd of our boys anxious to catch a glimpse of the head men of rebeldom.
The scene was an impressive one. In front, just over the woods that crown the opposite side of the ravine that separates our main line from that of the rebels, the setting sun, looking red and lurid through the smoke of a thousand camps, hung like a ball of fire.—The rebel works were crowded by hundreds of their men, looming up to almost unnatural proportions, so strongly were they thrown into relief by the red glare of the sunset behind them. In the rear were our works, with all their mazy intricacies, of ditches, covered ways, “zig-zags &c,” with the bristling palisades and abattis in their front and a crowd of boys in blue behind them quiet and still looking even somewhat grave and anxious, and the whole scene warm and bright in the reflection of the ruddy glow in the west. And now the white flag is seen coming down the hill, the centre of a group of some six or seven individuals, and as they cross the picket line and are fairly arrived within the lines of the Union armies the sun drops down behind the hill. On they come, up the Suffolk and Petersburg Pike, which stretches across the ravine and up the opposite bank like a white line. Colonel Harriman escorts Alexander H. Stephens, an old thin, careworn looking man, stooping, perhaps under the weight of years, but more likely under the weight of mental anxiety that has oppressed him for the last four years. Well may he look careworn, good cause has he to seem bowed by trouble. Those humble graves scattered thick along each side of the road as he enters our lines, those pinched, shivering forms he has left behind in the rebel lines, these frowning forms armed with the most effectual instruments of destruction the ingenuity of man has been able to devise ; the fertile fields of Virginia lying devastated and laid waste before his eyes, are all a specimen of what his ambitious and vain schemes have brought on the country.
Next to the rebel Vice-President came Col. Lydig, Assistant Adjut. at General 9th Corps, conducting R. M. T. Hunter, of Va., and A. C. Campbell, of Tennessee, and last of all, Col. Hatch, Assistant Rebel Commissioner for the exchange of prisoners. And so they passed by to where an ambulance was in waiting, which conveyed them to Meade Station to take the cars on the U. S. military railroad for City Point. Their ultimate destination is Washington, though the object of their mission is, of course, not known to the multitude. That it is the immediate conclusion of the war and the declaration of peace, is hardly probable, though it may eventually lead to such an end is, we hope, the case, though even about this we hardly dare be too sanguine.
On their first entrance within our lines, the envoys were, as may well be imagined, somewhat embarrassed and uneasy, but the kind reception they met with soon put them at their ease, and on taking leave at the cars, Mr. Stephens adddressed [sic] Col. Harriman as follows : “Good bye, Colonel, I shall always remember your face ; thank you much for your kindness and courtesy, and I trust we may soon meet again under happier auspices than now.” The party then left for City Point under the care of Colonel Babcock of General Grant’s staff.
You will know, long before we do, the object and results of their mission, so I will refrain from speculating thereon and remain,
Yours, &c., R. C. E.