Saturday, April 23, 2011

"The ominous booming of distant cannon admonished me to hasten on:" The Melancholy Mission of Bowen B. Moon to the West Woods, Part 2

This is the second of a multi part post on the journey from Herkimer County, New York of Bowen B. Moon to retrieve his brother-in-law William A. Salisbury, Company C, 34th New York who fell in the West Woods on September 17, 1862.[1]

In due time I arrived at Harpers Ferry and by the assistance of Col. Loflin I found the location of the 34th on Bolivar Heights, a high hill overlooking the Ferry with an extended view up the Shenandoah Valley.[2] I soon found the tent of Captain Corcoran of Co. C. 34th Regt. N.Y. Vol. [3] The captain gave me a hearty welcome and insisted that I should occupy his tent that night.
Col. James A. Suiter
New York State Military Museum

It was late in the afternoon when I got there, but I saw the regiment drawn up in line and heard Colonel Suiter give them his orders for the night. Capt. Corcoran gave me an introduction to Col. Suiter and each gave me "Godspeed you" in your journey. Col. Suiter drew an offhand map of the battlefield and showed the position that Company C. occupied and indicated where I would probably find the body of William. All of the boys killed had been buried and headboards erected, and so what Chas. Willoughby had told me at Norway was substantiated by the Col. of the Regt.

I rested very well that night in Capt. Corcoran's tent though I must confess that I was a little nervous in the evening as on the Capt.'s cot I heard strange sounds and thought of the terrible results of grim war. I was awake and up at an early hour and from Bolivar Heights saw the sun's rosy fingers of light as they rolled up the curtains of the night. I saw the dread paraphernalia of war; Parks of artillery, piles of cannon balls - guns stacked ready for use, and indelibly stamped on the tablets of my memory is the picture of the landscape - the white tents of the soldiers - men rolled in their blankets sleeping in the open air - the distant haze of the morning as it veiled the fields of the valley of the Shenandoah - the smoke that curled upward from a thousand fires, built for the preparation of the morning meals. And there from Bolivar Heights I saw the Jefferson rocks at the base of which the waters of the historic Potomac mingle with those of the Shenandoah. I heard there, on that beautiful morning of Oct. 1, 1862 the bugle call, to the soldiers -reveille - the sharp commands of officers as they inspected the serried ranks - the neighing of horses - the rattle of side arms and the trampling of a company of cavalry - and more than all the ominous booming of distant cannon admonished me to hasten on.

Captain Emerson Northrup of Co. K. of the 23d,[4] with whom it was my good fortune to be acquainted, kindly assisted me in getting out of the lines of the army at Harpers Ferry. I took a look at the old Armory in which John Brown defied the slaveholders of the South and afterwards was hung as an enemy of his country. "But his soul goes marching on." What impressed me most as I was looking around the building was to see a German soldier in the U.S. service eating a luncheon of moldy bread and a piece of meat the worse for age. He could speak but a few words of English but there he was a stranger in a distant land trusted and deputed to guard one of the most important strategical points in the zone of contention.
The pontoon bridge at Harpers Ferry is under construction
in this 1862 photo from the Matthew Brady collection,
Historic Photo Collection, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

At Harpers Ferry I first saw a pontoon bridge consisting of many large sized row-boats anchored side by side facing upstream and held together by string-pieces upon which planks were placed forming the bridge. I crossed the Potomac on this bridge and took a towpath of a canal and started for Sharpsburg. There was no water in this canal at that time. In going I deemed it best to avoid the main highways as I was liable to be challenged by sentinals posted along these main roads. I inquired from time to time of citizens as to the route to the town. The day (Oct. 1st) was very warm, the roads were dusty, indeed all vegetation, grass and trees and shrubs, were covered by a coat of dust. As I passed along this towpath I saw soldiers filling their canteens from a little stream that trickled from the side of a very high hill. I was not long in getting to that place of genuine refreshment. I rested for a while, chatted with some of the soldiers, took a bite of luncheon and pushed on.

I made no effort to dodge a soldier if in my course, and so, at one time, as I was going toward a park of artillery the sentinal motioned me to go around. Of course I was more than willing to obey as the last thing I wanted was to be examined by the military. I had not gone many miles before I left the towpath of the canal but I kept close to the river Potomac until I came to the lower bridge that crossed the Antietam creek below Sharpsburg. It was at this bridge that Gen. Burnside was ordered to cross and did so after defeating Gen. Tombs in a sharp engagement. The bridge was guarded by a small detachment and there was only a sentinel on the bridge as I attempted to cross. Being ordered to halt by this sentinel I took from my pocket those valuable letters. The guard took a hasty glance at them and ordered me to cross the bridge and report to the commandant, pointing me to a certain house. I so reported and the officer looked at the papers and at me, asked a few questions and pointing up a quite steep hill, said, "Get up that hill just as far as you can." I did not stand long after this order to go.
As soon as I had got to the top of the hill, I found that I was on the direct road from Harpers Ferry to Sharpsburg and so I ceased going crosslots and in by-ways and traveled on. I was soon overtaken by a peddler licensed to sell goods to soldiers. I asked him to ride to Sharpsburg, two or three miles away. He gave me a good seat and much information about roads to the battlefield etc.