Asa Smith Leaves The War

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In the summer of 1861 a twenty-five-year-old resident of Natick, Massachusetts, by the name of Asa Smith set out to join the Union Army. It was not very easy to do this, because all the companies around Natick seemed to be full; eventually, on July 2, Smith managed to get into a company being raised at Watertown, and this company became part of the l6th Massachusetts Infantry. By the end of August the regiment had been moved to Washington; a little later it was sent to camp at Newport News, Virginia, where a federal troop build-up was in progress.

In the spring of 1862 the l6th Massachusetts was one of the units in the Army of the Potomac. Under General George B. McClellan it advanced to the environs of Richmond, fought through the Seven Days’ campaign, and joined in the retreat to Harnson’s Landing, on the James River. In the battle of Glendale, near the close of the Seven Days, young Smith (by now he had become a corporal) was severely wounded in the face. Eventually he made his way north, and after a long time he recovered his health; but his soldiering days were over, and by the end of July he had been given a discharge for physical disability. After the war, perhaps because of his experiences with army medicine (or lack of it), Smith became a doctor and was practicing in the Boston area as late as 1901.

Like so many other Civil War soldiers, Corporal Smith kept a rough journal, and after the war he put it into shape as a memoir. Outside of his immediate family, no one saw it; long after his death it came into the possession of Norman A. Hall, of Dover, Massachusetts, who transformed the original longhand copy into a typed manuscript. Through the courtesy of Mr. Hall, a portion of the manuscript is here given its first publication.

The part we have chosen has to do with Corporal Smith’s wound and with what happened to him afterward. Few documents reveal more vividly the hardships of the Civil War soldier’s life. Beset at best by inadequate knowledge, the army medical authorities were on occasion simply swamped by the number of wounded men they had to treat. If they came upon a man who seemed to be mortally injured, they often refused to treat him at all, saying that they had to limit themselves to men who could be patched up enough to be of more service later on. They were perfectly frank about it, and Corporal Smith was told bluntly that nothing could be done for him. His account of what happened then is one of the most amazing in Civil War records.

His narrative here is picked up with his recital of events in eastern Virginia on June 29, 1862, shortly after the Seven Days’ conflict had begun. —B.C.

We were awakened at an early hour, and strange sights met our eyes. We had been told that everything on the right was favorable to our arms, and had no reason to disbelieve it. On this morning the first thing I noticed was that the tents of the officers were cut into ribbons, then that the Quartermaster’s stores had been fired. Great piles of bread and meat were on the fire, men were busy banging the stocks of rifles against the trees and throwing the barrels into fires to ruin them. Barrels of sugar and whiskey were being emptied into pools of brackish water, in fact everything was being destroyed that could not be carried. There was an immense amount of property destroyed. We were ordered to tear our over-coats into four pieces and leave them. Then to sling knapsacks and fill our cartridge boxes, haversacks were replenished, and a hearty breakfast eaten.

As soon as possible we were marched into the entrenchments, where we found double the number of troops that usually manned them. I soon discovered that all the artillery had been withdrawn, not a piece being in sight.

It was strange to see the different ideas the men had as to what had happened; so great had been their faith in “Little Mac” [General McClellan, an idol of the enlisted men] that it was almost impossible for some of them to believe it could mean anything but a rapid pursuit of a retreating enemy. We actually thought we had been victorious on the right and were going to move forward. As for myself, as soon as I perceived the destruction going on around me, I felt that things were going wrong, and that it could only mean a withdrawal of our lines.

One thing was noticeable, that no one seemed at all disheartened or worried, everyone said, “We’ll make them skedaddle yet.” Everyone seemed to think that it was only a temporary affair, and that we might whip them during the movements that were to take place, and that we were fully able to do it.

It was a bit foggy for a while so that one could not see a great distance; but as it came daylight [the fog] cleared away, and far to the right and left the same conditions appeared.

We were commanded to make no noise, and in a short time the troops began to withdraw, toward the Chickahominy. After falling back some distance, the brigade left the road and filed into a field on the left. As we marched I saw that there were many guns in position on the edge of the wood on our right, and large numbers of men behind them.

Soon we were brought to a front in a place where timber had been cut but not carried away, there being several trees lying on the ground. We were ordered to lie down in position, the brigade being formed left in front, bringing the i6th in the front line.

The ground in our front rose gradually for a short distance, and a railroad cut ran nearly at right angles with our line. On the edge of the cut were three batteries of artillery (eighteen pieces) so placed as to nearly enfilade it, and we were to support them.