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Monday, October 7, 2013

Story of a Trooper: Francis Colburn Adams in New Kent

Francis Colburn Adams had been a published author for some eight years before he decided to join the 1st New York Cavalry, the "Lincoln Cavalry," in 1861. His 1865 account of his early war experiences, The Story of a Trooper: With Much of Interest Concerning the Campaign on the Peninsula, contains several chapters of his experiences in New Kent County in 1862.


The fleet in Poquosin river presented a busy, bustling scene during the 4th and 5th. Franklin was ordered to move with his division up the York river on West Point, at once. It was hoped by this movement to cut off or intercept some portion of the enemy's force
retreating up the Peninsula. But a flank movement by water, even for so short a distance, was likely to be attended with considerable delay. Such of the division as had been landed had to be re-shipped, and the work of getting animals and artillery on board was  heavy. And there was not room in the river, nor wharf facilities, to work to advantage. Officers and men worked night and day, and did their best, dispatching the vessels round to Yorktown as soon as they were loaded, but it was not until nearly noon of the 6th that the division was on board, and the fleet in line before Yorktown, ready to move.

The day was remarkably clear and springlike, and the river smooth. The signal was given at one o'clock, and the fleet moved in two lines, preceded by gunboats, and presented a grand appearance. These gunboats were at that time a terror to the people along river banks; a few shells thrown ashore causing many of them to leave their homes and seek safety at a distance.

The landscape here was new and strange to us. It  did, indeed, seem as if we were sailing on a grand excursion, with a gay and joyous company, through some fair and beautiful garden. The beautifully sloping banks of the river, the deep green fields, the fine farmhouses, with their pretty gardens, their orchards in full blossom, their broad avenues, and lawns dotted with shade trees, and the cattle grazing in the distance, formed a pastoral picture of great beauty. The people came out at times from their houses, and stood along  the banks, watching the movements of the fleet. The masts of a sunken vessel or the booming of a gun on one of the gunboats were the only things that gave a tinge of war to this beautiful picture.

Twenty miles above Yorktown the water began to shoal, and the river seemed to expand into a lake. There was a thickly wooded ridge on the south shore, and extending nearly at right angles from this, and  well across the head of the stream, was a broad level plateau, at the northern extremity of which a little  brick house stood. This was Brick House Point The river here made a sweep to the right, or north, and opened into what seemed a  sequestered cove. About a mile and a half beyond this, and to the west, was a narrow point of land, on which stood a number of large wooden buildings or sheds. This was West Point, the buildings marking the terminus of the Richmond and West Point railroad. The Mattapony on the one side, and the Pamunky on the other, swept past this point, mingled their waters in the cove below, and formed the York river.

Our light draught steamers and sailing vessels deployed along this broad plateau, some of them within one hundred yards of the shore, and prepared to land the troops, while the gunboats took position to cover the landing. The 15th New York, (engineers,) under command of Colonel McLeod Murphy, were soon at work, preparing landing stages of old canal boats and barges. In less than an hour from the time we had taken position, the water swarmed with all sorts of odd craft, from pontoons to canal boats. Newton's brigade was to land first, and began filling the pontoons. Slocum's, and then Taylor's, (late Kearney's.) were to  follow. But the enemy was not inclined to let us do
this work in peace. As soon as the first fleet of pontoons started to make a landing, the enemy opened from a battery concealed on the lower end of the ridge I have before described. His shells and round shot flew thick and fast; some of them exploding among the pontoons; others paying their compliments to the fleet. The pontoons kept steadily on towards the shore, which the men readied with cheers. But there was intense excitement among the fleet, and it was amusing to see the alarm created among some of the captains ; some ran up into the rigging, thinking it a better place of safely than the deck. Others sought shelter on the outside of their vessels. A shot whizzed past one who had sought
shelter in the rigging, and he came to the deck so quick that many thought him killed. But he was up in an instant, over the side of his vessel, and sculling away for dear life in his boat. That captain was remembered long after this event, and furnished the subject for many a pleasant joke. He had been brave among the bravest while we lay in Poquosin river. But he was not the only New England captain ready to forsake his ship at the first sound of the enemy's guns.

One shot cut clean through the smoke-stack of the steamer Vanderbilt. A second lodged in the cabin of a steamer. A third cut the rigging of a schooner. Officers began to inquire what our gunboats were doing that they did not open {fire}. The enemy's shot and shell fell too thick and fast to make the work of landing pleasant. The fact was, that owing to want of water the gunboats found it difficult to get within range of the enemy's batteries. They however succeeded at last, and a few well directed shells silenced the enemy and drove him from his position. The work of landing now went on unmolested, and it was surprising to see in what a short space of time the engineers had the landing stages ready. When the sun went down we had one brigade of infantry and two regiments of another
landed. We also had three batteries of artillery, Arnold's, Xamer's*, and Upton's; and two companies, A and C, of the Lincoln Cavalry. Quartermasters, too, were rapidly landing supplies. Professor Low was up taking an airing in his balloon, but came down  without bringing us any valuable information concerning the enemy. He thought he saw signs of the enemy north of West Point, but was not sure. I am afraid the balloon, as an instrument of war, was, like many of our cheap generals, a sad failure. The Secretary of War, I am happy to record to his credit, does not even give a passing word to the balloon corps in his report.

*almost certain he means Hexamer's Battery i.e. Battery A, First New Jersey Artillery

-To be continued- 

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