This substantial diary of a Union soldier serving with a New York infantry regiment benefits from its author’s talent for observation. Diary entries were made frequently and regularly, sometimes on more than one occasion during the course of a day, and this provides the reader with what amounts to reportage of a conflict which was fought not too long after the professional reporter became a regular feature of campaign and camp in the nineteenth century. Van Alstyne was a man committed to the preservation of the Union and his views on the subject of slavery, probably because his family had once been slave owners, are initially ambivalent. The 128th New York Volunteers (nicknamed ‘Old Steady’) took part in the siege of Port Hudson, the Red River Expedition, Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley campaign and many other notable engagements. Eventually Van Alstyne earned a commission and went on to command a regiment of freed slaves from Louisiana.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
May 23, 1863.<br>
In the morning Isaac Mitchell and I set out to find the 128th. We followed the road, which was now a quagmire, but were met by an ambulance with wounded men and a cavalry guard, who told us that only an armed force could get through and that it was eight miles to where our brigade was then. We decided to wait. The wounded were put on the Sallie Robinson, to be taken to some hospital. About midnight the mortar fleet, which is farther upstream, began firing and made a noise worse than several Fourths of July. We could follow the shells by the burning fuse, which looks like a shooting star. This we see first, then hear the boom of the mortar, then the hiss of the shell through the air and last the explosion when it strikes the ground.<br>
Sunday night. A team for the quartermaster’s stores came early and we were all day getting through to the regiment. Soldiers covered the ground. I have no idea how many there were. We were near the breastworks, but a belt of timber hid our view of them. We were in a clearing maybe one-half mile square, with woods on all sides. There was a house near us, the only building in sight.<br>
May 25, 1863.<br>
We had orders to advance last night and our brigade formed in column, where we remained all night, and where we are yet. One by one we dropped down and went to sleep on the grass, where the dew soon soaked one side while the wet ground soaked the other. A man lying near me jumped up and raved around like a crazy man; he kept pawing at his ear as if in great pain. A doctor sleeping near was soon at him and found a bug had crawled into his ear. After the sun had dried us off we began to look for rations. The mail soon after came, and I had two letters. One of them contained a photograph of my dear old father and mother. I won’t try to tell how rejoiced I am to have this with me. I don’t think either of them ever had one taken before. Dear old couple, how glad I am they cannot see their boy and his surrounding’s just now!<br>
Night. Lots of powder has been burned today, but Port Hudson is still there. Our brigade has been skirmishing and one of the Sixth Michigan is wounded. Roads are being cut through the woods, and everything looks and acts as if business would soon begin. It does no good to ask questions, no one seems to know any more than I do, and I only know what goes on right close by me. Generals with their staffs are racing about, and everything is in a whirl. Evidently something is going to happen. All sorts of rumours are in the air. Human nature shows even here. Some news gatherers seem to know all about it, but I notice that what happens rarely agrees with their predictions. One of Company B, I won’t write his name, is nearly scared to death. The doctor says he will die of fright if kept in the ranks. Another is nearly as badly off, and he has been the biggest brag of all; has hungered and thirsted for a chance to fight and now that he has it, has wilted. I hope he will be kept at it. I have often envied him his courage, but I shall never do it again. I don’t deny that I am a coward, but I have so far succeeded in keeping it to myself.<br>
The 128th is nearest the point where the road enters the woods in the direction of the biggest noise. The skirmishers that have been down this road say it soon reaches the corner of another open field; that a house and outbuildings are on the side next the fortifications and only a short distance from them; that rebel sharpshooters are in those buildings and it is they who are picking off every man that sticks his nose out of the woods on that side. From one of the Sixth Michigan who was on the skirmish line I have such a vivid description I have mapped out what he says is about the thing.<br>
Every now and then a shell comes tearing through the woods, and so far, in the direction of the 128th. None of them have yet burst, but from an examination I made of one, they are intended to. This one was perfectly round and painted black. A big screw head shows on one side, and is turned off smooth with the shell. It is about six inches in diameter. It hit the ground beyond us and rolled up against the foundation of the house I have mentioned and stopped. It was then I examined it.<br>
Later. Just as I had written the above, one did burst right over Company B. The pieces, however, kept on in the same direction the shell was going and no one was hit or hurt. Such dodging though I never saw, and I didn’t see all of it at that. Myself and two others were filling our canteens from a kettle of coffee which sat on the ground near a big tree. When we heard the shell coming through the tree tops we expected it would go past as all the others had done. But it burst when right over us. We all jumped for the tree, and our heads came together with a bang. The first thing I saw was stars, and the next was men all over the field dodging in every direction. This was our first experience under fire. One could not laugh at another, for so far as I could see all acted alike.<br>
Later. They keep coming, and we dodge less and less. If they keep at it long enough I suppose we shall get used to it, as we have to a great many other things. A cavalryman went down the road marked with an arrow, and his horse has just come back without him.<br>
Night. About 5 p. m. a detachment from another regiment and Companies A, C, H and I from ours, went down this same road, and soon the most infernal racket began. They drove the rebels out of the “Slaughter House,” and set fire to every building there. (The man who owned the house is named Slaughter). Only one man was wounded, but Captain Gifford of Company A has not returned, and we fear the Rebs got him. The house near us has been taken for a hospital. From appearances we will need it. Our brigade remains where first halted, but troops of all kinds are constantly on the move about us, some going one way and some another. It is plain that a general movement is soon going to be made. It seems to me as if all of Uncle Sam’s army must be here, there are so many. The 128th is only a small affair just now. We have thought our brigade was about all there was of it, and that that was largely composed of the 128th New York. I will put up my diary, and get what sleep I can with all this confusion about me.