The account of one of the smallest soldiers in blue
George Ulmer, the author of this book, is unusually distinguishable from many of the soldiers who penned their recollections of their time in the Union Army during the great civil war between the states. Ulmer was no strapping youth straight from the farm, or mature man fighting for deeply held convictions; by his own admission, as war broke out he was ‘a midget of a boy; a barefooted ragged news-boy in the city of New York’ where he made much needed money by selling newspapers after proclaiming contents they did not possess. Ulmer’s mother died in 1861 and his father moved the family to a farm in Maine to provide them with a healthier lifestyle. As the war progressed, Ulmer’s brother joined the army to fight and he too burned to go. His attempts to be mustered into a regiment were repeatedly met with rejection and derisive laughter. However, Ulmer though both very young and small was also a street-wise urchin from the city who knew how to get his own way and eventually, in 1863 he found himself in the ranks of the 8th Maine wearing the smallest uniform that could be issued to him—it ‘looked as if it was enough make a suit for an entire family.’ He became something of a mascot to the ‘Maine giants’ of his regiment and the diminutive Ulmer had a fair degree of leeway in his movements becoming a champion forager—something for which his background had ideally qualified him. Of course this remains the account of a fighting soldier and Ulmer found himself in action at Fort Powhatan, Cold Harbor and Petersburg. This is an enjoyable, charming and often humorous recollection, candidly told in manhood by someone who remembered himself as a canny but mischievous ‘young devil.’
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
That evening we passed by Fortress Monroe, up the James River. There was not much transpired to relieve the monotony or appease our hunger or thirst; in fact, it began to look dubious as to reaching City Point. The monotony, however, was somewhat relieved in the morning. About daylight a commotion was caused by the sound of distant cannonading. Every one crowded to the front of the boat; everybody was asking questions of everybody. Each one had some idea to offer as to the cause. Some ventured to say it was a gunboat up the river practising. One old chap, who had evidently been to the front, facetiously claimed that it was the corks out of Butler’s bottles. The river was very crooked at this point, and you could not see very far; but presently we rounded a bend in the river, which revealed to us where the cannonading came from, but for what, we could not make out. About a mile ahead of us lay a United States gunboat, and every few minutes a puff of smoke, and then a loud bang—erang—erang—erang—with its long vibrations on that still morning, awoke a sense of fear in everyone aboard that boat. No one could account for the situation. Even the captain of the barge stood with pallid cheek, seemingly in doubt what to do as he rang the bell to slow down; but on—on we kept moving—nearer and nearer this most formidable war-ship, and as we did so the shots became more frequent. Then we noticed a man on the bank waving a flag back and forth, up and down in a wild, excited sort of a way. I asked what that meant. An old soldier said the man was signalling the boat to let them know they had hit the target.<br>
Suddenly we were brought to an understanding of what it all meant, for we could now hear the musketry very plain, and could even see the rebels on the banks of the river. At this point a “gig” from the gunboat pulled alongside and gave orders to the captain “to land those troops at once,” telling him at the same time that this was Fort Powhatan landing; that Fitzhugh Lee with his cavalry had swooped down upon the garrison, which was only composed of two hundred negro troops, and that they must be re-enforced. The captain protested, as the troops on board were all unarmed, being returned furloughed men and recruits; but it was no use, the order was imperative, and the captain headed his barge toward the shore. There was no wharf. That had been burnt, so he was obliged to run as far as he could onto the sand, then land us overboard. I tell you as that boat neared toward the shore, my face felt as if it were marbleized; sharp twinges ran up and down my whole body, and I’ll bet that I was the picture of a coward. I was not the only one. I looked them all over, every one looked just as I felt. One man who stood near me, I know, was more frightened than I, for he was so frightened he smelt badly. But I didn’t blame any of those poor men; it was not the pleasantest thing in the world to be placed before the enemy as we were. However, we all landed.<br>
The firing above us on the bank became more intense. An officer who was on the boat with us, returning from a leave of absence, assumed command. He ordered us to fall into line, and marched us into a little ravine, halted, and told us the position and necessity of the occasion. He said the fort was a very important position, and must be held at all hazards; that there were only two hundred coloured troops there, and they could not hold it. Now, he proposed, as we had no arms, to go in with a rush and a yell, and make those rebels think that re-enforcements had arrived. All this time the musketry firing was increasing. The whizz of bullets through the air and about our heads were becoming too frequent. I was in the front rank, centre of the line, and I tell you I think I had a little of that frightened smell about me at this time. Whether it was that or my looks or what, the officer probably took pity on me and told me to skirmish in the rear. I hardly knew where the rear was, but I thought it would be safer under the bank of the river, and there I hastened, and none too soon, for the rebels had made a break through the lines and poured several volleys into our poor, unarmed re-enforcements. The rebs became more cautious, and that was what was wanted, as the only hope we had was to hold them at bay until re-enforcements could arrive.
Well, I skirmished in the rear, and I found it hotter than the front, for the rebs would crawl to the bank at either end of the breastworks and kept a cross-fire up and down the river. Under and against the banking, there was a sort of old barn; this was filled with hay. The bullets were flying around so thickly that I squeezed myself behind this barn, and after I was well in, the bullets just rained against that old building; but I felt pretty secure till I looked up overhead—I saw that while I was in safety from bullets, a worse danger threatened me. The overhanging bank was liable to cave in and bury me alive. <br>
The uncertainty of my position became more and more apparent. Each moment the increased storm of bullets on the barn prevented me from even looking out, and the constant rattling down of dirt and pebbles from above, told me plainly what a position I was in. I tell you I wished then I had never been mustered in. The uncertainty of my position was soon developed. I came to myself and found I was buried to my neck; my head and face were cut and bleeding, and a soldier was trying to wipe the sand from my eyes and ears. I found I had not been shot, but the banking had caved in and buried me. Gen. “Baldy” Smith, who was in command, happened to see me behind the barn just as the bank caved in. It was he who put the soldiers at work to rescue me. As soon as I was out, and the dust out of my eyes, the general rode down to the beach, leading an extra horse; he called to me. Ordered me to mount. I did so. He made me his orderly.