American Boys' Life of William McKinley/Chapter 7
Having assisted in the defeat and capture of Morgan and his raiders, the Twenty-third Ohio returned to Charleston, Virginia, and there went into winter camp, where it remained until the end of the following April.
The days proved long and dreary to the soldier boys, especially to those who could not obtain furloughs for the purpose of seeing their folks at home. There was a great deal of sleet and rain, and often a chilling wind would come up calculated to freeze the marrow in one's bones. Truly war isn't all glory, and Lieutenant McKinley found it so. But he stuck to his duty, and his old army friends say that he tried to make the best of the situation.
In those days delicacies were hard to get, and those who managed to obtain them were reckoned unusually fortunate. When a box of good things came in for anybody, the others would gather around, hoping for a share.
One day a small box came in for the second lieutenant, and was carried to his tent, to be opened in private.
"We won't get any of that," said one of the privates, a young man from Poland. "Mac's an officer now."
"Yes, but he's not the one to go back on his old friends," answered another. "You ought to know that as well as I."
"Ordinarily, yes; but we haven't had anything but bacon and hardtack for a week now, and I reckon he's as crazy for some good things as any of us," returned the first speaker.
By this time a little group had formed around those who were talking. They were all men from Poland, Niles, and the vicinity, who had known McKinley for years. Would he keep all his good things to himself, or would he "divide up," as had been his habit when in the ranks?
Presently one of the soldiers saw him come to the door of his tent and beckon to him. The private ran over. In his hand McKinley held a large round cake, out of which he had just cut one fair-sized slice.
"Just got this from home," he said. "You boys can divide it up between you. There are the other things I got." And he pointed to them, lying on his cot,—some new underwear and half a dozen pairs of heavy socks, made by his mother and sisters.
"Thank you, lieutenant," said the private, and hurried back to the crowd with the cake. "Told you he wouldn't go back on us," he said to his fellow-soldiers. "He's got some homemade socks in there, and I'll bet if any of us needs 'em, he'll divide up on those, too."
Early in February, 1864, there was a vacancy among the first lieutenants of the command, and some speculation was indulged in concerning who would obtain the coveted commission. But the speculation did not last long, for the honor went to McKinley, much to the satisfaction of his many friends.
"He deserves it," said an old veteran of several wars. "Watch him, and some day you'll see him a general."
A few weeks later, orders came to break camp, and move to the Kanawha, at a point a few miles above Brownstown. Although it was now the first of May, the ravines in the mountains lay deep with snow, and the weather was anything but springlike. For three days it rained and the sleet came down, and scarcely enough dry wood could be found with which to build a camp-fire. The long winter's inactivity had not put the men in good marching condition, and it was with much toil and pain that they fought their way through the great snowfilled hollows, and up the bleak and slippery mountain sides.
Veterans tell many tales of that march, which lasted the best part of a week. "I was used up by it," said one. "It was so cold at times I couldn't tell whether I had my nose or feet left, or not. When we laid down to sleep, our blankets would often freeze fast during the night, so that we'd have to take an axe and chop them loose in the morning.
"I remember McKinley well on that march. He had just been made a first lieutenant, and I imagine he had his eye on a captaincy—anyway, he did his full share toward hustling us along and helping stragglers. There was one poor chap who got dead beat out and in climbing the mountain side he slipped and rolled into a hollow at least two hundred feet out of the way. There was no ambulance corps around, and no doctor within call, and the sergeant detailed to look after stragglers was about as fagged out as the man who took the tumble. I was looking at the poor chap when McKinley rushes up to me, and cries, 'Come on, let's help him up!' And away he goes, and me after him. I can tell you it was a tough climb down into the hole, and a worse climb back. But we got him on his feet, and then two or three others joined hands with us, and in that way we got him up to the path. We made some hot coffee for him, and gave him some liquor, and helped him along, and by and by he was all right again. But he didn't forget what we did for him, and since then he's voted for McKinley six or seven times."
General Grant had now become lieutenant-general of all the Union forces, and the Union army had been increased by the addition of several hundred thousand men. Steps were taken to advance upon the Confederates from a number of points at once, and this included a movement by General Crook, the noted Indian fighter, who was ordered to destroy as large a part of the Virginia and Tennessee railroad as possible, thus cutting off the Confederates' line of communication to Richmond, their capital.
After a week of hardships, as just described, the regiment to which McKinley belonged found itself, along with the rest of the brigade, before Cloyd Mountain. Here the enemy had erected rude breastworks on the ridge of a hill, behind which they had massed their infantry and light artillery.
"Forward!" came the command, about noon, and forward went the brigade, with the Twenty-third Ohio forming the right wing. The advance led across a meadow five hundred yards wide, and while in this position the soldiers were exposed to a most galling fire, and a number fell, to rise no more.
"Double-quick!" was the cry. "Come on, boys!" And, the meadow passed, the regiment forded a small brook skirting the mountain base. Beyond was a patch of scrub timber, and into this they plunged and began the hard work of ascending the hill, over rough rocks, fallen trees, and pitfalls constructed to bar their progress. Soon arose the rattle of musketry, punctuated with the booming of artillery, the leaden hail clipping through brush and branch and spat-spatting against the rocks. The woods were filled with smoke, for in those days nothing was known of smokeless powder.
"Hurrah! We have them!" was the cry raised presently. The brigade had reached the last rise of the hill, and the enemy's position was plainly exposed. A deadly fire came from the Confederates, and a flag went down on each side. But the Unionists kept on, making a furious assault both on the infantry and the artillery, and a little later the cannon were silenced and fell into the hands of Lieutenant Austin, of the Twenty-third, who had them dragged to a place of safety. One of the Confederates tried to regain the battery, but a private of Company G pushed him back and hung his cap over the muzzle of the piece; and then the tide of battle swept the two apart forever.
The first ridge lost, the Confederates fell back to the second ridge, and onward went the Unionists once more. Again was the battle renewed, and again officers and privates went down before that sheet of deadly hail. On all sides the ground was torn up as if by cattle gone mad. But the Confederates could not hold their new position, and they retreated to a ridge still farther back, where they were reënforced. But the blood of the Unionists was now up, and again they advanced, until the enemy was forced into a full retreat.
The objective point of the brigade was the New River Bridge, and after destroying much of the railroad tracks in the vicinity of the above battle and at Dublin, the Unionists moved the next morning toward the New River Bridge. Here a battle was fought, largely by the artillery, and the bridge given over to the flames.
The command next turned toward Blacksburg. It rained in torrents, and the crossing of the river at Pepper's Ferry was a tedious and thoroughly disagreeable operation, the whole command having to wait its turn to cross in one small ferry-boat. Arriving at Blacksburg, there was a skirmish with the Confederates, resulting in the loss of several killed upon either side, and then the Twenty-third crossed Salt Pond Mountain, acting on this occasion as train guard. Again it rained, and the roads proved to be in such fearful condition that it was next to impossible for horses, mules, or wagons to get through, to say nothing of artillery. Many of the wagons had to be abandoned, and were given over to the flames. Of those times one of the teamsters says:—
"Our horses were all knocked out for the want of proper fodder, and all we had to depend on was the mules, and even some of those fell by the wayside. The road was chock-a-block with all sorts of equipments that the boys found too heavy to carry, and many a poor fellow dropped out and had to be left at a temporary hospital. With the army were a number of contrabands who didn't wish to be left behind, and when their teams gave out, they had to walk. Some of them had children with them, and the youngsters cried bitterly because of the rain and other hardships.
"Major McKinley was with us,—he was only a lieutenant then,—and he had to take his dose of the disagreeable the same as all of us. Everybody in the ranks was covered with mud, and the officers weren't any better off, although the major always was a sticker to keep his uniform bright. He helped around the supply wagons,—he was used to that kind of work, having been a commissary sergeant himself,—and once I saw him help a poor contraband who had his wife and three children with him, and several heavy bundles of household goods, probably everything the poor fellow had in the world. McKinley helped carry one of the children along the road for at least a mile, and he helped the woman over more than one ditch. And he did those things just as if he thought it was no more than his duty to do them. I don't wonder his old mother said, 'William was always a good boy.' Guess he was thinking of her when he helped the contraband and his family."