Feb. 8. At daylight, the order to fall in was heard on all sides. Putting on my equipments and taking Spitfire and a big sweet potato, which I had with much labor succeeded in baking, I took my place in my company. The brigade all ready, Gen. Foster gave the order to march. He, with Col. Upton, took his place at the right of our regiment, marching by the flank into the woods. We soon came out to the pickets and the road that runs through the island. Here we filed to the left, marching up the road. Company A, Capt. Pickett, was thrown out as skirmishers. They soon fell in with the enemy’s pickets and drove them in. The column moved up the road to within a short distance of the clearing, in front of the rebel works. On the right of the road the ground was hard and free from brush, but on the left was an almost impenetrable swamp, covered with a dense growth of tangle-brush and horse briars. The right wing of the regiment filed to the right, while the left plunged into the swamp, and with swords and jack-knives, succeeded in cutting a path until they had penetrated the swamp far enough to form our line. The regiment was now nearly all in the swamp, the right resting just across the road. The howitzer battery had taken position in the road, in front of our right wing. The 23d and 27th Massachusetts formed on our right, while the 10th Connecticut was held in reserve. We were now in line in the swamp, and facing to the front, commenced firing. The battery had already opened the ball, and were receiving the attention of the enemy in front.
We could see nothing to shoot at, but taking our range by the smoke of the enemy’s guns we blazed away. We fired high, low and obliquely, thinking if we covered a wide range of ground, we might possibly lame somebody, and it seemed our shots must have proved troublesome, for they turned their attention to us, pouring musketry and canister shot without stint into the swamp. We were up to our knees in mud and water, so their shot passed over us without doing much damage. We were now ordered to cease firing and advance, but how to advance was the question. We could stand on a bog and cut away the briars in front of us and jump to another one; where they were not too large we could crawl through them, tearing not only our clothes but our hides as well. The officers rendered good service in cutting away the briars with their swords. In this way we could advance a few steps at a time and then fire a few rounds; the enemy all this time showing us marked attention.
Capt. Foster of company D was the first man I saw hit. I was watching him as he stood on a bog, cutting away the briars with his sword, and thinking of him as colonel of the old 8th regiment Massachusetts volunteer militia, in which I used to muster. The shot struck him near the eye. He whirled round on the bog, and would have fallen had not three of his men caught him and led him to the rear.
I was rather amused at the major’s plan of rifle practice; he was practicing with a large revolver, shooting into the air at an elevation of about 80 degrees. Some one asked him what he was trying to act out. “Why,” replied the major, “you see my shots attain their summit directly over the enemy, and if one of those shot in falling should hit a man on top of his head, his goose is cooked just as effectually as though he had been hit with a cannon ball.”
By cutting and crowding ourselves through the briars, we advanced to within about 300 yards of the enemy. Our ammunition being now exhausted and having been in the swamp about three hours we were ordered out. The 21st Massachusetts took our places and the 51st New York and 51st Pennsylvania regiments forced their way through to the left front; the three regiments succeeded in getting out on the enemy’s right flank. Seeing that all was now lost, the rebels took to their heels for the head of the island, followed by Reno’s and Foster’s brigades. At the head of the island, near the enemy’s camp, was Gen. Burnside with the 24th Massachusetts regiment, to whom Col. Shaw, in command of the Confederate forces, surrendered. By this, about 3000 prisoners, with their arms, ammunition and stores, fell into our hands. But the greatest prize of all, old ex-Governor Wise, slipped through our fingers. Perhaps, having some premonitions of the fate which awaited his command, he wisely took himself off the island last night, leaving his command with Col. Shaw, of the 8th North Carolina regiment. The old governor probably acted on the principle of the militia captain who was about leading his company into action. He made them a little speech, telling them to be brave and valiant, not to run until actually forced to. “But,” he said, “in case that should happen, and I being a little lame, I think I had better start now.”
During the action I had seen quite a number hit and led back to the rear, but I had little time to think much about it. After the chase commenced and we marched through the little redoubt and over the ground held by the enemy, and I began to see the mangled forms of dead and dying men, I was filled with an indescribable horror and wanted to go right home. I now began to realize what we had been doing, and thought that, if in this age of the world, with all our boasted civilization and education, men could not settle their differences short of cutting each other’s throats, we were not very far removed from barbarism. But I suppose so long as the nature of man is ambitious and selfish he will try to obtain by force what he cannot attain by other means. It was about night when we reached the Confederate camp, found the business had all been done, and Gen. Burnside was master of the situation. We now appropriated to our own use the log barracks of the enemy, leaving them to secure lodgings as best they could, as we had done the night before, with only this difference; they had a large body-guard over them, to see that they were orderly and kept the peace.