“The whole picture was one of such absolute comfort”: Going into winter quarters

In the sesquicentennial timeline, we are entering a phase of the Civil War where the Armies in the main theaters (Virginia and Tennessee-Georgia) went into winter quarters.  Here in Virginia, the Army of the Potomac settled down around Culpeper and Fauquier Counties – ground over which that army had fought numerous times during the campaign season of 1863. At the suggestion of my friend Clark “Bud” Hall, I will start what I hope to be a series of posts about that Winter Encampment.  His advice was to follow the diary entries of Colonel Charles Wainwright, First Corps’ Chief of Artillery.  That in mind, what was Wainwright doing on this day 150 years ago?

Wainwright and the rest of First Corps made a short march to Culpeper Court House.  The move was unpopular in the ranks, as the men had setup quarters in the weeks prior.  But as will happen with a large army formation, orders came down for the First Corps to shift out to cover the approaches south of Culpeper Court House.  Good practice for winter quarters includes a plan should the enemy attack.  So if the Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Rapidan that winter, the First Corps was to delay that advance while the rest of the army formed behind Mountain Run.  The move was more administrative than tactical advance, though.  The entire operation was “hurry up and wait,” in spite of the cold weather, as Wainwright observed:

We reached the Court House soon after noon, but, as usual, there was no General [John] Newton along to tell us where we were to camp; we therefore had to hang around all the afternoon waiting for him. Headquarters were to be in the village; that was all that anyone knew.  About a couple of hours before sundown the General arrived, expressing surprise that somebody had not put the men in camp.  He hates the labour of looking up positions for his corps; both the bodily labour of riding around to view the country, and the mental work of how best to locate his troops.  As, however, he had to do it, he took Bankhead and myself and went out onto the hills south of the place.

Wainwright soon located a prime location for his headquarters and the batteries of the Corps.

I saw it from the heights lying snug and dry, well sheltered to the north by pines, a few hundred yards from the water, and about three-quarters of a mile from the station.  I did not like to point it out, for there was a house in the centre of it, and I feared that the general might think it was that I was after. I find that the commanders who like most to get into houses themselves often make the most fuss about their subordinates along with doing the same thing.  The spot was, however, so clearly the best for my camp that Newton could not help seeing it himself; when he pointed it out and told me I might camp there, I moved off at once and took my batteries over to the neighbourhood.

Wainwright found a cavalry brigade was already posted at that location.  But the arrival of the First Corps to the sector meant the cavalry would soon move farther south.   The house was owned by the Alexander family.  The family had abandoned the house prior to Wainwright’s arrival. So Wainwright placed his batteries in camp out of the weather and pitched his headquarters tents in the yard of the house.

Alexander family house – Wainwright’s headquarters (see photo credit below)

The cavalry would have a day or so longer in that comfortable position, while the artillerists would have the remainder of the winter to cozy up.  That work done, he ventured into Culpeper for a warm meal and to check in at Corps headquarters.  This was, of course, an excuse to stay away while the men setup camp.

When I returned, about ten o’clock, I found a body of infantry bivouacked close to the railroad.  Oh, how cold and miserable the poor devils looked, crouching around fires no larger than a tin pan, for there was no wood near.  The ground was frozen too hard for them to pitch their little bits of canvas; and when they looked back upon the warm huts they had left at Kelly’s Ford, how they must have cursed someone.  As I rode along thinking how it was Newton’s love of his own ease that had prevented these poor fellows from providing for their fires tonight, I was cheered up by the sight of my own men. Close behind where I had located them lay a large amount of pine and cedar brush, fresh cut: this they had hauled together; each detachment building for themselves a semi-circular wall of it four or five feet high.  In the centre was a roaring big fire, around which the men lay, well wrapped up in their blankets and paulins. I could not help stopping to congratulate them on being battery men; the whole picture was one of such absolute comfort.

On reaching my headquarters, I found that my staff had cozened with the cavalry officers in the house, and had fared well.  I went in to see the colonel myself, and to express the hope that I was not intruding by pitching my tent in his dooryard for the night.  He was quite polite about it, but evidently felt very grumpy at the prospect of having to move farther to the front, now that the infantry had come up.  Orders to which effect he got the next day.

There is one inescapable arching theme in Wainwright’s diary entry for the day – COLD.  In the field, soldiers will go to great lengths to combat the evil cold: extra blankets, coverings, shelters, and fires.  The short days of December had arrived and now the rank and file among the Army of the Potomac turned to combat a natural enemy.  In time, the men would build a city’s worth of dwellings across Culpeper and Fauquier County.  All in the name of staying warm and comfortable.

In another post in this series, I’ll show where Wainwright’s headquarters (the Alexander house) stood.  You won’t find it today, as it as torn down a few years back.

( Photo of the Alexander house courtesy of Clark Hall.  Citations from Charles S. Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865, edited by Allan Nevins, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, pages 310-11.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

3 thoughts on ““The whole picture was one of such absolute comfort”: Going into winter quarters

  1. Charles Wainwright was a man of strong opinions, and to offer that he did not suffer fools is an understatement. An historian friend from the west bank of the Hudson in fact once told me that Wainwright, who lived pre-war on the east side of the Hudson Valley (near Rhinebeck), was an “insufferable, aristocratic blue-blood who looked down his nose at anyone not of his social order.”

    Maybe, maybe not, but for those who care about stratospheric daily life in the Army of the Potomac, Colonel Wainwright’s “Diary” has almost reached biblical proportions. And as one who has researched that huge army’s five-month Culpeper encampment for more than 25 years, I owe a tremendous debt of scholarly gratitude to Charles S. Wainwright.. (Even though he might not have invited me in his tent for a glass of sherry.)

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