At the end of December 1864, Colonel Charles Wainwright established a headquarters outside Culpeper Court House in “absolute comfort.” His diary entry for January 7 began with more complaints about the bitter cold:
The weather continues cold for this latitude. Snow which fell on Monday has melted but very little since; the ground is frozen hard, and there is some prospect of another fall. If this weather holds, Lee may possibly be tempted to try something, for in spite of all care taken to prevent news going out of the number of men away from this army, he must be pretty well aware of our comparative weakness at this time. The papers too state that there is a great deal of disaffection growing in the rebel armies; the men are beginning to get tired of it. There may be some foundation for these reports, as deserters are beginning to come into our lines. On Monday four men from an Alabama regiment came over, and on Tuesday seventeen more from the same regiment. This is a large number, but they may be from the north of that state, where the people have never gone heartily with the dis-unionists.
Wainwright’s notice about the deserters tracks with a report from Brigadier-General Wesley Merritt posted on Monday, January 4 stating, “Four deserters from the Fourth Alabama Infantry came in to-day.”
Had Merritt’s report identified the correct regiment, this bit of information might have been the intelligence coop of the war. The 4th Alabama, part of Brigadier-General Evander Law’s Brigade, was at that time in western Tennessee. Someone at among the staff at Army of the Potomac Headquarters picked up on this, then requested clarification. The 14th Alabama, they suggested, was probably the origin of those deserters. Merritt collected seven more deserters on January 8 – four from the 4th Virginia Cavalry, one from the 6th Virginia Cavalry, and two from the 7th Virginia Infantry.
The remainder of Wainwright’s entry for January 7 focused on a matter of less importance to the prosecution of the war, but familiar to many visiting Gettysburg today.
At last the movement in the corps to erect a monument to General Reynolds has been fairly started. It was a very great mistake putting if off so long, as a large number of those who were members of the corps under Reynolds have left.
Wainwright went on to explain one of his reservations to the effort was “the plan contemplates a glorification of the First Corps, rather than a simple tribute to the memory of General Reynolds by his former comrades in arms.” In addition the effort included the First Corps as it was organized that winter season, and not as it was at the time of Reynolds death. And further the effort excluded formations such as the Pennsylvania Reserves which had served under Reynolds at an earlier time of the war. Lastly, Wainwright felt the subscriptions were too limited, and might be doubled. “Fifty cents for an enlisted man is not enough; it should have been $1….” But he saw a need to adjust the subscription rate, set at $5, for officers based on rank. “[Major James] Stewart with his pay of $125 a month and family to support can illy afford to give $5, while I, with my pay of $300 and no family can much more readily give $50.”
The effort started that winter eventually produced one of the first memorials on the Gettysburg battlefield:
The rank and file of the Army of the Potomac seemed certain, that winter, there would be an end of the war. However, the nature of that conclusion was, of course, uncertain in January 1864. But the men of the army were already looking towards a time to stand up memorials… and when a park to for those memorials was needed.
Going back to the opening of Wainwright’s entry from 150 years ago, I’m struck by the similarities between the weather then and today. Perhaps Mother Nature is observing the sesquicentennial in her own way.
(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 313-4; OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, page 339.)