Letter from Austin, Matthew S.

Soldier: Austin, Matthew S.
Allegiance: Union
Unit/Service Branch: 5th Infantry
Home State: New Jersey
Date Written: Friday, January 11th, 1861
Location: Lower Potomac
Correspondence Type: Letter
Subjects: Camp Life, Commanders, Comrades, Enemy, Family, Newspapers, Rumors

Camp Fifth NJV

My Dear Father~

Your letter of the 6-7th is just received (6 p.m.). It is the first mail since Monday. There is, of course, many letters, papers etc. and the men are quite busy reading and discussing home matters. Men are in groups, in pairs and singly, some leaning against trees and others are in secluded places reading their letters. It is, perhaps, the most pleasing thing that occurs in camp, the reading of letters after the arrival of the mail. We should have one daily but the communication by boat is very irregular and not to be relied upon – the Schuylkill steam wheel boats being very poor sea vessels. Gov. transports are very irregular – go and return as they are loaded & unloaded. None of the maps of the Potomac (that I have seen) represent accurately the position of Matawoman Creek. At the very mouth itself is the Gov. storehouse from which this division is supplied. It is certainly not commanded by the rebel batteries, as vessels arrive daily and remain at anchor in the bay (formed by its confluence with the Potomac) until night or until a favorable wind enables them to run by with comparative safety. I have seen several pass down without being noticed by the rebels. Others are saluted by every battery as the pass and its wonderful and remarkable that only one vessel has been sunk (one loaded with wood) while so many have passed. At night, our gunboats pass and repass, probably without being noticed. This p.m., five gunboats were seen down the river below the “shipping point” batteries - they fired several shots towards the Virginia shore – whether at the batteries or at some other object, we could not tell. Our camps (5th, 6th, 8th) are in close proximately – all on a “quarter section” – the 7th a quarter mile off and nearer the Potomac – about 2 ½ miles from the Matawoman – down the river. The camp of the 5th is higher than the rebel battery opposite – surrounded by timber to such an extent that is must be entirely hid from view from every direction and certainly cannot be reached by any gun in the rebel battery. They have not, so far, tried any shots which seemed to be directed at our encampment. We have no apprehension that any of their guns can reach us. There is, in our immediate front, an island or isolated tract of land about 2 miles in length and ½ mile wide – nearly all under cultivation – occupied at present by Negroes (some 12 or more) and one white man. There is a collection of farmhouses about the center of the tract (North and South) and standing near the river. This tract of land has been occupied by our Picket Guard until recently. The neck of land connecting with the main land, which is about 25 yds. wide, is the only portion held by our pickets. It was on the strip of land that the shot struck, about which I spoke before. The hospital steward of the 5th and myself were mounted and had been riding along the bank of the river, for a more close view of the rebels – had gone the entire length of land and returned to the farmhouse. At the moment of passing through a gate, which with a short piece of fence, connected the dwelling house and a frame stable, the shot of which I spoke, came on its errand, passing directly over our heads and landing in the midst of some dozen hogs (without injuring one) and some 150 yards from us. We immediately rode after it and found it some 300 yds further on, in a ditch. It was a conical percussion shell and weighed some 62 lbs. Hospital steward brought away a part of one of the lead rings with which they are surrounded. A few moments before a shot was fired in the same direction, striking the fence before spoken of from which we judged they were firing at a group of men, officers and pickets who were stationed there at the time. All have been withdrawn since – save as before stated. The distance from the point in question to our camp is a mile – direct line east. The tract of land I have referred to is known as “Stump Neck”, the entrance to which is between our camp and the Matawoman. You get a wrong impression by supposing our camp to be within our foes reach. I believe one of the Mass. Regiments is within easy reach of the rebel guns from Shipping Point – but nature of the ground is such that the camp cannot be seen and of course, they will not fire many shots at our unseen target. You enquire the name of our “Chaplain”. He is known in Jersey by the name of “Thomas Sovereign” or Mr. Sovereign, a local preacher in the Methodist church – is 6 ft. 3 in. high and weighs about 250 lbs. – is now Post Master of the Regiment and a poor one at that. In the NY Tribune, of January 8, on the 7th page, you will find an article in regard to the pay of commissioned and non-com. Officers and chaplains in which you will find a faithful picture of our chaplain. I am under the impression the writer of the article had Sovereign particularly in view when he wrote. It hit him as clearly as though the name had been mentioned. There have been few, if any, prayer meetings in this regiment since he came and but little preaching. He is altogether and totally unfit for the position he has attained. He lacks every requisite – youth – activity – ability. The vote of the line and staff officers was in favor of Batchelder (or Bachelor) a Methodist clergyman of ability – but Starr disregarded their expressed wish and vote and appointed Sovereign. The morale of this regiment cannot be said to be bad – it might be made better – but not under present circumstances. I cannot believe that the prospect of an immediate engagement with the enemy, has any other effect upon the mind of the soldiers, than that of a desire to whip the enemy as soon as possible and a conviction that if he dies, he dies in the discharge of his duty and at his post – which they look upon as an atonement for many sins. The article to which I have referred in the NY Tribune before mentioned, I have just cut out and send you an extract. I do not mean to say it applies in every particular. The part that is quoted may be said to apply to our chaplain, commencing “I am fearful etc.” Sovereign was caterer for the regimental mess, while on “Meridian Hill” which occupied much of his time – so that when I read the article, it struck me as applicable. The only person to be censured is the Col. Of the 5th. I do not say the chaplain is not in every respect a good man but my previous remark about his qualifications for the position, I believe, are strictly true. While at “Camp Burlington” prayer meetings were had nightly and very interesting. Often the chaplain came into the reg. (which was at Alexandria), these meetings were broken up in two ways: they were resigned into the chaplains hands as the proper leader and further the companies were posted at remote points about the city – with extra duties and could not be got together, as in camp. After returning to Washington, instead of accommodating himself to the condition of things, his time was divided between the mess and useless efforts to procure a tenet for religious services. During the times thus consumed – the natural interest which had attracted to religious meetings had quite died out – the men looking upon the chaplain during the time, as something as a humbug. There is nothing in his appearance, preaching, communication with the men or aught else that I can think of to impress anyone with the idea that he is at all fitted for the position. You will gather rather an unpleasant impression I fear. But I do not see from my observation among the men that the morale of the regiment is at all below the most favored of our regiments or of other regiments. The regiment has built a chapel of logs, which will be dedicated next Sunday – provided we do not move before that time of which there is good prospect. This will do for this subject.

Sunday evening 8 p.m.

Before I had finished writing the above, the rebel battery (at Cockpit Point) opened a heavy fire. We passed out of the lines to see and found a steam vessel passing us. We could see the steam as she passed along. There was probably no damage done to the vessel. Nearly all night, at intervals their guns would give us an eye opener. The Pensacola is said to have passed down sometime before daylight, which elicited the heavy firing – she is said to have been protected on the exposed side by bales of hay on lifters, which were lashed to that side. One of the pickets on “Stump Neck” of the Mass. 11th is reported as having been killed during the firing. Today they have tried their guns on nearly every object that presented itself. Shipping Point Battery has fired a large number of shots towards the Mass. 11th and our battery of guns and a new gun on Cockpit Point opened on the hundreds that collected on the high ground to watch the effect of the battery below. The fired shot from this new gun was not seen to strike. The second shot fell in the wetland and creek, which separated “Stump Neck” from the main land. The third shot – a percussion shell – went directly over our heads and struck near the flagstaff of the 7th, bursting. A ground rush was made to get pieces of the shell. The fourth shot went high over our heads and struck on the parade ground of the NH 2nd – full three miles from the battery – perhaps more. With this gun they command the 5th, 6th 7th and 8th, perhaps they do not know it. It is the first day they have fired it – evidently a rifled gun. I take back all I said about their not commanding our position. It is the first shot I have seen directed at our quarters. Later (about 4) they opened again and we went to see of course – found they were firing upon a schooner, which was coming up rapidly – having a strong south wind to help her along. She seemed to be heavily loaded and set in the water up to her guards. So for as we could see they did her no damage as she proceeded on her way up the river, without turning into Matawoman Creek. It has been the most exciting day since we have been here. There were no gunboats in sight at the time, we shall probably hear from them before the morning.

MS Austin