The Civil War Letters of Forrest Little: The Campaign Ends

Harrison's Landing

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Carl Guarneri, Saint Mary's College History department


   When they reached the plateau above Harrison's Landing on the afternoon of July 2nd, the Vermont men sank to the wet ground and went to sleep without food or fires. In the next few days they set up camp two miles north of the landing and went to work building earthworks and wooden barriers to protect their position. On July 4th McClellan reviewed his troops and produced a bombastic address in which he congratulated them for successfully changing their base of operations while harassed by "vastly superior forces." It was a thin fig leaf covering the embarrassment of defeat.

   On July 8th President Lincoln arrived at Harrison's Landing to ascertain the troops' condition for himself and to discuss strategy with General McClellan. When the president reviewed the Vermont Brigade late in the afternoon, Forrest was not among those standing in line. Out on picket guard near the James River, he sat down in the shade to respond to his parents' "long neglected" letters. Scribbling in pencil, he told them about the fight at Savage's Station and assured them that he was well.

   Harrison's Landing, although safe from Confederate attack, was a miserable place. As the soldiers awaited orders for their next move, they crowded together in the July heat covered with mud, sweat and flies near the steamy James River bottomlands. Good drinking water was scarce and the camp's sanitation poor. The "James River fever" replaced "Chickahominy fever" as the soldier's umbrella term for malaria, dysentery, and typhoid fever. The Army of the Potomac reported nearly 43,000 men on the sick list in July, by far the highest total of the campaign. One private noted in his diary on July 19: "A good many of our boys are sick & every where around the hospitals we can see the dead laid out almost every morn."

   Forrest Little was among those stricken. His letter of July 8 was the last his parents received at Crown Point. Early in the campaign Forrest reported to them that he had dysentery for two weeks, but despite the privations of marching and camping he claimed to have regained "tiptop health" by the time he reached Harrison's Landing. The miserable conditions there overcame him. Shortly after writing his parents Forrest contracted typhoid fever, probably from contaminated water in the camp. On July 23rd the young Vermont soldier died at the regimental hospital near Harrison's Landing.

   After weeks of discussion and debate, the authorities at Washington concluded that General McClellan would never resume the offensive on the Peninsula. The Army of the Potomac was ordered to return to northern Virginia to unite with General Pope's forces and open a new campaign. On August 16th the Vermont brigade began its march down the Peninsula to Fortress Monroe for transport back to Alexandria. Of nearly a thousand men of the Fifth Vermont regiment who had left Alexandria in March, less than 400 remained fit for duty. Approximately 120, including Forrest Little, had lost their lives through battle wounds or disease in the Peninsula campaign.

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