Horatio Collins King was commissioned as captain on May 22, 1862, by Secretary of War Stanton and assumed his duties as Assistant Quartermaster in the Army of the Potomac under General Silas Casey on August 19 of the same year. His first responsibility in the Union Army was to receive and organize more than 130,000 troops into provisional brigades in Washington D.C. When this task was completed, King was moved to the Department Headquarters, under General Samuel Peter Heintzleman and later General Christopher C. Augur. His next assignment was with General Adolphus De Russey's division, which fought from the Potomac River to Alexandria, Virginia, as Chief Quartermaster. Desiring more active duty outside of the nation's capital, King returned to his friend Stanton to request a new position. Stanton reassigned him in the winter of 1864 to duty under the well-known calvaryman, General Philip Sheridan, of the Army of the Shenandoah. Only days later, King began work with General William Merritt's division, and within months would climb the ranks to Chief Quartermaster and Colonel of Volunteers the next spring.20 While not much aside from factual information is known about King' s duties before coming under the wing of General Sheridan, this all changed when he began keeping a diary of his Civil War activities late in 1864. From this diary which begins on November 2, 1864, when he first joined with Sheridan's army, one is able to see a glimpse of what daily life was like in the army during the Civil War and how King's emotions were tested during the battle.
On Wednesday, November 2, 1864, King joined Sheridan's Army of the Shenandoah as Assistant Quartermaster, and waited for further assignment from the General.21 This assignment took King out of the Washington D.C. area and placed him with on more active duty, where he was able to truly observe the effects of war for the first time. As he marched with the other men through the war torn countryside to their headquarters, he was able to see the destructive effect the conflict had had on the towns and the people.
|Wed., Nov. 2, 1864
Passed through Middletown and Newtown and reached Hd Qrs. two miles from Cedar Creek. Desolation marks everything. I began to realize for the 1st time the fearful horrors of war.22
Four days later, on Sunday, King received word from Sheridan that he had been placed in a position under General Wesley Merritt, who had applied for his services directly after hearing word of King's good record with the Union Army.23 He took the position of Chief Quartermaster of the First Calvary Division of nine thousand calvary, with the rank of Major. King was quite satisfied with his position, and got along well with Merritt's men from the start. Within only a few hours of joining Merritt's division, King wrote the following diary entry:
Sun., Nov. 6, 1864
The staff are very sociable, and my position is in every way more delightful than it was or promised to be on Sheridan’s staff.24
One of the most important things to King was to make certain that everyone had a good time every now and then, despite the daily horrors that were witnessed on the battlefield. Bonds between the men were often made at night, when they would sit around headquarters and tell stories, sing songs, and laugh. While King was usually in the position of entertainer, with his musical abilities making him the obvious choice for piano playing and merriment, he writes of an amusing time when he himself was the victim of a "hazing" incident shortly after he joined Merritt's staff:
Mon. Nov. 7, 1864
I was the victim of a most amusing sell last evening. Lt. Owen came into the room where all the staff were and in apparent great pain, asked to have a splinter drawn from his hand. I examined it and found a large splinter under the skin and the blood trickling down. I worked away vigorously with tweezers for about three minutes – he feigning the greatest agony – until my labors were rewarded by drawing a splinter from under his sleeve – about a foot long. The howl that went up shook the roof! I acknowledged the sell and stood for drinks all around.25
While the soldiers balanced their time between work and play on the battlegrounds, the Lincoln administration continued their efforts to end the war and bring the men home. President Abraham Lincoln came up for re-election in 1864, and he ran on a platform that called for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. Like his father, King supported Lincoln, as did much of the Union Army. Early in the morning on election day, King writes of an attack by the Confederate Army. The battle was not long, and after approximately twelve hours, King writes, everything was again quite, and Lincoln had won the election with fifty-five percent of the popular vote and nearly unanimous support from Union soldiers throughout the States.
Tues. Nov. 8, 1864
Election day. The soldiers vote 10 to 1 for Lincoln. This is as it should be. We expected an attack and the army was in line of battle at 2 am. All quiet – 2 pm.26
The soldiers were not the only Americans making sacrifices for the war effort. King's next entry of November 29, 1864, is a testament to the sacrifices that the people of the United States made to aid their governments in the fighting. Although this entry pertains to a Union family in the North, the situation was no different in the South, where people gave food, shelter, and their lives for the cause.
Tues. Nov. 29, 1864
I went to the house of a strong Union family, Nichols by name, where were father, mother, and three daughters – the youngest exceedingly pretty – they were strong in their devotion to the Union, and bore the sacrifice of their cattle with a patriotic heroism I never before witnessed. I was tempted to spare everything, but I could not disobey orders.
Sat., Dec. 17, 1864
Made application to the Sec’y of war for promotion to a Major and Chief QM, Dir. Gen. Merritt endorsed it highly, ‘he is permanently in charge of this Division – is eminently filled for the position and well worthy the promotion.’27
As the war dragged on, King began to tire of his administrative duties as quartermaster and began to desire a new position, where he could be more active in the fighting. He felt that he could do more for his nation on the field, rather than off of it. He petitioned to Merritt for a more active duty, which he indeed received, fighting in five major battles before the war was over.28
Sun., Dec 18, 1864
I am tired of the position of non-combatant and would like to exchange into the fighting.29
King received a leave of absence from the Union Army on February 21, 1865. He returned home for approximately one month before receiving an urgent telegram to return to the front. Throughout the late winter and into the early spring of 1865, the battles had been more frequent and more desperate, as the Confederate army fought valiantly but unsuccessfully to regain the offensive that they had lost to the Union Army at Gettysburg.
Feb. 21 – March 21, 1865
Sat’y morning received a telegram to return at once to the front…took the earliest train for Harper’s Ferry.30
It is on this date, March 21, 1865, that King's diary ends until September 1, 1865, when he picked up his pen once more to recount the events of the six months that had passed between. It had been a tumultuous time of heavy fighting. King himself had participated in the battle of Five Forks on April 1, 1865 and the Battle at Sailors Creek on April 6, 1865, after which General Lee surrendered on April 9.31 Although he wrote little about Five Forks in his diary entry, King was later rewarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for his part in the battle in 1897. He rarely discussed the medal or the events which led to his commendation, but he later recounted the battle itself in an article for the Grand Army Gazette and National Guardsman in April of 1881.32 It is also in this lengthy diary entry that King describes his emotions at this time, which differ greatly as he recalls both the traumatic experience of seeing a dead Confederate soldier and the joyous celebrations in his honor as he sadly took leave of his duties with the Army of the Shenandoah. King's request to retire from service had been accepted on May 29, 1865, and two months later, on July 29, 1865, he was rewarded with a commission to Major by brevet for faithfulness and meritorious service, which was considered effective since March 13, 1865. 33 By the time that King wrote this entry on the first of September, he was back in of New York at his law practice, and had safely made it through four years of civil war.
New York, Sept. 1, 1865.
"It seems rather late to continue this narrative but no time was afforded for this in the active campaign which culminated in the surrender of Lee and the collapse of the rebellion. After a tedious trip from Baltimore on the transport "Fannie" I reached City Point on the Sunday after the 22d of March and the same day joined the commd at Deep Bottom and went into camp with them at Hancock Station remaining a day. Here the 2d div. (under Genl Crook) joined us and all under Sheridan moved rapidly to Dinwiddie C.H. Gen. Merritt being in command of the 1st and 2nd Div. as a Corps, Gen. Devin commanded our Div. The first night we camped on Crump's place a mile this side of the C.H. A severe rain came on. The train failed to come up and that night and several nights after we slept without any shelter and lived on hard tack and coffee borrowed from the men. In the battle of Five Forks, I had a [?] time and a narrow escape. Several were killed and wounded near me and Capt. Bean's horse, which stood so close to me as to press my leg against his saddle was shot in the shoulder. After the battle Genl Sheridan ordered me, being the ranking Q.M. to take charge of the train. My duties became most [?] and I made every endeavor to be relieved from the irksome duty but without success. Immediately after the battle at Sailor's Creek I took a portion of my train to the field for wounded. The sight was terrible beyond description. I never saw dead men as thick before. One corpse attracted especial attention. It was that of a rebel. He sat in an upright position, his back supported by the body of a fallen comrade. His musket lay across his lap and his knapsack was still slung. His face was raised toward heaven, and the open eyes and sweet expression of countenance together with the hands uplifted as in prayer gave me the impression that he still lived. A nearer approach assured me that he had gone to his maker there to settle for his deeds and misdeeds.
All along the route from Five Forks the roads were strewn with abandoned wagons, muskets, [?], and artillery. Near [?], (a large and pleasanttown thus which we passed) several hundred wagons had been parked or burned.At last Lee's demoralized army was brought to bay and surrendered at Appomattox C.H. Unfortunately I was ten miles off when the surrendertook place, just two hours behind time. The return to Petersburg was one continued jollification [?]. Each night Genl and staff had social gatherings and celebrated the surrender in songs and whiskey. Genl Fitzhugh and Gibbs came over often and we had an increasing festive and royal time. After remaining at Petersburg a few days and refitting a little, the command pushed Southward after Johnston who still held out agst Sherman. At the [?] we built two bridges and at the Stanton river a novel bridge of ferry scows, placing them end to end there.
Over this the entire army passed with but a single accident which caused the loss of one wagon. The boats were fastened together by 9th chains and steadied by ropes running to the shore. It was about 250 ft long. We had HdQrs one night at Williamson's near Dinwiddie C.H. on the Boydton Plk. Road. W. represented himself to be a Union man, set out large quantities of apple jack and god royally drunk in honor of our coming. His happiest remark was 'I am not drunk with liquor but intoxicated with joy because the old flag is triumphant.' Williamson's and Wiggins jig to my fiddling was rich in the extreme. When about 20 miles from Danville, Genl Wright telegraphed Johnston's surrender. So we turned about andstriking the South side R.R. at White's and Black's returned to Petersburg and went into camp between the Appomattox River and the R.R. to Richmond. Our first HdQrs were at Mrs. Knight's on the same side of the river as P. Formerly the HdQrs of the rebel general A.P. Hill. After ten days rest, we marched through Richmond to Washington Genl Crook in command. Sheridan having gone by water. The march was miserably conducted and very tedious. A subordinate officer moving a column so badly would have been court-martialed. We came via Manchesterwhere I saw the Schwarzmans, and Richmond where I met the Randolphs. Hoopes Tavern, the North Anna River, Kelley's Ford, [?] Station, MineRun, [?], Cub Run, and made HdQrs at Swan's about half way between Washn and Alexa.
A week after we moved to Bladensburg where we remained a couple of weeks. While there I was promoted to Corps HdQrs with General H.G. Davies in command. It would be impossible to describe the fun we had all through the arduous campaign and especially in camp. The manner of Wiggins, Owen, Gibbs, Fitzhugh, Hallerstadt, and a host of other good fellows will always remind me of happy associations. May they live long and prosper. My resignation, which I put in at Petersburg about the 10th of May was accepted the last of the month at which date we moved to Clond's Mills about 6 miles from Alexa.
The Division was gradually breaking up. The first brigade under Brig. Gen. P. Stagg had gone west. Other regiments were soon to follow and I was glad not to be in at the death. [?] had already resigned and gone. The other staff were soon to follow. Sheridan and Merritt had gone to Texas. Things were getting bluer every day, so on May 3d I turned over my property to Capt. J.B. Wheeler, Q.M. of 2nd Brig. and got ready to leave. Genl Gibbs complimented me with a farewell reunion. Devin, Fitzhugh, Crawford, Kinnie, and all our staff were present. Both General G. and D. made most flattering speeches and expressed their regret at my departure. Good fellowship prevailed, and we joined for the last time in those jovial songs with those whose names follow here [a list of signatures followed but is not reproduced in this transcript] and many others were wont to enliven the monotony of camp life. The occasion was one never to be forgotten, and one of which I felt justly proud. Sadness would come over me when the thought recurred that no more would we gather around the camp fires, or, as often, in some country farm house where an out of tune piano furnished an inducement to make the evenings joyous with song and joke...My musical ability made me always an acceptable companion at a jamboree. On the night of June 1st Genl Devin called all the Staff into his tent and having made a few complimentary remarks read the most flattering order relieving me from duty. I have preserved that as worthy to be retained. The occasion was a sad one, but we soon [??] came away and made my last night a glorious one.
The morning of June 2d I took my farewell of the Division and became once more a plain civilian."
Oct. 31, 1865
It is just a year ago today that I made the first entry in this diary and the year has been one of unusual incident and change. The severe campaigns, the rare enjoyment and the excitement of army life are merely glanced at in these pages: but the here recorded will serve to call up a thousand recollections which will serve for many a fireside chat when I perhaps may gray.34
Horatio Collins King's diary of one of his years spent fighting in the war ends shortly after this entry. The diary provides some of the most telling reasons why King would live out the remainder of his life as a distinguished soldier - fighting until his death for veteran's rights and becoming a career military man, and respected speaker and writer. Previous to his discharge from the army in 1865, he had been commissioned as Colonel by brevet on July 12, 1866, and later Lt. Colonel by brevet on October 1, 1866 which was considered effective since May 19, 1865.35 In June of 1866, King, whose first wife had died nineteen months after their wedding, was married to Esther Howard, daughter of Captain John T. Howard with whom King had served during the war.36 She would be instrumental in supporting her husband through his duties as a veteran of the Civil War. It is apparent that for someone who had entered the war with no military experience, King's career turned out to be quite an amazing one. Entering with the rank of captain, by the time the end of the war came, King had moved up the ranks to become a Lt. Colonel, and also walked away from the Battle of Five Forks with a Congressional Medal of Honor. His use of a diary to record his memories of the war is a testament to the fact that King did not wish to forget the years that he spent fighting for the salvation of the Union. He wished to remember, and his laid the groundwork for his post-war years, when he worked hard to be sure that the rest of the nation would remember as well.
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