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Harry M. Kieffer’s Recollections – Johnny Comes Marching Home

Posted By on February 13, 2017

Today’s post features Chapter 26, the final chapter of Recollections of a Drummer Boy.

Previously on this blog, a brief sketch was presented on the Rev. Dr. Henry M. Kieffer, a Civil War veteran who was not included on the Millersburg Soldier Monument.  In that sketch, it was noted that Rev. Dr. Kieffer was enumerated in the 1860 Census of Upper Paxton Township, in the household of his father, Rev. Ephraim Kieffer, a Reformed minister who served churches in Killinger, Lykens Township, and Gratz, among other communities in the Lykens Valley area – and that the Rev. Dr. Henry Kieffer later published his recollections of the war in 1883.  In the Civil War, he served in the 150th Pennsylvania Infantry.

In Chapter 26, he tells of his return home from the war.  The chapter is appropriately entitled, “Johnny Comes Marching Home.”


We had just come out of what is known as the “Second Hatcher’s Run” fight, somewhere about the middle of February, 1865.  The company, which was now reduced to a mere handful of men, was standing about a smoking fire in the woods, discussing the engagement and relating adventures, when someone came in from brigade headquarters, shouting the following message — “Say, boys, good news!  They told me over at headquarters that we are about to be sent North to relieve the ‘regulars’ somewhere.”

Ha! ha! ha!  That was an old story, — too old to be good, and too good to be true.  For a year and more we had been hearing that same good news, — “Going to Baltimore.”  “Going to Washington.” and so forth, and we always ended up with going into battle instead, or off on some long raid.

So we didn’t much heed the tidings; we were too old birds to be caught with chaff.

But, in spite of our incredulity, the next morning we were marched down to General Grant’s branch of the Petersburg Railway, loaded on box cars, and carried to City Point, where we were at once embarked on two huge steamers, which we found awaiting us.

For two days and nights we were cooped up in those miserable boats.  We had no fire, and we suffered from the cold.  We had no water for thirty-six hours, and, of course, no coffee; and what is life to a soldier without coffee?  All were sea-sick, to, for the weather was rough.  And so, what with hunger and thirst, cold and sea-sickness, we landed one evening at Baltimore more dead than alive.

No sooner were we well down the gang-plank than the crowd of apple and pie women that stood on the wharf made quick sales and large profits.  Then we marched away to a “soldiers’ retreat” and were fed.  Fed!  We never tasted so grand a supper as that before or since — “salt horse,” dry bread, and coffee!  The darkies that carried around the great cans of the latter were kept pretty busy for a while, I can tell you; and they must have thought, —

“Den soljers, dar, must be done gone starved, dat’s sartin./  Nebber seed sech hungry men in all my bawn days, — nebber!”

After supper we were lodged in a great upper room of a large building, having bunks ranged around the four sides of it, and in the middle an open space, which was soon turned to account; for one of the boys strung up his fiddle, which he had carried on his knapsack for full two years, on every march and through every battle we had been in, and with the help of this we proceeded to celebrate our late “change of front” with music and dancing until the small hours of the morning.

Down through the streets of Baltimore we march the next day, with our blackened and tattered flags a-flying, mustering only one hundred and eighty men out of the one thousand who marched through those same streets nearly three years before.  We find a train of cars awaiting us, which we gladly enter, making no complaint that we are stowed away in box or cattle cars, instead of passenger coaches, for we understand that Uncle Sam cannot afford any luxuries for his boys, and w have been used to roughing it.  Nor do we complain, either, that we have no fire, although we have just come out of a warm climate, and the snow is a foot deep at Baltimore, and is getting deeper every hour as we steam away northward.  Toward evening we pass Harrisburg, giving “three cheers for Andy Curtin,” as the State Capitol comes into sight.  Night draws on, and the boys one by one begin to bunk down on the floor, wrapped in their greatcoats and blankets.  But I cannot lie down or sleep until we have passed a certain way station, from which it is but two miles across the hills to my home.  I stand at the door of the car, shivering and chilled to the bone, patiently waiting and watching as village after village rushes by in the bright moonlight.  And then, as I look across the snowclad moonlit hills, toward the old red farmhouse where father and mother and sisters are sleeping soundly, with never a thought of my being so near, I fall to thinking and wondering, and wishing with a with a bounding heart, as the train dashes on between the mountain and the river, and bears me again farther and farther away from home.  Then rolling myself up in my blanket, and drawing the cape of my overcoat about my head, I lie down on the car floor beside Andy, and am soon sound asleep.

The following evening we landed at Elmira, New York, where we were at once put on garrison duty.  Why we had been taken out of the field and sent to a distant Northern city, we never could discover, and we had seen too much service to think of asking questions which the mysterious pigeon-holes of the War Department alone could answer.  But we always deemed it a pity that we were not left in the field until the great civil war came to an end with the surrender of Lee at Appomattox, and that we had no part in the final gathering of the troops at Washington, where the grand old Army of the Potomac passed in review for the last time.

But so it was, that after some months of monotonous garrison duty at Elmira, the great and good news came at last one day that peace had been declared, and that the great war was over!  My young readers can scarcely imagine what joy instantly burst forth all over the land.  Bells were rung all day long, bonfires burned, and people paraded the streets half the night, and everybody was glad beyond possibility of expression.  And among the joyful thousands all over the land, the Boys in Blue were probably the gladdest of all; for was not the war over now, and would not “Johnny come marching home?”

But before we could go home we must be mustered out, and then we must return to our State capital to be paid off and finally disbanded, and say a last good by to our comrades in arms, the great majority of whom we should never, in all probability, see again.  And a more hearty, rough and ready, affectionate good by there never was in all this wide world.  In the rooms of one of the hotels at the State capital we were gathered, waiting for our respective stains.  Knap sacks slung, Sharp’s rifles at a “right shoulder shift” or a “carry”; songs were sung, hands were shaken, or rather wrung; loud, hearty “God bless you, old fellows!” resounded; and many were the toasts and the healths that were drunk before the men parted for good and all.

It was just past midnight when the last camp-fire of the 150th broke up.  “Good by, boys!  Good by!  God bless you old fellow!” was shouted again and again, as by companies, or in little squads, we were off for our several trains, some of us bound north, some east, some west,– and all bound for home!

Of the thirteen men who had gone out from our little village (whither my father’s family had meanwhile removed), but three had lived to return home together.  One had already gone home, the day before.  Some had been discharged because of sickness or wounds, and four had been killed.  As we rode along over the dusty turnpike from L—– to M—–, in the rattling old stage coach, that evening in June, we could not help thinking how painful it would be for the friends of Joe Gutelius and Jimmy Lucas and Joe Ruhl and John Diehl to see us return without their brave boys, whom we had left on the field.

Reaching the village at dusk, we found gathered at the hotel where the stage stopped, a great crowd of our schoolfellows and friends, who had come to meet us.  We almost feared to step down among them, lest they should quite tear us to pieces with shaking of hands.  The stage had scarcely stopped when I heard a well-known voice calling,–

“Harry!  Are you there?”

“Yes, father!  Here I am!”

“God bless you, my boy!”

And, pushing his way through the crowd, my father plunges into the stage, not able to wait until it has driven around to the house; and if his voice is husky with emotion, as he often repeats, “God bless you, my boy!” and gets his arm around my neck, is it any wonder?

But my dog, Rollo, can’t get into the stage, and so he runs barking after it, and is the first to greet me at the gate, and jumps up at me, with his great paws on my shoulders.  Doe he know me?  I rather think he does!

Then mother and sisters come around, and they must needs call for a lamp and hold it close to my face, and look me all over, from head to foot, while father is saying to himself again and again, “God bless you, my boy!”

Although I knew that my name was never forgotten in the evening prayer all the while I was away, yet not once, perhaps, in all that time, was father’s voice so choked in utterance as when now, his heart overflowing, he came to give thanks for my safe return.  And when I lay down that night in a clean white bed, for the first time in three long years, I thanked God for peace and home.

And — Andy?  Why — the Lord bless him and his! — he’s a soldier still.  For, having laid aside the blue, he put on the black, being a sober, steady-going Presbyterian parson now, somewhere up in York State.  I haven’t seen him for years, but when we do meet, once in a great while, there is such wringing of hands as makes us both wince until the tears start, and we sit up talking over old times so far into the night, that the good folk of the house wonder whether we shall ever get to —






One Response to “Harry M. Kieffer’s Recollections – Johnny Comes Marching Home”

  1. william tress says:

    This was a great story, the kind you don’t see in history books. My home town is Baltimore and I would love to read more about soldiers coming and going out of this port city. I really enjoy this blog, you are doing wonderful work.

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