• Kendrick Gibbs

Mud and Graybacks - 125th Pennsylvania Infantry and the 'Mud March'

After the disastrous defeat in the cold mud of Fredericksburg, Virginia in December 1862, the days were short, the air was chilly, and morale in the Army of the Potomac was at an all-time low. General Ambrose Burnside was desperate to turn it all around with a winter offensive; a second attempt at crossing the Rappahannock River in January 1863.


The resulting offensive was doomed to fail due to lack of trust of his subordinate officers and countless winter storms. The debacle became known as Burnside's "Mud March."

125th Pennsylvania Infantry Monunment in the West Woods at Antietam National Military Park (NPS)

Among the regiments that became mired in the mud near Fredericksburg was the 125th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. The unit experienced their baptism by fire during the Battle of Antietam where they sustained a shocking 200 casualties. When the Army of the Potomac moved south after Antietam, this shattered nine-month regiment remained behind in the vicinity of Harpers Ferry, Virginia on garrison duty. As a result, they missed the slaughter of their fellow Pennsylvania regiments at the Battle of Fredericksburg.


On their way to Fredericksburg in the wake of the deadly battle, the 125th PA guarded US Army wagon trains on their journey to and from Dumfries and the Army of the Potomac's camps near Stafford. The regiment was there to protect the much-needed ammunition, but they also aided in keeping the wagons on the road and out of the infamous Virginia mud. A regimental historian documented the regiment's first experience with the sucking, sticky muck:


"...This proved to be a hard as well as perilous task, for the roads were simply awful, and the mud was both sticky and deep. By night and day over a week in this miserable wet December we helped the mules, and some of the boys assisted the drivers and wagon-masters in the "cussing" that seemed to be necessary to get the mules to pull the trains up on the high ground near old Stafford Court House. The dangerous part of the work consisted in watching Confederate cavalry, who were most vigorously annoying our flanks and compelling us every night to lie on our arms prepared to repel an attack from Stuart and active men."


The mud that the 125th Pennsylvania fought through ultimately trapped the Army of the Potomac in its mire. General Burnside's plan to reengage Confederate forces in January 1863 ultimately stalled out in the foot-deep muck of the Rappahannock River bottomlands.

A sketch from the Mud March of January 1863 (LOC)

While moving through brutal winter weather near Stafford Court House on January 24, 1863, the 125th Pennsylvania observed their own regimental "mud march," leading to an unforgettable occurrence while occupying another regiment's abandoned winter quarters:

We resumed our march toward Fredericksburg about the middle of January, 1863 and on the march to Stafford we passed at Dumfries, the first brigade of our second division, being Ohio boys, and the 28th Pennsylvania. They sympathized with us as we trudged along in the mud, and gibed us no little on our poor luck in having to be out in such miserable weather. One incident of this march we are certain the boys of the 125th will never forget: A storm was threatening, and our Colonel concluded to halt earlier than usual. We had just emerged from a wood about a mile or two north of Stafford Court House, when we were ordered to stack our arms and halt for the night. There was an old camp near where we stopped, and the Colonel gave us permission to occupy it, and very soon we had our little dog-tents stretched over the log huts and made ourselves real cozy, and were for the time being at least "strictly in it."


For half a day and a night we seemed to have, and did have, real comfort. It snowed during the night and was quite cold. When the morning came we congratulated ourselves on the advantage we had over the balance of the brigade by reason of our excellent good fortune in getting such fine quarters. About ten o'clock, however, the weather moderated, the sun commenced to shine, the snow to melt, and the balmy air of that climate soon came with the moderation of the weather. This combination of circumstances caused a commotion in the camp such as had never before been seen or experienced, and by two o'clock in the afternoon nearly every soldier in the regiment, including the officers, could be seen along the bank of the stream nearby, or in front of their quarters, with the coat and other garments off, employed in a most active investigation as to the cause or causes of the twitchings and uneasy feelings, accompanied with the desire to scratch that seemed to have taken hold of every individual.


Each one was determined to ascertain why his backbone should be used as a race-course by small fleet-footed chargers, whose presence could only be discovered by the violent laying on of hands, and could only be exterminated by the strictest and most scrutinizing search with boiling salt water. This was our first real acquaintance with the genuine "grayback" (the army louse), and, sure enough, he stuck to us closer than a brother and stayed with us until our "change of base." It is needless to add that before many days passed we were out of the old tents and found quarters that "graybacks" had not already secured in our advance, but for the time at least the balance of the brigade had the laugh on the 125th.

Replica of winter encampment at the Stafford Civil War Park in Stafford, VA. (Stafford County Tourism and Economic Development)

The 125th Pennsylvania continued to serve with the Army of the Potomac until their enlistments were up on May 18, 1863. Before they went home, however, the regiment participating in the Battle of Chancellorsville. They saw their piece of the fighting on May 2 in the area around the Chancellor Mansion and Tavern and sustained 27 casualties before returning as war veterans to the mountains and rolling hills of Central Pennsylvania.

[1] Regimental Committee (1906). History of the 125th PA Volunteers, 1862–1863. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Library


See Also: Stafford Civil War Park

White Oak Civil War Museum

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