on Thursday last, the second day of our occupation of this place, drawn upon us an attack from the enemy in force, which unmistakably developed their strength to be considerable. In that letter I could not report particulars, as the last chance for the night from here to the White House was going down. I must again briefly state that the whole of Thursday, up to about half-past 4 o'clock, passed very quietly, little disturbing the monotony that reigned supreme around the encampment, beyond the visits of General Keyes, who rode from one headquarters to another several times during the day, closing with an afternoon visit to all the picket-stations encircling the ground he has guarded like a citadel. I had endeavored to make myself thoroughly acquainted with the position, and to glean from personal observation, if possible, the design and object of a halt which seemed to me premature, considering the avowed original purpose of the expedition — to aid and abet General Getty in his attempt upon the upper bridges of the Pamunkey, the North and South-Anna bridges, and the railroads which connect Richmond with the North. Indeed, I had deemed the demonstration of the rebels on the previous day but so much of an incentive to advance brave troops as a general might desire. The blood of the men was set coursing, the dispositions were admirable, and the coolness of the General, his officers and attendant aids-de-camp, such as to inspire confidence in the men. There was nothing which should deter the faintest heart from daring an advance. But what at first seemed a questionable Fabian policy proved to be the result of an astute understanding and a perfect comprehension of what even a few hostile troops could do in a country checkered with woods and small open fields — too small for opposing troops to operate in, but large enough, if tempted or commanded to enter them, to make their deadly marks upon ambushed enemies and masked batteries against treble their number. This I at once saw and admitted, after a couple of hours' ride, taken alone within the lines, and with the view of forming a judgment upon a doubt which exercised me a good deal. While on this particular subject, I may say, and as briefly as possible, that, unless against incontestably overwhelming numbers, the real defence of Richmond lies in the innumerable roads which permeate and intersect this portion of the peninsula, all debouching at numerous external points and converging at the very entrance to the city. With these preliminary remarks, dictated by a conviction of their necessity to enable the distant reader to thoroughly understand the present movement, I proceed to give you the details of the night attack upon our lines. As I said, Colonel West, not “blue moulding for want of a beating,” but anxious for a bit of a fight, after a pleasant conference with a brother officer, Major Candless, on the subject, moved to feel the enemy in front. Colonel West thought he would exercise some men in skirmishing, and Major Candless that he would throw out a foraging party. Some one hundred and forty infantry of the One Hundred and Thirty-ninth, and a few cavalry, were almost immediately deployed as skirmishers on the plain which was the scene of the previous day's fight. The One Hundred and Thirty-ninth steadily advanced to the fringe of the woods without being once confronted; but scarcely had they done so when they were encountered by an opposing line of sharp-shooters, three deep, before whom our boys, after a second discharge of their muskets, fell back only in time, indeed, to save themselves from being surrounded. When the rebel skirmishers appeared on the plain in pursuit, they showed themselves to be at least one thousand strong. Colonel West, judging from the fire that we were strongly opposed, drew out his brigade in line of battle, Captain Fagan instantly advancing his section of artillery in front of the line. The skirmishers, being reenforced, again advanced, but before shots were exchanged a battery of heavy guns opened upon our line from the crest of the wooded knoll on our left. Captain Fagan, with his couple of six-pounders, blazed away in response, but his ineffectual fire paled before the thundering of eight heavy field-pieces, throwing shot and shell into the midst of the line. One great advantage the rebel skirmishers had over us was that, while they were armed with rifles, the One Hundred and Thirty-ninth had only smooth-bores, and thus, while our shot would not reach the rebels, they took down our men standing in line of battle hundreds of yards beyond the line of skirmishers. I saw the dogma thoroughly established: “Observe the first duty of a soldier.” The One Hundred and Thirty-ninth, last evening, knowing the disadvantage they were to labor under as. to arms, and that the rebel skirmishers were thirty to one of them, advanced to the fight with surprising readiness and coolness. The loss was eighteen left on the field, besides those taken away by the Medical Director, Dr. O'Reilly, whom no shelling deterred from his humane and noble duty. The medical director testifies to their bravery. Dr. O'Reilly, on the first intimation that ambulances were required, took that especial duty into his own hands, without any circumlocution whatever. “General,” he said, “Colonel West is engaged; let me have those ambulances of yours to take to the front.” “Take them off, doctor, at once,” was the reply. And I must say that this promptitude saved eight men from imprisonment and some others from death, for under the kind care of their nurses the more seriously wounded are now out of danger. Colonel West and Captain Fagan made the best fight they could against the forces opposed to them, but were eventually compelled to fall back upon our next line. Here the brave Grimshaw and the Fourth Delaware were stationed ; but before their services were required Colonel Porter had pushed forward to the support with two regiments, and Colonel West, after two days fatiguing marches in the front, and two skirmishes against greatly superior numbers, retired within our main lines. Colonel
This text is part of:
Table of Contents:
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.
An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.