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Chapter 10: battles of the Wilderness, Todd's Tavern and Laurel Hill.--Engagement at the Bloody Angle.

We had now quite a respectable regiment, numbering two field, ten line officers, and about three hundred and fifty men. We broke camp the 2d of May, were ordered to move, and soon found ourselves crossing the river to engage in the Battle of the Wilderness, before we realized it being in line of battle moving forward. Our first order was to deploy as skirmishers and let the line which was being hotly pressed pass in rear to receive a fresh supply of ammunition, while we held the line.

I had about twenty men in my command. We advanced as ordered, but soon received a fire from our flank and rear, and found that the rebels had broken our lines. I gave the order “By the right flank, double quick,” and we went quicker than that. We dodged behind trees as we ran, and the rebels were so near that in looking back I saw them capture Thompson of Company B; with the exception of one other, wounded, all escaped; and the boys thought me a safe man to follow. We rejoined the regiment, and were ordered in again. We fought all day. Sometimes the rebels drove us, sometimes we drove them. The woods were so thick it was hard to tell friend from foe. The dead and wounded of both armies were strewn all through the woods, which caught fire. It was a terrible sight. We knew where [88] the poor fellows were, but could not reach them, and the air was suffocating with the smell of burning human flesh.

None knew the result of the battle. We changed front the next day, and continued the fight. Night came on; it was so dark you could not see a rod before you, but we were ordered to hold our position in the advanced line until recalled. We remained until midnight, then as it grew a little lighter, the moon having broken through the clouds, Colonel Rice went to the right and found we were not connected with any other regiment. At the left he found the same. The officers held a consultation; all agreed that we should obey orders, but should we allow the regiment to be captured because some one had made a mistake? We concluded to fall back until we connected with something, and after a while struck a German brigade. The Dutch commander undertook to drive us back, but we knew our business, and when Colonel Rice found our brigade commander, he was informed that an aid had been sent to recall us several hours before, and in the darkness must have passed our regiment without seeing us. The conversation was on the result of the battle. Most of us thought it was another Chancellorsville, and that the next day we should recross the river; but when the order came, “By the left flank, march!” we found that Grant was not made that way, and we must continue the fight.

Our loss was not very heavy in the Wilderness. We had several wounded and captured, but only three killed. Among the wounded the first day was Color-Sergeant Ben Falls, struck in the leg, and being in command of the color company I sent him to the rear. The following day he reported back, and I asked why he did not stay. “Oh,” he said, [89] “some fool will get hold of the color and lose it. I guess I had better stand by.”

We marched to Williams's Tavern, where we went into line of battle and threw up works. From this time on we were engaged every day. The 8th, we had a lively brush at Todd's Tavern, and drove the rebels a mile; the 9th, crossed Po River; the 10th, recrossed and engaged the enemy at Laurel Hill. We found them strongly intrenched and a charge was ordered. The opinion of every officer and man was that we could not dislodge them, as we must charge a long distance over an open field. General Barlow was to lead and the 19th was to be the directing battalion. The order to our division was, “Follow the colors of the 19th.” With cheers for General Barlow we advanced over the crest of the hill, the rebels opening on us with a terrible fire. Grape and cannister ploughed through our ranks. Both color-bearers were shot down, and for a moment our line melted away; but other hands grasped the colors, and we renewed the charge, only to be again repulsed. No army on earth could capture the works with such odds against it, but we charged once more, then gave it up.

Among the first to go down was Color-Sergeant Ben Falls. He was in advance of me, and as he fell he said, “John, your old uncle has got his quietus this time.” I could not stop to reply then, but in the lull of the battle went to him, and found that he was shot through the body; he was carried to the rear, and died the next day. No man in the ranks of the Union army rendered better service than Benj. F. Falls. Always ready for duty, ever cheerful, his influence for good extended through the regiment. Another to fall that day was Sergt. William H. Ross. Until this campaign he had [90] been detailed at the headquarters of the division quartermaster, and one would think he was making up for lost time. From the day we entered the Wilderness until he gave up his life he was conspicuous for his bravery. Corp. George E. Breed of Company C, a brave little fellow, not much larger than his knapsack, was serving his second enlistment, and was not twenty years old when killed. Several others were killed, besides many wounded.

We remained here until the night of the 11th, when men were detailed to keep up the skirmish firing while the brigade was withdrawn. It was a dark, dreary night, and we fell over stumps and fallen trees as we moved to the left. At four o'clock on the morning of the 12th we formed in line. Our orders were to give commands in whispers, have dippers so hung that they would not rattle against bayonets, and move forward. We were soon in front of the rebel works, which were protected by abatis. We tore these aside and passed on. One regiment, forgetting the orders, gave a cheer, and the rebels were aroused, yet over the works we went, and the fiercest hand-to-hand fight of the war ensued. We captured Gen. Bushrod Johnson and his entire division, including twenty-two pieces of artillery and seventeen stands of colors.

The woods were so thick that in advancing our lines became broken. When we reached a clearing the only officers in sight were Colonel Rice, Lieutenant Thompson and myself. “Where are the colors?” said Colonel Rice. We could not answer the question. At that moment we saw several hundred rebels running back to their lines. Colonel Rice said, “I see a Massachusetts color and will go after it. You and Lieutenant Thompson try to capture those rebels.” [91] Hastily gathering men from nearly every regiment in the corps we threw forward a skirmish line and captured nearly four hundred prisoners. After turning them over to the provost guard we returned to the line, found the colors, but the colonel was not there, and the rest of the day we fought where we could get a chance. As I was standing behind the works, waiting for something to do, Capt. Harry Hale, who was serving on General Webb's staff, rode up and said, “We want to get two guns that the rebels have abandoned, which unless we bring them in, will be retaken. Can't you get them?” Calling to the mob (there was no organization of regiments at that moment), “Come on, boys,” we rushed out and brought them in. Turning them on the rebels, we loaded them with everything we could find,--ammunition that did not fit, old musket barrels, etc.,--but not knowing how to work the guns we were in about as much danger as the rebels.

While engaged here the rebels had recaptured a small part of their works on our right, and we were ordered to move to that point. Collecting as many men of the regiment as we could find, we marched by the flank to what has since been known as the “Bloody Angle;” here we found hot work. While we were firing the rebels ran up a white flag, and we advanced to receive their surrender, but as soon as we were over the brow of the little hill that had protected us, they fired a volley, killing several of our men. From that time until dark the cry was “No quarter.” Part of the time we were on one side of the works and they on the other, each trying to fire over. I saw Ed. Fletcher of Company C shoot a man who was trying to get a shot at one of our boys, and was so near that Fletcher's musket was covered with blood. [92] We continued to fire until our ammunition was exhausted, then were relieved by men of the 6th corps. Just as long as we could see a man the firing continued. We slept on the field, ready to renew the battle in the morning, and at daylight waited for the rebels to open. Not a shot was fired and we advanced. What a sight met our eyes as we went over the works! Rebels lay four and five deep in the trenches. Many were alive but unable to move, as the dead were piled on top of them. Our better natures were aroused. We laid out the dead for burial, cared for the wounded, then withdrew to the rear to reorganize our regiments.

While resting in the rear a man from the 6th corps came to me and said, “Is this the 19th Massachusetts?” I answered, “Yes.” “Have you a Lieutenant Adams in your regiment?” I again made the same reply. “Well, he is dead. He lies just over the little hill. Here is his revolver case that I took from him.” I then understood what he meant. A few days before, finding that it was impossible to carry my revolver on account of my wounds, I had given it to Lieut. Johnnie Ferris, and he must have been the one whom the man had found. We had been fighting so hard that we had no time to think of each other, and I then remembered that I had not seen Ferris since we charged on the morning of the previous day. I went with the man and found Johnnie, shot through the head, in front of the rebel works. He had fallen over a tree that the rebels had cut down, and must have been killed as we rushed through the abatis. His death was a severe loss to the regiment. He had been promoted from the ranks for good conduct; was loved by the officers and worshipped by the men. With sad hearts we laid him to rest near where he fell. We could not find Colonel Rice and feared he must be [93] dead on the field, but after searching and not finding his body, concluded he must have been captured with some of our men when the rebels made the dash on our right flank. This was true. Colonel Rice was captured, but escaped, and rejoined the regiment in August.

One little incident occurring in the fight at the “Bloody Angle,” although not connected with the regiment, is worthy of mention. When we were relieved by the 6th corps the 6th Wisconsin was in our front. One of their men was an Indian. He would crawl up near the rebel line, wait until they fired, then fire and drag himself back. He could hardly be seen above the ground. I became much interested in his mode of fighting, and his face was impressed upon my mind. One day in 1867, while working in a shoe factory at Lynn, an Indian came into the place selling baskets. The moment I saw him I thought his countenance was familiar and wondered where I had seen him before. It came to me that he was the Spottsylvania Indian. I asked if he was in the army, and he replied, “Yes, 6th Wisconsin.” Then I was sure he was the man. We talked over the battle and became good friends. He was a very bright fellow, a member of the Masonic brotherhood, but he said, “East no place for Indian,” and I assisted him to return west.

We were under fire nearly all the time, marching from right to left, and on the 17th occupied the works taken on the 12th. While here we learned that Lieut. Moses Shackley, who was a first sergeant in the 59th Massachusetts, had been killed the day before. The 18th we fought all day, charged twice on the enemies' works, and lost several men. On the 21st occurred one of the sad events of the year. [94]

John D. Starbird of Company K was one of the three deserters who returned with the regiment. The charges against him had been placed on file on condition that he serve faithfully to the end of the war. While he had promised to do this, he did not intend to, and was only kept in battle at the Wilderness by fear of death from the officers. On the 18th he deserted while under fire, was captured the 19th, tried by drum-head court-martial the 20th, and ordered to be shot at 7 A. M. on the 21st. Early in the morning of that day Adjutant Curtis came to me and said, “Jack, you are detailed to take charge of the shooting of Starbird.” I was not pleased with the order, and Captain Mumford, who was ever ready to do a kind act for a friend, exchanged duty with me, I going on picket for him. The detail consisted of eight men from our regiment. Their muskets were loaded by Captain Mumford, seven with ball cartridges, one with a blank. Starbird was seated on his coffin, blindfolded. The order was given to fire. Six shots struck him near the heart; the other musket hung fire, and the ball entered his leg. He died at once.

Those who read this, and do not understand the situation at the time, may think the killing of Starbird unjust and cruel, but it was not. At that time there were in the ranks of every regiment, men who had no interest in the cause. They had enlisted for the bounty, and did not intend to render any service. They not only shirked duty, but their acts and conversation were demoralizing good men. The shooting of Starbird changed all this. Men who had straggled and kept out of battle now were in the ranks, and the result to our corps alone was as good as if we had been re-enforced by a full regiment.

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