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Chapter 13: Cold Harbor

  • Charge of 2nd Conn.
  • -- withdrawal -- shriek of wounded man

Cold Harbor is one of the points near Richmond which General McClellan reached during the Peninsular campaign and from which he was compelled to retire at the beginning of his retreat to Harrison's Landing on the James.

It is situated about directly northeast of Richmond, and almost within sight of the city. General Lee having correctly interpreted the design of General Grant, had transferred his army to this point and was found occupying works advantageously located and very strongly constructed.

The Sixth Corps arrived at Cold Harbor about noon of the 30th and at 5 o'clock in the afternoon was formed in line of battle, on the left of the Third division and the 121st were deployed in close order as skirmishers, and relieved the cavalry skirmishers, who had suffered quite heavily.

Let Beckwith tell the rest.

Word was sent along the line that the enemy's line was in the farther edge of the old field-pine thicket in our front, and that we should charge this line on the dead run as soon as we got into striking distance and run the Rebs into their rifle pits. This we did. They broke as soon as they saw us begin to charge and we kept them on a dead run until they reached their works. We continued firing at anything in sight on the pits, and also shot the battery horses as they galloped up with the Reb guns going into position. Lying down we were screened from sight by the clumps of scrubby pine [155] and broom sedge covering the old fields, but were very much exposed to the bursting shells from both sides, poorly timed and bursting prematurely. Two men were wounded in this way, and several more on our right were hit near a cabin by the roadside. Among these Frank Lowe, afterwards our adjutant, who was shot through the body. We kept up a brisk fire upon the Rebel breastworks, and our batteries made it lively for them, the cannon shot throwing up the dirt in front of them very often. In about twenty minutes up came the line of battle behind us in beautiful order and four lines swept over us at a quickstep, and just beyond us the front line started on a running charge toward the breastworks, obliquing to the right where the Rebel breastworks were on a little eminence in the edge of the pine woods. The formation of our brigade was in four lines, the 2d Connecticut forming three of the lines. The 95th and 96th Pennsylvania, the 5th Maine, and the part of the 121st New York not on the skirmish line formed the fourth line. As soon as they passed us we were ordered to act as rear or provost guard to prevent any but wounded men from going to the rear. As soon as the heavies began to charge, the Rebel works were bordered with a fringe of smoke from the muskets and the men began to fall very fast, and many wounded began going to the rear. A little in front of the works there was a hollow, and as the column went into this it seemed to pause and the rear lines closed up. The Rebel fire was very effective and it seemed to us from where we stood that our poor fellows would all get shot. The ground over which they had passed was covered with men. We could see them fall in all shapes. Some would fall forward as if they had caught their feet and tripped and fell. Others would throw up their arms and [156] fall backward. Others would stagger about a few paces before they dropped. To us the suspense was horrible. We could not understand the pause before reaching the works and we said to one another, “What are they stopping for? Why don't they go on?” But the agony was soon over. Their colonel had halted to bring his men into line for the final rush, and as soon as they closed up and filled the gaps in the line, they gallantly moved forward, and again met the devastating fire of the sheltered Rebels which they could not overcome. They were forced back after getting up to the works and their right crossing it and capturing some of its defenders, who were North Carolinians.

Our men could not get up to their works in line of battle because the trees had been cut and so piled together that in places men could not get through. In some places gaps or lanes had been left in the slashings, and it was in these places that our men reached the works. After a determined and desperate attempt to take them they lay down in front of them and General Upton took a portion of the command to the right where the works had been carried, and moving down to the left, drove the Rebels out of the works in front of which our men had been repulsed, and were lying in their front. Here, occupying the outside of the Rebel works that had been captured, an incessant fire was kept up, for the enemy seemed determined to retake the works and kept up a scorching fire until after midnight. They inflicted but little loss upon our command, and finally fell back upon a second line of works, and we at once turned and strengthened the captured works. In this charge the 2d Connecticut lost their colonel, Kellogg, killed, and 386 men killed, wounded and missing. Although a new regiment they sustained [157] themselves without support on either flank for many hours. After the enemy had given up their attempt to regain the works, the 96th Pennsylvania went into the front line, supported immediately in the rear by the 2d Connecticut. Then came our regiment, then the 5th Maine. (The dead were buried where they fell in shallow graves.) We skirmishers assembled, and returned to our regiment, as soon as the charge was over, and lay on our arms in line of battle during the night. The next day we relieved the 96th Pennsylvania whose commanding officer, Major Lessig, said that in the continuous fire they had fired 90,000 rounds of ammunition.

We continued the firing, the Rebel line being but a short distance in our front, and we could plainly see any movement on their side. We fixed head logs on the works and built sheltered outlooks with ammunition boxes filled with dirt, rigged decoys for the Rebels to fire at and would fire at their puffs of smoke. This firing was kept up day and night. At night someone in a tone of command would shout “Forward, double quick, charge,” and a volley would run along the Rebel rifle pits in our front in answer. The men not in the trenches lay in line of battle in rear of the works. In the pines occasionally a man would be wounded by a ball striking in the top of a tree and glancing down. One of our men, Webster, of Company I was wounded in this way. He was lying on his back against a pine, reading his Bible, when a bullet struck him in the eye, destroying it and passing through the roof of his mouth into it, from which he spat it out. Another was struck on the brass plate of his cross belt and seriously hurt. A number of others received lesser injuries.

On the third of June we formed for a charge. We were in the trenches when Generals Wright [158] and Russell, and some staff and engineer officers passed along the line of works and attracted considerable attention from our men as well as from the Rebels who frequently sent lead messages to them as they exposed themselves. They spent considerable time in the trenches to the left of us talking to General Upton. Shortly after they went away, word was passed along that the order to charge had been countermanded at this place. Generals Russell and Upton deeming the position too strong to be taken. This was very welcome news to us, because had we charged a majority of us must inevitably have been shot. Every inch of that ground in front of us was commanded by sharpshooters and our works being farther advanced than those on either flank we would have received a partially enfilading fire. On the 4th of June we made an effort, and got all we could of the poor fellows, who had been lying wounded between the lines, since the previous day's battles. But many were left, it being impossible to get them on account of the fire of the sharpshooters. The poorly interred corpses of our men within our line, and the dead lying between the lines had now become decomposed and putrid, and made an awful stench. The water was very poor and a long way off, and many of the men complained of being sick. On the 7th of June under a flag of truce we gathered the wounded between the lines that were still alive and buried the putrid bodies of the dead that threatened a pestilence to the living. The wounded were in a horrible condition. One officer of the 106th New York I think, had a wound in the thigh that was infested with maggots. All the wounded yet alive could have survived but a little time longer. They had exhausted their water supply, and sucked their moist clothing to get the rain and dew from it. They had [159] scooped out holes in the ground to shelter themselves, and put moist clay in their mouths to prolong life. Imagine, if you can, their horrible predicament, lying on a bullet-swept field, without ability to crawl, their wounds infested with maggots, and existing five days or more before being succored, and you can get some idea of the horrors of war. I think it was the 8th of June that the enemy brought up some Coehorn mortars, and began business with them. The first shot landed in the 5th Maine regiment and killed and wounded several men. They continued this practice while we remained in the entrenchments, and we were kept busy watching and dodging the flight of shells. Fortunately we escaped being hurt by them.

The term of service of the 5th Maine had now about expired, and they were ordered to the rear for muster out. They had served three years, and had performed gallant and distinguished service on many battlefields, and we regarded them with a strong feeling of affection and pride. There was no elaborate leave taking. We were glad that they were going, and yet sorry because we should miss their gallant and effective support and cooperation, in the future as in the past. And we realized that we should never see them again. If the State of Maine holds for them the pride and affection that their comrades of the 121st New York have, it is something of a gratifying nature to have brought from the war. They went away, and the 2d Connecticut Heavy Artillery were installed in their place, with us. On the 10th of June a young engineer officer, Lieut. R. S. McKenzie, took command of the 2d Connecticut. When I saw him I immediately recognized him as the officer who had led us to the position from which we charged on the 10th of May at Spottsylvania. Being a very brave and skillful officer he soon won the confidence [160] and respect of the regiment, which had now become reduced to the size of an ordinary infantry regiment, by losses in battle and by the hard campaigning to which they were now accustomed. After the first few days, during our stay at Cold Harbor, we received fresh beef, soft bread and vegetables, of which we were in great need. This was possible because our base of supply had been changed to White House Landing.

On the night of the 12th of June orders were given to draw out of the lines. The utmost caution was enjoined. The picket lines kept up a continuous fire to drown the noise of the withdrawal. The artillery wheels were muffled to prevent the rumble of their wheels being heard. Thus silently we moved away from the lines which had cost so many lives of brave men on both sides, to assail and hold. Our losses had been much greater than those of the enemy, as they had the advantage of entrenchments. At daylight we were some distance from the works, the brigade all together, except those left on the picket line and the 5th Maine on its way home, and at dark we were across the Chickahominy, crossing on a pontoon bridge at Jones' Bridge. We had not been followed by any force of the enemy, and no firing of any account was heard until afternoon, when the faint sound of cannon and musketry told that the Johnnies were after our rear guard, which consisted of Wilson's cavalry and the Fifth Corps. We were all glad to get away from Cold Harbor.

Several personal incidents may be of interest to the reader. The writer's brother was a member of the 106th New York Volunteers, and was on the skirmish line at the opening of the first assault. He was severely wounded, a bullet having shattered the bone of his right thigh. Word was brought me that he was in the Corps hospital and I went to see him, taking a roll of blankets for [161] his comfort, I saw him placed in one of the baggage wagons for the journey over long stretches of corduroy road to White House Landing. He told me afterwards that several men died on the trip. Returning to headquarters I passed behind the house in which the surgeons were caring for the wounded. It was built on a side hill, the ground dropping away a full story to the rear. Out of the two back windows the amputated members were being thrown and the two heaps had already reached to the windows, and were continually being added to.

I had a few days before stood on the dead strewn field of the “Bloody angle,” and been deeply affected by the sight there presented, but nothing struck such a chill to my bones as did those two heaps of mangled arms and legs. In returning to the front, I reached the works a little to the left of brigade headquarters, and in walking along just behind the entrenchments, on a little rise where a battery was located, a Rebel sharpshooter in a tree made me a target and his bullet barely missed my head, and struck the enbankment between two men who were digging a pit for ammunition. They turned and looked at me a little wildly, and I passed on out of range. Cold Harbor was the only battlefield on which I heard the shriek of a wounded man. To the right and front of brigade headquarters a man had fallen near the Confederate works, and when night came his frequent cry of anguish pierced the air with a weird, heart chilling effect. Gradually it died away, growing fainter and fainter until it was a relief to think that the poor fellow was dead and out of pain. In our army this was a strange thing. Usually our men endured the greatest pain with stoicism, muttering perhaps, and groaning, and grinding their teeth. If an outcry was made it was usually in the voice of a foreigner.

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