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Chapter 14:

  • Winter at Brandy Station
  • -- reminiscences -- reconnoissance at Robinson's river -- reminiscences -- Gen. Grant arrives at the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac -- preparations for an advance -- the Army of the Potomac in the Wilderness -- the 5th, 6th, and 7th of May, 1864 -- flank movement -- Spottsylvania -- death of Gen. Sedgwick -- Laurel Hill -- success of the Second Corps -- flank movement -- north Anna -- flank movement -- Cold Harbor -- incidents of the battle of Cold Harbor, June, 1864 146-157

Once more established in winter quarters, the boys knew how to extract all the comfort and enjoyment of which the situation was susceptible; the leisure intervals occurring between times of regular camp duty, were employed by many in reading; papers, magazines, and books found their way to Brandy Station, furnishing pastime or food for reflection, according to the tastes and habits of the readers. In two neighboring regiments, the men had erected commodious chapels, the walls of logs and the roof of stanch canvas. These halls had each sufficient capacity to comfortably seat a regiment, and yet allow ample aisles and space around the speaker's desk. That built by the Third Vermont, which was right beyond our park of guns, was the weekly scene of devotional exercises and preaching, and on Wednesday evening, we believe, of each week between December and February, for a series of secular lectures by some chaplains of this corps. We were always heartily welcome to attend any and all services therein; and we have pleasurable recollections of the inimitable charm which pervaded the serio-comic discourse of Chaplain Bugle, of Rhode Island, who entertained us with a description and revelations of ‘Broad Top City,’ and the eloquently instructive lecture of Chaplain Perkins, of Massachusetts. Nor do we forget tile spirited debates to which we used to listen, in the chapel of the Sixth Vermont.


The alertness and suppleness of many of our boys was something wonderful; it was a spectacle suggestive of the athletic times of Greece and Rome, to witness their leaping, sparring, and racing.


We had a half dozen men whose power of mimicry, conjoined with large mirthfulness, we have never seen surpassed. The [147] effect of their display of this power, after the five o'clock roll-call, was such as to tryingly exercise the intercostal muscles of the spectators. The familiar demon of the camp at this hour, was

‘Laughter, holding both his sides.’


Vocalists we had, each with his special repertory of songs; and we had also a good strong chorus, to support each artist. Nor was anecdotal talent wanting. Talk about forecastle yarns! One should have heard those which were so deftly spun by our camp kitchen fire.


The year one thousand eight hundred and sixty-four was duly heralded by our comrades who kept watch on the night of the 31st of December, and by the sentries who had the second relief. The rattle of the turning of new leaves awoke the sleepers, who speedily wet their fingers and turned down the last old page. January rolled to eternity, leaving the Army of the Potomac still on the plains of Culpepper County. In February we went on a reconnoissance to Robinson's River in Madison County, seventeen or eighteen miles out on the right flank of our army. We were absent four days, having no remarkable adventure, but bivouacking at the river in a storm of sleet which turned to rain, which soaked boots, harnesses, and tarpaulins. The frost which followed rendered them quite clumsy for use. Gen. Custer drove back a force of cavalry which he encountered beyond Robinson's River.

We made the return march in a day, arriving in camp at sundown. The sun shining bright and warm, its heat thawed out and dried our clothing, boots, harnesses, and blankets, and the afternoon march was a pleasant journey. We remember passing through a quaint hamlet, called James City, to the west of Culpepper, C. H., and we remember seeing, as we drew near to Brandy Station, a venerable, hale old man standing on the piazza of his house. Here he stood once upon a time, when there was no considerable number of troops in that vicinity, and being accosted by a Federal cavalry officer, who had never seen him before, and who asked him which way a squadron of Confederate cavalry had gone, he replied: ‘Sir, my name is John Minor Botts, as good a Union man as there is in this country; but I am under [148] parole to the Confederate government, not to communicate any information upon either hand.’


One evening, after ‘retreat’ (5 o'clock, P. M.), in March, orders of the war department, with reference to re-enlistment, were read, and the inducements which were offered to veteran volunteers were fully presented. Massachusetts soldiers who might re-enlist would receive $325, state bounty, $402 offered by the general government, and each man would also receive the one hundred dollars which was promised him at the expiration of his term of enlistment. His term would be considered to expire at the moment that he should be mustered as a veteran. Each man who should re-enlist was to have thirty-five days furlough. This supplementary offer was the controlling influence which effected the immediate re-enlistment of our boys, who doubtless, without other incentive than the patriotism which prompted them to volunteer, the most of them, at the first call (three months ), would have joined the service again at the expiration of their term. In the chapter supplementary to our main narrative, we shall speak of the later experience of these brave men, serving in other commands, and drop a tear for the lamented comrades who fell at Cedar Creek.


When the company broke ranks after ‘retreat,’ a considerable number of the boys assembled around the cook-house fire to discuss the ‘inducements.’ Opinions naturally varied somewhat, but the preponderance of verbal expression of view was in favor of early re-enlistment.

After a goodly number of our most fluent comrades had ventilated their views, both from the economic and the patriotic standpoints, there was a brief lull in the conversation. One of our comrades, who was a humorist of the first water, had been silent from the first, but his prominent nose, which at the end had the faculty of turning to the right and left, and which was eloquently expressive of certain emotions, had been actively commenting upon the arguments which had been offered upon the economic side (for there were none more patriotic than he). He walked up to a meat block, and daintily lifting one of several pieces of rankly fat pork which lay thereon, upon the point of a huge carvingknife, [149] his nose and his tongue said, ‘There is inducement to re-enlist.’


During this month, March, 1864, Gen. U. S. Grant, commander of the Union armies, took up his headquarters with Gen. Meade. The whole army, soon after his arrival, passed in review before the renowned captain, Gen. Meade being by his side, pointing out to the self-contained, silent soldier the various corps, and the commands of which they were composed. It was an inspiring spectacle, the steady movement of the veteran corps of the Army of the Potomac, which were thenceforth to proceed from victory to victory, passing under the eyes of the captains of Vicksburg and Gettysburg.


At midnight, May 3-4, the Army of the Potomac broke camp. The Fifth and Sixth Corps, forming the right, crossed at Germanna Ford. It was a novel sight to see heavy trains crossing a bridge of canvas pontoons; but the driveway was as firm as that over the heavy wooden bateaux on which we had crossed in December. The cavalry, under Sheridan, and the Second Corps, Gen. Hancock, crossed six miles below.

Before sundown, the army was in position in the Wilderness. This was the gold region Of old Virginia, a country of low hills with underlying quartzite rock, the timber having been cut off to feed the smelting and reducing furnaces. A thick and tangled second growth of pine and other trees had sprung up in the clay soil of this section. It is a country very difficult in which to control the movements of a large army. Artillery can be used to little advantage in this section, and, indeed, the battle of the Wilderness (proper) was essentially an infantry engagement. At six o'clock, Gen. Grant ordered an advance the next morning; and early on the following day, the Confederates also being in motion, the Fifth Corps and the advance of Lee's army met, some 25,000 men being engaged; now the desperate campaign, which culminated in the battle at the North Anna, commenced.

The Sixth Corps was soon in line; at intervals during the day, others of the opposing columns participated in the fight with much bravery, and with much loss of life. Toward evening, there was a furious attack on the extreme right of our corps; our company [150] wheeled into position. Gen. Sedgwick, riding down between our guns, rallied and reformed our infantry line, and hurled back the enemy. The Ninth Army Corps arrived during the night of the 5th of May; and it is said that Longstreet's corps on the other side also reached the field. The battle was renewed with vigor at dawn. There were shifting movements and attacks all day long, much loss of life, but an indecisive engagement from the standpoint of either contestant; we remember that about five o'clock there was a considerable number of Confederate prisoners within an enclosure bounded by a picket-rope; this was to the rear and left of us; a Confederate charge, with the characteristic yell, was made in their front, and the boys in butternut suits within the picket-rope set up a responsive yell, which was somewhat disagreeable, not to say exasperating, so that, in the excitement of the moment, some one shouted to the guard, ‘Bring your guns to bear upon them!’ The guard had sufficient sense to perceive the foolish excitability of the speaker.

During the night of the 6th, the line was intrenched, and all day on the 7th, the position of our force was unchanged. Both armies were evidently sufficiently exhausted to preclude a renewal of hostilities. These hours of inaction were only the calm before a storm, or a breathing spell, during which the combatants tacitly agreed to briefly relax their hold, that they might renew it with fresh advantage.

After dark, we were again in motion by the left flank for a way, and then by the right; in brief, we marched to the east, and then south. If the Confederate commander anticipated a retrograde movement on our part, such as he had become somewhat familiar with, and had thrown any troops toward Germanna Ford, it would only show that he had yet to learn the tactics of Gen. Grant; for the great Federal commander led his army by and beyond the right of the Confederate force, and advanced ten miles farther south. Incidentally he secured a short base of supplies by way of Fredericksburg; and it is fitting to notice at this juncture the wonderful capacity of the great general to grasp and provide for the minute details of the gigantic task that had been allotted to him. We received three days rations on leaving Brandy Station, and at the end of each day and a half received three days more, until, we believe, we arrived at Cold Harbor. That is to say, having [151] cut himself loose from his base of supplies, burning his bridges behind him, he was able, by a wonderful foresight, to so direct the management of the commissiarat, that, during a campaign of unusual severity of twenty-one days, double rations were given out to the soldiers.

When Gen. Lee saw the purpose of the Federal movement he hastened forward, having the advantage of a shorter route. When the Fifth Corps, the Federal advance, reached the vicinity of Spottsylvania, C. H., the van of the Confederates was at that placc. Our cavalry occupied it early on the morning of the 8th, but was compelled to retire before the advance of the Confederate infantry. The Fifth Corps forced back the advancing infantry, until it found itself opposed by a solid line of battle, evidently the front of the main body of the enemy. Now followed severe fighting.

It was past noon when the Sixth Corps crossed the tributary of the Mattapony, beyond which the Fifth was contending with a superior force, although an uninterrupted, forced march had been made hither. Our corps immediately joined the Fifth. At dark a combined attack was made by both corps, but with slight result, other than to confirm the record for persistent courage and fidelity which the Fifth Corps, the old First, which had been united with it in March, and the Sixth, had previously won.

Due south of the positions held in the wilderness by the Confederate right and Federal left, less than a dozen miles, are the head waters of the Mattapony. Glancing at the map facing page 152, four streams are seen uniting to form that river, the Mat, the Ta, the Po, and the Ny. It was between the two latter most northern forks and near the banks of the Po, that the engagement of the 8th of May occurred; we passed the night at a spot to the northeast of Laurel Hill, where the road falls off from the hillock to the ford of the Ny. On the morning of the 9th, we moved to the southwest and took position in line, our corps on the right of the Second. We had been perhaps two hours in position, there having been a more or less continuous interchange of artillery shots, as if both were employed in getting the range, and there had been considerable skirmishing in our front; and during this time the sharpshooters on both sides were busy in the trees, picking off officers, when our corps commander, Gen. Jno. Sedgwick, came [152] between the guns of our right section, evidently to superintend placing them in a different position. Seeing a man dodging a ball, he said: ‘Pooh! they can't hit an elephant at this distance.’ These were the last words he ever uttered on earth.1 He fell between the guns of the right section of the First Massachusetts Battery. His body was borne from the field in an ambulance.

Soon after, Gen. Meade was seen to approach Gen. Wright, commander of our First Division, having a paper in his hand, which doubtless contained instructions to the corps commander, for Gen. Wright succeeded Gen. Sedgwick. There was rapid firing from this part of our line, and continuous reply through the major part of the day.

The position of the artillery remained unchanged. The brigade commanded by Gen. Upton, of the Sixth Corps, consisting among others of the One Hundred and Twenty-first New York Volunteers, drove in a large detachment of Confederates under the cover of our guns. The night of the 9th was passed in the same position as that which we occupied on the previous night. On the 10th, our place in the line was farther to the left, the position of the corps having been changed. The action on this part of the line this morning opened with a brisk artillery fire. There was a fearful loss of life upon the Federal side, and doubtless a similar decimation of the Confederate ranks directly opposed to the Sixth. It was on this day that Lieut. Federhen of our company fell, as we supposed, mortally wounded, but careful nursing so far restored him that, though his wound was but partially healed, he was again with us before the Valley campaign in the fall. Comrade John Burnham was wounded in the head. The situation on the 11th was relatively the same as upon the previous day, a bloody conflict, without being decisive.

The name of Laurel Hill, which is borne upon the banners of many regiments, has been applied to the series of manoeuvres and fights on the 9th, 10th, and 11th of May. On the last of these days, as the battle raged in the afternoon, heaven's artillery thundered above the contending hosts, the lightning vividly flashed, sharply reflected by the steel and brass of arms and equipments, and the rain poured in a torrent.

The morning of the 12th found the branches of the Mattapony [153] swollen by the flood, and, as the waters subsided, the accumulated firm gravel of the beds at the fords, it was found, had been displaced, disclosing to the horses' hoofs treacherous quicksands. Early on this morning, Gen. Grant having ordered a general assault on the Confederate position, a spirited attack was made by the Sixth, which was met with obstinate resistance. The Second Corps (Hancock's), upon our left, captured a ‘salient’ with twenty cannon; the Federal corps was hidden by a thick fog; it broke the abattis, surrounded a division, and took three thousand prisoners, including Generals Edward Johnson and Vodges. This was a complete surprise; these officers were at breakfast. The subsequent experience of our troops through the hours of the 12th was that of a desperate contest with uncertain result. Ten thousand men had fallen upon both sides. It was during these days that Gen. Grant sent his famous despatch to the department, from which was derived the oft-quoted, characteristic declaration, ‘I propose to fight it out on this line, if it takes all summer.’


The following week was spent in demonstrations and manoeuvres, involving much marching; it is said that we were waiting for reinforcements.

On the 18th we were at Chesterfield, on the line of the Fredericksburg and Richmond Railroad; another flank movement had evidently commenced. We were proceeding southward, by the right of the Confederates. The immediate execution of this plan was delayed on the following day by an attack upon our right, but after a sharp conflict the strong Confederate force was driven back. Both armies, on the 20th, occupied lines nearly at rights angles with their positions on the 8th, 9th, and 10th,—that is to say, their backs were respectively to the east and to the west, with another race to the southward in prospective.

On the 22d of May, we were marching through the brown, sandy loam of Caroline County, a region famous in plantation minstrelsy,—‘Dandy Jim of Caroline,’—and one that seemed hitherto to have been unvisited by invading troops. All along the route, negroes were packing their simple effects and following the army; now and then a woman was seen expostulating with a colored servant who was about to depart to the visionary land of freedom and fortune, to which, in his simple intelligence, the route [154] pursued by our army led. We recollect that, as we were rounding a curve in the road, about noon, a mulatto girl, perhaps seventeen years old, stood on a hummock waving her sun-bonnet in her hand, exclaiming: ‘I'se right glad to see you, gen'lamen; I'se right glad to see you,’—a picturesque sight, and one quite suggestive.


Some sleek and handsome saddle mules, that served for transportation of light baggage, were captured in this section.


We recollect a phrase that used to be often upon the lips of some comrades at this time, and was uttered more than once upon the route from Spottsylvania to the North Anna, ‘Only five and a few,’ a reference to the expiration of the three years term of enlistment, in the coming fall. Comrade David S. Morse, a man of large frame and great strength, having a vice-like grip, would occasionally forcibly remind one of the future event, by a healthy grasp of his arm, at the same time repeating the phrase. This recollection of him is forced upon us at the time, interwoven with the memory of our approach to the North Anna. He never in the flesh saw New England again; a bullet pierced his brain at Cold Harbor.

The inside track this time, as before, was held by the Confederates, and starting, as they seem to have, on the same day as the Union advance, they hastened to place themselves in an intrenched position beyond the North Anna.

On the 24th, the Sixth Corps crossed the difficult ford of that fiver above Lee's army, and placed itself upon the right of the Fifth; Gen. Warren had repulsed a violent attack, with great loss, the evening before; and Gen. Hancock, who had effected a crossing at Chesterfield Bridge, below, after some fighting, had taken position upon Warren's left. An attempt of Gen. Burnside on the centre was repulsed. It was not until this day that the Ninth Corps was formally united to Meade's command.

The enemy's position upon the North Anna was stronger than those at Wilderness or Spottsylvania; and Gen. Grant, realizing that the loss of life entailed in the dislodgement of the Confederates would be greatly disproportionate to the temporary advantage that might be gained, withdrew on the night of the 26th to [155] the north bank, and moved to turn the Confederate position by its right.

Jericho Ford of the North Anna is above the crossing of the Fredericksburg Railroad, and perhaps ten miles above the confluence of this river with the Pamunkey. Down the left bank of this river, at rapid pace, the Sixth Corps marched, on the 27th of May, now in advance, and moving to the support of the cavalry,—which, during the battles of Spottsylvania, had passed in the rear of the Confederate position, and destroyed miles of railroad,—recaptured hundreds of prisoners who were en route to the pens at Libby or Salisbury, and captured the outer defences of Richmond. Gen. Sheridan in command had reached the vicinity of Cold Harbor on his return. We crossed the Pamunkey at Hanovertown, and moved across the peninsula, the old campaign ground of 1862, toward the Chickahominy.

As we remarked in an early chapter, we struck camp on the 29th on the road from White House to Cold Harbor, on the same ground where we bivouacked in the summer of 1862 when marching up the peninsula under Gen. Franklin. We moved forward on the 30th, preceded by two divisions of cavalry under Gen. Sheridan; such portion of the enemy as had gathered in this region was pushed steadily back, after more or less resistance, as upon the previous day.

On the 31st of May the cavalry divisions entered Cold Harbor. On the morrow, as we lay east of Cold Harbor, where we had come to a halt, upon an open tract of very irregular surface,— hummocks and knolls abounding, interspersed with ravines, bare, save a straggling mulberry tree,—an occasional shot came shrieking overhead, and elicited the proposition from a comrade, that ‘the man who said he was not afraid of one of those, lied.’ Attention was drawn to a corps which was apparently arriving from White House; its corps flag was unfamiliar, but the leader's form and features seemed not strange to us, nor were they. It was Gen.BaldySmith, with the Eighteenth Army Corps. Both corps (Sixth and Eighteenth) moved forward to take the position gained and held by the cavalry, which they now relieved.

At five o'clock, both corps, under Gens. Wright and Smith, opened fire with all their infantry and artillery in an attack upon Lee. Such was the vim of this onset, that they succeeded in [156] carrying a large part of his first line. Forced back from the position which they had held upon the retirement of our cavalry on a new line, the Confederates maintained a stubborn and sullen resistance; nor did the effort of the Union corps relax,—the attack was continued with relentless energy, and with the natural result of great loss of life. It was estimated at nightfall that 2,000 men had fallen during the second attack. Subsequent reports show that the other corps repulsed repeated assaults upon their ranks, during the time of the engagement of the Eighteenth and Sixth corps.

Last night brought in, with the odor of the dewy grass and the foliage of the swamps, mingled with the cries of night birds, the summer of 1864. To-night brings a series of ineffectual attempts of the enemy to recover the ground which our sleepless and watchful troops have wrested from them during the day.

After daylight, June 2, the Second Corps was placed upon our left, while the Fifth, which had been to the north of the Eighteenth Corps at considerable interval, was extended to connect with the latter, which was upon our right. At the same time the Ninth was drawn in to Bethesda church. Reports of these last two movements show that they were not accomplished without opposition from the enemy, with the loss of prisoners. So this day was occupied in reforming and redisposing the Federal army. Meanwhile the air had collected much moisture, and there was a storm a few hours distant; in fact, a smart summer rain preceded the four o'clock in the morning assault, which the Second, Sixth, and Eighteenth Corps, in pursuance of Grant's plan to keep constantly hammering Lee's army, made upon the Confederate intrenchments. This lasted but a half-hour, but the sanguinary character of the contest was probably never surpassed during the campaign. Barlow's and Gibbons's divisions of the Second carried a part of the enemy's line. This success was not, however, permanent, nor was any decided advantage gained by the gallant action of the Eighteenth and Sixth. The Sixth and its companion corps intrenched themselves close to the enemy's main line of works. This, with the exception of an attack upon Gibbons's division of the Second Corps, at nine o'clock at night, which was repulsed, was the last important engagement in this campaign north of the Chickahominy. [157]

Two days later we were still lying behind these fortifications, the evenings in the interim being enlivened by interchange of brief, brisk musketry fire; and just after dusk, a comrade who was. beside Comrade David S. Morse in a little shelter which they had pitched, heard the latter groan; striking a match, he perceived that comrade Morse had been shot through the head, his brain protruding from the skull. Our unfortunate companion was borne to the artillery brigade hospital, mortally wounded. We were assured at the hospital that in his condition, in the nature of things, he was insensible to pain; but it was horrible to hear the death-rattle through the night, for such a fund of vitality had he that life became extinct only a little before dawn. ‘What a powerful man he has been,’ said the steward, as he touched the large, broad thumb, that was no more to cover the vent of his gun.

A grave was dug beneath a mulberry tree in a little vale south of the hospital, and not far from the spot whence his company departed to move to the front on the 1st. As his comrades were about to deposit the remains in their last resting-place, a chaplain was seen riding into the little glen; the messmate of the departed comrade, saluting the clergyman, besought his services, and the chaplain, responding, officiated in a manner that won the hearts of the boys who stood around him.

Comrade Morse was killed June 5; just one week later, the two armies in their fortifications having been grimly confronting each other the while, the Army of the Potomac moved by the left flank rapidly down the Chickahominy, and passed over by its lower crossings, speedily through Charles City County to the James.

1 Our commander had remonstrated with the general for thus exposing his life.

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