Doc. 59. battles of Spottsylvania, Va: battle of Sunday, May 8, 1864.
Our cavalry penetrated to Spottsylvania Court-house early in the forenoon, finding the enemy's dismounted cavalry there, and engaging them.
Word was sent back to General Warren
that none of the enemy's infantry were in front; that the path was clear.
was then on the road below Piney Branch Church.
He pushed on vigorously.
It is said that he neglected to throw out skirmishers a sufficient distance.
's division, in the advance, emerged from a dense forest, and entered a field beyond, it came suddenly upon a column of Longstreet
's command, which had been pushed in two or three miles this side of Spottsylvania Court-house, and became hotly engaged, almost without warning.
's brigade suffered fearfully.
The whole division, including that of Robinson
, which went in immediately on the left, received, in addition to the musketry fire in front, a storm of grape and shell from front and flank.
, who was marching with his whole force in parallel lines with us, had stationed a battery on the right, commanding the junction of roads where Griffin
first met the enemy.
The troops, although fighting bravely, were terribly decimated, and gave way. General Robinson
fell, wounded in the leg. General Warren
, in person, rallied the division.
's Pennsylvania Reserves came up and steadily advanced into the breach, firing telling volleys.
Their advance was continued beyond the woods, through a field, and down into a swampy wood beyond, the enemy falling back and leaving a number of prisoners in our hands, chiefly of Hood
's Twenty-first Mississippi and Colonel Manning
's Third Arkansas regiments.
The latter officer was captured.
By this time the troops in the rear had been partially reformed, and Crawford
's reserves fell back to join the general line.
At half-past 2 o'clock the second advance began.
The enemy was found in the edge of the woods, but no attack was ordered.
Skirmishing continued about three hours, when the troops were recalled and new lines were formed, to which was added that of the Sixth corps; General Wright
's division, if I remember correctly, forming on the right, and the remaining divisions on the left of the Fifth corps.
At half-past 6 o'clock the order for a general attack was given.
The enemy (Ewell
having by this time come up) was strongly posted in the forest, along the second crest beyond.
Our advance was steadily made to the foot of the second hill, when the enemy's fire was first encountered.
A splendid charge was made with varying success; the artillery assisting — the artillery of the enemy replying.
's division of the Sixth corps (now commanded by General Neill
) rushed into the fire and up to the works in their front, carrying the position.
Some of the troops of the Fifth corps wavered.
's division in front had advanced nearly to the enemy's line, when the terrific fire shook their ranks to pieces.
They fell back, were rallied, advanced again, again fell back, were rallied again and again, but at the close of the engagement had failed to take the work.
Firing ceased about half-past 8 o'clock; the first ridge in front of the enemy was gained, and our entire line was there formed and intrenched.
Meanwhile General Burnside
's forces had marched to the left, Hancock
had come up on the right, and lay in support along the Piney Branch
Sunday night, therefore, found the army advanced, intrenched, facing the enemy northwest of Spottsylvania Court-house, in an irregular, but more semi-circular than otherwise, line.
Still in the midst of a forest, with occasional patches of open field, but able to make its strength felt along at least seven miles of country.
The artillery had position at last, though its aim could be directed, in few instances, by the eye. Its range, for the most part, had to be determined on purely scientific principles, and the engineering skill of the army had to be called upon for that purpose.
Reconnoissances and scouts, to ascertain the exact position of the enemy's intrenched line, and works, and batteries, were sent out at night, and from the information thus derived, the aim of almost every piece of artillery used on our side was calculated.
The reports of prisoners, and the appearance of the enemy's intrenchments, taken by us from time time, reveal how sure and deadly was the fire of our guns, even under these embarrassing circumstances.
Those of the rebels must have been fired upon much the same principle, for, except in the occasional open spaces alluded to, the lines of both armies were invisible to the artillerists on both sides, during all these terrible battles.
There were new hospitals for the wounded that night, and new wounded to fill them.
Ambulances were sent back along the line of march to gather in those who had been left, and to bring them to shelter and attendance.
Blessed was the cooling darkness, blessed the silence of the forest that fell around the tired army and these bleeding proofs of hard battle, after the fight was over.
Thousands slept, awaiting their turn to-morrow; thousands slept,
many to sleep no more.
Walking among the white tents, where surgeons and nurses were murmuring among the wounded, one asked a foolish question: When is this to end?
In one corner of a hospital tent, as in many others that night, lay a dying man — a lieutenant in one of the Massachusetts
regiments, engaged during the afternoon.
Type of a thousand officers, who, like him, have been thus stricken and have thus died, his last moments demanded the hush and pause rendered by all feet and voices in that tent.
His face, turned away from the battle-field, looked toward the North
A handsome, noble face it was, shadowed by dark hair, and saddened by the droop of a dark mustache.
His breast was bare; a bandage was drawn across it, covering a wound, the pain of which disturbed him no more.
He lay quietly breathing, as if asleep.
He was not asleep, however, for presently, as two or three standing by began to say among themselves that it would soon be over, he put a pale hand, that trembled like an aspen, down beneath his shirt upon the other side, and drew forth what might have been expected, a dull, soiled velvet ambrotype case, which he held a few moments, without attempting to open.
One who. stood there felt instinctively that the dying man wished but could not ask him to stoop over where he lay. That one bent to hear a faint, broken whisper, beseeching him to take the velvet case and find the one who wore the face within it, and give it back with the blessing of a lover.
It would have been well, perhaps, had the one who thus accepted this trust unclasped the case before the hand from which he took it had grown quite cold and motionless.
Else, having looked, he might have whispered into the dull ear of the dying lieutenant promise of a surer and speedier meeting with the girl he loved than he could have had but for this day's dark fate.
For it happened that he, the living, knew that she, too, had died, and awaited somewhere the coming of what had just departed.
Operations of Monday, May 9.
In the early part of the previous night Hancock
's corps advanced, connecting on the left with Wright
's division of the Sixth corps, which connected in turn with Warren
, pushing his right across Po creek and seizing the Block House
road, running from Parker
's store to Spottsylvania Court-house.
's corps were discovered marching south, so that on Monday morning the entire army of Lee
was again in our front.
The artillery began at early dawn, and kept up a lazy firing, occasionally heightened to a combat, throughout the day. The position of our line was advanced and strengthened, from time to time, without a general battle.
's division of the Sixth corps, posted Sunday on Warren
's right, was now moved round to join the Sixth, which thus, for almost the first time in all the engagements, held an unbroken line.
The day was hot; the enemy's sharpshooters were busy.
Perched in forest trees, above the heads and out of sight of our skirmishers, they played a serious havoc along our lines.
No officer who showed himself was safe from the bullets of these assassins.
General W. H. Morris
, of the Sixth corps, another general officer, and numerous officers of the staff and line, were wounded or killed early in the day. Not even some great battles had done us more damage in commanders; yet only a slothful boom of guns, and a hollow, irregular clatter along the infantry line, were heard until the close of day, when a sharp little engagement occurred, resulting in the farther advance of our right and right-centre.
About the middle of the day General John Sedgwick
, who, since the march from Brandy Station
, had never left his command, walked out with Lieutenant-Colonel McMahon
, his Chief of Staff
to the advanced line of breastworks occupied by his men. A little hum of leaden bees about this place caused the soldiers in the works to dodge and duck their heads.
The General smiled at them good-naturedly ; he had a winning smile.
Finally one bee hummed so near a poor Irishman's auricle that he dropped down upon his face.
touched him with his foot, in humorous disdain: “Pooh, pooh, man I who ever heard of a soldier dodging a bullet I Why, they couldn't hit an elephant at that distance I”
There was a laugh at this, even though the straggling bees yet hummed unpleasantly around.
The General was still smiling over the banter, when Colonel McMahon
heard the buzz of a bullet culminate in what seemed an explosion close beside him.
“That must have been an explosive bullet, General.”
But as the face of General Sedgwick
slightly turned toward the beloved officer at his side, a curious, sad, not despairing, but almost contented smile was upon it. Another moment, and the form of the General
fell helplessly backward.
It was caught by Colonel McMahon
as it fell.
A ball had entered the face, just below the left eye, pierced the brain, and passed out at the back of the head.
He never spoke afterward, though he breathed softly for a while.
He will never speak again, to command or to caress; to punish with disdain and censure; to elevate with reward and praise.
0, noble Sixth corps; tried and true Sixth corps; though you have been saddened by the death of many comrades, did you ever weep for a comrade like this?
Are your deeds so high, your banners so glorious, now that he who directed them is fallen?
Are your lost ones so low, now that he slumbers among them?
Oh, well may you speak soft, lips that have shouted defiance; well may you toll slowly, guns that have rung “conquest” at his will I He sleeps; let the battle sleep for a time.
honored the battle; let the battle do him this honor!
The battle of Tuesday, May 10.
had so pushed out his right that on the morning of this day one division, under Barlow
, had crossed the Po
, and was disposed almost at right angles with the general line, practically turning the enemy's flank.
This position, had the river not intervened, would have been a very advantageous one, but the river weakened it. General Burnside
on the left, had pushed out beyond the line of the Sixth corps, with which he was supposed to connect.
It was afterward discovered by our engineers that he had, unknown to himself, unknown to our commanders, and certainly unknown to the enemy, got into a position — entirely disconnected with the left of the Sixth corps--which flanked the enemy's right, and which might have been used with victorious and overwhelming effect in subsequent engagements.
On the contrary, I have been told that had the enemy been informed of the exact position in which that command stood relative to the rest of our army, it would have been in great danger of being cut off.
The right of our line, then, commanded the Brock
road near Todd's Tavern
, the centre faced Spottsylvania Court-house, the left was disposed across the road leading from Spottsylvania Court-house to Fredericksburg
, to which latter place our wounded had been sent.
A reconnoissance on the left in the morning developed no strong force of the enemy in that direction.
's brigade of Carr
's division, Second corps, was detached from the right and sent out on the left of the Sixth corps (now commanded by General Wright
) to take and hold a strong position thus weakened.
Fighting began in the early morning, and continued with more or less fierceness all day. The roar of artillery was constant; the forest in some places got on fire, discomfited our troops, and made a holocaust in some places, where the wounded could not be brought off. I do not pretend to have known or correctly ascertained what was accomplished or lost in this day's fighting until the afternoon.
The dead and wounded were many on both sides.
In the afternoon a general attack was ordered, to be made at five o'clock. About four o'clock, the enemy, having discovered the weakness of General Barlow
's position on the right, sent a heavy force in that direction, which pounced so suddenly and fiercely upon the division of that brave young commander, as to force it back from the flanking position it held, and produce a momentary confusion.
Soldiers who got across the stream behind sooner than they ought, exaggerated the misfortune, and the report, flying to army headquarters, which were in an open field near the right, caused a pulling up of tent stakes, and a mounting of horses, which appeared very panic-stricken indeed.
's division still pressed by superior numbers, fought its way slowly backward, and, still fighting, retreated across the river and joined the Second corps, against the right of which the enemy continued to exert his strength until after nightfall, when he was repulsed.
This episode delayed the proposed attack of our army until half-past 6 o'clock in the evening.
For, an hour previous to that time our batteries in position played with destructive effect upon the enemy's lines.
It was growing dark, and the general attack was about commencing, when Generals Grant
, with their respective staffs, took position on the crest of an elevated plateau near where Griffin
first met Longstreet
's forces on Sunday, to see what could be seen of the battle.
It opened at last at half-past 6 o'clock, growing gradually from a skirmish fire into the ripe, rolling clangor of a general engagement; far enough off to drown the shouts of command, the cries of wounded, but not to drown a faint echo of the cheer with which the troops on some portions of the line started into the charge.
Across the open fields, through reaches of wood, through depths of swamp and mire, the dark lines of our battalions struggled forward against a fearful fire, poured down upon them from works that only our artillery could reach effectively.
The divisions of the Fifth corps, subjected to an enfilading volley of great guns from right and left, went down in that advance like deer before the hunters.
The work set for these men, under such a fire, was not accomplished when darkness closed the fighting.
The day closed in front of the Second corps with the repulse of the enemy on the right.
The soldiers of the Sixth, meanwhile, did a brilliant thing.
About three hundred yards in front, the enemy occupied a work very strongly constructed, as high as a man's head, and loop-holed at the top. The party organized to attack this work was disposed by General Russell
and led by Colonel Upton
It consisted of a portion of the First division, the Vermont
brigade of the Second division, and some picked troops of General Neill
's command, who were massed, on the eve of the attack, to the left and front of three batteries — Cowan
's, and Rhodes
'. Some companies of the Forty-ninth New York regiment had occupied during the afternoon a work in advance of the general line, and just to the left of the line of march of the column of attack.
As the column pressed forward, these companies moved by the left flank, engaging a battery of the enemy on the right of his work.
The batteries of McCartney
, and Rhodes
opened on the work, over the heads of the attacking column, which moved steadily on in the face of a terrific blaze of musketry, with arms a-port, and without firing a shot, up to the very face of the enemy's position.
It poured, a flood of savage faces and plunging bayonets, over the crest of the work and into the midst of the enemy, capturing in
an instant nine hundred and fifty of the very men who had stampeded the brigades of Shaler
on Friday night in the Wilderness
, and sending a scattering volley after a host of flying rebels.
Twelve guns also came into our possession.
This, if I am correct, was the only material success accomplished in the attack of Tuesday evening. What Burnside
did on the left I have not heard.
The position thus gained by Upton
not being supported, and being too far in advance of the general line to be occupied with safety, had to be abandoned.
The guns were spiked as they stood.
It is said that some soldiers of the Vermont
brigade--one of the finest in the army — actually wept when the brigade was ordered to fall back from a post it had helped so brilliantly to gain, at the expense of so many comrades' lives.
Our losses in this battle were perhaps more severe than those of any previous day. The Sixth corps alone, in the battles up to that night, had lost over five thousand killed arid wounded.
s old division, now commanded by General Russell
, had lost nearly one thousand four hundred; the losses in General Neill
's, now Colonel Bidwell
's, brigade, were between eight hundred and nine hundred, and the Vermont
brigade alone had suffered the loss of one thousand five hundred of its numbers.
These are specimen losses.
It has been presumed, by those more competent to judge than I, that the enemy's average losses, during all the battles, must have been nearly, if not quite, as great as our own. If so, our artillery must have been a great executioner, for the rebels more than we had fought behind intrenchments, and we more than they had been the attacking party.
They had attacked us at intervals, certainly; in the varying tide of battle, they took every opportunity to return our advance.
They came down upon us in the old Wilderness
There, in the varying charges back and forth, where Hancock
fought, they got severely punished.
But we were the invaders, and we it was who had advanced.
Although they had often forced us from advanced positions, they had never driven us from those we first occupied.
We had taken the most prisoners; we had gained the most ground.
It was shown that we were strong enough to gradually force the enemy backward, by hard fighting, step by step.
But this had been done at terrible cost, and at terrible cost must still continue.
The battle of Thursday, May 12.
Wednesday was a day of skirmishing; of minor engagements; of changes of position on both sides.
In the afternoon it was discovered that the enemy had retired from our right in front of Hancock
, and was shifting his lines to the left.
An effort made at evening to blind us to this fact by pushing a strong column of troops, which were afterward marched back behind a wood in the rear, around toward our right, across an open space, did not deceive our commanders.
Our lines were also shifted to.. ward the left, and more compactly joined.
During the night Hancock
's entire corps was removed from the right of our position and put in on the left of the Sixth, between that and Burnside
, so that on Thursday morning the corps were disposed as follows: The Fifth corps on the right, the Sixth corps next, the Second corps next, and Burnside
, as before, on the extreme left.
It was in front of Hancock
's new position that the vital section of the enemy lay — a strong, salient angle of earthworks, ditched in front, defended by cannon at every point, and held by Johnson
's division of Ewell
's corps, Ewell
's whole corps adjoining.
At half-past 4 o'clock Thursday morning, the attack upon this work was prepared.
's division — Neill
's brigade leading — formed in column by battalion, doubled on the centre, and took the advance.
The divisions of Birney
, and Gibbon
, in two lines of battle, supported the attack.
A rain, which had been falling during the night, still continued, and a beneficent fog overspread the field.
The storming column advanced silently, and without firing a shot, up to the angles of the breastworks, over which they rushed, taking the forces within in flank, surrounding them, capturing nearly the entire division of Johnson
, with its commander, and also a brigade or two of other troops, Brigadier-General George H. Stuart
An unfortunate cheer from the second line of battle prevented the surprise from extending to other rebel troops, who were thus enabled to escape.
Prisoners have declared that General Lee
himself was within those works at the time, and narrowly escaped capture.
Forty-two guns lying in the works, fell into our hands, of which eighteen were brought off with the prisoners.
The attacking column pursued the enemy some distance after this victory, engaging Early
's command and beating it back.
It then returned, and formed lines of battle in the intrenchments it had taken.
From this time forth, a battle raged over those intrenchments.
the intense fury and heroism and horror of which it is simply impossible to describe at all. Five distinct, savage, tremendous charges were made by the enemy to retake that position.
's corps, driven from it in the morning, came down first en masse
, and were repulsed.
moved down from the right, joined Ewell
and threw his divisions into the struggle.
moved up from the right, supporting Hancock
, to meet the surge.
came on from the extreme left of the rebel line.
sent in troops from the left of ours.
The lines of both armies, thus contracted, met in a continual death-grapple in and to the right of the angle of death taken in the morning.
To have looked down on that battle from a height would have been like gazing into the smoke and din of an earthquake.
Column after column of the
enemy penetrated to the very face of the breastwork, to be hewn down and sent back like a broken wave.
Column after column still came on, dealing death and meeting it, and making way for other columns, and others still; and all the day long, against this rush of a foe that seemed disdainful of life, the angle was held by our troops, fighting, falling, but unyielding, to the close.
Our artillery made havoc on that day; from dawn to dusk the roar of the guns was ceaseless; a tempest of shell shrieked through the forest, and ploughed the field.
When the night came, the angle of those works, where the battle had been the hottest, and from which the enemy had been finally driven, had a spectacle, for whoever cared to look, that would never have enticed his gaze again.
Men in hundreds, killed and wounded together, were piled in hideous heaps — some bodies that had lain for hours under the concentric fire of the battle being perforated with wounds.
The writhing of wounded beneath the dead moved these masses at times; at times a lifted arm or a quivering limb told of an agony not yet quenched by the Lethe of death around.
Bitter fruit, this — a dear price, it seemed, to pay for the capture of a salient angle of an enemy's intrenched work, even though that enemy's loss was terrible — even after the brilliant surprise and the prisoners of the morning.
For the enemy on the right still occupied his original line, and still opposed us in front, on a prolongation of the same, leaving in our possession the angle.
Of what Burnside
might have done on the left this day, or of what he did, I am still uninformed.
During the night another movement by the left flank was made by the army, and in the morning the Fifth and Sixth corps had moved to the left of Hancock
At nine o'clock A. M., the army faced the enemy, still this side of Spottsylvania Court-house, in a line south-east by north-west, stretching across the road from Spottsylvania Court-house to Fredricksburg
Of the events of yesterday, consisting of the enemy's capture and our retaking of a position designated by a house on the extreme left of our line, you have had particulars.
The position now occupied by the enemy in our front is one so strong as to seem actually impregnable.
Their works stretch in a semi-circle around Spottsylvania Court-house, and are said to have been long constructed, in anticipation of the very emergency which has now arrived.
To advance directly upon these works, defended as they are by an army which has thus far so stubbornly opposed us, will prove a fearful business.
I believe that General Grant
will first try other means.
Meanwhile the army rests; the battle of musketry has ceased for a time in the forests; only the dull boom of a distant cannonade links the fortnight of battles past with the weeks of battle yet to come.
And as soft as the shadows and breezes that fall upon and sweep across the slumbering lines of men in arms among these hills, ought to rise in the North
and sink here, in this interval of peace, the rewarding gratitude of a nation.
Not so much, perhaps, for what the army has achieved, as for what it has suffered.
Something besides military discipline, something besides the end to be attained — grand though that is — has inspired these soldiers along the pathway of blood just traversed.
That element of the immortal which keeps the long slumber of an earthquake in men's breasts, during ordinary times, has made a volcano of every soldier's heart who lies here with his musket — a single scale upon this serpent in arms.
There was promise of it in these faces long before the battle came; a look, prophesying tragedy.
These were they who had quitted the old paths, known unto millions, that lead to peaceful graves.
These were they to whom that thought of death, shunned by those who could only meet death by chance, was an understood and accepted guest.
Behold, in the eyes of those in cities a kind of stupor; in the eyes of these thousands in the field a kind of electric light.
Life with the first a fitful, earthly flame; with the last a fiery, hot emotion, kept awake in every vein by thought of the vulture above it, waiting to swoop.
They laugh, and talk, and blaspheme, and are reckless of fine phrases, these men, much like their old selves in workshops and saloons.
But there is something above the workshop and the saloon, the riot and routine of towns and farms, in the carriage of men intended for battle.
They have lifted their souls out of the depths into the high tide of that majestic current of life, beneath which the accidents of earth and death are as rippling pebbles.