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Chapter 13: through White Oaks swamp. The battle of Glendale.

Then the retreat of the last portion of McClellan's Army began. If anything was necessary to complete the rout of an army, the conditions were now present. That the men were not demoralized was due to the thorough discipline of the magnificent Army of the Peninsula and its movements during the march forever can be justly characterized as ‘masterly.’ True, they were in full retreat, and the whole country might well be distrustful, yet the movement was well and successfully conducted.

Discouragement was inevitable, and officers and men were more disgusted than disheartened. Their blood was up, and it can hardly be doubted that if ‘Right about face’ had been ordered and ‘On to Richmond’ again sounded as the slogan the entire Army of the Potomac would have exhausted itself in the attempt. But this could not be. The army must be saved.

The base at White House had been abandoned. Steamers, transports, schooners, cattle barges and tugs were removed and were carrying the supplies under convoy of gunboats, down the York river to Fortress Monroe, from whence the army had started about three months previously. The men had seen immense collections of food burned, supplies of ammunition exploded and rail transportation itself demolished. They moved with rations and cartridges in their haversacks, cut loose from everything, with the events of the next three days still unknown before them. There was no time for undue caution and no choice of roads but ‘Hobson's.’ It was ‘On to the James,’ through swamps and comparatively unknown country, with all arms of the service intermixed en route. [93]

The trains, loaded with ammunition, forage and rations, were pushed with all possible speed toward the James River, the the army all the while keeping itself between them and the enemy. The troops moved until they came up with these trains, then formed line of battle, beat back the enemy each day, thus allowing the trains to get a good distance ahead. Then, under cover of the night, the Army pushed on, leaving behind the dead and wounded. The surgeons heroically remained at their work with them and many were thus made prisoners of war.

At 9 P. M., taking the Corduroy Road, the regiment began to move through the tangled ravine of White Oaks Swamp, and in the darkness the progress was very slow; a few rods or a few feet into the inky darkness, and then a halt; a few rods more and then another stop. Here and there, fastened to the trees, were flickering candles. Staff officers were frequently seen giving directions to the struggling forces.

At three o'clock in the morning the regiment crossed White Oaks Run and was ordered to take a little rest. The stragglers were gathered in, line was formed, but the rest was of very brief duration and when daylight appeared the last of the swamp was left behind. The regiment halted on high ground and rations were served.

About 7 A. M. the bridge over Cedar Swamp Creek was destroyed and the march resumed. The sun was extremely hot and as the light rain of the night before had ceased at daybreak, the roads were soon as dry and dusty as ever. At about noon the regiment filed into a field on the left of the road at Nelson's Farm, or Glendale and remained closed in mass until about 4 P. M., the men watching the wagon trains as they passed in their hurry to reach Malvern Hill. During this time General McCall's troops from McDowell's department filed into the field.

At about 4 P. M. heavy firing from both artillery and infantry was heard in the direction from which the regiment had come. When the last struggling wagon had passed, the Nineteenth was again in motion, but this time it went back over the road to the swamp, in the direction of the firing. The stream of wagon trains and artillery had powdered the clayey [94] road until the dust was ankle deep and, rising in a dense cloud, it enveloped everything as if in a thick fog, completely hiding from view the second file ahead and falling upon the men, turning the blue uniforms into grey. There was no breeze stirring and marching through this blinding cloud, under a broiling sun, was agonizing. Many men fainted by the roadside,—some never to survive. After marching about a mile and a half toward the swamp, the regiment filed into the field and halted in the shade by the side of a wood to await orders. What a relief to lie there in the cool shade, after being in the hot sun all day, and what a contrast between the grassy carpet and the dusty road! Some of those who had fallen out came straggling up.

The men had been in this spot but a short time, listening to the sound of battle which was gradually growing less, showing that the rear guard was keeping the rebels back, when Colonel Hinks came to Lieutenant Bachelder, of Company C, and told him to send two of his strongest men to the hospital to carry hospital knapsacks. ‘Well,’ said the lieutenant, ‘I guess I haven't got any who are very strong,’ but he detailed two,one of them being Sergt. R. R. Foster. At 4.30 P. M. Dana's Brigade started back toward the position it had occupied earlier in the day, the hospital department and headquarters staff following close in the rear. Firing was heard from in front and once in a while a shell would pass unpleasantly near. After a march of half a mile, the regiment came to an abrupt halt, the order was given ‘Load at will, Load,’ after this ‘Fix Bayonets’ and then ‘Forward, Double-Quick.’

While the men had been marching at a rapid pace toward the swamp, earlier in the day, a young soldier in the ranks was complaining of the heat and declared that he could not hold out much longer. He was encouraged by his lieutenant to keep up, and did so. On the return march, as the sound of musketry was heard in front, this young man rallied at the familiar sound and cried out to the officer: ‘Lieutenant, I am not tired now. Hurrah for a battle.’ He was mortally wounded in the engagement that followed.

The quick march went on with the artillery sweeping by, [95] reckless of life or limb. Soon the regiment reached its old camping ground, but instead of filing to the left, it filed to the right and having formed line of battle in front of a battery posted there, charged across a field at double-quick to support the Fifteenth Massachusetts.

The progress of the regiment was checked at one point by a battery which was coming out of the cross-roads, and by that means it became separated from its brigade. While waiting for the battery to pass, the men who had retained their knapsacks received orders to throw them away. By this time they contained many priceless treasures,—letters from home, pictures of loved ones or relics of previous conflicts and camps, but orders were orders and they were thrown into a pile. Some of the officers threw away their own treasures as an example.

The bullets and shells flew thick and fast, and, having recovered their breath and from the confusion which had resulted from going so far on the double-quick, the regiment left the road and entered another field where nothing could be seen in front. Lying down behind a knoll, the men sheltered themselves somewhat. The brigade lines were then formed as usual, the Nineteenth Massachusetts regiment being in the third line. After the two in front had entered the woods, this regiment advanced almost to their edge and the men lay down. Soon General Grover, who for some reason commanded that part of the line at that time, ordered the regiment to enter the woods. ‘Be sure and not fire on your own men’ were his last words before they entered.

After advancing some 150 yards, the command halted and dressed. ‘Don't fire on your friends’ shouted a number of voices in the bushes in front and suddenly a body of the enemy hidden by the foliage but not fifteen feet distant, opened a terrific fire upon the men of the Nineteenth.

The powder flashed in their faces and they staggered back, but remained in position and returned the fire. Then the regiment was ordered back a few yards to the open field with diminished numbers. Entering with more than 300, it had but 150 men left. As Colonel Hinks walked along the regimental front, he turned to George Mace, of Company C, who was the humorist [96] of the command, and said: ‘We are not going to be killed this time, are we, Mace?’

‘No sir,’ said Mace, ‘the bullet is not made for us yet.’

Almost immediately a body of men suddenly appeared in the woods and fired upon the Nineteenth. Poor Mace was shot through the heart; Colonel Hinks received a bullet through the upper portion of the right thigh and also a severe contusion of the left ankle. Major Howe, who was standing by the side of Colonel Hinks, fell mortally wounded. As Major Howe fell, realizing that his wound was mortal, he said to the soldier who caught him: ‘Tell mother I died a brave man.’

Corporal Peter O'Rourke, of Company E, who was carrying the state flag, fell wounded and called to Corporal Henry K. Martin of his company to ‘Come and take the colors.’

One of the incidents of this engagement was the action of Private Robert W. Putnam,1 of Company F. He was in the front line and was badly wounded in the left side and shoulder. With the assistance of comrades, he was seated upon a stump, from which he waved the others forward, his cap swinging from the tip of his bayonet. Putnam was taken by the enemy, and, after a march of seven miles, was placed in Libby Prison, where he died on July 13th, 1862, and was buried in an unknown grave.

In his report of the operations of the Nineteenth regiment at Glendale on this day, June 30, Capt. Edmund Rice, then the ranking officer said:

We marched toward the field of action, coming upon it on the double-quick and under fire, the action at its height as we came into position. We were soon ordered forward into the woods, cautioned that a line of our men were in front of us, and we were not to fire. We had advanced about fifty yards, when a heavy volley was fired into our line, supposed by us to be fired by our first line and seeming, through it, to take effect on us. We advanced still farther, under a continuous fire; when suddenly two regiments of the enemy rose from the ground [97] at a distance of only a few yards and poured a volley upon us, at so short a range that our men's faces were, in some instances, singed with the flash of the enemy's muskets, and, on the right of the regiment, our men crossed bayonets with the enemy. Under these circumstances our men did all that men could do, firing upon the heavy masses of the enemy unceasingly. Some portions of our line had already given away, unable to stand the withering fire of the enemy; when the entire line was ordered to fall back, and the regiment retired, firing as it went. The regiment was speedily reformed on the outskirts of the woods, and ordered to lie down; the field officers remaining standing, and watching the movements of the enemy........

Soon after sunset, troops were moving in the woods, from whom we received a heavy fire, under which Colonel Hinks and Major Howe fell, the latter mortally wounded. Our men arose, gave one volley, in return and then broke retiring but a short distance, when they were reformed, where we remained until ordered to return late in the evening.

By the fall of Colonel Hinks and Major Howe, and wounding of Captain Wass, the command devolved upon me until relieved by Lieut. Col. Devereux on the night of July 11th.

The officers, without exception, behaved most gallantly, leading their men into the thickest of the fight, their faces almost at the muzzles of the enemy's guns, with the coolness and self possession of veterans.

The honorable wounds received by Colonel Hinks are, in themselves, a eulogy of his courage and patriotism in his country's call, and earnest solicitude for the welfare of his officers and men.

In honor of the memory of our young, but courageous major, Howe, let the words dropped from his lips after receiving his mortal wound be the highest praise which can be spoken of a true patriot: ‘Let me die here on the field: 'tis more glorious to die on the field of battle.’

Capt. Chas. U. Devereux was wounded while faithfully performing his duties; being prostrate at the time from continued illness, fatigue and exposure. [98]

Lieut. David Lee, of Company E, died faithfully at the post of duty.

Sergeant Major E. M. Newcomb, since promoted, and killed at Fredericksburg, proved to his superior officers that he enlisted for his country's good and from purely patriotic motives.

I am, general,

Your obedient servant,

Edmund Rice, Captain, Nineteenth Mass. Vols., Commanding Regiment.

1 His sacrifice has furnished the inspiration for the erection of an imposing memorial on Mt. Hood, in Melrose, Mass., to the patriot dead of the Civil War who lie in unknown graves.

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