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Chapter 37: the Wilderness Campaign.

On May 3 the regiment, Lieut. Col. Edmund Rice, commanding, broke camp at 10 P. M., joined the brigade and marched all night, crossing the Rapidan at Ely's Ford about 9 A. M. of the 4th, and halted for one hour at the South bank; resuming their march, passing over the field of Chancellorsville, and at 5.30 P. M. were thrown out to picket the woods at the right of the plank road, remaining on picket until 4.30 A. M. of the following day, May 5. The march of seven miles through the woods, was continued until 3 P. M., when, having gained the Orange and Port Royal Road, the regiment was advanced to the left of the main road to guard against attack,—firing being heard from the front where General Birney and the Third Division were engaged with Hill and that awful campaign was begun which was not to end until the last day, but one, of the dying year.

The field in which the halt was made was full of low sassafras bushes in which rabbits made their homes and several rabbit hunts were indulged in. After lying in the field for some hours, the regiment was moved to and posted across a road leading from the Brock Road, nearly in front of the Tavern. The din of battle was still heard and seemed to be growing heavier down the Brock Road. In consequence, the division marched back over this road and as they hurried along over the uneven planking the sound of infantry firing showed that some severe fighting was in progress.

An abrupt halt was made and the muskets were loaded. The road at this point was literally paved with overcoats, blankets, and surplus clothing, thrown away by General Birney's Division which had previously gone into the battle.

The Nineteenth moved to near the Plank Road and took up a position behind a fence which had been strengthened into [304] a light breastwork by piling up against it dead wood which was found in abundance in the Wilderness, where the men now lay. Scattering bullets, flying over the road, showed that the enemy was not far away. Before dark a skirmish line was sent out to act as pickets. These pickets moved forward through a perfect tangle of underbrush, vines and brambles, through which the eye could not penetrate a rod in most places in the daytime, and even then the foliage made a screen overhead through which but a few straggling sunbeams found their way; in the night it was not possible to see the comrade at your side. Nothing occurred during the night to annoy either pickets or sleeping troops and on the morrow, May 6, the regiment advanced to relieve the front line of pickets, and forming a strong skirmish line, advanced further and were soon hotly engaged with the rebel skirmishers, who were forced back a mile or so.

The woods were filled with underbrush but there were frequent open spaces and through these, fleeting glimpses of the rebels were obtained, as they darted from tree to tree. The enemy took refuge frequently in the thick chaparral and could not be seen, but would send a persistent fire into the advancing troops, causing them to halt and seek cover behind trees and hillocks.

In the early part of the afternoon the line was drawn back for some distance and then moved by the right flank and halted some rods in front of the breastworks along the Brock Road, at a point near where it joined the Plank Road. Behind these lay troops four or five lines deep, awaiting the coming of the ‘Rebs.’ There was a slight ridge in front of the Nineteenth along which a rebel was occasionally seen skulking. Between the regiment and the road was a thick growth of young trees and bushes, interlaced with vines, a tangled mass-through which a path wound to the road.

At about four o'clock a tremendous fire of infantry broke the stillness far to the right, and immediately came roaring swiftly down the line toward the Nineteenth. Suddenly, as if springing from the ground, there appeared a line of grey along the ridge. Scattering shots were fired at them as they advanced, but all the men were ordered to fall back, (the trumpeter sounding [305] the ‘Assembly’ at the top of the works) to the breastworks and the regiment was quickly reformed on the opposite side, a little to the left of the previous position. The ‘Rebs’ had captured private Thompson, of Company B.

Behind the breastworks the lines of men were awaiting the enemy with muskets loaded, capped and cocked and bayonets fixed. The regiment lost three killed, nine wounded and seventeen missing.

The rebel line did not reach the position taken by the Nineteenth Massachusetts and the men stood in line and fired from the works until the fight was over. The breastwork caught fire and forced the Nineteenth to occupy the one which, fortunately, had been built as a second line on the other side of the road on the previous day. Color Bearer Benjamin Falls, of Company A, received a painful wound in the arm, but pluckily kept his place, declaring that ‘Some fool will get hold of the color and lose it. I guess I'd better stay by.’

Since early morning on the 5th, the regiment had been continuously in line, either marching, skirmishing or awaiting an attack.

The men of Company C had not slept a minute during the time, having been on picket during the night. It was supposed that these men at least, would be allowed to bivouac where they were but shortly after dark Company C was again sent into the woods in front of the breastworks to do picket duty for another night.

The next three days were days of watchfulness and there were many skirmishes. The regiment was constantly on the move. The men became fatigued, and there were many prostrations by the heat, shifting about as they did in the vicinity of Todd's Tavern and Spottsylvania.

At 2.30 P. M. of the 7th the regiment was ordered out on the skirmish line and after advancing about a mile discovered the enemy posted in a dense thicket and immediately became engaged and after fighting all the afternoon, drove them nearly a mile, and at 9 P. M. returned, under orders, to the works, having nine men wounded. Burnside's corps arrived late that afternoon. [306]

Sabbath, May 8th. ‘Our troops were moving toward Spottsylvania Court House. Being out in picket about noon we were drawn in and started after as rear guard. Arriving at Todd's Tavern, we saw a great many of the wounded of the Fifth Corps being brought in, as they had been fighting all the morning. While on the march we had considerable fun at the expense of some stragglers. One of the men cried out ‘Close up and serve your country.’ Another ‘advance in line’ and many more funny jokes were cracked at their expense. The Sixth Corps charged the rebel works near here today and captured them. It has been a very hot day and, as the summer is advancing, I threw away my woolen blanket, not caring to be encumbered with unnecessary articles.’

At 8 A. M. on the 8th the regiment moved with the brigade as the rear guard, the army having passed to the left toward Spottsylvania during the night. At 3 P. M. halted near Todd's Tavern and remained there until 10 A. M. of the following day, when, going back a short distance, formed line of battle in an open field on the edge of a belt of woods where the regiment threw up a defence of rails, but abandoned them later and moved two miles to the right where a line of battle was again formed in an open field in the rear of a rail fence, guarding the flank and rear of the column against sudden attack by way of the Catharpin Road. There was a brisk fire between the skirmishers, which lasted some time.

Here the regiment remained until 4 P. M. and then moved forward, southward, and crossed the Po Creek, halting in line of battle on the crest of a hill on the south side and rested for the night. At daybreak the regiment moved forward and occupied the woods in its front, and lay in line of battle until 10 A. M. It then re-crossed the Po (left in front) and marched to the left one and a half miles and massed for a short time in a dense thicket.

The Nineteenth then advanced into an open field immediately in the rear of the hill, where it lay behind a fence much exposed to the enemy's fire and lost three men (among them Garfield, of Co. K). This field was hemmed in by woods on either side, shutting out the wind and making the heat harder to bear. Rations were issued here, consisting of hard tack, pork and fresh beef. Many broke open the beef bones and used the marrow for butter, spreading it on the crackers and putting a sprinkling of salt in it; not a very healthful dish for a hot day. [307]

At one o'clock the regiment moved at a quick pace from the field, to the right and front, under the enemy's fire and became the front line. The leaves and underbrush were on fire and the men, in order to lie down, had to beat out the flames with their caps. They were immediately engaged with the enemy's sharpshooters, continuing so for two hours and then charge the enemy's works, but were unsuccessful, the fire of the enemy being too terrific. Taking advantage of the slightly projecting crest of a hill, the regiment re-formed and at 6 P. M. charged the breastworks, but were again repulsed with a loss of five killed and 18 wounded.

During the night the regiment threw up works in the first line of battle within 150 yards of the enemy's rifle pits. At 11.45 P. M. of the following day, (11th) the regiment was ordered to abandon its slight works and form with the brigade in a field in the rear. Making its way back through the scrub oak to the road, the regiment reformed and a night march was begun to a position in front of Spottsylvania.

At 3 A. M. a long halt was made and the men were ordered to lie down in line of battle and rest. The night was very dark and a heavy mist had followed the rain. After an hour's rest a faint cheering was heard in the distance which grew louder and louder. ‘Fall in’ was ordered and the march in line through the forest was resumed in silence. The mud was deep, the little streams swollen and the undergrowth thick, but at daylight the regiment found itself in a field at Spottsylvania, in front of a line of Confederate rifle pits.

The fog rolled slowly away and the Division was formed in line of battle, close to the rifle pits. The line extended over a knoll at the left and along the woods on the right. The Nineteenth Massachusetts being the guiding regiment or battalion of direction of the Division, preparatory to the desperate charge of the Confederate position at ‘The Angle’ which General Hancock had decided to attempt. This Angle was afterward called the ‘Bloody Angle.’

When everything was in readiness the men were cautioned to be careful in firing at first as some skirmishers were out in front. Then came the order to move forward. As the line entered the [308] woods, Gen. Webb, commanding the Brigade, stepped to the front and said: ‘Men of the first Brigade, we are ordered to charge the enemy at this point. Keep together as well as you can. If you get broken up, follow the colors of the Nineteenth Massachusetts. I shall go with you. Forward!’—and away went the Brigade as did the rest of the Corps at other points, on the double quick. ‘Cheer, boys, cheer,’ cried Gen. Webb as they rushed on.

Fighting had already been begun by the first Division and the men of the regiment responded lustily, entering the jungle. Moving toward the front for a short distance, they entered the thick woods. The advancing Nineteenth was still cheering and the bullets were raining thick about them. A number fell wounded and among the first was color bearer Benjamin F. Falls, shot through the body. He died on the following day.

In a moment the rebel fortifications were reached, and the Division dashed forward, carried the first line with a rush and Colonel Rice, with a part of the Nineteenth, jumped over the breastworks and then dashed at the second line where some of the enemy were captured. They were taken entirely by surprise, many not having turned out of their blankets. Not being supported and out of ammunition, the Brigade could not hold the position for more than an hour against the support which the enemy brought up and was forced to retire with considerable alacrity. There was no support to hold the first line at this point, and having no ammunition, the Brigade was obliged to relinquish its hold and retire through the woods. While thus retiring, the regiments became much mixed up and were reformed about half a mile from the works which they had reached. They remained in the rear of the Landron house for a few moments, while coffee was made, rations eaten and cartridge boxes re-filled. Then the Nineteenth moved forward with the Brigade and took a position near ‘The Angle,’ in the line composed of the first Division and other troops who had succeeded in holding this portion of the line.

Rain had been falling for some time and was now coming down in torrents. The storm of bullets was, however, almost as thick as the rain drops, as the regiment took its place outside [309] of the works, to the left of where the Brigade had entered them. Settling themselves in the muddy trench, the men began work, loading and firing as rapidly as possible. Some of them were too much exhausted to stand up. These sat down on the edge of the trench and loaded guns for the other men to fire. Two or three were sometimes kept busy loading guns which one man would fire. The smoke hung in a dense cloud all about as the air was too heavy to permit it to rise.

At one time during the fighting at this point Captain J. G. B. Adams struck up the inspiring song, ‘The Battle Cry of Freedom.’ It was taken up by the singers of the Nineteenth and other regiments and made to echo over the hills amid the rattle of musketry.

Once in a while the fire slackened and then broke out with renewed vigor as the rebels endeavored to retake their works. Ammunition and hard bread was brought up by pack mules and opened in the rear of the line, the men helping themselves to each.

The scene was one to be remembered. The ditch which had been dug in throwing up the works was crowded with men from different states, belonging to two or three different corps, soaked with rain, their faces so begrimmed with powder as to be almost unrecognizable; some standing ankle deep in the red mud, firing, while the edge of the ditch was lined with others sitting and loading as fast as possible and munching hard bread, the crumbs of which were scattered around their smutty mouths and besprinkled their beards. The mud in the ditch was so thick and clung to the boots in such heavy masses that it was difficult to move about. The men's right shoulders were thickly plastered with it from the butts of their muskets. There was a battery in action near the Landron house which sent shells over their heads, so near as to keep the men in mortal dread. Soon a relieving line came in and the men fell back. Just then a shell came over, struck and exploded just where they had been standing.

The rebel works were well made; on the inner side traverses were built at short intervals for protection from cross fires,—the spaces between these were called by the men ‘Horse-stalls.’ A dozen or more men could crowd into each space. The point [310] where lay the Nineteenth marked the division between that held by the rebels and that by the Union men. Right in front of the Nineteenth were the ‘Horse-stalls,’ each occupied by a few rebels, the thickness of the breastwork being the distance separating them from the enemy.

From this point the line bent back for some distance in the form of a bow, around the knoll or ridge. To the right was the wood through which the wild charge of the regiment had been made and in which the line extended,—but there was an open space between the Nineteenth and the woods, unoccupied by any line. Several times, the rebels in front raised a white flag and when the men started forward to see what was wanted they were met by a volley which sent them to cover. Once a white flag was hoisted over the breastwork in front of Company C and Edward Fletcher and an orderly sergeant of some company in another Massachusetts regiment, mounted the works and found several rebels on the other side. The sergeant asked them if they wanted to ‘Come in’ and the one nearest him said that they did. ‘Then drop your guns’ said the sergeant, ‘and come over.’ Instead of coming over, he suddenly raised his musket and shot the sergeant through the head. Fletcher instantly shot the treacherous rebel in the head and jumped back among his comrades.

The men of the Nineteenth supposed that when they were relieved they would be withdrawn, but this was not the case. They only fell back a rod or two, re-filled their cartridge boxes and fell in again with the line around the knoll where they kept at work until night closed the battle. Whenever the fire would slacken, the rebels would take advantage of it and try to advance. Their efforts to re-take the works were continuous and persistent and only by constant hammering were they kept down. Hundreds of pounds of lead and iron were thrown by both sides. The bullets lay on the ground like hailstones and the ground was furrowed by solid shot and shell. The bodies of several Union dead lay between the lines on the ridge. They were shot through and through by friend and foe alike, being riddled and torn to shreds by minie balls, their uniforms in rags, looking almost as if they had passed through a shoddy mill; a mangled mass of [311] flesh and cloth they lay, shaking continually as the bullets struck them from either side.

One gun, with limber attached, from either Gillis' U. S. or Brown's R. I. Battery,—a section of each being brought up when the breastworks were carried—lay between the Nineteenth and the woods in line of battle. Two of the horses were killed and the driver had been entangled in the harness and killed. Horses and men were completely riddled by bullets and there was not a place untouched on them the size of a man's hand. Trees, some as large as a man's body, which stood between the lines, were shot off and fell.

Looking back in the light of history, it seems as though this great battle, so successful in many ways, might have been more so had the troops been differently handled. If the First Brigade had gone forward with less noise, more slowly and carefully, keeping a better line until the farther edge of the woods had been reached and then made a dash in a more solid line, the breastworks which were carried by it might have been held until supports came up.

Gen. Walker in his History of the Second Corps, does not mention the part taken by the First Brigade, Second Division, in the charge and by this omission, the reader of his work is led to believe that the Brigade was held in reserve. Owing to the nature of the ground over which the charge was made, and the confusion, and mixing up of the different Brigades, and the mist, he no doubt lost trace of Webb's command for a time.

He says: ‘On the Union side the confusion had become extreme. The long lines formed for the assault had insensibly converged as the salient was reached, and were heaped upon one another. Carroll and Owen's brigades of Gibbon's (the Second) division, which was formed in reserve, had been caught by the wild excitement of the charge, and, dashing forward to the front, struggled even past some of the leading troops (First Division, Second Corps) and entered the Confederate works on Stewart's Line, almost at the same moment with the brigades of Mills and Brooks.’

But, notwithstanding General Walker's omission, the First Brigade went forward, and the commanding officer and a number [312] of the men actually entered the second line of the rebels, the farthest point reached that day.

General Walker further says: ‘This enthusiasm of the charging column was in itself commendable, but, taken in connection with the original dense formation, it had led to an unnecessary and dangerous massing of the troops. Such a body was, for the purpose of the impending collision, scarcely as formidable as would have been a single well-ordered line.’

During the battle in the afternoon, General Hancock visited the line, stopped a while and watched the powderbe-grimmed men shoot at the rebels and eat hardtack, and then rode coolly away among the swift flying bullets, at a walk.

During the battle-so closely were the forces engaged— several color bearers were shot down and half of the Nineteenth were either killed, wounded or captured. Among the latter was Colonel Edmund Rice, in command of the regiment, and in this action the regiment also lost one of its bravest officers, First Lieutenant John J. Ferris, of Boston. He was shot in the head during the charge on the rebel works.

The Corps captured 5,000 prisoners, including Major General Edward Johnson and Brigadier General George H. Stewart, over thirty stands of colors and 18 cannon.

Sergeant Charles B. Brown, of Co. G, bearing the regimental colors, was struck by the fragments of a shell which burst near him. His right leg was taken almost off by the explosion, and his left leg was badly mangled.

Just as the Wilderness Campaign had opened, Sergeant Brown had received from Major General Butler an appointment as First Lieutenant in the General's department, dated April 26, 1864. Without seeking leave or orders to report under that appointment he had put the document in his pocket and entered the hard fighting.

Immediately after being wounded, he drew from his pocket his unused commission as Lieutenant, now stained with his blood, and a likeness of his betrothed, and told his comrades to send these home with the news of his death. He lay upon the battlefield over an hour and then was driven three miles in an ambulance to the field hospital where he died early on the following [313] morning. Two of his brothers, James and Henry, belonged to the same Corps. James was wounded in the same battle and died on the same day with Charles.

Major General E. M. Law (C. S. A.) in his report in The Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, regarding the battle of the Wilderness and the charge of Webb's Brigade, says:

‘The Federals (Webb's Brigade of Hancock's Corps) were advancing through the pines with apparently resistless force, when Gregg's eight hundred Texans, regardless of numbers, flanks or supports, dashed directly upon them. There was a terrific crash, mingled with wild yells, which settled down into a steady roar of musketry. In less than ten minutes one half of that devoted eight hundred men were lying upon the field dead or wounded; but they had delivered a staggering blow and broken the force of the Federal advance. Benning's and Law's brigades came promptly to their support, and the whole swept forward together. The tide was flowing the other way. It ebbed and flowed many times during that day, strewing the Wilderness with human wrecks. Law's brigade captured a line of log breastworks in its front, but had held them only a few moments when their former owners (Webb's Brigade) came back to claim them. The Federals were driven back to a second line several hundred yards beyond, which was also taken. This advanced position was attacked in front and on the right from across the Orange Plank Road, and Law's Alabamians ‘advanced backward’ without standing on the order of their going, until they reached the first line of logs now in their rear. As their friends in blue still insisted on claiming their property and were advancing to take it, they were met by a counter-charge and again driven beyond the second line. This was held against a determined attack, in which the Federal General Wadsworth was shot from his horse as he rode up close to the right of the line on the Plank Road. The position again becoming untenable by reason of the movements of the Federal troops on their right, Law's men retired a second time to the works they had first captured. And so, for more than two hours, the storm of battle swept to and fro, in some places passing several times over the same ground and settling down at length almost where it had begun the day before.’

The men of the Nineteenth Massachusetts regiment captured a large number of prisoners, a Rebel color, and participated in the capture of the cannon and in turning them upon the enemy. The command held the works until dark, under constant fire, and then was ordered to the rear where it rested for the night. On the following day, May 13, it lay in line behind [314] the breastworks, advancing once in a while in line of battle but was not engaged. Skirmish fire continued all day.

The rebel color mentioned herewith was taken by 1st Sergeant Viall, who was badly wounded. He offered it to Col. Rice, who declined to take it and ordered him to go to the rear with it. As he was making his way to the rear, as ordered, he was again wounded and the color was taken from him by a staff officer. Viall died, later, from his wounds.

The 14th was spent in comparative quiet, the regiment being on the skirmish line, however, as usual.

‘May 14, 1864. Having a little time this morning, went forward to the rebel works over which we fought yesterday, and saw a sorrowful sight. The Rebs lay thick, piled upon each other, while the trench in which they stood while in life and health was ankle deep in blood and water. Our men buried them in the graves which they had dug for themselves, i.e., in their trenches.’

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