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Chapter 9: under Grant in the Wilderness

  • Regimental organization in May, 1864
  • -- the Wilderness campaign begun May 4 -- Lee's army organization -- the battle of the Wilderness -- the right flank turned -- restored by the 121s -- the woods on fire

When the winter was over and the campaign of 1864 began the regiment was officered as follows:

Colonel Upton commanding the brigade; Lieutenant Colonel Olcott commanding the regiment; Major, H. M. Galpin; Surgeon, John O. Slocum; Asst. Surgeon, D. M. Holt; Adjutant, F. M. Morse, serving as Aide-de-Camp to Colonel Upton; Quartermaster, Theo. Sternberg.

Company A. Captain Jonathan Burrell, First Lieutenant Wm. H. Tucker, Second Lieutenant Samuel B. Kelley.

Company B. Captain M. R. Casler, First Lieutenant Thomas C. Adams, commanding in the absence of Captain Casler, wounded.

Company C. Captain Lansing B. Paine, Second Lieutenant George W. Quackenbush, on special duty with Ambulance Corps.

Company D. Captain John D. Fish, A. A. Gen. on Brigade Staff, First Lieutenant Daniel D. Jackson, commanding company.

Company E. Captain James W. Cronkite, Second Lieutenant James W. Johnston.

Company F. Captain A. M. Tyler, on Division Staff, First Lieutenant Silas E. Pierce, commanding company.

Company G. Captain Frank Gorton.

Company H. Captain Charles A. Butts, Second Lieutenant H. C. VanScoy.

Company I. Captain John S. Kidder, First Lieutenant Frank W. Foote.

Company K. Captain John D. P. Douw, First [116] Lieutenant Lewis C. Bartlett on Brigade Staff, Second Lieutenant Sheldon J. Redway.

The many vacancies among commissioned officers were fully compensated by the character and efficiency of the non-commissioned officers, who in the coming campaign were destined and proved capable of upholding the honor and reputation of the regiment.

The 6th Corps as reorganized, under the command of General Sedgwick consisted of three divisions. But in the breaking up of the 3d Corps, the regiments received from it were made the 3d Division of the corps, and the brigades of the old 3d Division were transferred to the 1st and 2d Divisions. The brigade transferred to the 1st Division was commanded by General Shaler. When orders came late in April that all unnecessary baggage should be transferred to Washington, every one knew that the anticipated movement would soon begin. On the 4th of May, reveille was sounded at 3 o'clock and an hour later the march began from the camp over the Hazel River on a pontoon bridge and pushing rapidly towards Germania Ford, where the Rapidan was crossed in the afternoon and the corps went into camp about two miles beyond. The next day the advance continued on the Old Wilderness road, and the 2d Brigade was thrown out on the right flank on a road leading to Mine Run to protect the troops from a flank attack while passing that point. The 5th Corps was in the advance and soon came in contact with the Confederate army posted in a dense thicket of second growth timber. General Lee had divined the intention of General Grant to pass his right flank and had disposed his army to thwart the effort. His army as usual consisted of three corps commanded respectively by Generals Longstreet, A. P. Hill and Ewell. The [117] 5th Corps had struck the middle corps, A. P. Hill's, and was checked by its stubborn fighting. The 6th Corps came up and formed on the right of the 5th, thus coming into opposition to General Ewell's corps, and the 2d Corps passing on to the left of the 5th, faced Longstreet's corps. The new 3d Division of the 6th Corps was on the extreme right of the Union line of battle. The severest of the fighting on that day was by the 5th and 2d Corps until nearly sundown, when a brigade of Ewell's corps struck the right flank of the 6th, and caused considerable loss and more disorder. General Gordon in his reminiscence of the Civil War states that he was in command of the brigade which made this charge, and tells the circumstances under which it was made so successfully.

Early on the morning of the 5th of May he was informed by his scouts that the right of the 6th Corps was exposed to attack without a picket, vidette or skirmisher to give warning of danger. He doubted the statement until he had made a personal investigation. Working his way through the bushes, until in full sight of the Union line, he found it to be true and immediately disposed his brigade, which extended two regiments beyond the right of the 6th Corps, so as to attack both on front and flank. It was just such an opportunity as Stonewall Jackson created, and took advantage of at Chancellorsville. Gordon had his disposition all made for attack by 9 in the forenoon, and urged General Early who commanded the division to let him make it. But Early refused on the ground that he was sure General Burnside with the 9th Corps was close at hand and the attack would be disastrous. It was not till towards evening that General Lee came to that part of the line, and hearing General Gordon's report, ordered the attack. Gordon states that the result would [118] have been more disastrous to the Union troops if there had been a little longer daylight — that he had to stop the advance because the flanking regiments in the darkness came under the fire of those attacking in front. He, with an orderly, rode into the confused mass of the Union troops and heard officers calling to their men to rally on certain points. He was discovered and fired upon but escaped by throwing himself by the side of his horse and galloping away. His orderly also escaped.

The part which the 121st took in this affair was brief. At the outbreak of the firing General Upton had faced the brigade to the right, when Colonel Duffy of the Division Staff rode up, and called for a regiment to go with him. The 121st was ordered to follow him, and he led it so rapidly that it became scattered in the thicket and a portion of it ran squarely into the ranks of the enemy. One of the party, Baldwin, told the writer that in turning to escape, his foot struck a root and he fell flat upon the ground. He had presence of mind to lie perfectly still, and a Rebel passing kicked him saying, “He's done for,” and passed on. But very soon the Reb and his companions came running back, and Baldwin escaped unhurt.

During this scattered condition of the regiment a squad of five or six of Company D suddenly came face to face with about the same number of Confederates. The nearest of them were only about three or four yards away before they were seen by our men through the thick underbrush. Both squads halted when they discovered each other. Then the foremost of the Rebs deliberately dropped the butt of his gun to the ground and said, “Surrender, Yanks! We promise to treat you well. There is no use of resisting for there is a full line of battle just back of us.” The Second [119] Sergeant of the company happened to be in the squad, but made no reply, also J. H. Smith then ranking as Fourth Sergeant who promptly said, “Don't surrender, boys,” and at once fired upon a Confederate who stood a little to the rear of their spokesman in a threatening attitude. This action resulted in the surrender of three of the Rebs who were taken to the rear by Frank Piper and another comrade. The others “retreated.”

Before the attack was checked, however, the headquarters of General Sedgwick had been nearly reached. It is related that an officer rode excitedly to General Grant and told him that the 6th Corps had been cut to pieces and routed. His reply was a quiet, “I don't believe it” ; but afterwards when he first saw General Wright he greeted him with the exclamation, “Why, I heard that you had gone to Richmond.” After the fighting ceased Colonel Upton collected the scattered members of the 121st and re-formed the brigade.

When this attack began the 121st was engaged in throwing up earthworks and the arms of half the regiment were stacked while the men worked. The other half stood under arms. When the alarm was given, the men at work were ordered in line, but before they could get to and seize their guns, the armed men were rushed to the scene of action. Colonel Olcott attempted to prevent this division of the regiment and did all he could to keep it together. Arriving at the point of danger, he faced the left companies to the front and rode to the right to get the right companies into line. But he was shot from his horse, a bullet striking him in the head, and was taken prisoner while unconscious. Captain Paine of Company C and Captain Kelley of Company A in their effort to rally their men were made prisoners. Having rallied [120] on their colors, and being re-formed by Colonel Upton, the regiment charged the enemy and retook part of the earthworks. They held them till withdrawn, and formed on the right flank of the corps to prevent any farther advance of the enemy on the right and rear. About 10 o'clock the order came to move to the left, and the morning found the brigade in the vicinity of the Wilderness Tavern, where rifle pits were immediately constructed.

To give the human touch to this day's affair, the experience of Colonel Beckwith will suffice.

Soon after daylight on May 4, we were in line and marching toward the enemy having the advance of the corps. The 5th Corps was ahead of us. Soon after we started, picket firing and skirmishing told that the enemy had been found. We moved along very slowly and off to the left of the road for some distance until toward noon, when the sound of the firing told that large numbers of the infantry were engaged. We then marched in column of fours, the regiments being far enough apart so that we could swing into line of battle rapidly at the word of command. The 95th Penn., our extreme left regiment, struck the enemy in the thicket and Colonel Carroll who was leading, and some distance in front of his men, received their fire and was instantly killed. A portion of his regiment swung into line and charged, capturing twenty-five or thirty of the enemy. They also secured a good position and connected our corps with the right of the 5th, but the ground held was some distance in front of the 5th Corps' line. They had fought over this ground, and a good many wounded were scattered through the woods and thickets, which were on fire in front and on both sides of us. Many wounded on both sides must have perished in the flames, as partially [121] burned bodies were seen scattered about on the burned-over ground. The balance of our division was formed on our right, and by night our lines were formed. We lay in line of battle upon our arms, and shortly after dark when the firing slackened, the cries of the wounded between the lines, which were not far apart, was something terrible to hear. Some prayed, some cursed, some cried and some asked to be killed and put out of their misery.

We had notice to have our breakfast and be ready to attack at daylight the next morning. I unpacked my knapsack and took out what was absolutely necessary. I took off my shirt to put on a clean one, and just as I was putting it on a volley ran down the Rebel line and I thought they were about to charge. Well I hustled all I could to get that shirt on, but it seemed to stick over my head and shoulders and I was in a predicament. The men fell in but the enemy did not advance and in a little time I was dressed and ready for them.

I made my belongings into a roll and wore it across my body. In addition to being easier to carry, it afforded some protection, because a bullet would not have much force after passing through it. We were up and ready for business in the morning, but the order to advance did not come, and all day long the skirmishers and sharpshooters had their innings, and quite a number of men were hit, one of whom I remember was Michael Fitzjames, whose hand was badly torn by a bullet, causing him excruciating pain. Just before dark heavy firing to our right indicated trouble over there, and in a very short time, Colonel Duffy rode up and ordered us to move to the right and restore our lines, which had been broken. The firing in that direction was pretty well maintained, showing [122] that the enemy was meeting with steady resistance. Colonel Olcott was at the head of the regiment and we hurried along moving by the right flank in column of fours. I do not know how far we went, but it was not a great distance when we came in contact with the enemy. They seemed to be coming from the direction in which we were going. I thought there were some of our troops in front of us, but instead we ran slam bang into the enemy. They ran over some of our fellows, and I fired into them. A bunch of them ordered us to surrender and fired a volley into us, which hit a number among whom were Dennis A Dewey, John H. Reynolds, and Wm. MacElroy. They immediately advanced and ordered us to surrender and go to their rear. There was a general scattering. Some of our fellows stopped to take care of the wounded, and it seemed to me that some more of our fellows were coming up behind. The Rebels seemed to be in a hurry to get back and hurried us up. It was now quite dusky and you could not tell a man's uniform a little ways off. I ran a short distance in the direction the Rebs wanted me to go, expecting every instant a volley from one of our regiments. Finally some one, a Rebel officer I suppose, said, “Throw down that gun.” I had it in my hands and dropped it. I went only a little distance farther and threw myself down on my face. I expected to be punched every instant, but the balls were flying pretty thick, and it being near dark I was unnoticed. As soon as I thought it safe I jumped up, went and picked up my gun, and started right back the way I came, until I saw some of our men going to the rear; and following in that direction a few moments, I came to the edge of the woods and saw Goodman of our company leading Colonel Olcott's horse, and a Company G man told me [123] that the colonel was shot in the head, and a prisoner. As I came out of the woods a little way, I saw a line of battle was formed and the men as they came up joined it. I loaded my gun which I had fired only once during the affair. The men I had seen as I came back must have been Rebs hurrying to their lines. In this affair Matteson, Proctor, Tieny, Young, Conklin and Beals were taken prisoners, and were sent to Andersonville. They were not exchanged for months and did not return to the regiment until after Lee's surrender. Shortly after we had formed in the field by the batteries, we were moved back into a line of entrenchments. About 10 o'clock the same night we marched back to the road, and following it some distance to the rear, moved off it again and went into line of battle near Wilderness Tavern, and threw up entrenchments. The same morning we marched to Piney Branch Church, and were given time to get breakfast. Here it was found that something like a hundred of our regiment were missing, and one-half of them were dead or wounded. Quite a number of the missing turned up that day and the next. I thanked my stars that I had escaped from capture, and pitied the fellows who were caught, especially Dewey and Reynolds, whom I knew to be wounded.

The responsibility for the exposure of the right of the 6th Corps on this occasion, without scout, picket or vidette was never ascertained. Probably it was never investigated for the guilty officer was probably among the killed or captured. It was one of the usual misfortunes of the 3d Corps following it into the 6th. But it is certain that it was never repeated, and the like had never occurred before.

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