previous next

Chapter 10: the tenth of May

  • May 10th assault
  • -- capture of enemy's works -- failure of support -- Orderly withdrawal -- responsibility for failure -- Colonel Olcott wounded and captured -- Upton's promotion to Brig. General. -- the Bloody angle

From the 5th to the 10th of May the regiment, with the brigade, occupied several positions of importance, covering the left wing of the army, and on two occasions came into skirmish action with the enemy, and suffered several casualties. On the 10th of May the regiment formed a part of the first line of an assault on the entrenchments of the enemy, which was brilliantly successful and ought to have resulted in the utter rout of Lee's army.

The account of this sanguinary assault is best begun by quoting Colonel Upton's official report of it:

The point of attack was at an angle near the Scott House, about half a mile from the Spottsylvania road. The enemy's entrenchments were of formidable character, with abatis in front, and surmounted by heavy logs, underneath which were loopholes for musketry. In the re-entrant to the right was a battery, with traverses between the guns. About one hundred yards to the rear was another line of works, partly completed and occupied by another line of battle.

The position was in an open field, about two hundred yards from a piece of woods. A wood road led from my position directly to the point of attack. The ground was looked over by General Russell and myself, and regimental commanders were also required to see it, that they might understand the work before them. The column of attack consisted of twelve regiments formed in [125] four lines of battle, lying down in the piece of wood as soon as formed. The lines were formed from right to left as follows: First line 121st N. Y., 96th Pennsylvania and 5th Maine. Second line: 40th Pennsylvania, 6th Maine and 5th Wisconsin. Third line: 43d N. Y., 77th N. Y. and 119th Pennsylvania. Fourth line: 2d, 5th and 6th Vermont.

Our position was so close that no commands were to be given in getting into position. The pieces of the first line were loaded and capped, those of the others were loaded only. Bayonets were fixed. The 121st N. Y. and 96th Pennsylvania were instructed to turn to the right and charge the battery. The 5th Maine was to wheel to the left and open an enfilading fire upon the enemy. The second line was to halt at the works and engage the front. The third line was to lie down behind the second and await orders. The fourth line was to advance to the edge of the wood and await the issue of the charge. All officers were instructed to repeat the command “Forward” constantly from the commencement of the charge until the works were carried.

At ten minutes before 6, Captain Dalton brought me the order to attack as soon as the column was formed, and stated that the artillery would cease firing at 6 P. M. Twenty minutes elapsed before all preparations were completed, when at the command the line rose, moved noiselessly to the edge of the woods, and then with a wild cheer rushed for the works. Through a terrible front and flank fire the column advanced quickly, and gained the parapet. Here occurred a deadly hand to hand conflict. The enemy sitting in their pits, with pieces loaded, and bayonets fixed, ready to impale those who should leap over, absolutely refused to yield the ground. The first of our men who tried to surmount the works fell pierced through [126] the head by musket balls. Others seeing the fate of their comrades, held their pieces at arm's length and fired downwards, while others, poising theirs vertically, hurled them down upon the enemy, pinning them to the ground. The struggle lasted but a few seconds. Numbers prevailed, and, like a resistless wave, the columns poured over the works, quickly putting hors de combat those who resisted, and sending to the rear those who surrendered. Pressing forward and expanding to the right and left, the second line of entrenchments and the battery fell into our hands. The column of assault had accomplished its task. The enemy's lines were completely broken, and an opening had been made for the division that was to have supported, but it did not arrive.

Reinforcements arriving to the enemy, our front and both flanks were assailed. The impulsion of the charge being lost, nothing remained but to hold the ground. I accordingly directed the officers to form their men outside the works and open fire, and then rode back over the field to bring forward the Vermonters in the fourth line, but they had already mingled in the contest and were fighting with a heroism which has ever characterized that elite brigade. The 65th N. Y. had also marched gallantly to the support of their comrades and was fighting stubbornly on the left.

Night had arrived, our position was three-quarters of a mile in advance of the army, and without prospect of support was untenable.

Meeting General Russell at the edge of the wood, he gave me the order to withdraw. I wrote the order and sent it along the line by Captain Gordon of the 121st N. Y., in accordance with which, under cover of darkness the works were evacuated, the regiments returning to their former camps.

Our loss in this assault was about one thousand [127] in killed, wounded and missing. The enemy lost at least one hundred at the first entrenchments, while a much heavier loss was sustained in his efforts to regain them. We captured between a thousand and twelve hundred prisoners and several stands of colors. Captain Burhans of the 43d N. Y. had two stands of colors in his hands, and is supposed to have been killed while coming back from the second line of entrenchments. Many Rebel prisoners were shot by their own men while going to the rear. Our officers and men accomplished all that could be expected of brave men. They went forward with perfect confidence, fought with unflinching courage, and retired only on receipt of a written order, after having expended the ammunition of their dead and wounded comrades.

In this engagement the 121st had one officer and thirty-two men killed and a large number wounded. Captain Butts was wounded in the advance upon the works, and while being assisted to the rear was again hit and instantly killed. Major Galpin, Captains Kidder, Jackson and Cronkite and Lieutenants Foote, Johnson and Tucker were wounded. Lieutenant Foote was wounded while trying to turn the guns of the battery just captured upon the enemy. He fell into the hands of the enemy, and was for a long time supposed to have been killed. Lieut. Jas. W. Johnston, on mounting the parapet, had a bayonet thrust through one of his thighs when raising his sword to strike down the Confederate who had thrust the bayonet through him. The Rebel begged for mercy, was spared, and sent to the rear a prisoner.

The reason given at the time among the soldiers, why the supporting division did not arrive as expected was that the commanding officer was intoxicated. Whether the report was true or not, [128] it is certain that he did drink to excess, for on another occasion he was so under the influence of liquor that an enlisted man slipped up behind him and cut the roll of blankets from his saddle and got away with it. The writer heard the story from the man himself.

Colonel Beckwith's account of this affair, gives the enlisted man's side of it.

About 5 P. M. we moved over the works down into the woods, close up to our skirmishers (the 65th N. Y.), who were keeping up a rapid fire, and formed in line of battle. Regiment after regiment came up and formed in line, we being in the first or front line and the right of the column, the 96th Penn. on our left and the 5th Maine on the left of the 96th. Behind us was the 49th Pennsylvania, behind it the 43d N. Y. and behind it the 2d Vermont. Behind the 5th Maine were in order the 5th Wisconsin, the 119th Pennsylvania and the 6th Vermont. The Rebel rifle pits were about two hundred and fifty yards in front of our skirmish line. They had no skirmishers out, ours having driven them in, but they were firing from their breastworks, on top of which they had logs to protect their heads. Our batteries (one on the right and three in the rear of us) were belching away at them, and they were answering but feebly. Occasionally the hum of a bullet and the screech of a shell gave notice that they were on the qui vive.

As soon as we were formed Colonel Upton, Major Galpin and the Adjutant came along and showed to the officers and men a sketch of just how the Rebel works were located, and we were directed to keep to the right of the road which ran from our line direct to theirs. It was a grass grown farm road leading to the main or Catharpin road, which was the road we wanted to get and hold. We were ordered to fix bayonets, to load [129] and cap our guns and to charge at a right shoulder shift arms. No man was to stop and succor or assist a wounded comrade. We must go as far as possible, and when we broke their line, face to our right, advance and fire lengthwise of their line. Colonel Upton was with our regiment and rode on our right. He instructed us not to fire a shot, cheer or yell, until we struck their works. It was nearly sundown when we were ready to go forward. The day had been bright and it was warm, but the air felt damp, indicating rain. The racket and smoke made by the skirmishers and batteries, made it look hazy about us, and we had to raise our voices to be heard. We waited in suspense for some time. Dorr I. Davenport with whom I tented, said to me, “I feel as though I was going to get hit. If I do, you get my things and send them home.” I said, “I will, and you do the same for me in case I am shot, but keep a stiff upper lip. We may get through all right.” He said, “I dread the first volley, they have so good a shot at us.” Shortly after this the batteries stopped firing, and in a few minutes an officer rode along toward the right as fast as he could, and a moment afterward word was passed along to get ready, then “Fall in,” and then “Forward.” I felt my gorge rise, and my stomach and intestines shrink together in a knot, and a thousand things rushed through my mind. I fully realized the terrible peril I was to encounter (gained from previous experience). I looked about in the faces of the boys around me, and they told the tale of expected death. Pulling my cap down over my eyes, I stepped out, the extreme man on the left of the regiment, except Sergeant Edwards and Adjutant Morse who was on foot. In a few seconds we passed the skirmish line and moved more rapidly, the officers shouting “Forward” and breaking into [130] a run immediately after we got into the field a short distance. As soon as we began to run the men, unmindful of, or forgetting orders, commenced to yell, and in a few steps farther the rifle pits were dotted with puffs of smoke, and men began to fall rapidly and some began to fire at the works, thus losing the chance they had to do something, when they reached the works to protect themselves. I got along all right and there were a number of us in the grass-grown unused road, and several were shot, but I could not tell who, because I was intent upon reaching the works. We were broken up some getting through the slashing and the abatis. By this time the Rebels were beginning to fire the second time, and a rapid but scattering fire ran along the works which we reached in another instant. One of our officers in front of us jumped on the top log and shouted, “Come on, men,” and pitched forward and disappeared, shot. I followed an instant after and the men swarmed upon, and over the works on each side of me. As I got on top some Rebs jumped up from their side and began to run back. Some were lunging at our men with their bayonets and a few had their guns clubbed. Jim Johnston, Oaks and Hassett, were wounded by bayonets. One squad, an officer with them, were backing away from us, the officer firing his revolver at our men. I fired into them, jumped down into the pits and moved out toward them. Just at this time, our second line came up and we received another volley from the line in front of us and the battery fired one charge of cannister. Colonel Upton shouted “Forward” and we all ran towards the battery, passing another line of works, and the men in them passed to our rear as prisoners, or ran away after firing into us. Continuing we ran over the battery taking it and its men prisoners, [131] and on beyond, until there was nothing in our front, except some tents by the roadside and there was no firing upon us for a few moments, of any magnitude. I looked into the ammunition chest of the battery to see if I could find something to put in the vents of the guns to prevent their being fired again in case we had to leave them. There were several of our company there. I remember Jesse Jones and Dorr Davenport, Johnny Woodward, Judson A. Chapin and I think they took the wheels off one of the guns, and I broke off a twig in the vents of two guns, but we were ordered to go to the works and moved to the right. While moving as ordered, some Rebel troops came up and fired a volley into us. We got on the other side of the rifle pits and began firing at them and checked their advance. It was now duskish and it seemed as though the firing on our front and to our right became heavier, and the whistle of balls seemed to come from all directions and was incessant. I said to the man next to me “I guess our men are firing from the first line. We had better go back there. I don't believe our men carried the works on the left.” (We had been told that Mott's division and a division of the Ninth Corps were to charge immediately after us if we carried the works in our front.) He answered “The fire is all from the Rebs.” In a moment a battery opened upon us and we fell back to the first line over which I got and came across some of the regiment. There were also some from the 5th Maine and a number of other regiments. We continued firing. We could now see the flashes of the guns and knew they were coming in on us. A great many of our men were shot in this locality, but I thought the wounded would all have a chance to get back. I knew that we could not stay there. The wounded between us and the Rebs were in [132] terrible plight, and must all have been shot to pieces by the fire from both sides.

Colonel Upton asked for volunteers to make a rush on the Rebel battery, but did not get any. The undertaking looked too desperate. He asked for men from the 121st New York, saying, “Are there none of my old regiment here?” But there were only a few of us there and our cartridges were running low. I do not know how long we remained there firing. It seemed like an hour, but I don't suppose it was. Finally word was passed along to fall back quietly to our skirmish line and back we started. Getting back into the open field, it was covered with dark forms lying on the ground, and many more moving back. I came at once across a group and recognized Tom Parsons of the 5th Maine. He was shot through the wrist, both bones were crushed and he suffered terrible pain. Between him and another man was a wounded captain and Parsons said “For God's sake help us back with him.” Giving the man my gun, I stooped in front of the captain, and catching him by the legs hoisted him as gently as I could upon my back, carried him to the edge of the woods, and under shelter of our skirmish line, and there left him with some of his regiment. I kept on trying to find some of our own fellows.

Reaching the works we started from, I found one of the company. Back of the works a little ways, in the edge of the pines where our men were assembling was the 95th Pennsylvania. Occupying these works less than an hour we began to get some idea of the awful loss we had sustained. I looked around for Davenport, made inquiries, but could get no tidings of him. I went to the brigade hospital, and saw many of our regiment, shot in all shapes, but Dorr was not with them. Just as I was starting back, a Company I man [133] said, “One of your company is lying in the woods just where we started to charge.” I went out to the skirmish line again. There was some firing on the line by the Rebels. There were some wounded men out in the field, as we could tell by their cries and groans, and I went out a little way, passing several dead men, and helped bring in a badly wounded man. Realizing how hopeless it was to find Dorr, I came back, tired out and heartsick. I sat down in the woods, and as I thought of the desolation and misery about me, my feelings overcame me and I cried like a little child. After a time I felt better and went back to camp. I found the men, and talked over the charge for a long time.

On the morning of the 11th we mustered barely a hundred men. Captain Gordon I think was in command of the regiment. We changed our position a little on the 11th and as we glanced along the terribly thinned ranks and upon the shattered staff and tattered colors, we were filled with sorrow for our lost comrades, and deep forebodings for the future. A splendid regiment had been nearly destroyed without adequate results. In but a week's time, since leaving our pleasant camp on Hazel River, pitiless war had destroyed our bravest and best men. The loss of General Sedgwick had been keenly felt. He had ever been a source of pride to us and his calm courage and masterly military skill was an anchor of hope, and an abiding confidence in our ability to whip the foe!

(Here it may be well to tell what the writer knows of the death of General Sedgwick. His brother was on the skirmish line and within a few feet of the general when he was shot, and heard his last words. The sharpshooters of the enemy were firing at the battery, when General Sedgwick came up as he passed the battery he [134] said: “Don't dodge, men. They couldn't hit an ox at this distance.” He stepped forward a few paces, raised his glasses to look and immediately received the fatal shot that ended his brilliant military career, to the loss and sorrow of the men who had served under him.) Colonel Beckwith continues his narrative thus:

The weather too became bad, raining steadily, and increased the wretchedness of our physical and mental condition. I think at this time we were consolidated into a battalion of four companies. Colonel Upton had been made a brigadier general upon the field by General Grant, and a popular and hard won promotion it was; and at this time after years of mature reflection I know of no officer, who ever came within my knowledge, for whom I have a more abiding admiration and respect. He was in my judgment as able a soldier as ever commanded a body of troops, and I never saw an officer under fire who preserved the calmness of demeanor, the utter indifference to danger, the thorough knowledge of the situation, and what was best to do, as did Colonel Upton. Since the war I have had the pleasure on many occasions of meeting the gallant soldier, who was chief of General Wright's staff at the time of this assault at Spottsylvania under General Upton; and the following account of the inception, organization and execution of the battle is from his own lips. It was told me by him recently in answer to some inquiries I had been making of him, why the assaulting column was not better supported after it had carried everything in front and swept the enemy's lines on each of its flanks for some distance. He said,

I'll tell you why. On the 9th of May I rode with General Wright to army headquarters. When we arrived there we found Generals Grant, Meade and several others, and shortly [135] after our arrival General Meade informed General Wright that he had ordered a general attack along the whole line for 4 o'clock on the following day, and ordered him to attack on his front at the same time. But he wanted him to organize a column of assault, consisting of twelve or fifteen picked regiments from the Corps, making the attack at the point which he should select, and point out to him. He would carefully reconnoiter the enemy's line and have an engineer officer locate the most favorable point of attack. General Wright was informed that Burnside's Corps, Mott's division, and a portion of the Fifth Corps would cooperate with him on both his flanks, and to seize any opportunity his success might afford to crush and drive out the enemy in his front. With this order and understanding General Wright rode away to make the necessary arrangements for the attack. He selected General Russell to take general charge of the entire movement, and at his chief of staff's suggestion chose Emory Upton, then colonel of the 121st New York Volunteer Infantry, commanding the Second Brigade of the First Division, to lead the assaulting column. After selecting twelve regiments from different brigades and divisions of the Corps, he ordered his chief of staff to send for Colonel Upton to report to him early in the morning for orders and instructions. Colonel Upton reported promptly and the chief of staff met him, and taking from his pocket the list of regiments selected handed it to Colonel Upton, and said, “Upton what do you think of that for a command?” Colonel Upton took the list, ran his eyes over it and said, “I golly, Mack, that is a splendid command. They are the best men in the army.” He said “Upton you are to lead those men upon the enemy's works this afternoon, and if you do not carry them you are not expected to come back, [136] but if you carry them I am authorized to say that you will get your stars.” Colonel Upton in reply said, “Mack, I will carry those works. If I don't I will not come back.” The staff officer then told him of the troops and batteries that would cooperate with him in the attack, and of the general attack of the whole army. He described how enthusiastic and pleased Colonel Upton was, with the duty assigned him, and also said that he was one of the most enthusiastic soldiers he ever knew. As Colonel Upton rode away he said, “Mack, I'll carry those works. They cannot repulse those regiments.”

After Colonel Upton rode away, I was busy getting batteries into position and moving troops to positions assigned them, and everything in our Corps was going smoothly and as arranged, and all our reports, received from regiment, brigade and division commanders of the Corps, indicated that they were fully alive to the requirements of the occasion, and ready for the duty assigned them. Finally we opened our batteries on the Rebel lines, concentrating a number upon the point of Upton's attack, and I rode out and saw his column moving into position in the woods just in the rear of our skirmish line, which a little while before had driven, by a determined advance, the enemy's skirmishers into their works. Riding back to General Wright I met Colonel Tompkins, chief of the Corps' artillery, and the general instructed him to continue the fire of the batteries till 5 o'clock, which would give Colonel Upton ample time to form his column and prepare for the assault.

At the appointed time the attack began along the entire line and the thunder of the artillery and the crash of musketry was heavy and incessant on our right and left, but Burnside's men had not come up. Telegrams were sent to headquarters, [137] and staff officers dispatched to know the cause of delay, and ascertain where they were, but without success; and like all movements where the field telegraph was used, and written orders given, there was delay in their execution, and precious time was rapidly passing. It had been arranged with Upton that when the batteries stopped firing, he was to attack at once and the time had been set at 5 o'clock. As it was near 5 o'clock, officers were sent to delay the attack and continue the fire of the batteries, delaying as long as possible so that other dispositions could be made. As it became evident that we could not wait longer for them, and orders coming from headquarters to send Upton in, I rode out by prearrangement with Colonel Tompkins, and at a point where I could see him and Colonel Upton, I took out my handkerchief and waved it. Both Upton and Tompkins answered my signal, and rode-one to his batteries and stopped their firing, the other to the head of his column to set it in motion-and in a very little time the crash of the Rebel volleys and the cheers of our men told that the work was under way, and immediately the swarms of Rebels from the captured works rushing to our lines under a heavy fire, told that Upton had succeeded and the works were ours. I immediately galloped to General Wright and reported that Upton had got through and taken a large number of prisoners, and it was telegraphed to headquarters. At the same time General Wright received a dispatch stating that the attack had failed all along the lines. Shortly after, another dispatch was sent to headquarters, saying that Upton had broken the enemy's line, taken his men, works and guns, and asking if we should pile in the men and hold them. As this dispatch was on the way, another was received saying, that, as the attack had failed at [138] other points, you had better withdraw Upton, and the order was given to him to withdraw his men. Shortly after another order was received, saying, “Pile in the men and hold the works.” But it was too late as the previous order had been partially executed and the opportunity lost, which would have resulted in our holding the works, forcing the enemy to fall back to a new line, and made unnecessary the assault of the 12th (two days later), and its terrific struggle and losses, without compensating results. Upton's formation, arrangement and conduct of the assaulting column was superb. There was not a single miscarry in the whole affair. The men behaved with splendid courage and skill, which had made them famous throughout the army. The Rebels fought desperately and were accounted as good as there were in Lee's army.

That night after we had corrected our formation and put our lines in order, for an anticipated counter attack, I met Upton at Corps headquarters, and found him much depressed over the result, of what had promised such a brilliant success, and he ventured the opinion that with a fresh compact body of troops, on each of his flanks, he could have swept the enemy's lines for a great distance each side of where he had broken through. He was also greatly grieved at the great loss his regiment and brigade had suffered. He took a special pride in his regiment, in which he placed unlimited confidence, and believed he could accomplish any undertaking with them. After some further talk he rode away. As I bade him goodnight I said, “Come over in the morning, Upton, I want to see you.”

After he had gone I hunted up a pair of brigadier general's shoulder straps, and wrapping them up carefully, put them in my pocket. I then went [139] to General Wright and said to him, “General, you remember when Colonel Upton was selected to lead the charge it was the understanding that if he took the works he was to win his stars. Now I think he ought to have them.” So with his permission, I telegraphed to General Meade, asking if he would not request the commanding general to promote Colonel Upton to brigadier general. The general responded, “Certainly,” and wired Washington that night and received a reply from the President, that his commission was made out and signed. In the morning when I saw Upton, I said, “Upton, you remember when I told you that you were assigned to lead the charge, and if you succeeded you were to have your stars, and if you did not you were not expected to come back?” He replied, “Yes, I remember.” “Well,” I said, taking the stars from my pocket and unrolling the paper, “Here they are.” He took them in his hand, looked at them, and at me in an inquiring way (as though I was joking), for some seconds. Seeing that he was incredulous or uncertain about my meaning, I repeated to him what had already been done by the president and commanding general of the army, upon hearing which his pleasure and gratification was funny to see. He remarked how proud and glad his men would be to know that their efforts had been so distinguished, and his pale face lighted up with animation, as he went over some of the incidents of the previous night, and he spoke of the desperate work of his men as they reached the enemy's entrenchments. He cut off his eagles and we got some thread and had the stars sewed on his shoulders, and he rode directly to his command to show them his preferment. The next day at the Bloody Angle he showed the stuff he was made of. He would not have been sent in there, but his brigade was in the advance [140] of the Corps, and the emergency was great, as the enemy had rallied, and with fresh troops had driven our men, in some places, away from the captured works. He saw the importance of immediate and rapid action, and double quicked one of his regiments right up and into the danger center, and immediately strengthened it with the rest of his command. There all day long, with bulldog courage and terrible slaughter, he held his ground against all attacks — the whole Corps at one time and another being engaged there. It was a great service he rendered that day, enough to win a field of stars. But Upton was easily the ablest of all the young West Pointers, who were just at that time distinguishing themselves.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Spottsylvania (Virginia, United States) (2)
Hazel River (Virginia, United States) (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
May 10th (4)
May 9th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: