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Chapter 13:

At eleven o'clock on the 26th of November, our corps, having been delayed since sunrise in the midst of the Third Corps camps at Brandy Station (that command having been ordered to precede us), moved with slow and tedious steps toward Jacob's Ford on the Rapidan. The movement was of that peculiarly irritating character which can only be appreciated by those who have experienced the effect of being prodded on through tanglewood, brush, and briar, and then suddenly pulled up standing, hungry, and cold, pushed forward anon, and again checked; have stood wearily in the bleak, wintry wind, longing for exercise that would quicken circulation, then advanced fifty feet to make another dull, chilled halt for minutes that the imagination made hours. This was the routine till eleven P. M. Then through the column rang the cry of ‘Coffee, coffee!’ The forest echoed the shout. It was hungry nature's appeal. The forest furnished the fuel, and during the next quarter of an hour the shadows of the trees were luminous with the glint and gleam of thousands of bonfires, the air was redolent of the mingled odor of commissary coffee and the fumes of dry brushwood. At midnight we crossed the bridge, part pontoon, part poles, and before one o'clock, save the guards, the boys were stretched upon the damp ground, as happily oblivious of the November frost as if in their cabins.

Early on the 27th, the Third Corps resumed the advance, and the Sixth, pursuant of orders on the previous day, was in line of march to follow the Third. Both were to proceed to Robertson's Tavern on the Orange plank road, seven miles from this crossing, southwest. The First, Fifth, and Second Corps, having crossed the river before noon on the 26th, were already in assigned positions, occupying a line that extended east and southeast from and [143] beyond Robinson's Tavern. Now as the Third Corps advanced, picket firing, and an occasional cannonade, told us that this command had found the way obstructed. Indeed, it seems that the leading division of the corps had mistaken the road to the tavern, having borne too far to the west; at any rate, lively skirmishing commenced, in which the corps was employed until the middle of the afternoon. Then the engagement became general. The First and Second Divisions of the Sixth Corps with their artillery were sent to the support of the Third Corps, which was vigorously pressed. The air in the woods was thick with the smoke of battle, and the trees echoed the din of musket shot and cannon peal, as the Sixth moved into the gap between the Second and Third Corps. A dense second growth of timber effectually precluded any view of the operations in the Third or the Second, but it enabled Confederate scouting parties to creep unperceived upon our flanks. Not a shot, however, was fired by us after reaching this position, though the Third Corps repeatedly repulsed determined charges upon its lines.

No demonstration was made in our front. The Second Corps and Gen. Gregg's cavalry were engaged near the tavern. The former drove back, under cover of the woods, a comparatively small force of assailants. Gen. Gregg was equally successful in putting to flight the body of Confederates which he encountered. This plan of Gen. Meade, of crossing the fords of the Rapidan which Gen. Lee had left uncovered, and pushing his force between those of Ewell and Hill, which Lee, relying upon the great natural strength of his position on the west side of Mine Run, had deployed respectively along the Orange, C. H., road and the railroad to Charlottesville for miles, was bold in its conception, and skilfully devised in its details. The First and Fifth Corps, crossing at Culpepper Mine Ford, were to move along the plank road to Parker's Store. The Second, crossing at Germanna, was to march along the wilderness pike to Robinson's Tavern, where the Third and Sixth were to join it. Here was to rest the right of the Federal line.

Gen. Meade might fairly estimate that an early start on the 26th would enable the corps to reach their assigned positions on the noon of the following day. The Sixth Corps was en route at sunrise; it was ordered to follow the Third. Who might be responsible [144] for the delay of that corps, which had not left its camps on our arrival at Brandy Station? It is not our province to determine; nor is any criticism implied upon that gallant command which bore the whole burden of the conflict, with the divisions of Ewell's corps at Locust Grove, and lost 400 brave men. But pursuing the wrong road after leaving the Rapidan, brought the right into collision with Ewell's corps, disastrously conflicting with the plans of Gen. Meade, for it enabled the Confederate commander to fathom the designs of his adversary, and withdraw his outlying corps behind Mine Run. Here he was found on the 28th, occupying probably one of the strongest positions that he ever selected during the war.


During the night of the 27th, we marched to Robinson's Tavern; the air was extremely cold, the mud deep and plastic. With Sunday morning came a pelting November rain, during which brigades, regiments, and batteries were moving from east to west, and from west to east, now exposed to the bullets of Confederate skirmishers, now moving to the rear out of range,—all this incidental to the formation of the Federal line of battle through the wilderness of scraggy wood of the plateau, on the east side of the gulf, through which Mine Run makes its way between marshy banks. The Confederate army on the west side of the gulf extended north and south for six miles, along the crest of a ridge, this position being more or less masked, like that of the Federals, by thickets of second growth.

Saturday night, the 28th of November, was spent by both parties in intrenching and strengthening their respective positions, the exercise being agreeable on account of the severity of the weather. In the morning it was possible to obtain glimpses of parallel and ascending lines of earthworks on the western side of the gulf.

Arrangements for the assault seemed not yet to be perfected. Sunday afternoon we moved from our position in the centre to one which confronted the enemy's left. We marched three miles through the pines and scrub oaks, and finally took position upon the extreme right of the line. Sunday night found our lines satisfactorily established. Gen. Warren, with his Fifth Corps, supported by two divisions of the Third Corps and the Third Division [145] of the Sixth, held the Union left. Gen. French, with the remainder of the Third, and the Second Corps, the centre; Gen. Sedgwick with his Sixth Corps, the right, and the Third Brigade of the Second Division of our corps, consisting of the Seventh Maine, Forty-third, Forty-ninth, and Seventy-seventh New York, and Sixtyfirst Pennsylvania, was the right of Sedgwick's infantry line, and our company was the right battery of the light artillery of Sedgwick's corps. Our appproach to this place had been carefully concealed, and elevated ground in our front hid us from the view of the enemy, who were within range of our smooth-bores. Silence was enjoined upon the men of our command; it was forbidden to light fires, and that night a majority of the boys of the various corps were in active exercise, that the blood might not congeal in their veins. On Monday morning every Union soldier knew that an assault upon the Confederate position meant a frightful sacrifice of human life, but no man hesitated. The First Massachusetts Battery opened the ball on the extreme right, and soon the thunder of Sedgwick's artillery was heard by the other sections of the Federal line. Nearly an hour had the right been engaged, yet no sound had escaped the left. Gen. Warren had examined the Confederate position in his front, and finding that it had been so strengthened during the night as to render it certain that an attack upon it would result in the useless slaughter of the larger portion of his command, he assumed the responsibility of suspending the attack until Gen. Meade arrived, whose survey of the situation caused him to approve the course of Gen. Warren. We were ordered to cease firing.


Then followed the night retreat of the 2d of December, in the earlier part of which men would leap from their horses to put their numbed feet into the blazing fires along the line of march, and in the latter part were dozing in the saddle, having succumbed to fatigue.

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