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Chapter 15:

Reams Station.

Aug. 23-25, 1864.

  • By the left flank
  • -- Reams Station -- destroying the Weldon Railroad -- the earthworks -- portentous Omens -- Rebel guns silenced -- the day grows Darker -- Sharpshooters -- heroic horses -- the First charge and repulse -- the Second charge repulsed -- a storm of Rebel shells -- the final charge -- all is lost but honor -- the retreat -- Hancock's bravery -- our losses -- what Hancock says-the losses of the Corps and of the enemy -- what the enemy says.

The expected attack against Warren's left, in anticipation of which we had moved down to our present position, did not take place. One division of the corps was said to be occupied in tearing up the track, one was in the front line, and the third (Barlow's) lay near us ready for any emergency. But in the afternoon of Tuesday, the 23rd, the bands struck up lively strains, and in accordance with precedent orders soon came for us to move. It was about noon that General Hancock ordered the First Division, under command of General Miles (Barlow being absent sick), to proceed to the Weldon Railroad, there to aid in covering the working party, and to assist in destroying the road. This was the movement enlisting our services; so, drawing out of the field we entered the Jerusalem Plank Road, halting at 10 o'clock to bivouac. [308]

‘Come, sergeant, turn out your men!’ was the unwelcome command issued by the chief of the left section to the chief of the Fourth Detachment piece, at 3 o'clock Wednesday morning; and in a half hour the column was again advancing, soon leaving the Plank Road and turning to the west. By daylight we found ourselves in the midst of a country which had not been much desolated by the march of war. Through this we passed cheerily along amid apple-trees laden with fruit, and cornfields whose ears were just ready for roasting. At 8 o'clock we had reached Reams Station, a place on the railroad ten miles south of Petersburg, where the infantry, in pursuance of instructions, went to work destroying the road. This was done after the method pursued by the Rebels on the Orange and Alexandria road in 1863, and so far as we know, the one pursued by the armies on both sides whenever opportunity offered, viz.: by placing the rails across piles of burning ties, where, becoming heated in the middle, they bent of their own weight, thus rendering them temporarily useless.

A map of the battlefield is here inserted. The railroad runs generally north and south. The Halifax road, a thoroughfare which accompanies the railroad southward at close intervals, is at this point not more than eight rods to the east of it. South of the station, perhaps ten rods, the Dinwiddie road, an important highway leading from the Jerusalem Plank Road, crosses the Halifax road and the railroad and disappears in the woods to the westward. This was not the road we came in on, our route, after leaving the plank road, being a less frequented one farther north, that wound about through the woods, finally issuing by Oak Grove Church, a small chapel that stood (and still stands) [309]

Map of Reams Station battlefield, August 25, 1864

[310] [311] in the woods a few rods from the site of the railway station.1

At a point north-easterly from the church, and distant from it less than a fourth of a mile, began a line of works facing westwardly. These ran south-westerly to the railroad, then continuing on the west side, extended parallel with it to the south a quarter of a mile, where, bending to the railroad, they terminated. The right of the line thus described was quite high and strong, with embrasures for artillery, and would well protect the men that might be posted behind them. In these, near where they crossed the track, the Twelfth New York Battery took position.

That part of the line west of the railroad was a mere rifle-pit not more than three feet in height, and of frail structure, being built of fence-rails within, and these were slightly banked with sods and loose earth. Behind this part of the line we were ordered to place our four pieces. Battery B, First Rhode Island Regiment, occupied the extreme left. They were separated from us by a traverse, and had stronger and better constructed works with embrasures, though inferior to those in which the Twelfth New York Battery was located.

Between us and the railroad, a distance of not more than eight rods, the ground rose slightly from the guns. In this open space the limbers took post. The caissons were just across the Halifax road. Having taken the position assigned us, there was nothing to do but enjoy ourselves as we chose, for fatigue duty did not usually pertain to the lot of light artillerymen. A cornfield not far off furnished us a liberal quantity of roasting ears during the day, and some good early apples were brought [312] into camp by the more enterprising foragers. We remember the day as an extremely pleasant one, both in respect of the weather and our enjoyment of the surroundings. It seemed very holiday-like to us as we lounged about the guns, expecting to draw out by night; but the advent of the latter brought no promise of any such procedure, so we spread our blankets, and slept soundly, undisturbed by any hostile sound.

The next day, August 25, was to be less peaceful than its immediate predecessor. During the morning General Hancock rode along the line, issuing orders, and soon the intrenchments were extended from the left of Battery B across the Weldon and Halifax roads, then gradually bending still further to our rear, crossed the Dinwiddie road, and passing through an extensive cornfield of stunted growth, terminated at the edge of the woods not far in rear of the church, thus encompassing us on three sides. This measure seemed to indicate that an attack might be looked for from that quarter. So little expectation had we formed of any severe fighting on this part of the line, that we not only had not adopted our usual precaution of strengthening our position, but had loaned every pick and spade to a regiment requesting their use, and did nothing whatever to improve our frail breastwork. Soon after 9 o'clock skirmishing was heard some distance down the railroad, and a short time afterward also broke out directly in the rear. The first-mentioned was at Malone's Crossing, less than two miles southward from our post.2 [313]

While this skirmishing was in progress a battery opened to our left rear, which we knew from the sound to be one of the enemy's. The right section of-our own was detached to oppose it, and after a lively contest, in a warm position (made more so by the ground which had recently been burned over), it succeeded in silencing the Rebel guns, and returned to its old position victorious.3

Lieut. Granger's bridle-rein was cut by a piece of shell during this little encounter.

About noon, as we were preparing dinner, a crash of small arms broke out in front, and directly our cavalry pickets (First Maine) came dashing furiously back over the Dinwiddie road into the line, raising a great dust, and riding as recklessly as if the whole Rebel army was at their heels. Nevertheless our skirmishers maintained their ground, and we sent a few shells down the road, after which affairs were quieter for a while. But we felt a crisis to be approaching. Our troops seemed to have been concentrated in a small space, and the enemy were drawing their lines closer about us. We spent a part of our leisure in anathematizing the powers that kept us here liable to be gobbled up, when the object of our coming was simply to take part in rendering the railroad still further useless, which object we understood had been accomplished. The idea generally obtained among the men that General Hancock remained of his own volition, expecting a triumph of his arms if attacked, but the subjoined synopsis of his report sets him right in this respect.

At the right of the Battery, where the road to [314] Dinwiddie issued through the line, an opening had been left for the free passage of troops, but at the first hostile shot, a hasty barricade of logs and brush was thrown across it, and afterwards a thin line of infantry was deployed along the works. Soon our skirmishers were forced back and took refuge in our line, whereupon the Rebel skirmishers established themselves in a cornfield not above three hundred yards to our front, from which position they enjoyed a full view of our horses, limbers, and guns, themselves remaining concealed the while. And now our misfortunes begin in good earnest, for they draw bead on both man and beast. Early in the action Captain Sleeper, who is riding slowly along in rear of the guns, utterly regardless of danger, is shot through the arm and soon after departs, leaving the Battery in charge of Lieut. Granger. Then Private John T. Goodwin, a driver on the First piece, falls, shot through the shoulder. He calls loudly for help, and being assisted to arise makes rapidly to the rear. Charles A. Mason, a driver belonging to the Fourth gun, is shot in the top of the head as he lies flat on his face by the side of his horses. For a time he does not move and all think him dead; but afterwards, at intervals, lie utters most pitiful wails of agony. Finding life still persisting tenaciously, two of the gun's crew bring him under cover of the works out of further danger.4 William Foster, driver on the First piece, also received a wound in the head, the bullet ploughing a perfect furrow from front to rear of the scalp.

Meanwhile the enemy have reopened the battery around to our left and rear, evidently firing at our cavalry, as we are not visible to them; but one of [315] their first shots pierces our frail breastwork on the inside,narrowly escaping the head of a cannoneer. This being between two fires is a situation of whose discomforts we had read, but never before experienced them; and although our experience was a brief one, we found no fault with it on that account. But all this time we are not idle. We ply the cornfield in our front, and the woods at our right front, liberally with shells, and a house which stands in the midst of the former we completely riddle, sometimes firing at it by battery, for it and its outbuildings furnish shelter for Rebel skirmishers. One of the buildings took fire from the shells.5

Words fail to convey an adequate idea of the fortitude displayed by our horses. It soon became evident that the enemy intended to capture our guns, and as a first step in that direction to disable all the horses. Standing out in bold relief above the slight earthwork, in teams of six, they were naturally a prominent target for Rebel bullets, and the peculiar dull thud of these, at short intervals, told either that another animal had fallen a victim to the enemy's fire, or, what was frequently the case, that one already hit was further wounded. Some of the horses would fall when struck by the first bullet, lie quiet awhile, then struggle to their feet again to receive additional injuries. Frequently a ball would enter a horse's neck, with the effect only of causing him to shake his head a few times as if pestered by a fly, after which he would stand as quietly as if nothing had happened. I remember seeing one pole-horse shot in the leg—the bone evidently fractured —and go down in a heap, then, all cumbered as he [316] was with harness and limber, he scrambled up and stood on three legs. It was a sad sight to see a single horse left standing, with his five associates lying dead or dying around him, himself the centre of a concentrated fire, until he, too, was laid low. I saw one such struck by seven bulletsere he fell for the last time. Several received as many as five, and it was thought by some that they would average that number apiece. They were certainly very thoroughly riddled, and long before the serious fighting of the day occurred, but two, out of the thirty plainly visible to the enemy, were left standing. These two had been struck, but not vitally, and survived some time longer. This statement does not include the horses on the caissons, many of which also fell. I have called this manifestation of horseflesh fortitude;it deserves rather to be called heroism, and my regard for the horse was by the scenes of that hour kindled into admiration.

This phase of Reams Station battle impressed me so forcibly, that it has outlasted other impressions perhaps more valuable historically, but assuredly not more interesting.

Those cannoneers whose duty it was to carry ammunition, not wishing to run backwards and forwards any more than necessary under so warm a fire, now brought what few rounds remained in the limbers to the shelter of the works. By sitting in the shallow trench under the muzzle of the guns, when not engaged, the breastwork gave us protection from Rebel shot, but when loading and firing we were necessarily exposed. William Rawson; a driver on the first piece, received a bullet between his foot and boot-heel as he lay at his post.

But the afternoon wears on, and everything betokens a tempest yet to burst. The hours are anxious [317] ones to us, and they are made the more so by noting the character of our support. It is the Fourth New York Heavy Artillery. The men scarcely show signs of life, much less of an active interest, as they lie crouched low in the works. Once in a while one does venture a shot, but he elevates his musket over the works, pointing it skyward, as if he saw the enemy approaching from that direction. Said an ex-Confederate, who participated in the fight, ‘Your support didn't kill any of our men. We never saw such queer shooting. They all pointed their guns up into the air and shot far above us.’ We remember suggesting that the Rebels were not winged creatures, but it was wholly lost upon them.

No word reaches us from the commanding general as to just what is expected of us. No orderlies appear with despatches, nor are staff officers to be seen anywhere taking observations. But this is not to be wondered at. To approach our line from the rear is simply a reckless hazard of life, which few dare assume. Thus we remain totally ignorant of what is occurring on other parts of the line.

By and by our ammunition draws low. The caissons cannot come up with more, for every horse not already disabled would be sacrificed in attempting it. The only way to get a supply is for cannoneers to creep along inside the works, and reaching a point less exposed, run the gauntlet to the rear and provide themselves with a few rounds. One man from each piece makes the trip, and returns in safety.

The stillness grows more and more oppressive. We chafe like caged lions, for we feel that the worst is yet to come, and wish, as did Wellington at Waterloo, that ‘either Blucher or night would [318] come’ to relieve us from impending calamity. This calmness, we know, forebodes an attack respecting whose result we are, not unreasonably, fearful, for the line is thin and our support unreliable, and if a determined assault is made the chances are strongly against us. There is no retreat for the artillery—certainly not for Sleeper's Tenth Massachusetts—and we have but a few rounds of ammunition left, not an encouraging outlook, truly. So we watch and wait as the sun slowly sinks. At this stage we are anticipating a new danger. It is that the enemy are preparing to open with artillery. If they do, we must lie behind our frail protection, and take without giving in return. While we thus lie inactive, momentarily expecting the next move of the enemy, not far from 4 o'clock, one of our support, an honorable exception, who has kept a sharp lookout, suddenly exclaims, ‘Look up there on the right!’ There, sure enough, emerging from the woods beyond the Dinwiddie road into the opening that stretched before the intrenchments, between us and the Twelfth New York Battery, are charging lines of Confederates. They come at the double-quick, with flashing bayonets, and ringing out their familiar yell. On the instant we turn our muzzles to the right and give them canister. The New York Battery uses the same.6 Some of our support (?) run to the rear, many lie inert in the ditch, and a few join in repelling the enemy's assault. But even then it is a. warm reception, and ere the hostile lines have fairly reached the works they break, reel, and surge to the rear in confusion, seeking the woods again, and leaving the ground thickly sprinkled with their slain. We set up a shout at their discomfiture, but feel that the worst is not yet over. This proves to [319] be the case, for within fifteen minutes, having been rallied under cover of the pines into which they fled, they are again descried in stronger force than before, .and pressing on solidly, regardless of the fire reopened upon them. At this critical juncture, our heavy artillerymen, unable to honor the draft the situation made on their courage and manhood, started for the rear in large numbers. In our exasperation we call them cowards, with all the choice adjectives prefixed that we can summon from our vocabulary on demand, and this plan not succeeding to our satisfaction, we threaten to turn our guns upon them unless they remain. This stayed the tide, and many who had gone but a few rods came back7 But the enfilading fire of the same two batteries, coupled with the brave stand made by a part of the infantry in their front, again turns the scale, and the enemy flee to cover anew, shattered and baffled, leaving an increased number of their dead behind. Had every man in the Union line done his duty as unflinchingly as the Rebels did theirs (and why should they not have stood even more firmly?) not one-third of the charging party would have left the field.

We now take courage, hoping that they have retired from the contest beaten, and satisfied to give up their object. Not so. In the next few minutes they bring up and plant eight pieces of artillery directly in our front beyond the corn, and open a furious cannonade upon us. The air seems filled with the shrieking shells, with the flash, smoke, and crash of their explosion, and the harsh hurtling of their fragments. It is unquestionably the heaviest [320] artillery fire we have ever endured at close range, but alas! we cannot help ourselves. ‘Truly,’ we thought, ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive.’ Would that we possessed the power of giving abundantly at this moment. Fortunately for us, most of their shooting is a little too high, and damages the extreme left-rear of the line more than it does us.8 Under cover of this fire the Rebel infantry again advance to the assault. They are formed in three solid columns,9 and come as before, at the double-quick, with fixed bayonets, uttering their war-cry louder than ever. Nearer and yet nearer they come. But what can wedo? As we had been unable from lack of ammunition to measure metal with their artillery, so now we have but one round of canister to administer as they cross the field, and keep another—our last—for closer quarters. Our troops have evidently given way, for the enemy have reached the works at a point opposite the church, and swarm over them. It is all over with us now, for, turning down the line, they advance towards us in three columns, one outside, one inside the breastwork, and one along its crest. Our Fourth New York ‘Heavys’ are giving themselves up by scores, and now we stand well-nigh alone confronting the [321] foe.10 But they shall pay dearly for our four Rodmans, of which it is painfully evident we must soon take leave. We have three rounds of canister left. With these the three right guns are loaded,11 and pointed up the line at the heads of advancing columns. They have arrived within ten rods of the right piece, when the lanyard is pulled and a furrow of death is ploughed through one Rebel column. Then the men fall back to the next piece, and though some of our heavy artillerymen interpose their bodies between us and the enemy, in their zeal to surrender themselves, our duty is plain, and the second gun belches forth its messengers of destruction, which do deadly work among our assailants. In like manner Corporal Howes points the Fourth piece at the head of the column inside the works, now not more than eight rods away, and the last shot fired by the artillery on this part of the field has performed its ghastly mission in the cause of Freedom and Union. We have now done our worst, but all is of no avail to stop the advancing hosts, and there remain to us the two alternatives of surrender, or an attempt at flight. We say attemptadvisedly, for the enemy are fast gaining our rear, and in two minutes—yes, one—that hope will be cut off. Our minds are instantly made up, for against the horrors of Rebel prisons on the one hand we have only to balance the chances of being shot while retreating on the other; and although the men that are falling as we pause, demonstrate most forcibly how poor those chances are, we hesitate but for an instant ere choosing the latter alternative, and take our departure, amid the hissing of bullets and the [322] touching invitations of the ‘Johnnies,’ who tell us to ‘come in,’ or they'll shoot us. But we are not quite ready to respond to their appeal for our society, even when coupled with such a compulsory proposition, and make for the bushes in rear of Batlery B, our nearest cover, where we separate, each taking the course that seemed best to him, and no one knowing whether exit from the field was then possible.12 Crossing the Dinwiddie road just far enough east not to be cut off by the victors, I plunge into the cornfield, and finally emerge at the extreme left of our line, where, on account of the changed order of things, the troops are occupying the reverse side of their works. Gen. Gibbon rides along the line, his horse at a walk, himself the picture of despair, as he casts frequent and anxious glances towards our lost position in anticipation of a movement against his division. His men seem completely demoralized. Midway between this position and the grove in which the church stands is Werner's Third New Jersey Battery, which is throwing its shells in great profusion southward into the Rebel lines.

Before leaving the field I made my way up to the right of the line north of the church. Here I saw Gen. Hancock (Heaven preserve him for his distinguished bravery), followed by two or three of his personal staff, riding up to the main breastwork, waving his cap and shouting, ‘Come on! we can beat them yet. Don't leave me for God's sake!’ But not a half-dozen men responded to his appeal. We never felt so strongly moved to follow this matchless leader as at this stage of our disaster.13 [323] But the movement was unanimous to the rear, and when I found but two men ready to respond, and one of them an unarmed artilleryman, I concluded the day was irretrievably lost, and soon afterwards left the field, riding off on a caisson of the Jersey Battery, which had just drawn out. I was in utter ignorance as to whether any one else had escaped until I had reached a point perhaps a half-mile to the rear of the church, where I came upon the Fourth Detachment caisson, drawn up by the side of the road awaiting members of the Company. On or around it were a dozen of the men, by each of whom I was greeted with the utmost warmth as if restored from the dead, and such a greeting did every one receive on his arrival. That was a meeting I shall never forget; for if the writer ever rejoiced to see comrades in arms, it was the small band he met in the dusk of that historic August 25, 1864.

The caisson was detained here until it was thought that all had come in who would be likely to, when we started back to camp. It is of interest to note the condition in which some of the men reported. Lieut. Granger, upon whom devolved the command of the Battery, and who was among the last to leave the field, had his pistol-hilt shattered at his side. Lieut. Adams had the visor to his cap shot away; and Lieut. Smith brought off his wounded horse and a bullet-pierced stirrup. Charles N. Packard, a Number One man, came in with his sponge staff on his shoulder, which, with the instinct of a true soldier, he had clung to on [324] leaving the field, and bore off as a trophy of battle. Several came in in shirt-sleeves, for the day being a warm one, they had taken off their blouses, which when they left they did not stop to don.14

Of our three other caissons, one was exploded by a Rebel shell, a second had its wheels shattered by the same means, and the third had lost all its horses, when the fourth pulled out and escaped at a gallop.

On our way from the field we passed reinforcements from the Ninth Corps, which had arrived too late to be of service, for reasons that will appear in a very full synopsis of Gen. Hancock's report hereinafter. We camped within our lines, near the Williams House, that night, and in the morning followed that lone caisson into camp, a sorrowful procession indeed; and a sad tale we had to tell the thirty odd men whom we here rejoined. On counting up our losses in killed, wounded and missing, we found they amounted to twenty-nine out of nearly seventy men that went into the battle. Of these, twenty were unaccounted for; the fate of the other nine we here present more in detail:

Capt. Sleeper was wounded in the arm, the bullet splintering but not fracturing the bone.

Charles A. Mason, shot in the head, died of his wound on the field where we left him.

George N. Devereux, a driver on the Fourth Detachment caisson, shot through the bowels on the retreat, died two days afterwards in the field hospital. He was formerly a member of the Fifth Massachusetts Infantry, and participated in the battle of Bull Run. [325]

George K. Putnam, Number One man on the—— piece, was wounded in the knee as we were leaving the guns, was taken prisoner and kept a week without having the wound dressed. He was then exchanged, but died at Annapolis, November 21st.

Henry L. Ewell, driver on the——piece, was wounded in the shoulder, and underwent a surgical operation, but pyemia setting in, death resulted in the hospital at Washington, November 2d.

John T. Goodwin and Samuel H. Foster both received flesh wounds, as already stated, from the effects of which they soon recovered and rejoined the Company in a few months.

Benjamin G. Hooper received a flesh wound in the forearm, the bullet first having passed through the breast of his blouse, and through several letters in the breast-pocket.

William H. Starkweather was shot above the hip, the bullet passing in under the backbone. He was a cannoneer on the Second piece, and returned to duty in a few months.

Corp. Burnham C. Clark was struck by a bullet while leaving the field, which passed through his pantaloons, abrading the skin of the thigh.

George W. Stetson was knocked down by a spent shell or part of one, and by this means was captured.

As Aug. 26th wore on without bringing tidings of the other twenty, we were at length forced to believe them killed or captives. A thrilling account of the fortunes of nineteen of them after the loss of the Battery is given by William E. Endicott, one of their number, in the Appendix. Concerning the three whom he mentions as sent to Salisbury, N. C., viz., Timothy G. Redfield, Francis L. Macomber and Charles W. Green, the first was admitted to the [326] hospital in Salisbury, N. C., Feb. 15, 1865, but was later transferred to a hospital in Richmond where he died. Messrs. Green and Macomber had both died previous to the above date.

The following is a correct list of the prisoners from the Battery:

Serg't Adolphus B. Parker, Corp'l Francis M. Howes, Corp'l George A. Smith, Bugler John E. Mugford, privates Lyman W. Adams, James S. Bailey, Jr., John Perry Brown, Thomas Cusick, William E. Endicott, Oscar F. Glidden, Charles W. Green, Richard Martin, Francis L. Macomber, John Millett, William Rawson, Timothy G. Redfield, George W. Stetson, Alvin Thompson and Charles D. Thompson.

James Kay, the twentieth missing, was never heard from.15

The following copious extract from Gen. Hancock's ‘Report of Operations of Second Corps and Cavalry between the 22d and 26th of August, 1864, including the battle of Reams Station, Va.’ is here introduced for the information of surviving participants, who would like to have the questions as to why we remained here so long, and why we were not reinforced, answered satisfactorily, together with other details of this their severest battle. He proceeds to say that after the troops had returned from Deep Bottom,—

‘They were permitted to rest barely long enough to cook breakfast, when the two divisions (First and Second) were ordered to a position near the “Strong House,” from which they were again speedily moved to the vicinity of the “Gurley House,” in rear of [327] Gen. Warren's position, arriving there about 3 o'clock in the afternoon. About noon, Aug. 22d, the First Division, Gen. Miles commanding . . . . . was ordered to move on to the Weldon road to aid in covering the working party, and to assist in the destruction of the road. . . . . The work was prosecuted on the following day without material incident as far as Reams Station.’

The cavalry, however, had had some skirmishing toward Dinwiddie Court House.

Gen. Barlow, who had assumed command of his division during the day, occupied the intrenchments at Reams Station at night. The Second Division, Maj. Gen. Gibbon commanding, moved from the vicinity of the “Aiken House” shortly before dark on the 23d, . . . arriving at the station at an early hour on the morning of the 24th, relieving the First Division from the intrenchments. Gen. Barlow was again obliged to relinquish the command of his division to Gen. Miles, on account of sickness. On being relieved from the intrenchments, the First Division proceeded with the work of destroying the railroad towards Rowanty Creek, my instructions being to destroy the road as far as that if practicable. . . . . . At dark the working party and the division were withdrawn to the intrenchments at Reams.

The next day the Second Division was to continue the work of destruction, but at 11 o'clock that night Hancock was apprised by Gen. Humphreys, Gen. Meade's chief of staff, that large bodies of the enemy were passing south, and cautioned to be on the lookout, to which Gen. Hancock at once replied in substance that it would not be advisable for him then, under the circumstances, to separate his forces. By a further despatch he learned the force thus moving to be estimated at from eight to ten thousand men. Warren, who was also informed of the movement, expressed the opinion that it must be against Hancock.

The order for work on the railroad (the 25th) was postponed until the result of reconnoissances Gregg had been ordered to make was known. Hancock says: [328]

The enemy's cavalry pickets were driven in at two points on the Vaughan road, and no indications of any increase of force developed.

At 6 A. M. (Aug. 25) he telegraphed his postponement of work on the road to Gen. Meade, and his reason for it—the inferiority of his force—until he became satisfied there was no infantry in his front; but after receiving the reports from the squadrons of cavalry he changed his mind and put Gibbon's Division in motion for work on the road. Just at this juncture word came from Col. Spear, who was holding Malone's Bridge Road where it enters the Halifax Road from the west, and at which point work was to be resumed, that the enemy was advancing on him in force. His expulsion from the crossing soon followed. Gibbon now threw out a skirmish line which developed the fact that the enemy's cavalry was supported by infantry.

While the skirmishing was going on here, a part of the enemy's cavalry passed to my left and rear, breaking through Gen. Gregg's picket line then running along the Dinwiddie Road from Reams to the Jerusalem Plank Road. They were speedily driven back by a regiment of cavalry and a small force from Miles' Division. At this juncture it was deemed prudent to recall Gen. Gibbon's Division, and he took post in the intrenchments on the left of the First Division, extending the breastwork to better protect the left and rear. Lt is proper to say here that the defensive position at Reams Station was selected on another occasion by another corps, and was in my judgment very poorly located, the bad location contributing very materially to the subsequent loss of the position and particularly to the loss of the artillery.

Full particulars of what had taken place thus far were sent to Gen. Meade at 10.20 and 11.45 A. M.

These despatches were sent to Gen. Warren's headquarters, a distance of about four miles, from which point they were telegraphed. At about 12 M. the telegraph line was in operation to within about a mile of my headquarters, and subsequent despatches from me were sent by telegraph entirely. . . . [329]

At 12 o'clock the enemy drove in the pickets of the First Division on the Dinwiddie Road, and at about 2 P. M. made a spirited advance against Miles' front, but was speedily repulsed.

A second and more vigorous attack met with a similar fate. About this time Hancock received a despatch from Meade, notifying him that Mott had been ordered to send down all his available force, and stating further that he thought the enemy was about to assume the offensive against him, or was about to interpose between him and Warren, and giving Hancock his option of withdrawing to his old position in rear of Warren, or elsewhere according to his judgment.

To this, at 2.45 P. M., Hancock replied as follows:

Considering that the enemy intends to prevent any further destruction of the railroad, there is no great necessity of my remaining here, but it is more important that I should join Warren; but I do not think, closely engaged as I am at present, I can withdraw safely at this time. I think it will be well to withdraw to-night. Everything looks promising at present, except that being in an enclosed position the enemy is liable to pass between myself and Warren, and I cannot determine the fact; so that Warren had better be watchful until I can make a practicable connection with him. I shall try and keep my cavalry engaged to keep them off the Plank Road.

A few minutes past 4 o'clock Hancock received a despatch from Meade that Wilcox's Division of the Ninth Corps had been ordered to the Plank Road, where the Reams Station road branches off, and expressing the hope that Hancock ‘will be able to give the enemy a good thrashing;’ and further stating that some of Warren's forces are ready for contingencies.

To this, at 4.15 P. M., Hancock replied, deprecating that the division had not been sent down the railroad so as to be in season, and inquiring whether [330] he was to retire from the Station ‘to-night in case we get through safe.’

At 4.30 he sent another despatch, expressing the belief that his right could not be turned, owing to the nature of the country and the time required to do it, but expressing some fears about his left, and stating that he had ordered up Wilcox's Division.

At 4.45 he again telegraphed that the enemy had drawn a line from his left, covering the railroad and the Dinwiddie and Stony Creek roads; that they could be heard chopping, and that the road was still clear between him and Warren. He says:

As soon as I knew that Wilcox's Division had been ordered down the Plank Road, I despatched a staff officer (Capt. Entee) to conduct it up. Arrangements were made as to its disposition. About 5 o'clock, a staff officer from Gen. Mott (Maj. Willian) reported the arrival of seven hundred men of Gen. Mott's Division at the forks of the road where the Reams Station leaves the Plank Road. These troops would have been immediately ordered up, but Maj. Willian stated that before — he could possibly get back with the order Wilcox's Division would have passed, so that nothing would be gained. Orders were therefore given to Col. McAllister, commanding the force, to hold well down the Plank Road in anticipation of any attempt of the enemy's cavalry to pass to our rear. An order was also sent him to arrest all stragglers and form them into regiments.

This order was given by mistake to Gen. Wilcox, who, not observing the address upon it, took it as meant for himself, and acted accordingly. Hancock says:

How much delay was caused by this error is not known, but it is known that the division in any event would not have arrived in time to be of service.

Meanwhile the enemy was preparing his force for a final attack, which was inaugurated about 5 P. M. by a heavy artillery fire, which, while it did little actual damage had its effect in demoralizing a portion of the command exposed to reverse fire, owing to the faulty location of the rifle-pits as before explained. [331] The shelling continued for about fifteen minutes, when it was followed by an assault on Gen. Miles' front opposite that portion held by the Consolidated Brigade and the Fourth Brigade. Just at the time when a few minutes' resistance would have secured the repulse of the enemy, who were thrown into confusion by the severity of the fire they were subjected to and the obstacles to their advance, a part of the line composed of the Seventh, Fifty-second, and Thirty-ninth New York gave way in confusion. At the same time a break occurred on the right of the One Hundred and Twenty-fifth and One Hundred and Twenty-sixth New York.

A small brigade of the Second Division, under command of Lieut. Col. Rugg, which had been previously sent as a reserve to Gen. Miles, was ordered forward at once to fill up the gap. But the brigade could neither be made to go forward nor to fire. Mc-Knight's Battery, under Lieut. Dauchey, Twelfth New York Artillery, was then turned on the opening, doing great execution; but the enemy advanced along the rifle-pits, taking possession of the battery, and turning one gun upon our own troops. On the left of the break in the line was Murphy's Brigade of the Second Division, which was driven back, and two batteries—B, First Rhode Island, Lieut. Perrin, and the Tenth Massachusetts Battery, Capt. Sleeper—fell into the hands of the enemy after having been served with marked gallantry, and losing a very large proportion of officers, men and horses.

I immediately ordered Gen. Gibbon's Division forward to retake the position and guns, but the order was responded to very feebly by his troops, the men falling back to their breastworks on receiving a slight fire. By the loss of this position the remainder of Gen. Gibbon's division was exposed to an attack in reverse and on the flank, and was obliged to occupy the reverse side of the breastwork it had constructed.

Affairs at this juncture were in a critical condition, and but for the bravery and obstinacy of a part of the First Division, and the fine conduct of their commander, Gen. Miles, would have ended still more disastrously. Gen. Miles succeeded in rallying a small force of the Sixty-first New York Volunteers, and forming a line at right angles with the breastworks swept off the enemy, recapturing McKnight's guns, and retook a considerable portion of the line.

Gen. Miles threw about two hundred men across the railroad and towards the enemy's rear, but ,the force was too small to accomplish anything.

The One Hundred and Fifty-second New York is reported to [332] have behaved very badly here, running away without firing more than one or two shots.

An attempt was made to get some of the troops of Gibbon's Division to assist in the operation, but the commanders reported that their men could not be brought up to the advance.

The report goes on to say that Gibbon's troops were now driven by some of the enemy's dismounted cavalry, who, exulting at this easy success, were pressing on, when Gregg's dismounted troopers summarily checked them. Of Gregg's force Hancock speaks in the highest terms, contrasting their steadiness with the despicable conduct shown by some of the infantry.

Werner's Battery, First New Jersey Artillery, rendered efficient service during and after this attack. With the aid of this battery and the troops under Gen. Miles the road running to the Plank Road was held until dark, the enemy being checked in every attempt to advance beyond that part of the line they had captured.

A part of the captured guns was held by the enemy's skirmishers, and Gen. Miles succeeded in recapturing one, drawing it from the field to the woods within our lines. Owing to some failure to make it known that the piece had been recovered, it was unfortunately abandoned when the troops withdrew, making a total of nine guns lost during the action. At this time Gen. Miles and Gen. Gregg offered to retake their breastwork entire, but General Gibbon stated that his men could not retake any of his line. It being necessary to reoccupy the lost works to protect the only communication then open to the rear, and no reinforcements having arrived, the troops were ordered to withdraw at dark, Gen. Miles covering the rear.

The troops went into camp near the ‘Williams House’ about midnight. Hancock resumes:—

Had my troops behaved as well as heretofore I would have been able to defeat the enemy on this occasion. I attribute the bad conduct of some of my troops to their great fatigue, owing to the heavy labors exacted of them, and to their enormous losses (luring the campaign, especially in officers. The lack of the corps in this respect is painfully great, and one hardly to be remedied during active operations. [333]

The Seventh, Fifty-second, and Thirty-ninth N. Y. are largely made up of recruits and substitutes. The first-named regiment, in particular, is entirely new, companies being formed in New York and sent down here, some officers being unable to speak English. The material compares very unfavorably with the veterans absent.

My force at Reams Station consisted of about six thousand arms-bearing men of the infantry, at most, and about two thousand cavalry. . . . The enemy's force is not known to me.

The battery took a total of 58 horses on to the field. Lieut. Granger reports a loss of but 34 of them. This seems, today, inexplicable, for the twenty-four piece-horses and the four horses of chiefs of pieces all went down and with them the bugler's horse a total of 29, about which there is no question. This leaves but five more to be accounted for. It does not seem possible that only five were disabled at the caissons, but as only one caisson escaped, and that with four horses, there are fifteen other caisson horses that must in some way have survived. Just how they got off the field and when, no one has ever informed the historian. Yet it isn't likely that a false report was rendered headquarters and so there the matter must rest.

The official report of this action further shows a loss of two thousand, three hundred sixty-two men of all arms killed, wounded and missing. Of these twenty-two officers and eighty-seven men were killed, sixty officers and four hundred forty-one men were wounded, and ninety-four officers and sixteen hundred fifty-eight men were missing. Had even a thousand of this unusually large percentage of missing, or prisoners, followed Miles' gallant example or stood up in the trenches to repel the assaulting force, as they might easily have done, the story of the fight would have been a more pleasing one.

The figures go to show how large a number ignominiously [334] gave themselves up without attempting to fight, or even retreat; for as success to the enemy was secured by a direct assault in front, every man had the option of fighting and then falling back if compelled to, which an attack on the flank or from the rear would not have allowed; or of basely surrendering without resistance, which it is confidently believed was the status of four-fifths of the men reported as missing.

The loss of the enemy in this battle is put by Gen. A. P. Hill, in his Official Report, at seven hundred and twenty.

This is probably a low estimate. It. seems we were opposed by Hill's Corps and Hampton's Cavalry. Gen. Hancock informed the writer that in a conversation had with Gen. Heth since the war, the latter told him that he had about eighteen thousand men with him, and was surprised to learn the smallness of our force. He further admitted that their losses were very severe in killed and wounded.

Most of the Tenth had lost everything save what they had on; but the consciousness of having stood so manfully at their posts to the last moment, and the knowledge that their determined stand was appreciated by Gen. Hancock and his subordinate field officers, was glory enough to atone for all losses save that of companions in arms. Had the men known the number pitted against them they would have felt even more jubilant.

But now our occupation was gone for a season. We were without guns and had but few horses, so we lay at ease in camp in rear of the army, having no fear of orderlies or their orders, and utterly indifferent to all rumors of impending movements.

Lest it may be thought by the casual reader that the historian has been too partial to his old com- [335]

John D. Billings

[336] [337] mand, let one of the enemy tell the story as he saw it acted. May 10, 1890, the Hon. Charles M. Stedman of Wilmington, N. C., delivered a Memorial Day address on the life and character of Gen. William MacRae. It will be remembered that MacRae's brigade formed a part of the charging body, and incidentally the orator gives a sketch of the battle of Reams Station. Toward the conclusion he says:

‘In truth the Federal infantry did not show the determination which had generally marked the conduct of Hancock's corps. Not so with the Federal artillery. It was fought to the last with unflinching courage. Some minutes before the second assault was made Gen. MacRae had ordered Lieut. W. E. Kyle with the sharpshooters to concentrate his fire upon the Federal batteries. Many men and horses rapidly fell under the deadly fire of these intrepid marksmen. Yet still the artillerists who were left stood by their guns. When MacRae's brigade crossed the embankment a battery which was on his right front as he advanced wheeled to a right angle with its original position and opened a fire of grape and canister at close quarters enfilading the Confederate line. General MacRae immediately ordered this battery to be taken. Although entirely abandoned by its infantry support it continued a rapid fire upon the attacking column until the guns were reached. Some of the gunners even then refused to surrender and were taken by sheer physical force.’ Those were the cannoneers of the Tenth Massachusetts Battery.

The following letters are of interest in this connection although anticipating by some time the dates on which they were issued.

War Department, Washington, December 2d, 1864.
Sir,—You are hereby informed that the President of the United States has appointed you, for gallant services at the batthe [338] of Reams Station, and during the present campaign before Richmond, Va., a Major of Volunteers by brevet, in the service of the United States, to rank as such from the Second day of December, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-four. Should the Senate, at their next session advise and consent thereto, you will be commissioned accordingly.

Immediately on receipt hereof please to communicate to this Department through the Adjutant General of the Army, your acceptance or non-acceptance; and, with your letter of acceptance, return the oath herewith enclosed, properly filled up, subscribed and attested, and report your age, birthplace, and the State of which you were a permanent resident.


E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War. Brevet Major J. Henry Sleeper, U. S. Volunteers, Thro: Comd'g Gen'l Army Potomac.

Headquarters Army of the Potomac, Dec. 6th, 1861.
Sir,—The accompanying appointment has been conferred upon you by the President upon the recommendation of your superior officers and at my request; and it affords me great pleasure to be the medium of transmitting to you this mark of the recognition by the government of the highly meritorious service you have rendered to the country since I have had the honor to command the Army of the Potomac. I am Very Respectfully,

Your Obedient Servant,


Geo. G. Meade, Major General Commanding. To Capt and Bv't Maj. J. Henry Sleeper, Commanding 10th Mass. Battery.

Head Qrs. Artillery Brigade, 2nd Army Corps, Dec. 7th, 1864.
Major,—I herewith transmit to you an appointment as Brevet Major U. S. Vols., conferred upon you by the President upon recommendation of your superior officers.

I desire to express my gratification at your reception of so marked a recognition of your gallant and distinguished services. Very Respectfully,

Your Obed't Serv't,



Morning reports.


Aug. 24. Received notice of transfer to general hospital Aug. 12 of privates J. W. Bailey, W. A. Trefry, M. M. Pierce, James Peach, F. A. Munroe.

Aug. 25. Capt. Sleeper, privates Devereux, Foster, Ewell, Goodwin, O. P. Brown, Starkweather and Ben. G. Hooper wounded; L. W. Adams, Geo. H. Stetson, Wm. Rawson, Geo. K. Putnam, Chas. A. Mason, and——Thompson wounded and missing; Serg't A. B. Parker, Corp. F. M. Howes, Corp. Geo. A. Smith, privates O. W. Glidden, James S. Bailey, Jr., Richard Martin, Thos. Cusick, Timothy G. Redfield, John Millett, John Perry Brown, James Kay, A. W. Green (?), Alvin Thompson, F. L. Macomber, Bugler John T. Mugford and Wm. E. Endicott missing.

1 The station was burned some time previous.

2Aug.25, 1864, 9.20 A. M. Spier's cavalry began to skirmish in front with the enemy (Wade Hampton's cavalry), on Malone's Crossroad. Gibbon's division, Second Corps, immediately moved out to meet enemy's cavalry. Our cavalry forced back to high ground in rear of Smart's house by the time Gibbon's troops had advanced that far.’—Notes from the Diary of a Staff Officer.

3 ‘10.30. The enemy opened on us with one section of artillery. One section of Sleeper's Battery ordered up, which knocked enemy's section out of time in a few rounds.’—Diary of a Staff Officer.

4 He died the next day and was buried in a family lot near Reams.

5 During a visit to the spot made by Comrade William E. Endicott and the writer, in 1869, we were told by one of the inhabitants that there was only one corner of the house in which a person could remain with safety.

6 The Rhode Island Battery was out of range.

7 I now question the wisdom of our procedure, for these men had done and would do no fighting, and by keeping them on the field we but swelled the proportions of the Rebel triumph, for they were all taken prisoners.

8 During the visit to the field already mentioned we found a dead cedar standing between where our two right pieces stood in the action. It was less than six inches in diameter, and showed marks of at least fifteen missiles. From a section of the trunk which we took away with us we extracted five case shot, a piece of a flange of a shell, and two minies.

The ex-Confederate whom we met here (already alluded to,) told us that in shelling the woods to our right front we gave too much elevation, as the majority of our shells passed over them. On going into the woods afterwards, the shell scars still visible on the trees corroborated his statement.

9Cook's and McRae's North Carolina Brigades, under Gen. Heth, and Lane's North Carolina Brigade, of Wilcox's Division, with Pegram's Artillery, composed the assaulting column.’—Lee's Official Report.

10 The loss of this regiment in this action was 13 killed, 32 wounded and 330 missing. Comment is unnecessary.

11 The left was disabled.

12 From the close of our firing to my arrival at the caisson the narrative is personal to myself, but as it involves occurrences of historic interest, I have ventured to insert them here.

13 While the General was making this-effort to rally the troops his horse received a bullet in the neck, from which he fell forward, dismounting the General, and appearing as if dead. Hancock believing him so to be, mounted another horse, but within five minutes the fallen brute arose, shook himself, and was remounted by the General, surviving the war some years.

14 The writer's blouse was left by the side of the gun. It contained nothing valuable but a diary of the campaign from Cold Harbor to Reams, which has been sorely missed in the preparation of the last two or three chapters.

15 The writer was unable to find his name in a book issued by a Rebel surgeon purporting to contain a complete list of the men who died in Rebel prisons. While the volume was doubtless imperfect, it is not improbable that Kay may have lost his life that day, as he was not seen after 10 o'clock A. M.

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