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4th Vermont Infantry
Robert J. Coffey
LAMOILLE NEWSDEALER: FEBUARY 28, 1862
CAMP GRIFFIN, VA.
FEBRUARY 19, 1862
DEAR FRIEND: --- We are feeling happy, and are rejoicing over the success that a part of our army and navy has achieved for its country, and for all the crushing effects that it will have upon the rebels. But at the same time we are uneasy and impatient to be let loose and "at-em" that we may win for us a share of the honor and laurels that our fellow soldiers have won for themselves in the late engagements at Roanoke, Fort Donelson and Henry. But at the same time it would be as much of an impossibility for an army to move or make an advance as could be imagined, almost for the last three weeks it has rained and snowed, thawed, and froze, and thawed again, making it the worst roads that you probably ever saw., in fact the mud is some six or eight inches deeper than I ever saw it before. We have had no snow that has laid over two days, and then not more than three or four inches in depth.
During this time it has of course been impossible for us to drill, except at target shooting, on some dry hill or knoll; the rest of the time is spent in and about what we can invent, to pass of the time; some in visiting their friends in other Regts. Or anything conceivable.
Courtesy of Deanna French.
The 4th in the Battle of Antietam
THE “Freeman” publishes the following from Robert Coffey, who is a sergeant in Co. K, 4th reg, dated near Harpers Ferry, Sept. 29th:--
My regiment you probably have seen has covered itself with honor by its splendid bayonet charge and conduct in the battle of Buckhartsville. We were the only one of the Vermont Regiments that was in the battle. We were sent to turn the left flank of the enemy, which was posted at the foot of a high and steep hill, and covered by a stone wall. By the bayonet charge we drove them from behind the wall, where we captured part of the regiment. After we got to the top of the hill we were ordered to move to the left and take a battery of artillery, if possible, which was on the top of the hill, about a mile from where we gained the top. My company was sent in advance and was deployed across the top of the hill to protect the rest of the regiment. (This is always done when one body of troops are advancing on another, to protect them from being suddenly surprised) It was now near sundown, and we had not gone far before it was quite dark. I was in command of six men that were advancing on the left when suddenly we discovered a body of men just in front of us, but as we could not make out who they were we again advanced. Suddenly a man called out “Don’t shoot, we surrender.” Who are you? Was the question. “A part of the 16th Virginia regiment.” We told them to come forward without arms; they threw them down and came forward to us. After getting them together we found that Company K had taken one Major, two Lieuts., and forty-five non commissioned officers and privates, and the flag belonging to the regiment. After sending our prisoners to the rear, we again advanced, and at eleven o’clock we found where the battery was planted during the day, but had been got off before we got there, except one brass gun, which was captured at the foot of the hill. We then turned back and went to our regiment, which we found between twelve and one o’clock, and layed down on the rocky hill to rest. We lost two men killed, and thirteen wounded. My company had two wounded
In the last battle we were not in the fight, as we had to march eight eight miles after the battle commenced, and when we got there the day was ours. We immediately went to the front to relieve a Division that was in the battle, where we lay forty-eight hours in battle line, eating nothing that was cooked by fire during that time--indeed, nothing but hard bread and raw pork. In the front of where we lay was the hardest fighting during the day, and the sight was awful.
The 4th Regiment At Fredericksburgh
We are permitted to copy the following from a private letter, written by Robert Coffee, a member of the 4th Reg., and formerly of Morristown. -----
Friday, about noon, we crossed the Rappahannock, some two miles below the city of Fredersburgh. After dark we got orders to relieve the 6th Vt., which has been out a formed a picket line, and been skirmishing all day. At 1 o’clock my company went on post. We had our picket line within twenty rods of the rebels, during the night. At 8 o’clock we were relieved and went back to the reserve, and went to getting us some breakfast. After we had just got fairly at it, a rebel battery began to shell our side, and advance a strong line of skirmishers. “Fall In,” was the word given, and away went the breakfast, not into our hungry bodies, but into the mud, and away we went on a double-quick, out to support our men. Our artillery silenced the enemies, and we drove back the skirmishers. We now got into a ditch most full of water, to protect us from the rebel sharpshooters, in the wood in our front. We laid here until 1 o’clock, when we saw our men forming on our left, in line of battle, to attack the enemy, concealed in the woods. Our men attacked that position with a column six lines of battle deep. (meaning by this that they were in six lines, one behind the other., within ten or twelve rods of each other) and before that our men gained those woods the first four lines were completely cut down, loosing quite a third of the men they had advanced with. The other two lines succeeded in reaching and advancing into the woods some thirty rods, driving the rebels out of two lines of entrenchments. They now supposed that they had won the battle, when, suddenly, they were attacked on their left by an overwhelming force, which succeeded in driving back our men behind our batteries.
Now for the part that the 4th played; but before I attempt to describe it, let me try and describe to you the situation. The range of hills in the rear of Fredericksburg is from 100 to 300 feet in height, and protected by many batteries and earthworks. The artillery completely commanded the field where the 4th Vermont was. --- The field was held by the 4th and three batteries --- the rest of the division lying back towards the river, behind some ridges, which gave them some little protection, but were a good deal exposed to shell. You now, perhaps, have some little idea of our position. As their artillery commanded the field which we were holding the attack had to be made on the left, out of range of their guns on the hill, on the right. If a larger force than a skirmish line had come out on the right in rear of the 4th, they would have drawn the fire of the artillery on the right. But a single regiment deployed as skirmishers gave but a small mark to open up on, consequently it did not draw their fire. Well, when our men advanced into the woods a rebel battery came out to give our men a raking cross fire, and with it came a large regiment of infantry. The fire from these would have been awful for it would have mowed down our men, as they were so largely massed in so close a place.
Before us was what we ought to do, and must do, and that was to drive back the battery and infantry, before they opened on our men. To do it, we must advance right up in the face of those guns that would pour death and destruction into our ranks. The order, FORWARD”, was given and not a man was seen to shrink. Steadily on we pressed, to within three-hundred yards of the battery, which now had got into position and the mouths of the cannon were facing us. OH! There comes the smoke from the cannon and the grape and canister comes cutting through our ranks, doing its work of death. Now we are giving it to them with our rifles. We can see our shots tell, and they falling fast: LOOK! The regiment is breaking and running for the woods! We cheer, and give them another volley and send the men belonging to the battery after them, leaving their guns behind.
Now if we had support we would charge and take the battery. But we have none and cannot have any, as the artillery on the hill would cut them to pieces, so we hold our position, but our men are coming out of the woods on a retreat and we have to fall back with them, in the rear of our batteries. The “Old Fourth” did the work if a brigade, and have got the credit for doing it too. We lost 1 captain and 12 men killed and 53 wounded during engagement. I had a bullet go through the top of my cap, grazing the top of my head just close enough not to draw blood, but cut the hair off about as close as there was any to cut.
Submitted by Deanna French.
See also: Coffey's Medal of Honor citation.
Medal of Honor (Vermont Historical Society)
Biographical Sketch (Vermont Historical Society)
Letter to "Friend Lyman," 24 June 1861.
Photograph from Ed Italo's First Brigade Collection
Postwar correspondence regarding the Soldiers Home in Bennington