Vermont Riflemen in the War for the Union
On the 10th of March an order was received from President Lincoln assigning Gen. U.S. Grant to the command of all the armies of the United States, and during the last days of the same month Gen. Grant pitched his headquarters tent at Culpepper Court House, and commenced a study of the situation in Virginia, where the real struggle of the war had been maintained for nearly three years, and where the strength of the Confederacy yet lay. The time, until the 3d of May, was spent in active preparation for the opening of the spring campaign. Sick and disabled men were sent to the rear. All surplus baggage and stores were turned in, and the army, stripped for the fight, stood ready whenever the new commander should sound the advance; for although Gen. Meade was still commander of the Army of the Potomac, every man knew that Gen. Grant was there for the purpose of personally directing its movements. On the 3d of May the sharp shooters broke camp and marched out on that campaign which was destined to be one continual battle for nearly a year to come, and at the end of which was to come the final triumph at Appomattox.
The organization of Co. F at this time was as follows:
Captain, C. D. Merriman; vice E. W. Hindes143
honorably discharged on surgeon's certificate of disability.
First Lieutenant, H. E. Kinsman. First Sergeant Lewis J. Allen. Second Sergeant, Cassius Peck. Third Sergeant, Paul M. Thompson. Fourth Sergeant, L. D. Grover. Fifth Sergeant Edward F. Stevens. First Corporal, Chas. M. Jordan. Second Corporal, Edward Trask. Third Corporal, M. Cunningham. Fourth Corporal, Edward Lyman. Fifth Corporal, D. W. French. Sixth Corporal, Carlos E. Mead. Seventh Corporal, Henry Mattocks. Eighth Corporal, Chas. B. Mead.
With this organization and forty-three enlisted men, the company crossed the Rapidan at Ely's for at nine o'clock A. M. o the 4th of May, 1864. Marching rapidly to the southeast; they bivouacked for the night near Chancellorsville on the identical ground on which they had fought exactly one year before under Hooker. The omen was not a happy one, but with high hopes of success under this new western general who had always beaten his enemies hitherto, they lay down prepared for whatever of good or ill the morrow might bring forth.
Reminders of the conflict of May, 1863, were thickly scattered about on the ground, and some men in the regiment found their hair covered knapsacks where they had thrown them off in the144
heat of the former battle, and which they had been forced to abandoned. They found also the graves of some of their lost comrades, buried where they fell, while in many places human bones shone white and ghastly in the moonlight. It was the very ground over which the sharp shooters had driven the Stonewall brigade on the night of the 3d of may of the preceding year. With the earliest streaking of the eastern sky on the morning of the fifth, the Second Corps, with the sharp shooters in the advance, was put in motion towards Shady Grove church, situated some four or five miles to the southward at the junction of two important roads, and where they were to form the extreme left of the army. Before the head of the column had reached that point heavy firing was heard on the right and rear, and the column was countermarched and ordered to return to the junction of the Brock road with the Orange plank road, which the enemy were making desperate efforts to secure. It was indeed a matter of the utmost importance to maintain possession of the Brock road, since it was the very key to the whole battle ground. Running nearly north and south from the Orange turnpike, near the old Wilderness tavern, it intersects all the roads leading from the direction from which the enemy was approaching, and, as it is the only important, or even passable, road running in that direction, its possession by either army would enable that party to outflank the other almost at pleasure. Getty's Division of the Sixth had been detached from that corps on145
the right some hours before, and ordered to hold this position at all hazards, and it was he sudden attack on this isolated command that had called the Second Corps back from its march towards Shady Grove church.
At about two o'clock P. M. Birney's Division arrived at the threatened point and were at once deployed for action on the Brock road, and to the left, or south, of its intersection, with the plank road. Here the men of Co. F found themselves again shoulder to shoulder with their friends.
The old Vermont brigade formed part of Getty's Division and were already deployed and sharply engaged; so that Co. F found themselves in the immediate neighborhood of the gallant Vermonters. Immediately upon the arrival of the head of the division upon the field, and pending the necessarily slower formation of the mainline, the sharp shooters were pushed out towards the enemy and at once came under a heavy fire. It was their first fight under Hancock, and they felt that not only was their own well earned reputation to be sustained, but that the honor of the now dead and gone Third Corps was in a measure committed to their keeping. There, too, just on their right stood the men of the old brigade, proud of their own glorious record, and just a little inclined to rate their own courage and skill above that of any other troops in the army.
Under the stimulus of these conditions the sharp shooters as a regiment, and the men of Co. F in particular, fought with a dash and energy which146
surprised even their own officers who had learned long before that there was almost no task which the rank and file thought themselves unequaled to. This contest of a skirmish line against lines of battles continued for nearly two hours; but at about four o'clock P. M., the whole of the Second Corps having arrived and being in position, a general advance was ordered, and now the fighting, which had been very severe before, became simply terrific. The ground was such that the artillery could not easily be brought into action. Only two guns could be brought up, which were placed on the plank road where they rendered excellent service. The musketry, however, was continuous and deadly along the whole line. The roar of battle was deafening, and struck upon the ear with a peculiar effect from the almost total absence of artillery, usually so noisy an accompaniment of modern battle. The men who noted this fact, however, were men accustomed to warfare, and who knew that the fire of infantry was much more deadly than that of artillery, and never before had they heard such continuous thunder of confronted such a storm of lead as on this occasion. The fierce struggle continued with unabated ferocity until the merciful night put an end to it. The Brock road was held, but it had been impossible to do more. The enemy were badly shattered, and at points the line had been broken; but the nature of the ground was such as to prevent an orderly and systematic pushing of such advantages as were, here and there, gained, and, except that the key147
points remained in the hands of the federals, it was a drawn battle.
The men lay on their arms during the night, in the position in which the cessation of the battle found them; and, as illustrative of the closeness of the contending lines, and the labyrinthian character of the ground, it may be stated that during the night many men from both armies wile searching for water, or for their wounded friends, strayed within the opposing lines and were made prisoners. Among the above were Sergt. Paul M. Thompson and J. H. Guthrie of Co. F. Besides these two men, Co. F had lost terribly in killed and wounded during the day. Corporal David M. French, W.J. Domag and E. E. Trask were killed on the field; A. C. Cross and Wm. Wilson were mortally wounded, while M. Cunningham, Spafford A. Wright, John C. Page, S. M. Butler and Wm. McKeever suffered severe and painful wounds - a total of twelve men lost out of the forty-three who answered to the roll call on that morning, and this in the first fight of the campaign.
But the survivors felt that they had well and nobly sustained the honor of their corps, and of their state. They were proud, also, to have received the commendation of distinguished officers of the old Vermont Brigade, and so, with mingled emotions of sorrow and gladness, they lay down on the bloody field. It will be remembered that the sharp shooters had been pushed out on the left of the plank road immediately upon their arrival and while the troops of the line were being148
formed on the Brock road. In this formation, Birney's Division had been sent to the north or right of the plank road, and formed on Getty's right; so that during the subsequent battle the sharp shooters had been separated from their brigade, and had been fighting in an entirely independent manner, subject to no orders but those of their regimental and company officers. At daylight the men were rallied on the colors and moved to the north of the plank road I search of their proper command, which, after some search in the tangled forest, they found the shattered remains of. The brigade commander, Gen. Alexander Hays, and very many other gallant officers and men had fallen on the preceding day, and so heavy had been the losses that the entire brigade when deployed, hardly covered the front of an average regiment as they had stood when the army crossed the Rapidan.
Notwithstanding his severe losses of the day before, Gen. Grant (who, by the way, was understood to have expressed the opinion at some time that "The Army of the Potomac had never been fought up to its capacity") ordered another general assault along the whole line at five A. M. on the sixth.
Promptly at that hour the Second Corps advanced along the Orange plank road, the sharp shooters being now on the right of that thoroughfare with their own division. They were, as on the day before, in the front line, but on this occasion they were heavily supported from the start, Birney's and Mott's Divisions being in the first line149
while Getty's Division formed a second line, the whole supported by Carroll's and Owen's brigades of the Second Division of the same corps.
The attack was made with great vigor and impetuosity, and was for a time successful, the enemy being driven with great loss and disorder from two strong lines of works, one about four hundred yards behind the other, which they had materially strengthened during the night. Birney's left, in front of which was Co. F, advanced further than his right, driving the Confederates before them and completely disrupting their line at this point; in fact so far did they penetrate that they were in a position to take the rebel left in flank and rear, and at one time the sharp shooters, during a momentary lull in their own front, turned their attention to a Confederate battery which was actually in rear of their right, and which they had passed beyond in their charge. They were not destined to reap the fruits of this victory, however, for at this time Longstreeet's command arrived on the field and commenced a furious attack on Birney's exposed left. Changing fronts to meet this new enemy, the sharp shooters, with the aid of their comrades of Birney's Division, made a vigorous resistance to this counter attack. The momentum of their own charge was gone; they had now fought their way through nearly a mile of thickets and swamps and had, necessarily, lost their alignment and cohesion. The utmost they could now hope to do was to beat back the oncoming rebels and give the Union troops time to150
reform for another assault. It was a vain effort, for the fresh masses of rebel troops succeeded in forcing the advanced left back as far as the center and right, which was at the same time, about seven o'clock A. M., struck by a strong force of Confederates. By desperate effort the line was held and a reorganization effected, and at about nine o'clock the offensive was resumed along the plank road. The force of this attack was seriously impaired by the supposed necessity of protecting the extreme left which was greatly exposed. For some time heavy firing had been heard in that direction, and ugly rumors of columns of infantry, too strong to be checked by the cavalry, were rife. Then, too, a considerable body of infantry was discovered actually approaching the left and rear from the direction of Spotsylvania. All this necessitated the detachment of considerable bodies of troops to guard that wing, which weakened the force of the main attack. The infantry force which had occasioned so much uneasiness proved to be a body of convalescents trying to rejoin the Union army, and the troops sent to oppose them were restored to the point of action. By this time, in the movement of the lines, the sharp shooters found themselves, with most of the division, again on the left of the plank road. The fighting now became as close and severe as that of the preceding day; so dense and dark was the thicket, that the lines were often close together before either could determine whether the other was friend or foe; regiments151
lost their brigades and brigades their divisions. Indeed, so confused was the melee that it is stated that one regiment, being surrounded and ordered to surrender, actually laid down their arms to another regiment of their own brigade.
Still, progress was made, and, on the whole, the federals, although losing heavily, were gaining substantial ground. After half an hour of this work the troops on the right of Birney's Division having given way, Birney detached two of his own brigade to fill the gap, and at about eleven o'clock the resistance in front of Hancock's Corps having nearly ceased, another halt was called to readjust the confused and irregular lines. Before this could be accomplished a new enemy appeared square on the left of Birney's Division, which was doubled up by the suddenness and impetuosity of the attack, and the confusion became so great along the whole line that Gen. Hancock directed a withdrawal of the entire corps to the breastworks which had been constructed on the Brock road, and from which they had advanced on the day before. It began to look like the same old story - as though the most cheerful bulletin Grant would have to send North would be the often repeated one, "The Army of the Potomac is again safe across the Rapidan."
But there, some way, seemed to be no actual movement looking in that direction - in fact, Grant had ordered the bridges removed as soon as the last troops had crossed the river, and for152
twenty-four hours there had been no possibility of recrossing had any one been so minded. Lines of retreat seemed to have no place in the plans of the new general-in-chief.
The enemy followed the retiring Union troops closely, but once within the breastworks the Second Corps was soon rallied, and, reforming, lay down behind the rude entrenchments to await the signal for renewed action. The Confederates pushed their lines to within two or three hundred yards of the Brock road, but rested at that point until about four o'clock P. M., when they took the offensive in their turn and made a gallant assault on Hancock's command behind the breastworks. This attack was understood to be under the immediate direction of Gen. Lee, who was present and commanded in person.
The rebel line came gallantly forward to within a few yards of the road, when they halted and opened a fierce fire, which was returned by the Union troops from their shelter, coolly and with deadly effect.
Here the sharp shooters had the unusual good fortune to fight in a sheltered position instead of in the open filed, as was usually their fate. During this affair the woods took fire and for a long time the troops fought literally surrounded by the flames. The wind was from such a direction as to bring the smoke from the blazing woods directly in the faces of the federal soldiers, while the heat and smoke combined made the position almost untenable, even had there been no other enemy to contend153
with. In many places the log breastworks themselves took fire and became a blazing mass which it was impossible to quench. Still the battle raged; at some points it was impossible to fire over the parapet, and the defenders were compelled to withdraw for a short distance. The rebels were prompt to take advantage of such breaks, and at one point pushed their advance up to and over the road, planting their battle flags on the Union works, but a brigade of Birney's Division charged them with such vigor that their holding was of short duration and they were driven back in great confusion, leaving numbers of their dead and wounded inside the breastworks.
In this charge the sharp shooters were conspicuous. Advancing in line of battle and at the double quick, they forced the enemy from their front over and far beyond the road, pursuing them and making prisoners even beyond the lines which had been held by the rebels previous to their assault. Their regimental flag was the only one advanced beyond the line of works; other troops contenting themselves with simply repossessing the line of the road. In this charge Jacob Lacoy of Co. F was killed, the only casualty in the company on that day. Following this repulse Grant, still aggressive, ordered another attack by Hancock, and the troops were formed for that purpose; but before the advance actually commenced the order was countermanded and the men of the Second Corps lay down for the night along the road which they had so gallantly defended. The morning of the154
third day of the battle opened with the greater portion of the army quietly resting on their arms; but for the sharp shooters there seemed no relief or respite. At day break they were deployed, again on the right of the plank road, and advancing over the scene of the fighting of the two previous days, not thickly covered with the dead of both armies, encountered the rebel skirmishers at a distance of about four hundred yards from the Union line. Ordered to halt here and observe the enemy, they passed the time until about noon in more or less active sharp shooting and skirmishing. At twelve o'clock they were ordered to push the enemy back and develop if possible his main line. Supported by infantry they dashed forward and after sharp fighting drove the rebels back into their works, some half a mile away. Here they were brought to a halt and found themselves unable to advance further. Counter attacks were made by the rebels which were for a time successfully resisted; but the regiment was at last so far outflanked that it became necessary to fall back to avoid the capture of the entire command. The rebels did not pursue vigorously; the fight was out of them, and with a few unimportant affairs on different portions of the line the day passed without battle. Neither party had won a victory. Grant had not destroyed Lee's army, neither had Lee driven Grant back across the river, as he had done so many other Union commanders, and the battle of the Wilderness was of no advantage to either party, save the fact that Grant had destroyed a certain number of155
Lee's soldiers who could not easily be replaced, while his own losses could be made good by fresh levie from the populous North. Whatever may have been Gen. Grant's idea of the "capacity" of the Army of the Potomac for fighting hitherto, or whether he believed it to have been now "fought up to its capacity," he was forced to acknowledge that the fighting of the past three days had been the severest he had ever seen. But his thoughts were not yet of retreat; he had seen enough of the Wilderness as a battle field, however, and on the evening of the seventh issued his orders for a concentration of his army on Spotsylvania.
Company F had lost in the action of this day Edward Giddings and Joseph Hagan, killed, and Lieut. Kinsman, Dustin R. Bareau, Henry Mattocks and Edward Lyman, wounded. The wound to Mattocks, although painful, was not such as to disable him, and he remained with the company only to lay down his life on the bloody field of Spotsylvania a week later. The total losses now footed up nineteen men since the morning of the 5th of May.
All night long columns were marching to the southward. It was evident that the army was to abandon this battle field, but it seemed strange that the customs and traditions of three years should be thus ruthlessly set aside by this new man, and that he should have turned his face again southward, when by all precedent he should have gone north. The men, however, began to surmise the true state of affairs, and when during the156
Grant and Meade, with their respective staff, passed down the Brock road headed still south, the men took in the full significance of the even, and, tired and worn as they were, they sprang to their feet with cheers that must have told Grant that here were men fully as earnest, and fully as persistent as himself in their determination to "fight it out on that line." The stench from the decomposing bodies of the thousands of dead lying unburied filled the air and was horrible beyond description, and the sharp shooters were not sorry when at nine A. M., on the morning of May 8th, they were relieved from their duties on the picket line and, forming on the Brock road, took up their line of march toward Spotsylvania. They were the last of the infantry of the whole army; a small body of cavalry only being between them and the rebels who might well be expected to pursue.
The cavalry soon found themselves unable to check the pursuers, and Co. F, now the rear guard of the army, was faced about and deployed to resist the too close pursuit. In this order, and constantly engaged with the rebel cavalry following them, they retired fighting, until at Todd's tavern they found the rest of the division. During the day Wm. Wells was wounded and taken prisoner, the only casualty in the company during the day. Wells met the same sad fate which befell so many thousands of unfortunate prisoners, and died at Florence, S. C., during the month of September following.
Immediately upon their arrival a portion of the157
regiment, including Co. F, was placed on the picket line to the west of the tavern, their line extending across the Catharpin road. Here they et the advance of Early's rebel corps, and some skirmishing took place; but the rebels were easily checked, and no severe fighting took place. Early on the morning of the ninth a strong force of the enemy's cavalry appeared in their front and made a vigorous effort to force a passage. They were strongly resisted and at last forced to retire before the well aimed rifles of the Vermonters. Following rapidly, the sharp shooters pushed them to and beyond the Po river, along the banks of which they halted.
During this affair a rebel captain of cavalry was wounded and captured. Capt. Merriman, whose sword had been shot from his side during the action of the preceding day, thinking that a fair exchange was no robbery, appropriated the captured rebel's sabre, and thenceforth it was wielded in behalf of instead of against the Union. In the afternoon of this day the sharp shooters were recalled from their somewhat exposed position, more than two miles from any support, and resumed the march towards Spotsylvania, skirmishing with the rebels as they retired, until they reached the high ground overlooking the valley of the Po, where they found the rest of the corps making preparations to force the passage of the river.
The Union artillery was noisily at work, while rather faint response came from the enemy on the158
opposite side. A rebel signal station was discovered some fifteen hundred yards away, from which the movements of our troops could be plainly observed, and from which Gen. Hancock desired to drive the observers. A battery opened fire on them, but the distance was too great for canister, and the saucy rebels only laughed at shell. The men of Co. F, who were in plain view of both parties, watched this effort with great interest for half an hour, when they concluded to take a hand in the affair themselves. Long practice had made them proficient in judging of distances, and up to a thousand yards they were rarely mistaken - this, however, was evidently a greater distance than the rifles were sighted for. They therefore cut and fitted sticks to increase the elevation of their sights and a few selected men were directed to open fire, while a staff officer with his field glass watched the result. It was apparent from the way the men in the distant tree top looked down when the Sharpes bullets began to whistle near them that the men were shooting under sill, so more and longer sticks were fitted to still further elevate the sights; now the rebels began to look upward, and the inference was at once drawn that the bullets were passing over them. Another adjustment of the sticks, and the rebels began to dodge, first to one side and then to another, and it was announced that the range was found. Screened as they were by the foliage of the tree in which they were perched, it was not possible to see the persons of the men with the naked eye; their position could only be deter-159
mined by the tell-tale flags; but when all the rifles had been properly sighted and the whole twenty-three opened, the surprised rebels evacuated that signal station with great alacrity. Gen. Hancock had been a close and greatly interested observer of this episode, and paid the men handsome compliments for their ingenuity and skill. The same night the division commander, Gen. Birney, ordered that thereafter the sharp shooters should report directly to his headquarters and also receive their orders from the same source. They were thus detached from their brigade. At six o'clock P. M. the line advanced, and, after some slight resistance, effected the passage of the river. Pushing forward the sharp shooters soon found themselves again on the banks of the same river, which here changes its course to the south so as to again cross the road along which the corps was advancing. It was now well into the night, and as the men found the river too deep to ford; the column was halted and spent the night in this position. The second corps, which had held the entire left of the Union line ever since the crossing of the Rapidan a week before, by these maneuvers found itself now on the extreme right of the army, and its position was a serious menace to Lee's left flank.
Indeed Barlow's Division, as it lay that night, was actually in rear of the rebel left. Lee was quick to perceive the seriousness of the situation, and during the night he placed a formidable force in Hancock's front, and by the morning of the160
eleventh the corps found a strong line of works, well manned, to oppose their further progress. Reconnoissances were made, and a crossing effected at a point lower down, but the position was deemed too strong to attack, and the troops who had crossed were retired, soon after which the entire command was withdrawn to the northern bank of the Po.
Birney's Division was first over, and thus escaped the severe fighting which befell the other portions of the command in the movement. During all this time the battle had been raging furiously on the center and left of the Union army; repeated desperate assaults had been made at various points, and everywhere the enemy were found in great force behind strong works. The different assaults had been bloodily repulsed and the losses of men had been terrible. Still there was no sight of a retrograde movement. Grant seemed to have an idea that the true course of the Army of the Potomac lay to the southward instead of to the north. A repulse - such as would have been to the former commanders of that army a defeat - only spurred him to renewed effort, and it was in the evening of this day that he sent to President Lincoln the celebrated dispatch which so electrified the people of the North and made it clear to them that thenceforth there were to be taken no steps backward. "I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer." The operations of the past two days had convinced Generals Grant and Mead that a salient near the center of Lee's entrenched161
line was his weakest point, and during the afternoon and night of the eleventh the troops selected were brought up and formed for the assault. The point at which the attack was aimed was the one which has since come to be called the Death Angle at Spotsylvania; and well was it so called. Hancock's command was withdrawn from the extreme right and placed on the left of the Sixth Corps in such a position that their advance would bring them, not opposite the exact angle, but on the rebel right of that point. Birney'' Division had the right formed in two lines of battle, with Mott's Division in one line in support. The sharp shooters were deployed on the right of Birney's front line so as to connect the right of the Second Corps with the left of the troops next on the right. The night was made doubly dark by a thick fog which shut out all objects from sight at a distance of even a few yards, and in groping along to find their designated position, the men found themselves far in advance of the proper point and close up to the rebel line. As soon as their presence was discovered the enemy opened a brisk fire upon them, but believing their position to be at least as advantageous as the one they had left behind, the men lay quietly down without replying to the enemy and waited the signal of attack . They were now exactly opposite the Death Angle and only a few yards from the abatis. At half past four A. M. the signal was given, and the troops of the main line, rising to their feet, moved forward silently to the attack.162
The sharp shooters, far in the advance, lay quietly until the charging lines were abreast of them when they too sprang up and dashed straight at the enemy's works. The lines were now in entirely open ground, sloping upward toward the enemy, and fully exposed to the fire which came thick and deadly from every gun that could be brought to bear. Men fell rapidly, but nothing could stay the magnificent rush of the veterans of the Second Corps, and with ringing cheers they crowned the works with their standards and fairly drove the rebels out by the sheer weight and vigor of their charge Not all, however - for nearly four thousand Confederates, including two general officers, surrendered themselves as prisoners. Some thirty colors and twenty guns were also captured.
The sharp shooters were active in the assault and also in the short pursuit, which was brought to a sudden check, however, by the sight of a second line of works extending across the base of the triangle made by the salient. The Union troops were now a confused mass of rushing men. They had lost their brigade, regimental and even their company organization, as not infrequently happens in such assaults, and the enemy, advancing from behind their second line, compelled the triumphant but disordered federals to retire to the captured works where they were rallied. Quickly reversing the order of things, they, in their turn, became the defenders where they had so lately been the attacking party. Forming on the exterior slope, they fought the rebels stubbornly. It was163
as apparent to Lee as it had been to Grant and Meade, that this was the vital point, and now both parties bent their utmost energies - the one to hold what they had gained, and the other to repossess themselves of what they had lost. Both lines were heavily reinforced and the fighting assumed the most sanguinary character of any that had been seen during the whole of the bloody three years of the war. With desperate valor the confederates rushed again and again against the Union lines to be met with a fierce fire at such short ranges, and into such dense masses, that every shot told. In some places they gained the crest of the breastworks and savage hand to hand encounters took place, but it was in vain; not all the valor of the boasted chivalry of the South could pass that line. Those who gained the works could not stay and live, and to retreat was as bad. Many gave themselves up as prisoners, while others, taking shelter on the other side of the works, kept up the fight by holding their muskets high above their heads and thus firing at random among the Union troops on the reverse side. All day long this terrible combat continued. The dead on each side lay in heaps - literally piled the one on the other, until in many places the ground was covered three and four deep. The very trees were cut off by musket balls and fell to the ground. There is in the War Department at Washington, to this day, the sump of a tree more than eighteen inches in diameter which was cut down by this awful fire. Darkness brought with it an abatement, but not a164
cessation of the struggle; for until three o'clock in the morning of the thirteenth the strife continued. At that hour the enemy definitely abandoned the attempt to recapture the angle and retired to an interior line. Twice during the day had Co. F exhausted the ammunition in its boxes, and it was replenished by a supply brought to them as they lay by the stretcher bearers, and once the regiment was retired for a fresh supply, upon receipt of which they returned to the fighting.
In this carnival of blood - this harvest home of death - Co. F again suffered the loss of brave men. Henry Mattocks, Thomas Brown and John Bowen were killed, and Amos A. Smith and J. E. Chase were wounded. Only eighteen men were now left out of the forty-three who entered the campaign; twenty-five had fallen on the field.
A great sovereign once address his general thus: "I send you against the enemy with sixty thousand men." "But," protested the general, "There are only fifty thousand." "Ah!" said the Emperor, "but I count you as ten thousand!" So each man of the gallant few who were left of what had been Co. F agreed to call his comrade equal to two men, and so they counted themselves yet a strong company.
The night of the twelfth was spent on the line which had been won and held at such a fearful cost of life. At twelve o'clock on the thirteenth the regiment, now but a handful of men, were moved by the right flank some three or four hundred yards, and ordered to establish a picket line165
in front of this new position. This was successfully accomplished with but little opposition and no loss to Co. F. That evening they were relieved and returned to division headquarters, where they bivouacked for the night. The three succeeding days were spent in the same manner; out before daylight, establishing new picket lines, sharp shooting as occasion offered, and spending the night near headquarters; but no important affair occurred, and no casualties were reported.
The seventeenth was spent quietly in camp - the first day of uninterrupted repose the men had enjoyed since crossing the Rapidan two weeks before. During that eventful period there had not bee one single day, and hardly an hour, that the men of Co. F had not been under fire. It was a short time to look back upon, but what a terrible experience had been crowded into it! The company which is the subject of this history had lost more than half of its numbers, while in the Army of the Potomac the losses had been appalling - no less than four thousand five hundred and thirty-two men had been killed on the field, and the wounded numbered eighteen thousand nine hundred and forty-five (a total of twenty-two thousand four hundred and seventy-seven men) while of the missing there were four thousand eight hundred and seventy-two, making a total of twenty-seven thousand three hundred and forty-nine lost from the effective strength of the army since May 4th. Some idea of the extent of the losses may be obtained by the casual reader by a comparison,166
thus: If the entire population of any of the great and populous counties of Bennington, Orange or Orleans, as shown by the census of 1880, were suddenly blotted out, the loss would not equal the total of killed and wounded during the twelve days between the 4th and 17th of May, while the entire population of Grand Isle county is not as great as the number of the killed alone; and the total loss in killed, wounded and missing is greater than the population of any county in the State of Vermont except Chittenden, Franklin, Rutland and Windsor. And yet there was no sign of retreat. On the contrary, on every side were evidences of preparation for renewed battle, and during these days of comparative quiet attempts were made a various points to penetrate the rebel line, some of these assaults rising of themselves almost to the dignity of battles, but so insignificant were they as compared with what had gone before that they hardly attracted the attention, even, of any but the men immediately engaged.
On the nineteenth Gen. Grant ordered another movement of the army, again by the left, and again in the direction of Richmond. No unusual incident occurred to mark the progress of the sharp shooters until the twenty-first, when the regiment, by a sudden dash, occupied the little village of Bowling Green, where the retreating enemy had confined in the jail all the negroes whom they had swept along with them, and whom they intended to remove to a point further south167
where they would be removed from the temptation to desert their kind masters and join the Union forces. The advance was too sudden for them, however, and some hundreds of negro slaves were released from their captivity by the willing riflemen.
Two miles beyond Bowling Green the skirmishers met a considerable force of rebel cavalry, and a sharp skirmish took place. Two regiments of new troops came into action on the right, but being dispersed and routed retired to be seen no more, and the sharp shooters fell heirs to their knapsacks which they had laid off on going into action. The departed regiments had evidently had a recent issue of clothing, and their successors were thankful for the opportunity of renewing their own somewhat dilapidated wardrobes. They were further gratified about this time by the arrival of four convalescents, which swelled the number to twenty-two for duty. The twenty-second was a red letter day for the men who had been confined to such rations as they could carry on their persons. On this day they were ordered on a reconnoissance which took them into a section of country not frequently visited by either army. Halting at the County Poor House, they proceeded to gratify a soldier's natural curiosity to see what might be found on the premises to eke out their unsatisfactory rations, and, to their great delight, found chickens, mutton, milk and eggs in profusion, upon which they regaled themselves to their hearts' content. If these, thought the delighted men, are Virginia168
poor house rations, the poor of Virginia area greatly to be envied. Proceeding on the twenty-third towards Hanover Junction, they found their way once again blocked by the rebel army in a strong position behind the North Anna river and prepared again to receive battle on a fortified line of their own choosing. This was a disappointment, for the soldiers had become tired of such work and ardently desired to get at the rebels in an open field; but Grant, patient and persistent as ever, at once set about finding a means whereby he might beat them even here, if such a thing was possible.
The line of march had brought the Second Corps to the extreme left of the army, and it struck the river at the point at which the telegraph road crosses it at the county bridge. Here the enemy had constructed, on the north side of the river, a strong work for the defense of the bridge head; while on the southern bank, completely commanding the approaches to the river, was another, and a still stronger line of fortifications. The land in front of the nearer of the two was a bare and open plain, several hundred yards in width, which must be passed over by troops advancing to the attack, and every foot of which was exposed to the fire of the enemy on either bank. To Birney's Division was assigned the task of assaulting this position, and at five o'clock P. M., on the twenty-third, the division moved out in the discharge of its duty, Pierce's and Egan's brigades in the front line, while the Third brigade formed a second, and supporting line. The sharp shooters169
were deployed as skirmishers and led the way. The works were won without serious loss, and the sharp shooters passed the night near the river, charged with the duty of protecting the bridge for the passage of the troops on the next day, Gen. Hancock not deeming it advisable to attempt the crossing at that late hour of the evening. Attempts were made during the night by the rebels to destroy the bridge, but it was safely preserved, although the railway bridge below was destroyed, and on the morning of the twenty-fourth, the troops commenced crossing covered by the fire of the sharp shooters, who lined the north bank, and the Union artillery posted on the higher ground in the rear. The regiment followed the last of the troops, and were pushed forward beyond the Fox house, a large, though dilapidated Virginia mansion, where they met the rebel skirmishers. Sharp firing at long range continued for some hours until the ammunition in the boxes became exhausted, when the regiment was relieved, and fell back to the Fox house, where breastworks were thrown up and where they remained during the rest of that day and the next, exposed to desultory artillery fire, but suffering no considerable loss. The next day the quartermaster, Lieut. Gen. A. Marden, arrived with the regimental wagons, and with such stores, clothing, and so forth, as the small train could bring.
As it was the first sight the regiment had had of its baggage for twenty-two days, the arrival was the signal for great rejoicing among the men,170
especially as the good quartermaster brought a mail, and the heart of many a brave soldier was made glad by the receipt of warm and tender words from the loved ones far away among the peaceful valleys of the state he loved so well.
The morning of the twenty-sixth brought sharp fighting for the troops on the right and left, but in Birney's front all was quiet, and the tired sharp shooters lay still until dark, when they were ordered to relieve a portion of the pickets of the Ninth Corps on their right. The night was very dark, and it was with difficulty that they found their designated position; but it was finally gained and found occupied by the Seventeenth Vermont, among whom the men of Co. F found many friends.
During the night the army was withdrawn to the north bank of the river, and on the morning of the twenty-seventh the sharp shooters were also withdrawn, and operations on the North Anna ceased. Grant had found the position too strong to warrant another attempt like those of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, and had determined on another movement to the left. All day, and until two o'clock the next morning, the troops toiled on, passing on the way the scene of a severe cavalry fight a few days previous, the marks of which were plainly visible to the eye as well as apparent to the nose, since the stench from the decaying bodies of horses and men was almost unbearable. After a few hours of needed rest the march was resumed at daylight, still to the south, and at four o'clock they crossed the Pamunkey at171
Hanovertown. They were now approaching familiar ground. Only two or three miles away was the old battle field of Hanover Court House, while but little further to the south lay Mechanicsville and Gaines Hill, where they had fought under McClellan two years before. Halting in a field near the river they rested until near noon of the following day.
During the forenoon of this day an inspection was had, from which it was inferred by some that it was Sunday, although there was no other visible sign of its being in any sense a day of rest. In the afternoon a reconnoissance in force was ordered to determine, if possible, the whereabouts of the rebels. Some skirmishing took place, but no important body of the enemy was found until the advance reached the point at which the Richmond road crossed the Totopotomy, where the enemy were found strongly posted with their front well covered by entrenchments and abatis, prepared to resist a further advance. A brisk skirmish took place, and the rebels were forced into their works. The whole corps was now ordered up and took position as close to the rebel line as it was possible to do without bringing on a general engagement, for which the federal commanders were not ready. In this position they lay, exchanging occasional shots with the rebel sharp shooters, but with little or no serious fighting, until the evening of June 1st, when the corps was ordered again to the left, and by a forced march reached Cold Harbor early in the forenoon of the second. At two o'clock A. M.172
on the 30th of May Capt. Merriman had been ordered to take a detail of twenty-five men from the regiment and establish a picket line at a point not before fully covered. In the darkness he passed the proper position and went forward until he reached the rebel picket line, which, after challenging and receiving an evasive answer, opened fire on him. By careful management, however, he was able to extricate his little force, and eventually found and occupied his designated position. This was an unfortunate locality for Capt. Merriman, for when the corps moved on Cold Harbor, he, by some blunder, failed to receive his orders and was thus left behind. Finding himself abandoned, and surmising the reason, he took the responsibility of leaving his post; and as it was clearly the proper thing to do under the circumstances, he escaped without censure. Severe fighting had already taken place between the Sixth and Eighteenth Corps and the rebels, for the possession of this important position, and Old Cold Harbor had been secured and held for the Union army. This little hamlet is situated at the junction of the main road from White House to Richmond, and the road leading south from Hanovertown, which, a mile south of Old Cold Harbor intersects the road leading southeasterly from Mechanicsville, which road in its turn connects with the Williamsburgh road near Dispatch Station, on the Richmond & York River Railway. The control of the road from White House was indispensible to the173
Union army, as it was the only short line to the new base of supply on the Pamunkey.
A mile to the westward of Old Cold Harbor this road intersects the Mechanicsville road at a place called New Cold Harbor, the possession of which would have been more desirable, since it would have given to the Union commander all the advantages of the roads heretofore mentioned and, also, the possession and control of the highway from Mechanicsville to Dispatch Station, which gave to the party holding it the same advantage which the Brick road had afforded to the Union troops in the Wilderness; that is, the opportunity to move troops rapidly over a good road, and by short lines, from right to left, or vice versa. This point was, however, held by the confederates in great force, and was defended by formidable works. The heavy fighting of the day before had been for its possession, and the federals had not only gained no ground, but the troops engaged had suffered a disastrous repulse with severe loss, no less than two thousand men having fallen in the assault. The morning of the 2d of June brought to the anxious eyes of the federals the same familiar old view. In every direction across their front were seen the brownish red furrows which told of rifle pits, which at every commanding point in the rebel line rose stronger and higher works, above which peered the dark muzzles of hostile artillery.
It was evident that one or two things would ensue. Either a sanguinary battle, like those of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, where the rebels,174
strongly intrenched, had all the advantages on their side must be fought, or Grant must try another move by the left and seek a more favorable battle ground. But that meant a move to the James river; since between the White House and the James there could be no new base of supply. Furthermore, the ground further to the south and nearer the James, was known to be fully as difficult as that on which the army now stood and war, presumably, as well fortified. And even if it was not fortified, the further Grant moved in that direction the stronger grew Lee's army, since the troops in and about Richmond, reenforced by a very large portion of those who had so recently made, and still kept, Butler and his thirty thousand men close prisoners at Bermuda Hundred, could be safely spared for more active operations in the field against this more dangerous enemy.
Moreover Grant had said "I propose to fight it out on this line," and it was now nineteen days since the fight for the angle at Spotsylvania, and the Army of the Potomac had hardly lost that number of hundreds of men in the operations on the North Anna and the Totopotomy. It was time to fight another great battle, lest the army should forget that it was now to be "fought up to is capacity," and so the battle of Cold Harbor was ordained. The position of the Second Corps was now, as at the Wilderness, on the extreme left of the army; on their left were no forces, except the cavalry which watched the roads as far to the south as the Chickahominy. It was well remembered175
ground; two years before the sharp shooters, then part of the Fifth Corps, had, with that organization, fought the great battle of Gaines Hill, on this identical ground, but how changed was the situation.
They had now the same enemy before them, but the positions were completely reversed. Then, they were fighting a defensive battle for the safety of the army. Then, the enemy came far out from their intrenchments and sought battle in the open field. Now, it was the federals who were the aggressive party, and the rebels could by no means be tempted from the shelter of their strong works. Now, the enemy occupied nearly the same lines held by the federals on the former occasion, while the federals attacked from nearly the same positions, and over the same ground, formerly occupied by the rebels. Then, however, the federals had fought without shelter; now, the rebels were strongly intrenched. Indeed, an unparalleled experience in warfare had taught both parties the necessity of preparation of this kind to resist attack, or to cover reverses. There was, however, a greater change in the moral than in the physical situation. Then, the rebels had been haughty, arrogant and aggressive; now, they were cautious and timid. Brought squarely to the test of battle they were, individually, as brave as of yore, but the spirit of confidence had gone out of them. They had learned at last that "one southern gentlemen" was not "the equal of three northern mudsills." The handwriting on the wall was beginning to appear plainly to them,176
and while they still fought bravely and well - while they were still able to deal damaging blows, and to inflict terrible punishment - they never afterwards fought with the dash and fire which they had shown at Gaines Hill, at Malvern, at the Second Bull Run, at Chancellorsville, or at Gettysburgh. The noontide of the Confederacy had passed, and they knew then that henceforth they were marching towards the darkness of the certain night.
The 2d of June was spent by both parties in strengthening positions and other preparations. Constant firing, it is true, was going on all along the line, but no conflict of importance took place on this day. Co. F was thus engaged, but no important event occurred on their front. On the third, however, at half past four A. M. the corps moved forward to the assault. Barlow's and Gibbon's Divisions formed the front line, while Birney's was in the second.
The early morning fogs still hung low and rendered it impossible for the advancing troops to see what was before them; thus many parts of the line became broken by obstacles which might have been, in part, avoided had it been possible to discover them in time, and the column arrived at the point of charging distance somewhat disorganized. Still the vigor of the attack was such that the rebels could not long resist it; they were driven out of a sunken roadway in front of their mainline, into and over their intrenchments, and at this point the success of the assault was complete. Several hundred prisoners and three guns were captured,177
the guns being at once turned upon their former owners.
The supporting column, however, failed, as is so often the case, to come up at the proper time and the enemy, being strongly reenforced, advanced against the victorious men of the Second Corps, and after a desperate struggle, reminding the participants of the fight at Spotsylvania, forced them back and reoccupied the captured works. In this affair Co. F, being with Birney's Division in the second line, was not actively engaged, nevertheless in the charge they lost two or three men whose names are not now remembered, slightly, and Alvin Babcock, mortally wounded. Babcock was one of the recruits who joined the company on the day after the battle of Antietam, nearly two years before, and had been a faithful and good soldier. He died on the first of July following from the effects of his wound. A partial attack by the rebels on their position was easily repulsed, and the rest of the day was passed in comparative quiet. The picket line, in full view of the rebel works and only about one hundred yards distant, was held by a regiment for whose marksmanship the rebels seemed to have a supreme contempt, since they exposed themselves freely, using the while the most opprobrious epithets.
The fire of their sharp shooters was constant and close, and a source of great annoyance to all within range. Co. F lay some distance in the rear of the pickets and somewhat exposed to the stray bullets178
which passed over the front line. They became somewhat restive under this unusual state of affairs; but receiving no order to move up to take part in the conflict, and having no liberty to shift their position, Capt. Merriman and Sergt. Peck determined to see what could be done by independent effort to relieve the situation. Taking rifles and a good supply of ammunition they made their way to the front and, taking up an advantageous position, commenced operations. The first shot brought down a daring rebel who was conspicuously and deliberately reloading his gun in full view of a hundred Union soldiers. This single shot and its result seemed to convey to the minds of the rebels that a new element had entered into the question, and for a few moments they were less active. Soon regaining their courage, however, and apparently setting it down as the result of some untoward accident, they resumed their exposure of persons and their annoying fire. It did not long continue, however, for wherever a man appeared within range he got such a close hint of danger, if indeed he escaped without damage, that the sharp shooting along that front ceased. Further to the right was a place where the breastwork behind which the rebel infantry was posted did not quite connect with a heavy earthwork which formed part of the rebel line, and which was occupied by artillery. Across this open space men were seen passing freely and openly, apparently officers or orderlies passing along the line in the discharge of their duties.179
To this point the two sharp shooters now directed their attention. Dodging from tree to tree, now crawling along behind some little elevation of land, and now running at full speed across some exposed portion of the ground, they reached a place from which they could command the passage, and very soon the rebels found it safer and more convenient to take some other route. Service of this independent nature had a peculiar fascination for these men. In fact, sharp shooting is the squirrel hunting of war; it is wonderful to see how self-forgetful the marksman grows - to see with what sportsmanlike eyes he seeks out the grander game, and with what coolness and accuracy he brings it down. At the moment he grows utterly indifferent to human life or human suffering, and seems intent only on cruelty and destruction; to make a good shot and hit his man, brings for the time being a feeling of intense satisfaction.
Few, however, care to recall afterwards the look of the dying enemy, and there are none who would not risk as much to aid the wounded victim of their skill as they did to inflict the wound. War is brutalizing, but the heat of the actual conflict passed, soldiers are humane and merciful, even to their foes. The assault of the Second Corps had not been an isolated attempt to force the rebel line at one point only. On their immediate right the Sixth and Eighteenth Corps had also advanced, and had met with severe loss; while far away to the north, even to and beyond the Totopotomy, miles away, Burnside and Warren had been180
engaged in more or less serious battle. At no point, however, except in front of the Second Corps had the enemy's line been entered, and this lodgement, as had been seen, was of brief duration. Advanced positions had been held, however, and in many places a distance no greater than fifty to one hundred yards now separated the opposing lines. Barlow's Division, magnificent fighters, when forced out of the captured rebel works, had taken advantage of a slight crest of ground not fifty yards from the rebel line, and with the aid of their bayonets, tin cups, etc., had thrown up a slight cover, from which they stubbornly refused to move; and to this far advanced line Companies F and G were ordered during the night of the third to keep down, so far as they were able, the rebel fire when the morning light should enable them to see the enemy. They spent the fourth in this position, constantly exposed and constantly engaged, suffering the loss of one man, Joseph Bickford, killed. The shooting on the part of the rebels was unusually close and accurate, and was a source of great discomfort to one, at least, of the men of Co. F. Curtiss Kimberly, known best by his friends as "Muddy," had such a breadth of shoulders that the small stump behind which he lay for shelter was insufficient to cover both sides at once. Three times in as many minutes the stump was struck by rebel bullets, and "Muddy" gravely expressed the opinion that there was "a mighty good shot over there somewhere," at the same time uttering an earnest hope that "he might not miss that stump."181
During the night of the fourth they were moved to the left, and at daylight found themselves face to face with the rebel pickets near Barker's Mill. This was indeed "Tenting on the old camp ground," since this point had been the extreme right of the Union line at the battle of Gaines Hill, June 27, 1862.
They lay in this position until the twelfth, engaged every day, to a greater or less extent, in skirmishing and sharp shooting until the eleventh, when an agreement was made between the pickets that hostilities should cease in that part of the line, and the day was spent in conversation, games, etc., with the rebels. They were ravenous for coffee, but had plenty of tobacco. The federals were "long" of coffee but "short" of tobacco, and many a quiet exchange of such merchandise was made in the most friendly way between men who for days had been, for days to come would be, seeking each others lives. It was a curious scene and well illustrated once phase of war. On the twelfth, the truce being over, hostilities were resumed and the men who had so lately fraternized together were again seeking opportunity to destroy each other. On this day Almon D. Griffin, who had been wounded at Chancellorsville, was again a victim to bullets. He recovered, however, and rejoined his company to serve until the expiration of his term of service, when he was discharged. Grant was now minded to try another movement by the left, this time transporting his entire army to the south bank of the James, and on the thirteenth182
the sharp shooters crossed the Chickahominy at Long Bridge, and leaving the old battle field of Charles City cross-roads and Malvern Hill to the right, struck the James river the same night at Wilcox's landing some two miles below Harrison's, where McClellan's army had lain so long after his unfortunate campaign in 1862. This was the first opportunity for a bath which had been offered since the campaign opened, and soon the water was alive with the dirty and tired men, their hands and faces of bronze contrasting strangely with the Saxon fairness of their sinewy bodies, as they laughingly dashed the water at each other, playing even as they did when they were school boys in Vermont. It was a luxury which none but those who have been similarly situated can appreciate.