S. Millet Thompson.

Thirteenth regiment of New Hampshire volunteer infantry in the war of the rebellion, 1861-1865: a diary covering three years and a day online

. (page 32 of 81)
Online LibraryS. Millet ThompsonThirteenth regiment of New Hampshire volunteer infantry in the war of the rebellion, 1861-1865: a diary covering three years and a day → online text (page 32 of 81)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


whole Brigade as they passed battle-stained to the rear. The 10th N. H.
at once moved to take their place at the front.

Lieut. Taggard had been very sick for several days previous to this
battle, but he tried his best to keep with the Reg. ; after marching a while,
however, he was compelled to leave the line and to stop at a house near
the battle-field until the evening of May 8th. AVhile he was at this house
ninety men of the 8th Conn, were brought there, and the arms or legs of
many of them Avere amputated. The 118th N. Y. also lost heavily.

The 1.3th, acting as a supjiort and reserve all day, meets with but one
severe casualty, though a number are more or less bruised by spent bul-
lets. After remaining near and in view of the line of our skirmishers all
day, covered by trees and the ridges of ground as nmch as ])ossible, the
Thirteenth retires some distance to the rear, and bivouacs late at night
in deep woods. A large detail is sent on picket, and the balance of the
Reg. settles down to rest in pitchy darkness. The excitement, extreme
heat, hard work, danger — and fret — together with smoke of powder
and of the burning brush, causes several cases of sunstroke. The men
left their knapsacks at the place of last night's bivouac, and this relieved
the labors of the day very much.

Probably the Thirteenth never saw during its term of service a more
unsatisfactory day than this one. There was apparentl}' no head, tail
or order to the work — a nebulous fight. Possibly tlie nearest answer
ever made to the questions : ' How to fight without winning ? ' ' How
to advance without going ahead ? ' The detail from the Thirteenth, and
our Band, who were sent together to fight the fire, had a fearfully hot
day's work, and the most of them gave out from the heat and exhaus-
tion. Nevertheless thev rescued all the wounded.



1&64 BATTLE OF PORT WALTHALL. 261

A singular wound was received to-day by Sergeant Oilman Davis of
A. A rebel minie rifle ball passed through his neck from side to side,
just back of his windpipe, breaking no bones, and apparently severing no
vital part. He died, however, during the night. Davis was wounded
about noon, or a little later, and while the Reg. was seated on the ground
awaiting orders.

Our Brigade advanced alone, as a body, and drove the enemy back
about one and one half miles. At one time we are just on the point of
engaging the enemy in full force, expect a severe encounter, and make
ready for it, when we are ordered to retire. A day of suspense. We
are exposed all day to shells and bullets, without the privilege of action
to relieve the tediousness of it ; pelted all day, and comjjelled to endure
it without striking back. We go into camp to-night, closely packed in
woods deep and very dark. A part of the enemy's troops met to-day
are ^nder command of Gen. D. H. Hill. The Union loss to-day is stated
to be 250. On the whole a bloody day for the force actually engaged.
About our bivouac to-night the dense pine woods ai'e filled with smoke,
and are stifling hot and close.

Quite the same as in unrestricted immigration, the Subs import the
vices of the nations whence they come. About a dozen of them in the
Thirteenth have been in the habit of doing some sort of mischief, on the
eve of a move, and thus seeking arrest and escape from duty. They
tried it last night ; and this morning they are, by order of Col. Stevens,
marched into the fight and danger, under arrest, and without muskets
or equipments ; the neighboring files in their respective companies being
ordered to shoot them instantly, if they shirk or run. It being of
course understood privately that they were not thus to shoot them — but
the Subs, as was intended, took the order to be one made in dead earnest.
A more thoroughly scared gang of cowai'ds than these fellows were,
when the bullets began to fly, no man ever looked upon. They had to
face the music for once. As the Reg. advanced, a gun and set of equip-
ments lay on the ground ; and no one who witnessed it can ever forget
the expression on the face of one of these Subs, and the tone of his voice,
as he said : " Captain — may n't I pick up that gun, and use it ? " He
was permitted to take the gun and use it — and he did I All of them
came out at night unharmed, and each had supplied himself with a gun
and set of equipments, off the field, where the dead and wounded had
left them. It was too bad to scare men so ; but it cured them of their
habit of getting up mock riots for the purpose of avoiding duty. What-
ever of blame may attach to proposing this plan, the writer will own up
to ; being in command of the rear-guard the night before he had to settle
the special disturbances made by these fellows, to disarm them, and to
endure no end of bother with them after they were placed under arrest ;
they needed a strong medicine to cure them of their bad habits, and he
suggested this plan to Col. Stevens.

Hospital Steward Prescott has an ugly experience to-day. He is sent



262 THIRTEENTH NEW HAMPSHIRE REGIMENT. 1864

by Col. Stevens to ascertain whether a group of our skirmishers, lying
motionless at some distance in advance of the Thirteenth, are dead or
alive. He does not return for several hours. Meanwhile Manson S.
Brown of C is sent to the front to find him, hut cannot. The Regiment
is withdrawn, and there is much speculation and anxiety as to the fate of
Pi'escott. No one can penetrate to the point where he was last seen, on
account of the rebel fire. Finally very late in the evening he suddenly
appears in camp, and is welcomed like a lost boy. He had approached
near to the skirmishers referred to, in pursuit of his errand, when he was
beset by a severe fire from the rebel line of skirmishers. He dropped at
once behind a fallen tree, among dense underbrush — hence could not be
seen by Brown — the tree was made a target of during all the afternoon
by the rebel sharp-shooters, and he was compelled to lie still, close to the
tree, until dark, when he at once made his escape, fortunately unhurt.

May 8. Sun. Very hot, steamy, close, damp. Reg. taking a little
rest. Many say that last night was the darkest they ever knew, the
blackness being increased by the smoke of the burning forests. AVhen
the second picket was detailed the men had to be l)rought near to the fires
to be identified. The Reg. sleeps half the day. Orders are received
for the Reg. to be ready to march to-morrow at 4 a. m. with three days'
cooked rations. We have been listening to distant firing, the boom of
cannon and the rattle of musketry, si^ringing up at times all day ; and
have been in readiness, and hourly expecting, to march to the noisy front
and take a part in the action. The rest of a Sunday is in no way en-
hanced by this sort of thing. An old citizen, living near by, says that
our camp here is northeast of Petersburg ten miles, and eleven miles from
Richmond, by the mile-stones on the Turnpike — we being opposite the
11th mile-stone from Richmond. We have bivouacked for several nights
on nearly the same ground — on the right of the main road. See page
259. Lieut. Churchill is lame from some bruise received yesterday, but
continues on duty.

The enemy's troops encountered yesterday, and to-day, are known as
Brig. Gen. Haygood's South Carolina Brigade, just arrived from Charles-
ton. Gen. Pickett has been in command at Petersburg until recently,
when he was succeeded in command by Gen. Beauregard.

The line now being entrenched extends from Trent's Reach on the
James to near Port Walthall on the Appomattox ; a distance in a straight
line of three or four miles. Gen. Smith on the right near the James,
Gen. Gilmore on the left. The Richmond and Petersburg Turnpike is a
short distance to the front of tliis line ; the R. & P. Railroad nearly two
miles distant. None of Admiral Lee's boats can now ascend the James
above Trent's Reach. Our line is protected on both flanks by gunboats
in each river. The distance from Drury's Bluff to Trent's Reach is
about five miles by land, and about nine miles by water.



BATTLE OP SWIFT CREEK.

May 9. Mon. Fair, and very hot — 102'' in the shade at noon.
Reg. called at 3 a. m. and marches at 5 a. m. for the front, on the same
road that we moved out upon on May 7th ; and said to be the most direct
road to Petersburg. Col. Stevens in command of Reg. The men leave
their knapsacks in camp. We strike the Richmond & Petersburg Rail-
road at the 17th mile-stone from Richmond at noon. First we move up
the railroad a short distance towards Richmond, and tear up some of the
track ; and then turn and move down upon the embankment southward
towards Petersburg. Here Gen. Butler appears, with a numerous and
gay staff, and rides up to the front, close in rear of the skirmishers — ■
consisting of the 81st N. Y. — preceding the 13th on the embankment, as
we march along. Some one proposes three cheers. Up goes the Gen-
eral's hand, quick as a flash, and he calls out : " No, no, boys. No
cheers now." Soon he and his staff pass off the embankment to the left
and disappear. The 13th continues to move down on the railroad — in
support of the skirmishers on the left of the Brigade, Company C as
flankers on the left of the Reg. — until when near the 18 th mile-stone
the enemy commences shelling severely, the infantry are engaged, the
contest becomes furious, and we move off the railroad bank, to the left,
into a field, not far from the position reached by us on May 7th. We
pass around, however — sweeping toward the left, and then turn to the
right — and gain the railroad at another point farther down, and com-
mence tearing up the track, taking care to keep under cover of the rail-
road bank as much as possible — the enemy's bullets sweeping the road.
We move in line of battle a part of the time, and a part of the time by
the flank, as the ground demands. Other troops are moving down on the
right hand side of the railroad, and firing continuously. Shells are fall-
ing, and bursting, in all directions, and we are treated to clouds of pow-
der smoke. The battle actually commences to be severe about noon.

While crossing a muddy field about this time, near a culvert on the
railroad, a flashy Lieutenant, in a fine dress-suit, and wearing new, long
kid gloves with gauntlets, appears, and attempts to go up closer toward
the railroad bank, but he trips his toe in a vine, and falls headlong into
the mud. Rising clumsily, with both hands completely covered with
mud, he coolly draws off both gloves and throws them away, remarking
in a drawling tone : " Z'easiest way — to clean your hands — (hie) you
ever saw." In the afternoon he drew a revolver, and attempted to shoot
a Lieutenant in the 13th, whom he claimed that he ranked. The Lieu-
tenant instantly drew sword and chased him off the field ; but the half-



264 THIRTEENTH NEW HAMPSHIRE REGIMENT. 1864

drunken fellow was able to outrun his pursuer — whose same sword-hand
now survives to write this rummy incident. Rum is a cui'se.

Immense piles of dry wood are heaped on the culverts and bridges,
the railroad rails piled on, and then the mass set on fire, twisting and
bending the rails all out of shape, and destroying the bridges. We ad-
vance rapidly through woods and across fields and amid the dense, blind-
ing smoke, the battle raging on aU sides. The enemy steadily falls
back, and between 12 and 1 p. m. we come out under fire, into Mr.
Thomas L. Shippen's wide field — " Ari'ow Field " — that surrounds his
house, and situated on the left hand side of the railroad ; Mr. Shippen's
house and other buildings being on the farther side of the field towards
Petersburg. Here we catch a glimpse of Peter.sburg, some two or three
miles distant. We cross this field and approach the bank of Swift Creek
to the left and rear of the house.

Here the enemy's skirmishers are posted in force, and Companies B
and E, under Capt. Julian, are sent on the run to the left, to occupy the
near bank of Swift Creek among some trees, and where the bank of the
creek is high, apparently the highest point along there — perhaps 400 or
600 yards to the rear of the house. It is a risky job, for the enemy ap-
pears to be numerous. The charge is made at the top of our speed —
say a little faster, at the top of Capt. Julian's speed, for he out-charged
half his men — developing a strong line of the enemy, who, being flanked,
hastily retreat, followed by our fire while they are in range in and across
the creek- Another, heavier, line of the enemy make a stand behind
trees, buildings and fences on the flat across the creek. Companies E and
B engage these, and George E. Bodge and William F. Staples of B are
severely wounded. It is now about mid-afternoon — perhaps a little past
— very warm, and notwithstanding the danger we are in, we can but
laufh and shout to see the Confederates, not two hundred yards distant
across the creek, as they are pushed and flanked, jump up, seize their
jackets in one hand and their guns in the other, and make off as fast as
their legs can carry them.

Meanwhile artillery has come up and commenced firing, and our lines
of battle are formed across the field not far in the rear of the skirmishers.
A company from the 118th N. Y. is sent forward to strengthen the skir-
mish-line. Company E (13th) is divided, and a part sent farther to the
left down the bank of the creek (where the first swampy ground is in
that direction), under Lieut. Thompson of E, and placed, by the staff
officer in charge of the whole skirmish-line, in squads of three or four
men each, as flankers, to the left of the skirmish-line, and in a grove of
small hard-wood trees. These men are here improperly interfered with
by the drunken officer spoken of above, who was rightly refused obedi-
ence — with the unpleasant result as stated. These three companies
skirmish all the rest of the afternoon — Co. E on the left, a part as
flankers — until just at night, when Companies G and F of the 13th, un-
der Capt. Stoodley, relieve E and B and they return to the Reg. now



1864 BATTLE OF SWIFT CREEK. 265

drawn up in line of battle across the open field. Companies G and F are
posted as pickets along the near bank of the creek, and on the left of the
10th N. H., and swing away around along the front and to the left and
rear of tlie 13th, until they join the main line of the reserves. A long
straggling line, every man of which is required to keep awake all night.

During the afternoon — about 4 or 5 o'clock — an artillery duel opens,
and the enemy soon has one of his guns knocked to pieces. The enemy's
skirmisliers, far across the creek, cannot be dislodged without sending a
force across the creek.

A soldier of the loth writes of May 9th : " On Monday, 9th, we left
camp at daylight, and moved directly upon the R. & P. Railroad, striking
it at the 17th mile-stone. When we had marched down the railroad,
half a mile or more from this point, the rebels began to shell us. They
were so troublesome, we sent out skirmishers, formed lines of battle, and
so moved forward. We drove back their skirmishers, and followed them
up until we came to Swift Creek, the enemy holding both banks of it.
We soon dislodged them, when they took position behind trees, fences
and houses on the other side. This was about mid-afternoon. In an
hour or so the several columns of our troops had joined their lines of
battle, and were ready, with artillery, to give the rebels a lively waking
up. The artillery connected with our Brigade soon opened, and un-
masked a rebel battery. A sharp duel followed, in which the rebels lost
one gun. The shells were coming about us, during this little fight, but I
did not see a man flinch or turn pale. The enemy's skirmishers were
still troublesome, and Companies E and B of the 13th, and a company
of the 118th N. Y., were deployed as skirmishers, and running quickly
forwai'd, found cover on the near bank of the creek and opened fire on
them, and drove them away. In this movement two men of Company B
were badly wounded. A part of Company E was placed as flankers on
the left of the skirmish-line."

The order of events occuri'ing rapidly is difficult to follow, but the
battle continues all day, and until after midnight ; chiefly between the
skirmishers, though at times the firing, from both artillery and lines of
battle, is very severe. There is no quiet until near morning. Our Bri-
gade is designated to hold the field to-night, and about 6 p. m. is drawn
up in two lines of battle across Mr. Shippen's field, now prepared for
sowing or planting, very moist and soft. The eight companies of the
13th present acting as a support for the 10th N. H. ; which holds the
advance and is posted near the bank of the creek, a little northeast of
Mr. Shippen's house. A ridge running across the field somewhat pro-
tects the line of the 13th. The 8th Conn, have the right of our Brigade
line to-night, near the railroad. The enemy assails our lines at various
points several times in the night, but with little success. He charges
twice furiously, point blank, upon the 10th N. H., with picked men, but
each assault utterly fails, and the assailants are driven back across the
creek with heavy loss. The first charge on the 10th occurs about 8 p. m.,



266 THIRTEENTH NEW HAMPSHIRE REGIMENT. 1864

and the several charges are made by fully four hundred men — probably
by more than that number.

During one of these charges upon the 10th N. H., accompanied by the
usual rebel yell, tlie contest is so sharp that the 13th expects surely to see
the 10th driven back, and our men voluntarily rise and stand with guns
loaded, and bayonets fixed, to take a hand in the fray if the 10th is over-
powered ; but they hold their ground, and the enemy retires, leaving
above half of his men dead and wounded. So says a prisoner. The 13th
rising voluntarily, and without orders, to help the 10th if need be, is a bit
of very fine action, and Col. Stevens thanks the Thirteenth in the name of
the State of New Hampshire. The enemy seems to be aiming to capture
a little field battery of three or four guns posted near the ] 0th and not
rar from Mr. Sbippen's house.

The writer is an accidental and unwilling witness to one of these night
charges upon the 10th N. H. Everything near the 13th is quite stiU.
Unable to get warm enough to sleep, on the damp ground, because of an
' army chill,' the writer leaves the battle line of the 13th, and walks for
exercise, and to see what he may, forward nearer to the line of the 10th,
not counting on any danger. Suddenly a sharp, distant voice comes up out
of the stillness :" Forward, double-quick — give the Yanks * * * *l"
That was heaiing enough, and the writer darts back to his place in the
13th, only to hear, in another instant, the rebel yell from three or four
hundred throats. Then a few picket shots ; and then the volleys of the
10th settle the case in about three minutes. Before all is over, nearly
every man of the 13th is up in arms. The rebels charged up within fifty
yards of the 10th. Soon it is quiet ; the writer keeps his place, and curbs
his curiosity for the rest of the night — he is now warm enough.

The night is very noisy. Still the men of the 13th manage to have a
few hours of sleep, in short naps. The worst feature of one of these
night fights is the sudden calls to arms. Some uneasy ofiicer is very sure,
when the picket firing begins to rattle, to call up his men without orders.
Each sleeper in turn receives a sudden shake, a hoarse whisjier in his
startled ears : " Fall in — Fall in ! " and so, in a few moments, a strag-
gling line of men mount to their feet, ujd out of the dust or mud, shiver-
ing, swearing and stumbling into their places. Then all lie down again
— and try to keep the ground warm. These incidents cause much loss
of sleep and rest, and bring no gain.

The incessant whistling of locomotives to-night is for effect; still it is
evident that the enemy is re-enforcing his lines, and the citizens are mov-
ing away. We could probably have gone straight into Petersburg to-day.
Our Brigade is left alone upon the field here to-night ; a long night of
alarms, giving us no chance for sleep for more than an hour at a time,
and the morning opens the contest anew.

To-day about four o'clock in the afternoon, and apparently on the right
hand, or west side, of the railroad, and about half a mile from the 13th,
is suddenly heard a volley of musketry, then the rebel yell, then five



18G4



BATTLE OF SWIFT CREEK. 267



volleys in a regular succession like the striking of a clock — then a loud
Northern hurrah. Of this affair the story is told later, on the field, that
a rebel regiment of South Carolinians, on coming out of the brush into
an open field, suddenly find themselves face to face with the 27th Mass.,
drawn up in line of battle on the opposite side of the field. The rebels
instantly fire one volley, and then yell and charge ; the Mass. regiment
wait for a close range, and then reply with their Spencer rifles — ' seven-
shooters.' The rebels are terribly surprised, turn tail and run, leaving
on the field over a hundred of their number dead and wounded. As the
Massachusetts men move forward in pursuit, one poor fellow, a rebel
badly wounded, points to the Spencer rifle in the hands of a Northern
man, who stops to assist him, and asks : " Say, Yank — what yer got
thar ? " The first experience these men had had with the Spencer rifle,
and a bad one. The writer had been sent on an errand from the line to
the left ; on his return his way led over a high knoll from which a wide
view was had of the scenes of the battle, and the country around, and he
was taking this view when the volleys were fired.

May 10. Tues. The second day of the Battle of Swift Creek. A
very hot day. The jnckets commence firing with the very first glimmer
of daylight. The enemy seems to surround us on three sides, west, south
and east, and the noise is about equally loud in either direction. The
enemy shells our lines vigorously. This morning finds the Thirteenth in
Mr. Shippen's plowed field, part of a long line of battle, the 10th N. H.
a few rods in front of us — all of our line facing south. We are several
hundred yards north of Mr. Shippen's house, the 10th a few rods nearer
to it, and still nearer is a Union battery, of two or three guns, in full
play ; and that arrangement brings us, the 10th and the battery, in range
of the enemy's fire of both artillery and infantry. We rise from our cosy
beds of the dirt and mud of the soft plowed field, and form a dusty line
about day-break, then have a poor, damp, mussed and mashed breakfast
out of our haversacks ;and as no coffee can be had, we wash our so-called
breakfast down with the ancient ^ water from our canteens — nectar of
swamp-land well flavored with tin. All this puts us into excellent trim,
condition and spirit for a vigorous fight.

Early in the day the Thirteenth is moved back a few rods lieneath a
little ridge, just south of a deep ditch that runs through the field — from
the first culvert on the railroad north of Mr. Shippen's house — in order
to escape the multitude of bullets coming over from the enemy's pickets
and sharp-shooters, and his numerous shells. The 13th being in the
second line of the Brigade, and held as a supi)ort for the 10th, it is not
deemed wise to expose so many men to the fire of the enemy's sharp-
shooters and the brisk fire of his artillery ; hence an aide appears and
talks a while with Col. Stevens, and we are moved to the rear a few rods,
and placed beneatli the jirotecting ridge, while the main body of the 10th

^ Water that had been kept in canteens for twelve or twenty four hours the boys
called ' ' Old Water ' ' — just as it tasted.



268 THIRTEENTH NEW HAMPSHIRE REGIMENT. 1864

necessarily remains near where they passed the night. They are on the
north side of tlie third ridge south of the ditch, which ridge serves to pro-
tect the men of the 10th to a considerable extent if they lie fiat upon theiv
faces. It is, however, a very exposed position. Lt. Col. Coughlin sits
for a long time in a chair — apjjears to be a light rattan rocking-chair —
in the open plowed field, near his men, and reading a news2)aper, while
the rebel bullets strike and knock up little puffs of dust on all sides of
him and shells scream and crash — as cool as if on the veranda of a sum-
mer hotel by the sea. His coolness and courage serve to keep his men
steady and firm.

Mr. Shippen left with his family on Sunday the 8th, and if the enemy's



Online LibraryS. Millet ThompsonThirteenth regiment of New Hampshire volunteer infantry in the war of the rebellion, 1861-1865: a diary covering three years and a day → online text (page 32 of 81)