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 36 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 36 of 81)
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They charge upon us three times, in rapid succession, each time with
three lines of battle — a column six ranks deep — in long, dim, gray
lines, with bayonets fixed ; a whole rebel Brigade dashing directly upon
the front of the Thirteenth at once, and yelling in the half impenetrable
fog more like bloodhounds than like men. It is these unearthly yells
that make troops nervous sometimes ; but they shake no nerves among
the men of the Thirteenth this morning ; though we stand but one rank
deep, we feel sure that we can hold these noisy fellows back, and are go-
ing to do it.

Our fu'e holds them in front, while the 10th N. H., on the line beyond
the angle at our right, pours in a cross-fire ; a steady, rapid, roaring fire,
as if their nuiskets were being handled by some huge piece of machinery.
When the rebels chai'ge upon the 10th N. H., we pour in a cross-fire in
turn. Still, but for Gen. Burnham's telegraph wire, the enemy's very
numbers would flood our fire, and they would run right over us, in spite
of all we can do. Fear altogether vanishes in the excitement, the fierce
and hostile array, the boom of cannon, the roar of musketry, the smoke,
the dust and the din of the battle. The work, however terrible, is allur-
ing, enticing, awfully magnificent ! The enemy's charges, one after an-
other, come up and stop at a certain point ; apparently about 100 yards
to the front of the 13th — not over 125 yards at most.

They stop, retreat, re-form, then start up with a yell, rush towards us,
then stop again ; three times this is repeated, and each time we answer
their yells with our muskets. We feel as the Quaker did with the
burglar, when he said to him : " I bear thee no ill will, stranger, and will
not kill thee in spite ; but I am going to shoot, and if thy body keejjs in
front of my gxin thou mayest get hurt — thou hadst better run."

Our guns grow very hot, are plugged, and plunged into the water of
the ditch to cool them. Officers and sergeants load, while the men fire
— a most rapid way. During one of his charges, some of the enemy's
men, in their impetuous dash, appear out of the fog, and come straight
over the works into our lines, prisoners. Twenty-three come in, in one
batch. Still others dash towards our left, to get out of our direct line of
fire. Another large squad throw down their arms, rush to our riglit for
the lines of the 10th — and disapi)ear. A number of squads of them run
northward into the brush to our left, where they find an easy escape from
the front of the 10th Corps picket line ; judged to be a thin line from
the small amount of its firing this morning. Notwithstanding the noise
made by ourselves, we can hear the mingled din of cannon, shells and mus-
kets, in the contest, on the right near the turnpike and beyond, and catch
glimpses of the troo])s and the batteries engaged. We witness the dis-


conifiture of a Union battery in the turnpike, amid a fearful racket, and
during apparently a hand-to-hand tight.

As the fog and smoke lift, there is disclosed a most sickening spectacle
on our immediate front, and we can fully view the point — a long line —
where the enemy's chai^ges stopped and broke ; and '" where the yell
was knocked out of them," as one hard man of the Thirteenth near by
remarks. O the damnable horrors of war ! All the magnificence of a
battle fades out in the unspeakable abominations of its immediate results.
We can but pity, for it is a terrible and a most pitiful sight. On our
immediate front, along the bank of the sunken road, under the telegraph
wire and on this side of it, are lying a large number of the enemy's dead
and wounded, in a long row, apparently several hundred of them. As
they stumbled over the wire, and plunged down the bank, they bayoneted
numbers of their own men, while many of their guns, let fly, are sticking
up by the bayonets, at every angle, in the ground.

Now sorties are made. Company B under Lieut. Gafney, numbering
25 men, bring in 26 prisoners, two of them officers — a little Frenchman
having two rebels in charge. If we could now send out a regiment, we
could capture half a brigade ; a strong dash from the left upon his flank
could sweep the crippled enemy off our front. But we have no reserves.

A captured rebel officer — seems to be a Captain — as soon as he comes
within our lines, and sees how very few there are of us, merely one rank,
breaks out into cursing, and begins to shout to the enemy — now scarce
three hundred feet distant — to charge again ; but the muzzle of a gun
jjlaced against his head stops all that, and he marches off to the rear.
They say he is a staff officer, and when he was captured demanded of his
captors : " Treat me with respect ; treat me with respect — I am an
Adjutant General ! " Fifty-nine prisoners, sure, are bi'ought in to the
13th. There were probably more, as they came in at different times and
places, and amid the intense excitement of the battle. IManj^ of our Bri-
gade swore vengeance against the 44th Tennessee, for mutilating our
wounded and dead near Petersbui'g on May 7th or 8th — and execute
the vengeance to-day in dead earnest. This item is common report.

John H. Harvey of E is on the works firing, and his curiosity, as the
fog lifts, gets the better of his judgment ; he rises higher to look over,
and a rebel bullet crashes through his head, from forehead to back, and
he falls over backwards among the other men, bleeding, dead. His body
is laid under the apple-tree at the right of the Regiment.

By 8 a. m. the fog is nearly all dispersed ; and by this time too the
enemy's fierce charges in force upon our front are over, and he contents
himself with firing at us when we show ourselves in any way, sometimes
in regular volleys, and with a severe shelling from one of his batteries
run down near, or in, the turnpike. We witness the quick silencing of
this battery by the 10th N. H. The chief anxiety we now have is that
the enemy will flank us on the right, and various plans are discussed for
retiring. If a skilled hand could take us off by the left, through the


brush, to the crown of the hill m our rear, we could sweep the whole field
with our guns, and wholly prevent pursuit. But the 10th Corps there,
and the 18th Corps here, are apparently not acting in proper unison, but
too independently. Our watch is so sharp that no one of the enemy can
show himself within rifle shot and live, so we gain a little respite to look
about us ; but every man is ready for instant action, and a constant, at
times fierce, contest springs up here and there with the enemy's long lines
as he attempts irregularly to push his advance.

We must now go back a little and widen our view of the battle, for as
the fog lifts, or rifts, and the scene changes, we can see more and far-
ther, and catch views of the enemy's long, dirty-gray lines of battle, here
and there in the brush. The battle first struck Gen. Heckman, near
the James — the enemy attacking by the river road — where he is routed
and captured. As the enemy sweeps along victoriously towards us, he
encounters the 8th Conn, on the right of our Brigade, Lt. Col. M. B.
Smith commanding ; the right of that regiment resting at a little re-
doubt in the line of works, close upon the turnpike. The 8th Conn, is
compelled to retire for want of ammunition. Then the 118th N. Y. is at-
tacked, almost in the rear, and forced back after a severe loss in killed,
wounded and prisoners. Next the enemy pounces upon the lOtli N. H.
forming an angle with the 118th N. Y. ; but Lt. Col. Coughlin has sent out
two companies of the 10th as flankers on his right and forming a little line
nearly at right angles with his Regiment. These flankers check the enemy's
advance not far from 7 a. m., and having charged upon him, secure a good
position and hold it ; and now for two hours longer, and until 9 a. m.
these two New Hampshire regiments alone, both together less than a
thousand muskets, receive the brunt of the enemy's strong and fierce
attacks, in flank and front and made by at least a whole rebel brigade,
and repulse him every time. He brings up artillery to an open space
near the turnpike and attempts to shell us out, but before he can fire a
dozen shots every gunner is shot down by the men of the 10th N. H.,
and the guns are not again manned while we remain. They stand there
as we leave the field — very quiet and peaceable guns.

We are behind earth-works six to eight feet high, ditch and all, and
they afford very fair protection. The few scattered troops on our left —
belonging to Gen. Gilmore's 10th Corps — are as yet out of range, but
if we retire the enemy will come nearly upon their rear. Lt. Col. Cough-
lin of the 10th is repeatedly ordered to retire, but in doing so he will ex-
pose the 13th, and the other troops to the left, and he bravely objects to
moving until their safety is assured ; and so finally he is left to do as he
pleases, and it pleases him to act magnificently, as one of the bravest of
the brave. The 10th has a little the best position, either to hold or to
retire from, for there is a little cover near them ; but in the rear of the
13th there is a clear, open field 400 to 600 yards wide, an almost dead
level. The ammunition of the 13th runs very low — about five cart-
ridges left per man — and no possible chance for a further supply.



Finally, nearly or quite two hours after the two right regiments of our
Brigade have fallen back, the enemy are again seen massing on our front
with flags enough for two brigades, and preparing for a fourth assault
upon our position ; and the left of the Thirteenth swings around to the
rear, through the boxes, valises and bundles of its abandoned baggage,
property and records — needless and outrageous shame ! a few men
and officers here and there seizing what they may conveniently carry,
and our whole line sullenly faces about and marches in slow time, in line
of battle faced to the rear, and in perfect good order, across the wide,
open, level field, south of the works we have occupied, and into the
woods beyond the field, all done without any serious casualty, though we
are followed by the parting compliments of a few of the enemy's bullets.
Troops are also withdrawing on our right, and to our left infantry is re-
tiring in column of fours. The Regiment are all angry, and move with
sullen stubbornness. Col. Stevens, was present during the battle, and led
the Regiment out at the time of retiring. As it was a fight behind
breast-woi'ks, no great activity was demanded of the field officers.

" It ought to be said here that Col. Stevens had orders two or three
times to retreat before he did retreat ; as our position was a good one we
did not like to leave it." Major Stoodley.

No entire page could state the situation more properly than these few
words entered as a note by Major Stoodley, while he read the above in
manuscript. It was a rapid, determined, stand-up fight, with no need
of ui'ging or hurrying ; every man was ready and willing to strike, and
strike again, and did so.

The whole right flank of these two New Hampshire regiments was, for
nearly or quite two hours, exposed without any protection whatever, for a
clear space of more than half the distance, along near the west side of the
turnpike, from the rebel earth-works to Mr. Charles Friend's house — a
distance of full 250 yards.

It is altogether proper, and best, that the Thirteenth should retire first.
The 10th could in retiring soon reach cover, the 13th would have to go
more than twice as far in open ground. A determined charge by the
rebels upon the left of the 13th would imperil both regiments ; so that
whether by accident or design, this plan of retiring from the rebel front
is the best for all concerned that could be devised. The 10th N. H. fol-
lows the 13th immediately, and also in line of battle faced to the rear,
south, and also in regular order ; the enemy, howevei-, follows more closely
upon the 10th, and a few men of that regiment become a little too un-
easy to please Lt. Col. CoughHn, when they are about half way back from
the works to the woods, and still in open ground. Upon this he instantly
halts the 10th N. H., faces them to the front, north, dresses them up to
line, has their flags unfurled and bayonets fixed ; and then after a minute
or two faces them to the rear again, south, and marches them off the
field, in perfect line, and steady. All this is done in the very eyes and
teeth of the enemy's troops, who are so much astounded — or pleased


with the boldness of it — that they scarcely fire a shot, and only one man
in the 10th is hit by the enemy's fire.

In perhajis half an hour more — and after fighting for nearly six hours

— the main body of these two regiments is drawn up in line of battle, in
a strong position in the hard-wood grove about 500 yards to the front,
south, of the enemy's line of earth-works, and on ground over which they
advanced on Saturday morning. Our Brigade line is formed on the crest
of the ridge in the woods, on the west side of the turnpike, facing north

— left, 13th N. H., 10th N. H., 8th Conn., 118th N. Y., right — the
order being the same as when attacked in the morning. They remain in
this position until about noon. The front of our Brigade is protected by
a small force of skirmishers, consisting of three Companies of the 10th
towards the turnpike, and off to their left Company E of the 13th with
Capt. Julian and Lieut. Thompson of that Company. Co. E fires but little,
being short of ammunition, and at long range, but the three Companies
of the 10th, being at closer range, at times fire furiously upon the enemy
re-occupying his earth-works. The Union line now again faces north, ex-
actly where it was on the morning of May 14th.

In the afternoon the loth, leaving Company E on the skirmish line,
moves to the right, across the turnpike to the east side, and is drawn up
in line of battle in a field and facing north ; thus separating the Reg.
from Co. E by hard upon half a mile. This movement is unknown to
Co. E and it is left without orders, without support, and without any con-
nection with the rest of the skirmish line — a most awkward position ; an
independent skirmish line, practically, or an outpost picket, a wide space
intervening between them and the skirmishers of the 10th N. H.

While tl^e 13th is in this field, on the east side of the turnpike — Co.
H deployed as flankers, and a batteiy in position near by — suddenly a
body of the enemy, 200 or 250 men, sj^rings out of the woods, a short
distance from the Reg. across the field, and charges, yelling like lunatics.
In an instant Co. H and the battery fire one round, and the rebels turn
and make for the woods from which they came, rushing pell mell over
each other and leaving their dead and wounded on the field. A most
foolhardy little charge. Then a rebel regiment appears moving in the
same woods. A little later the 13th is moved forward in line of battle,
into the woods whence the rebels emerged, but finds no enemy. The
13th remains in this position until nearly night — one of the Reg. writes :
" toward night " — when it marches into the turnpike, is })laced at the
rear of the Brigade to cover the retreat, and without communicating in
any way with Co. E, retires with the rest of the forces to Bermuda Hun-
dred. The Reg. arrives there about dark — between 7 and 8 p. m. —
and goes into camp, on the old camping ground, after a long, hard, and
exceedingly dangerous day's work, dis})irited and beaten. Leaves its
baggage, records and dead in the hands of the enemy, and Co. E almost
as dangerously situated.

The most of the day's fighting is over by 2.30 p. m. Many occurrences


of to-day clearly indicate that the connection between our Brigade —
Gen. Burnham's — in the 18th Corps, and the Brigade next on our left,
in the 10th Corps, has been very faulty indeed.

" May 16th. The rebels opened on us early. They had heavy re-en-
forcements yesterday. The right and left (of the Union line) broke, and
the centre had to retire ; which we did in good order, but with the loss of
many good men. We lost (about) all our baggage. I have lost all I have
except what I have on me, silk sash and all." Lieut. Taggard.

When a retreat appeared to be inevitable, the attaches of the field
hospital bui'ied the body of an officer of the lOod N. Y., who was killed
in the battle, close up beneath one of the parlor windows of Mr. Charles
Friend's house, carefully replacing the sods and removing all surface
traces of the burial.

Now to return to Company E. Capt. Julian, and Lieut. Thompson, the
writer : Our position is to the left of the skirmish line of the lOth N. H.
and separated from the men of that line ; we are hard upon a third of a
mile due west from the turnpike, on a high knoll among trees, and over
400 yards, and a little south of west, from the part of the works where we
fought in the morning. These works we can see, running westwardly
back from the turnpike, for quite half a mile ; we can see the first, second,
third, fourth and fifth trenches, in the zig-zag course of the line. We can
also see all the open ground both north and south of the trenches, the old
rebel barracks, a long stretch of the turnpike, and beyond it the slope all
the way up to the fort at the top — Fort Stevens, possibly three fourths of
a mile distant — a huge affair with very high parapets, and a bi'ight-
colored rebel battle flag floating high above it. We have a broad out-
look. There are no pickets near to us on our left, and Co. E is posted in
a line of squads of three or four men each, a total of about thirty men.
The rebels are seen carrying off their wounded, from the scene of their
charges of the morning on our front, and they have a large number to at-
tend to, negroes assisting, while their troops in heavy force are marching
to and fro and massing in the distance. Half a dozen guns on this knoll
could now have for a target five or eight thousand Confederates in full
view and within easy range ; it is a wonder that the guns are not here !

Soon a body of Massachusetts troops (said to be) and of Gen. Gilmore's
10th Corps, four or five hundred strong, appears off to our left in the open
field between us and the enemy's works, and near the works on the front
or south side, and marching up in splendid order takes position on the
parapets of the fourth and fifth trenches — those next west of the Thir-
teenth's position in the morning ; the men lie down at full length on the
sand of the parapet, their feet towards us, their heads towai'ds Richmond.
The short fourth trench is almost exactly due north of Co. E's position.
While they lie there the enemy begins to re-occupy his works from which
our Brigade has just withdrawn. This is done by two bodies of Confed-
erates acting quite independently. One body of them has passed the
works from the north to the south side, and now swings from the enemy's


left toward his front and right, coming in from the turnpike westward,
and filing along in the very ditch, on the south side of the works, which
our Brigade had occupied — nothing could be done more awkwardly by
a drove of cattle. But by so doing, four rebel regiments — at least four
large, separate organizations, each having a battle flag, the usual stars and
bars — come nearly in flank and rear of the Massachusetts men on the
paraj^ets of the fourth and fifth trenches. Now comes the other body of
the enemy, as skirmishers, ap])roaching the north side of their works from
the west side of the old barracks, and with great caution ; but pretty soon
showing their heads for a long distance close up along the north side of
their works, taking a view for a moment, and then dropping down out of
our sight behind them. These skirmishers are evidently being handled
much better than the rebel regiments moving along the south side of the
works. The results of the two movements are to man a long stretch of
the recaptured rebel works on both sides at once ; a heavy cautious rebel
skirmish line in the ditch on the north side with their faces toward us,
and a brigade of incautious rebels in line of battle in the ditch on the
south side with their backs toward us — and this we presume is what is
meant by '' holding the fort."

The rebel brigade in the south ditch halt at first and turn their backs
toward us and the 10th N. H., and face toward Richmond ; soon breaking
into a double-quick by the flank, toward the west, along the ditch, and re-
forming farther along by file into line — all not only on the wrong side of
the works, but wrong side out, and wrong end first ! Victory has turned
their heads. Every Confederate, however, as he is snapped into place,
by the file-into-line movement on the double-quick, halts, raises his musket
and fires at the Massachusetts men across the angle ; the Confederates
forming in the trench which was held by the 10th N. H.. firing across the
trench which was held by the 13th, upon the Massachusetts men on the
parapet of the next trenches westward. The Massachusetts men do not
seem to have expected anything of this sort, they have no chance to ob-
tain cover, and before the affair is over, nearly two thousand rebels get a
shot at them, and some have time to reload, and to fire a second time ;
the Massachusetts men are terribly cut up, and at once retreat west-
ward around beyond the left of Company E's position, falling as they go.
They seem to be the extreme right regiment of the 10th Corps. It is for
us the saddest sight of the whole battle, but we are too far from them
either to have given them any warning of their danger or to assist them
now. Still the Massachusetts men pluckily re-form to breast the rebel
fire, but have to fall back and are soon out of our sight altogether, ex-
cepting their dead left behind them on the field. The whole affair is one
of but a few minutes, and the range of the rebels too long for our muskets
to be used with much effect, even if we had a plenty of ammunition.

But the enemy has dtne a stupid, foolhardy and most strange and
ridiculous thing, and their numbers are rapidly increasing ; and the 10th
N. H. are now ready to strike them dead in the rear, and at once make


the woods ring with volley after volley. These south-ditch rebels receive
the fire of the 10th, and possibly of other of our troops nearer the turn-
pike, directly in their backs as they stand in a long, dense line of battle,
and we can see them go down by dozens. We commence firing, but are
too far from them for our fire to have much effect, and we have but little
ammunition. There are now not far from 3,000 Confederates in plain
sight in that long gray line of battle. The whole view, from where we are,
is well worth traveling many miles to see. Capt. Julian shouts to his
men to fire, and exclaims : " I would give a thousand dollars now for a
big cannon chock full of grape I " The Captain has seen service as an
artilleryman. But there are no cannon hereabout now. The 10th N. H.,
however, being nearer than we are, continue a fierce fire ; and the rebels
scramble over to the north side of their works in the most hurried manner,
but we can see a long line of them lying still on the white sand, their
battles o'er, and apparently paying for their rear attack on the Massachu-
setts men by two or three to one. The survivors of them are soon in the
north ditch facing us, but lying low, and scarcely firing a shot.

During this most lively scrimmage, a rebel officer, mounted upon a large
white horse, rides up from near the old barracks and the turnpike at a
furious gallop, and drives his horse up on the top of the high bank of sand,
where the 10th N. H. were in the morning, gesticulating, waving his
sword, and shouting like a wild man ; and then, in a moment, both horse
and rider wilt down and collapse together in the ditch on the soutli side,
struggle a little, and are still. He was evidently endeavoring to hurry
the rebels over the works to the north side, where they ought to have
been all the time. The whole rebel line now faces south.

Pretty soon the colors of four rebel x'egiments are planted on the pai't of
the works where the Tenth and Thirteenth fought in the morning ; Avhile
still other rebel regiments hurry along past their rear and form, one after

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 36 of 81)