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

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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 54 of 81)
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too much. If there is ever again, in this country, a necessity for an army
to take the field, it is to be hoped that common sense, if nothing else,
will so prevail that the common soldiers, when it is possible, may have
at least* one half a day of rest in each week, and that on Sunday.

We must not pass " Nigger Joe," the man of all work, in the Hos-
pital Dept. of the Thirteenth, big, black and not handsome. Swearing
was his especial horror. Hearing any one swear strongly, he would
drop on his knees in the road, or wherever he happened to be, and pray
long, loud and fervently for the swearer ; and of course he had a very
constant practice for his faculty. Having done his duty at praying, he


would rise to his feet, mingle with the crowd he had collected — and pick
the pockets of his heavers. True type of talky-talky piety.

During- the battle of Fredericksburg he found in the city a large trunk,
filled it with women's wearing apparel, shouldered it, and presented him-
self, with his most sanctimonious face, at the ponton bridge ; and repre-
senting that he had hospital stores in the trunk much needed across the
river, and telling the guard tliat : " De good Lord would bless de dear
guard for not 'taining him," he was allowed to cross. Once over the
river he dumped the contents of the trunk in the nearest clump of j)ines,
took the trunk to the old camp of the Thirteenth, and sold it for $5.00 to
a man of the 13th left there in charge, and then returned to the city for
more plunder.

" He stretched his mouth so much with his ' prayers,' that his mouth
looked like a yard of red flannel drawn across a coal-bin." This is Lieut.
Sawyer's description. He stole so frequently, and made so much mis-
chief in the Brigade that Col. Stevens had him dismissed ; and thus the
Thirteenth lost one of its most unique followers.

Sept. 26. Mon. Quite warm, clear. Reg. in camp. Battalion
drill. Brigade Dress-parade. Six deserters come in, all direct from Rich-
mond. They state that there is a great deal of suffering for want of
food, clothing and medical care and supplies in that city. Ponton bridge
at Point of Rocks is taken up. Lieut. Sawyer starts for Norfolk on three
days' leave.

Sept. 27. Tues. Very cool. Reg. in camp. Drilling. Dress-pa-
rade. The Bands play all along the line to-night. A rebel First Lieu-
tenant deserts to our lines.

All the work done by us here on the Bermuda Hundred front, since we
came over from the Petersburg front on the morning of Aug. 27th, has
been reasonably light, but continuous, and giving little chance for rest.
This is considered a very important position, and our Brigade has fur-
nished continually details for outpost picket duty, and for labor on the en-
trenchments. These lines, however, have been quiet, there has been but
little firing even between the pickets, and we have not been required to
be awake and under arms half the night, as we were when in front of
Petersburg. On the whole a stupid, lazy and uninteresting month. We
have drilled for a few days, Company drill in forenoon and Battalion or
Brigade drill in afternoon. The Sundays have been the busiest days of
all, crowded with ^reviews, inspections and parades.

Lieut. Gafney reports for duty, having arrived here from home on
Sept. 22d. The wound in his leg is quite well healed, his robust phy-
sique has proved, after a long period of rest, to be in good order, and ap-
parently all right, and so he returns to duty ; but sooner than he ought,
for it is a dangerous experiment, the bullet not having been extracted.
We think he ought to be written the merriest officer in the Thirteenth.

Extracts from letters w^ritten at the front :

" Sept. 18th. Orders are now made very strict against trafficking ^^ath


the rebels — pickets with pickets. The rebels are very anxious to get
illustrated pa2)ers ; as I suppose because they want to see the pictures, for
few of them can read.

" The rebels cheered tremendously when they received the news of Gen.
McClellan's nomination for the Presidency. They tell our boys that he
will be elected, and then the war will be over very soon. The enthusiasm
was as great in the rebel army as it was in the Chicago convention itself.
The rebels cheered, threw up rockets, speechified, their bands played, and
they made such a noise nearly all night that we could hardly sleep.

"They have prayer meetings two or three times a week, and we are so
near we can almost distinguish the words when they sing. One of their
preachers we can hear. He was telling them the other night about the
sacredness of their cause, and the necessity for every man to shoulder his
musket and drive back the invaders, etc., etc. ; and said that if any refused
to do so they should be forced to do it, or be shot as recreants and trai-
tors. This apparently did not meet the views of some of their vedettes
out in front, nearer our lines than he was, for they hooted at him and
hissed him at a great rate.

" A rebel Lieutenant recently offered one of our Corporals SoO in Con-
federate money, for a dozen cakes of hard-bread. The Corporal gave
him fifteen but would take none of his money.

" Sept. 25th. A salute with shotted guns has just been fired. There
have been several of them of late. Our troops turn out under arms and
take position at their breast-works, the extreme front line, when the can-
nonade opens first upon the left, then rapidly runs up the line to the
right, and then the whole line keeps up the incessant blaze and roar for
about an hour. The rebels to-day replied with two shots only, in front
of the Thirteenth, their shells going over harmless.

" Lieut. Taggard is acting as Adjutant of the Tliirteenth, and makes a
very good one indeed." Prescott.


September 28, 1864, to February 28, 1865.

Sept. 28. "Wed. Very fine clay. Reg. in camp. Last night or-
ders were received to prepare two days' cooked rations, and to be ready,
this morning, to march at a moment's notice, and in light marching order.
Major Normand Smith is in command of the Thirteenth, and Col. Stevens
in command of our Brigade — 1st Brig., 1st Div., 18th Corps — consisting
of the 13th N. H., 81st, 98th and 139th N. Y. regiments.

Company C, Capt. Durell, is garrisoning Redoubt McConihe, and re-
mains behind ; the balance of the Reg. moves out of the entrenchments
at Bermuda Hundred at 8 a. m., with the Brigade, and halts a short dis-
tance to the rear while other troops move into our place.

The troops moving in are fresh soldiers from Pennsylvania ; some of
whom are said to have received §1,500 in bounties to induce them to en-
list. One of these freshmen in war college, while we are halted here,
asks Andrew J. Robbins of G if the Thirteenth are now going to a battle,
and the following colloquy ensues : Robbins in reply. " O yes ; we never
move without going into a fight." Penn. " Do you suppose that we, too,
will be ordered into a battle ? " Robbins. " No indeed. They won't
put you in — you cost too much to be risked in a battle ; we did n't cost
anything — so they stick us in everywhere." Penn. thinks he sees the
point, and the boys have a laugh with wliich to begin the day.

At 9 p. m. we move off, and after a rapid march of about thi-ee miles
bivouac near the James, and nearly opposite Aiken's landing, on a very
rough piece of ground but dry and clean. This landing is eight miles
above Deep Bottom, and two miles below Dutch Gap. The advance —
10th N. H. and 118th N. Y. — cross the river on pontons, a little after
midnight, and move out upon the Varina road as skirmishers. Our
Division soon follows.

This movement is for the purpose of surprising and capturing Fort
Harrison, the key to a long portion of the enemy's line, situated on Chaf-
fin's farm, about one mile from the east bank of the James River, six
miles from Richmond, and nearly opposite Fort Darling on the west bank
of the James. The garrison is said to be about 3,000 men. The work
consists of one square fort, mounting 8 or 10 guns, the ditch ten feet
deep and the sides of it nearly vertical, above which tlie walls of the fort
rise some ten or fifteen feet more. From this strong fort heavy rifle-


trenches stretch out to right and left, intersected by numerous small re-
doubts and redans mounting one or two guns each, commanding and en-
filading the approaches in every direction. The works mount 22 guns in
all. The approach is also commanded by the rebel gunboats in the James
above Dutch Gap. Just about these two bluffs — Drui'y's and Chaffin's
— an area of three or four square miles is closely filled with heavy earth-
works ; one of the strongest and most easily defended outlying systems of
fortifications on the entire Confederate line. The enemy's pontons here
bridge the James, and his fleets hold a safe and secure anchorage.

Our assaulting force consists of Gen. George J. Stannard's First Divi-
sion of the 18th Corps, sixteen regiments, about 2,000 men ; co-operating
with Gen. Heckman, farther to the right, having also a force of about
2,000 men. All from the Army of the James.

Gen. Birney moves at the same time from the Petersburg front, with
about 10,000 men, to invest or attack the Confederate lines north and
east of Forts Harrison and Gilmer, both of which are connected by sev-
eral heavy lines of trenches and numerous redans and redoubts with the
Confederate works at Chaffin's Bluff,^ a mile and a quarter distant on the
James. Gen. Kautz, with cavalry, is to move still farther north, along
near the Darbytown road.

Sept. 29. Tliurs. Fine day, clear, cool. The Reg. is called at

2 a. m., breakfasts, crosses the James river at Aiken's landing about

3 a. m., on a ponton bridge covered with hay and earth to deaden the
sounds of tramping men and horses. The 10th N. H. and 118th N. Y.
now armed with Spencer rifles, ' Seven-shooters ' — the 10th having yes-
terday received 150 of them — are deployed as skii-mishers covering the
front of our Division, and under command of Col. Donohoe.

The Thirteenth with the rest of the Division marches by the flank —
by fours — up the road above Aiken's house and there forms close column
by divisions, the 13th having the right of our Brigade, and the right of
the 13th resting on the Varina road.

The firing commences, between our skirmishers and the enemy's pickets,
at eax'ly daylight, just when we first enter the woods. Our advance is
made very rapidly for three or four miles, though the enemy's strong line
of skirmishers contest every inch of the ground, and at times most stub-
bornly. Now and then the contest seems like a regular engagement, as
the rapid shots from the Spencer rifles drive the enemy back from cover
to cover, until he finally falls back within his entrenchments. The rebels
have no language sufficiently strong to satisfy them, while condemning :
"■ That infernal Yankee gun that shoots seven times at once."

The whole distance from Aiken's landing to Fort Harrison is nearly
six miles, taking in all the windings of the road, and about four miles as
the crow flies. Speaking in general terms, we approach the fort from the
south side, driving the enemy up the James river.

^ Though this name frequently appears as Chapin, it is properly Chaffin. A
redoubt is a small isolated fort enclosed and defensible on all sides. A redan is a
salient angle, or small fort, open and indefensible on at least one side.



Col. Donohoe commanding our Division line of skirmishers, has his
horse shot under him, and other mounted men volunteer to carry his
orders, and conspicuous among them is Capt. James A. Sanborn of the
Tenth New Hampshire.

On arriving at the belt of j)ine woods running between Henry Cox's
and J. K. Childrey's houses, our skirmishers make a splendid charge on
the double-quick and run, clearing the timber of the enemy's skirmishers
and driving them into the open field and part of the way across it ; and
secure excellent positions on the flanks, from which they can effectually
cut down the enemy's gunners while our Division assaults the works.

The Division halts for a few minutes in this belt of pines, while slight
irregularities in the lines caused by the rapid, hurried march are cor-
rected, and the solid columns of the men, massed in divisions, secure the
best ground from which to rush upon the assault. It is only the work of
a moment, when the column again moves forward, the right of our Bri-
gade resting upon the Varina road. As the column advances and
emerges from the wood, all at once the high walls of Fort Harrison come
into view, occupying a very high crest of land, a strong natural position,
nearly a mile distant. We have already been liberally treated with the
enemy's large shells, but at quite a long range ; and now, as our skir-
mishers, moving directly in front of the column, gain the extreme edge
of the brush and advance into the open field, and we, in the column, come
into view from Fort Harrison, the enemy oj^ens upon us with eight or
ten of the most prominent guns in the fort. Whatever we do at all must
be done very quickly.

Here we are in brush and slashing, on the edge of a wood. Directly
in front of us, and stretching up to the walls of the fort, is a broad, open
field nearly a mile wide and swept by the enemy's guns — on the two
gunboats in the river, in redoubts to the left, and in Fort Harrison itself,
high on our front, surely by guns in one fort and in three redoubts —
how many guns in all we know not, but evidently we are in range of
more than twenty, besides those on the boats in the James. Added to
the fire from all these, comes an occasional and very large shell from the
right — the rebel works nearer Fort Gilmer.

Fort Harrison, as the special object of our attack, blazes away at us
with all its might. Added to the artillery, are the enemy's sharp-shooters
and infantry, manning the long lines of his rifle-trenches, laid in full sight,
in long zig-zags, for a full mile and a half, to right and left of Fort
Harrison ; and we can see the enemy swiftly concentrating, running in
together along his lines, upon our front. Their ' saw-horse ' battle flags
are unfurled, the staffs planted in the sand of their high parapets of fort,
redoubt and trench — they have not been surprised.

The prospect is terrible ; however, the lines of our skirmishers are
pressing forward, our assaulting force — the First Division — advances
in close column by divisions ; the Tliirtcenth, the third Regiment from
the front of the main column, is steadily leading our First Brigade ; caps



are removed from all the muskets and bayonets fixed — the bayonet alone
is to win this battle ; and in a few moments the Division emerges in a
body from the brush, with aims at a ' right shoulder,' and almost jauntily
and with confidence and fearlessness — Veterans these ! marches straight
through the field for the fort. The men are urged to double-quick, but
refuse — saying that they are ' going to keep their wind sound for this
job.' The Tliirteenth goes in, a little body of only 187 guns.

We are now a special target for every gun which the enemy can possi-
bly bring to bear upon us. Huge shells come tearing and screaming up
from his gunboats into our left flank ; the redoubts to right and left
plunge in their cross-fire ; while Fort Harrison, directly in our front, plies
us with shrapnel, solid shot and shell, and as we approach nearer the rebel
riflemen shower upon us their hail of lead ; their severest fire coming
from the brush, trees and trenches upon our left. Some of our men fall
riddled with bullets ; great gaps are rent in our ranks as the shells cut
their way through us, or burst in our midst ; a solid shot or a shell strik-
ing directly will bore straight through ten or twenty men ; here are some
men literally cut in two, others yonder are blown to pieces — and the
horrors of an assault in force, the storming of a fort, are repeated over
and over again. Despite the carnage in the ranks, our Division moves
forward with wonderful steadiness, though many of our skirmishers and
the assaulting column are all merged in a body together ; all our officers,
and especially those of the line, being of course more directly among the
men, moving and working with almost supei'human courage and energy.
The men need no urging, were never more ready for a fight, but the
ranks need closing and correcting in line as they are broken by the
constant falling of the killed and wounded.

Now our Brigade is deployed in lines of battle, and when we have ad-
vanced to within about one hundred yards of the fort, the enemy's fire is
so terrific that the wasted and shattered column wavers a little — the task
seems impossible. Our column has now marched nearly a mile in the
very teeth of the fearful storm, and the worst of the battle is still ahead.
A little to our right and front is a ridge of land, within striking distance
of the fort on its crest ; and our Brigade, with the rest of the column,
now cut down by more than one third already killed or wounded, moves
towards the right obliquely in behind this ridge, and for a moment is
sheltered from the direct fire of the fort in front. Here we take breath
for a minute — the Spencer rifles in the hands of our skirmishers are set
at work with all possible rapidity — and this little respite of time and
shelter saves to us the day.

The pause of the assaulting column here is but for a little time — esti-
mated at from three to five minutes — when the officers and men of the
whole column in a body, almost regardless of organization, mount the
ridge with a rush and a shout, make directly for the high front walls of
Fort Harrison, again receiving the enemy's full fire, dash rapidly across
the intervening space, and all as one, officers and men, plunge together



into the deep moat, spread instantly to right and left to secure working
space uncrowded on the walls, thrust bayonets into the walls of sand and
gravel, and all clamber upon the parapet of the fort — some mounting the
high works upon their comrades' shoulders, and then getting firm foothold
draw their comrades up after them — and in a minute more the staffs of
our battle flags are planted in the sand of the parapet — that of the Thir-
teenth being among the first. Some claim it was the first. The Thir-
teenth carries only its National colors in this battle.

The men and officers of brigades and regiments mingle indiscriminately
in this last dash, and so near are the contestants, that when we climb up
on one side of the walls, the enemy's men are in their places on the other
side — we look straight down upon the points of their bayonets, and upon
their sallow, savage faces — and a fierce hand to hand conflict ensues ;
but we ai'e atop, and at the show and use of oar bayonets, the enemy
seeks cover within and behind the soldiers' barracks within the fort and to
the rear of it. There are from fifty to a hundred of these buildings of all
sorts, and here our rifles come into play for the first time ; up to this
point the assaulting column has not fired a shot — the bayonet alone has
won this battle. The enemy is driven out, or captured, only after a stub-
born resistance. The firing is at such short range, that some of our men's
faces are actually burned and blackened by the flashes of fire from the
muzzles of the enemy's rifles. The enemy is dislodged, however, and
our victory is complete by 8 a. m. All his dead and wounded falling into
our hands, all the armament of the fort, and a large number of the de-
fenders and garrison as prisoners.

As soon as the contest is over, the works are immediately manned in
every direction by our troops, and the guns of Fort Harrison are turned
upon the enemy fleeing to right and left, and seeking cover in the dis-
tance, while our men make the air ring with cheer upon cheer. A strong
skirmish line — made up in part by men of the 13th — at once presses
forward, out beyond the rear of the fort, and drives the enemy back quite
a distance into the brush, where a sharp contest ensues late in the day,
and Col. Donohoe, in command on the left, is severely wounded, when
about one quarter of a mile to the left of the fort. The balance of the
Union force take position in the fort and trenches, for immediate action
in case the rebels make a counter assault.

" When we had captured Fort Harrison, myself and a number of other
men of the Thirteenth who were among the first to enter the fort and
barracks, found in the rebel officers' quarters an excellent breakfast all
prepared and set out ready to be eaten. The rebel officers did not have
time to eat their breakfast, and we heated, hungry, begrimed with powder-
smoke and dirty, just as we were, sat down at the earliest moment we
could and ate their breakfast in their stead, and arose feeling much
obliged to them for it." Erastus Newton", Company I.

Fort Harrison is a large square work without any walls on the rear
side — the side towards the river — being protected here by rifle-pits


only ; and the enemy continues to shell us, while within the fort, both
from his gunboats and from the vicinity of Fort Gilmer. But our
men on gaining possession of Fort Harrison at once set at work throwing
up entrenchments and defenses across this rear side. The enemy had
a quantity of baled hay for his horses stored in the fort, and this is rolled
out and placed in line as a breast-work ; timber and logs are used also,
and barrels and boxes are set up and shoveled full of earth. Every avail-
able man is at work all day and all night without rest or sleep, and
before morning a strong breast-work is made across the rear of the fort ;
the works are reversed and put in a state of complete defense, and the
troops are stationed to meet whatever may come on the morrow.

" Eight guns are captured in the square fort, two of them 100-pound-
ers." Major Stoodley.

The track of the advance of our assaulting column, across the field, is
thickly strewn with the dead and wounded ; and as soon as the fort is
taken, details of men are sent to care for our own wounded, and those of
the enemy also. Our dead are gathered, and buried within the fort.
No one is allowed to leave the fort, and front line, excepting the special
details to care for the wounded, and to remove the dead.

While crossing the field in the assault, the Color Sergeant of the Thir-
teenth, David W. Bodge of B, is severely wounded while the flag is in his
hands. When he falls a member of the Color-guard picks up the flag and
bears it on. The National colors, only, are carried in this assault. Every
one of the men of the Color-guard of the Thirteenth is either killed or
wounded in the assault, the most of them being shot in the left side, by
rebel sharp-shooters posted in and among trees, and the colors are 2)assed
from hand to hand as they come up.^ It is stated officially, that the Thir-
teenth at the time of the capture claimed that their colors were the first
planted on the fort, but not claiming too much, it is enough that our colors
were planted among the very first on a captured fort of the great size and
strength of this Fort Harrison.

Col. Stevens, commanding our Brigade, falls in the assault when a few
rods from the fort, and lies there until the battle is won, and is then
carried from the field. He has commanded the Brigade since July 25th.

Major Smith commanding the Thirteenth is wounded in the head, re-
ceiving a scalp wound nearly three inches in length, during the assault
and when near the moat, and is assisted in, out of range, by Sergt. Major

^ The writer endeavored to trace the course of our colors through the assault, nam-
ing the men, who bore it, in order ; but found statements conflicting, the matter
mixed, and fearing to do injustice forebore further mention. In the three Brigades
were twelve to twenty flags ; in the last dash the flags and their bearers were falling,
and the flags were being picked up by almost any one who chose to do so. During
this last dash Color Corporal Charles Powell of K and an officer of the 9Sth N. Y.
seized the fallen flag of the Thirteenth very nearly simultaneously, a tussle ensued,
but Powell got the flag. There are discrepancies in the number of cannon captured,
but the field-pieces were turned, run to the rear of the fort and fired upon the retreat-

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 54 of 81)