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 56 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 56 of 81)
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When the garrisons and gunners of the Confederate army had well
learned the hard fact that the Northern bayonet and sabre never hesi-
tated, then the Union cause was more than half won.

Because of the fragmentary and somewhat conflicting accounts, official
and otherwise, of the capture of Fort Harrison, the writer asked Lt. Col.
Smith, commanding the Thirteenth on that occasion, to make a definite
statement of the affair, which with his papers, letters and memoranda
condensed, is as follows: "When we started on the morning of Sept.
29, 1864, I looked at my watch as we commenced crossing the ponton
bridge over the James at Aiken's, and found it was then 3 a. m. We
crossed raj^idly in column of fours, myself and Adjutant Taggard on
horseback. It is about one fourth of a mile from the ponton landing to
Mr. Aiken's house. We left our horses there in care of orderlies. We
were formed for the advance very quickly, but of course it takes a little
time to put a couple of regiments of skirmishers upon a line in the dark
and on wholly new ground. Gen. Ord was not the man to tarry on such
occasions ; and Col. Donohoe of the 10th N. H., in command of the skir-
mish line, was another man who never let grass grow under his feet.

" The head of our column was kept close up to the skinnish line. After
crossing the wide flats, and reaching the top of the bluff to the second
flat, our skirmishers struck the rebel skii'mishers. At this time the dark-
ness had in no way decreased, and the firing was rapid, but there were
not many bullets from the enemy coming past us. The lOtli N. H. and
118th N. Y., on the skirmish line, were armed with Spencer rifles, and
they now used tliem for about ten minutes for all they were worth. We
advanced rapidly until we reached the woods a fourth of a mile farther
on ; and here it began to be light. A good many stray bullets were com-
ing back, and before reaching Mr. Cox's house Lieut. Henry B. Wheeler
of I was struck in his foot.

" When the column was advancing on both sides of the Varina road —
Col. Roberts' 3d Brigade on the right-hand side, Burnham's 2d Brigade
and Stevens' 1st Brigade, with the 13th, on the left-hand side — we came
upon a Confederate brigade encamped in an oak grove across the road
from Mr. Henry Cox's house. The most of the Confederates were ab-
sent, probably on their picket lines, the rest were driven out of their camp
by our skirmish line, in view of our main column. They left their camp
with their breakfast on the fires.

" We made no halt until we reached the edge of the large wood, when
we halted to rest ; and here caps were removed from all the muskets in
the assaulting column. Here also, about one half a mile beyond — north
— of Mr. Henry Cox's house, all irregularities in the column were cor-
rected, and the order of and formation for the assault was arranged as
follows : Roberts' 3d Brigade formed on the right-hand side of the road.
On the left-hand side of the road were, first, the 10th N. H. and 118th


N. Y.. of the 2d Bingade, deployed, in front of the whole Division, as
skirmishers with Col. Donohoe in command. The 96th N. Y., of the 2d
Brigade, were deployed in line of hattle next in rear of the skirmishers.
Then came the 8th Conn, in close column by divisions.

" Then came our 1st Brigade also formed in close column by divisions,
the Thirteenth leading our Brigade. This brought the 13th the third
regiment in the column, after the skirmishers. It may well be described
as a column of Brigades, each formed in close column by divisions.

" While we were halted here I went forward to the edge of the pine
woods and met there Major Theodore Read, Chief of staff to Gen. Ord.
We could see Fort Harrison very plainly, and began commenting upon
the situation. Our skirmishers were now slowly advancing into the wide
field, but not firing much, and away in the distance the rebel pickets
were slowly retreating with their guns at ' right shoulder shift.' A big
puff of smoke now appears in Fort Harrison, and a shell strikes near us
to the right.

" Near the point where Lieut. Wheeler was hit. Col. Donohoe came rid-
ing by, his gray horse covered with foam, and his face lighted up as a
man's face can be only when he is in the excitement of battle and every-
thing is going well. As he passed Gen. Ord he exclaimed : ' We are
giving it to them to-day, General ! ' and in an instant more he was out of
sight among the leaves and underbrush, as he dashed away.

" The formation above given was first made soon after crossing the pon-
ton bridge, excepting that the troops were then in the road, and was held
as nearly as possible, being finally corrected here in the pines fully one
and one fourth miles due southeast of the main southeast wall of Fort
Harrison. The course of the assault was therefore to be northwest,
across an open field a mile wide ; sweeping first down a gentle slope,
then rising abruptly to the fort on the crest of a bluff.

" We were soon moving again toward the fort, Col. Stevens commanding
our First Brigade, myself commanding the Thirteenth, and Capt. For-
bush commanding a division (two Companies of the 13th) in front of our
Regiment, all three of us marching nearly side by side. About the time
when we reached Mr. J. K. Childrey's house our skirmishers left our
front — I think going to the left and acting as flank-skirmishers. After
leaving the woods behind about one third of a mile, the column came to a
heavy zig-zag rail fence leading from the left side of the Varina road
along the lane to Mr. Childrey's house, and was halted for a brief mo-
ment while the fence was thrown down. After throwing down this fence
we advanced without a halt ; but at no time at a double-quick, although
Capt. Elder on Gen. Stannard's staff came to us ordering us to double-
quick. Upon this order came the quick response of the men : ' No ; we
will not double-quick, it is too far — but we will go all the same ! '

" Preserving their formation the men moved over the prostrate fence,
and across the open field — under a most furious and murderous rebel
fire, of all arms and missiles, raking the whole field — to within 100


yards of the fort, without firing a shot in reply. When they halted here
and laid down to take breath, the Tliirteenth rested at a point under the
hill directly in front of the huge traverse which divides the main fort into
two parts ; leaving one third north, and two thirds south. In this hol-
low in the field, under a hill or blufl: 15 to 20 feet high the fire from the
fort was ineffective by reason of the enemy's inability to sufiiciently de-
press his guns. Up to this point, however, the enemy's fire, rapid and
severe, had swept the whole plain across which the assaulting column had

" Just before we reached the bend in the Varina road Col. Stevens was
shot, and at once removed outside of the advancing column, but no halt
was made until we were under the little bluff near the fort, when it seems
to me every one laid down at once without orders. As soon as we had
halted here, I went back at once and told our senior Lieut. Colonel — John
B. Raulston of the 81st N. Y. — that he was in command of the Brigade,
Col. Stevens having been shot. He turned over the command of the 81st
to the senior officer present, and came to the front of our First Brigade
with me, lying down close by my side.

•' Now as to the final rush and the capture of the fort : The 1st Division
of the 18th Corps was formed between 4 and 5 a. m. near Mr. Albert
Aiken's house as follows : First, as skirmishers the 10th N. H. and 118th
N. Y., covering both sides of the Varina road. Second, the 96th N. Y. in
line of battle, the 8th Conn, in column by divisions. Third, our First
Brigade, in column by divisions, commanded by Col. Stevens. It was
his invariable rule to place his command as follows : commencing with
the lowest numerical number and increasing to the rear. This always
brought our Reg. to the front being 13, followed by the three New York
regiments — 81st, 98th, 139th. So the Thirteenth was the second Regi-
ment in column of divisions behind the 8th Conn., to the left of the road.
The 3d Brigade (Col. Guy V. Henry, 40th Mass, in command usually,
but at this time absent on leave in Massachusetts) was under command
of Col. Samuel H. Roberts of the 139th N. Y. of our First Brigade, and
was in column on the right of the road. We thus advanced, and when
we came to the bend in the Varina road, the 3d Brigade had crossed from
the right side of the road to the left, joining the 1st and 2d Brigades on
the right, thus bringing the whole Division together again into a compact
column for assault before we reached the little bluff beneath which we
laid down to take breath.

" We laid under this little bluff for perhaps five minutes — not more ;
and it was Col. Samuel H. Roberts who gave the order to advance from
this point upon the fort. Our three Brigades were all together lying
mixed up on the ground. Col. Roberts was a tall, oldish looking man,
apparently fifty years of age, with a thin, dyspeptic looking face — I can
see him so plainly even now ! He gave the command in a slow, drawling
and an even, monotonous voice : ' Come, boys ; we must capture that fort
— now get up and start ! ' We all together almost instantaneously


obeyed the command, and the cohimn suddenly sprang forward as one
man, charged up the hill in a solid body, and rushed straight over ditch
and parapet of the long southeast face into the main fort. The advance
was made in quick time, all the regiments in the assaulting force being
more or less mixed up until the fort was captured. There was no abatis
in front of the fort, and the men jumped into the moat, now dry, drove
their bayonets into the front side of the walls of the fort up to the muz-
zles of the guns, then placed the gun-stocks upon their shoulders, and
other men climbed upon them up into the fort. Soon we had the fort,
garrison and guns — six of them in the main fort, and some say eight.

" Capt. Forbush and Lieut. R. R. Thompson were shot near the moat
before entering the fort. I was wounded in the head — a three inch
scalp wound, merely such as to compel me to be off duty for four or five
clays — while trying to cause the Thirteenth to oblique to the left, so as
to enter the main fort south of the traverse — which would be nearer the
centre of the fort. After being wounded I was very faint for a few min-
utes, and got into the moat for safety, and there remained and witnessed
the capture. Later while returning, wounded and bleeding very badly,
down under the little bluff in front of the fort, I found several men loiter-
ing behind, and ' sent them up into the fort, ^^^len I was shot the com-
mand of the Thirteenth devolved upon Capt. Stoodley. Soon after the
capture I was sent back to the rear in charge of the prisoners captured,
and when about opposite Mr. J. K. Childrey's house, I met Gen. Heck-
man's Division advancing northward on the right-hand side of the Varina
road, in column of divisions. So that it is impossible for any man of
Gen. Heckman's command to claim any share whatever in the capture of
Fort Harrison.

" Gen. Hiram Burnham's brigade did not capture Fort Harrison ; any
more than Col. Stevens' brigade or Col. Roberts' brigade did. These
three brigades were mixed together lying on the ground under the little
bluff ; at Col. Roberts' command these three brigades sprang to their feet
simultaneously and almost as one man, and rushed together into the moat
of the fort, spread along the moat to the right and left to secure working
space, and the men and officers of all the regiments in our First Division
in the assaulting column alike and at the same time clambered up the
walls and into the fort, all as quickly as they possibly could. Gen. Burn-
ham did not go with his Brigade, Stevens and Roberts led theirs. Col.
M. T. Donohoe belonged to Gen. Burnham's brigade, and after Gen.
Burnham was killed succeeded him in command of that brigade. Col.
Donohoe was wounded in the afternoon when our troops were forced to
retire from some captured rebel entrenchments near the James river.
Col. Stevens did not belong to Gen. Burnham's brigade at all, but com-
manded his own brigade until he was shot.

"After the capture, our 1st Brigade turning somewhat upon its right as
a pivot swung through the fort and the barracks to the rear of it and ad-
vanced, while the Confederates disputed every inch of the ground. This


turning movement brought the right of the Thirteenth near the rear, or
northwest side, of the 500-foot first line, or face, of the earth-work — the
heavy rifle-trench leading northward towards Fort Gilmer — the right of
the Reg. resting at a point about midway of that trench. About 9 a. m.
a heavy skirmish line was sent out from the Reg. which skirmished all
day, and remained on picket until the morning of the 30tli. Gen. Ord
was wounded while standing on the southeast end of the great traverse in
the fort. During the night the Reg. was set at work for a time building
the line of rifle-trenches that ])oints from the southern part of the fort
directly toward Mr. J. K. Childrey's house ; this line confronting the
rebel line of rifle-trenches running from the southern end of the fort to the
James river." Lt. Col. Smith.

Sept. 30. Fri. The second day of the battle of Fort Harrison.
Rainy, drizzling, chilly. The Thirteenth has been at work all night.
Last night it was clearly evident that the enemy was being heavily re-
enforced by troops drawn, apparently, from Petersburg ; and this threat-
ened renewal of the contest to-day has spurred every man to do his
utmost in preparing our defenses.

Last night the Thirteenth was moved into a part of the field which
we crossed in the assault, remained there an hour or so, and then was
moved back again within the foi't. We also moved to the rear of the fort
towards the James. Aside from these moves, occupying not much over
two hours in all, we worked on the defenses, running across the open rear
— the northwest side — of the fort and towards the river, all day yester-
day, after capturing the fort between 7 and 8 a. m., all last night, and all
this morning up to 11 a. m.. without rest or sleep ; and all the time, when
he could see us, under the fire of the enemy. By this time to-day, we
have succeeded in throwing up a strong line of defenses for ourselves —
the second line made by us since we captured the fort ; when suddenly,
at 11 a. m. our Brigade is assembled and moved off towards the right into
a wide, clear space next to the colored troops, and posted in line of bat-
tle. The movement, and posting the various regiments, occupies a con-
siderable time.

Our right rests now about midway of the 500-foot line of the fort, and
on the rear, or northwest side, of this line. We have here no cover
whatever, as our line forms a right angle with that 500-foot trench. Capt.
Stoodley has command of the 13th to-day, and at his direction we all set
at work at once with dippers, bayonets and sticks, each man for himself,
throwing up little mounds of earth for protection. A few small logs are
also made use of for the same purpose. But we have not been in position
here twenty minutes, when, about 12 noon, the enemy opens upon our
lines with every gun he can bring to bear from field batteries, forts, mor-
tars and gunboats ; the din is terrific. This firing keeps up for about an
hour, while our guns scarcely make any reply ; but every man in our
lines makes ready for what he knows is surely coming — a furious rebel
charge. We face northeast, and are out beyond all the improvised breast-


works thrown up across the rear of the fort ; and are in a smooth, open
field, ahiiost entirely unprotected during the whole engagement of the
day. The enenay's charges are directed a little west of south, where he
strikes our front, and as he comes over from the James river.

Soon the enemy can be seen advancing without skirmishers, in long
lines of gray, and as steadily as if on a gala day parade ; he emerges
from the woods with flags flying, and the swords of his officers waving
and flashing, and moves down over a slope into a ravine. He threatens
a fierce fight, and our lines and men are placed in the very best possible
condition for defense. The 10th N. H., and other troops, having the
Spencer rifles are distributed along the weaker jjarts of our position.

Our flag is at once planted in the sand, unfurled, and all along our
lines flag after flag is rapidly unfurled, until every bit of available color
and bunting is set waving in the breeze as a challenge to the enemy to
come on. These flags spring up like magic ; and with them instantly a
single loud, strong, clear voice, near by the 13th strikes up ' The Battle
Cry of Freedom,' —

" Yes, we '11 rally round the Flag, boys, we '11 rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of Freedom,"
— and the whole line takes up the song spontaneously, as it was begun —
all joining whether they can sing or not.

An officer, who witnessed this scene of the flags and heard the song,
says : "It seemed to me as if the whole rebel army and the devil himself
could not have captured those flags."

All is the work of a few swift moments. The enemy re-forms in the
ravine, marches steadily up to the crest of the hither slope, in such order
as to exhibit his whole long solid columns almost at once, then dashes
into a double-quick and run, with bayonets fixed and gleaming, straight
for our lines, yelling like an army of demons, and soon is within close
range ; when, at the sound of a single musket shot fired on our side —
apparently an accidental shot and not a signal — the song stops as sud-
denly as it began, our men drop down behind our hastily improvised
cover, and their awful work of the day commences, in dead earnest, with
one unbroken blaze and crash of musketry, a solid volley, every man fir-
ing after a steady deliberate aim — not a random shot on the whole line.
At the first fire the enemy's front lines seem to wilt and sink down into
the ground, as if it had suddenly opened beneath them ; their columns
waver a moment, then fall back in confusion. Our men meanwhile load-
ing and firing at will, and as rapidly as possible.

The firing quiets down. The enemy rallies, forms and charges again ;
again receives a volley followed by a rapid rattling fire, and is hurled
back. Again, and still again — four times — he forms and attempts to
advance ; the first three charges by the troops of General Hoke and
Field, 18 full regiments, under the eye of Gen. Lee himself, and the
fourth charge by fresh troops ; but all in vain, he cannot recapture the
works. His fresh troops cannot be again successfully rallied. A body


of his troops have rushed into a depression from which they can neither
advance nor retreat. The advantage is seen, and a sortie is made by men
of the 10th and 13th, and five hundred prisoners come in at once. Capt.
Goss of I, now commanding the Corps of sharp-shooters ^ of our 1st Divi-
sion, captures the colors of three of Gen. Clingman's regiments, and a
large number of prisoners ; for which he is specially complimented in
General Orders. Lossing states that Clingman's brigade is almost en-
tirely wiped out. Seven rebel battle flags in all are captured by the Un-
ion troops.

During these three successive charges, and the less threatening fourth,
battle cries, cheers, yells, shouts of command, the crash of volleys of mus-
ketry, the thunder of cannon and the crack of shell mingle together in a
terrific roar. The enemy charges up very near. No one of our men, in
the excessive excitement, feels any sense of fear or danger, and all work
together with the utmost coolness and rapidity. Tlie enemy's fourth at-
tempt to rally and charge ends in a complete fizzle, and his men turn
and run for cover, every man for himself. They strike a snag.

At the enemy's final discomfiture, our men seize their flags and wave
them, swing their caps, scream, hurrah, and shout themselves hoarse, at
this most important victory.

One North Carolina brigade — Clingman's — is practically annihilated,
either killed, wounded or captured, flags and all. The battle continues
from twelve noon until dark ; but the severest part, the enemy's fierce
chai'ges, covers but a short time, two or three hours.

Fifteen rebel regiments — counted by their flags — were massed on our
Brigade front, and in advancing received our front fire, and a sharp and
effective fire, from right and left, in both flanks ; they dashed into the
curvature of the sickle blade, and were cut down. One large batch of
prisoners are virtually deserters. They state that Gen. Lee commanded
in person, and was willing to sacrifice a large number of his men if he
could possibly wrest from us this Fort Harrison — one of the strongest
forts upon his entire line, and whose loss is counted a very great disaster
to the Confederate cause.

Capt. Stoodley states that after the cannonade the enemy moved to
the assault at 1 p. m. Fifteen rebel regiments upon our Brigade front.
Gen. Stannard was shot about 1.30 p. m. The battle lasted from 1 p. m.
till dark. The enemy charged three times. The officers of the Thir-
teenth present in to-day's battle are Capt. Stoodley and three Lieuten-
ants. This is the coolest, sharjiest, most deliberate, and most ' business-
like ' battle the Thirteenth has been engaged in. We meet sui)erior
numbers in open ground, advancing with desperate courage and dogged
determination over and over again ; and besides this and the enemy's
infantry fire, we are all the time under a severe fire from the enemy's

* Capt. Goss' men charged with fearful yells into the mass of disorganized rebels ;
and though it is doubtful, some have it that here began the nickname — ' Sharps' -


field batteries, his guns nearer Fort Gilmer, his mortar batteries and his
gunboats in the James.

Pollard states that the enemy's assaulting force on us to-day are Ander-
son's. Bratton's and McLaw's Brigades, of Field's Division.

When these two fearful days are over, our 1st Division of sixteen regi-
ments of infantry numbers but 1,300 men present for duty, and the
Thirteenth is cut down by almost one half in dead, severely wounded
and disabled. The casualties of these two days in the Thirteenth are
two officers and thirteen men killed, seven officers and fiftj^-nine men
wounded ; a total of 81, about the same number as the loss in the twelve
days at Cold Harbor. Eighty-one out of one hundred and eighty-seven
is a severe loss indeed.

One of the most wonderful cases of wounds received in the war was
that received to-day by Sergt. Major James M. Hodgdon of the Thir-
teenth. He was lying down during the enemy's third charge, when a
rebel sharp-shooter's bullet — a ' square-ender,' longer, but a trifle smaller
than a minie bullet — struck his right eye, entered, and passed downward
inside his temple, smashed the end of his jaw, thence down his neck, and
finally brought up against his right shoulder blade, breaking it badly.
He did not lose consciousness for a moment. Lieut. Curtis gave him a
glass of raw whiskey as he lay on the ground, the stimulus of which may
have saved his life.

He came very near dying while in the hospital. At one time all hope
of his living was given up by the Surgeons ; but nothing could damp his
own good spirits and hope. When the Surgeon at Hampton Hospital
frankly told him that there was but one chance in a hundred for him to
recover, Hodgdon tapped the Surgeon on the arm familiarly with his fin-
ger, and rather confidentially and good-naturedly replied: "Well, Doc.
I \vill take that chance ; " and the brave fellow did ! lie recovered. Has
a wife and fine family now, 1887, and has charge of the weaving rooms
at Manchang Mills, Mass. He says that he can compare the sensation,
when the bullet struck him, with nothing but the pleasant feeling experi-
enced when a piece of warm flannel is laid against one's eye.

He was able to leave the hospital for home on Dec. 20, 1864, after
being in the hospital but 80 days. The bullet was cut out March 12,
1865, having worked down to the middle of his back, and touching the
spine. It is a wonder of wonders that a man could survive such a wound.

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 56 of 81)