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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is greatly enhanced by knowing that they would instantly shoot us all at
sight, if they could possibly do so I

It is officially claimed that the Thirteenth (with the 2.5th N. J.) gained
a point much nearer to the rebel stone wall and batteries here than any
other of the Union forces ; but as the left wing of the 25th was badly
broken up in the mud and its right wing extended to the i-ight considerably
beyond the right of the Thirteenth, the colors of the 13th were necessarily
uncovered ; at any rate they were uncovered, and came up independently
to the front line of the assaulting column, and no Union troops, dead or


alive, were In front of the colors, and men of the Thirteenth about them,
at the final halt ; the writer was in a position to know that fact.

AVe are under fire in the charge ahout forty minutes. It seems to us
that we lie here, where we wei'e ordered down, for a full half hour. On
looking about for the wounded, after the rebel firing has slackened, none
are found in front of us, and a man now lying near our colors, but to the
right of them, remarks : " We will all be captured if we remain here,"
and suggests a retreat. The word is passed from one to another, and
after a little we all rise and move back, crouching low, some creeping on
hands and knees, for a short distance, and then march, sweeping around
considerably towards the north at first, to the rear of the Richmond and
Fredericksburg Railroad, and there find a part of the Thirteenth halted
and forming in line ; and at the railroad hear a sj^eech going on — some
one urging that we charge again — and we, are told that the speaker is Col.
Donohoe of the 10th N. H. That idea, however, is soon abandoned.
Squads of men rapidly coming in join their regiments ; the 13th is re-
formed, withdraws from the vicinity of the railroad about 9 p. m., marches
down to the city and bivouacs until morning ; having first halted for a long
time, in a little field near the city limits^ while our wounded are cared for.

Capt. Julian retired from the front with the colors. The writer was
directed to look after some of the men who were temporarily missing.
When the enemy's first crashing volley struck the Thii'teenth, the most of
it and the colors had cleared the gully or ditch, had moimted a steep bank,
and had advanced some little distance iipon the smooth ground beyond the
crest, and were aiming towards a big black hill rising high directly in our
front, and only a few yards distant.

These circumstantial points are mentioned here only as evidence of
what the ^^Tlter firmly believes, namely : That the colors of the Thirteenth
were carried to a point within one hundred feet of the enemy's line and
nearer than the colors of any other regiment in the army.

Every Company in the Reg. reached the little field above the bluff, and
points about equally distant from the rebel lines ; and members of all
have about the same experiences to relate of what they met during the
charge, and saw and heard while lying down at the front.

While on our way back to the R. & F. Railroad, from the point nearest
to the enemy's lines where we finally halted in the assault at the word
" Down," and after walking a long distance, we find on the blutf-side,
sitting beside a lone tree, apparently an oak, and near a spring of water,
an officer of high rank whom we know, and we stop to see whether he
needs any assistance. We ask him if he is hurt, and he answers, " No,
but I am all bedaubed," and we pass on and leave him there. The writer
was startled on seeing this man, and remembers the incident with great
vividness. It points a prominent landmark, for now, on visiting the field
in May 1885, we find on careful inquiry that but one tree of any con-
siderable size stood during the war on that bluff-side ; and that one was
the oak-tree near Cold Si)ring, which stands about 500 to 600 yards east-


ward from the stone bank-\vall and Telegraph road. The tree stands but
a few rods from an exceedingly muddy place struck by the column in
the assault. Later in the night, water was obtained from this spring by
Hosp. Steward Royal B. Prescott, and others of the stretcher-corjjs and
Band, for the wounded men of the Thirteenth. The mud near Cold Spring
stojjped, short, many members of the assaulting colunni.

As we leave the field of the assault we pass through a large number of
the dead ; and at one point not far from the railroad, near the crest of
the long bluff and under it, they are so thickly strewn, that if we should
try, Ave could walk a long distance upon the bodies without once stepping
upon the ground. The dead lay all along our line of march, most of them
to the right, as we went up to the assault, and were very numerous just
where the Thirteenth re-formed after the charge, along the bluff, and the
R. & F. Railroad nearer the city. Of these Lt. Col. Grantman, then
Captain commanding Co. A, on the extreme right of the Reg., states that
while the Thirteenth was being re-formed some one inquired what regi-
ment it was lying on the ground under the bluff, and just across our front,
and that he, Grantman, went up to them, and spoke to sevei-al of them,
but received no reply. He su2)posed them to be asleep, as it was now too
dark to see very clearly. Trying to wake one or two of them, he found
they were dead — and so of all. As they lay on the ground in a long line
conforming to the edge of the ridge or bluff, they had the appearance of a
large regiment that had just laid down in a somewhat irregular line of
battle — there were hundreds of them.

The New Hampshire Adjt. General's Report for 1866, Vol. II. p. 786,
states : About 5 o'clock on the afternoon of Dec. 13, Gen. Getty was
ordered to attempt, with his Division of only two brigades, what two
Corps had attempted in vain. Hawkins' Brigade was to attack supported
by Harland. Hawkins formed his Brigade in two lines, the Thirteenth
on the right of the second line. The troops moved across the railroad
(R. & F.), under a considerable fire from both musketry and artillery,
and nearly to the point where the Telegraph road turns at a sharp angle,
about the foot of Marye's Heights, and runs nearly west ; when they
obliqued to the right, and charged up the steep bank, in hopes of carrying
the works which crowned its crest. It was so dark that the line was a
good deal confused, and receiving a terrific volley when within a few rods
from the enemy, and the point aimed at, the regiments were broken up
and retreated in disorder. The lines were re-formed, but the command
was ordered to retire to the city.

No language could more perfectly designate the hill close to the Ceme-
tery, and at its southwest corner, and the steep bank of the hill dropping
from the little field on the top of it southward towards Hazel Run.

The crest of the bluff not only curved outward generally, but was rough,
notched and irregular in outline ; so that one company on a part of the
crest may have been nearer the enemy than the next company, which
advanced into the level field. The discussion of the question as to who,

64 THIRTEP:NTH new HAIMPSHIRE regiment. 1862

or what company, of the Thh"teenth went nearest to the rebel stone wall
is altogether unprofitable — a question of a few feet at most. The
writer halted in the field on the top of the bluff ; the colors were there
also ; he saw members of the Regiment to the right and left, and knows
them to be so because of the assembly later, and believes that all the
companies were about equally represented at the extreme front. The
colors were bound to lead and direct, for that is their purpose, the Regi-
ment from right to left dressed on the colors, and any bend in the line was
but slight. The honor of the Regiment rests with the colors, and the
colors went deep into the level field on the top of the bluff. Though the
line of the Thirteenth was somewhat disordered by the deep mud, the first
volley from the enemy and the sudden break to the rear made by a small
body of troops in our front, all occurring within a few minutes ; still every
company held its position as a whole, and mounted the plateau, or moved
forward into the little field at the top ; and this fact is sustained by the
positive statements of all the company commanders later made, while
discussing the incidents of the charge, each company in the line coming
up to about the same point of nearness to the rebel stone bank-wall.

Though quite a number of the men of the Thirteenth were about the
colors on the field at the extreme front under the Confederate cannon,
the writer has been unable to recall with sufficient clearness the name of
any companion who was there at the time excepting Peter Smithwick of
E, and he has had no communication with Smithwick since the war
closed, till now. To test his memory on the point, the writer requested
Quarter-master Morrison to ask C. A. Stiles, P]sq., of Wilton, N. IT., to in-
terview him in reference to the incidents of the charge, Mr. Stiles being
furnished with the items of fact recjuiring substantiation, but Smithwick
not being informed as to them or as to what was the purpose of the inter-
view. This was done about the first of March, 1887. Such personal
items well authenticated are very desirable in a history of this form ; a
history in which the officers and men together tell the story of the Regi-
ment. Smithwick has been an unfortunate man, but is honest to a fault.
The following was the result of the interview :

" Wilton. N. H., March 10, 1887.
Lieut. S. Millett Thompson, Providence, R. I.

Dear Sir : When the assault was made on Marye's Heights and the
stone wall on the evening of Dec. 13, 1862, by Gen, Getty's Division, I
went with the colors of the Thirteenth N. H. V., and also with a number
of the men of the Thirteenth, a considerable distance beyond the point
where we received the first heavy volley of the rebel musketry fire, and
until the firing became so severe and near that we were ordered to lie
down ; when we did so, falling and lying flat on our faces ujion the
ground, with our heads towards the enemy ; it seems to me we were
there nearly half an hour before the firing ceased and we were ordered
to retire. While we were lying there on the ground I heard something



strike you — S. M. T. — or a book you had, with a hard thump, and I
reached forward and iiulled at your foot, and asked if you were hurt, or
killed, or words to that effect, and you answered ' No.'

I also remember that while we were lying there, the gun wads or cart-
ridge bags from the rebel cannon fell among us burning and stinking, and
the men near us tossed them away with their bayonets ; we could feel the
wind and warmth of the fire of the rebel cannon on our faces and hands,
and the place was somewhat lighted up by the flashes of the guns.

I remember too that before we left the field up there on the front
where we laid down, we looked about for the wounded, and found no one
dead or alive nearer the rebel guns than we were, and we left no one
lying there. After retiring, the Regiment was re-formed near the bank,
where there were a large number of dead bodies lying about on the
ground. Very truly yours|

(Signed) Peter Smithwick.

(Signed) Witness, C A. Stiles."

In reference to the above statement and the interview, Mr. C. A. Stiles
writes : " Peter Smithwick is very clear in his remembrance. He says
it was Orderly Thompson that told him to lie down when in front of the
enemy, as he was so tall. It would be impossible for the story to be told
so nearly alike unless they (vSmithwick and Thompson) were both on the
spot. He is very clear in all that he has signed."

It is officially claimed that the Thirteenth was under fire, in the assault,
for forty minutes ; and that its dead lay within one hundred and twenty
feet, officially verified, of the enemy's cannon. Lieut. Staniels writes in
his diaiy : " Our Brigade ordered into action at sunset, charged, withdrew
at about nine, and bivouacked on the field." We take the following from
Capt. Julian's letters w^-itten from the front :

" The Thirteenth was under fire both hot and heavy, for about forty
minutes, in the night assault of Dec. 13 ; and we were for the most of
that time within about fifty yards from the enemy concealed behind a stone
wall, but they could see every man of us. We labored under a great dis-
advantage in the assault, having a regiment, the 25tli N. J., in front of
us, which broke and fled, breaking back through our lanks. Had it not
been for this regiment in front, the Thirteenth would have seen the other
side of that stone wall. We went nearer to the enemy than any other
regiment that participated in the fight at this place. The night was
dark, and we were so near the enemy it was impossible to rally the men
while at the extreme front. I tried to do so till I found myself standing
alone in an open and level space of ground, not many rods distant from
the enemy and slightly in advance of the colors ; and then thinking dis-
cretion the better part of valor, I laid down as the rest were doing, piled
my roll of blankets and haversack in front of my head to protect it so
far as they would, and there remained near half an hour between the
two fires, and cross-fire, of both the enemy and our own troops.


*' Shot, shell and musket balls made merry music around me, and some
of them came very near me, but I was not struck. The enemy fired
among us an immense number of bullets, or some small contrivance, that
exploded as they struck, giving forth little flashes of flame and sounding
like fire-crackers, also bounding from the ground and flashing in the air
above us and on all sides. Company E was the Color-company. We ad-
vanced the colors a number of yards into the field above the top of the
bluft' and brought them off with us in safety. I took into the fight that
night an Enfield rifle captured from a rebel picket, one of the two taken
by Company E on the night of Dec. 11. I meant to have preserved this
musket and sent it home as a relic of the battle, but intrusted it to the
care of one of the men, who lost it, greatly to my regret."

Capt. Julia?^.

We are also pleased to give the following from Lieut, (then First Ser-
geant) Charles M. Kittredge of Company B, the second company from
the right of the Thirteenth, and commanded by Capt. Elisha E. Dodge :

''It was dusk when the Thirteenth moved over the E. & F. Railroad,
and dashed across the level field towards Marye's Heights. The most of
the heavy guns had ceased firing ; the rebel pickets were troublesome ;
but without any opposition from the intrenched enemy, we crossed the
field, turned to the right, and charged directly up a steep bluff in front
of the famous stone wall. The left wing had necessarily the longest dis-
tance to go, because of the swing to the right, and before we reached the
top of the bluff the ranks of the 13th had become somewhat irregular
and broken. The increasing darkness, the mysterious silence of the
enemy, and the evidences of defeat and destruction all about us, were
by no means inspiring. Repeated orders were heard from the line offi-
cers to ' Dress on the Colors ; ' and all along the line brave officers and
men were rallying to the old Flag, and pressing to the front. Company
B had hardly reached the crest of the bluff, with a part of the 25th N.
J. just in front of us, when a low muffled order was passed along the
Confederate line, distinct, firm, deliberate, and dreadful to our ears,
' Ready, Aim — Fire I '

'' The next instant came the flash, and by its light we could distinctly
see, directly in our front, a solid column of ' Gray Jackets,' behind a waU,
in dense ranks, three or four men deep, with gims aiming over each oth-
er's shoulders.^ The tei'rific volley bowed the men of the 25th N. J.,
and swayed them, like a swath of grass cut with the scythe, and back
down the slope they came, upon and through the ranks of the Thirteenth.
Company B was almost literally buried for a few moments, by the terri-
fied and wounded. To add to the confusion, the rebels kei:>t up a rapid
fire, which was returned by come of our own men, who were below us
and could not discern, in the darkness, friend from foe. We were for
a time between two leaden fires.

^ From the contour of the ground Company B must have been well up beyond the
general line of the crest of the bluff in order to have seen the rebels' heads at all, and
even nearer the wall than Lieut. Kittredge imagines.


"When I succeeded in freeing myself from the heap of the fallen, I
was minus my military cap and had a bayonet wound near my right eye,
and a war mark across my forehead. Just then I heard the command of
that brave and noble man, Capt. Dodge, as he stood above the crest, ring-
ing out clear and sharj) above the noise of the musketry, ' Company B —
Fall in ! ' He repeated the order several times, as I stood by his side,
but the darkness and confusion were too great to foi-m the broken and
scattered ranks. The day's work was done. The battle of Fredericks-
burg was ended, and only the groans of the wounded and dying could be
heard, and the noise of the firing, as in silence and sadness we groped our
way back towards the city, and in fragments of companies encamped in
the lowlands. We must have gone nearer to the Confederate lines than
any other troops. I do not think we were more than from thirty to fifty
(30-50) yards from the stone wall when we received that terrible volley.
The rebel order to fire was as distinctly heard as though it had been
given by our own oflicers, and it was given in a very subdued tone of
voice ; and when that flash revealed the mass of slouched hats, and glis-
tening gun barrels and bayonets, it seemed as though we could almost
shake hands with the rebels. Certainly their nearness was extremely un-
comfortable to us, and I believe that had the order to fire been delayed
but a few seconds, and the rebels aimed very low, there would have been
a great loss of life, and the happy reunion of the Thirteenth New Hamj)-
shire would hardly have taken place on this side of the Rappahannock."

Lieut. Kittredge.

It is also very gratifying to hear from Capt. Betton on these points ;
he states :

" My Company, K, then having nearly its full number of men, was on
the extreme left of the Tliirteenth in this charge, being the second rank-
ing company. When the oblique movement to the right was made. Com-
pany K was compelled to move more rapidly than the rest, as the Regi-
ment swung to the right, in order to dress on the colors. Just before
the enemy fired the first volley at us, Lieut. E. W. Goss, very enthusias-
tic as usual, sprang to the front of the left of the Company, waved his
sword, and called upon the men to follow him, and he was about a rod in
front of the Company when the volley came. The bullets flew past him
without harm. Many believe that he got nearer the stone wall than any
other man in the Regiment, and surely he was among the nearest. The
three men on the left of my Company, Henry G. Thompson, John Har-
mon and John K. A. Hanson, were captured. They approached to a
point from which they could not retreat, and were captured when the
enemy threw out his skirmish line. We got within about twenty yards of
the stone wall. John C. Stevens, who was Thompson's file-leader, says
that Thompson was hurt ; and Stevens and Henry 8. Paul think that the
Regiment was not more than three rods from the enemy when they fired
the first volley. Robert W. Varrell carried the National colors into the
charge. He was a very large man, weighing about 300 pounds. He


dropped the colors, and some one else brought them off the field. He
claimed that he was hurt. He ra})i(lly fell away to a mere shadow of his
former self, and did no duty after the battle." Capt. Betton.

These extracts from letters written at the front and statements clearly
indicate the general belief concerning the Thirteenth's nearness of ap-
proach to the rebel stone wall. A few incidents of this day. Dec. 13. 18G2,
which goes into history as the day of chief interest in the Battle of P'red-
ericksburg, may not be out of place.

While we are lying on the bank of the river near the Gas Works this
morning, one of the enemy's large shells is seen to burst among a com-
pany of a hundred or so of Union soldiers, coming down the road to the
ponton bridge, on the Falmouth bank. Many of them fall, some are hurt,
but every man rises to his feet, and marches along upon the bridge. The
most wonderful instance of hair-breadth escapes the writer ever saw.

While here, too, even in the midst of the shelling, the shells constantly
flying each way over our heads, the men enter into a contest of stone
throwing for amusement ; attempting to throw a stone across the Rap-
pahannock, where it is said that Gen. Washington did, from the Wash-
ington farm to the Fredericksburg shore at the ferry landing, just where
the central ponton bridge now is. Many make the trial, but only one
succeeds, a huge fellow from Michigan.

It is stated on good authority that duriiig the battle to-day about 100
pickets, belonging to a New Hampshire Regiment, not the 13th, while
skirmishing, suddenly offered not to fire another shot, if the rebel pickets
would not ; the proposition was accepted, the men of both sides ceased
firing, threw down their arms, met between the lines, shook hands, and
mingled together in conversation for some time. Were then severally
ordered back to their posts, and soon went on with the work of war as

One reason given for the failure to carry Marye's Heights, and for
the awful slaughter attending to-day's assaults upon them, is that '' dashes
end in fusillades." On coming near the enemy's lines the Union men re-
ceive the enemy's close fire, and immediately lie down and commence
firing themselves in reply, and there remain without any shelter, right in
the focus of the enemy's fiercest fire, until they are cut to pieces ; the
few survivors having to run back to save their lives, if thus they may.
If, instead of this, they had kept straight on, they would it is believed,
have captured the enemy's works.

During the charge to-night, a man of the 13th is knocked down the
bank of a ditch by the concussion of a bursting shell. He is stunned for
a time, and on realizing his situation, finds himself held down in the mud
by two men, who lie partly on top of him. He asks them to get off, but
they do not move quickly enough to suit him. He struggles out from
under them, and upon examination, finds them both dead. He has no
idea how long he lay among them. Next morning he finds his clothing
so much saturated with blood, which at night he su})posed to be water,


that he is obliged to throw it all away and obtain a new suit. On the
whole, an experience he can never forget, though unhurt.

Maj. Storer loses his sword from the scabbard while on the retreat, and
does hot discover his loss until he reaches the place of bivouac near the
city. He at once starts out upon the field again and recovers it.

The enemy's vicious explosive bullets cracked, flashed and sparkled
about us like a shower of fire-crackers in the night, exploding as they
struck — hellish little things. The enemy threw samples of all his
missiles : grape, canister, shell, niinie, round and explosive bullets, and
solid shot, and, as the men aver, long pieces of railroad rails.

A large detail goes up on the field to-night, to care for, and to bring
off, the wounded. Of course the wounded cannot in many cases be dis-
tinguished from the dead, for the night is very dark, and our men must
needs carry a lantern. But the enemy fires upon our men with the
lanterns, whenever the lights are exposed. Not all in the Southern army
are chivalrous ! Asst. Surgeon Sullivan worked all night among our
wounded men, and was fired at by the enemy while carrying a lantern in
looking after the wounded of the Regiment ; he was the only regimental
Surgeon with the Thirteenth during the assault, Surgeon Richardson hav-
ing been ordered to remain at the Hospital in the city.

A reliable man of the 13th writes home : '' We went so near the mouths
of the rebel cannon, in the assault, that the blaze warmed our faces."
Another states : " I am unhurt, but the two men next on my right hand,
one man next on my left, and the man behind me, were all hurt ; one of

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 8 of 81)