Unvexed Waters: Mississippi River Squadron, Part 2

Island No. 10 and New Madrid, Missouri

Part I of this post introduced the unprecedented U.S. Army Western Gunboat Flotilla—soon to be reorganized as the U.S. Navy Mississippi River Squadron—and carried it through the victorious battles of Forts Henry and Donelson, Tennessee, in February 1862.

The next Union objective was the northern stopper in Rebel defenses of the mighty Mississippi: Island No. 10 near New Madrid, Missouri.

This enlarged sandbar at the bottom of a tight river U-turn mounted five batteries and 24 guns backed up with 7,000 Confederates. Navy Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote supported Major General John Pope against the obstacle in March and April.

Three weeks of furious bombardment by Foote’s gunboats along with rafts mounting 13-inch mortars achieved no results. Foote was hesitant to expose his ironclads to heavy shore guns again after suffering severe damage at Forts Henry and Donelson. Going downriver with the swift current was a whole lot easier than coming back up. The cumbersome vessels could be disabled and captured, and possibly turned against friendly river cities.

But Captain Henry Walke of the USS Carondelet insisted he could make it. The ironclad was covered with rope, chain, and whatever loose material lay at hand. A barge filled with coal and hay was lashed to her side. Her steam exhaust was diverted from the smokestacks out the side of the casemate to muffle sound.

USS Carondelet running the batteries at Island No. 10

On a moonless night under a thunderstorm, Carondelet slithered downstream unscathed and almost undetected. Another ironclad gunboat followed. The dramatic passage introduced a new, and previously unthinkable, naval tactic: driving vulnerable warships through narrow channels past heavily armed fixed emplacements.

Once past the batteries, the gunboats ferried Union forces across the river below the island, isolated and captured the outnumbered garrison from behind. This process would be repeated on a larger scale three weeks later at New Orleans, and subsequently at Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and Mobile.

Charles H. Davis

Flag Officer Charles H. Davis relieved Foote as flotilla commander in May 1862 and headed on downriver for Memphis with six ironclads, accompanied Colonel Charles Ellet and his nine unarmed wooden rams.

Confederates had seized a motley collection of passenger, cargo, and tow boats to defend the river, converting them to rams armed with one or two guns—the Confederate River Defense Fleet. Like the Ellet rams, these were captained and crewed by civilian rivermen, nominally under army command, but operating independently and with little coordination.

Five of the swift Rebel steamers surprised and rammed the lumbering Union ironclads Cincinnati and Mound City at Plum Point Bend above Memphis on May 10. Both vessels were grounded and sunk in shallow water but were soon raised and placed back in service.

On June 6, eight of the Confederate converted paddlewheelers steamed out to defend Memphis cheered on from the bluffs by hundreds of citizens. After an inconclusive, long-range gunnery duel, the impatient Colonel Ellet, on his own initiative, charged through the ironclad line in his Queen of the West and struck the first Rebel vessel encountered, sinking it immediately, only to be rammed himself by another. The ram Monarch followed, while the ironclads closed to deadly range.

Battle of Memphis. Note the city and its cheering inhabitants in background.

A raging melee erupted with no command coordination on either side. The Rebel squadron, unarmored and outgunned, was destroyed, marking the near eradication of Confederate naval presence on the river.

This was the only “fleet action” of the war, the last in which ramming was a primary tactic, and the last time civilians with no military experience such as Charles Ellet commanded ships in combat. Ellet’s ram fleet would become the Mississippi Marine Brigade under navy direction, employed primarily for amphibious raiding and support tasks.

The loss of Memphis, the Confederacy’s fifth-largest city and key industrial center, opened the Mississippi all the way to Vicksburg and opened West Tennessee to Union occupation.

But strategic opportunity was lost as attempts to reduce Vicksburg from the river that summer of 1862 failed for lack of army support when the indecisive Major General Henry W. Halleck became bogged down in the siege of Corinth, Mississippi.

Rear-Admiral David D. Porter

Then a major reorganization transferred the Western Gunboat Flotilla to command of the navy and re-designated it the Mississippi River Squadron with a new and aggressive rear admiral, David D. Porter, in command.

Halleck was called to Washington and Major General U. S. Grant took over the Army of Tennessee.

Porter and Grant made a winning ream, melding the strategic flexibility of maritime power—within its limitations—with hard and smart fighting on land. But it was a learning process. In late December, Grant sent W. T. Sherman downriver with a major amphibious force for a landing at Chickasaw Bayou northwest of Vicksburg, only to be repulsed with heavy casualties.

Grant’s Yazoo Pass Expedition

That winter and spring, Grant conducted a series of fruitless operations to outflank the city by cutting canals, blowing up levees, flooding the Mississippi Delta, and pushing ironclads, gunboats, and troop transports through tiny, choked channels that must have resembled the upper Mekong in “Apocalypse Now.”

The general wrote in his memoirs that these efforts were intended primarily to keep his troops busy during the flooded and disease-ridden winter and that he had no expectation of success. This claim appears to be contradicted by his contemporary correspondence.

Grant’s final option was to march the army through the swamps down the west bank of the Mississippi, cross south of and get behind Vicksburg. Porter would have to sneak his gunboats and transports downriver past powerful Rebel batteries on the bluffs to accomplish the army crossing. This would be a one-way run. If the squadron survived the transit, it would be suicidal to steam back up against the swift current.

Mississippi River Squadron running Vicksburg batteries (Currier and Ives)

On April 16, 1863, a clear night with no moon, seven gunboats and three empty troop transports loaded with stores ran the gauntlet. Despite efforts to minimize lights and noise, the bluffs exploded with massive artillery fire. Confederates set bonfires along the banks to illuminate the scene. Union gunboats fired back.

The Union column hugged the east bank–so close they could hear rebel gunners shouting orders–to get under the line of fire with shells zinging overhead. On April 22, six more boats loaded with supplies made the run. The squadron incurred little damage with two transports lost, thirteen men wounded, and none killed.

Grant ferried his army across, laid siege to and captured the “Gibraltar of the West.” It was arguably the most brilliant campaign of the war, at least as important as the simultaneous victory at Gettysburg. The Mississippi River Squadron backstopped the army, closed the river, and provided continuous heavy artillery support. The fall of Port Hudson, Louisiana, the last Confederate stronghold on the river, followed quickly.

“The father of waters again goes unvexed to the sea,” wrote Abraham Lincoln. Other than the abortive Red River campaign in spring 1864, there would be no more major river engagements. But the Mississippi River Squadron would be busy for two additional years fighting Rebel guerrillas, suppressing enemy trade, and protecting friendly commerce.

(Extracted from a paper presented at the North American Society for Oceanic History (NASOH) Annual Conference, St. Charles, Missouri, May 22, 2018. This presentation with PowerPoint is available for interested groups. See www.CivilWarNavyHistory.com.)

Equestrian Casualties at Gettysburg

“Three miles before we got into town we could see the marks of Cavalry skirmishes, passed some dead horses which were slowly burning up.”[i]

The aftermath days of Gettysburg – and other Civil War battles – presented horrifying scenes at field hospitals, burial trenches, and on the fighting ground. Human casualties had priority for care and burial, but aftermath photos are filled with examples of equestrian casualties. What happened to the dead or wounded animals forced into military service during the Civil War?

At Gettysburg, the dead and injured horses and mules covered the landscape – left unburied and untreated longer than the soldiers – but there actually was a system for caring for these animals and the aftermath of this July battle in Pennsylvania left examples.

Horses and mules moved armies. Think about it: cannons, supply wagons, ambulances – all “horse-drawn.” The cavalry rode horses. Generals, officers, and couriers used horses, too. Historian Gregory A. Coco estimated there were 43,303 horses and 21,844 mules for the Army of the Potomac[ii] alone at or near Gettysburg. Shot down in battle or struck by artillery projectiles behind the fighting lines, these animals fell in staggering numbers. In aftermath accounts of the shocking scenes at Gettysburg, dead horses and mules are frequently mentioned

Dead horses and mules had to be disposed of. On some battlefields, special burial details were assigned to the task – chopping off the lanky legs, then dragging or pushing the carcass to a burial hole, and covering it with soil. An average horse weighs about 1,000 pounds so the burial work was significantly difficult. At Gettysburg, so many dead animals littered the landscape and so many fallen soldiers needed burial that the authorities decided to bury the dead soldiers and burn the animal corpses, hoping to dispose of the horses before disease spread. Some eyewitnesses estimated 3,000 animals needed burial or burning and the work was done by soldiers of the provost guard, citizens, and Confederate prisoners. Many civilians and soldiers remaining in the area remembered “the odor from the burning horse flesh…[which] smell[ed] like an escape from a hateful charnal house.”[iii]

Lydia Leister’s home – notice the large dirt mound; this could be a buried horse

Not all the equestrian carcasses were burned or buried. Widow Lydia Leister – whose home had been taken over as General Meade’s headquarters during the battle – testified that seventeen dead horses stayed in her front yard. She waited two years for the flesh to rot away, then sold the bones which totaled about 750 pounds.[iv] Looking at photos of the Leister home taken shortly after the battle, a large heap of dirt is by the front fence, presumably covering a horse’s body. Military accounts record an artillery shell tearing through tied horses at that headquarters during the barrage prior to the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge, so there is plenty of evidence that the widow returned to a shocking sight and nauseating stench that she did not have the strength to permanently remove.

However, not all the horses on the field at Gettysburg when the fighting ended and the armies retreated lay cold and still. What happened to the injured horses and mules? Those with no chance of survival died on the field of battlefield, put out of their misery with a merciful shot to the head. Other animals found gentle human hands to tend their injuries and lead them to temporary veterinary pens in or near town where “horse doctors” looked after them. Private Hezekiah Weeks, a 21-year-old blacksmith from a Union Maryland unit, joined others to look after these injured animals.[v] Bandaging, cleaning injuries, feeding, and evaluating these battle scarred animals took weeks of time.

Trostle Farm in the days after Gettysburg. The horses in the yard are mainly from the stand of the 9th Massachusetts Battery.

The Union army claimed the gear and supplies left on the battlefield, arresting civilians who tried to take it for innocent or profiteering reasons. The military horses were also U.S. property to be returned to service, destroyed, or sold as officers decided. At least one local Gettysburg civilian tried to round up a few of the horses to nurse back to health for his own use or sale and got arrested for the attempt.[vi]

As the weeks went by, the horses at veterinary pens faced evaluation. Would they be useful to the army again? Were their injuries healing? Could they survive work in the civilian world? Those horses and mules labeled unrecoverable – several hundred – were herded to  a thicket area near Rock Creek (likely near Abraham Spangler’s farm) and shot; the heaps of skeletons remained for decades, a shocking reminder of the loss of equestrian life during the battle and aftermath.

Happily, though, many other animals recovered. Some returned to military service. Others were sold to local civilians; some of the Gettysburg residents had lost their work animals during the Confederate raid or in the battle. By mid-August 1863, one of the Gettysburg papers advertised:

Condemned Horses and Mules

Quartermaster Smith advertises a sale of 350 condemned U.S. horses and mules, at Gettysburg on Monday next – sale to be continued from day to day. The terms cash – in U.S. funds.[vii]

“Condemned” in this sense meant useless to the army, but many local farmers found and “rescued” these war horses.

Some of the equestrian battle veterans auctioned at Gettysburg followed their new masters to barns recently reclaimed from field hospital use. They ambled along roads which had been fighting lanes and later grazed in battlefields. They dragged the plows through the soil, pausing when the metal struck bone – fallen, unknown soldier or fallen, unknown beast.

Horses and mules had a hard life in Civil War armies. Wounded or dead, they were often the last to receive care – completely understandable given the situations – but still a sorrowful situation. At Gettysburg, these equestrian casualties littered and staggered across the fields of battlefield – waiting for silent disposal or looking for a steady hand to provide aid to the gashes, sprains, and frightened minds of the still-living horses and mules.

Horses and Mules – silent, innocent victims of man’s war.

(Photography by Sarah Kay Bierle)

Sources:

[i] Sheldon, G. (2003). When the Smoke Cleared at Gettysburg: The Tragic Aftermath of the Bloodiest Battle of the Civil War. Naperville, IL: Cumberland House. Page 158

[ii] Coco, Gregory A. (1995). A Strange and Blighted Land: Gettysburg: The Aftermath of a Battle. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publication. Page 314.

[iii] Ibid, page 315.

[iv] Ibid, page 317.

[v] Ibid, page 317.

[vi] Ibid, page 316.

[vii] Ibid,  page 316.

“There Has Been Awful Sight of Human Suffering Caused By This War”: After Monocacy

Today marks the 154th Anniversary of the Battle of Monocacy. It is a battle I have written about frequently, and as for previous anniversaries, I wanted to make sure to post something to remember “The Battle that Saved Washington.” In the past, I shared an account of a civilian caught up in the crossfire, and today I wanted to post another letter, this time from a soldier who, while he fought at Monocacy, left an especially compelling account of his experience after the fighting.

Daniel Long hailed from Niagara County in western New York. When the Civil War began, he was already forty years old, nearly twice the age of an average soldier during the war. In the fall of 1862 Long joined the 151st New York Infantry and soon earned his corporal’s stripes. During the fighting at Monocacy, the 151st New York found itself at the battle’s crucible around the Thomas Farm. As the Federal lines broke, the Confederate onslaught cut Long off from the rest of his regiment. He hid in a stand of woods for two days before, on July 11, making his way back into Frederick. Finding the town back in Federal hands and his regiment long gone back to Baltimore, Long wasn’t sure what to do until a doctor assigned him as an attendant at the nearby General Hospital # 1. He would stay there for the next two months.

As a hospital attendant assigned to the hospital, Long did anything that could to help the patients. He wrote the following letter on August 14, 1864, and, though written a month following the battle at Monocacy, reveals how much work and how much suffering still continued in Frederick as a result of what happened on July 9:

Frederick City

August 14th 1864

Dear wife:

As I am not very busy this afternoon, I will write you a few lines and let you know I am well. My appetite is as sharp as an old meat-ax, and I have plenty to eat. The victuals for the patients are all brought into the barrack and dealt out to them, so taking what is brought from the cook-house and what the citizens ring in, makes more than the patients can eat, and what is left the nurses get, although it is calculated that all detailed men should go to the cook-house to get their meals. Sometimes I go to the cook-house and get what they have there, and then fall back on what they have left in the barrack, so you see I have plenty to eat. There are from two to five soldiers buried every day, excepting today. I believe there is none today and think it is the first day since I have been here. I am getting so used to men dying I don’t mind it anymore. A person gets hardened to those things. We have one or two in our barrack now that I think can’t live. One man had a ball go through his knee, and the doctor tried to save his leg, and I think he will lose his life through it. Limbs that were taken off when they were first wounded are getting along nicely. A good many lose their lives because the doctors try to save the limb. If I am ever wounded in the joints, I will tell the doctor to saw it off at once. We haven’t many in the hospital now, and the work is not very hard at present, and if they don’t have any fighting around here we shall have easy times after a little. I hope the most of the fighting is done with. Judging from what little experience I have had in the hospital, there has been awful sight of human suffering caused by this war. I am on watch tonight from one o’clock until morning; I have to watch half of every third night. I don’t know where the corps is now, unless they are at Harpers Ferry.

I ever remain your affectionate husband.

DAN.

 

Long’s letter reveals much to the historian. As a soldier suddenly thrust into the aftermath of combat, now tasked with saving lives rather than taking them, Long’s words reveal a man trying to cope with the differences. He has grown hardened after two years of service in combat, and his words about amputations are especially pertinent. Though the public perception of Civil War medicine is that it was little better than butchery, Long’s words about how amputation saved lives, and how he would even prefer it, show how in some cases it was the best option.

Daniel Long returned to his regiment in September, 1864. He survived the war and returned home to New York, where he died around the turn of the 20th century. His words remind us of the cost of what happened in the fields outside of Frederick 154 years ago.

 

 

“To save the further effusion of blood”: Major General John S. Bowen and the Surrender of Vicksburg

John S. Bowen as an officer in the pre-war Missouri Volunteer Militia. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Kristen M. Pawlak

On July 3, 1863, Major General John S. Bowen and Lieutenant Colonel Louis Montgomery entered the Union siege lines surrounding Vicksburg to deliver a message from Army of Mississippi Lieutenant General John Pemberton and discuss the upcoming surrender of the Army of Mississippi. Himself stricken with dysentery, Bowen commanded a division of Missourians and Arkansans who were slowly dying of starvation and disease within the blockaded river town. Bowen hoped that through his personal connections with Army of the Tennessee commander Major General Ulysses Grant, he could somehow negotiate reasonable terms of surrender to save the army – and his own men.

Though Grant refused to meet with his former St. Louis, Missouri neighbor and friend initially, Bowen at least loosened the tension between the two warring armies positioned in and around the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” A veteran of the Camp Jackson affair, Shiloh, Corinth, Iuka, Champion Hill, and the entirety of the campaign to defend Vicksburg, Bowen was considered one of the best division commanders in the Confederacy. His reputation and performance on the battlefield was commended by many of his fellow officers, including General P.G.T. Beauregard, who called him a “meritorious officer.” [1]

After returning to the Confederate lines, Bowen delivered Grant’s message to Pemberton. “The useless effusion of blood you propose stopping by this course can be ended at any time you may choose,” Grant wrote, “by an unconditional surrender of the city and garrison.” Though disappointed with Grant’s stubbornness for an unconditional surrender, Bowen stated that Grant would be willing to meet the defeated Southern general to discuss the terms of surrender. The ball was once again in the Rebels’ court to end the bloodshed.

Around 3:00pm along the Confederate defense works, flags of truce rose and the firing was silenced. Pemberton, Bowen, and Montgomery rode out on horseback towards a swale along the Jackson Road between the siege lines, where Grant, James McPherson, and  A.J. Smith were waiting. After dismounting, the enemies shook hands and reminisced on the fond memories of their Mexican War days before discussing the heavy matter at hand.

Grant and Pemberton discuss the terms of surrender. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Recalling what Bowen told him, Pemberton said to Grant that it was his understanding that the Federal commander wished to interview him regarding Vicksburg’s surrender. Grant, with a puzzled expression, denied that he ever said that to Bowen. Embarrassed, Bowen admitted to making it up in hopes of instigating negotiations. Just like before, Grant refused anything but unconditional surrender. Pemberton thought it was hopeless. “I can assure you, you will bury more of your men before you enter Vicksburg,” he threatened.

To prevent further destruction and death between the two armies, Bowen suggested that Grant and Pemberton leave their four officers to negotiate the terms of surrender. Soon, Bowen, Montgomery, McPherson, and Smith were left to determine the fate of the Confederate garrison at Vicksburg.

At 8:00am on July 4, 1863 – Independence Day – Grant’s victorious troops began to march into Vicksburg. All of Pemberton’s Confederate troops were to be paroled and to march east to a location designated for exchange. Just under 30,000 Rebel troops surrendered. The siege of Vicksburg was finally over.

Bust of John Bowen at Vicksburg National Military Park. Courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Though many Confederate soldiers were exchanged and able to continue their fight in the war, Bowen’s service was about to come to an end, just like the thousands of his fellow Rebels who perished at the hands of disease during the Vicksburg Campaign. The day of the surrender, Bowen’s health took a dark turn. He was cared for in Vicksburg until he could recover. On July 11, 1863, his physician and chaplain decided that he needed better medical care in Raymond and departed that day by ambulance. Bowen’s wife Mary and newborn baby spent the siege in nearby Edwards, Mississippi and they joined the entourage there.

Just six miles outside of Raymond, on July 12, the caravan was forced to stop at the small wooden home of John Walton. The heat and humidity took a tremendous toll on Bowen, and he could not survive the rest of the journey to Raymond. In the morning of July 13, Bowen passed away. Using a coffin built by a local carpenter, the fallen Rebel general was buried in the backyard of the Walton home. Later, Bowen’s body was re-interred with a military headstone at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Vicksburg, where many of his men are buried today.

Though hardly known beyond historians and students of the campaign, Bowen’s role at Vicksburg and its surrender to the Federals was tragic, but quite important. Through his negotiations with the Union high command, he sought peace to end the bloodshed and inglorious deaths suffered on both sides. Bowen’s legacy can be seen at Vicksburg National military, where a bust of him stands today.

Kristen M. Pawlak is the Development Associate for Stewardship at the Civil War Trust. She also sits on the Board of Directors at the Missouri Civil War Museum, and actively volunteers with the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation. She graduated from Gettysburg College in 2014 with a BA in History and Civil War Era Studies, and is currently pursuing her MA in Nonprofit Leadership and Management at Webster University. From St. Louis, Kristen has a fond interest in the Civil War in Missouri, Civil War medicine, and the war experiences of soldiers.

Sources:

Ballard, Michael. Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Shea, William L. & Terrence Winschel. Vicksburg is the Key: The Struggle for the Mississippi River. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

Tucker, Phillip Thomas. The Forgotten “Stonewall of the West”: Major General John Stevens Bowen. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997.

[1] Report of P.G.T. Beauregard, April 11, 1862, in War of the Rebellion: The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, ser. 1, vol. 10, pt. 1, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1880), 390.

Preservation News: CVBT Preserves New Ground at Spotsylvania Battlefield

Our friends at the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust have been hard at work acquiring and preserving more ground on the Spotsylvania battlefield. Last March, we told you a little bit about their work preserving a tract along the Brock Road near Laurel Hill. Last week, they sent the following update to us about the property and the events it witnessed during the battle 154 years ago. As always, you can support the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust in their efforts by visiting their website, CVBT.

The CVBT’s newly acquired property along Brock Road was closely associated with the first day’s fighting on May 8, 1864, when the Union assaulted Laurel Hill at the battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. Several accounts by contemporaneous figures locate the property in conjunction with the fighting.

The property acquired by CVBT can best be described as roughly rectangular, with a rise (currently occupied by an abandoned house of no historical value) on the north where the property runs along Brock Road, a gradual downward slope dropping approximately forty feet over a tenth of a mile to a creek, and then rising gradually again to connect with the National Park Service land at Hancock Road where the main Union entrenchments
were later made. To understand the character of the hurried advances across the terrain, it is crucial to understand the opening stages of infantry fighting on May 8.

After several small delaying actions by Confederate cavalry, which caused a major bottleneck for the Federal army coming down Brock Road, the engagement began in earnest with the exhausted advance of first Peter Lyle’s and then Andrew Denison’s brigades across Sarah Spindle’s field. Their advances occurred east of CVBT’s property. The troops were exhausted from intermittently marching and standing since 9:00 p.m. the
previous night. On top of that, the day was rapidly heating up, with temperatures in excess of 90 degrees.

Lyle’s advance on the Spindle field would be checked by the 3rd South Carolina, which only managed to reach their key position when the Federal troops were sixty yards away. Denison’s brigade would advance under the personal command of division commander John C. Robinson. The brigade broke into a panic as some of the first ranks stopped to fire while their comrades behind them pushed through, breaking unit cohesion. Officers
lost control of their men. Robinson was shot out of the saddle 50 yards from the Confederate position, later losing his leg. Denison simultaneously was shot, later losing his arm.

Because of the bottleneck along Brock Road, the reinforcements of Joseph Bartlett’s brigade (of Griffin’s Division rather than Robinson’s) quickly formed into line of battle along the road in the vicinity of the north end of CVBT’s new property. Rather than coming up the road into the rear of the units already engaged, they aimed to come into the right of Denison. These troops were no better rested. The preceding march had been punctuated with “starts and stops” resulting in a “dilatory pace…well calculated to aggravate weariness,” as Eugene Nash of the 44th New York recorded. One of the brigade commander’s aides shouted: “Hurry up, or you won’t get a shot at them.” Initially convinced that they were up against a light force of dismounted Confederate cavalry, the brigade was quickly disabused of that notion. They came “under a galling fire of infantry and artillery” as they began their charge at approximately 9:00 a.m., shortly after leaving the southeast edge of CVBT’s property. After crossing the Spindle farm, they reportedly would get within twenty yards of the Confederate line before opening fire. Some accounts reported bayonet fighting over the Confederate works.

On the heels of Bartlett’s brigade was Romeyn Ayres’s brigade, rushing to the sound of the guns in what one soldier of the 140th New York called “mad, blind style.” The men struggled to keep up with their general as his horse outpaced them. As the brigade crossed over the land that CVBT now holds, they may have been serenaded with the “cheerful and
inspiring” music of their brass band, ordered by Ayres to try to buoy his exhausted men forward. Many of the men who walked over the property would never walk back. According to historian Gordon Rhea, of the five hundred men with the 17th U.S. Regulars, only seventy returned. Disorganized, the brigade went into the attack bit by bit. Porter Farley of the 140th New York blamed their failure on their “dribbling into the attack regiment after regiment.”

The Confederate extension of their line to the right—which threatened the Union left flank—forced Lyle and Denison’s brigades to fall back by about 9:15 a.m.; Bartlett and Ayres shortly joined them. The pulling back of the Union infantry left the Union Third Massachusetts Battery in a vulnerable position from where they had come up to offer ineffectual support to the Union advances. The six twelve-pounder Napoleons were
reportedly forced to fall back to the vicinity of CVBT’s property as Confederate advances across the Spindle field threatened to capture the guns. As Augustus Buell in his controversial account notes, “The battery fell back with them by the right-hand road, about half a mile, to a small knoll which commanded the valley of a little stream running from our right into the Po.” This description matches the northern section of CVBT’s new
property, which then became an impromptu defensive line for the rallying Union troops. NPS Historian Frank O’Reilly has concluded, “We believe this to be a reference to the knoll on the [CVBT] tract.” A Lieutenant Appleton who was on the scene remembered, “They were on the second line, in position on the right of the road to guard against an attack on our flank.” This would place the battery right at the north end of the property. While in this area, the commander of the battery, Captain A.P. Martin would be severely wounded, getting hit in the back of the neck, “grazing the spine.” The entire movement was tracked by the guns of the Confederate batteries. One eyewitness remarked, “It seemed to be every man for himself, and the devil for us all.”

As Sweitzer’s Brigade came up, they too would have been placed along the northern edge of the property. By 10:30 a.m., the ground would again become a path of advance for Gregg and Robinson’s brigades (now of Cutler’s division) as they launched a second, more coordinated but ultimately unfruitful attack against the rapidly reinforcing and dug in Confederates.

The property would continue to play an important role through May 10th and 12th as the Union army continued to use it as an organizational area just arrears of their front line. By May 14, the Union army had withdrawn from the position to reorganize on the Fredericksburg Road, leaving the 3rd Georgia Sharpshooters, Parker’s Virginia Battery, and Brigadier General Pierce M. B. Young’s cavalry brigade to reclaim the uncontested position briefly before falling back to their own lines.

Those curious to learn more would do well to consider both Gordon Rhea’s 1997 book The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864 and Gregg Mertz’s excellent 2004 article in volume 21, number 4 edition of Blue and Gray Magazine.

There is no doubt that CVBT has saved an incredibly important parcel in the 5th Corps tract. But much remains to be done: the non-historical structure requires demolition, wells
require filling, and trash and debris need to be removed. We remain dependent upon the irreplaceable support of our members and their generous contributions to help fund our work.

A Poets Perspective: Melville On Picket’s Charge

So few poets chose to write about the American Civil War that it is sometimes described as the “unwritten war.” Herman Melville, however, was among the few who chose to do so. His collection of poems on the war, in which he views the conflict through the lens of human values, was published in 1866 under the title Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War.

Melville’s unique portrayal of the war, while ultimately failing to provide readers with an accurate description of events, is a fresh perspective based on the feelings at the nation apart.

The stanza below comes from his poem Gettysburg, in which he reflects on the most important engagement of the war:

O pride of the days in prime of the months

  Now trebled in great renown,

When before the ark of our holy cause

    Fell Dagon down—

Dagon foredoomed, who, armed and targed,

Never his impious heart enlarged

Beyond that hour; god walled his power,

And there the last invader charged.

The Battle of Gettysburg took place in July 1863 as General Robert E. Lee’s troops swept north to bring the fighting out of Virginia and into Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Joseph_Hooker-e1415922992994

Union Major General Joseph Hooker

General Lee, fresh from his victory in Chancellorsville, believed strongly that his push into northern territory would steal the fight from his enemies.

Union Commander Maj. General Joseph Hooker, who had been directed to pursue Lee, was removed from command following his failure in Chancellorsville. Hooker was replaced by General George G. Meade just three days before the two forces clashed in Gettysburg.

The three-day battle culminated in a massive infantry assault dubbed “Pickett’s charge,” which Melville describes in the second stanza of Gettysburg:

He charged, and in that charge condensed

  His all of hate and all of fire;

He sought to blast us in his scorn,

            And wither us in his ire.

Before him went the shriek of shells-

Aerial screamings, taunts and yells;

Then the three waves in flashed advance

  Surged, but were met, and back they set:

Pride was repelled by sterner pride,

  And Right is a strong-hold yet.

 

Pickett’s charge is named for Maj. Gen. George Pickett, one of three Confederate generals

George Pickett

Pickett’s charge, which occurred patriotically on July 3rd, was designed to take out what Lee saw as a weak spot in the Union line. The charge began with a massive but unsuccessful artillery bombardment intended to weaken the Union line, to allow for a successful attack.

Believing the bombardment had worked, Lee ordered more than 12,000 soldiers straight into the North’s fully functioning defense.

Those who weren’t mowed down in the charge took shelter near a small stone wall, but they couldn’t hold the position.

Before our lines it seemed a beach

  Which wild September gales have strown

With havoc on wreck, and dashed therewith

    Pale crews unknown –

Men, arms, and steeds. The evening sun

Died on the face of each lifeless one,

And died along the winding marge of fight

    And searching-parties lone.

 

After three unsuccessful assaults against the Union line, Lee’s forces retreated from Cemetery Ridge with a casualty rate higher than 50%. There were over 2,600 casualties in

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Depiction of Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg

Pickett’s division alone, compared to 1,500 total casualties on the Union side. Total losses for the Confederates are estimated at around 1,100 killed, 4,000 wounded, and many more captured.

As the broken Confederates made their way back to Seminary Ridge, Lee tried in earnest to rally the troops and reinforce his center line. However, understandably so, the troops that had survived the field of horrors, were no long able to fight a sentiment shared by many including General Pickett, who said to Lee, when asked to rally his division, “General, I have no division.” Pickett never forgave Lee for ordering the charge against the Union Center.
The Battle of Gettysburg infused a toxic sense of defeat into the South from which it never recovered. But for the North, it was a key turning point in the war as well as proof that General Lee’s seeming “charm of invincibility” was broken.

As Melville writes:

Sloped on the hill the mounds were green,

  Our center held that place of graves,

And some still hold it in their swoon,

  And over these a glory waves.

The warrior-monument, crashed in fight,

Shall soar transfigured in loftier light,

    A meaning ampler bear;

Soldier and priest with hymn and prayer

Have laid the stone, and every bone

    Shall rest in honor there.