Hancock’s Second was the last corps of the Army of the Potomac to march out of the Wilderness. They served as the rear guard of the army until it was clear that Lee was concentrating his Confederates around Spotsylvania Courthouse. The distance was short, only five or six miles, but Lee’s cavalry delayed the Federal advance, and Warren’s Fifth Corps, which left their lines in the Wilderness during the night of May 6-7, didn’t reach Spotsylvania until the morning of May 8th.
Confederate infantry occupied a low ridge known as Laurel Hill and they had built a stout line of breastworks along its crest. Warren made several unsuccessful and costly assaults against these works. Later in the day Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps arrived and an evening assault by both corps also ended in defeat.
The morning of May 9th, Gen. John Sedgwick was shot in the head by a Rebel sharpshooter shortly after saying, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Command of the Sixth Corps passed to Gen. H. G. Wright. Hancock’s Second Corps finally arrived and was directed south across the Po River to threaten the western flank of Lee’s army near the Block House bridge. (Click here to view a Wikipedia map of the positions late in the day of May 9th.) Lee countered this move by sending a couple of division to secure the flank.
On May 10th, Warren wanted one more chance to assault the Laurel Hill works. Gibbon’s Division of the Second Corps was withdrawn from across the Po and added to the assaulting force. Before the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut went into battle, an officer from the Fifth Corps who happened to be passing near their line, was seriously wounded in the leg. The regimental surgeons set up a makeshift operating table and performed an emergency amputation right in full view of the men.
At this time the Fourteenth had eleven officers and about 200 enlisted men fit for duty. John Hirst, brother of Sgt. Ben Hirst (who should be familiar to regular readers of this blog), gave a detailed account of this fight in Charles Page’s History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Conn. Vol. Inf.: (Click here for a Wikipedia map of the assault.)
We were in line pretty early in the morning (May 10th) and expected some hot work before breakfast when we recrossed the Po. After marching around considerable our division (Gibbon’s) was ordered to go to the support of another corps (Warren’s Fifth) which was having a hard fight, and being driven back. At this time the woods were on fire in different places and the enemy were throwing shot and shell at a rapid rate right into our teeth as we advanced to the front, How we got through it all I don’t know, but we were kept right along until we came near their breastworks and had a hot and heavy time of it until our seventy rounds of ammunition were exhausted, when we were relieved and ordered to fall back about one hundred and fifty yards where we received more ammunition and then threw up a line of breastworks for our protection during the night. This breastwork business is getting to be a great thing in the army and it is the first thing we have to do as soon as we come to a halt. It don’t matter how far we advance, we find the rebels have thrown up breastworks to impede our progress, and if we gain an inch of ground from them, we put one up at once for its protection. Grant is sticking to them like a leech and I think we are getting the best of it.