By Friday, the 20th of May, 1864, skirmishing and fighting around Spotsylvania Courthouse had ended, but the killing wasn’t quite finished. A soldier in the 20th Massachusetts, who had deserted three times since the start of the campaign, was executed by firing squad. All of Gibbon’s Division of the Second Corps, including the Fourteenth Connecticut stood silently in ranks to witness the execution.
That night at about eleven o’clock, the men of the Fourteenth and the rest of the Seconds Corps began to march away from Spotsylvania to the east. As dawn broke, the men reached the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad and turned south and passed by a simple white house beside the railroad at Guinea Station. Whispers passed from the men in front to those behind. “That’s where Stonewall Jackson died.”
By noon they were marching through Bowling Green. Just beyond the town they turned west onto a road that led to Milford where a halt was finally called. The men built strong breastworks until after midnight.
On Sunday morning, after some skirmishing, the cavalry brought in a large group of Union soldiers they had recaptured from the Rebels. Then the Second Corps marched west to the vicinity of what is now Ruther Glen and turned south toward the North Anna River. Confederates north of the river offered token resistance, then torched the railroad bridge as they withdrew to breastworks on the south side of the river. The Harper’s Weekly drawing below depicts the burning of that bridge.
The Fifth and Sixth Corps were heavily engaged at Jericho Mills to the west, but the Second Corps was involved only skirmishing, some of it sharp and deadly, but no major battle. (Click here for a map of the North Anna Battlefield.) Col. Samuel S. Carroll had been wounded during the fighting at the Mule Shoe on May 12th, and his replacement was the brigade’s former commander, Col. Thomas Smyth. Note the advanced position of Smyth’s Brigade on the map for a better understanding of the following amusing incident from Charles Page’s History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Conn. Vol. Inf.
Private Joseph Schlichter of Company B relates an interesting incident in connection with this engagement at North Anna River as follows: May 22rd, I864, we reached North Anna and the regiment immediately set to work building fortifications which were completed early in the evening. Being very tired, we didn’t stop to pitch our tents, so we lay in the open field to sleep. My tent mate said to me, “Joe. l wouldn’t lay on your back and have the moon shine in your face for it may injure your eyes’ eyes. I only laughed at him and fell fast asleep.
On the 23rd, we bivouacked on the banks of the North Anna River and that evening I discovered I was moon blind. I began to think Comrade Chaplie’s words had meaning in them, but I didn’t give it away just then. On the morning of the 24th, we crossed the river and immediately deployed as skirmishers. We advanced toward the rebel lines and kept the earthworks under a heavy fire until dark. The rebels formed a flank movement which compelled us to retreat. We retreated for about a quarter of a mile in good order when we again formed in a line or battle. Presently Adjutant Hincks, who was commanding our regiment at that time. asked “Is Joseph Schlichter here ?” I answered “Yes sir.” “Will you go out and see if we have an outpost or not, or whether there are any men between the enemy and us?” he said. I didn’t like to tell him I was unable to go on account of moon blindness, fearing I might be thought a coward, so I started.
After picking my way the best I could toward the enemy’s lines for some time I received the challenge, “Halt. who comes there?” “Friend without a countersign,” replied. “What regiment do you belong to?” he asked. Thinking these were rebels I answered. “The Sixteenth North Carolina.” I was immediately ordered to lay down my arms and surrender which I did. “What regiment do I surrender to?” I asked. “The Fifteenth Massachusetts,” was the reply. “All right. I am glad to hear it for l belong to the Fourteenth Connecticut,” I said.
The lieutenant of the Fifteenth Massachusetts advanced and took a good look at me. “What makes you lie and tell us you belong to the North Carolina regiment?” he said. I told him the circumstances, and then I said, “if your answer had been different I should have made an about face and double-quick marched toward the Union lines. When I was ordered to surrender I knew I was still in the Union lines.” “How came you to give me the Sixteenth North Carolina?” he then asked. “Because I knew that regiment was in front,” I replied. “How did you know?” “Because,” I answered, “there were some prisoners captured this afternoon belonging to that regiment.”
“Who commands your regiment?” was his next question. “Adjutant Hincks.” “Did he know you couldn’t see?” he asked. “No sir,” I answered. “I did not tell him.” He said, “You did nobly. I want to see your commanding officer.”
I returned with the lieutenant to my regiment when they saw I was moon blind. This lasted six weeks and in that time was not excused from duty. I was led by two comrades from the time we left North Anna until we reached Petersburg.”
Even though I write fiction, this story is not an invention. It may be thought that Private Schlichter was just trying to shirk his duty, but the fact that Adjutant Hincks sought him out for this special assignment tells us Schlichter was a trusted soldier. Even more telling is the following testimony from Schlichter’s sergeant:
“Of the ten old members left June 1st, 1864, it is believed that only one went through the whole three years without ever leaving the regiment on account of sickness, wounds, or special detail to other duty and that one was Private Joseph Schlichter. Never missing a battle or skirmish or any action in which the Fourteenth was ever engaged. always remaining as he enlisted, a private, yet he enjoys the distinction that some of his comrades have accorded him of having probably poured more lead into the rebel ranks than any other man in the Fourteenth, at least if ever a question of this nature should arise, our Joe would be the champion that Company B would put forth.”
And so, dear readers, I need your help to make sense of this incident. What malady could cause someone severe vision loss for a period of six weeks? All serious comments and suggestions are welcome.