Category Archives: Wilderness & Spotsylvania

Tribute to a Fallen Hero

Captain Samuel W. FiskeWhile the armies were locked in a deadly stalemate around Spotsylvania Courthouse, a private and poignant scene was being played out a several miles to the north at a Federal military hospital in Fredericksburg. Captain Samuel W. Fiske, Company G of the Fourteenth Connecticut, was dying with his young wife and his two little children at his bedside.

If you have not already done so, please read my post a.k.a Dunn Browne to learn more about how and why this minister of the gospel became an officer in the infantry. Also of special interest is my post Captain Fiske: Dead or Alive about his capture during the Battle of Chancellorsville.

In his last letter to the Springfield Republican, Captain Fiske revealed his pastor’s heart as he wrote of his belief that if the general officers would simply talk to the men, and explain what was needed and why, the men might be inspired to even greater service to the army and the country. He closed that final letter as follows:

I believe a good deal more might be made by a different course of proceeding, that our boys are something more than shooting machines, or if machines, that there are strings and pulleys and wheels in them that mere military orders don’t reach, and yet which might have much effect in deciding battles—these great and terrible battles that are to decide this opening campaign, and probably bring the war to an end—these coming successes (as we devoutly hope) that are to atone for the disgraceful reverses our arms have this spring sustained in every quarter where they have been engaged. Oh for power to speak a word that might thrill the breast of every Union soldier and rouse in him that holy enthusiasm for our right cause, which should make every blow struck irresistible, and carry our arms victorious right into the citadel of rebellion, and conquer a right peace. One or two of Meade’s modest, earnest orders, published to the army near the Gettysburg times, had a wonderfully happy effect. I trust more may be issued, and that every opportunity may be taken to inspire the patriotism and enthusiasm of our troops, and keep before their minds the great principles which first sent them forth from their peaceful homes to fight for endangered liberty and republican government, for God and freedom throughout the world.

Yours truly, DUNN BROWNE

Early on the morning of May 6th, during the Battle of the Wilderness, Captain Fiske was leading his company in an attempt to stem the frenzied assaults of Longstreet’s corps when he was struck in the chest by a single bullet. When his men were forced to fall back, they carried their stricken captain to the rear. After receiving cursory treatment at a field hospital, he was sent to Fredericksburg by ambulance.

The bullet had penetrated his right lung. At the time, internal surgery was in its infancy, and efforts to extract the bullet were not successful. The sad news was telegraphed to his wife, Lizzie, who traveled by train to Fredericksburg. She was able to spend several days with her husband, who was in good spirits until the end. But on Sunday, May 22nd, he knew his time had come. “Today I shall receive my marching orders,” he said. “Well, I am ready.”

Amen, Brother Fiske. You fought the good fight to the end.

The Mule Shoe – May 12, 1864

SPECIAL EDITION: 150 YEARS AGO TODAY fighting raged at Spotsylvania from the first light of dawn until well after midnight. It was in my opinion the most brutal and ghastly day of the entire Civil War.

In the overnight hours Hancock massed the Second Corps by divisions three lines deep. Gibbon’s Second Division, which included the Fourteenth Connecticut in the Col. Carroll’s Third Brigade, formed the third line. Wright’s Sixth Corps was to support the advance. The assault stepped off in silence, in heavy fog and drizzle at about 5:00 a.m., its objective a salient in the Confederate line known as the Mule Shoe, because of its distinctive shape. The front line of the assaulting column closed on the salient in silence, until alert Confederate pickets rose the alarm.

Confederate artillery boomed and the battle was on. The men of the Second Corps rushed forward into a depression in the land where the shells of the enemy had little effect. Then they went up to the works and leaped over them without stopping. The surprised Confederates were quickly driven back, and more and more Union troops poured into the breech in the Confederate line. (Click here to view a Wikipedia map of the Mule Shoe assault.)

When the men of the Fourteenth vaulted into the works, they captured more prisoners than they had in their own ranks for the second time in their history, the first being at Gettysburg. Brig. Gen. George Steuart was among their prisoners. They also turned two of the Confederate guns around and, under the direction of Lt. Col. Moore, some of the men served a brief stint in the artillery.

The assault of the Second Corps drove the Confederates about half a mile back to a second line of works that Lee had had built for this eventuality. The assault ground to a halt and a determined counterattack reversed the tide. The men of the Fourteenth lifted the two captured artillery pieces over the works and sent them to the rear along with their many prisoners. Then they started to dig a trench along the outside of the Mule Shoe works, making the breastworks as formidable on the outside as they were on the inside.

Charge after charge by the Confederates drove the Federals back into the Mule Shoe. Much of the fighting was hand to hand. The bayonet was used freely and often. The fighting, much of it during heavy rain, was most severe at a slight angle in the west side of the salient that became known as the Bloody Angle. The firing was so intense here that a twenty-two inch diameter oak tree was cut down, mostly by Federal rifle fire. The stump of this tree resides in the Smithsonian.

The battle continued until the early hours of May 13th, with neither side able to gain the advantage. This single example recorded by Charles Page in his History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Conn. Vol. Inf. illustrates how desperate and personal the fighting was. “One Fourteenth man had thrust his bayonet through the breast of a Confederate, the Confederate also having thrust his bayonet through the neck of the Fourteenth man, the two men stood dead against the breastworks, the guns of each serving to brace them and hold them in this standing position.”

The fighting finally wound down after midnight. Lee started to withdraw his men from the Mule Shoe to a second line of breastworks his engineers had been working hard to build while the fight raged. Members of the Fourteenth Connecticut were among the first Federals to go inside the Mule Shoe works the next morning. Charles Page described what they saw.

“As soon as it was light on the morning of the 13th a picket line (of Carrol’s Brigade) was advanced to find the enemy and as the detail went out they passed over the breastworks and ditch. This ditch was literally filled with dead Confederates, many being killed in battle while others were crushed by comrades falling upon them. The heavy rain through the night had filled the ditch which mingled with the blood from the wounded men gave the appearance of the ditch being filled with blood. There was no enemy in sight and but little firing on the picket line, the troops remaining here most of the day without active work. There was slight engagement to the left. The regiment passed this point and lay down for the night on a side hill.”

FICTION CONNECTION: In my novel An Eye for Glory, Sgt. Michael Palmer is a member of the first detail to enter the works on the morning of the 13th. The grisly carnage all around crushes him.

Spotsylvania – Laurel Hill

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.

 

The Wilderness – May 6, 1864

150 YEARS AGO TODAY: Generals Grant, Meade, and Hancock used the overnight hours of May 5-6 to devise and implement a strategy for the complete destruction of A. P. Hill’s Corps of Confederates that opposed the Federal Second Corps along the Orange Plank Road. In the hours before dawn, three of the Second Corps’ four infantry divisions, along with Gen. Getty’s Division from the Sixth Corps, were massed for a dawn assault. Gen. Wadsworth Division of the Fifth Corps was supposed to help out, and Gen. Burnside’s entire Ninth Corps was ordered to advance and join the assault on the right of the Second Corps. (Click here to view a Wikipedia map of this dawn assault in a new tab.)

Col. Carroll deployed his brigade (3rd Brig, 2nd Div, 2nd Corps) in two lines. The first was under the command of Col. Coons (14th Indiana) and the second line was under the command of Col. Ellis (14th Connecticut). At exactly 5:00 a.m.,Birney’s and Getty’s men leaped over their low breastworks and went forward into the dark grayness of the foggy morning. Fire from Hill’s lines became intense, but the Federals pressed on despite heavy losses. Several Confederate brigades broke for the rear, and it seemed the day might yield a great victory for the Army of the Potomac.

But as the map linked above shows, Gen. Longstreet was coming up the Orange Plank Road and arrived just in time to turn the tide for the Confederates. The Federal advance stalled near the Widow Tapp farm. Leading lines of Union Infantry, tired and bloodied, their ammunition exhausted, gave way to fresh brigades coming up behind and soon the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut found themselves in the front of the battle in a desperate fight for survival. Sgt. E. B. Tyler described the scene in Charles Page’s History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Conn. Vol. Inf.:

There is a feeling of uneasiness in the stoutest heart in facing danger that one cannot see and know. The mystery is doubly intensified by the sudden, silent dropping dead, or fatally wounded, of men on either hand that somehow does not seem to connect itself with the constant roar of musketry that is going on. The zip, zip of the bullets as they pass so closely to your head that you cannot help but think that had the rebel aim been varied never so little your career had been ended. (Click here for a Wikipedia map of Longstreet’s assault on the Second Corps.)

Longstreet threw his men into the fight and very quickly the lines of infantry in front of Carroll’s Brigade began to fall back. Major William Hincks of the Fourteenth Connecticut reported:

There was intense fighting for about half and hour and in this brief space officers and men were falling. Among those seriously wounded during these moments was Captain (Samuel) Fiske of Company G, who died a few days later (May 22nd). The men stood like heroes to the work until a regiment at the right gave way, producing something of a panic among several regiments of the brigade, about half of whom fell back to the (Brock) crossroads and were seen no more that morning.

Sgt. Charles Blatchley (Company I) added this detailed description of the regiment’s narrow escape: Our regiment was partly armed (Cos. A and B) with Sharp’s breech-loading rifles, and this fact came very near resulting in our capture. The deadly fire which we had kept up in front of us had held back the enemy at that point until they had driven our troops back on both sides of us leaving our little regiment sticking out like the toe of a horseshoe in the line. The dense woods prevented us from discovering this until the break reached our own flanks. I was awakened from my absorption in the business of saving my country by looking up, as I did occasionally, to see if the flag was still there, to find it gone. In another second I realized the fact that I was almost alone, and that the flag was rapidly making its way to the rear. I followed it.

It doesn’t take long to expend all your ammunition when you carry only forty, or at most sixty rounds and you’re firing two or three rounds per minute. Col. Carroll was ordered by Gen. Hancock to withdraw to the defensive line established along the Brock Road, and the men Fourteenth withdrew, sometimes stopping to fire from behind fallen timber, and sometimes hiding behind trees and fighting “Indian style” to delay the enemy until they had reached safety of the Federal breastworks.

But their day was not done. During the afternoon brush fires swept through the woods and thickets west of the Brock Road. Thick smoke shrouded the Federal breastworks and soon a portion of the works was in flames. At 4:15 p.m., lines of Confederates burst from the woods and rushed toward the Federal line, using the smoke and flames to cover the assault. Hancock’s men were ready and put up a stubborn fight, but the burning portion of the works had to be abandoned. The Rebels jumped over the barricade, through the flames in may cases, and a wild fight developed for possession of the breastworks.

(Click here for a Wikipedia map and note the position of Carroll’s Brigade on the Plank Road just east of the Brock Road.) The Confederates broke through the Union line just south of the Plank Road (in Mott’s Division), but the breakthrough was doomed as soon as the Federals organized a defense. The Rebels were fired on from right and left and a battery of artillery directly in front opened fire on them at point blank range. Their fate was sealed when the artillery fell silent and Col. Carroll’s Brigade rushed toward the breech. Maj. Hincks described the brigade’s second battle that day:

The shattered ranks were reformed and ammunition dealt out. Col. Carroll coming up spoke in warm terms of commendation of the behavior of the regiment. The men were then moved a short distance in the rear of the line of battle and told they would have twenty minutes for rest and to make coffee. Hardly five minutes had passed before the Confederates advanced and the Fourteenth was at once called into action and the fiercest fighting of the day occurred. The men of the Fourteenth charged with fixed bayonets and met the enemy and repelled the charge.

Most of the Confederates who had vaulted over the Federal breastworks were either killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. The Battle of the Wilderness was at an end. The survivors of the Fourteenth Connecticut moved to a position along the Brock Road north of the Orange Plank Road and settled in for the night. But all night long they would hear the tramp-tramp-tramp of their comrades in arms marching south toward another rendezvous with destiny—Spotsylvania Courthouse.

The Wilderness – May 5, 1864

SPECIAL EDITION – 150 YEARS AGO TODAY the men of the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac rose before daylight. It had been Gen. Grant’s objective to march the Army of the Potomac directly through the Wilderness to more open ground beyond before Lee could react. But it was not to be. The Fifth Corps, under Maj. Gen. G. K. Warren, ran into trouble almost immediately. A small body of Confederates were spotted to the west and Gen. George Meade ordered Warren to attack them. The small body turned out to be Lt. Gen. Ewell’s entire corps.(Click here to view a Wikipedia map of the early morning action in a new tab.)

The fighting grew intense. The Sixth Corps, under Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick was rushed forward and thrown into the fight. Grant sent a message off to Maj. Gen. Hancock telling him to turn his Second Corps around and hurry back toward the Wilderness ready to fight. In the following excerpt from my novel An Eye for Glory, Sgt. Michael Palmer tells what it was like for the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut:

Thursday’s dawn found us already marching toward the southwest on Catherine Furnace Road. Several hours later at the Brock road, a great cheer  arose from the ranks when we turned left. “On to Richmond!” was the cry, a cry soon stifled when the column first halted, then about-faced and marched back toward the dense thickets and entrapments of the Wilderness. At about half past four, echoes like that of distant thunder rolled over us. Every man knew without being told that, before the day was out, he would likely face the enemy in the forbidding depths of the Wilderness. All men of sound judgement knew no battle should ever be fought there, but battle there would be, savage and bloody. The fighting and dying had commenced anew—our time was at hand, and this thought both thrilled and terrified me. “Close up, men.” I heard the urgency in my own voice. “Keep the pace. We’re needed at the front. Stay in line!”

(Click here to view a Wikipedia map of the late afternoon action in a new tab.) The Fourteenth Connecticut was near the front of the long column of the Second Corps when it came upon the Brock Road at Todd’s Tavern. When the orders came to turn around, they were now near the rear of the column. The map correctly shows the position of Carroll’s Brigade of Gibbon’s Division as the Second Corps filed into lines of battle on both sides of the Orange Plank Road west of the Brock Road. Sgt. Palmer narrates that evening’s fight:

The rattle of musketry came from somewhere ahead, but nothing could be seen. Close underbrush screened all but what was less than ten or twenty yards away. Onward we pressed. Musket balls cleaved the air above our heads and slapped into tree trunks. Yells and screams and, from time to time, the dreaded Rebel yell reached our ears. Bodies of Federal dead lay here and there; the walking wounded stumbled rearward through our strong and steady line. Volleys of musket fire erupted just out of sight in front of us.

We came up behind a line of men in blue firing into the darkness beyond. Muzzle flashes eerily silhouetted the forms of our men as they engaged in their deadly business. Some turned in panic at our approach, thinking perhaps the enemy had surrounded them, but “Friends! Friends!” we called out, and they turned back to the enemy. They fired off the last of their ammunition and made way for us to file into their places.

The Rebels saw us before we saw them and they fired a volley at close range. A few of our men fell dead, several more were wounded.

“Steady, men, steady!” I called out. I raised my own rifle and took careful aim. “Fire!”

Many of our foes fell. The Rebels began to fall back, retreating down a slope, turning to fire at us whenever they could. We pursued them, steadily driving them backward. After an advance of about two hundred yards, our officers called a halt. We lay down in the woods to avoid the Rebel sharpshooters and waited for night to fall.

After dark the men of Company C dug a shallow trench and piled branches and fallen logs atop the excavated earth. The position was as secure as the ground would allow. The men lay upon the low earthworks all night, muskets at the ready. Most fell quickly asleep, victims of fatigue. Not even the chilly night air or the occasional firing the flared from deep in the Wilderness disturbed their slumbers.

Tomorrow: The second day of the Fourteenth’s sojourn in the Wilderness.

On Hallowed Ground

On May 3rd, 1864, as darkness fell over the picket line of the Fourteenth Connecticut along the Rapidan River, orders came that they were to silently leave their posts and return to their camp on Stony Mountain. The regiment drew rations and ammunition from the quartermaster. Campfires were allowed to die out, and orders to maintain complete silence were strictly enforced.

The Third Brigade, to which the Fourteenth was attached, marched through the darkness to Stevensburg, where it was reunited with the Second Division and the rest of the Second Corps, all under the command of Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock. From Stevensburg, the corps marched east and then southeast along narrow country roads toward Ely’s Ford on the Rapidan. The other two army corps, the Fifth (Warren) and the Sixth (Sedgwick), marched southeast toward Germanna Ford, along what is now Route 3. (Click here to open a Wikipedia map in a new window.)

At dawn on the 4th, the Second Corps began to cross the Rapidan at Ely’s Ford on a pontoon bridge, but the men of the Fourteenth had to wait to cross until after nine o’clock, without campfires and thus without coffee. On the south side of the river stout breastworks had been constructed by th Rebels, but they were empty of defenders.

The men marched on as the sun beat down on them. Greatcoats and blankets were thrown by the wayside. The forest closed in on them, and they couldn’t see more than a few yards to right or left. The veterans in the ranks must have realized that they were headed for familiar, dreadful ground. Late in the day, their fears were realized when they came upon the battlefield at Chancellorsville. How eerily quiet it must have seemed, the only sounds those of their tramping feet and clanking equipment. Imagine the somber hush that fell over them as everywhere they looked they saw the unburied skeletal remains of men still clad in Union blue, men they had fought beside just the year before.

They had marched about twenty-five miles from Stony Mountain. That night, they camped south of the ruins of the Chancellor House. I have not been able to pinpoint the location, but referring to the map linked above, the spot between the Alrich place and Piney Branch Church, where the road crosses the Ni River, would be a likely location, because of the availability of fresh water.