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.