BREVET BRIGADIER-GENERAL F. A. WALKER, U. S. V.
Read before the Society March 10, 1884
I Purpose to speak, this evening, of the operations of the Second Army Corps between the 21st and 26th of August, 1864.
The battle of Reams’ Station, August 25, will always be of peculiar though painful interest to every survivor of the Second Corps. In the fortunes of the twenty-nine months of desperate fighting which had preceded, the Second Corps had not infrequently met with repulse; its lines had often been shaken, had sometimes been broken by superior force. During the fearful contests of July and early August, 1864, the troops had even shown at times some diminution of their pristine valor; but, so far as I am aware, it had never participated in any considerable and serious action, before the 25th of August, in which its troops, making possible exception here and there of a regiment or a brigade, had not conducted themselves as creditably, at least, as the troops of any other corps then and there engaged.
Indeed, I think it would not be claiming too much to say that the Second Corps had borne an unusually conspicuous part in the operations of the Army of the Potomac, and had deservedly won a unique reputation for headlong daring and persistent courage. Organized by the gallant Sumner, who, whatever his merits as a general, was the very ideal of courage, magnanimity, and devotion to duty, its youthful officers, fresh from civil life and full of patriotic and martial enthusiasm, had received their baptism of fire and their consecration to the service of their country in a spirit which made misbehavior in the presence of the enemy almost impossible.
When the old General, borne down by increasing infirmi-
ties, bade farewell at last, in January, 1863, to his comrades and children in arms, he could proudly say, as in the order which lies before me as I write, that the Second Corps had never lost a color and never lost a gun. And this remarkable declaration still remained good up to the very hour when the Second Corps, reenforced by the old divisions of Kearney and Hooker, crossed the Rapidan in May, 1864, having captured more than threescore of Confederate flags in open battle. A body of citizen soldiers thus trained by Sumner were not likely to lose their sense of honor and duty under the command of officers like Couch, who succeeded Sumner, or Hancock, who succeeded Couch.
At the battle of Reams’ Station the Confederate reports claim the capture of seven standards, nine cannon, two caissons, and nearly two thousand prisoners, from their well-known and often victorious enemy, the Second Corps.
From the 12th to the 21st of August, the Second Corps under Hancock had been operating on the north bank of the James River, in the series of movements and petty actions known as the Second Deep Bottom. These operations had proved futile ; and General Barlow, the commander of the old First Division, the division of Richardson and Hancock, had been obliged to report that his failure to perform the task assigned him had been, in some measure, due to the misbehavior of portions of his depleted and shattered command. The movement to Deep Bottom and the return to the vicinity of Petersburg had been accompanied by excessive physical exertions on the part of the troops. The 14th of August, in particular, was the most awful of my personal experience as a soldier. In its forward movement to envelop the enemy’s lines north of the James River, the corps literally marched between men lying on both sides of the road dead from the effects of heat and fatigue. I well remember that General Mott, commanding the Third Division comprising the old troops of Kearney and Hooker, reported to me personally that two
The Deep Bottom campaign having practically been concluded, and General Meade having determined to extend his lines further to the left, below Petersburg, Mott’s Division was ordered back, on the night of the 18th, to relieve the Ninth Corps in its intrenchments, in order that that corps might operate, in conjunction with the Fifth under Warren, against the Weldon Railroad.
On the night of the 21st, the two remaining divisions were withdrawn from Deep Bottom and marched, by Bermuda Hundred and Point of Rocks, to their former camping ground at Petersburg around the Deserted House, arriving soon after daylight on the morning of the 22d.
The roads from Deep Bottom to Petersburg were in a miserable condition even for Virginia, and considering this fact, the march of the corps had been very rapid. Despite the great fatigue of the men, however, they were allowed to remain in camp only long enough to make coffee, when the two divisions named were ordered to the vicinity of the Strong house, to cut slashings and perfect a defensive line. Short as was the distance, however, hundreds fell helpless by the way overcome by the heat and by the exhausting efforts of the previous ten days, and particularly of the night immediately preceding.
Directly upon the arrival of the two divisions at the point where they were to work, orders were received for General Hancock to move on to the Gurley house, in the rear of the Fifth Corps. The troops reached their final position late in the afternoon, and passed the night in the mud, General Hancock and his division commanders sleeping on the ground in the midst of a pouring rain. At noon of the 23d, the First Division under Barlow was set to work destroying the Weldon Railroad southward from the left of Warren’s Fifth Corps. By the 24th the division had torn up the track as far as
Reams’ Station, at which point Barlow, whose health had completely given way from exhaustion, as the result of severe exertions and previous wounds, was compelled to resign the command to Brigadier-General Nelson A. Miles. During the 24th Gibbon’s Division was forwarded to Reams’, whither General Hancock followed and where he took command, Mott’s Division being still behind the Petersburg lines. At Reams’ Station, which is twelve miles south from Petersburg, Hancock found General David McM. Gregg with a cavalry force consisting of his own division (two brigades) and a part of a brigade from the division of General Kautz. The latter troops had, on the 23d, been sharply attacked upon the Dinwiddie Stage Road by the Confederate cavalry division of Butler. On the arrival of Gregg’s Division the action became general, lasting until dark. As yet, however, no Confederate infantry had appeared to oppose the troops engaged in tearing up the railroad.
On arriving at Reams’, Gibbon’s Division took post in the intrenchments surrounding the station, which had been constructed by either the Sixth Corps or the cavalry, on the occasion of General James H. Wilson’s fight near this point, some weeks previous.
The story of the 25th of August cannot be understood without reference to this most unfortunate line of works. Had these not been found on the spot, treacherously inviting our troops to enter, the disaster of the following day would probably not have occurred. The small and weak divisions of the Second Corps would doubtless have been driven back before the formidable column which Lee despatched southward to interrupt the destruction of the railroad and to punish the troops which were taking part therein. But the wholesale capture of colors, guns, and prisoners need not, and in all probability would not, have taken place had not the attack fallen on a body of troops placed in about as false a position as it would be easy to imagine. In shape the line of
intrenchments was much like the pointed end of an egg, the point protruding toward the enemy, so that both sides of the works, as drawn back to right and to left, were exposed to a completely enfilading fire from the enemy’s artillery. Moreover, the distance across, from one side to the other of the works, was so short that the enemy’s artillery on either side could make the opposite line untenable; and the spectacle was more than once presented, on the 25th, of a brigade abandoning the inside of the works to seek refuge, upon the outside, from a galling fire of shot and shell. But the worst feature of all in the line of intrenchments which the Second Corps found constructed at Reams’ Station was in the fact that the pointed end of the egg, as it has been termed, extended beyond the railroad. The two batteries and the few small battalions which were to receive here the assault of Lee’s veteran brigades found themselves with a low and insufficient parapet in front, while behind them at a distance perhaps of twenty or thirty yards, and in the main parallel to the parapet, ran the railroad, forming here an embankment and there a cut, which, in connection with the line of intrenchments, made practically a closed work, rendering it impossible for ammunition or reserves to be brought up, except at the greatest disadvantage, from the rear, or for the troops thus inclosed to retire without exposure to observation and to fire. The consequences of this false position will be seen as we continue our narrative.
No officer with whom I ever have conversed was able to explain why that part of the line which protruded towards the enemy should not have been drawn along the line of the railroad itself, if, indeed, a better position could not have been found still further to the rear for the whole body of the works. General Humphreys, in his Virginia Campaigns (p. 279), states that the intrenchments had a return of about eight hundred or one thousand yards long at each end, and that they ran along the railroad for a distance of about twelve
hundred yards. I have not been able, in the preparation of this paper, to obtain a statement of the exact distances, but I am confident that the length of the line along the railroad was little, if any, more than one half of twelve hundred yards. General Gregg, in a letter to General Hancock, expresses the belief that it did not much exceed five hundred yards. Colonel W. P. Wilson, of Hancock’s staff, and Colonel W. A. Roebling, of General Warren’s staff, concur in this opinion.
During the afternoon of the 24th General Miles continued the work of tearing up the road, destroying ties and rails, progressing as far as to Malone’s crossing, some three miles beyond Reams’. The advance of the working parties was covered by a regiment and an additional squadron of cavalry under Colonel Spear of the 11th Pennsylvania, whom I understand to have been subsequently the hero of the capture of Fort Erie in the Fenian raid upon Canada. At the same time Gregg’s cavalry held the approaches to the front, in the direction of Petersburg and Dinwiddie Court House. At dark Miles’ Division was drawn back to the intrenchments at Reams’.
At half-past ten on the night of the 24th, General Hancock received a despatch(1) from General Humphreys, Chief of Staff of the Army of the Potomac, and afterwards himself the distinguished commander of the Second Corps in the operations of 1865, stating that large bodies of infantry apparently destined to operate against Warren or Hancock (probably the latter), had been seen passing southwards from the Petersburg intrenchments by the Halifax and Vaughan roads, and warning General Hancock to look out for them. General Hancock replied, requesting to know the number of men seen and the time, stating that, if the enemy were undertaking a serious operation against himself, he did not desire to separate his troops so far as would be necessary to carry out his
(1) 87 W. R. 222.
instructions; viz., to destroy the railroad to Rowanty Creek, eight miles below Reams’. General Hancock was informed that the signal officers reported the enemy seen to number apparently eight or ten thousand men. General Warren, on his part, expressed the opinion that the troops seen might be working parties, as it was known that the enemy was constructing a new line, adding that if they were moving with a hostile intention they could do nothing against himself, as his left was now secure.
Here appears the most obvious criticism upon subsequent events. The destruction of the railroad beyond Malone’s Crossing cannot be claimed to have been a matter of such vital consequence at that time as to justify any considerable loss, much less to justify the risk of a serious disaster; and it was, moreover, evident that with the enemy operating in force in that direction, much further progress in the work of destroying the railroad was not to be expected. If General Hancock was to fight or to be menaced with fighting, he must needs keep his troops in hand and close together, which would be inconsistent with any considerable progress in demolishing the track. It would seem, therefore, that the alternative should have presented itself to General Meade, either to withdraw General Hancock behind Warren’s left or largely to reenforce him before the morning of the 25th.
General Meade had frequently expressed the desire that the enemy should come out of his works and fight in the open. The movement appeared to offer to General Meade and his army the long-desired opportunity.
Hancock had under his command, at the most, six to seven thousand infantry, with perhaps two thousand cavalry. Meade could have sent to Reams’ 25,000 men even more easily than Lee could send 13,000. The additional divisions which might have been found in order at Reams’, on the morning of the 25th, would have been in far better condition than the jaded troops of the Second Corps which, only a few days pre-
viously, had been fighting at Flusser’s Mill on the north bank of the James. If Meade did not intend to fight, Hancock should have been withdrawn. If he did intend to fight, Hancock should have been powerfully reenforced. Even conceding that Hancock might be able with his small force to throw off an attack of the enemy, what was the use of putting anything in jeopardy when everything might be made entirely secure? But more than this: if Hancock was really to be attacked, where was the justification of losing the long wished for opportunity of encountering the enemy in the open, with advantage of numbers fairly corresponding to the general excess of Meade’s over Lee’s forces?
At daylight on the morning of the 25th, General Hancock ordered Gregg to make a reconnoissance at once with a small force to ascertain what was in his front; and orders were issued for a more extended reconnoissance by Gregg’s entire force supported by a brigade of infantry. But before the troops were assembled, the first squadrons which had been sent out by Gregg returned with the report that they had driven in the enemy’s pickets at two points without developing any increase of strength. General Hancock determined, therefore, to go on with the work of destroying the railroad, and Gibbon moved out for this purpose. Hardly had he got well out of the works, however, when Colonel Spear was driven away from Malone’s Cross Roads, and Gibbon was obliged to deploy a strong skirmish line to check the enemy in pursuit. The enemy also broke through Gregg’s picket line on the Plank Road, but was driven out by a regiment of cavalry with a small force of infantry from Miles’ Division. It was now evident that Gibbon’s Division had more serious business than tearing up the track, and it was ordered back by General Hancock to the breastworks, taking the left of the line. It was ten o’clock before the withdrawal was made. At this time communication with army headquarters was by messenger along the Halifax Road, which closely followed the railroad, and by
which the infantry had marched to Reams’. A messenger proceeding up the road would, in four miles, strike General Warren’s headquarters, whence communication could be had by telegraph with General Meade’s headquarters. A little before twelve o’clock, however, viz., at 11.45, the field telegraph was in operation the whole distance from army headquarters to Reams’.
General Meade, having been informed of the skirmish of the morning, sent the following despatch. It will be observed that General Meade was at that hour making his headquarters with General Warren.
(1) Head Quarters, 5th Corps,
1 P. M. Aug. 25, 1864.
Major-General Hancock, — Warren has informed me of your despatch announcing the breaking through your left by the enemy’s cavalry. I have directed Mott to send all his available force down the Plank Road to the Reams’ Station Road, and to take one of Parke’s Ninth Corps batteries, now at the Williams house, with him. The officer in charge of this command is directed to report to you upon his arrival. I think, from all the information I can obtain, that the enemy are about assuming the offensive, and will either attack you or interpose between you and Warren. Under these circumstances, I fear we cannot do much more damage to the railroad. That being the case, you can exercise your judgment about withdrawing your command and resuming your position on the left and rear of Warren, either where you were before or in any other position which, in your judgment, will be better calculated for the purpose and based on the knowledge of the country your recent operations may have given you. Let me know by the bearer the condition of things in your front, and your views.
George G. Meade.
(1) 87 W. R. 224.
This despatch was received by the hand of Colonel Sanders of General Meade’s staff; and this fact introduces another of the inexplicable features of the series of operations we are recounting, viz., that, although the field telegraph had been completed to Reams’ Station before General Hancock sent his despatch of 11.45 to General Meade, the latter continued to send all his messages during the day, until half-past seven o’clock in the evening, by staff officers.
When Colonel Sanders arrived at Reams’ Station the enemy had already made one or more efforts to carry our line. Subsequently to twelve o’clock, noon, they had driven Miles’ skirmishers out of their rifle-pits, the possession of which was for nearly an hour disputed, in the course of which some prisoners were taken ; and had about two P. M. made two assaults in line of battle, which were repulsed with considerable loss, some of the more courageous of the Confederates falling, as General Miles reported, within three yards of his intrenchments. Skirmishers having been thrown out, a few prisoners were captured.
Who were the troops thus rudely interrupting Hancock’s operations against the Weldon Railroad?
Rightly to answer this question, let us pass over to the Confederate side, see what is going on there, and enter into the counsels of Hill, Hampton, and Lee.
On the 25th of August there had been, as stated, a sharp contest on the Dinwiddie Road between Gregg’s Union and Butler’s Confederate cavalry. General Wade Hampton, who commanded both Butler’s and W. H. F. Lee’s cavalry divisions, arrived on the ground shortly after the affair, and looking over the situation, with reference to the advance of the Union infantry in tearing up the railroad track, wrote to General Lee proposing the despatch of a strong infantry force from the Petersburg lines to attack and, if possible, destroy this isolated force.
To this communication General Lee replied, saying that he
deemed it inadvisable to send any portion of the infantry so far from the main lines; but while General Hampton was making his way back to headquarters he met an orderly bearing a second letter in which General Lee stated that Lieutenant-General A. P. Hill had been sent to make the attack; and a little later Hampton encountered Hill himself on his way down. The two generals bivouacked for the night at Monk’s Neck Bridge. The infantry at Hill’s disposal consisted of three brigades of Wilcox’s Division of Hill’s Corps, viz., the brigades of Lane (commanded on this occasion by General James Conner of South Carolina), of Scales and McGowan, together with G. T. Anderson’s Brigade from Field’s Division of Longstreet’s Corps.
The infantry column crossed Hatcher’s Run near Armstrong’s Mill on the evening of the 24th, and bivouacked at Holly Church (Vaughan Road). Early the next morning Hill with his infantry, covered by one regiment of Hampton’s cavalry, crossed the Rowanty at Monk’s Neck Bridge, halted for two hours, then countermarched to the stage road and moved on that road to Reams’ Station. Meanwhile Hampton, with the rest of his cavalry and his artillery, two batteries, moved down the creek, crossed it with one division at Malone’s Bridge, driving in Gregg’s pickets, sending his other division to cross the creek on the Halifax Road, intending to clear both roads and unite his force at Malone’s Station, a little south of Reams’, thus gaining a position on Hancock’s left flank, while the infantry should arrive opposite his front.
At Malone’s Station, as we have seen, the ball was opened. Hampton became engaged with Gregg, as well as with Gibbon’s infantry skirmishers, and finding that Hill was not yet up on his left with the infantry, he halted. By noon, however, the Confederate infantry reached their designated position, and at once engaged our skirmishers.
The Confederates were now close up to the Union position,
which presented to them a line of intrenchments of perhaps five hundred yards along the railroad, with a return towards the rear from each end. The Confederates themselves were concealed by woods which had been slashed to some extent, though not so much as General Hancock had intended, upon the side towards Reams’. The ground immediately in front of the Union intrenchments was comparatively clear of timber, though with brush, undergrowth, and weeds sufficiently high in many places to conceal the movement of troops and even of guns. The four brigades of the Confederates were thus disposed: McGowan’s was sent around to the right, through the woods, to join Hampton’s calvary in threatening the Union left, where it was retired towards the rear. Lane’s, Scales’, and Anderson’s brigades were sent to the Confederate left, with a view to an advance against the point where the intrenchments turned sharply to run to the rear and right, that is, against the northwest angle of the Union works.
This was the advance which was made, as related, about two o’clock. Anderson was on the Confederate right, moving through sparse woods, Scales on the left, in thicker woods, his extreme left being covered by two regiments of Lane’s Brigade. As the Confederates advanced into the open ground, they were met by a heavy fire from the troops in and near the angle, and from McKnight’s and Sleeper’s batteries. They came gallantly on until almost up to the works, when they broke and fell back rapidly, though not in great confusion, into the woods. While Lane’s, Anderson’s, and Scales’ brigades were thus attempting to carry the right of the Union works by a coup-de-main, McGowan made active demonstrations on his side and was vigorously shelled for his pains by Brown’s and Werner’s batteries.
During this attack Lieutenant-General Hill, who was suffering from temporary illness aggravated by the heat of an August sun, was lying on the ground directly in front of the
Our losses in the engagement thus far had not been numerous, but among those wounded was Colonel James A. Beaver, 148th Pennsylvania Regiment, commanding one of Miles’ brigades. Colonel Beaver had a few minutes before returned from the wound received on the 16th of June. He had hardly crossed the plain to take command of his brigade when a bullet broke his thigh, necessitating amputation near the hip joint. In view of the crisis which was approaching, Colonel Beaver’s wound was a great disaster. It is difficult to overestimate the service which this splendid officer would have rendered to General Miles during the later hours of the day had he been permitted to take part in the events following.
The appearance of Wilcox’s infantry and their determined effort to carry the intrenchments dissipated all doubts as to the enemy’s intentions concerning Hancock’s column. This was no casual encounter, nor was it likely that a small and unsupported force of infantry could be formed at so great a distance from the main Confederate line. The probability of an attack from a force of considerable yet undetermined strength might fairly be considered to raise the question whether the two small divisions of the Second Corps at Reams’ should not be withdrawn.
But Hancock was not much accustomed to retreat of his own motion; and he had every right to rely on General Meade’s promptly and properly supporting him by reinforcements at least equal to those which Lee could draw from his depleted lines. He had already been advised, by Meade’s despatch of one o’clock, that Mott’s Division of the Second Corps, or rather the two available brigades of that division, under Colonel McAllister, had been despatched to him; while the proximity of Warren’s left, hardly four miles away, behind which large bodies of troops, including the divisions
Even, however, had Hancock been disposed to consider the expediency of a retreat at this juncture from his advanced position, the unfortunate formation, already commented on, of the works at the Station would have rendered it a very critical operation. The batteries and regiments which occupied the main face of the intrenchments could not have been withdrawn without the enemy’s observation, which would probably have led to a rush at our retreating lines that might have stampeded troops even better disposed to fight than the men of the Second Corps that day were, while Hampton, who, with his large force of cavalry and McGowan’s Brigade of infantry, had worked himself around to the left and rear, might have carried the slight works in his front and have cut off Hancock’s retreat. Already a great part of the artillery horses beyond the railroad had been picked off by the enemy’s sharpshooters, or shot down in Wilcox’s charge.
On the repulse of the Confederates, as recited, General Hancock at 2.45 sent a telegram(1) to General Meade stating that as he could do no more on the railroad, it seemed more important that he should join General Warren than remain longer [this in response to General Meade’s suggestion]; but, on account of being already closely engaged, he could not safely retire at that time, and advised that he should be withdrawn during the night in case he were not forced out previously. The despatch further stated that everything looked promising; but, as the enemy might penetrate between Warren and himself, the former should be watchful until a practical connection could be made. An hour later General Hancock sent another telegram to General Meade, informing him that the prisoners thus far taken belonged to Wilcox’s
(1) 87 W. R. 224.
Meantime, at 2.40 P. M., General Meade still sending despatches by messenger, addressed the following to General Hancock: —
“Head Quarters, Fifth Corps, 2.45 P. M.(1)
Major-General Hancock, — In addition to Mott’s troops I have ordered Willcox’s Division, Ninth Corps, to the [Jerusalem] Plank Road, where the Reams’ Station Road branches off. Willcox is ordered to report to you. Call him up if necessary. He will have some artillery with him. I hope you will be able to give the enemy a good thrashing. All I apprehend is his being able to interfere between you and Warren. You must look for this.
George G. Meade.
During the period covered by the despatches recited, important reinforcements were arriving on the Confederate side. Major-General Harry Heth arrived on the ground with Cook’s and McRae’s brigades of his own division of Hill’s Corps, two of Mahone’s brigades, Saunders’ and Weisinger’s being still on the road behind him.
It will appear from the enumeration of the enemy’s troops that no infantry division of the Confederate army was present at Reams’ Station entire. The eight infantry brigades were picked out from four divisions, viz., Field’s of Longstreet’s Corps, Wilcox’s, Heth’s, and Mahone’s of A. P. Hill’s Corps. It would perhaps be nearer the truth to say ” picked up” than “picked out,” inasmuch as the sole reason for selecting these brigades was found in the fact that they were in reserve along Lee’s Petersburg lines, or could be easily detached from the lines themselves. With Heth came eight of Pegram’s guns. Heth fixes the time of his arrival at about three o’clock, after, that is, Wilcox’s repulse.
(1) 87 W. R. 225.
The point selected was the same as that chosen by Wilcox, viz., the northwestern angle.
Let us now indicate the positions occupied by the troops which were to receive the attack which Heth was preparing to deliver.
On our extreme left and rear was the main body of Gregg’s cavalry, which, when driven in from the front by Hampton’s advance, had taken post here, first, to support the infantry on that flank, and, secondly, to watch for any movement the enemy might make into our rear by crossing the road leading from the station to the Jerusalem Plank Road. The latter necessity required Gregg to extend his line greatly to the left; but several regiments were concentrated in close proximity to the infantry. A breastwork of rails had been rapidly thrown up, and served as cover for one or two dismounted regiments which there gained a fire enfilading the front of the intrenchments held by the infantry nearest to them. Of this advantage excellent use was made in the fight ensuing. Connecting with the cavalry and extending to the right and front was the Third Brigade of Gibbon’s Second Division, under Colonel Thomas A. Smythe, 1st Delaware, an admirable officer. On Smythe’s right was the First Brigade under Colonel Murphy, extending to the southwest angle.
At this angle was Brown’s consolidated Rhode Island Battery (A and B four guns), two of Brown’s guns being placed beyond the railroad embankment, having a direct fire to the front, and two behind the railroad, having a fire to the left, where lay Hampton’s cavalry and McGowan’s infantry. Upon Brown’s right, along the main face of the works, was the 10th Massachusetts Battery of Sleeper, whose four guns had a clear fire both to the front and also to the right, where the main attack was preparing. It has been said that the
In the angle, with the batteries, was the 4th New York Heavy Artillery, Lieutenant-Colonel Allcock. On the right of the batteries, the Fourth Brigade under Lieutenant-Colonel Broady (the 148th Pa. being in reserve) extended across the Dinwiddie Stage Road, which, having passed by the railroad station, ran west across the railroad, out through the intrenchments and over into the Confederate lines. On the right of the stage road the railroad made a cut; on the left it formed an embankment, which, as we have stated, closed the access to the rear from Sleeper’s Battery and the right section of Brown’s. From Broady’s right extended the consolidated Second and Third Brigades, under Major Byron, 88th New York, behind which, and partly in the railroad cut, lay a brigade (the Second of the Second Division) consisting of five small regiments, under Lieutenant-Colonel Rugg, 59th New York, which General Gibbon had sent to General Miles in compensation for the skirmish line from the First Division which covered the front of the Second. From Major Byron’s right, which reached the northwestern angle, the First Brigade under Colonel James C. Lynch, 183d Pa., took up the line and extended it to the rear. Halfway back lay McKnight’s 12th New York Battery (commanded by Lieutenant Dauchey) with a fire into the woods held by the enemy on the northwest. One of McKnight’s guns under Lieutenant Brower had been advanced to near the northwestern angle, that it might rake the railroad should the enemy attempt to cross it north of the station. Although the infantry skirmishers had been driven in from our entire front and left, those of the First Division still held the ground along the railroad towards the north, where they connected with the skirmishers of one of Gregg’s cavalry brigades, which, on being driven in from the front, had taken post on ground covering both the Halifax Road and the railroad running up towards Warren’s
left. The front of this portion of the cavalry was largely covered by swampy lands which would have rendered any movement of the enemy around our right into our rear very difficult. Within Hancock’s lines and behind the church which occupied the centre of the position, was Werner’s 3d N. J. Battery, on slightly rising ground, from which it could, with change of front, deliver fire over the intrenchments either towards the south against Hampton or to the west and northwest against Wilcox and Heth. Such was the arrangement of Hancock’s brigades at 5.20 P. M.
Meanwhile Heth had prepared his attack. Three of McGowan’s regiments had been drawn around to the Confederate left to participate in the assault on Miles, leaving only two regiments of infantry to join Hampton’s two cavalry divisions in attacking Gregg and Gibbon. Brisk dashes had at various times, 3.25, 3.35, and 5 o’clock, been made against Miles’ front by the enemy’s skirmishers, sometimes with severity enough to be called attacks, but these were easily repulsed. Twenty minutes after the last dash of this kind, the Confederate artillery commander, having posted eight guns in advance of the boggy ground directly in front of the intrenchments, the nature of the ground, though free of woods, allowing him to bring the guns up by hand to within three hundred yards, opened a terrific fire in order to shake the resolution of the troops on whom the impending assault was to fall. The Confederate guns were served with vigor and resolution. This fire not only swept the whole space enclosed by the intrenchments, but took portions of Gibbon’s line upon the left, in reverse. But the Federal artillery on its side was not dumb. The unfortunate position of Sleeper’s and Brown’s batteries has already been described. During the early hours of the day, after Gregg’s cavalry had been driven from our front, these batteries had been lying in a most false and distressing position, men and horses completely exposed to the volleys of the enemy, or to the fire of sharpshooters. One by
one the horses had fallen, until in Sleeper’s Battery nearly every animal had been killed, some carcasses being riddled by a dozen balls. Captain Sleeper had himself been wounded, and several of his officers and men had fallen. Brown, upon Sleeper’s left, had suffered, though not to the same extent, his right being somewhat protected by a traverse, and the ground in his front being more open. As the Confederate fire broke into fury these batteries pluckily responded, while McKnight’s Battery from the right and rear searched the woods on the northwest, where the enemy were forming, and added to the general din. About 5.40 P. M. the artillery fire slackened, and a column of assault appeared directing its effort against the northwest angle of the intrenchments. The attacking column consisted of the brigades of Cooke, McRae, Lane, and Scales, with Anderson’s and three regiments of McGowan’s supporting. The column encountered not a little obstruction from the slashing of the woods which had taken place at this point, and were not a little shaken by the fire of infantry and artillery with which they were greeted. Five minutes more of good conduct on the part of the infantry which occupied the line between Sleeper’s right and McKnight’s left would in all probability have ended the day, and have added this to the long list of fruitless and bloody assaults upon intrenched positions which characterized the campaign of 1864. Unfortunately, however, the troops which the accidents of the day had thrown behind that poor, bad line of intrenchments were not up to their work. Among them were regiments renowned for their heroic behavior on many a battlefield; but the great campaigns of 1862, and 1863, and the battles of May, June, and July, 1864, had left few of the early soldiers in their ranks, while, on the other hand, the large masses of conscripts and raw recruits which had been thrown into them in anticipation of the campaign of 1864, or even during the battles and marches from the Wilderness to Petersburg, were neither of equally good material, nor had they been subjected to equal discipline and control.
I do not know that I could in a few words give a juster idea of the situation than by reference to the 7th New York,(1) which was one of the three battalions first involved in Heth’s charge. In this single regiment, then under enlistment for two years, there had fallen during the great battle of December 13, 1862, eighteen commissioned officers including the colonel, lieutenant-colonel, and five captains. Of these eighteen, seven were killed. All that represented this gallant regiment on the 25th of August, 1864, were a few companies which had reported to the corps just prior to the opening of the campaign, nine tenths of whose men were absolutely raw recruits, and some of whose officers could not even speak or understand English. I mention this regiment at this point, not that it was more responsible than some others, the 39th or 52d New York, for example, for the result, but because its past actions strikingly illustrate the causes of the subsequent disaster. Had the regiment which Von Schack carried almost up to the stone wall at Marye’s Heights stood intact and alone behind the breastworks where Heth’s assault fell, the enemy would have been shaken off. But it was not to be so, and our troops gave way. The enemy leaped the breastworks, and the men of the consolidated brigade either threw themselves upon the ground in surrender, or fled across the railroad. The right gun of Sleeper’s Battery discharged its last load of canister into the enemy just outside the breastworks. The next gun was hurriedly turned and discharged its contents into the enemy as they swarmed into the space between the intrenchments and the railroad. The cannoneers of the third gun performed the same soldierly office; the fourth gun was already disabled by the enemy’s shot; and the remaining officers and men leaped the embankments when further resistance was impossible, abandoning their pieces to the enemy. Brown’s Battery met the same fate, and McKnight’s four guns also fell into the enemy’s hands. In
(1) 7th N. Y. Volunteers. —Ed.
vain did Miles call upon Colonel Rugg’s regiments of the Second Division, which, as has been seen, had been sent to his support. They would not move up to fill the gap caused by the breaking of the 7th, 39th, 52d, and afterwards of the 125th and 126th New York. In the language of General Morgan, Assistant Inspector-General and Chief of Staff, “these regiments remained like a covey of partridges until flushed and captured almost en masse.”
When it is remembered that among these were regiments as renowned as the 19th and 20th Massachusetts (the latter having been recently filled up with conscripts and freshly imported recruits), we get a measure of the condition to which incessant marching and fighting had reduced the Second Corps.
After a catastrophe so sudden and terrible, it might well have been expected that the flushed and victorious enemy, largely superior as they were in numbers, would sweep down our intrenchments upon the right, double up the remainder of Miles’ line with a rapid and irresistible movement, and then, turning to the south, take in reverse Gibbon’s line, which, caught between them and the column of Wade Hampton, now pushing forward from the woods to the south of the station, might easily have been in large part captured. But the victorious Heth had yet to reckon with a few indomitable spirits. Had it been a common man, the average division commander, who ordered the First Division of the Second Corps on that day, had the corps commander been one a shade less intrepid or brilliant in his bearing, nothing but a complete rout could have ensued, owing to the altogether vicious formation of our line.
It is difficult to say just how much fight the enemy had left in him at this moment; but if the brigades which had carried our works across the railroad were worthy of Lee’s army, flushed with success as they were, there is no other conclusion than that the personal bearing of two or three men, in that
emergency, must have exerted an influence rarely if ever to be attributed to commanding officers. It was my ill fortune to hold a conversation the next morning with Major-General Cadmus Wilcox commanding one of Hill’s divisions. General Wilcox asked me who was the officer on our side who showed such splendid conduct in rallying and bringing forward our troops upon the right, after the line had been broken. I was proud to answer, even under circumstances not conducive to worldly vanity, “General Nelson A. Miles.” It is not usual that individuals are noted and observed by those opposed to them in action, but the behavior of this illustrious young officer on this occasion was sufficient to fill the eye of two armies, even had the troops engaged been far more numerous.
The tribute of General Morgan is strictly just. “It may be said without exaggeration that, in addition to his rare gallantry, General Miles had the rarer faculty of doing the right thing at the right time.” The giving way of the left of his division threw upon Miles the necessity of extraordinary exertions, and he rose to the occasion as few men could have done.
Let us return to the enemy who have broken through the intrenchments beyond the railroad, have captured the batteries of Sleeper and Brown, driven out their supports, and pushing down upon our right have also taken the four guns of McKnight which were served to the last moment, firing double charges of canister into the masses of the advancing enemy, one of the non-commissioned officers of the battery having his brains dashed out by a hand-spike. Lieutenant Henry D. Brower, in charge of the piece which had been ordered into the angle, was killed while fighting in the most determined manner, while Lieutenant Dauchey handled the remaining three guns with skill and courage.
Calling up a portion of his own old regiment, the 61st New York, which still remained firm, Miles threw it across the
breastworks at right angles and commenced to fight his way back,(1) leading the regiment in person. Only a few score of men — perhaps two hundred in all — stood by him; but with these he made ground, step by step, until he had retaken McKnight’s Battery (three of whose guns were subsequently brought off the field) and had recaptured a considerable portion of the line, actually driving the enemy into the railroad cut.
Miles had by this time transferred the fighting to the outside of the intrenchments on the right, where he sought to take in flank and rear the Confederates who had leaped the line at the northwestern angle, or were still coming up. As fast as his small party was dissipated, it was reenforced by little handfuls of men personally collected by his own staff and by the appeals and exertions of General Hancock, who, galloping to the front, exposed himself far more conspicuously than any private soldier, in his efforts to restore the fortunes of the day. His horse was shot under him; a ball cut his bridle rein in two; the corps flag, which always followed him closely, was pierced by five balls; another splintered the flagstaff. The brave and brilliant Brownson, Commissary of Musters, fell, mortally wounded.
At times the troops whom Miles and Hancock were leading in person scarcely equalled a captain’s command. But few as they were, their desperate push and stubborn gallantry when thus inspired not only checked the progress of the enemy,
(1) Colonel Miles was bitterly disappointed by the behavior of one of Colonel Rugg’s regiments, the 152d New York, of the Second Division, which had been sent, prior to the last assault, to the outside of the intrenchments and up the line of the railroad, under the charge of a cool and intelligent officer, Captain Martin, A. A. I. G. of the First Division, with a view to having it break out from behind the infantry and cavalry skirmishers on this side and take any assaulting force in flank and rear. At the juncture which now arrived, this regiment cooperating with Miles, who was fighting his way back up the intrenchments towards the railroad, could have produced a most powerful influence, but though promptly led out by Captain Marlin, the regiment broke before receiving a shot.
but actually carried this scanty column forward until hands were laid on McKnight’s most advanced piece by the side of which Brower lay dead. Among the officers who were conspicuous for their gallantry in executing the orders of Hancock and Miles were Colonel Lynch and Lieutenant-Colonel Broady.
Turn now to Gibbon, whose line was retired towards the left, along the course of the intrenchments, as shown upon the map.
We have seen how Rugg’s Brigade failed to respond to Colonel Miles’ command to move out, restore the line, and retake the batteries. That portion of Murphy’s Brigade of the Second Division, nearest the enemy, was also driven out and fell back rapidly and in confusion. To add to these difficulties, a general charge of Hampton’s cavalry division (dismounted), accompanied by two of McGowan’s South Carolina regiments of infantry, now fell from the south upon the remaining portion of Gibbon’s Division, which, under the fire to which the false position of the intrenchments exposed them, had actually climbed over upon the outside of their works for protection. All efforts to bring Gibbon’s troops up to the work of reestablishing the line proved fruitless. It is too pitiful a subject to dwell upon. This was the old division of Sedgwick, and contained regiments which in name were those that had won honor in a score of battles. But where were the officers and where the men who had made them renowned?
At this juncture invaluable service was rendered to the broken command from a source from which the infantry corps were not accustomed to look for assistance in battle. It has been stated that the bulk of Gregg’s cavalry force, when driven in from the front, had taken position on the extreme left, connecting with Gibbon. Here it had been assailed, more or less strenuously, during the morning and early afternoon, by Hampton’s cavalry and mounted infantry. At eleven
o’clock in the morning, two guns of Sleeper’s Battery, under Captain Sleeper in person, had gone out of the works and taken post behind Gregg, to reply to Hampton’s artillery fire from the south, and after a spirited contest had silenced Hampton’s guns. Now, as the infantry of Gibbon’s right brigade abandoned their works, Gregg’s First Brigade, which was formed in continuation of the intrenchments, maintained a close and effective fire upon the enemy advancing from the south, and thwarted his efforts to penetrate into our left and rear.
Throughout the whole engagement General Gregg’s bearing had been most loyal and soldierly, and won the entire confidence of the infantry officers, many of whom, not having been wont to fight in such close proximity to the cavalry, were strangers to his person.
To Gibbon, now, the most earnest appeals were made to rally his troops and reform them for a general assault, in cooperation with Miles, for the restoration of our line. Portions of Gibbon’s troops were even brought forward to a small crest which crosses the field of battle parallel to the railroad; but on receiving the fire of the enemy these fell back, and all further efforts to bring them up failed.
Even the gallant Colonel Smythe, commanding Gibbon’s Third Brigade, reported to Major Mitchell that he could not again form his line for advance. This incident is placed by Mitchell at 6.15 P. M. At this juncture and during the exciting and distressing half hour which had preceded, Werner’s New Jersey Battery did admirable service. Originally placed to fire to the south, Werner turned his guns westward upon the enemy advancing from the capture of Brown’s and Sleeper’s guns. His rapid fire, which swept the plain with canister, and his bold bearing undoubtedly contributed very much to check the disposition for a further advance. Our line now consisted of broken troops, in altogether insufficient number, reaching across the field some three hundred yards in the rear
of and generally parallel to the railroad and extending some distance outside the intrenchments upon the right, Werner’s guns being the sole available artillery. McKnight’s guns had indeed been recaptured, but by an odd mistake the Provost Guard, which was deployed along the rear, would not permit the cannoneers to return to the front because they were not armed.
As soon as the line described was established, General Hancock had an interview with Generals Gibbon and Gregg, and Major Driver acting on behalf of Miles, during which the two latter promptly offered to retake their lost positions, believing that the effects of the panic had now been sufficiently overcome to enable them to bring up enough troops to do this, the Provost Guard and the staff having been actively engaged in rallying the stragglers, many of whom, ashamed of having yielded to the influence of panic and evil example, were ready to take the opportunity to retrieve their credit. But inasmuch as General Gibbon positively stated that he could not retake his part of the works, the commander of the corps reluctantly decided that it would be unwise to send Gregg and Miles forward, and therefore confined his efforts to holding the position he then occupied, announcing to his division commanders that as soon as night came he should retire. General O. B. Willcox, with his division of the Ninth Corps, was known to be coming up rapidly from the rear. But night was fast closing in, and the commander of the Second Corps, though deeply stung and humiliated by the events of the late afternoon, saw no possibility of renewing to advantage a battle which should never have been fought.
I quote the following from General Morgan’s account: “It is not surprising that General Hancock was deeply stirred by the situation, for it was the first time he had felt the bitterness of defeat during the war. He had seen his troops fail in their attempts to carry the intrenched positions of the enemy, but he had never before had the mortification of seeing his
troops driven and his lines and guns taken, as on this occasion. In the disaster of the 22d June he was not in command, and during the indifferent behavior of the troops at Deep Bottom, as reported by General Barlow, the operations were hidden from his view by the dense forests. Never before had he seen his men fail to respond to the utmost when he had called upon them personally for a supreme effort; nor had he ever before ridden towards the enemy followed by a beggarly array of a few hundred stragglers who had been gathered together and again pushed towards the enemy. He could no longer conceal from himself that his once mighty corps retained but the shadow of its former strength and vigor. Riding up to one of his staff in Werner’s Battery, covered with dust and begrimed with powder and smoke, he placed his hand upon the staff officer’s shoulder and said, ‘Colonel, I do not care to die, but I pray to God I may never leave this field.'”
To Miles was assigned the covering of the retreat until O. B. Willcox’s Division of the Ninth Corps, which had arrived within a mile and a half of the field, should be passed, when this was to become the rear guard. Colonel McAllister, with his brigades of Mott’s Division, was stationed at the junction of the Jerusalem Plank Road with the Reams’ Station Road.
The movement was already in progress when at 7.30 P. M. a despatch was sent by General Meade, the first use made by army headquarters of the telegraph since the line was completed at 11.45 A. M., directing a withdrawal. At 10.30 P. M. General Meade informed General Hancock that General S. W. Crawford, with his own division of the Fifth Corps and White’s Division of the Ninth Corps, would at once move down the Plank Road, pick up McAllister’s two brigades at the junction of that road with the Reams’ Station Road, and with this force, some six thousand in number, would cover Hancock’s retreat. The direct order to Crawford to move was
subsequently countermanded, and he was instructed to communicate with Hancock and march, should the latter desire. Consequently at 12.03 A. M. of the 26th, General Crawford sent a note(1) expressing pleasure at the prospect of going to Hancock’s support, and asking for definite instructions.
But there was no occasion to draw troops so far away from the lines to cover the withdrawal of the Second Corps. The enemy, who had shown no extraordinary spirit in following up their first great advantage gained before six o’clock, made no attempt to pursue. Gregg’s cavalry remained on the field, where they had been when night fell, the First Brigade occupying its position on the Dinwiddie Stage Road until about ten o’clock the next morning. Hill had commenced withdrawing his troops during the night, owing, doubtless, to Lee’s unwillingness to leave his Petersburg intrenchments any longer without their accustomed reserves, few enough at the best.
Hill reports his loss at 720, cheap enough as the price of seven standards and nine cannon. Our own loss was very small as an excuse for abandoned works, broken lines, and captured guns. Of the infantry, artillery, and staff, 85 were killed and 380 wounded; but of the killed, 21, or one fourth, were commissioned officers. The missing(2) reached 1733, making the total losses of the two infantry divisions, the artillery, and the staff, 2198. The loss of the cavalry during the three days, August 23d-25th, was about 145.
Before midnight General Meade had not failed to send the following kindly and consolatory despatch to the commander of the Second Corps: —
(1) By a not unnatural error, this despatch, being written three minutes after midnight, was dated Aug. 25th instead of Aug. 26th. I have the original despatch in my possession. General Crawford agrees with me as to the proper date. —F. A. W.
(2) Among the missing was the Assistant Adjutant-General of the corps who, in carrying orders to the skirmishers after dark, rode through a gap in the line and was captured. [The writer. — Ed.]
Maj. General Hancock,
Commanding Second Corps.
Aug. 25,1864. 11 P. M.
Dear General,—No one sympathizes with you more than I do, in the misfortunes of this evening. McEntee gave me such good accounts of affairs up to the time he left, and it was then so late, I deferred going to you as I intended. If I had had any doubt of your ability to hold your lines from a direct attack, I would have sent Willcox with others down the railroad, but my anxiety was about your rear and my apprehension was that they would either move around your left or interfere between you and Warren. To meet the first contingency I sent Willcox down the Plank Road, and for the second I held Crawford and White ready to move and attack. At the same time I thought it likely, after trying you, they might attack Warren, and wished to leave him until the last moment some reserves. I am satisfied you and your command have done all in your power, and though you have met with a reverse, the honor and escutcheon of the old Second are as bright as ever, and will on some future occasion prove it is only when enormous odds are brought against them that they can be moved.
Don’t let this matter worry you, because you have given me every satisfaction.
(Signed) George G. Meade,
Comments upon the painful affair which has been recited are hardly needed. So much that is objectionable in the order and disposition of the day stands on the very face of the story, that we have little call to search for minute defects, or to discuss points of doubt or possible controversy.
First. Meade should have decided before the evening of
(1) 88 W. R. 486.
the 24th whether he would withdraw Hancock by positive order or reenforce him heavily. Nothing was to be gained by a mere duel between Hancock with 6000 infantry and 2000 cavalry and an equal number of Confederates which would compensate for the risk of a miscarriage, in view of the enemy’s superiority in following up a success, owing to their greater rapidity of movement and their better knowledge of the ground. If painful experience had not taught this to conviction, army headquarters were slow to learn.
Second. But the numbers engaged were not equal, and army headquarters were strangely ignorant of Hancock’s strength. In conversation with General Mott on the morning of August 26, General Meade stated that Hancock had had from sixteen to twenty thousand(1) troops at his command. Hancock’s own statement is 6000 infantry and 2000 cavalry, the latter comprising Gregg’s own cavalry division [the 2d of the Cavalry Corps], with a regiment and a squadron from Kautz’s Division. This cavalry, Hancock states, was not wholly available for operations around Reams’, but was required to picket the entire distance to the Jerusalem Plank Road, the enemy’s cavalry having made demonstrations in that direction.
The force “present for duty” in the two divisions of infantry had been on July 31: —
First Division . . . 4119 officers and men.
Second Division . . 3660 ” ” ”
Total . . . . 7779 ” ” ”
(1) I have a letter from General Mott detailing the conversation. Now in order to reduce this to even an extravagant statement of Hancock’s force would require the inclusion of Willcox’s and McAllister’s troops. Calling these as a maximum 3500, we should have Hancock’s infantry, at the outside, 6500, and Gregg 2000, in all 12,000, instead of 16,000 to 20,000. But to include Willcox’s and McAllister’s troops among those at Hancock’s command, for the purposes of fighting at 5.30 to 6 P. M. of August 25, is altogether unreasonable. Willcox, who led the column, states that he passed the Gurley house at 3.30 o’clock, having at least eight miles to march, a distance as great as that from the foot of Turner’s Gap to Sharpsburg.
The losses in these divisions during the second Deep Bottom had been 656. The loss by straggling during the fearful race from Strawberry Plains to Reams’, in the boiling sun of August, must have reached many hundreds. It would be safe to say that Hancock could not possibly have had exceeding 6500 infantry “present for duty,” as that term is used in the army returns, if, indeed, he had so many.
The enemy’s force is not exactly known. General Morgan’s account gives twelve brigades of infantry as engaged ; but this doubtless assumes the presence of all the brigades of Wilcox’s and Heth’s divisions [nine in all], two brigades of Mahone’s [making eleven from A. P. Hill’s Corps], and Anderson’s Brigade of Field’s Division of the First Army Corps [formerly Longstreet’s].
General Humphreys gives eight brigades as engaged, viz., McGowan’s, Lane’s, and Scales’, of Wilcox’s Division; Anderson’s, of Field’s; Cook’s and McRae’s of Heth’s; and two brigades [not named(1)] of Mahone’s. Hampton was present in strong force, with two divisions of cavalry and mounted infantry, considerably outnumbering our cavalry, and participating actively in the assault upon our left. In a letter to me, General Hampton says that he cannot state his force, but he presumes it to have been 3000 or 3500. Hancock’s report estimates the enemy’s force at 18,000. It may have been greatly below these figures, say but 13,000, at which I am disposed to estimate it, and yet have constituted a force fifty per cent greater than that which was kept at Reams’ from the 24th to the 25th, for no good reason that appears. Certainly, even if army headquarters had had no reason to suspect that the morale or the physique of the Second Corps had been shattered by what had occurred between the 3d of May and the 25th of August, it was inexcusable to take any risk at all in regard to this force, when nothing but a successful duel was at the best to be looked for.
(1) These were Saunders’ and Weisinger’s.
Third. But the situation on the night of the 24th of August presented to General Meade the rarest opportunity of the campaign to strike Lee a severe blow. He could not certainly tell that the troops reported by the signal officers as numbering apparently 8000-10,000,(1) which had been seen going southward from Lee’s intrenchments, were to attack Hancock; but the probabilities were greatly in favor of that supposition, while Warren himself had reported that the enemy could do nothing against himself, his own left being secure.
A concentration of sixteen or twenty thousand troops at Reams’ by noon of the 25th of August would almost certainly have had results very different from those which in general attended our movements to the left, as on the 22d of June, as in Warren’s movement against the Weldon Road on the 20th-22d of August, or as at the Boydton Road.
In those and other similar movements, our troops, proceeding through strange country, densely wooded, by dubious and devious paths, towards vaguely conjectured points, were delayed and thrown into confusion by the obstacles they encountered. The enemy moving under cover, with secrecy and celerity, and by shorter and well-known paths, and being much better marchers than our troops, were able to get in ahead of us almost every time, and at some point or other to slip in between our disconcerted and bewildered columns, or around our flanks, and thus baffle and disconcert the projected movements, even if unable to wrest a victory from us.
On the occasion we are considering, upon the other hand, the troops sent to reenforce the two divisions of the Second Corps would have proceeded by a short, direct, and easy route, to find their friends already in position, with a country in front which had been searched in every direction for miles by our cavalry, and with no small part of which the infantry
(1) This estimate only referred to the column of Wilcox on the afternoon of the 24th ; Heth’s column, comprising two of his own brigades and two of Mahone’s, did not move until the 25th.
and staff had become familiar through the 23d and 24th. With such a disposition of our forces, the opportunity would have been afforded for inflicting a stunning repulse upon Hill’s column and following it up most effectively. When we consider what was the most Hill was able to do against the force he found at Reams’ it is hardly reasonable to suppose that, had he fallen there upon the sixteen or twenty thousand men of whom Meade spoke to Mott, he would have escaped without one of the soundest thrashings ever administered to any portion of Lee’s army. If beaten so far from intrenchments and from supports, the race back would have been a very pretty one. Fully recognizing the stubborn valor of the Confederates amid disasters, we may still say that this day should have cost them some thousands of men who would have been sorely missed in the subsequent operations of September and October, and would have wonderfully “heartened ” our own troops.
Fourth. But, leaving all questions as to whether a concentration of troops should not have taken place during the night of the 24th, and viewing the situation as it presented itself as late as noon of the 25th, the fact that the troops which were despatched to Hancock’s relief, and which certainly would have been sufficient to avert disaster and secure the enemy’s repulse, even if not sufficient to win a decisive victory, were sent twelve miles around by the Jerusalem Plank Road, instead of being marched directly down the Halifax Road, where the distance would have been but four miles, constitutes a strange feature in this series of operations. General Meade’s reasons given hastily in his letter of 11 P. M. are far from satisfactory.
General Humphreys, writing at leisure and after a long interval, explains this action as follows:(1) “At two, or half-past two, General Meade ordered General Willcox’s Division to move down the Plank Road to General Hancock’s support.
(1) Va. Camp. 280.
General Meade notified General Hancock of this, saying all he apprehended was that the enemy might interpose between him and Warren, and some more of Warren’s forces(1) were held ready for contingencies.” It was this apprehension, no doubt, that induced him to send General Willcox by the Plank Road instead of by the railroad. “But by the Plank Road his march was twelve miles long (about the same length as that of Mott’s troops), whereas, had he gone by the railroad, which continued open until five o’clock, he would not have had more than five miles to march, would have got to Hancock by half past four or five, and managing his movement skilfully, might have taken a part of the enemy’s force in flank or rear.”
The slightest word of General Humphreys is to be treated with profound respect; but I am at a loss to understand the apparent approval of General Meade’s action in sending Mott and Willcox around by the Plank Road, viz., the apprehension that the enemy might attempt to interfere between Warren’s left and Reams’. That might have been deemed a reason, whether a sufficient reason or not, for keeping Crawford’s and White’s divisions in reserve at their camps; but I should think if there were reason to apprehend a movement of the enemy across the railroad and the Halifax Road, the march of a column of 4000 troops would have been a very appropriate and effective means of keeping those roads open. The Halifax Road was not even threatened by the enemy during the day, and one of Gregg’s brigades lay all the afternoon in position to protect the march of a column down that road.
Fifth. I have already adverted sufficiently to the most unfortunate location of the line of works which General Hancock found on his arrival at Reams’, which were occupied without any serious expectation of a battle.
Sixth. Had General Meade sat down at one end of the
(1) These were Griffin’s, Crawford’s, and White’s divisions.
telegraph line and called General Hancock to the other, as soon as the line was open, say at 12 M., and had a full, free talk by wire, clicking out answer and question for fifteen minutes, it is not wholly unlikely that General Hancock would have been ordered to retire in season to avoid the attack of two o’clock, after which Hancock seems to have felt himself too closely engaged to withdraw.
I say, it is not wholly unlikely that this might have been done; but it must be admitted that the character and position of the intrenchments were such as to have made it a very difficult and critical thing to attempt to retire the artillery from beyond the railway, in full sight of the enemy, the horses, moreover, having been nearly all killed by sharpshooters before this time. Such an attempt would probably have led to a rout of [(1) the Union force by] the enemy, for which they might or might not have chanced to be prepared.
Seventh. But whatever may be said as to what might or should otherwise have been done on the evening of the 24th, or the forenoon or early afternoon of the 25th, the fact remains undisputed and undisputable and freely confessed by the gallant commander of the Second Corps, that the infantry engaged, with few exceptions, did much less than their duty. Worn out by excessive exertions, cut up in a score of charges against intrenched positions, their better officers and braver sergeants and men nearly all killed or in hospital, regiments reduced to a captain’s command, companies often to a corporal’s guard, this was the state to which one hundred days of continuous campaigning, on the avowed policy of “hammering,” had reduced the divisions of Richardson and Sedgwick.
The Second Corps Return for April 30, 1864, showed “present for duty,” 1379 officers and 27,479 enlisted men. That is, the corps crossed the Rapidan less than 29,000 strong. It had during the progress of the campaign been
(1) The enclosed phrase is to supply an obvious omission in transcription.—Ed.
reenforced by five regiments of heavy artillery (1st Me., 1st Mass., 2d, 7th, and 8th New York), by the Corcoran Legion (69 N. Y. N. G., 155th, 164th, and 170th New York Vols.), and by two other regiments of infantry, viz., 36th Wisconsin and 184th Penn. Meanwhile it had lost by expiring of enlistments all that remained of more than twenty veteran regiments of infantry ; and there had been reported killed, wounded, and missing in action, to and including July 31, the enormous, the frightful, total of 20,283.
This was the logical result of the system of “attacking along the line” which had been resorted to in place of the old-fashioned plan of careful reconnoissances by the staff, the judicious selection of the enemy’s weakest point, the concentration of powerful forces opposite this point the diligent preparation of the troops for an assault, as for some grand occasion, some high and momentous duty, and then a struggle to the death, bringing in every man, with brigadiers leading regiments in the attack, division commanders close up to the front, corps commanders hanging anxious and vigilant over the scene, the very army headquarters overlooking the actual field of conflict, while reserves drawn from every part of the line stood massed in rear to repair disasters or make victory overwhelming. Could the killed and wounded officers of but one half hour’s fighting at Cold Harbor have been called back to the Second Corps, on the afternoon of the 25th of August, Heth might have charged till the sun went down, and all to no purpose. Had Tyler, Brooke, McKeen, Haskell, McMahon, Byrnes, Morris, and Porter stood over the skeleton regiments at Reams’, the northwest angle would not have been carried, and Hill would have gone back to his intrenchments with none but his own colors and guns.
But this was not to be the end of the history of the body of troops whose worst defeat has thus been frankly recounted.
The Second Corps, which, as we behold it at Reams’, seems like the Gladiator of the marble poem, on whose clammy
brow are gathered the dews of death, from whose wounded side ooze strength and courage as the life blood ebbs away, whose sword lies as it dropped from his nerveless hand, was yet again to rise under the healing touch of time, powerful, valiant, and victorious. With scores of its best approved commanders, hundreds of its tried captains and subalterns, and thousands upon thousands of its veteran soldiers returning from the wounds with which they had fallen, strewing the ground from the Wilderness to the Weldon Road, with rest for the jaded and the wholesome discipline of the camp for the recruit, the Second Corps was again to lead the charge or sustain the furious assault with all its pristine courage ; its guns were yet to thunder on Lee’s retreating columns ; its infantry to head the chase with almost the speed of cavalry ; and the old First and Second Divisions were at the White Oak Road, at Sailor’s Creek, and at Farmville to protest with their best blood that Reams’ Station was but a nightmare and a horrid dream.
- Walker, F. A. “Reams’ Station”. Papers of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, Volume 5, pages 267-305 ↩