Editor’s Note: This article appeared in John D. Smith’s 1909 regimental history of the 19th Maine, The History of the Nineteenth Regiment of Maine Volunteer Infantry, 1862-1865. It is reprinted here because I do not know if I have access to it in any other way.
At the Reunion of the Vermont Officers Association, held at Montpelier, November 3rd, 1886, General Francis A. Walker, of Boston, whose intimate relations with General Hancock during the war, as his Adjutant-General, gives peculiar significance to anything he may say relating to the military career of that great General, in an eloquent address upon the military character and services of Major-General Winfield S. Hancock, said: ‘Time will not serve to tell the story of the blackest of days in the calendar of the gallant leader of the Second Corps, when on the 25th of August after his men had lost nearly 20,000 men in battle since it crossed the Rapidan on the 3rd of May, two of his decimated Divisions, scarce 6500 strong, caught in the ill-constructed intrenchments at Reams’ Station, were driven from a portion of their works by repeated assaults from a superior force, with the loss of seven standards, nine cannon and 1700 prisoners. The agony of that day never passed away from the proud soldier, who, for the first time, in spite of superhuman exertions and reckless exposure on his part, saw his lines broken and his guns taken.’
All who witnessed the daring and valor of General Hancock upon the field at Reams’ Station, when a part of General Miles’ Division was broken and routed by the enemy, will attest to the truthfulness of what the soldier-orator says of his conduct that day.
The published accounts of the engagement at Reams’ Station have failed to do justice, however, to the men who fought upon the field.
General Humphreys states in the ‘Virginia Campaigns of ’64 and ’65 – ‘General Hancock said that if his troops had behaved as well as they had done before, he would have been able to defeat the enemy.’ If this remark was intended to apply only to the small portion who gave way at the third charge of the enemy, it undoubtedly states no more than the truth; but if it was intended to include all the troops there engaged, it as much fails to do justice to gallant men, as it might reflect upon commanding generals to say, if they had manoeuvered with their accustomed skill, that small body of Union troops would not have been caught in that awkward position by such an overwhelming force of the enemy.
It will be remembered that the fight at Reams’ Station was brought about in this way: The First and Second Divisions of the Second Corps and Gregg’s Cavalry, all under command of General Hancock, were charged with the work of destroying the Weldon and Petersburg railroad, down as far as Rowanty creek, about eight miles below Reams’ Station.
By the evening of August 24th the command had completely destroyed the road to a point three miles south of Reams’ Station. During the day the signal officers along the line in front of Petersburg had reported large bodies of the enemy’s infantry passing south, probably directed against Hancock, whose command could easily have been withdrawn or reinforced during the night. The morning of the 25th found the enemy’s cavalry supported by infantry across the left front. At a little after noon the troops were drawn back to Reams’ Station, where there were some intrenchments, though badly arranged, having been hastily constructed by other troops on a former occasion. The First Division was placed on the right, in works running southerly, parallel with and just west of the railroad, and facing westerly; two Brigades of the Second Division were placed in some slight works running northeasterly from the railroad and facing southeasterly; and the other Brigade of that Division was formed along the railroad in support of the First Division. The line of battle thus formed a V-shape, and this enabled the enemy to so place his artillery opposite the apex as to completely enfilade the lines of both Divisions. Still the works in front of the First Division were such as to enable them to withstand any assault of infantry, and they did gallantly repulse two charges by a large force of the enemy’s infantry, at about five o’clock in the afternoon, At this point of time, the Nineteenth Maine and the Nineteenth Massachusetts, two of the supporting regiments, were moved to the center of the left wing to fill a gap between the two Brigades on that part of the line.
When the enemy again charged, a portion of the First Division gave away, whether from demoralization caused by the artillery fire, or from having seen the support drawn from their rear, or from some other reason, it would be hard to tell. It was sufficient, however, to let the Rebel forces, in largely superior numbers, through, and give them the possession of that part of the line which had been occupied by the First Division. This gave them a position in the rear of our left wing, which was already engaged with a strong line of Rebel skirmishers in their front. A portion of the line were ordered to turn their backs upon the Rebel skirmish line in their front and charge the enemy, now in the rear. The troops responded with alacrity and were led in person by General Thomas A. Smyth,1 who was one of the most gallant and dashing of the Union Generals. But the task was too great, and the small force returned to the line from which it advanced, just in time to receive and repel a charge from the enemy, coming up in the old front; then quickly facing about it engaged the enemy in the opposite quarter. Thus the small line fought, facing first to the front then to
the rear. I remember the Nineteenth Maine changed from one side of the works to the other four times during the engagement. Men never fought with greater coolness, courage or confidence than those along that line, and that, too, under the most demoralizing circumstances and surroundings. The position was held until a column of the enemy was discovered moving around the left, which was met, however, and resisted by our cavalry; but when the movement was discovered orders were given to retire from that line. Then occurred an incident which often happened at such times. The Nineteenth Maine being detached from its Brigade did not receive the orders, and that, with the dusk of evening and certain natural obstructions which intercepted its view, as well as the fact that its attention was concentrated upon the active work in hand in both front and rear, the Regiment did not learn of the movement of the balance of the line until all others had completely withdrawn, and the Rebel infantry fire came at once upon both flanks.
A hurried examination disclosed the position of affairs, when the Regiment proceeded to rejoin the troops in the rear. In that movement the Nineteenth Maine lost, among the wounded, one of the bravest and most intelligent officers of the line in the army, Captain Charles E. Nash, of Augusta. To him was really due the preservation of the entire Regiment, for he first discovered its isolated position. He was dangerously wounded while running the gauntlet, when retiring from that position.
The Regiment had no sooner gained the shelter of the friendly woods, where were assembled the rest of the Division, when General Hancock, riding alone, inquired, ‘What regiment?’ On receiving the answer, he exclaimed, with an expletive, ‘The Nineteenth Maine will go anywhere! Deploy by the fence on the edge of the field in front and hold that position.’ The order was no sooner given than it was obeyed and the position held until midnight, when all of the forces were withdrawn.
If any criticism is to be made upon the conduct of the Second Division upon that day, it cannot be applied to the men who carried muskets. They obeyed every order with the coolness, courage, intelligence and loyalty worthy of the reputation and record made by the Corps and its brilliant commander.1,2
- Title Unknown, Portland (ME) Evening Express, January 8, 1887, page and column(s) unknown ↩
- Smith, John D. The History of the Nineteenth Regiment of Maine Volunteer Infantry, 1862-1865 (Great Western Printing Company, 1909). pp. 236–237 ↩