AND now let us make a quick survey of what has been going on within Lee’s lines since morning. When day broke, it found Ewell’s corps — Johnson in advance, then Rodes, and last Early — arousing along the Pike, from beyond Locust Grove to within a few miles of Griffin. The first North Carolina cavalry, whom Wilson had scattered away from Germanna Ford in the morning, by dusk had re-collected and gone on picket ahead and around Ewell’s infantry. Between dawn and sunrise they began feeling their way down the Pike, toward Warren. If they had held back awhile, his pickets would all have been withdrawn to rejoin the moving column, and Ewell could have sprung on Griffin most viciously.
Hill’s corps was setting out from Verdierville for Parker’s Store. Longstreet, having marched from four o’clock of the previous day and a good share of the night, was now at Brock’s Bridge over the North Anna and already under way again. Stuart, Rosser, and Fitz Lee were assembling their cavalry beyond Craig’s Meeting House, — at least twenty odd miles from Hamilton’s Crossing, where the orders of the night before had placed them. Ramseur of Rodes’s division, Ewell’s corps, with his own and part of two other brigades, and Mahone of Anderson’s division, Hill’s corps, were still guarding the river from Rapidan station to Mitchell’s Ford.
Major Stiles, in his Four Years under Marse Robert, a book of living interest, gives us a glimpse of the early morning up the Pike. He says, “ I found him [General Ewell] crouching over a low fire at a cross roads in the forest, no one at the time being nigh except two horses, and a courier who had charge of them, and the two crutches. The old hero, who had lost a leg in battle, could not mount his horse alone. The general was usually very thin and pale, unusually so that morning, but bright-eyed and alert. He was accustomed to ride a flea-bitten grey named Rifle, who was singularly like him, if a horse can be like a man. He asked me to dismount and take a cup of coffee with him.” Ewell told the major while they were drinking their coffee that his orders were to go right down the road and “strike the enemy wherever I could find him.”
Lee himself, with a blithe heart, was breakfasting at his camp near Verdierville on the Plank Road. At eight o’clock the night before, he had sent this despatch to Ewell through his Adjutant-General, Taylor: “ He wishes you to be ready to move early in the morning. If the enemy moves down the river (that is, toward Fredericksburg) he wishes to push on after him. If he comes this way, we will take our old line [that is, the one of the autumn before at Mine Run]. The general’s desire is to bring him to battle as soon now as possible.” The reason for bringing Grant to battle at once may have been strengthened by a despatch that he had received from Longstreet during the afternoon, in response to one he had sent him as to Grant’s movements. “ I fear,” says Longstreet, “ that the enemy is trying to draw us down to Fredericksburg. Can’t we threaten his rear so as to stop his move ? We should keep away from there unless we can put a force to hold every force at West Point in check.” Longstreet doubtless had in mind the possibility of Butler’s command, then organized at Fort Munroe, being carried to the mouth of the Pamunkey.
About eight A. M., after his corps was moving, Ewell sent Major Campbell Brown of his staff to report his position to General Lee. Lee sent word back for him to regulate his march down the Pike by that of Hill on the Plank Road, whose progress he could tell by the firing at the head of his column; and that he preferred not to bring on a general engagement before Longstreet came up. Either Colonel Taylor had misunderstood Lee, or Lee for some reason had changed his mind. Had he not done so and tried to put his plans of the night before in execution, another story would certainly have been written of the campaign . Hancock would have been stopped long before he had made Todd’s Tavern, and his corps would have been swung over into the Brock Road; which would have effectually stalled off Hill. And although Ewell might at first have staggered Warren and Sedgwick, he never could have driven them from the ridge east of Wilderness Run where they would have been rallied; for Hunt would have had it lined with artillery, and it would have been another Cemetery Ridge for the Confederate infantry.
It is a notable fact that whoever took the offensive in the Wilderness was invariably repulsed. That the chances of war are fickle I own, but I sincerely believe that if Lee had struck at us early that morning he would have suffered a terrible defeat before sundown, and, instead of the blithe heart at sunrise, when twilight came on he would have carried a heavy one. For Mahone, Anderson, Ramseur, and Longstreet would have been beyond reach to give a helping hand to Ewell and Hill. So I am inclined to think that Colonel Taylor misunderstood Lee: which in a measure is confirmed by his moves on the 5th, all pointing to a manifest desire not to precipitate a general engagement. For does any one suppose that Hammond’s five hundred men could have held Hill’s veterans back had they known that Lee wanted them to go ahead ? Strangely and interestingly enough, Lee’s chances, owing to changing his mind, were growing better and better the farther and farther away Hancock and Wilson were moving from the strategic key of the field. But the truth is that Lee that forenoon knew but little more about Grant’s movements than Grant knew about his.
However that may be, Ewell, after hearing from Lee, regulated his march accordingly, slowing up Jonas, who was in the lead, and who had felt Griffin’s and Crawford’s videttes south of the Pike, having pushed the latter nearly to the western branch of Wilderness Run. When he got to the Flat Run Road, Ewell sent the Stonewall brigade (James A. Walker, who must not be confounded with Henry H. Walker of Hill’s corps) down it to the left. Soon, through his field-glasses, from one of the ridges that straggle across the Pike just this side of its intersection by the Flat Run Road, he caught sight of Getty threading his way diagonally up and across the leaning field east of Wilderness Run. Thereupon he halted Jones and sent Colonel Pendleton of his staff to report his position to Lee and ask instructions; and no doubt Pendleton told Lee about the column of troops seen moving toward the junction of the Brock and Plank roads. While Pendleton was away, and our people showing more and more activity and earnestness, Johnson, commanding Ewell’s leading division, began to arrange his brigades in line as they came up. Jones was drawn back and formed with his left resting on the Pike, his line of battle stretching off into the woods. He posted Steuart’s brigade on the other side of the road, then Walker’s and then Stafford’s : their fronts reached across from the Pike to the Flat Run Road, and thence on northward almost, if not quite, to Flat Run itself.
Kirkland’s brigade of Heth’s division, Hill’s corps, followed by Cooke, was driving Hammond down the Plank Road beyond Parker’s Store. Scales of Wilcox’s division of the same corps was standing off Crawford, while Lane and Thomas were getting into position in front of McCandless, who was facing west.
Lee repeated to Pendleton the same instructions as before, not to bring on an engagement until Longstreet was up. Pendleton got back to Ewell about 11.30, and shortly thereafter Griffin’s division and Wadsworth’s were discovered advancing.
In front of the left of Jones and right of Steuart was an old narrow, deserted field, occupying a depression between two flat irregular ridges, and crossed a little diagonally by the Pike. In the middle of it, its sides sloping down to it, was a deep gully, the scored-out bed of a once lithe, trembling wood stream. The Pike crossed it on a wooden bridge. The field was known as the Saunders or Palmer field, and was about eight hundred yards long and four hundred yards wide. It was the only open, sunshiny spot along the four and a half to seven or eight miles of our battle-line, if we include Hancock’s entrenchments down the Brock Road. The woods were thick all around it, but the ground east and north of it in the angle between the Pike and the Flat Run Road was very broken, its low humpy ridges cradling a network of marshy, tangled places, the birthplace of mute lonely branches of Caton’s Run, and everywhere crowded with cedars and stunted pines. Griffin’s and the right of Wadsworth’s division formed about threequarters of a mile east of the old field.
While their troops were forming, Griffin, Ayres, and Bartlett went to the skirmish line, so says Colonel Swan in his admirable account of the battle. They discovered that the enemy were in force, and so deeply were they impressed by what they saw that Griffin notified Warren. Warren, harried every little while by inquiries from headquarters why he did not move, sent word back to Griffin not to delay, although he had remonstrated at the choice of the point of attack, in view of the enemy being in force, he thinking it should be made towards Chewning’s. Griffin sent Swan back to say that he was averse to attacking. By this time Warren had almost lost control of himself, and in sneering manner (I can see his face, and hear his tones) he raised the question of courage. There was nothing left for Griffin to do.
In the formation for the advance, Sweitzer’s brigade of Griffin’s division had given place on the left of Bartlett to Cutler, of Wadsworth’s division, and had formed in reserve behind Bartlett. On Cutler’s left was Stone, then Rice of Robinson’s division, then McCandless of Crawford’s. The Maryland brigade of Robinson’s division was in reserve behind Stone and Rice. From the Pike to the left of McCandless it must have been fully a mile and three-quarters, and all through thick woods.
Wadsworth’s brigades and their supports were ordered by Warren to move by the compass due west. Now a compass is a right trusty friend and has guided many a ship steadfastly and truly through darkness and storm on the open sea, but it is out of its element and worse than nothing for an army fighting in woods like those of the Wilderness. It was natural for Warren, the skillful engineer, to rely upon it, but under the circumstances, and with the woods as they were, it was utterly impracticable. The first one hundred yards of underbrush, and then one of those briar-tangled ravines, and all reliance on the compass was gone. Self-protection, if nothing else, called on the regiments and brigades to try to keep in touch with each other, whatever the compass might say. As a matter of fact, only one of the commands was guided by it, — McCandless, who had the opening of the Chewning fields on his left to help him. But it ended in taking him away from everybody, and in coming mighty near to causing him to lose his entire brigade. For our people next to him naturally swung toward its streak of light, — thus leaving a wide gap between him and Rice.
Well, as already stated, when they began to move it was almost noon. The troops tried at first to advance in line of battle from the temporary works which had been thrown up while the reconnaissances and preparations had been going on; but owing to the character of the woods, they soon found that was out of the question, and had to break by battalions and wings into columns of fours. So by the time they neared the enemy, all semblance of line of battle was gone and there were gaps everywhere between regiments and brigades. Regiments that had started in the second line facing west found themselves facing north, deploying ahead of the first line. As an example of the confusion, the Sixth Wisconsin had been formed behind the Seventh Indiana, with orders to follow it at a distance of one hundred yards. By running ahead of his regiment, the colonel of the Sixth managed to keep the Seventh in sight till they were close to the front; but when the firing began, the Seventh set out at double-quick for the enemy and disappeared in a moment; and the next thing was an outburst of musketry and the enemy were coming in front and marching by both flanks.
But there was almost the same state of affairs on the other side, except that the Confederates, being more used to the woods, observed the general direction better and handled themselves with much more confidence and initiative than ours, when detached from their fellows. For instance, the Forty-fifth North Carolina, of Daniels’s brigade, having lost all connection with the rest of its brigade, stumbled right on to Stone or Rice, and before they knew it were within a few rods, only a thickety depression between them. Ours were the first to fire, but the aim was too high and scarcely any one hurt; the return volley, however, so says the regiment’s historian who was present, was very fatal, and our men broke, leaving a row of dead. Cases of this kind could be repeated and re-repeated of what took place in the Wilderness; and I am free to say that, as I walked through the woods last May, looking for the old lines, more than once I halted with a feeling that some spectral figure, one of those thousands who fell there, would appear suddenly and ask me where he might find his regiment. As a proof of the savage and unexpected encounterings, a line of skeletons was found just after the war, half-covered in the drifting leaves, where some command, Northern or Southern, met with a volley like that of the Forty-fifth North Carolina, from an unseen foe. It is the holding of the secrets of butchering happenings like these, and its air of surprised and wild curiosity in whosoever penetrates the solitude and breaks its grim, immeasurable silence, that gives the Wilderness, I think, its deep and evoking interest.
The woods being somewhat easier for Bartlett’s troops to move through than for those in front of Ayres, he gained the eastern edge of the old field quite a little ahead. His first line no sooner came out into the light than Jones, from the woods on the other side of the field, opened on it. Our men dashed down to the gully and then up the sloping side at them, and at once became hotly engaged. As the second line cleared the woods, Bartlett rode galloping from the Pike, flourishing his sword and shouting, “Come on, boys, let us go in and help them.” Meanwhile Cutler, on Bartlett’s left, with his Iron Brigade, made up of western regiments, whose members were more at home in the woods than their brothers of the East, had gotten considerably ahead of Bartlett’s men, and swinging more and more toward the Pike at every step, struck Jones’s and the left of Dole’s brigade, and, going at them with a cheer, smashed through, capturing three battle flags and several hundred prisoners. Battle’s brigade directly behind Jones was so severely handled, also by Cutler and Bartlett, that it fell back in great confusion with Jones’s broken regiments for a mile or more. Dole’s right held on, and Daniels, moving up and going in on his left, met Stone’s and Rice’s bewildered commands, some of whom were really firing into each other, and soon stopped all their headway.
When Ewell witnessed Jones’s and Battle’s overthrow he hastened back to Gordon, who was just arriving from his bivouac beyond Locust Grove, and implored him to save the day. Gordon moved his strong brigade well to the south of the road; they formed quickly, and at his stirring command dashed at what was left of Cutler’s and Bartlett’s men, who, by this time, were in greater or less disorder, besides having met with severe losses.
The Seventh Indiana, that started on Cutler’s extreme left, had fought its way clear round to the Pike, while the Sixth Wisconsin, that tried to follow it, found itself deep in the woods beyond one of the wandering branches of Wilderness Run, at least a quarter of a mile away from the Seventh. A company of the Twentieth Maine, that had started in Bartlett’s second line, came out on the Pike a half-mile west of the field; and behold, on their return, they were beyond a Confederate line of battle advancing toward their first position. Such was the state of our lines when Dole’s, and those of Battle’s and Jones’s brigades that had rallied, went in with Gordon, all giving their wildest “ rebel yell.” And, reader, let me tell you I heard that rebel yell several times; and if you had been there, with the lost feeling one is apt to have in strange, deep woods, the chances are about even, I think, that your legs would have volunteered to carry you to the Lacy Farm, or for that matter to the other side of the Rapidan. I mean only that that would have been your first feeling as you heard them coming on; but I dare say you would have faced the enemy right well.
Well, as I have said, what was left of Rice, Stone, and the Maryland brigade, — all somewhat shaky, if not already falling back under the advance of Daniels, — Gordon, Dole, and Battle struck just at the right time, and practically sent everything flying, but the dead, before them. Bartlett’s troops fell back, in great disorder, to the east of the old field and the works they had made in the morning; most of Cutler’s and those on the left did not stop till they reached the Lacy Farm. There, after great exertion, Wadsworth, who was deeply mortified and in high temper, rallied them. I recall very distinctly their condition, for I was right among them.
And here, reader, let me bring in a word from my friend Dr. Winne of the Army, to whom you have already been introduced; and were you to meet him, you would wish that there were more in the world like him. “When Wadsworth’s demoralized division was reforming at the Lacy House,” says the doctor in his letter to me, “ I saw a wonderful example of the triumph of mind over matter which I have never forgotten; and I can almost see the boy’s face yet. The shattered division was just moving back to the line when I noticed the youngster in his place going to what may have been his death, with pallid face and trembling lips, yet with his head erect and eyes to the front, going to meet Fate like a gentleman and soldier.” I hope, and so do you, reader, that the boy lived through it and on into a good old age, his brave heart ever his cheerful companion, and beating proudly on every 5th of May.
As soon as Wadsworth’s men were brought into some kind of order,—and it only took a moment, for once out of the woods and where they could see their colors, all rallied save now and then a man whose heart was not made for war, — I went to the front. And as I reached there Bartlett was reforming, Sweitzer and Robinson having relieved him and stayed the enemy from advancing. He had been wounded in the cheek, and the blood was trickling down on his breast. His complexion was fair and his hair very black, his hat was off, and I can see his bleeding face, as well as Griffin’s deeply glum one, across all the years.
So much for the engagement south of the Pike. Ayres, commanding Griffin’s right wing on the north side of the road, after overcoming annoying and delaying hindrances, brought his regiments into some sort of line just before they reached the old field, resting his left, the One Hundred and Fortieth New York, on the road. By this time Bartlett with Cutler had gotten across the south end of the field and had disappeared pursuing Jones; but Steuart’s men in the woods on the other side of the road, the continuation of Jones’s line, had stood fast, and with their fingers on the triggers were poising among the cedars, scruboaks, and young pines, watching Ayres; and as soon as the One Hundred and Fortieth, with their colors flying, came into the field, opened on them with premeditated, withering fire. The regiment, under its gallant, yellow-haired leader, “ Paddy ” Ryan, charged down to the gully and up to the woods, losing heavily at every step. Receiving also a bitter cross fire from their right, they swerved to the left, the color company astride the Pike, and then at close range grappled with the enemy. The Regulars to their right, under a murderous fire, crossed the upper end of the field in perfect alignment, entered the woods, and began an almost hand-to-hand struggle. But Walker’s and Stafford’s Confederate brigades, with nothing in the world to hinder, — for the Sixth Corps was not nearly up, — poured deadly vollies into them. The One Hundred and Fifty-fifth and Ninety-first Pennsylvania Volunteers went valiantly to their support. And as the Second, Eleventh, Twelfth, Fourteenth, and Seventeenth Regulars are advancing in the open field under heavy fire, let me say that a steady orderly march like that is what calls for fine courage.
It is easy, my friends, to break into a wild cheer, and at the top of your speed be carried along by excitement’s perilous contagion even up to the enemy’s works. But to march on and on in the face of withering musketry and canister, as the Regulars are doing now and as Pickett’s men did at Gettysburg; or as the Seventh Maine, with uncapped guns, resolutely and silently went up to the works at Mary’s Heights, and, by the way, carried them; or as I saw the colored division marching on heroically at the explosion of the mine at Petersburg, their colors falling at almost every step, but lifted again at once, — I say, that is a kind of courage which sets your heart a-beating as your eye follows their waving colors.
But it was only a short time till Regulars and Volunteers were driven back with heavy loss to the east side of the field, where with the reserve they at once reformed. Meanwhile Griffin, to help the One Hundred and Fortieth to break the enemy’s line, sent forward a section of the Sixth New York Battery, a move of great danger, — and the guns never marched with the Army of the Potomac again. The section trotted down the Pike and over the bridge and went into action briskly; the air around them and over the whole field was hissing with minie balls. In the edge of the woods, and on both sides of the Pike, at less than two hundred yards away, the One Hundred and Fortieth was fighting almost muzzle to muzzle with the First and Third North Carolina. The first and only round from the section crashed through the woods, ploughing its way among friends and foes, and instead of helping, made it much harder for the brave men. And just then, too, — the One Hundred and Fortieth dreading another round every moment, — on came Battle’s and Dole’s rallied brigades against their left. Pat O’Rourke’s brave men — who helped to save Round Top, the gallant Pat losing his life there — stood the unequal contest for a moment and then broke.
The guns now tried to retire from a position to which many thought they should not have been ordered. But it was too late. Ayres’s second line, which had followed the One Hundred and Fortieth and the Regulars with strong hearts, had been suffering at every step by the bitter and continuous cross fire from their front and unprotected flank; and by the time they had reached the farther side of the field were so mowed down that they could save neither the day nor the guns. The One Hundred and Forty-sixth of this second line reached the gully as the guns tried to withdraw, but was completely repulsed, and many of them made prisoners. Their horses being killed and officers wounded or captured, and the enemy on top of them, the sun-sparkling guns fell into the hands of the enemy.
It was at this juncture that, pursued by Gordon’s, Dole’s, and Battle’s brigades, back came Bartlett’s men, almost in a panic. They rushed into the field and actually ran over the North Carolinians about the guns, many of whom took refuge in the gully. The Sixth Alabama, of Battle’s brigade, was so close behind our people that they hoisted their colors on the pieces and claimed their capture, till the North Carolinians emerged from the gully and said No!
The victorious Confederates could pursue no farther, or stand there, for Sweitzer’s, of Griffin’s, and the First brigade of Robinson’s division, under my friend Charles L. Pierson, a gentleman and soldier, together with our rallied men, now poured such a fire into them from the east side of the field that they fled back to their lines on the edge of the woods. Meanwhile the gully was full of their men and ours, most of whom were wounded, and who did not dare to show themselves.
The guns stood there that night and all through the next day, for the fire was so close and deadly from their lines and ours that no one could approach them. When Gordon broke Sedgwick’s line at dusk the following night, to the right of the Sixth Corps, the enemy availed themselves of our confusion to draw them off.
On the repulse of Griffin and Wadsworth, Crawford was drawn well down on the Parker’s Store road and began to intrench. Thus by half-past one Warren’s corps had been thrown back with heavy loss; and all because the Sixth Corps had not been able to connect with it. Upton’s troops did not get abreast of Ayres’s bleeding brigade till three o’clock, and the ground where they had fought had burned over. He drove the enemy from an advanced position — for no one in the Army of the Potomac had greater courage or more soldierly abilities than Upton — and then intrenched. In front and behind his lines were many scorched and burned bodies of our men and of the Second, Tenth, Fourteenth, and Sixteenth regiments of Stafford’s Confederate brigade, who, with James A. Walker’s, enveloped the right flank of the Regulars.
Brown’s and Russell’s brigades of the Sixth Corps, on Upton’s right, greatly impeded as he had been in their advance through the scrub-oaks, saplings of all kinds, and intermingling underbrush, came in conflict with Early’s division, which, after the repulse of Griffin, had been pushed well out on Johnson’s left, and, under Hays, Stafford, and Pegram, was advancing between Flat Run and the road of that name. Russell, on the right, gave them a sudden and severe check, capturing almost entire the Twenty-fifth Virginia of Jones’s brigade, which after regaining its hope and courage had been moved to the left. In this engagement, or subsequent ones, for fighting was kept up on and off till dark, Stafford was killed and Pegram severely wounded.
Jones and his aide, Captain Early, a nephew of the distinguished Confederate General Early, were killed trying to rally their brigade. I happened to be at Grant’s headquarters that afternoon or the next morning, just after the news of his death was received, and overheard some one ask, “ What Jones is that? ” Ingalls, our chief quartermaster, exclaimed with manifest regret, “ Why, that is Jones, J. M.; we called him ‘Rum ’ Jones at West Point.” There is a stone on the south side of the Pike, about a mile and a quarter west of the old field, marking the spot where he fell.
The woods thereabout got on fire and burned widely. “ Suddenly, to the horror of the living,” wrote a member of the Seventh Indiana who was lying along the safe side of the Pike, wounded, “ fire was seen creeping over the ground, fed by dead leaves which were thick. All who could move tried to get beyond the Pike, which the fire could not cross. Some were overtaken by the flames when they had crawled but a few feet, and some when they had almost reached the road. The ground, which had been strewn with dead and wounded, was in a few hours blackened, with no distinguishable figure upon it.”
As soon as they had driven us back, the enemy began to strengthen their intrenchments and brought guns down to their line. Our men did likewise; so besides musketry, the field was swept with canister, for they were only four hundred yards apart; off on the right, in Sedgwick’s front, the lines in some places were within pistol-shot of each other. Up and down the gully, around the guns and all over the middle of the old field, lay the dead and mortally wounded of both armies, whom no one could reach, the poor fellows crying for help and water. O! violets, innocent little houstonias, flaming azaleas, broom-grass, struggling pines, cedars, oaks, gums, and sassafras, now dotting the field, when the south wind blows and the stars call out, “This is the 5th of May,” do you break into your mellow speech and commemorate the boys I saw lying there beyond the reach of friendly hands! Yes, I know right well you do: and Heaven bless every one of you; and so says every Northern oak and elm, and so says every poplar and Southern pine that borders the old home cotton-fields.
Shortly after his repulse, Griffin in miserable humor rode back to Meade’s headquarters, and in the course of his interview allowed his feelings to get away with him, exclaiming in the hearing of every one around that he had driven Ewell three-quarters of a mile, but had had no support on his flanks. Then, boiling still higher, he censured Wright of the Sixth Corps for not coming to his aid, and even blurted out something so mutinous about Warren, that Grant asked Meade, “ Who is this General Gregg? You ought to arrest him.” Meade, however, kept his temper and said soothingly, “ It’s Griffin, not Gregg, and it’s only his way of talking.” This flurry of Griffin’s was a part of the aftermath of the delusion that Lee would not take the offensive. In view of all the near and remote consequences of that delusion, the most of which are obvious, it is but a wisp, and may be compared to the loose tags of new-mown hay which fall from the load on its way to the barn. There is nothing in the campaign which approaches the warm and beckoning interest which that delusion has for me. Sometimes as I ponder over it, I think I hear voices from it as from a mountain; they are near and yet far away, and something within tells me that they are chanting one of Fate’s old and weird melodies, — and then all is still.
It seems probable with what we know now of the situation, that, if Griffin had not been sent forward till Upton had joined him, Ewell would have been driven far away from where Major Stiles found him boiling his coffee. And I wonder where he would have boiled it the next morning: possibly far back on the banks of Mine Run, or, more likely, on the head-waters of one of the streams bearing off to the North Anna, for Lee would have had to fall back in that direction till he met Longstreet. Wherever he may have breakfasted, for me Ewell has always been an interesting character. Major Stiles tells us that he was a great cook. “ I remember on one occasion later in the war,” says the major, “ I met him in the outer defenses of Richmond, and he told me some one had sent him a turkey leg which he was going to ' devil; ’ that he was strong in that particular dish; that his staff would be away, and I must come around that evening and share it with him.” The major had a part of the deviled turkey leg and a happy evening with the general. It was this same grim, kind-hearted, old Ewell who reported that Stonewall Jackson once told him that he could not eat black pepper because it gave him rheumatism in one of his legs. It would have been well for soldiers in Banks’s army if Stonewall had “ unbeknownst ” eaten some black pepper before he got after them in ’62; it might have saved them, a part at least, of that awfully hot chase he gave them back to the Potomac.
And now let us turn from the right of the line, from Warren, Griffin, and Sedgwick, to Getty, who is on the extreme left. It will be remembered that Ewell, just before the battle began, on looking down the vista of the dreaming old Pike, caught sight of a column of troops crossing the road and moving southeastward up the ridge beyond Wilderness Run. It was Getty, the hour about eleven, and his destination the intersection of the Brock and Plank roads, which, from Grant’s headquarters on the edge of the Lacy Farm, lies two and a half miles due southeast as the crow flies, and owing to its strategic value became the vital point of our line on the left. That historic point might, not only for the sake of the services they rendered that day, but for services on many other fields, be called Getty’s or Hammond’s Crossing. Perhaps a descriptive word or two as to its adjacent natural features will aid the reader to see — and I wish he might hear, also — the stirring events that took place there; for I believe that no crossing of country roads on this continent ever heard, or perhaps ever will hear, such volleys.
The roads cross each other at a right angle in the midst of dense, silent woods which are chiefly oaks, medium-sized, shaggy and surly, the ground beneath them heavily set with underbrush. The Brock Road then bears on south some four miles, through whip-poor-will-haunted woods, to Todd’s Tavern, a ragged opening where the Catharpin Road heading for Fredericksburg comes in, and thence on through woods again to Spottsylvania. About half-way between Getty’s or Hammond’s Crossing and Todd’s Tavern, the Brock Road is intersected by a narrow-gauge railroad which runs from Orange Court House to Fredericksburg, keeping south of the Plank that is bound for the same place. Having reached Parker’s Store on its way east, the railway swings off from the Plank with a long curve, till it comes to the Brock, and then darts across it. When the war came on, its narrow location had just been cleared through the woods, and the roadbed graded. It will be seen in due time what use Longstreet made of this roadbed; how his flanking column, under the handsome and gallant Sorrell, formed there and swept everything before it to the Plank Road as he charged due northward through the woods, gray with the smoke of battle and burning leaves. The Plank runs from the crossing to Parker’s Store about two and a half miles west, and then on to Orange Court House. From this junction it is not far, less than a half-hour’s rapid walk, before we reach the battlefield of Chancellorsville and the spot where Stonewall fell.
The spring-head of the most easterly branch of Wilderness Run crosses the Brock a third or a half mile before the road reaches the Plank. Over dead leaves and dead limbs and around low tussocks, crowned when I saw them last with blooming cowslips, the darkish water comes stealing out of the gloomy woods on the east side of the road, glints at the sun, and then disappears in those to the west. This branch soon spreads into a zigzagging morass, keeping company with others like it that head near the Plank Road and creep northward, separated by low, tortuous, broken ridges, the dying-away of the main ridge that sweeps around from Chewning’s. The waters of all of them unite at last in Wilderness Run. In these shallow depressions bamboo-like vines abound, tangling all the bushes, but here and there is an azalea amongst them, and, when the battle was going on, dogwoods were in bloom along their banks and on the ridges between them. These alternating ridges and swampy interlaced thickets twill the country, that lies inclined like a canted trough in the angle between the Brock Road and the Plank. It was the scene of very, very bitter fighting, and there many men of both armies were lost.
The ground on the south side of the Plank is gently wavy, and about its junction with the Brock may be called dry, level, and firm; but in less than a mile to the west of it low ridges are met with, between which are thickety morasses again; but they drain off southward into affluents of Jackson’s Run, one of whose branches is a companion of the Brock Road for a while. These waters saunter their way into the Po and Ny and then on at last into the Pamunkey, while those in the morasses on the north side of the Plank flow into the Rapidan and then into the Rappahannock. The land generally, however, on the south side is higher than on the north, and not nearly so broken; but on either side one can barely see a man thirty yards away.
About a mile and three-quarters west of the junction the Plank emerges from the glooming woods into a clearing of twenty or thirty acres; it is a very quiet spot, and over the most of it the broomgrass is waving. The northern edge of this humble little estate follows the abrupt, bulging descents of the Chewning circular ridge which encloses the basin of Wilderness Run. It is the Widow Tapp’s place, her small house, with companion corn-crib and log stable, standing several hundred yards from the road and partly masked by meagre plum and cherry trees. In this old dun clearing Lee made his headquarters during a part of the struggle, and by the roadside just at the border of the woods is the stone with, “ Lee to the rear, say the Texans,” inscribed upon it.
And now let us return to the junction. Wheaton’s, Getty’s leading brigade, reached the Plank Road by noon, and with all haste — for Getty himself was there, having ridden at the head of his command — deployed astride it, the Ninety-third Pennsylvania on the left, the One Hundred and Thirty-ninth Pennsylvania on the right; and succeeded, after losing quite a number of men, in checking Heth’s advance. Dead and wounded Confederates were lying within a hundred feet of the crossing where Hammond had made his last stand. As fast as the other brigades of the division came up, they were formed in two lines, Eustis on the right of Wheaton, and the ever-gallant Vermont brigade under Lewis A. Grant on the left. Learning from prisoners that he was confronted by two of Hill’s divisions, Heth’s and Wilcox’s, Getty immediately began to throw up breastworks along the Brock Road, to the right and left of the junction. While thus engaged, his troops skirmishing briskly along their entire front, Hancock, preceding his corps at a fast gallop, reined up before him, looking tire soldier through and through; and I can see his high-headed and high-withered sorrel, with nostrils expanded and pride in his mien that he had brought his gallant rider to the scene of action.
It took but a moment for Getty to make the situation clear to Hancock, whose face that morning, and every morning, was handsomely stern with a natural nobility of manner and an atmosphere of magnanimity about him. It was then after one o’clock, and by this time, although unknown to Getty, Warren’s repulse was almost complete. Hancock at once sent his staff-officers back, directing division and brigade commanders to hurry the troops forward with all possible speed. His martial and intense spirit so imbued his corps, and his relations with it were of such a personal character, that his fervor in the face of the threatening situation was communicated like a bugle-call to the entire column. But on account of the narrowness of the road, and the trains and artillery of the division being unable to turn out to clear the way, the men were greatly impeded in their now animated march. About half-past two, Birney’s, Hancock’s leading division, bore in sight, and under orders formed hurriedly on Getty’s left, continuing the latter’s line of intrenchments so as to be ready if Hill should come on, which was momentarily expected by Getty.
And so, as one after another of his aroused, perspiring divisions closed up, each formed on the other’s left and intrenched : Birney, Mott, then Gibbon, and last Barlow, whose division was thrown forward of the road on some high, clear ground which commanded an immediate sweep of country; and there, save two batteries, Dow’s and Rickett’s, all the artillery of the corps was massed. His line then bowed eastward across the Brock Road, not far from where the railway crosses it. The old works, now sunk to low, flattened ridges, and covered with bushes and saplings, some of which are quite large, seem almost endless as you travel the lonely road to Todd’s Tavern.
Meanwhile Warren’s repulse had made headquarters very anxious, and as early as half-past one, orders suggesting an advance had been sent to Getty. But, believing that Heth and Wilcox were both in front of him, and evidently in no mood to yield, and Hancock’s men almost at hand, he used his discretion and waited for their coming, his understanding with Hancock being that, as soon as Birney and Mott were up, they should go forward. In harmony with this understanding, on Birney’s arrival, Getty withdrew Eustis into reserve, moved Wheaton to the north side of the Plank Road, and Lewis H. Grant by flank till his right rested on it. Both brigades, save their heavy skirmish lines, were on the Brock Road behind their temporary works, and Birney’s and Mott’s divisions were forming, somewhat confusedly after their tiresome march, in two lines of battle on Getty’s left. The news from Griffin’s front growing more and more disturbing, Humphreys, Meade’s chief of staff, at a quarter after two reported the serious results to Hancock, who in reply said that two of his divisions, Birney’s and Mott’s, in conjunction with Getty, would make an attack as soon as they could get ready. This was not the response headquarters hoped for; what they wanted to hear were Hancock’s and Getty’s guns. An hour passed, and, hearing nothing, Meade, in ill-humor at the surprising turn of affairs up the Pike, sent Colonel Lyman of his staff with a peremptory order to Getty to attack at once, with or without Hancock. It was the same kind of an order in terms and spirit which had sent Griffin ahead without knowing whether Upton was ready to help him.
Humphreys, in repeating Meade’s orders, directed Hancock to support Getty with a division on his right and another on his left. Accordingly Hancock ordered Birney to send one of his brigades, Hays’s, to Getty’s right. Hays, that very gallant man, moved as fast as he could up the Brock Road past the junction, but Getty, having caught the spirit of his orders and knowing that he could not wait for any shifting of Hancock’s troops, had given the command forward; and before Hays reached his position his men had cleared their works and were desperately engaged.
And now let us see what had been going on up the Plank Road since dawn. and follow the train of events which, as the day progressed, had put Heth ready to plunge at Getty; for, as a matter of fact, he was just ready to lake the offensive when Getty struck at him. The sun rose that morning at 4.48, — I saw it come up, a deep poppy red, — and by the time it started to clear the tree-tops, Lee was breakfasting and his trusty, heavily-built, iron-gray horse, Traveler, stood saddled, ready for him to mount. The general, as has been said before, was very cheerful, his kindly hazel eye beaming while he breakfasted with his staff. It may be interesting to know that it was his habit in the field not to loiter at the table, but to leave it early, so that his young and light-hearted friends might enjoy its freedom. He conveyed the impression to all of them that morning that at heart he was looking forward to a victory over Grant. I have often gazed, as it were, in admiring wonder at the gentleness, the ever-dewy hope and mountainous resolution in Lee’s nature.
The troops of his small, punctilious, courageous, and mysteriously impressive Third Corps commander, A. P. Hill, who had been with him on so many fields, were camped, some in front and some behind him, along the Plank Road. “ Jeb ” Stuart, his buoyant and reliable cavalry leader, had bivouacked that night just in rear of the picket reserve and some distance beyond the infantry, and, according to his biographer, Major McClellan of his staff, conducted the advance of Hill’s corps.
There are no two of the Confederate generals who are more vitally interesting to me than Stuart and Hill, although I never saw either of them that I know of; they may, however, have visited West Point and passed unnoticed in the stream of young and old officers who were coming and going to their Alma Mater when I was there. But, however it may have been, everything I hear or read of Stuart is accompanied with a sense of nearness : I catch sight of his fine features, his manly figure, his dazzling, boyish blue eyes, his flowing, brownly auburn beard, and hear his voice ringing with either command or glee. It is said that rarely was his campfire lit that he did not make it joyous, his voice leading in chorus and song. And now the mystic bugles of his troopers are sounding taps from the Rapidan to the James in his old camps, and, hark! as they die away, “ Jeb ” is still singing on, for woods and fields and running streams all love the memory of a happy heart. Nature made him a cavalry leader by instinct, and a very sweet character. All of his old army and West Point friends never wearied in testifying to their affection for him. He met his mortal wound just a week after the morning we are dealing with. When told that death was very near he asked that the “ Rock of Ages, cleft for me,” might be sung, and with his failing breath joined as they sang around his bed. When in the field he always wore a yellow cavalry sash, and a felt hat with a black plume.
Why Hill has been so interesting is perhaps because there is always something very keen to me in the courteous dignity, care of personal appearance, and a certain guarded self-control, of officers who are small, naturally “ military,” and whose lives and movements are in harmony with all forms of military etiquette. They say he was quiet in manner, but when aroused and angered, was hard to appease. He wore his coal-black hair rather long, and his face was bearded, his eyes rather sunken, and his voice sharp and stern. But what kindles an enduring, historic light about him is that, when both Stonewall Jackson and Lee were dying, he, this little, punctilious, courteous soldier, was in their misting vision. Stonewall said, as he was fading away, “ Tell A. P. Hill to prepare for action.” Lee, like Stonewall, was back on the field and murmured, “Tell A. P. Hill he must come up.” Well, well, flowers of Virginia! go on blooming and blooming sweetly, too, by the graves of each of them as this narrative wends its way.
Kirkland’s brigade of North Carolinians of Heth’s division was in front that morning, and moved leisurely; for Hill had had the same instructions as Ewell, to develop our lines but not to bring on a general battle till Longstreet should overtake them. “ Never did a regiment march more proudly and determinedly than the Twenty-Sixth North Carolina as it headed the column for the battle of the Wilderness. We passed General Lee and his staff.” So says its historian.
It was the same regiment that charged at Gettysburg and lost so heavily on the first day, led by those two fine young West Point men, Burgwyn and “ Rip ” McCreery, both of whom lost their lives. I wonder if, for the sake of boyhood’s memories which I shared with McCreery at West Point, the reader will consent to allow the current of events to eddy for a moment around him and Burgwyn. At Gettysburg their regiment, the Twentysixth, was lying down in the edge of the wheat-field that waved up to McPherson’s woods, waiting for the command, “Forward.” After a while Burgwyn, who was refinedly and delicately handsome, and who had graduated only a few years before our time, gave the long waited-for command, “Attention! ” The lines sprang to their feet, the color-bearer stepped out four paces to the front, and at the command, “ Forward! ” the regiment, eight hundred strong, moved resolutely across the field toward our men, who were standing partially protected by a stone wall. The engagement soon became desperate, and after the colors of the Twenty-sixth had been cut down ten times, McCreery seized them and, waving them aloft, led on; but within a few paces he was shot through the heart, and his Virginia blood gushed out, drenching the colors. Burgwyn took them from McCreery’s paling hand, — and I can see that thin, nervous hand sweeping the holy air of the chapel in impassioned gesture as he delivers his Fourth of July oration. A moment later a shot goes tearing through Burgwyn’s lungs, and, as he falls, swirling, the flag wraps about him. The lieutenant-colonel of the regiment kneels by his side and asks, “ Are you severely hurt, dear colonel ? ” He could not speak, but pressed his friend’s hand softly and soon passed away.
The Twenty-sixth, with its gallantly commanded Confederate brigade, finally carried the position; and it adds interest and, I am sure, stirs a feeling of pride in every Northern breast, that the Twentysixth’s worthy opponent that day at Gettysburg was the Twenty-fourth Michigan, now present in the Wilderness, whose exploit of capturing the colors of the Forty-eighth Virginia has already been given. Nine officers and men carried the flag of that Michigan regiment during the action at Gettysburg; four of them and all the color guard were killed. The same old flags, those of the Twentysixth and the Twenty-fourth, were present in the Wilderness, and I am glad I served on the same fields with them. The Twenty-fourth Michigan was from the shores of Erie and Huron, the Twentysixth from the slopes of the mountains of western North Carolina. In one of the North Carolina companies there were three sets of twins, and, when the battle was over, five of the six were lying dead with Burgwyn and “Rip” McCreery.
(To be continued.)