Thursday, August 15, 2013

Battle awaits across the river

Cross's letter (transcript below) refers to this map of the armies' positions just before Fair Oaks, Va. 
One great thing about historical research is how things keep turning up. I almost said new things, but the item I have in mind is not new at all. It was sold at auction in 2008, and it was written more than 150 years ago. I am once again grateful to my friend Dave Morin for finding it.

Dave and I share a particular interest in this one. It is a letter from Col. Edward E. Cross of the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers to his father in Lancaster, N.H. The letter adds only a little to the story of Cross and his regiment. What's exciting about it is that it was written just a couple of days before Cross began his legendary Civil War combat career.

Many details of the Cross have emerged during the last 20 years. Mark Travis and I researched and wrote My Brave Boys, a history of Cross's regiment, during the 1990s. The next year, after Walter Holden donated his Cross collection, including Cross's journal, to the University of New Hampshire, Walter, Bill Ross and Elizabeth Slomba brought out Stand Firm and Fire Low, Cross's Civil War writings. Robert Grandchamp discovered several new Cross war letters in researching his new biography, which came out last year.

Cross was a prolific writer before and during the war, and as time goes by, more and more of his letters reappear. This one is to his father Ephraim, a hatter in Lancaster who had once been a lieutenant colonel in the local militia and was known locally as Colonel Cross.

Colonel Cross of the 5th wrote the letter on May 26, 1862, just before he led a labor detail from his regiment and others in building the Grapevine Bridge across the Chickahominy River. A large part of McClellan's army marched to battle across this bridge.

The 5th New Hampshire reached the other side late on May 31, just as the battle of Seven Pines was ending. The next morning Cross led the 5th into battle at Fair Oaks. He was shot through the thigh as his well-trained regiment pushed back the rebels. His men told a newspaper correspondent that Cross "raged like a lion" during the battle. He wrote a friend that "in all seven balls struck my person." One went through his thigh. "When his long body fell," the paper reported, "he went down like a pine tree."

This was only the beginning of Cross's close acquaintance with musket balls and shell fragments on Civil War battlefields.

Here is a transcript of the letter:

Headquarters 5th NH Vols
Camp near Richmond May 26, 1862

Dear Father

We are now close to the river on the other side of which the enemy are encamped, about 100,000 strong. Their line of battle is formed in front of Richmond about 7 miles from the city, in a rolling, open country.

To-day the position of the armies is about as below

[See map in letter image above.]

The position of the rebel army is very strong, being covered by this muddy country in front and flank. But all depends upon whether we can get our artillery to bear on them. If we can, they are one, for we have 3,000 pieces.

To-day we are cooking three days rations to take with us. Some Regiments are making bridges and big rafts, and some cutting roads and putting down logs so as to bear up the artillery. I have 800 officers and men for duty – 200 more than any other Regiment.

All well
In haste
Very affectionately
E.E. Cross


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