Friday, December 6, 2013

'The whole face of nature smiled at harvest-time'

14th New Hampshire camp near Berryville, Va. Winchester and the regiment's first trial by fire were a 10-mile march away.
As Private Francis H. Buffum sat in the 14th New Hampshire regiment’s camp nursing a minor wound on the night of Sept. 19, 1864, he overheard a soldier telling others about a body he had seen on the battlefield. The dead man was Francis H. Buffum.

Such was the aftermath of battle, a new experience for the 14th, which in two years under arms had never fought before this day.

Cap of a Co. K soldier. Nine members of this company
were killed at Winchester, most of any in the 14th.
The morning had begun in the moonlight of almost-autumn in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The men of the regiment rose at 2 a.m., ate breakfast, broke camp near Berryville and set out for Winchester, ten miles away.

It was a leisurely march. Lt. Carroll D. Wright, a native of Dunbarton, N.H., who lived in Swanzey, was serving that day as acting assistant adjutant general on the brigade staff. He heard joking and laughter as the men marched off. When the sun rose, Wright noted that “the whole face of nature smiled at harvest-time.”

The men fell still when they encountered wounded cavalry skirmishers returning from somewhere up ahead, but what struck Wright was the beauty of the advance and of an army poised for battle. He saw the brigade cross a creek and disappear into a hollow. At around 11 a.m. the men came to a halt on open ground and formed in two ranks.

Before them was a lovely landscape: a wood, an uneven field, another belt of trees in the distance. In the second wood the rebel infantry stood ready to meet the Yankees.

Brig. Gen. Henry W. Birge
Bugles heralded the grand advance at noon. “The old, but infinitely beautiful, panorama of all battlefields, made still more impressive by the natural aspects of this most lovely of valleys, was spread before and around,” Wright wrote. “Away to the bases of the Blue Ridge and the Cumberland faded stretches of forest, and fields dotted by dwellings, sparkling with streams, and glowing with the kisses of approaching autumn.”

On the advance, Brigadier General Henry W. Birge’s brigade of the Second Division of the 19th Corps surged ahead of the rest. This was the 14th New Hampshire’s brigade, and the regiment began to lose men in the open field even before it reached the rebel line. Once it entered the second wood, the fighting became fierce. Wright watched as the Second Division was “hurled back into the clearing, stunned, mangled, and shattered.”

But it was the rebel line that broke that day, and to cries of “Forward!” the Union troops pursued the enemy.

The Union victory at what became known as the Third Battle of Winchester, or Opequon, was bittersweet for the 14th New Hampshire. Flag-bearers and officers had been particular targets during its charge, and the regiment had lost 53 men and officers killed or mortally wounded. Ninety others had been wounded.

Because the regiment moved on with the rest of the troops in pursuit of the rebels, there was no time to sort out the bodies. Many comrades were wounded and lay either on the field or in hospitals. Twenty-nine members of the 14th were buried in a mass grave on the battlefield.  Later they were dug up and moved to the national cemetery in Winchester. Not until 1868 did veterans of the regiment gather to dedicate an obelisk to them.

Alexander Gardiner, colonel of the 14th N.H.
Alexander Gardiner had been mustered as a colonel and the 14th’s commanding officer just the day before the battle. Gardiner was a 31-year-old lawyer from Claremont, N.H., a graduate of Kimball Union Academy in Meriden who had brought a printing press to Kansas during the troubles there in the 1850s. During the battle he had been shot trying to re-form the regiment’s line in the field between the two woods. He lived until Oct. 8 and was buried in Claremont.

After the battle, the regiment bivouacked along a stream just south of Winchester, expecting to move out again the next morning. As darkness fell, soldiers straggled in and their comrades greeted them with relief. It was from one of these late-comers that Private Buffum overheard the news of his own death.

At 10 o’clock that night the men were called into line for a company roll call. “It was almost cruel,” Buffum later wrote. As the long alphabetical lists were read, men called out, “Dead!” or “Killed!” or “Wounded!” Sometimes a name was called, and there was only silence in response.  

The headcount made things seem even worse than they were. As it turned out, a quarter of the living unwounded had not yet come in.

When Buffum wrote the regimental history nearly 20 years later, he tried to produce not just an accurate count but also to honor the dead with brief accounts of who they were and how they died.

The first man hit was Cpl. Charles A. Ball, a 22-year-old color-bearer from Winchester, N.H. He died after a month in the hospital. Another member of the color guard, Cpl. George W. Hazen of Dublin, N.H., was shot in the neck carrying the state flag and died quickly.

In addition to Gardiner, the 14th lost seven officers. Like the colonel, Capt. William Henry Chaffin and Lt. Henry S. Paul were from Claremont, a Connecticut River town that suffered enormous loss during the war.
Chaffin was a graduate of Kimball Union and also attended Norwich Military Academy in Vermont. He was shot through the head early in the battle. His father died a day or two later at home. Even though Chaffin’s body did not make it to Claremont, both men were honored at a single funeral service.

Capt. William A. Fosgate of Winchester, N.H.,
died  leading Co. B of the 14th to battle. While
home on furlough eight months earlier, he had
married Frances Hosmer of Fisherville, N.H.
His promotion to captain followed shortly.
Paul, who had been in the meat business before the war, was shot in the leg, but as a private helped him from the field, a second MiniƩ ball hit him in the head. He had initially served under Chaffin. They were buried together on the field.

Two of the dead had come to the regiment by circuitous routes. Private Sidney H. Young, a Rochester native, lived in New Orleans when war broke out and was conscripted into the rebel army. He deserted in June 1862 and fell in with the Bucktails, the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves. Later that summer, he came north to Westmoreland and joined the 14th. Conrad Webber was a 55-year-old veteran of the Swiss army with a bullet in his arm to prove it. He had emigrated from Switzerland and settled in Stoddard, N.H., in 1852. His son, also named Conrad, died of disease serving with the 2nd New Hampshire in 1863. Wounded and captured at Winchester, the elder Pvt. Webber died in Salisbury prison three months later.

Three men each from Claremont, Dublin and Winchester were killed and four from Richmond. One of the Richmond dead was 21-year-old Pvt. Otis A. Barrus, who had joined the regiment on Sept. 17, two days before marching to battle.

Now he lies with comrades he scarcely knew, men buried first on the field and later at the monument in the National Cemetery in Winchester.

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