Friday, January 31, 2014

The 4th N.H.'s first battle, illustrated

A surveyor before the war, Capt. George F. Towle of the 4th New Hampshire Volunteers had an engineer’s mind and a talent for drafting. On Oct. 30, he wrote a long letter to his friend Charles W. Brewster, editor of the Portsmouth Journal. His main purpose was to complain about his lot, but we’ll save that part of the letter for the next post.

Eight days before Towle wrote, the 4th New Hampshire had fought its first battle  – “seen the elephant,” as the soldiers referred to the experience. It was a small one by Civil War standards, the Battle of Pocotaligo, S.C., but deadly and face-to-face. The regiment was part of a force of 4,000 men sent to cut off the railroad line between Savannah and Charleston, isolating Charleston. The Yankees were opposed by 2,000 rebels under Col. William S. Walker, but these men were reinforced from Savannah and Charleston at the crucial moment. 
Towle made drawings of troop positions during the three phases of the battle and sent them to Brewster with short descriptions of what happened at each. Together these give a careful, accurate account of the battle (Towle exaggerated the size of the rebel force, but that is standard practice in soldier battle accounts). I’ve reproduced the drawings and commentary below, but let’s begin with Towle’s description of what he is sending to Brewster:

A portion of Lt. Guy V. Henry's battery, which supported the Pocotaligo
“Thinking it might interest you I enclose some rough sketches of the first fight in which the 4th New Hampshire had the fortune to meet the enemy face to face. . . . I think they will give you some idea of the position occupied by the 4th N.H. in the fights. At the last position we were brought up by a marsh said to be impassable, the causeway being torn up. On the opposite side were the rebels in equal force – 4000 to 5000 – with 12 pieces of Artillery. We could hear the trains arriving with reinforcements & the cheers of the soldiers as they arrived.

“I sometimes think that if we had been ordered to charge across, we might have carried the position, but would have suffered much undoubtedly The slight loss of our regiment was owing to its coming up to the last position deployed as skirmishers. My company followed the road, deployed on each side, and was near Henry’s battery upon which the whole rebel fire of 12 pieces was concentrated. It was here I had one man killed and two wounded. Had we been in close order I should have but half my company. I have written on the back of the sketches the explanation of the actions.”

In all federal forces suffered 340 casualties, 43 killed, 294 missing and 3 wounded. The rebels lost 163, 21 killed, 124 wounded and 18 missing.

Here are Capt. Towle's drawings with his descriptions of what happened:

The top notation reads: "Thick woods full of rebels"

First Position

After landing, the troops took up their line of march for Pocotaligo Bridge, in the following order, as set down in the sketch: The 47th Pennsylvania, deployed as skirmishers, had the advance – followed by the 4th N.H., 6th Conn. and 55th Penn., successively, 2d Brigade bringing up the rear. After marching about 5 miles we came into an open field, and fire was then opened on us by the rebels with two pieces of artillery in the road, concealed by a thick belt of woods which were full of rebel sharpshooters. After some fighting the regels fell back across a marsh, taking up the bridge behind them. The 47th Penn., which had suffered severely, reformed in rear of the 6th Conn., and the 4th N.H. now took the advance.

The top notation reads: "Belt of woods full of rebel infantry." 

Second Position

The rebels having fallen back across the marsh, again opened on us as we advanced. After a few rounds from Henry’s Battery the 4th N.H. were ordered to charge. Co. “F” ’s position came precisely opposite the bridge. The companies to the left of the bridge, not being able to ford, had to come down and cross to the bridge. The companies to the right of the bridge forded the marsh with difficulty. Co. “F” rushed across the bridge. The planks had been torn up, and they crossed on the string pieces in great haste, leaving behind a caisson full of ammunition & and wounded officer with his horse. 2 or 3 dead rebels lay scattered around. We kept up the pursuit from this position to the 3d position, a distance of 3 miles, the country being mostly thickly wooded.

The top notation reads: "Woods full of rebel infantry, 12 pieces of cannon."

Third and Last Position

Upon arriving at the point where the road came upon the marsh, a furious fire from 12 pieces of cannon was opened upon us. A heavy infantry fire was also poured in. Our artillery – Henry’s battery of 2 guns – replied till ammunition gave out. The causeway had been torn up – night was coming on – the enemy were rapidly getting re-inforcements. The firing on both sides had been very hot and at short range. Besides shot, shell, grape and chain shot, the rebels fired glass bottles and old spikes from their guns. It appearing then to our generals that the bridge, which was now only a mile or so distant, could not be taken, a retreat was ordered. The 4th N.H. was selected to cover the retreat, and picked up the dead and wounded. It was from 7 p.m. till 3 the next morning retreating back 8 miles, which proves that the rebels did not care to follow us.

[The Towle letter with drawings is from the collection of the New Hampshire Historical Society.]

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