Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Chancellorsville (1): 'This was our first musketry engagement, and we did not know enough to retreat'

At the age of 21, Richard W. Musgrove of Bristol, N.H., abandoned his studies at nearby Tilton Academy and joined the 12th New Hampshire Volunteers. The regiment fought at Fredericksburg five months later, and its struggle at Chancellorsville on May 3, 1863, nearly destroyed it.

Richard Musgrove of Britol kept a diary and later wrote a memoir.
Musgrove kept a diary and later used it as the basis of a memoir, Autobiography of Captain Richard W. Musgrove. He died in 1914, and his daughter Mary had the autobiography published in 1921.

This is the first of a series recounting Musgrove’s march to Chancellorsville and his experience there. As he knew, his account was not a history of the battle but one man’s view of it. Where necessary, I have added context gleaned from the 12th’s regimental history and other sources.

Musgrove was a sergeant in Company D of the 12th. When he and the rest of the regiment set out from Falmouth, Va., at 2 p.m. on April 28, some men joked that they were headed “for Richmond or the grave.” They liked their new commanding general, the New Englander Joseph E. Hooker. After the day’s march they bivouacked, lying in overcoats on rubber blankets with shelter tents as covers. “Though cold, slept soundly,” Musgrove noted.

To the sound of musketry and cannon they fell in the next morning and marched to the bank of the Rappahannock River south of Fredericksburg. There they joined the large decoy force masking Hooker’s intention to mass his army at Chancellorsville.

With Dan Sickles’s 3rd Corps, Musgrove and his comrades waited in plain view of the enemy. “I could see on the other side of the river both armies drawn up in battle array, but neither side sought to bring on an engagement,” he wrote. He looked up and saw a hot-air balloon watching the rebels.

While the infantrymen waited, Hooker and his main body of troops crossed the river north of the city. A courier delivered this news. His message from Hooker said Robert E. Lee’s army now had two choices: withdraw or fight on ground “where certain destruction awaited him.” Hats and caps flew into the air, the men cheered and Union bands struck up martial tunes.

The 3rd Corps made a forced march toward the right wing of the army, traveling far from the river to conceal its movement from the enemy. Dust rose from its path, making it hard for the men to see and breathe. They stopped at 1 a.m. on May 1 near the Hartwood church, where Musgrove joined the rush for water. That night he drank coffee for the first time, leading to a lifetime habit.

The men slept on blankets on the ground, but reveille came early – 4 a.m. They crossed the Rappahannock on pontoon bridges at United States Ford and entered the woods south of the river at noon. At 4 p.m. Musgrove fell in with the others for the two-mile march to the front. After a short sleep in the chill, they heard gunfire at 5 a.m.

It was May 2, a lovely spring Saturday morning in Virginia, and all seemed well. A report made the rounds that the rebel army was surrounded and would have to surrender; another said the rebels were in retreat. Lt. John M. Durgin of Gilmanton mounted a stump and gave a five-minute patriotic talk. The hour of action had come, he said, and all must do their duty like men.

Remnant of Catharine Furnace at Chancellorsville 
The regiment marched to the Fredericksburg plank road and past the Chancellor house, a two-story brick plantation house which Hooker had taken for his headquarters. They followed a path through the woods to Catharine Furnace, which produced iron from local ore deposits.

Signs of fighting were everywhere. Fence rails covered with green branches lay in piles. Artillery on Fairview, a rise in front of the 12th, was firing on enemy supply trains. Many men thought the trains signified the retreat they had heard about, but Musgrove was skeptical. For one thing, Army of the Potomac veterans rejected this view. As it turned out, they were watching the march of Stonewall Jackson’s men to attack the Union 11th Corps from the rear.

That attack almost caused capture or worse for two companies of the 12th, including the one Musgrove was with. He had been designated left general guide when the regiment advanced to form a new battle line. He left behind his comrades and joined Company F on the extreme left. He held his musket reversed so the left companies could see his position and form on it.

As Jackson’s men rolled up the Union line late in the day, the 12th New Hampshire was ordered to withdraw to avoid being swept up. Only at the last minute did Lt. Col. John F. Marsh of Hudson, N.H., realize that the two left companies had been left behind. He risked capture to run back and order their retreat.

“We marched, or double-quicked, for nearly half a mile through the woods with Johnnies on either flank, all unconscious of our presence, or we of theirs, and when we rejoined the rest of the regiment there was general rejoicing, for all had thought we had fallen into the hands of the enemy,” Musgrove wrote.

It was a harbinger of worse to come.

Once darkness and the Union army had checked Jackson’s advance, the men of the 12th rested on the battlefield. They were in line near the left of the Union guns at Fairview. For some reason, their brigade under Col. Samuel M. Bowman was isolated there. The men were wet and cold, and the cheers of the rebels and moans of the wounded kept them awake.

Before them that Sunday morning was a larger force under J.E.B. Stuart, the cavalry commander who had joined in Jackson’s attack on the Union 11th Corps the night before. Because Jackson and A.P. Hill had been wounded, Stuart now commanded the Confederate 2nd Corps. Sickles had asked for reinforcements, and Hooker might have sent them had a rebel shell not incapacitated him as he stood on the porch of the Chancellor House. 

Musgrove had by now left his position at the far left of the regiment and returned to his company. The men lay along a brook in front of the Union batteries. They felt the heat of the guns and heard screeching shells and shot above their heads.

Fire from the enemy came soon enough. Beside Musgrove lay two brothers, Henry and Uriah Kidder, who were both from Bristol, his hometown. Uriah, a corporal and the older of the two, turned to him and said, “Richard, Henry is dead.” Musgrove saw that ball had struck him on the top of the head and come out near his right eye. “He did not move after being struck,” Musgrove wrote.

Col. Joseph H. Potter of the 12th N.H. 
After taking more casualties, the regiment was ordered into the woods and told to stop the enemy. “Here the real work of the day for us commenced,” wrote Musgrove. When they reached the crest of a hill, their colonel, 40-year-old Joseph H. Potter of Concord, haled them and said, “There the devils are. Give them hell.”

“We had reached a knoll near the edge of the woods,” wrote Musgrove. “The rebels were in the woods on lower ground and on the side of a hill beyond. They could see us better than we could see them.”

Nevertheless, the 12th New Hampshire held its ground even after the Union troops on both of its flanks retreated. This led to disaster. “This was our first musketry engagement, and we did not know enough to retreat,” Musgrove wrote.

Rebel soldiers advanced and moved around both flanks to the 12th’s rear. The men kept shooting but “received effective fire in return” from a force that soon overwhelmed them. “Our men fell rapidly,” wrote Musgrove. “We neither retreated nor advanced, and it was not long before one half of our men lay dead or wounded in a long windrow along our line.”

Musgrove’s company commander, Capt. Orlando W. Keyes of Holderness, N.H., had been wounded near the brook but came forward with his men anyway. He was standing next to Musgrove when a bullet pierced his heart. Keyes “sprang into the air, then dropped dead at my feet,” Musgrove wrote.

He saw a soldier from another company skulking behind a tree. Col. Potter “grabbed him by the collar and struck him with his sword,” Musgrove wrote. “The man jumped to one side to avoid the blow, and they went round in a circle two or three times, the colonel hitting him a blow at every jump.”

In the heat of battle, a piece of shell or a bullet took away the center band of Musgrove’s musket. He picked up another and resumed firing but soon noticed that its owner had marked it. The musket belonged to Musgrove’s tent-mate, Pvt. Louis Rowe, another Bristol man. “I glanced over the dead and wounded near me, but did not find its owner,” Musgrove wrote. He concluded that Rowe had been wounded but made it to the rear

Musgrove carried a tourniquet – a metal rod with an elastic band. When Pvt. George W. Swain of Sanbornton, N.H., was hit, Musgrove placed the tourniquet around Swain’s leg. But nothing could save Swain, who died later that day.

In more than an hour, many of the men fired all 60 of the rounds they had brought into battle. Some crept around gathering more cartridges from their dead comrades.

Capt. Edwin E. Bedee
Capt. Daniel Hall, a Dover, N.H., lawyer who had been valedictorian of the Dartmouth College class of 1854, was serving as an aide to Brig. Gen. Amiel Weeks Whipple, the 12th New Hampshire’s division commander. Years later, Hall remembered learning that the regiment “got separated, by some chance, pretty essentially from the rest of the division.” After the rebels broke the division line in many places, “A retreat or rout was imminent,” Hall wrote. But the 12th New Hampshire “was still maintaining itself and had not given up its ground.”

When the division retreated, Whipple’s staff wondered where the 12th was. There had been no communication from Col. Bowman, its brigade commander, or anyone from the regiment.

Finally, the last survivors in the 12th’s line could stay no longer. About 25 men were left, including Musgrove. Lt. Edwin E. Bedee of Meredith, the ranking officer, ordered them to lie down and load. “The boys hesitated,” Musgrove wrote, “and Bedee, seeing the Johnnies advancing, gave the order, ‘Rally round the flag, boys, and get out of this.’ ” With the rebels chasing them and looping around their sides, the remnant of the 12th New Hampshire retreated.

Among the many comrades they left on the field for dead was Lt. John M. Durgin, the officer who had given the patriotic talk the day before. Durgin was badly wounded but survived.

It took a while to calculate the regiment’s losses, but it turned out the 12th had suffered more casualties than any other regiment at Chancellorsville, North or South. Of the 558 men and officers it sent to battle, 41 were killed, 213 wounded and 63 missing – 317 in all.

Next: The retreat

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