Friday, May 9, 2014

Chancellorsville (2): 'The Johnnies were close at our heels and in advance of us on the right and the left'

Part 1 of this series on Richard W. Musgrove of the 12th New Hampshire Volunteers at Chancellorsville is here. The regiment took more casualties in the battle than any other regiment, Union or Confederate.

Alfred Waud's drawing of Chancellorsville on May 1, 1863. The Chancellor House is at far right. (Library of Congress)
On the morning of May 3, 1863, after more than an hour alone under fire near a clearing called Fairview, what was left of the 12th New Hampshire was at last ordered to retreat. As described by one survivor, Sgt. Richard W. Musgrove, the retreat bore much in common with the fight.

“The Johnnies were close at our heels and in advance of us on the right and the left,” he wrote in his memoir. “While on the retreat, several of our few survivors fell.”

He and the others, perhaps 25 in number at the start, ran from the woods and across an open field toward the Chancellor House. A comrade to his right fell with a scream just as a ball struck Musgrove’s musket in the stock, knocking it out of his hand. He ran on. It was about half a mile to the Chancellor House, and it was a miracle to him that anyone from the 12th made it.

Gen. Dan Sickles, 3rd Corps commander
“It seems a wonder that any man could pass through the storm of shot and shell that swept this field and live,” he wrote. “The air was full of flying missiles and the ground was plowed up in all directions.”

Wounded and dead men covered the plain, making the dash of the 12th more treacherous. “Many a harrowing scene presented itself,” Musgrove wrote. Two soldiers were helping a man whose hip had been shot away. Musgrove could see the man’s joints work in their sockets as he tried to move along.

Gen. Dan Sickles, the 3rd Corps commander, was forming a new battle line near the Chancellor House just as it came into Musgrove’s view. His gunners were about to fire on the charging rebels, apparently not noticing the Union men fleeing before them. Sickles noticed and ordered the artillery to hold its fire.

When the remnant of the 12th reached the Union battle line, Sickles ordered its commanding officer, Lt. Edwin E. Bedee, to have his men fall in and help stop the rebel charge. Bedee told Sickles they had no ammunition, and Sickles ordered them to the rear.

They passed the Chancellor House and entered the wood behind it. Musgrove lay on the ground and fell asleep. When he awoke, a comrade told him two women rescued from the house had just been escorted past. During the retreat the men of the 12th had seen the destruction of the brick walls of the house, which was being used as a hospital. It caught fire soon after they passed. As soldiers helped evacuate the wounded, an officer found the two women hiding in the cellar.

A well to supply the house stood nearby. Parched soldiers crowded around it, ignoring the shells and balls passing by them. Some were wounded and perhaps even killed. “My first impulse was to obtain water here myself,” Musgrove wrote, “but I quickly took in the situation and concluded to move on.”

Col. Hiram Berdan 
He and his comrades rested in the woods and then started toward the Rappahannock. They had crossed just the day before at U.S. Ford behind Col. Hiram Berdan, famed for his sharpshooters but a 3rd Corps brigade commander at Chancellorsville.

Walking back now, Musgrove overtook 22-year-old John Mooers, a private in his company from Sanbornton. Mooers had been wounded in the foot. Musgrove joined another comrade who was helping him to the rear. Along the way they asked two surgeons to dress the wound, but both hurried on. Finally, Musgrove stopped a man on horseback who took Mooers to a field hospital near the river.

The hospital was the large, two-story house of a Virginia planter. Wounded men filled the rooms. Perhaps a thousand more lay on the grass outside. Surgeons helped those they could and sent them across the river to more permanent hospitals.

Musgrove had a special mission at the hospital. After his musket was damaged during the fight near Fairview, he had picked one up off the ground. He saw the mark of his tent-mate, Louis Rowe, on the musket. He looked for Rowe and, not finding him, assumed he had been wounded and gone back.

In vain Musgrove searched every room in the house for Rowe. Then he roved among the wounded on the lawn staring into every face he could see. Suddenly he saw Rowe’s.

Rowe told him what had happened. During the fight he was about to fire when a rebel ball “ploughed a furrow along the back of his left hand and then entered his right breast.” He dropped his musket and knapsack and set out for the river, three miles away.

Rowe was cold. Musgrove made him tea and gave him his overcoat. He found a stretcher and bearers to carry Rowe across the pontoon bridge.

After Musgrove rejoined his comrades, his thoughts drifted from the terrible scenes he had witnessed. His mind “flashed to far-away home, and as I thought of the sad news that must be borne them, tears came freely, and I realized more than ever before that the immediate actors of the war were not the only sufferers in this great conflict. “

He and a comrade joined their pieces of shelter tent, but without his blanket and overcoat, he shivered all night. The men were called out after heavy firing on the picket line at 2 a.m., and after that, Musgrove lay awake till reveille.

Brig. Gen. Amiel W. Whipple was mortally wounded.
Roll call disclosed the 12th’s numbers: four officers and 97 men fit for duty. They formed into four companies, one under each officer. Col. Samuel M. Bowman, their brigade commander, started with them toward the front. They reached an enormous breastwork and convinced themselves the Union army could hold this position. They were told to relax. Many men used gun carriages as gambling tables.

The biggest danger in their new position was sharpshooters. One of them shot Amiel W. Whipple, the 12th’s division commander. Whipple died three days later and was buried in Proprietors’ Cemetery in Portsmouth, N.H., where he had been stationed before the war.

On the morning of May 5, just before noon, the men of the 12th were ordered to a fatigue detail. They were to leave their arms, knapsacks and haversacks. They marched through the woods and started digging trenches from which Union troops could resist a flank attack.

It began to pour. Though exhausted, the men kept digging even as water pooled in the trenches. At about 8 p.m., they were ordered to retrieve their gear. In darkness they walked gingerly through the woods to the road between U.S. Ford and the breastwork where they had left their equipment.

A  triumphant Hooker arrives at Chancellorsville on
April 30. Musgrove blamed him for not committing all
his troops during the battle. Many men resented his
having ordered the retreat on May 5.    
At that moment they saw for themselves that Joseph B. Hooker’s army was retreating. The artillery was speeding toward the river. The digging detail argued over whether to join the retreat or look for their muskets and knapsacks. “The officers were unequal to the occasion, and their command rapidly disappeared, every man striking out for himself,” wrote Musgrove.

He and Sgt. Alonzo Jewett, a comrade from Bristol, N.H., returned to the front, where they found only chaos. They had seen no infantry on the road, and they saw none here. “Where our brigade had gone no one knew,” Musgrove wrote. Soldiers were “destroying everything that could be of value to the enemy. Knapsacks were rifled and then burned, and muskets were heated and bent by a blow against a tree.” He found a haversack containing food, but the 12th’s arms and equipment were lost.

The men set out for the pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock. “But such a road!” Musgrove wrote. The artillery had churned a wide swath into knee-deep mud. Musgrove fell in the mud and wallowed in it until Jewett helped him up. For the rest of his life he wondered if he would have sunk and died had he been alone.

They reached a clearing near the river at midnight and warmed themselves and dried their clothes over burning fence rails. They scanned the passing infantry column, searching for their brigade. At 4 a.m. the 3rd Corps at last appeared, and they found their place.

In stops and starts they marched away. Some officers “who were not over conspicuous in battle” cursed them for not closing ranks. “More dead than alive,” the men reached their old camp after a 10-mile march.

As they sat before a fire that morning, their defeat set in. “Oh! our hearts were sad and heavy,” wrote Musgrove, “for more than half our number had fallen in battle.” In the case of the 12th New Hampshire this was no exaggeration. Of 558 men engaged, 317 had been left behind, dead, dying, wounded or missing.

Figuring out who among the casualties belonged in which category took time. Louis Rowe, Musgrove’s tent-mate, rejoined the 12th in the fall. He returned the overcoat his friend had lent him at Chancellorsville. Musgrove kept it as a souvenir and did not wash out his comrade’s blood. In 1882, at the age of 44, 19 years after being shot, Rowe died of complications from his chest wound.

Next: Aftermath

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