Sunday, May 11, 2014

Chancellorsville (3): In the aftermath of battle, horrors, sorrow, rumors and a march north to fight again

Officers of the 12th New Hampshire at Chapin's Farm, Va., 1864 (from left):  Lt. Alonzo W. Jewett, Capt. Ephraim W.
Ricker, Lt. George E. Worthen, Lt. John P. Lane, Capt. James W. Saunders, Capt. Arthur S. Smith, Capt. Jeremiah L. Saunders, Lt. Rufus E. Gale, Lt. Col. Thomas E. Barker, Maj. Nathaniel Shackford, Capt. Hosea Q. Sargent, Capt. Andrew M. Heath, Capt. John H. Prescott, Capt. Daniel W. Bohonon, Lt. Mayhew C. Batchelder.   
After the Army of the Potomac’s withdrawal from Chancellorsville, the first order of business for the 12th New Hampshire Volunteers was to count noses. In this endeavor Sgt. Richard W. Musgrove, like the other survivors, took a particular interest in his own company and his own town.

By Musgrove’s count Company D had marched to battle with 58 men and officers. Six were killed, 25 wounded and five missing. Twenty-two had returned to the camp near Falmouth, Va.

Men from Bristol, Musgrove’s hometown, served mainly in Cos. C and D. Four had died in battle: Henry R. Kidder, Charles W. Cheney, Sgt. Gustavus Emmons and Dan P. Nelson. Charles G. Smith died of his wounds. Also wounded were Louis Rowe, Benjamin Saunders, George W. Twombly, Henry Drake, L. B. Laney, Cpl. Albert Nelson, Major J. Nelson, Thomas E. Osgood and Oliver P. Hall.

As the survivors of the regiment absorbed their losses, rumors swirled in camp. Their brave chaplain, Thomas Ambrose of Ossipee, N.H., had refused to leave the wounded men in the woods when the 12th retreated. Now the word in camp was that Ambrose was dead. The chaplain of Hiram Berdan’s Sharpshooters even gave a eulogy for him. In fact, Ambrose had been captured and would soon return to the regiment.

Col. Joseph H. Potter
The men also believed the story that their colonel, Joseph H. Potter of Concord, had died in the Chancellor House from wounds in battle. In fact, Potter had indeed been wounded, but the rebels had captured him as well. He was held till October, when he was exchanged.

Potter never returned to the regiment, but Ambrose did. In the summer of 1864, he was shot in a trench at Petersburg and died a month later in the hospital. “Such devotion as his was rare even among the men of his cloth in the army,” Musgrove wrote.

In camp at Falmouth, the talk inevitably turned to notable events at Chancellorsville. Musgrove recorded a few of these. Five bullets perforated Roswell D. Swett’s uniform but none struck his person. Musgrove saw a man cowering behind a tree during the battle. Col. Potter “grabbed him by the collar and struck him with his sword. 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.”

Musgrove pieced together the story of the Nelson brothers from Bristol, Dan, 24, Albert, 23, and Major, 22. After a piece of shell struck Albert in the head, Dan went to help him. As they struggled toward the rear, they found Major. He had been wounded, too, but he was strong enough to help Dan prop up Albert. Suddenly a ball hit Dan in the back and went through his bowels. Dan begged his brothers to leave him, lest they all be taken prisoner. Reluctantly they did so, and Dan died in the hands of the enemy.

Pvt. William Martin of Sanbornton saw a sergeant from Company D skulking behind a tree. He demanded of Bradbury Morrill, a lieutenant from his own town: “You order that man from behind that tree.” Just then a minié ball hit Martin in the arm. He dropped his musket and loped to the rear. In the hospital he told a visitor, “Now I have something that will take me out of the service.” “It did, but not in the way in which he planned,” Musgrove wrote. Although the wound was slight, Martin died of it a few weeks later.

After a few days of rest, the men of the 12th were ordered to destroy their quarters and build new ones. They cleared the ground and started again. Musgrove found that the activity, strange as it seemed on one level, helped them put the past behind them and adapt to their shrunken state.

On May 12, they formed near division headquarters, where they heard the official announcement that Stonewall Jackson was dead. Jackson’s own men had shot him by accident the night of May 2, He died eight days later in Guinea, Va. As the death was announced, the Union soldiers doffed their caps and stood in silence.

Musgrove kept a diary, and the next two day he wrote these entries:

The Union landing at Aquia Creek, Va. The creek is a tributary of the Potomac River. It is quiet  in this photo, taken
early in the war, but was bustling with activity by the time Richard W. Musgrove visited it n 1863.
“I have just returned from Aqua [Aquia] Creek where I have been today and had a ‘right good time,’ to use an expression common to these parts. Joe and I got our passes and went down on the 8 o’clock train, and having arrived there, were not long in finding Edgerly [Charles E. Edgerly, a wounded private from their company], and we had a most pleasant visit. We had lemonade to drink and apples to eat, and a good dinner of soda crackers, ham, butter and coffee with condensed milk. Soon after dinner we were out near the steamboat landing and ran across French, another old schoolmate, who belongs to the band of the 1st Rhode Island cavalry. It seemed like old times. There were four of us who, a little more than a year ago, were at school together, met in the army in Virginia. We little dreamed it then. When we left this afternoon, Edgerly gave us some condensed milk, a can of condensed apple juice, lemonade powders, etc., etc., which were very acceptable.

“Thursday, May 14. I went down to Aqua Creek again today, as Dr. Fowler [38-year-old Hadley Fowler of Bristol was the regiment’s surgeon] wanted me to get some things for the sick, at the sanitary commission. I was very glad of the chance and had another pleasant visit.”

Warren Tucker of Alexandria returned to camp the next day. He was the first of the wounded to come back. He had been shot through the shoulder just beneath the blade. Maggots were crawling out of his wound, which Musgrove believed had received little care.

Letters soon began to arrive conveying the anxiety and sorrow of relatives in central New Hampshire. One of Musgrove’s letters was opened at the Bristol post office and read aloud to the crowd waiting there before it was delivered. The first news to reach the town was rife with errors about soldiers’ fates. Many men pronounced dead later turned out to be alive.

Sgt. Musgrove became an officer  in the regular army in 1864.
Stephen Nelson went to Washington looking for news about his boys but could at that point find out nothing of Dan, who had died in Confederate hands. George W. Hall, the first sergeant of Musgrove’s company, had been wounded, but he was well enough to be sent across the Rappahannock to retrieve the body of Orlando W. Keyes, the Holderness captain who had led Company E into battle. Hall found no trace of him but did report in camp that the Union dead had not actually been buried on the field. “Loose earth only had been thrown over the remains and they were not in a condition to be removed,” Musgrove wrote. Hall said the stench of the dead was overwhelming.

Before long the men of the 12th heard rumors of their immediate future. They liked best – and clung to – the one that they were to be sent home to refill their ranks. What bothered them most was a rumor that the 12th was to be disbanded and its soldiers sent to other regiments, including some from out of state. (See an earlier post on this rumor here.) 

On May 30, the regiment was assigned to picket duty. The men built comfortable quarters, dammed a river and made a small sawmill. After the mill began operating, Col. Berdan of the Sharpshooters visited. He said “none but New Hampshire men could put such an establishment in operation,” Musgrove wrote. Word of the siege of Vicksburg also lifted the men’s spirits.

Not all the news cheered. Musgrove heard from a lieutenant that another tent-mate, Cpl. William H. Straw of Hill, N.H., had fallen gravely ill. Musgrove visited Straw on June 5 and wrote a letter for Straw to his wife. He left thinking Straw could not last long. Straw was sent to the division hospital in Alexandria the next day and died there two weeks later.

Pvt. Asa Witham, a 44-year-old laborer from Northfield. N.H., who doubled as Company D’s Free Will Baptist preacher, was also sent to the division hospital in Alexandria. He was the last of Musgrove’s tent-mates from before the march to Chancellorsville. Knowing that neither Witham nor Straw would return, Musgrove felt deeply the loss of these “kindred spirits.”

About this time, women began arriving in search of their men. The wife of Cpl. Charles G. Smith came from Bristol to bring her husband home. Smith had been wounded, and she hoped she could nurse him back to health. On June 6, Smith died at Aquia Creek. At least William Martin’s sister knew she was coming for his body, as he had died on June 2.

In the first week of June the men of the 12th heard rumors that they might soon be on the move. When they learned the rebel army had headed north to invade the Union states, they were sure of it. Soon they began their long march in pursuit of Lee’s army.

The regiment had been woefully misused at Antietam. In its first stand-up battle, the men were put in an untenable position, not reinforced and left by the rest of their brigade to fend for themselves. But such stories of futile slaughter were legion during the war.

Perhaps less common was being subject to the same fate twice in two months. This indignity would befall the 12th again at Gettysburg. For Our War, I told the interwoven story of the three New Hampshire infantry regiments at Gettysburg through the experience of three soldiers. One of them was Richard W. Musgrove, whose regiment was put in an untenable position and paid the inevitable price for it.

Only one factor kept the 12th from suffering casualties on the same scale as at Chancellorsville: The earlier battle had so depleted its ranks that there were few men left to serve as sitting ducks for rebel infantry advancing in superior numbers.

1 comment:

  1. We'd Like to use your image of Richard Musgrove in an upcoming issue of Army History magazine.
    We would, of course, credit the photo to you. You may contact the managing editor at the email address below.