Sunday, June 1, 2014

'I never imagined we should see such reverses'

[Charles A. Hale’s Gettysburg scrapbook was the subject of posts here and here. The National Park Service has now posted photos from the scrapbook that allow for zooming in. See those here.]

If you’ve read earlier posts on this blog, you know Charles A. Hale of the 5th New Hampshire had a burning desire to share the story of what he saw and experienced during the Civil War and the literary gift to fulfill this desire.

Cpl. Charles A. Hale
Hale’s instinct to spread the news was evident from the moment his service began. His regiment had first fought at Fair Oaks on the Virginia Peninsula on June 1, 1862. Afterward the men sat for nearly a month within sight of Richmond while the Union army’s commander, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, dithered. Then McClellan decided to move. He called it “a change of base,” but this euphemism fooled neither Cpl. Hale nor anyone else. The move was a retreat.

The battles became known as the Seven Days. The 5th fought the enemy at Savage Station, White Oak Swamp, Malvern Hill and Glendale before reaching the safety of Harrison’s Landing on the James River.

If people at home wanted to know what was really happening at the front, the best place to find out was in soldier letters in their local newspapers. Here is Hale’s account of that fighting was vivid to the point of horrifying. He wrote it in the form of a letter to the Granite State Free Press in Lebanon, his hometown:

I cannot give you minute details of the part we took in the retreat. It would take a quire of paper and a week’s time. I never imagined we should see such reverses. We left our old position at 3 o’clock Sunday morning. Our division formed the rear guard, so we fell back but a short distance, a mile or so.

Thousands of dollars of commissary stores were burned, as they could not be transported. It was a frightful night to see such a destruction of property, especially such articles as potatoes, dried apples, molasses, &c., of which we had received such a small quantity for a long time.

By noon our regiment encountered the advance of the enemy, whom we repulsed, with a loss of about 15 killed and wounded. None killed in Co. C: two wounded, neither of them from our section. Shortly after we fell back to Savage’s Station. As the sun was terribly hot we suffered much. Many were sun-struck. At this place much property was destroyed, cars blown up, ammunition, tents, company stores, &c.

I began to think about this time that we were in for it. Before I had been almost incredulous as to a retreat. The rebels were soon at our heels and commenced shelling us.

The infantry engaged them just before sunset. Our regiment was not called on here. Our brigade remained on line until all the troops had passed, when we left the place about midnight, our regiment being the last. We crossed the bridge over Oak Swamp, just at daylight, and immediately set about destroying the bridge, which was soon accomplished.

The troops occupied a rise of ground just above. It proved to be a very hot day. The wagon trains were some time in moving off; consequently we were in somewhat of a huddle. Not a note was heard from the rebels until 2 o’clock, when all of a sudden they opened with a perfect torrent of shell. Our batteries soon got the range, and then there was music I assure you.

They had us in rather a tight fix this time. The train had not all gone. Some of the mules broke loose and were dashing over the field in all directions. It was some time before the troops vacated the place, and gave us a chance to operate.

One of our batteries got badly worsted. The shell burst directly over it; so well had the enemy got the range. One of the caissons was blown up, the horses broke loose, and the confusion was great enough for a few minutes. Hazzard’s battery of our brigade now came into position, with the entire regiment for a support.

The manner of supporting a battery is this, as it is called, is this. The guns are placed in position, and one or more regiments take their position in this way.

                                                                    I    I    I    I    I    I
1st Regiment
.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .
2nd Regiment
.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

Usually 30 rods or so to the rear, the men all lying flat on the ground, ready to spring up and rush forward in the case the infantry or cavalry charge up to capture the guns. Under a heavy fire it is the most trying position to be in of any I have seen. I would much rather hear the venomous buzz of the bullet than the screech of a shell or solid shot.

The 5th New Hampshire's position at Malvern Hill was in the second rank behind the Union battery on the right in this map.  
At this time we were in the direct range of the fire. The shell burst midway between our position and the battery, and the solid shot struck in our midst or went over. Our battery was the only one at work at this time. We were on a level plain, the sun pouring down, and the dust flying at the least movement. When a shell burst the dust would fly for the space of several rods, where the pieces struck the ground. Only one or two in our line were struck by these.

What we dreaded most were the six pound shot, a little bigger than one's fist, and pieces,of railroad iron. These would strike the ground and bound many times. They would inflict a terrible wound, even at their last bound. We could see them coming after they first struck, as plainly as a ball thrown from a hand. One struck in front of us and bounded into the midst of the line, striking a Corporal in Co. I, who lay not two feet from me. Several struck from 3 to 5 feet directly in front of me, making the dirt and dust fly enough to cover us.

One of the round shot struck in the midst of Co. C, wounding two of our Lebanon boys. Edward Howe had his right leg almost severed from his body, and the left heel carried away.  George Percival lost one arm. Howe was a little hero. He bore it without a complaint. They were carried to a house in the rear. Howe’s wound was mortal. He probably lived but a few hours. Both at any rate fell into the hands of the rebels.

Very heavy firing commenced on our right about 4 o’clock, which proved to be by Kearney’s division. A little after 6 o’clock our brigade was detached to go to his assistance. We started on a double quick and kept it up nearly the whole distance, over a mile and a half. We thought it was rather hard to stand what we had all the afternoon, and then be rushed off into another division and into another fight.

It was nearly dark when we got there. It was all that saved us. Gen. Kearney would have rushed us into the thickest of it, had there been daylight enough left. Two of our regiments had a short skirmish with the enemy; the rest of us were placed on reserve. As it was we had some music about us, but they did little damage.

As soon as it was too dark to do anything more, our regiment was ordered forward to the most advanced position we had gained, which was in the edge of the woods, fronting a large field which the rebels had occupied during the battle. They were busy moving about on the field with lights, picking up their wounded. They would shout out the number of the regiment the man belonged to when one was found. “40th Virginia here is one of your wounded men;” 4th Mississippi battalion,” “Louisiana Tigers,” “Alabama Rangers,” &c. Some of them came within a few rods of where we lay, and we could hear all their conversation.

The ground around us was covered with our dead and wounded. Some of them begged piteously for water. Hardly any of us had a drop, and we had been suffering ourselves for it all day. In more than one instance I heard as high as a dollar offered for a drink of water, by someone overpowered by heat. I had my canteen full in the morning, but it was empty before noon.

As we had been deprived of sleep for most of the time for four nights, it was hard work to keep our eyes open under the present circumstances. I was dozing myself half this time. I was half lying down beside a stump, almost asleep, when I became aware of someone bending over me. I started up and seen a man on his knees beside me, clutching my canteen, which he shook with the frenzy of a dying man. “What do you want?” said I. He made a motion for a drink of water. I looked at him closely and saw that he had received a terrible wound. A bullet had struck him in the cheek, carrying away nearly the whole lower part of his face and most of the bone. I had no water and could not get any. This is only one event of many.

We left this place at 2 o’clock in the morning, as usual being in the rear. Our march was very rapid and we suffered much for water. I snatched up a cup full from a little brook that ran across the road, through which men and horses were travelling. It was half mud, but that was not looked at.

It was 6 o’clock when we again halted on a large plain covered black with troops. We rested an hour or so, and then took position in line of battle. I began to feel rather down in the mouth, but I was determined to stick it out the best I could. I stood it till about 10 o’clock, when I had to give out. I had a terrible feeling in my head and stomach. Two of our boys helped me back to a house where I laid down under the trees.

Capt. James B. Perry
About 4 o’clock the doctor told us we had better start and move on slowly, as we probably could not keep up with the regiment when it moved. I walked till dark and then lay down in a wheat field, having made nearly two miles.

I awoke about 3 o’clock, and found the troops moving past rapidly, so I rolled my blankets and started. It soon began to rain, which made it slow going. Came across one or two others of our regiment, and we struggled on together.

It was in the middle of the afternoon when we halted near here, about a mile from the river. Our men kept coming in in squads till dark.

The next day our present camping ground was assigned to us. It is a good one, with the exception of water, which is bad. Our division has been relieved from active duty, about time, I should think. The regiment cannot turn out two hundred men for duty.

I hear the tell some hard stories of Capt. Perry. Capt. P. stands as high here as ever he did. He did not flinch at Fair Oaks. I know it to be so. Neither did Lieut. Randlett.*

*James B. Perry of Lebanon was the 28-year-old commander of Company C, which included Cpl. Hale and other Lebanon men. He was killed five months later at the battle of Fredericksburg. Nathan Randlett, also of Lebanon, was the companys first lieutenant. He was wounded at Antietam two and half months after the Seven Days battles. 

[With thanks to Dave Morin for transcribing the letter.]

1 comment:

  1. Another great post, Mike - thanks for telling these stories so well!!