Sunday, March 29, 2015

I have again met the enemy and am still unharmed

View of and from Bolivar Heights
One of the highlights of the shoe-leather research Mark Travis and I did for My Brave Boys, our history of the 5th New Hampshire under Colonel Edward E. Cross, was our trip to Bolivar Heights. Along with much of the rest of the Army of the Potomac, the 5th camped there to rest between the battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg.

Just west of Harpers Ferry, it is a beautiful place atop a hill along the Shenandoah River in West Virginia. The hills of western Maryland rise just across the river. President Lincoln was right to criticize George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, for not pursuing and destroying Robert E. Lee’s army after Antietam, but surely McClellan’s men didn’t croak about their campground here.

Following in the footsteps of the regiment you are writing about allows you to see, as best you can so many years later, the land they camped and marched on and the fields they fought on. Among other stops on our travels, Mark and I walked the 5th’s route to battle at Antietam, tromping through land that was not part of the battlefield park. We drove the long route they marched to Fredericksburg and followed their path on the battlefield there.

This research made its way into the book in subtle ways. Here’s how we described Bolivar Heights:

“A more secure or healthier campground would have been hard to imagine. Bolivar Heights was a mile-long tongue of land seventy-five yards wide at its broadest expanse and several hundred feet above the Shenandoah Valley. The river whispered past on its way to the Potomac less than a mile away. In the cool of those early autumn dawns the mist rising from the Shenandoah and the Potomac formed long feathers of fog that obscured the bases of the highest ridges across the way.”

Because we had visited Bolivar Heights at the same time of year that the 5th camped there, we felt confident using what we saw to describe what the men of the regiment saw.

Winfield Scott Hancock
I recount this experience because another letter has turned up from Daniel K. Cross, an officer in the 5th. I recently posted a letter from Cross to his dad in Hanover, N.H., about his role in the Seven Days, the early summer retreat across the Virginia Peninsula. This one, written three months later from Bolivar Heights, tells about an excursion to Charles Town, the 5th’s first action under Winfield Scott Hancock, who would later lead them at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.

Here it is:

Camp on Bolivar Heights
Near Harpers Ferry, Virginia

October 18, 1862

My Dear Father,

Ere this reaches you, the papers will probably publish throughout the North a flaming account of a large battle at Charlestown, Virginia and you may feel a little anxious as to my safety, knowing that Hancock’s Division was at the front.

Well, Father, I have again met the enemy and am still unharmed. Thursday morning, General Hancock (now in command of the Division) took his own Division, twenty-four pieces of artillery and two thousand cavalry—there was also one brigade from Howard’s Division – all of this under General Hancock, marched out from this camp in the direction of Charlestown.

When two miles from camp, we met the enemy’s pickets, driving them before us. Soon, however, we encountered one of their batteries and about two thousand cavalry. We formed in line of battle and marched through the fields to Charlestown. Not without opposition, though. Our skirmishers exchanged many shots with the rebs, and we were exposed to their solid shot. Our loss was small, only one or two killed and not more than ten or twelve wounded, while the enemy’s was still greater, besides some fifty prisoners we took.

This day, Father, our brigade was in the advance, and I had charge of the skirmishers from our brigade – six companies – and was most of the day with this front line, sometimes in advance of it. And here I must tell you that I came the nearest to being shot by a solid ball, a ten-pounder – the nearest that I ever have – while riding from a field in which our skirmishers were, onto a road, passing the line of skirmishers, and up quite a steep hill. As I was riding up this hill about the center of the road, this ten-pounder struck, just grazed the top of the hill and thence came thundering down, passing between myself and the fence not more than four feet from me.

Perhaps I have been quite as near these fellows before, or rather perhaps these shots have passed quite as near me, but being in the road and knowing that this ball passed between myself and the fence, it seemed to impress me that this was the hairbreadth escape of my experience. Here we are again back at our old camp, after a very successful reconnaissance. We did not meet as many rebels as was expected, but we ascertained their position.

Daniel K. Cross
Charlestown (where John Brown was executed) is a beautiful place about the size of Montpelier. Has six or seven churches, several stores, is beautifully situated on elevated ground and would be a pleasant place to occupy this winter, a pleasure we expected to experience, as orders were given yesterday morning to move all of our tents, camp equipage and et cetera of this division, and make our camp, intending to hold the town in spite of the secesh inhabitants (most of them were rebs). But when our wagons had got about half the distance, the order was countermanded, wagons ordered to return and tents put up on the old ground at “Bolivar Heights,” much to our disappointment. About noon yesterday, the troops started, came back some three miles, to Halltown (some ten or twelve houses, railroad station and one large grist mill) where we formed line of battle, thinking the enemy might offer battle, but nothing indicating such a result. This morning at daybreak, we marched into our old camp, somewhat fatigued, but otherwise quite as well as before we went on the expedition.

I have been looking for a letter from some of you for several days. When shall I hear from you? With kind regards and love to all, I am as ever, your affectionate son.


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