Saturday, April 25, 2015

'How soon I am to fall only God knows': A soldier's account of The Wilderness and Spotsylvania

Last year in this blog, I wrote about a project being carried out under Graham Warder, a Keene State College associate history professor. Warder put his students to work transcribing the Civil War letters of Willard Templeton, a soldier from New Hampshire who fought with the state’s 11th volunteer infantry regiment during the Civil War.

Simon G. Griffin
The letters are in the State Library in Concord, but Warder arranged to have them moved to the college library. There are about 140 of them, and the transcription work has progressed since my last post about the project.

Templeton, of Hillsboro, enlisted in 1862 as a 20-year-old from Hillsboro, N.H. About two years later, the 11th New Hampshire fought with a New England brigade at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. The brigade’s commander was Brig. Gen. Simon G. Griffin, who had been born near Keene.

Below, thanks to the students, are transcriptions of the letters Templeton wrote home from Grant’s Overland Campaign. Unlike other leaders of the Eastern armies, Gen. Grant did not retreat and rest after a battle. Templeton’s letters reflect the hard marching and constant fighting of soldiering under Grant in the spring of 1864..

Templeton was killed at the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864, just 71 days after the last of these letters was written.

Battle Ground of the Wilderness
May 6th 1864

Dear Parents:

I have just been through a terrific battle almost equal to that of Fredericksburgh. Our brigade formed a line in front of 4 lines of the 3d Div & we all to-gether charged on the rebels driving them half a mile over two lines of rifle pits. They fought desperately for the bullets were showered among [us] like hail stones during a shower. I was not scratched though the bullets were buzzing about me for three fourths of an hour.

Col. Walter Harriman of the 11th New
Hampshire was captured at the Wilderness and
held captive until September of 1864. After the
war he served as governor of New Hampshire.
We drove them through the woods to an open field. They retired over beyond the field, but in a few minutes we discovered that the rebels were marching on our flank and in another minute we heard the bullets whizzing by us from that direction. We all commenced running back. Many were taken prisoners. Col. Harriman was taken prisoner, Lieut Col Collins killed, two Captains, Clark & Dudley, wounded, 5 men wounded in Co D. Geo. Prichard was slightly wounded. He was the only Hillsboro boy hurt.

Near or at Chancellorville
Sunday May 8th

I will try & send this by some of the wounded. We had no fighting yesterday & to-day we are moving towards Fredericksburgh. Evrything is all bustle & moving I learn we whipped the rebels all round. It has been a terrible battle thousands killed & wounded and I fear it is not half over.
Good buy and
In Haste
W J Templeton


Battle ground in front of the enemy
Near Spottsylvania Court House
May 17th 1864

Dear Friends at Home

I sent James a letter yesterday which I suppose you will receive from him before this reaches you. In that I attempted to give you an account of our first days fight May 6th called “The Battle of the Wilderness.” I confess I was ashamed to send you or James such a letter as I sent yesterday especially the last sheet. As you will see by the writing I commenced yesterdays letter expecting to have time to give you an account of the desperate fight the 9th Corps had on this ground.

We only received notice at 10 that a mail would leave at 12 n, but for some reason or other it left before 11 o clock & I had but just began my letter I thought I must send it for it was the first chance I had since we left Bristoe Station knowing that you & James would be curious to hear from me, as I expect my name appeared in the Boston Journal among the slightly wounded. I hope no mistake has made so as to class me among the dangerous.

We have seen hard times for the last 12 days. If not marching in the heat, we were obliged to be ready to spring to our guns any minute night or day & I know not how many times I have been woke from a sound sleep by the excited whisper from the comrade on guard “fall in” or a still more exciting command to fall in, by the whizzing of bullets over our heads & the crashing volleys from our pickets & the enemy in front. Thus we have lost half & more of evry nights sleep. Last night I slept from dark till 2 am & this forenoon I have occupied in sleep so I guess I have got rested so as to be able to write more intelligibly than I did yesterday.

I have got no paper envelopes & know not how to get them so please send me a sheet of paper & an envelope in evry letter. I lost a new portfolio full of paper & envelopes on the march from Washington. In short some one took my knapsack & everything in it. I have left only a good suit of underclothing. I have been well since I left A [Annapolis].

This photo of Sgt. Edwin Chamberlain of the 11th New Hampshire
shows the cut of the regiment's uniform. (Library of Congress)
I was hit by a spent ball in last Thursdays fight. It struck me in my left arm. It swelled considerably but is not much lame now. I have been on duty evry day since. Yesterday I went with the Reg. in front to feel if the rebs. & see if they are on the move in force. Gen Burnside thought they had left but we found enough of them. We lost in 22 minutes two killed 12 wounded & one missing.

Now I will commence where I left off in yesterdays letter to James. Wednesday pm. & during the night it rained hard at intervals & we slept but little on the cold wet ground. Before daylight we were ordered to fall in to line and just at break of day we heard loud cheering or rather yelling all along the line for miles to our right. It was 2d Corps beginning a terrible charge on the rebel brest works. In a minute after the cheering then came the booming of cannon & long & continued rolls of musketry.
In another minute the order came for us to advance. We were in front & throughout, two companies as skirmishers, & advanced the 17th Vt. on our right 7th RI on our left. We rushed through bushes & thickets, over mud holes & brooks, driving the rebel skirmishers & there supports as fast as there legs would carry them. We rushed on passed there camp ground, tents all standing & blankets just as they lay in them. They had left almost everything in their hast.

After advancing ¾ of a mile we came up within a few rods of the rebel brest works. There we could see the pits full of heads. They resumed their fire, expecting we should charge on their works, but we were only to hold our position. Our line ran north & south while just at our right it formed a almost right angle running east & west. At our right the 2d Corps charged bravely while we lay flat on our faces but received a terrible hot fire from the rebels in their brest works.

If we had been in line & standing we should have been almost annihilated. As it was we lost more in proportion in a few hours than we lost in the battle of Fredericksburgh. In the battle of the Wilderness May 6th we lost killed wounded & missing 60. In the battle on this ground we lost 91 killed wounded & missing. In yesterdays reconnaissance we lost two killed twelve wounded & one missing, making 165 total loss.

As we advanced I got a bullet hole through my right pants leg than. In about half an hour I got hit in the left arm & went of[f] the field, the cords of my arm being useless & I could not use my hand for several hours. But I am getting off the tract a little.

We lay on our faces, the bullets spotting by the hundred into evry tree around & dropping into the ground on all sides. Such a terrific fire I was never under before, how any of us got out seems most a miracle. We held our possition or rather fell back a few rods in the afternoon and through up brest works. The rebels were driven out of the brest works in our front for the 2d Corps boys flanked them.
They took 8000 prisoners, two major Generals, & killed several brigadiers. We took 18 pieces of artelery. Two pieces and two caisons were captured by the 2d Corps.

Thursday afternoon May 19 1864

I have picked up a few bits of paper & will write you a little more before I send my letter. We moved last night at 1 am evacuating our possition on battle field where we fought last Thursday & moving to the left wing of our army & taking a new position in an immense corn field. We rested for breakfast on a deserted plantation called the “Anderson plantation.” It was before our troops drove the rebels of[f] here two days ago, a splendid place for trees, shade trees walks parks & groves the most beautifully aranged I ever saw. But the yankees are now in possession and the Virginia aristocrat, if he ever sees his plantation again, will see the fruits of seccession.

I have just been reading your letter No. [3/8] which I received this afternoon. We got a big mail, the first since we crossed the Rapidan. I only got one letter. I was glad to hear from you & to learn that you were all well. It seems you got the box & and money all right. I received your letter No 2 dated Apr. 16 while we were at Bristoe Station. The money I sent I did not need & as it has happened I might have sent more instead of buying articles which I have lost. I was well supplied with articles of comfort when I left A [Annapolis] but have lost most all.

I supposed when at Annapolis that I might possibly be at Head Quarters of 2d Div & there could get my baggage carried, but Gen. Grant has cut down baggage trains greatly. I guess the army of the Potomac never moved with so little baggage. Our teams carry supplies & ammunition instead of all sorts of baggage for officers. Then just before leaving Annapolis the order cam putting evry man who was detailed from his reg. back into his reg., employing citizens instead of them, so that now I carry a few little comforts & but a few.

Perhaps my pictures don’t look much like me 20 months ago. But evry one said they were good pictures. My whiskers which are sandy and don’ take well make me look odd. My old dress coat I sent home because it was too warm for summer & I could not carry it. The over coat you may keep. Perhaps I may want it sometime. I will sent a button to putt on the strap behind when I find one those Suspenders I did not need as I had two pr. Tell Aunt Mary I am much obliged to her for kind rememberance of me.

We all hope for the best. I have been in four battles during the last fortnight, right in the hottest of it evry time, & have escaped with but slight injury. How it is possible for one to escape in such a shower of death dealing missels seems almost a miracle. How many more such scenes of death & carnage I am to witness & go through unharmed or how soon I am to fall no one but God knows.

Friday Morning May 20th

I have picked up another sheet of paper so will try & fill it up. I have to buy or pick up all that I have. I shall have to send this letter without a stamp.

That checker board I got out of one of those houses which were afterwards burnt during the siege of K. [Knoxville, Tenn.] I have got a good rubber blanket which is better than a coat, for one can’t carry but little. I am glad to get such long letters from you. Please write often. Tell Anna I will write to her soon. I don’t get much time to write. We move & fight so often.

Now I will try & write you a little account of our last battle day before yesterday. I told you in my other sheet that great movements were going on Tuesday night. Artilery was rattling & troops moving all night. Some thought [we] were going to evacuate, others that an advance was to be made.
We were woke up at 3am at day break. Corcorans Irish brigade 2d Corps advanced arms at night shoulder shift, on the run over our pits & in an instant the whizzing of shells & buzzing of bullets told us what they had met. Soon after, our brigade was ordered to their support and we advanced amidst a shower of shells & covered ourselves under the brow of a hill.

The Irish Brigade drove the rebels from two lines of pits & held their ground. We were then in a thick woods of hard wood trees. We were right up to a big rebel fort within twenty rods of the musles of the guns. We could see them run their guns out & fire grape & canister at us. We were in the rear line & but one or two got hurt. The Irish brigade got badly cut up in the charge & by shell & grape & canister. Our brigade went to work throughing up brest works, the rebels throwing shells & knocking away the logs we lay up to pile durt on, but they could not do us much harm under the hill & in a thick woods.

We worked busily & by 4 pm had a very formidable rifle pit. About 11 am the rebs through a charge of grape into the ranks of the Irish brigade & they broke & run pell mell through our lines & the 6th NH. The 9th NHV & 32d Maine also broke & run & left the 11th & the 6th almost alone to hold the line, but we stuck to our ground/ The 9th was not to blame for running for the Cap. commanding their reg. run like a coward. But as I said before we held the line till 4 pm then the rebels made a dash on our right flank and partly turned it but were repulsed by the 6th and 9th.

 We soon found out we must get away or be gobbled up and while some were throughing the dirt over the brest works others were creeping away to our old rifle pits on the left. Silently & slowly we made our way back & all got out safly. I tell you I felt some relieved to get into our strong lines again We had been under fire all day & but few of us had fired a gun, but it was harder to bear than though we had been fireing.

I guess our movements Wednesday were to fool the rebs as we could fall back & evacuate Wednesday night, as we did. Then last night the latter part of the plan was carried out. We had 40 guns planted so as to rake evry rod of ground we evacuated. They were all covered up or masked, then they left out 2d Div supply train there to bait on the rebs.

About 6 o clock last night we heard heavy fireing where we come from. It was the rebs driving in our pickets, they expecting to get our hard tact & sugar. Our lines fell back. The train moved away slowly till rebels were in just the spot we wanted them. Our 40 guns opened & in a few minutes many rebels did not need any more corn bread.

Report says 2000 were killed & as many taken prisoners but my sheet is full.

Good Buy


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