Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A singular death at Cold Harbor

When the dawn came up on June 4, 1864, the men of the 13th New Hampshire Volunteers found themselves 500 feet from the enemy lines at Cold Harbor. For three days the piney sand where they lay had been a slaughter ground, especially for the Union army. The 13th would remember this day for the death of a single officer, Lt. Aaron K. Blake of Brookfield, N.H.

The 13th New Hampshire's tattered flags.
If you go to Cold Harbor today, you can see remnants of the trenches the soldiers dug to shield themselves from withering fire from trenches across the way. The warfare there was a harbinger of World War I, although the Cold Harbor trenches, like those that remain at Spotsylvania, are much closer to each other than those at Ypres, the Somme and Verdun.

The 13th arrived at its new position after dark, too late to dig proper trenches. Some of them lay in small pits left by the pickets who had been there before them. In the pitch-black night they enlarged the holes with bayonets and spoons. In front of the holes they stacked a few logs and the bodies of dead soldiers – their own and the enemy’s – “anything to keep the rebel bullets back,” as the regimental historian S. Millet Thompson wrote. They solidified these barricades with sand.

From first light, the 13th’s colors, planted in the ground, became an easy and popular target for rebel marksmen. When a bullet split the staff of the national colors, David Bodge, the color sergeant, fixed it with barrel staves and a strap from his knapsack. Years later, he wrote that this repaired staff could still be seen with the regimental colors at the New Hampshire State House.

The regiment was under fire most of the day, even during the afternoon rain showers. Six men were wounded, and only Lt. Blake was killed.

Private William B. Luey of Columbia, N.H., who was attached to the 13th and had himself been wounded on June 1 at Cold Harbor, wrote the details in his diary:

“Aaron K. Blake, of A, is shot through the upper part of his head to-day, a rebel bullet entering and exposing the brain. He is laid near the Pine at first, close to the north side of it, and breathes almost all day. He is utterly unconscious, making no sign when spoken to or touched – every effort being made to revive him – and can suffer no possible pain; yet he is strangely nervous, breathing more quickly when a shell strikes the tree, or near him, or the noise of the firing increases. Later in the day he is moved to the covert way, a few feet to the south of the Pine, where about 5 p.m. he quietly ceases to breathe; and dies without showing any sign of consciousness or of suffering from the time when he was struck.”

Blake’s 21-year-old cousin, Pvt. George P. Blake, also of Brookfield, served in the 13th’s Company F. After two weeks of constant fighting, it was he who wrote to his aunt and uncle, Aaron’s parents, to share the details of their sons death.

Here is his letter:

June 19, 1864

Dear Uncle & Aunt,

I wrote to father the sad news of Aarons death, the particulars of which I could not at the time enumerate. His company and regiment were in the advance holding a line of rifle pits in close proximity to the enemy. Watching carefully the doings of the enemy, he advanced bravely to the line and having seen that there was a sharpshooter whose unerring eye had picked off many of our boys, brought his rifle to bear on him and fired. After firing he remain[ed] to[o] long to watch the effect and another sharpshooter fire[d] his rifle, the fatal bullet of which caused the death of one of our country’s bravest sons, who through all the privations of a soldiers life was never heard to grumble and whose sense of duty was highly commendable.

He was much liked in his company both as an officer and as a companion, always endeavoring to cheer the hearts of those who were weary of a soldier’s life and had forgotten their duty to their country. His fate has been like that of many others in winning for the 13th N. H. Regt. laurels which it will ever be proud of, and a name as unperishable as has ever been gained since this cruel war commenced. He was noted for cleanliness, never being seen in a filthy condition, even when under great adversities. His place in the ranks has been but very seldom vacant. In fact he was a perfect soldier, being admired by both officers and men. It hardly seems possible to me that he is dead, for whenever I visited the regiment, he was sure to call me, and whenever I had any news from home he took great delight in telling me of it.

His effect[s] were taking care of a part of which I have in my own possession and will send to you at the first opportunity. Lt. [Charles B.] Gafney* has his watch and one or two other trinkets which he will send you. He was buried near Coal Harbor by the side of many of his regiment and a slab was erected to denote his final resting place.

The loss of him is I am well aware a very severe blow to the heart of his parents and the fact of his being so watchful to promote your ever[y] interest seems to hold his memory more dear. He never [k]new what hit him, being senseless from the first. George G. Ricker watched by him until he was dead and then marked his place of burial. George Ricker is reported killed.**

Your affliction is I am well aware more grievous than I can imagine and you have my heartfelt sympathies in enabling you to be up against this dire misfortune.

But he is dead and his grave which is all that is left remains for future generations to look upon as an altar upon which was slain one whose many bright hopes are blasted and who is I trust in that place of rest where wars and rumours of wars can never disturb his holy slumbers. My love to all and may the Almighty in his infinite goodness enable you to bear with Christian fortitude your affliction and assist you in this time of earthly woe.

Adiew and may God Bless You
Your Nephew,
Geo. P. Blake

*Gafney, 21, Of Ossipee, N.H., had enlisted as a private but was promoted to second lieutenant in September 1862. He was severely wounded on June 15, 1864, at Petersburg, but later made captain, served out the war with the 13th, and lived in Rochester.

**Ricker was a private from Brookfield, the Blakes’ hometown. He was killed the same day Gaffney was wounded, in an action known as Battery Five.