Tuesday, September 1, 2015

8.The Battle of Fair Oaks: 'thus the Sabath has passed with the most horible seins I ever witnessed'

Like bugler Cutler Edson and Sgt. Eldad Rhodes, Col. Edward E. Cross kept a diary. He was the commander of their regiment, the 5th New Hampshire. Unlike them he did not write almost daily in his long bound journal. A former newspaperman, he tended to craft narrative accounts covering days or even weeks of the regiment’s experience. Of the eve of his regiment’s first battle, he wrote: “For once I felt that we were wanted.”

Edward E. Cross, bridge-builder (literally but not figuratively), warrior
This captured the sentiments of many men in the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers. They had been drilling, camping, toiling and marching since October 1861. They had been on the Virginia Peninsula for nearly two months without a fight. At last, as May turned to June, they seemed destined to face the enemy and eager for the battle to come.

First, however, they spent two days building a quarter-mile bridge over the Chickahominy River. Cross led this challenging project. The bridge had to withstand drenching rains and support the weight of infantry, artillery and equipment trains. Its failure might expose the Army of the Potomac to just the divide-and-conquer strategy that opposing Gen. Joseph E. Johnston had devised.
The bridge stood.

On the night of May 31, the 5th crossed the Chickahominy a mile downstream from the bridge it had built. It reached the other bank too late to participate in the Battle of Seven Pines but did march through the chaos and carnage after the battle. The next morning, the 5th was part of the attack force that lined up along railroad tracks near Fair Oaks Station and marched into the woods toward the enemy.  

The bugler Edson was in the thick of the Battle of Fair Oaks. “I was in the hardest fight, the balls flying all around me like hail stones yet by the mercy of God I escaped injury,” he wrote in his diary. Sgt. Rhodes was ill but crossed the river anyway late in the day. Both men helped clear the battlefield the next morning. “I have been out among the dead, Strown about friend and foe,” Rhodes wrote.

Although the men of the 5th had cause to be proud of their performance, the Battle of Fair Oaks was a draw. Casualties were roughly the same, 1,132 on the rebel side, 1,203 on the union. The 5th lost 41 dead or mortally wounded, 129 wounded. Little ground was won or lost.

The next move for Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac was no move at all. A Union soldier with sharp eyes could now climb a tree and see the spires of Richmond. Victory was in sight. But the order from the top was to dig in and hold.

Before turning the story of the battle and its aftermath over to Edson and Rhodes, one major change in circumstance on the Confederate side is worth noting. Gen. Johnston, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, was wounded by an artillery shell during the battle. To replace him President Jefferson Davis chose Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Wednesday, May 28, 1862: We went up about 2 miles working on a Bridge across the Chickehomony. had a hard time. I was quite unwell with a Diorhea & returned to Camp at night very tired.

Thursday 29: We were on the march at 4 in the morning to resume our labors on the Bridge. I was still very unwell, not fit to be out, but held up; – finnished the Bridge, returned very tired.
Friday 30: We remained in Camp. I was sick abed all day nearly; – made out to go out on Co inspection; – hope to be better soon. I can eat nothing; heard heavy firing all day.

Saturday, May 31, 1862: Weather rainy and rather cool; – I was very unwell; – and went reluctantly to the Surgeons and got an excuse; – in the afternoon heavy firing was heard in front and our division was soon ordered to march; – I was not able to march.

Alfred Waud's drawing for Harper's Weekly of the burning of horses killed at the Battle of Fair Oaks. 
Cutler Edson’s diary:

Saturday 31: orders to march in the after noon. marched up to the front about 10 oc at knight and camped on the field where there was a heavy fight thru the day. passed many wounded rebels. we marched up very still and drew up in  line of battle within a few yards of the enemy where we remained till morning.

Sunday, June 1, 1862: When a heavy musketry fireing commenced on both sides and was kept up till 10 or 11 oc when we was so badly cut up that we  retreted back a little and our artillary soon silenced them. 5 of our company shot dead and a large number wounded. our first Lieut D. Read shot threw the leg. I helped carry him off and took care of him threw the knight. Col Cross and Majer Cook both shot in the leg. the Regt & whole Brigade suffored badly espesily the 64 N.Y. & 61.*

Fair Oaks was the first and last battle for Maj. Cook
thus the Sabath has passed with the most horible seins I ever witnessed. I was in the hardest fight, the balls flying all around me like hail stones yet by the mercy of God I escaped injury. thanks be to his great name for his preserving care. God save me from witnessing such a sean again. it was awful to behold –   the wounded and dying after they were gathered to gether, some in houses in barns and many in the open field. this is the rough side of war.

[*Lt. Dexter Reed of Newport, N.H., left the regiment in November 1862 but later served in the 1st New Hampshire Heavy Artillery. Maj. William W. Cook of Derry resigned his commission July 17. By his own count Col. Edward E. Cross was hit by nine balls during the battle. A Minie ball through the left thigh sent him home for most of the summer.

[The two New York regiments were in the same brigade as the 5th New Hampshire. By mistake, a company of the 5th fired twice on the 64th during the battle.]

Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Sunday June 1: Was quite unwell in the morning. Soon heavy firing commenced in front and continued. I felt better at noon and started on foot for the scene of Battle; – Got there 5 miles from camp about 5 OC PM. The Regt were terribly cut up; – It was a horrible sight; 21 from Co B were killed and wounded.

Monday 2: We were alarmed last night falsely. Slept on the Battle field without blankets or covering; – To day is warm and I have been out among the dead, Strown about friend and foe; – went out and helpt bring a wounded Rebel in to day.

Lt. Charles Howard, younger brother and aide to the general.
Cutler Edson’s diary

Monday 2: feele as well as could be expected under the circumstances. all quiet this morning along the lines. went out on the battle field to day and helped bury the dead. Some places the ground was nearly covered, Rebels and Union all together. the rebels retreted and left there dead and wounded on the ground.

helped bury 3 in Co. C, Sargeant Laton that use to live in our village, Corporal Joseph Atwood from Lisbon (a brother mason) & Corporal Parker. 5 in Co. E. I have heard much of the horable seans of the battle field, but it is one thing to read and another to witness. wrote a short letter to my dear family. General Howard has lost his right arm. his Bro Charles wounded in his leg. have heard about 200 killed and wounded in all.*

[*Sgt. Levi A. Leighton of Lebanon, N.H., was 29, Atwood 27, and Corporal Byron H. Parker, also of Lisbon, 28. Brig. Gen. O.O. Howard was hit twice in the right arm but recovered from his amputation in time to fight at Antietam in September. Shortly after the general went down, his younger brother and aide, Lt. Charles Howard, was shot in the leg. He was back at his brother’s side at Antietam. Charles later rose to major and was chosen by Gen. William T. Sherman to report to President Lincoln on Sherman’s march to the sea.]

Cutler Edson plucked this page out of a hymnbook he found on the Fair
Oaks battlefield on June 2, 1862.
Tuesday 3 June: all quiet along the line. we are yet here on the West point & Richmond R.R. washed the blood from my haversack and pants that I got on them in moving the wounded from the field.

Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Tuesday, June 3, 1862: We remained in line of Battle all day. had several alarms. Signs of rain in the afternoon. we have no shelter except what we pick up. are to form a line of Battle tomorrow at 3 in the morning.

Wednesday 4: Rained all night. we fell in at 3 but no alarm coming we were ordered to brake ranks to fall in at a moments notice. a terrible rain all day drownded us out and we changed Camps toward night. had a letter from home.

Thursday 6: am quite sick. Freedom [his brother, a sergeant in the 2nd New Hampshire] came over to see me. we wrote a letter home. Freedom gave me some quinine powders.

Saturday 7: am no better. no grate news gets to us here in the Wilderness. The Rebs are to cut some shine I suppose soon. had orders to sleep under arms to night.

Sunday 8: We were ordered to march in the Morning as the Rebels were supposed to be advancing; moved to a position in the woods and awated their approach but no Rebs appeared. layed on our arms all night. scarsely a sound disturbed the night.

Fair Oaks Station after the battle, June 1862.
Cutler Edson’s diary

Sunday 8: about 8 oc. we was called into line and marched quickly to the front being alarmed by the fireing of our pickets which seamed to have a smart engagement. Several shells came over from the enimy but done but little damage. our batteries returned the fire and soon silenced them. just recd a letter from my good wife which encourages me. we lay here close by the reb line in the woods.

Monday 9 June: we yet lay here in line of battle. every moment expect an attact. our Baterys throwing some shells and occasionaly we here a crack from our pickets & sharp shooters. about 5:oc we moved back in to the open field and soon the rebs began to shell the woods where we left. wrote a  letter to wife.

Gen, Israel B. Richardson
Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Monday, June 9, 1862: We were up at 4 ready for any emergency. Expected an attack; – Freedom came over to see me and brought me some tea; – It is now 2 PM. every thing quiet; – 6 PM have moved out of the woods. the Rebs are shelling the woods – are under arms.

Tuesday 10: We were in line of Battle at day light. raining; – Were ordered to be ready to fall in at a moments notice. marched in the afternoon a short distance and stood in line of Battle then stacked Arms. Cut a lot of trees for Richardson and Camped for the night.*

[*Brig. Gen. Israel B. Richardson was the 5th’s division commander.]

Cutler Edson’s diary

Tuesday 10: some cannonading on both sides but no general engagement. Lieut Col Langley and Capt Barton sick in hospital. we have no field officer with us except our Agitent Charles R. Dodd. a bad condition to go into battle.*

Charles R. Dodd, the 5th's adjutant
[*Col. Cross and Maj. Cook had been wounded June 1. The ill Lt. Col. Samuel G. Langley, 37, of Manchester, resigned before the year was out. The adjutant, Charles R. Dodd, was a 26-year-old first lieutenant from Boston. His job was administrative, not military. In coming weeks, Edward E. Sturtevant, the senior company commander, would lead the 5th. He was promoted to major on July 30, succeeding Cook.]

Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Wednesday 11: remained in Camp without much going on. hope to get good news from some where; –  We were Alarmed by picket firing and called under Arms. A false alarm. the moon was in an eclipse.

Thursday 12: We changed fronts in the morning and moved our tents and in the evening we went up to stay behind the entrenchments in case of an attack. Nothing troubled us in the night.

Friday 13: The Rebels this morning opened a smart cannonade on our lines at the Right for an hour on two but we let them bang away – did not ans. Freedom came to see me today. McClellan rode through Camp to day.

Cutler Edson’s diary

Friday 13: wrote to wife. Saw General McClealon as he reviewed his troops.

Saturday 14: went over to the hospital and fixed up tents for our sick boyes. washed &c.

Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Saturday 14: We went out on picket last night as a reserve, got a good wetting in the evening; To day we laid in readiness for an attack. everything quiet. were releaved at night. Our Regt changed Camps to the earth works.

Sunday, June 15, 1862: we were buisy making our tents &c; – Sharp picket firing in the afternoon. had inspection in the afternoon.

Cutler Edson’s diary

Sunday 15: Went to church to the Irish Brigade after which to the 61 N.Y. the first religious exercises I have attended for a long time. The rebs threw a few shels this morning but nothing very alarming. a skirmish along the line this after noon. a few killed. we was called out in line and 6 companyes of our Regt went out on picket. my co. remained in camp.

Monday 16: Sharp firing about day light on our left but soon seaced. moved our quarters just back of our paripets to guarde our fortification. General McClealon passed by us to view the works. his presents created great enthusiasm amongst the soldiers.

Tuesday June 17 1862: heavy cannonading last knight on our right and some on the left. the work is going on finely. we are having cold knights and warm days. my friend Drummer* is sick at the hospital. for this I am very sorry. wish he could by here so that I could take care of him.

[Pvt. E. Woodbury Young, the 22-year-old Company E drummer.]

[This ends Edson’s bound diary, but he continued on notepaper.]

Camp near Fair Oaks, June 18:1862, Wednesday: continuation of my Diary. Finished our Forts & brest works & advanced our pickets which enraged the rebs so that they gave us fight. our batteryes dealing out to them grape & Canister in such bountiful doses that they soon retreted with the loss of between 5 & 8 hundred killed & wounded as it was estimated by some deserters and prisoners that we took. our loss was in killed wounded & missing about 25.*

[*Exaggeration of enemy losses is a regular feature of Civil War diaries and letters.]

Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Wednesday, June 18, 1862: we were under Arms nearly all the afternoon. McClellan rode along our lines this evening; – Soon the Rebels advanced and we had a smart little skirmish without a rifle being fired inside the pickets.

Thursday 19: we laid on our Arms last night behind the breastworks. had an attack from the Rebs. repelled them with grape & shell.

Cutler Edson’s diary

Thursday 19: 8 months to day since I was mustered into the Service of My Country. veryous have bin the changes in that short period and how good the Lord has bin to me and to my dear family in preserving our lives while others have died and for that, good hope we have of the life to come. all quiet this morning along the line.

Friday 20: have bin sick to day with bowel complant but am feeling better to knight. the rebs have thrown shell in to our camp to day but did no damage. went over to see the Drummer. found him quite low. think he has the typhoid fever. our co. grows smaller every day by sickness.

Gen. Joseph B. Hooker
Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Friday 20: Freedom came over to see me in the afternoon and remained untill the Rebs commenced to shell us and Hooker* when he returned the fire with Pettits Battery in our Division. soon the Rebs skudaddled.

[*The 2nd New Hampshire, Sgt. Freedom Rhodes’s regiment, was in Brig Gen. Joseph B. Hooker’s 2nd Division of the 3rd Corps. Capt. Rufus D. Pettit’s Battery B was in the 1st New York Artillery.] 

Saturday, June 21, 1862: pickets kept poping occasionally and we were out in line once or twic; – we were rousted up in the night by picket firing and slept under the entrenchments untill morning.

Cutler Edson’s diary

Saturday 21: got up this morning feeling quite smart. washed out my cloaths &c. recd a letter from home  date 15th, No. 30. was very glad to recv it as I have bin almost impatient to here from home for several days. I rejoys greatly at the prosperity of the church. Oh! may it continue to aris higher in the divine life untill every member becomes wholy sanctified to God and by its faithfulness many be converted and brot to Christ. Amen.

A smart skirmish took place here to day commencing with the pickets. the rebs trying to drive ours in. they retreted back a short distance whilst our bateryes opened on them so powerfully that they ware glad to retire.

Sunday 22: this has bin the quietest Sabath we have had for a long time. our Chaplain has his discharge and gon home so we are with out a Spiritual leader, but he will be but little missed for he done but very little for us since we left Camp California. I think he has an appointment at Manchester first Church. hope he will do his duty and be faith ful to his flock. Oh: when will the Meathodist Ministry be what they profess; a holey people. Thank God there are honorable exceptions.*

[*Elijah R. Wilkins, the 50-year-old chaplain, returned to the First Methodist Episcopal Church in Manchester. An itinerant printer early in life, he had been the pastor there during the mid-1850s. Late in life he served for 19 years as pastor at the New Hampshire State Prison. He died in Concord in 1908 at the age of 86.] 

Monday 23: another quiet day, but little fireing on either side. went over and took care of the Drummer this fore noon. found him quite feeble and his mind very much affected by hearing of his father shooting Bishop in Lisbon.* I have known it several days but have  kept it from him till this morning when he accidently saw it in a paper. tryed to sooth and comefort him the best I could under the circumstances.     wrote a letter for him to his mother and sent by express the most of the money he had on hand to his sister $55.00. left him feeling much better. hope he will be better in a few days. my health is very good where off  I feal very greatful. my sheet is full and will send it home in the morning. very resptively Cutler Edson.

[*E. Woodbury Young, the drummer, lived on a farm in Lisbon, N.H. His father, Brewster Young, turned violent when he drank. The son had intervened to stop his father’s rages many times. As a favor, Woodbury’s neighbor and best friend, Ralph Bishop, had assumed this role in his absence. One day in June he heard Young screaming drunken threats at his wife and a daughter, who had been ill. Young cursed the growing doctor’s bills and kicked a kettle onto his stove onto his wife. When Bishop came to the rescue, Young grabbed his gun and held it to Bishop’s head. He said he had shot a rooster in the neck that morning and would shoot Bishop. He then stormed into the next room. Young’s wife told Bishop to leave, but Bishop said he was not afraid. He followed Young into the next room. Young fired a shotgun in Bishop’s face, killing him.]

Eldad Rhodes’s diary

Monday 23: The day was quiet untill near night when the Pickets began a spirreted firing; we immediately formed behind the breastworks; – went to supper at dark & returned. slept under the brestwork all night. rain fell heavily in the night.

Tuesday, June 24, 1862: every thing quiet on the lines. Freedom came over a few minutes in the evening.

Cutler Edson’s diary

Tuesday, In Camp near fair Oakes, June 24: Sent home a leaf of my diary yesterday. a good deal of fireing & Skirmishing along on the line last knight. our Regt. laid out under our entrenchments all knight and the worst of it was they had to lay ther threw one of the hardest thunder showers we have had, but it is of no use to dodg. a Soldier has to obey orders.

this has bin our pay day but nothing for me. recd a letter from Sister Folsom, a good long one. how glad I am that my old friends think of me and occasionly write me. if they only knew with what eagerness I devour there contence. I think they would more of them write, yet I feele very thankful for what I do recv. waid to day, 134 pounds. pritty good for me.


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    Willie of DLI

    1. Spasibo (hope that's the right transliteration -- memory fails!), Willie of DLI. Hope you like it!