Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Diary of Sergeant George G. Smith: May 27, 1863

Early in the morning before sunrise the First Louisiana was ordered into line of battle. Companies B, H, and E, were ordered “as skirmishers.” My company was well posted in the skirmish drill, and I had no fear about them. A dense forest in which was hidden a powerful foe lay between us and his strong fortification, the fearful nature of whose armament we had already been made sensible by the destructive missiles he had previously hurled crashing through the trees at us. But not much time was allowed for these reflections. We were quickly deployed, and Lieutenant Gardner being in command of Company E gave the command of the first platoon to me, and the second to Lieutenant Koblin. Colonel Holcomb was acting Brigadier General and he quickly gave the command “Forward.” Flushed as we were with success, having been continually seeing the enemy fleeing before us for the last two months whenever we came up with them, victory had come to be almost a matter of course with us. So the boys expected a real “picnic,” and it may as well be said that they got it before the day was over. We had not proceeded more than two hundred yards before the grey coats of our enemies appeared among the trees, and they made their presence further known by a shower of bullets. The men returned the fire with interest and a sharp fight was kept up for a few minutes when the rebs gave way. I ordered the men to move forward as rapidly as possible, and not halt to load, but to load and fire as they marched. They had practiced this on the drill ground and knew how. In the excitement of the moment we entirely overlooked the necessity of keeping in line with the rest of the skirmishers and we soon found ourselves alone with one platoon of soldiers. The woods were so dense I could not see the length of my platoon. I was afraid to be in the rear for the danger of firing into them, and if we were forward of them they would fire into us. I could see no remedy, so we kept on our way, loading and firing into the bushes ahead as rapidly as possible, I could hear the stentorian voice of Colonel Holcomb as he gave the command, “Forward on the right!”

This I expected was intended for Company H as I feared they were in my rear: So I reiterated the command and kept up a continual fire into the woods in front. I think when I reiterated the command to “Forward on the right” it drew the fire of the whole rebel picket line on us, immediately in our front. But our fire soon silenced them and they disappeared entirely. This gave us a clear passage so far as the rebels were concerned. But we kept up the fire and pushed forward as fast as the nature of the ground would admit. We continued our course in this way for about a mile and a half, when we arrived at a small creek known as Thompsons creek, crossing this, we ascended a steep bluff. About half way up I halted the skirmishers and myself and another sergeant crept to the top to reconnoiter. About two hundred yards from the top of the bluff across an old cotton field was the rebel breast works. To the right was a deep basin of about seventy-five acres of felled timber commanded by a battery of two guns. Everything was silent and scarcely a man was to be seen, I believed the enemy was concealed behind the breastworks and did not deem it prudent to approach any nearer until support arrived. I told the sergeant next in rank to remain there and I would see if I could find any of the rest of the skirmishers. At the foot of the bluff I found Colonel Holcomb sitting on the bank wounded and Captain George, Company F, near by in command of the reserve. The Colonel said to me, “Sergeant where are your skirmishers?” I saluted him and said “Colonel they are up there (pointing up the bluff). We are in front of the rebel breast works and cannot go further until we have reinforcements.” He said, “I am wounded and cannot go further. A piece of shell struck me on the hip and I am disabled. But you go and tell Captain Parsons to charge on that gun that is firing down on us and take it.” “Very well,” I said, I went out to the right in the direction Captain Parson ought to be but could find nothing of him. I did not look long, and returned to report to the Colonel. But he had gone to the rear. I then returned to my command. I found the remainder of the line of skirmishers had arrived and taken up their positions along the bluff. We had not been there long when the enemy seeing we were not going to make a charge, opened upon us with a terriffic volley of grape canister and musketry splitting the limbs of the trees above our heads into splinters. I had my men stationed in a gully cut out from the side of the bluff by the action of the water, so that the fire of the enemy could not reach us. One poor fellow carelessly exposed himself and was shot through the brain and fell at my feet. I looked down at him. He gasped once, and was dead. His comrades took him away. The firing ceased and I looked round and discovered we were alone. I said to the men, “What does this mean?” One of them said somebody started a report that the rebels had come out from their works and were flanking us.” I said it was all nonsense. “The rebels dare not come out from there works; and we will hold the position until we are compelled to leave it. It has cost us too much hard fighting to abandon it.” So I said to one of the men, “How many cartridges have you got?” “One,” he replied, “besides the one in my gun.” I asked another, and he said, “Four.” This I found was the average number among the men. I said to them, “This is a bad state of things, but I think we can deceive them for a while at any rate.” I told them that there was no possible danger of being captured if we only kept a good lookout so that they could not surprise us. I told them further to fire occasionally when a good mark presented itself, so as to keep the enemy informed that we were there. I then went around to the right of where Company H was posted and found Captain Parsons of Company I and Lieutenant Jenner of Company D with their commands. I told them of my condition and that we were out of ammunition. Lieutenant Jenner generously gave me a few packages of cartridges and I returned to our heroic little band, after promising Captain Parsons and Lieutenant Jenner that I would hold the position to the last extremity. The sight of the cartridges inspired the men, and whenever a mark presented itself it was attended to. The retreat happened at about 12 m. We held the position until 2 p. m., when they returned. Company H, B, and the second platoon of Company E retreated. They had been back to our starting point in the morning. They all felt chagrined that they had retreated so rashly, the officers in particular. One said, “Sergeant Smith, where have you been?” I replied that I had been right there all the time. He said, “You have not.” I replied that I had, and appealed to the men of my command to prove my statement. He became convinced, and said, “Well, by G—d, I would give a thousand dollars to be in your boots.” I did not know before that I was doing anything more than my duty. They brought a supply of ammunition, and I believe some grub, but I don't quite remember about the last. At 5 p. m. a flag of truce was displayed from the breastworks of the enemy. A tremendous cheering was heard all along the line, and contending parties of both sides laid aside their arms and rushed out to see each other as though they had been friends long parted. Two officers met, the flag of truce was found to be a mistake, the two disappointed armies retired behind their breastworks, and the firing begun again. But the truce showed me that I was right in my calculation that there was a large force behind the breastworks in front of us, where we charged up the bluff; for no sooner was the truce proclaimed than the rebel soldiers swarmed out on the parapet like ants on an ant hill. If all the forces in that immediate vicinity had combined and attempted to charge across that plateau, there was force enough there to have swept it away like chaff from the summer threshing floor, or ever they could possibly reach the breastworks. I have thought sometimes that it was a blessing in disguise that Colonel Holcomb was disabled on that morning, or that I failed to find Captain Parsons to deliver his message.

SOURCE: Abstracted from George G. Smith, Leaves from a Soldier's Diary, p. 58-66

No comments: