Friday, November 4, 2016

Major Wilder Dwight: Sunday, August 17, 1862

Camp Near Culpeper, Virginia,
August 17, 1862, Sunday.

The battle of Cedar Mountain, or, correctly, Slaughter's Mountain, or, in common speech, Slaughter Mountain, seems to be proclaimed by General Pope, accepted by General Halleck, and, probably, welcomed by the country, as one of the most obstinate, desperate, and gallant contests of the war.

It is claimed loudly and with argument by both sides as a victory, and therefore lacks the best test of success, namely, to prove itself. It failed to be decisive. What Jackson intended by his move across the Rapidan is known, perhaps, to himself. If he meant to hurt and to get hurt, he succeeded. If he meant anything further, he failed. But he left a sting behind him.

The right wing of Banks's army was certainly hurled into a storm that wellnigh wrecked it. The field of battle was well chosen by the enemy. From the slopes of Slaughter's Mountain on his right, whence he commanded the whole field and viewed it at a glance, to his left in the wood the enemy were strong. Our men attacked, and held them back most gallantly.

But you must get the outline and details of the battle from other sources. I will attempt to follow my regiment as it went into action without me, in its hot and toilsome march from Hazel River to Culpeper, where it arrived on Friday at midnight, and bivouacked near its present camp, in its weary and feverish approach to the field on Saturday, and in its sharp trial as the day closed.

The regiment marched from Culpeper about six miles to the field, and arrived soon after noon. It went into position on the right, on high ground, in the edge of a wood. There the men waited, rested, and lunched. The battle was going on, on our left and centre, mainly with artillery.

At last, and after five o'clock, P. M., the sharper musketry on our right told that they would probably be called on. Suddenly Colonel Andrews got an order to move immediately to the support of Crawford's brigade, then engaged in a wood about one third of a mile in our front. General Crawford, it seems, had, with mysterious wisdom, and without full examination of the field, pushed his brigade out into an open wheat-field, bounded on two sides by woods which the enemy was holding. There he was, suffering and perishing, at the moment the order came to the Second. Colonel Andrews moved them, as ordered, at a double-quick, down the hill, across the field, through the bog, over the ditch or “run,” up a steep hillside, and into a wood dense and thickly grown, on, on, on till out they came upon an open field, of which I give you a sketch on the opposite page.

The regiment was a good deal disordered when it got through the woods. It marched out through a gap in the fence into the open wheat-field, in which the recently cut shocks of wheat were standing, as indicated on the plan. It was formed under a fire from the woods opposite, but soon brought inside of the fence, and ordered to lie down behind the fence. A few words more about the ground.

The open field is not level; there is a swell of the ground, which falls off gently toward the enemy's side, and becomes a marsh; but as it approaches the enemy's wood, it rises again rather suddenly, and the hillside thus made is densely wooded.

On this wooded hillside the enemy were piled up. The woods indicated on the plan on the right of the open field are a low, bushy growth, hardly taller anywhere than a man, but so very thick as to be a perfect cover.

Recollect that the enemy held this approach to our right.

When Colonel Andrews entered the woods through which he came to this open field, he met dismayed soldiers of Crawford's brigade, saying, “We are beaten!” Crawford had driven his brigade, before this, at a charge, across this field, or tried to do so, and the fire from both directions upon them proved very destructive.

The Second took up a position behind the fence, as I have said. Captain Abbott, with his company as skirmishers, had advanced beyond the fence into the field, but were subsequently withdrawn.

Colonel Andrews had, in front of him, the enemy in these woods, and could see only the flash of their guns. Still, he suffered very little. Soon he was ordered to move down toward the right farther, which brought him quite close to the low wood. At this time he got an order to charge across the field.

He said it was impossible, and General Gordon, whom he went to see, agreed with him. Colonel Andrews declined to do it, saying it would be simply the destruction of the regiment.

It afterwards turned out that the order had been misunderstood by the staff-officer who gave it. General Crawford's brigade, it must be remembered, had retired from the scene before Gordon's brigade came up to the field. Gordon's brigade of three regiments, part of one of which, the Third Wisconsin, had already been engaged in Crawford's first charge, were alone in this position, and without support. Soon after this Colonel Andrews saw a Rebel line advancing diagonally across the field. He at once opened a file-fire upon it from our regiment. Gaps opened, the Rebel line wavered, and became very much broken. While this was going on, and when it seemed that this advance might be checked, a fire opened from the woods in which we were, on our right flank, and even in rear of it. Colonel Andrews found that the troops on our right, of our own brigade, had been driven back. This first fire, on our flank, killed Captain Goodwin, commanding the right company, and dropped half of that company. Colonel Andrews then ordered the regiment to fall back. At this time the fire upon us was from front, from beyond our right, diagonally, and, most severely of all, directly upon our flank. The enemy were in overwhelming force, and we were left alone.

Under a fire of this kind no troops can stand or live. This flank fire cannot be replied to without a change of front or a supporting force. These were impossibilities. Under a storm of bullets which our thinned ranks (for then our heavy loss was suffered) attests only too strongly, the gallant regiment withdrew, leaving one third, nearly, behind.

The trees in the wood remain to testify to the severity of the fire. There and then, within a few yards of the fence, fell Goodwin and Abbott and Williams and Cary and Perkins, and many a fine soldier by their sides. The colors were shot through and through, the staff shattered and broken in two, the eagle torn from the staff, but Sergeant George, of Company A, the color-bearer, brought them off in safety and in honor. As soon as the regiment, in its retreat, came outside of the wood, it was re-formed by Colonel Andrews near the point where it had entered. The whole time since it entered the woods was little more than half an hour. Many of the men, besides those actually hit, had stopped to give aid to the wounded or dying, and so the regiment was a mere fragment.

It went back to a point near its original position, and near a house, which at once became a hospital. Colonel Andrews describes the feeling with which he then discovered the losses. Of the captains, seven went in, and one only, Captain Bangs, came back. Of the lieutenants — but you know the record. At first it was thought and hoped that our list would be of wounded. Alas! how speedy was death. The regiment was soon moved toward the centre; and it spent the night, in presence of the enemy, on outpost duty. During the night there was some confusion and fighting. One of our sentinels took five of the enemy's cavalry with skill and courage. His name is Harrington, Company E. I had noticed him previously, as a bold, cool man.

Among the incidents of the fight, Corporal Durgin, one of the color-guard, was approached by three Rebels, as he was looking for Major Savage. He at once called out: “Adjutant, bring that squad here. I've got three prisoners.” The men hesitated; one struck him with his musket, when Durgin doubled him up by a thrust of his rifle, shot a second one, while the third ran away, and Durgin ran too.

Colonel Andrews's horse was shot twice; once in neck and once in shoulder. Major Savage's horse was shot after he dismounted, and he was subsequently wounded. Captain Russell stopped to help him, and was so caught. Captain Quincy, too, was wounded and taken.

On Monday morning, the enemy having drawn back, our burial-party went out. Cary was found, as if placidly sleeping, under an oak near the fence. He had lived until Sunday. His first sergeant, Williston, was at his side, alive, though severely wounded. He had watched with him, and when the Rebels took from him all that was valuable, Williston begged the men to give him Cary's ring and locket for his wife, and their hearts melted, and he was happy in giving them up to be sent to her.

Abbott wore a proud, defiant, earnest look, as when he fell, with the words on his lips: “Give it to that flag, men!” pointing to the Rebel emblem opposite. Goodwin and Williams and Perkins too. Cary and Perkins and Goodwin went to the fight in ambulances, being too sick to go. Goodwin had to be helped along into the fight, but said, “I cannot stay when my men are going.”

It was a sad burden that was brought back to our bivouac on Monday.

I have twice visited and examined the field, and tried to live over again the scene, that I may share, as far as possible, the memories of my regiment.

I was seeking, by description, the spot where my dear friend Cary fell and died, and was in some doubt about it, when my eye caught, among the leaves, a cigarette paper. I knew at once that it must be the place, and looking farther, I found some writing with his name on it. These had doubtless fallen from his pocket.

I took them as mementos, and cut also a piece of wood from the stump on which his head rested. These I have sent to his wife.

Our chaplain was busy near the field with the wounded all night. His fidelity and constancy in remaining there after our forces withdrew deserve recollection.

This morning we have had service, and the camp is now under the influence of its Sunday quiet. There are a good many questions about the fight, and the responsibility of it, which I will not discuss. It seems a pity that we pressed them on our right. The darkness was so near, and the night would have given us time to concentrate our forces. But it is as it is. No troops ever encountered a severer test, and our regiment behaved nobly. Voild!

To-morrow we shall have our muster, and account for our losses.

We may, probably, be here some time, to repair our losses. I went out to dress-parade this evening, and as I marched to the front, with five other officers, to salute Colonel Andrews, our griefs seemed heavy enough. The Third Wisconsin Regiment, so foully slandered by some of the newspapers, behaved gallantly, and did all that men could do.

Tell Colonel William, of Williamsburg, that Crawford pushed his brigade out into that open wheat-field without skirmishing at all on his right, and never sent a skirmisher into the bushes and low woods on the right of the field.

We were rushed up at a double-quick to his support, and occupied the ground that he had just lost. Bah! then it was too late.

I send you a memorandum of my wants on a slip of paper. The weather has been cool for several days; the nights even cold. I am in excellent health, and I hope you are well and in good spirits.

Colonel Andrews's behavior in the fight is the admiration of all.

My love to all at home. Write me, and send me every scrap about the regiment and our lost brave men.

SOURCE: Elizabeth Amelia Dwight, Editor, Life and Letters of Wilder Dwight: Lieut.-Col. Second Mass. Inf. Vols., p. 278-8

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