Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Diary of 1st Lieutenant Lemuel A. Abbott: Monday, September 19, 1864 – Part 11

The following pertaining to Sheridan's battle of Winchester has been discovered since writing the foregoing. It will be answered in detail. Says Col. Aldace F. Walker in his “History of the Vermont Brigade in the Shenandoah Valley, 1864,” pp. 91-100:

“Our movement commenced at 3 o'clock Monday morning, September 19th, Getty's Division having the advance, the Vermont Brigade being the last in the Division. Striking directly across the country, at first in the darkness, we presently reached the main road from Berryville to Winchester, and moved down it to the crossing of the Opequan. This stream is considerably below the level of the adjoining country, and the road on its further side keeps the low level of the stream for a mile or more, winding through a long, tortuous wooded ravine, our unobstructed passage whereof was for the time a mystery. It seems that Wilson's Division of cavalry had already cleared the way and was then holding desperately a position that it had gained with considerable loss, but which proved a most admirable one in which to deploy our line of battle.

“As we filed out of the ravine which toward the last was lined with wounded cavalrymen, we found Sheridan, his headquarters fixed on a conspicuous elevation, personally superintending from the commencement the operations of the day. It was to be our first battle under his command, as well as his first independent battle; the troops were hitherto destitute of all enthusiasm for him; fortunately, however, no impression save a favorable one had as yet been received, it being universally conceded that he had so far handled his army handsomely. And it was with great satisfaction that we found him in this early twilight at the very front, and under the fire of the enemy, carefully attending to details which we had been accustomed to see more celebrated commanders entrust to their staff.

“Our Division promptly relieved the cavalry and formed its line facing west, the Third Brigade which was in advance going to what was to be the extreme left of the infantry line, resting on Abraham Creek; the First Brigade following, took up its position on the right of the Third, and our own Brigade filled the remaining distance between the First and the road on which we had reached the battlefield. It had been intended to place us in two lines, but the unexpected extent of the ground we had to cover forbade that formation. We were just on the hither edge of a narrow fringe of wood that concealed us from the enemy; the Sixth Vermont was thrown forward as a skirmish line perhaps one hundred yards to the further side of the little forest, and at once engaged the enemy's skirmishers.”

About three regiments, I believe, of the First Brigade, Third Division, Sixth Corps, were to the left or south of the road, so the Vermont Brigade didn't reach to the pike.

“Near us in the road at our right was a rebel field work, taken by Wilson in the night. The hill on which it was situated commanded the country in both directions, and it was already occupied by a battery engaged in feeling the enemy, which was answered vigorously, many of the rebel shell plunging over into the troops as they successively came up the road.

“Our Division thus formed in a single line was the only Division on the south or left of the road. The Third Division, Ricketts’, followed us and prolonged the line across and on the north of the road, placing its two Brigades in two lines. The First Division, Russell's, came next, and was drawn up behind the Third as a third line or reserve, also somewhat overlapping the right of our Brigade.”

About three regiments or more of the Third Division, Sixth Corps, I believe, were south of the road, on the right of the Second Division. When General Russell's Division charged it was about two hundred yards to the right of the Tenth Vermont, or about seven hundred yards or more to the right of Col. Walker's brigade.

“Then to our surprise no more troops appeared, and our Corps was alone confronting the enemy. There were two or three anxious hours, but Early was engaged in hurrying up his detachment from Bunker Hill, which this delay gave him ample time to do, and made no assault. It was said that the Nineteenth Corps, being ordered to follow the Sixth, had filed into the road behind our wagon train, instead of keeping closed up on our column. It is certain that with this loss of time, from whatever reason it occurred, we lost the opportunity of attacking the enemy in detail, and gave him time to prepare for our reception. It was noon before the Nineteenth Corps had reached its place and was formed in three or four lines on the right of the Sixth.”

The Nineteenth Corps was formed in two lines on the right of the Sixth.

“Our men during the forenoon had been resting, sitting or lying on the ground. When at last the disposition was completed and the signal gun was fired, they sprang to the ranks, and the line advanced. Particular instructions had been received to the effect that the road was to give the direction of attack, and that the guiding regiment was to be the left regiment of the Third Division, just across the road from our right.”

The guiding regiments were the Tenth Vermont and Fourteenth New Jersey, on the right of the First Brigade, about the center of the Third Division.

“In passing through the bit of trees in our front, which was filled with underbrush, our line was necessarily thrown somewhat into confusion. When we emerged from the wood and the ground over which we must make our attack was developed, the prospect was appalling. The hill gradually sloped away before us, for a quarter of a mile, to a long ravine, irregular in its course, but its windings extending either way as far as we could see. The ascent beyond it was in most places sharp, and the enemy held its crest in force, perfectly commanding with musketry and artillery the long slope down which we must pass, though the acclivity on the further side of the hollow was so steep as to actually present a cover from their fire—if it could once be reached.

“When this fearful prospect opened the line involuntarily halted, and the men threw themselves on the ground as was their wont when under fire. Our own Brigade was properly waiting for the movement of the guiding regiment which lay across the road a little to our rear, and which could not be prevailed upon to stir. To add to the peril of the situation, the road, instead of continuing straight on, as seems to have been expected, here made a bend to the left so that our original orders could not be obeyed without an amount of obliquing that would have resulted in demoralization; from this cause our own Brigade was soon afterwards thrown into temporary confusion, and the Third Division was presently so disorganized as to be unable to resist a counter-charge made against it by the enemy.”

The whole line in front of the enemy's infantry in the ravine in front of the Third Division halted after through the narrow belt of timber behind which we had formed, as the trees, brush and terrible shelling had broken the lines and the advanced men where I was laid down to avoid the storm of shells which filled the air till the men got together, which they soon largely did. It was here found the Second Brigade on my right had excusably gone to pieces, the ground in its front being untenable, which caused some delay; but soon we advanced alone without that Brigade, as did the Nineteenth Corps. This was why the Tenth Vermont or guiding regiment, at this time where I was, didn't move forward sooner. The bend to the left in the road is largely a myth. The line of battle wasn't formed at right angles with it which, as the line advanced led to some confusion, as our colors had to be kept on the pike. There was no counter charge in front of where I was in the Tenth Vermont or disorganization, except in the Second Brigade, but what was soon remedied. The enemy could do more effective work by remaining in cover with little loss, which it did.

“At length the commander of the Brigade at our right crossed to our side of the road and urged us to set his men the example. Col. Warner took the responsibility, brought the Brigade to its feet, corrected the alignment, and gave the command to advance, which was promptly obeyed. The Third Division followed and the line was again in motion. But our point of direction was lost, for we were in advance of our guides, and when it was seen that owing to a curve in the ravine before us the cover on its further side could be reached much sooner by obliquing sharply to the left, we took that direction almost by common consent, and left the road-side.”

Why shouldn't Col. Warner with virtually no enemy in his immediate front be able to set an example of advancing his line when the Third Division was up against the real thing, it being confronted with overwhelming numbers of the enemy's infantry in the ravine and artillery back of it in our immediate front pretty much all that confronted the army in that midday assault? The situation in front of our lines is fully explained in this work elsewhere, and an alleged “bend” in the road or a “curve” in the ravine will not suffice to excuse the troops on our immediate left for not at once helping to flank the enemy's infantry from in front of us in the ravine, at once when on high ground across the ravine instead of running off on the field on a comparatively useless easy task and then have to come back. Where was there any infantry of any amount except in the ravine in front of the Third Division? Why not give the Third Division its due? The killed and wounded tell the story. Didn't our Division have about as many killed and wounded as both the First and Second Divisions together, although smaller than either? No fair-minded soldier or person can study the illustrations even, in this work, and fail to see the facts.

“Our whole Brigade, every man at the top of his speed, making for the coveted protection of the hill beyond us, plunged pell mell into the hollow. The troops at our right and left were lost sight of. The ravine was of some considerable width and its bottom was marshy, being the head waters of a little branch of Abraham Creek. The steep slope on its further side was covered with evergreens six or eight feet high. To our intense consternation, as we reached its swampy bottom, we saw at our right, at short pistol range, at least a full regiment of the enemy drawn up in line near the point where the road crosses the hollow, in anticipation of our taking precisely the course we did, and firing coolly, as rapidly as they could load, directly along our line, thus enfilading us completely. Its position is indicated on the plan. The slaughter was for a few moments murderous. We could not retreat, for we should again enter the fire that had been mowing us down in the charge, now cut off by the hill before us. We therefore floundered on, our coherence entirely lost, entered the clusters of evergreens through which the cruel bullets whistled fearfully, and at last, a confused mass at best, those of us who escaped unhurt reached comparative safety under the very crest of the hill, and high above the deadly hollow.”

The probabilities are that old soldier-like seeing or suspecting the true situation, the men intuitively or purposely obliqued away to an easier place of attack; at any rate they did it. Yes, the rebel regiment which was seen in the ravine was in front of the left of our brigade, but crossed to the north side of the pike to my front early in the fight leaving no rebel force in the ravine south of the pike in front of the Second Division on the left of ours.

SOURCE: Lemuel Abijah Abbott, Personal Recollections and Civil War Diary, 1864, p. 180-6

No comments: