Thursday, April 27, 2017

Diary of 1st Lieutenant Lemuel A. Abbott: Monday, September 19, 1864 – Part 12

“We now opened fire for the first time during the day, in the direction of the regiment or brigade that had so frightfully thinned our ranks, but they were almost out of reach from us, as well as we from them. At this moment, however, the Third Division approached them and they filed away.”

It is difficult to conceive why if the enemy could fire at the union forces here they could not return the compliment, at any rate to one who has so recently studied the ground. It was a good thing the Third Division was ’round to drive the rebs away, otherwise they might have more “frightfully thinned” Col. Walker's ranks. It would be interesting to know exactly how many men Col. Walker lost here.

“When this was discovered, and after gaining breath, our own advance was resumed, but with little pretense at order. Emerging upon the plain before us at the summit of the hill we had climbed, we again turned obliquely towards the road and charged upon a long breastwork filled with rebels, in our immediate front. The retreat of their comrades from the ravine apparently demoralized them; many fled, many more were captured; in fact as we clambered over the parapet it seemed as if the prisoners who then surrendered exceeded in number our entire Brigade.”

I saw this movement when the men advanced seemingly to me in an undeployed skirmish line over the open flat ground beyond the ravine not shown in No. 7 illustration, but further to the right. It was a weak force and could not have met any determined resistance from any considerable body; indeed there was but a small force of the enemy's infantry on that part of the field.

“But we did not stop to count them or to care for them. The principal position of the enemy in this portion of the field had now been gained, and we rushed onward toward the distant spires of Winchester, with shouts and cheers, now thoroughly excited by our unexpected success. A battery of the enemy was before us, but it limbered up and retired as we advanced. Several times it turned, fired a round of canister, and resumed its flight. At our left the other Brigades of our Division were seen moving on in our support. At our right an unfortunate ridge now rose, parallel with our line of advance, along the top of which ran the road so often referred to, and which hid our friends from view; we could only hope that they were equally successful, and push wildly forward. A point was reached probably three-fourths of a mile beyond the entrenchments where we had captured the prisoners, when luckily a ditch running across our path suggested cover and a pause. This ditch was reached only by the colors of the Fifth, with perhaps two hundred men from the various regiments. Exhausted with running, they opened fire as vigorously as they could, but a line of rebels was seen gradually collecting in their front, as the fugitives were rallied, and the position held by our troops was presently dangerously threatened. And now to their dismay, the Brigade on the higher ground to their left saw reason for retiring and called for them to follow. What it could mean they did not know, but it seemed prudent to withdraw, if only for the purpose of keeping up the connection. An officer sent to investigate soon reported that at least a Division of the enemy were far behind their right in an orchard, which they supposed had been carried by the Third Division. Orders were given therefore to fall back to the line of the army, following the low ground on the left, thus keeping under cover of the hill at the right, the enemy meantime being absorbed in their movement against Ricketts; and thus the detachment successfully escaped from its dangerous position and re-formed with the balance of the Brigade near the works we had carried, being as before on the right of the other Brigades of our Division, connecting with and at first even in front of the support which was put in to meet the emergency.”

Having watched this whole proceeding, which Sheridan saw, too, through his field glass just behind me, after I was wounded and the enemy from the ravine in my front and its artillery were in full retreat, it reads absurdly. The action of the enemy in Col. Walker's front largely depended on that of the enemy in ours, which had been routed and was in full pell mell retreat when Col. Walker's men were advancing in small irregular groups away from the before-mentioned ravine (see No. 7 illustration) they were so seemingly anxious to leave. As a matter of fact if they had swung to the right in and on the high ground west of the ravine, together with the left of our brigade, they would have done much more effective service. The retreating battery mentioned — and others further north not mentioned — retreated because its infantry in the ravine in my front was routed. As a matter of fact these Second Division men were operating comparatively uselessly far on the enemy's rear right flank and were in a dangerous situation as soon as the bulk of the enemy's infantry in my front should reach that neighborhood. I saw this, as did Sheridan, and it was one thing that caused him to put spurs to his horse and dash away to send a staff officer to recall these forces. The five succeeding quoted paragraphs are disingenuously conceived and misleading. They are worse than worthless for historical purposes because mischievous. The Vermont Brigade was too grand a body of men to be mortified by exaggerations and overdrawn situations. The truth is glorious enough, and to write on such a basis is dignified and fair.

“We afterwards learned that a break had taken place on the right which for a time seemed likely to result in complete disaster. The report in our Corps was, that the Nineteenth, advancing through a long stretch of forest and at first successful, had afterwards been repulsed, and fled in disorder, many of the fugitives even going back to the Creek, and that our Third Division had been checked soon after we lost sight of it, presently becoming more or less involved in the flight of the Nineteenth Corps. On the other hand Gen. Emory, commanding the Nineteenth Corps, in a letter published in the World, which was fortified with affidavits, insisted that the break began at the right of our Third Division, which led to the turning of his left and the consequent retiring of his Corps. The official reports disagree as much as the letters of the correspondents, who of course reflected the opinions of the several headquarters to which they were attached, and who created considerable ill-feeling by the discrepancies in their accounts, and by their insinuations; the truth is probably between the claims of both, and the real cause of the enemy's temporary success seems to have been the unfortunate bend in the road above mentioned, which interfered with and destroyed the symmetry of our first advance. Our Third Division obliqued to the left as it moved against the enemy, following the order to guide on the road, (there were few or no fences in that vicinity) and so left an interval between its right and the Nineteenth Corps, which appears to have gone in impetuously and with little order; the enemy presently made a counter-charge, and, luckily for them, struck the gap with a heavy force, crumbling off the troops on either side of it, and causing the troops on each side of the interval to think that the others had let the enemy through. The front line of the Nineteenth Corps was almost entirely disorganized, and was replaced by the second line, while only the right of our Third Division was broken up, its left with our own Division merely retiring a short distance under orders, as was necessary in order to keep a continuous front.”

This is widely erroneous; Emery's left was somewhat broken at first by the terrific shelling from our front, but it was only in the edge of the shell storm at first when going through the wood. His alleged collapse virtually of the right of our Third Division, or Second Brigade, going through the narrow belt of timber behind which we formed, is correct as before stated, for it was immediately on my right, and I know it; it was largely what we halted and laid down for after getting through the timber. We feared being flanked; but the delay was short, for I almost immediately moved forward with my men and others alone over that flat, unsheltered ground, then being unmercifully swept by artillery and musketry till it was virtually untenable. The Nineteenth Corps instead of obliquing to the left towards us to shorten the interval and help us, intuitively obliqued the other way; but fortunately there was no road or bend in it to blame it to. In my opinion it was as clear a case of shirk as to the left of the Third Division, or a desire to find an easier point to attack. Emery's corps didn't retire that I know of, and our brigade I know didn't. The marching of his troops in two long lines was one of the spectacular sights of the day; it was a beautiful feature. It assaulted to the north of the slight divide running east and west, where I saw no infantry nor artillery except a little of the latter far across the breaks. The enfilading infantry and artillery fire from our front at first was about all Emery had to fear, but his Corps soon obliqued away from it. There was no counter charge by the enemy in my front or to either side, and in this I am emphatic, as well as in the fact that general officers were not where they could see as well as I. There has been more fiction written about this fight than any I was ever in.

SOURCE: Lemuel Abijah Abbott, Personal Recollections and Civil War Diary, 1864, p. 187-92

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