Wednesday, August 29, 2012

3pm: Brutal fighting on the unfinished railroad line


Lewis Farm

The men of the 1st South Carolina were stationed on the edge of the woods that shrouded Meadowville Lane [No longer existent] watching two brigades of John Reynolds’ Pennsylvania reserves march across what one called “a pretty little meadow.” They watched as the Union men reached a fence, which one of the Pennsylvanians recalled caused his regiment to “become somewhat disordered in crossing.” As soon as they got through a Confederate battery (possibly that of Fauquier County native Robert Stribling) opened fired on the Northerners.

The Bucktails reached the Palmetto Staters’ skirmish line, who fired and sprinted back to the regiment. The men in blue continued to advance across the field under artillery fire, until they came within 100 yards of the South Carolinians, who opened fire in a crashing volley. Reynolds’ two brigades exchanged fire with the Southern regiment for about ten minutes, while Stribling’s artillery zeroed in on the Union men.

But Reynolds’ heart had never been in the attack and he called his men back. Just before they had stepped off he had received news that Schenck’s division of the First Corps, Army of Virginia had been withdrawn from Groveton. Unaware that Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac was to his south on the Manassas-Gainesville Road [Wellington Road] and the rest of his own Third Corps, Army of Virginia was attempting to find him, Reynolds concluded he was now the only division south of Warrenton Turnpike. Since neither Porter nor McDowell had any idea where Reynolds was, he might as well have been.

As the Pennsylvania Reserves scurried back to the Lewis Farm, the 1st South Carolina gleefully welcomed the remainder of their brigade at the woods’ edge, come to strengthen them in case Reynolds tried another attack.

Bald Hill

McDowell was at that moment arriving on the battlefield. He had left Patrick’s brigade of King’s division that he had gotten lost earlier in the day, and ridden forward to join the lead brigade marching north on the Sudley Road, that of Hatch, who was also serving as division commander after King’s seizure the day before. Reaching Bald Hill, McDowell approved Hatch’s request to rest his exhausted men, but only if they deployed across the hill parallel to the road, facing west. It would have been a sensible precaution in nearly any other set of circumstances.

Sudley Springs

Grover led his 1,500 men from Hooker’s division carefully through the woods. The point on the railroad embankment he finally chose for his attack was just a few hundred feet to the west of the spot the men of Sigel’s First Corps had hammered all morning, eventually achieving a temporary breakthrough. But the spot Grover chose was fully wooded to provide cover.

On the right flank, the historian of the 1st Massachusetts remembered the men were grateful for the decision as soon as the firing started, with the men
taking advantage of every tree behind which a man’s body could be hidden, and creeping from tree to tree under cover of the thick underbrush which constantly separated the men and mingled companies and even regiments together…
 Colonel Blaisdell, commanding the 11th Massachusetts on the left flank of the brigade, wrote in his official report that:
moving forward, driving the enemy’s pickets before it, the regiment came upon and engaged a heavy line of the enemy’s infantry, which was driven back and over a line of railroad where the road-bed was 10 feet high, behind which was posted another heavy line of infantry, which opened a terrific fire upon the regiment as it emerged from the woods. The 11th regiment, being the battalion of direction, was the first to reach the railroad, and of course received the heaviest of the enemy’s fire. This staggered the men a little, but, recovering in an instant, they gave a wild hurrah and over they went, mounting the embankment, driving everything before them at the point of the bayonet.
To their right, the ever-colorful historian of the 2nd New Hampshire, recalled the charge similarly:
…there was a crash of rebel musketry, an answering roar of Yankee cheers, and almost instantly the 2d was pouring over the railroad embankment. The dash was evidently a surprise to the rebels, as most of them, having delivered their fire, were closely hugging the ground under cover of the bank. They were expecting a return volley, apparently, but had not anticipated looking into the muzzles of the guns that delivered it. Those that made a fight were instantly shot or bayoneted, and in less time that it has taken to write it the first rebel line was disposed of. Some threw up their hands and cried for mercy; some doubtless “played possum”… while others, as soon as they could realize what had happened, made a break for the rear, closely followed by the men of the 2d, now wild with the rage of battle.
 An officer of the 45th Georgia was one of the few that stayed to fight the Granite State men, and had a different opinion of his regiment’s conduct:
Gen. Hill had sent a currier previous to [the attack] for us to get out from there, but we failed to get it. Our brigade fought like heroes. Our regiment was in the center. The first we knew both wings had given away and the 45th was nearly surrounded. The last fire I made I stood on the embankment and fired right down amongst them just as they were charging up the bank, about fifteen ranks deep. I turned and saw the whole regiment getting away, and I followed the example in triple quick time.
Grover’s men plowed through the Georgians that had been fighting all morning in support of Gregg’s South Carolina brigade. One of the South Carolinians watched the attack unfold to his left, remembering that “a short resistance was made and Thomas’ brigade gave way,” forcing him to scramble for every man he could find to avoid the blue wave from crashing onto his own brigade. But no matter how many men he gathered, if there were enough of them they could simply wrap around his make-shift line and take them from behind.

Thomas was able to stop enough Georgians a few hundred feet back to make another stand, while the South Carolinians poured fire into the ranks of New Englanders. Grover threw in his two reserve regiments and ordered a messenger to find his long-promised support. The historian of the 2nd New Hampshire again:
The fragments of the first line were driven in upon a second, a few rods beyond the railroad, and here occurred the most desperate fighting of the day—a hand-to-hand melee with bayonets and clubbed muskets. Such a fight cannot last long. New Hampshire won. The second rebel line was routed and scattered to the rear. By this time no semblance of organization was left in the 2nd, but the men still on their feet dashed on again, every one for himself.
Watching the whole affair with alarm was Brigadier General Dorsey Pender and his North Carolina brigade. He wrote that the Northerners “made a vigorous attack on our left, plunging with great fury into A.P. Hill’s division, piercing with the bayonet a gap in our line. It looked for a time as if the entire left wing of the Confederate army would be overwhelmed…”

But Pender wouldn’t allow that to happen. He ordered his brigade to charge. With the fire from the South Carolinians hampering the 1st Massachusetts, and well-positioned Confederates from a different brigade posing a threat to the 11th, the New Hampshire men had gotten the furthest beyond the line and bore the initial brunt of the counterattack. “The scattered men of the 2d halted close up to the enemy, and loaded and fired as rapidly as possible in an effort to hold the position they had won until supports could come up.”

They didn’t. The historian of the 1st Massachusetts said that “the enemy saw their advantage, and hastened to improve it. They advanced with yells and shouts” while the Union men tried to fall back slowly. Pender and his North Carolinians methodically drove them back over the railroad embankment, the Georgians and the South Carolinians joining in. The 2nd New Hampshire had the closest call of the brigade:
As they recrossed the railroad bank they were exposed to a murderous fire from each flank, to say nothing of the very bad language used by the rebels in calling upon them to stop; and a few minutes delay would have found that gap closed and almost the entire regiment securely corralled.
Having seized the railroad embankment again, Pender moved his brigade across and kept driving Grover through the woods. The brigade fell back, with little organization to resist the North Carolinians, until they were running across a field back towards Dogan’s Ridge. Only some well-aimed artillery fire from Matthews’ Hill and the lack of support for Pender’s unexpected success kept a massive rout from occurring. Instead, Pender fell back to the railroad embankment to take up Thomas’s position while the Georgian gathered up his men.

Where was Grover’s support? To the west, another of the three brigades from Hooker’s division was charging the spot where the unfinished railroad crossed Groveton-Sudley Road [Featherbed Lane]. The Jersey men were probably not meant to be Grover’s support, since they were joining one of their regiments that had been skirmishing at that spot in the line since Robert Milroy had retreated from it earlier. Some claim that they made it across the railroad embankment, but if so it was brief enough that Confederate forces didn’t report it. Hooker’s third brigade might be a more likely source of support, but they had remained inactive until nearly 4:00, when Hooker sent them to relieve the New Jersey men.

The support promised to Grover was more likely meant to be Kearny’s long-delayed attack. If the cantankerous general had attacked with his brigade astride the railroad embankment since just before 3:00, Gregg’s South Carolinians would have been caught between it and Grover and almost certainly would have pulled back. But even that would have been temporary, since Kearny’s other two brigades remained immobile until 4:00 and there would have been no one to resist Pender’s counterattack. As it was, Grover and his staff had serious work ahead of them to gather up the pieces of the brigade.

Dogan’s Ridge

If John Pope was aware of the peril to his right flank where Pender had shattered Grover’s brigade, or to his left flank where Porter and Reynolds represented small islands amidst an ocean of Confederates, there is no record of it. In fact, for his entire life he denied that that situation had ever existed. Only Longstreet’s difficulty locating the exact location of McDowell’s corps kept Lee from ordering an all out attack that would have obliterated the army.

Instead of being concerned about his own position, Pope had become obsessed with capturing Jackson, who he still believed was alone and trapped. The First Corps, Army of Virginia had been wrecked trying to carry the railroad Jackson was hiding behind that morning, the Third Corps, Army of the Potomac was in the process of attacking (and being wrecked), so Pope was determined now to throw the Ninth Corps into the fight.

The affable Maj. General Jesse Reno, a loyal Virginian from Wheeling, commanded the two division detachment of the Ninth Corps loaned to Pope by its commanding general, Ambrose Burnside. One division had been scattered along the line as it arrived on the field, but Reno’s own division of two brigades remained on Dogan’s Ridge. Pope sat down to draft orders sending it against the railroad where it crossed the Groveton-Sudley Road [Featherbed Lane].

Around the time that he did so, one of his aides-de-camp returned to headquarters. He had been with Reynolds during the attack from Lewis Farm, and he had come to believe the Pennsylvanian when he swore that a huge number of Confederates were south of the Turnpike. Reynolds had described to the aide the large number of battle flags he had counted, and he had made him watch the advance across the field with him.

“You are excited young man,” Pope admonished the aide when he told him the number of Confederates he believed to be in front of Reynolds. “The people you see are General Porter’s command taking position on the left of the army.”

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