There was to be no respite from battle for the First Corps, now under command of Gen. Richard Anderson. For the first time in the Eastern Theater, the Union Army under Grant would go forward after a major battle and keep the initiative for the rest of the war.
The First Corps was pulled out of the Wilderness line Saturday evening, May 7, 1864, and immediately dispatched south, cross-country, to head off Grant’s army towards Spotsylvania Court House. Hill’s [now commanded by Jubal Early] and Ewell’s corps were to follow them. They marched all night along the southern fringe of the tangled woods, Kershaw’s Division with Humphreys’ Brigade, in the lead.
They crossed the Po River at Corbin’s Bridge and turned east to Block House, crossing the Po again at the Block House Bridge and then pausing for an hour to cook rations and eat. Then they marched back north to the Brock Road where they expected to meet a four-division federal corps leading the Union army down the road to Spotsylvania in a new Yankee race to Richmond.
Gen. Fitz Lee’s cavalry brigade had been dispatched ahead of the First Corps, with instructions to hold the federals, if possible, until Anderson’s troops could arrive. The corps was screened on its flanks and at its head by other elements of Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry.
Half of Kershaw’s division split off and marched southeast to the court house, the other half, including Humphreys’ Brigade and the 13th Regiment (whittled down by now to not many more than a hundred men), turned northwest to meet the advancing federals on the morning of May 8. They were just in time.
“Fitz Lee had his dismounted men pile fence rails for a barricade,” Foote wrote, “and get down behind it, there in the dust of the road and the grass of the adjoining fields, for a last-ditch fight while couriers set out to bring Anderson cross-country to join in the defense.”
“Anderson started two brigades (Henagan’s South Carolina brigade and Humphreys’ Mississippi brigade) for the Brock Road at once, to be followed by the rest of the corps,” according to a U.S. Army study.
When Humphreys’ Brigade arrived, according to Foote, a cavalryman shouted at them “‘Run for our rail piles! The Federal infantry will reach them first if you don’t run!’ They did run and barely made it.”
They faced Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren’s Fifth Corps of New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Michigan, Maryland, and regular U.S. Army troops. These Union troops were tired and dusty after marching all night without stopping for food.
Kershaw soon called back the brigades he’d sent to Spotsylvania Court House and, together, all four of his brigades anchored the left of the new Confederate line.
“The attacking Federals, three brigades of the Fifth Corps,” wrote historian Robert K. Krick, “had been told there was nothing but dismounted cavalry behind the rail breastworks. When the attackers got close enough to the works to find out that they were manned by lines of determined infantry, it was too late.”
Their first attack was beaten back with heavy loss.
“A second attempt was made to the strains of inspirational martial music,” Krick continued. “A Northern regimental historian noted that a ‘magnificent brigade brass band of the United States Regulars’ was put carefully under cover and ordered to ‘render most cheerful and inspiring music’ during the advance.”
This time one Union unit, “the 83d Pennsylvania actually got troops on and over the Confederate barricades,” according to the U.S. Army study. “Humphreys was deploying his troops to Henagan’s right when he witnessed the Union penetration, and he later wrote: ‘for the first and last time in my warring, I saw two hostile lines lock bayonets.'”
Nevertheless, the Yankees were beaten back again. Soon, both sides were massing and intrenching, only about 400 yards apart. It was by now 10:30 a.m. The Union would not try another piecemeal assault until 6:30 p.m. and it also would be driven back. There were no more assaults but firing continued all night, keeping everyone awake.
Nothing much occurred on May 9, on the 13th’s portion of the line, except for the death of Union Gen. John Sedgwick by a Confederate sharpshooter. Sedgwick had famously declared just before his death that the Rebs “can’t hit an elephant at that distance.”
And so it went, in a contest of futile and increasingly Yankee attacks against outnumbered but intrenched Confederates that generally resulted in slaughtered Yankees and much sharpshooting from both sides, and it went on for six days.
The 13th Regiment, which apparently took few assaults after the initial one on May 8, lost seven men wounded and captured: four from the Alamutcha Infantry, and one each from the Newton Rifles, the Lauderdale Zouaves, and the Pettus Guards. By now the regiment probably numbered less than one hundred men available for any fighting.
Confederate casualties for the Wilderness were only estimates and there were none at all for Spotsylvania. They “were never formally reported & tabulated,” Gen. E. P. Alexander wrote after the war. “The [Union’s Overland] campaign work was so incessant & pressing from now until the surrender, that but few reports were made, &, meanwhile the officers who should have made very many were killed.”
Union forces, however, did report their casualties from Spotsylvania, which amounted to 18,396.
Barksdale’s Mississippi Creeper…cigar story, too
It seems, that before we came on the ground,
Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade, which had been
126 FROM THE RAPIDAN TO RICHMOND
marching behind us, had filed off the road, and while
Barksdale’s we were UP on the hill with the cavalry, had quietly, and silently passed into that body of woods to our
right, unseen by the enemy. Along the front edge of
that wood ran an old rail fence, covered all over with
the luxuriant vine known as “Virginia Creeper.” Wide
open fields extending in front. Soon, the ground behind
that fence was covered with another sort of
“creeper,” not as good a “runner” as that on the fence,
nor as “green,” but just as tough of fibre, and as hard
to “hold on” when it had once fixed itself, the
“Mississippi Creeper.” Silently, as ghosts, the Brigade
glided in behind that fence, and lay low, and
waited. Right here, was where the Federals’ idea of
quietly occupying the Spottsylvania line was going to
prove a snare. They had not the dimmest suspicion
that we were ahead of them, and between them and
that line. They came on, with guileless confidence,
and walked right into trouble. Presently, a line of
battle with columns of troops behind came marching
across the fields upon the concealed Mississippians.
Nearer and nearer they came, unsuspecting any danger,
till they got nearly up to the fence. One man
had actually thrown his leg over the rail to mount.
Suddenly! as lightning out of a clear sky, a blinding
sheet of flame flashed into their very faces. Then,
after one volley, swiftly came the dreadful, venomous
roll of musketry, the Mississippians loading and firing
SPOTTSYLVANIA COURT HOUSE 127
“at will,” every man as fast as he could. It was just
as if “the angel of death spread his wings to the blast
and breathed in the face of the foe as he passed.”
That withering fire tore the ranks of that Division
to pieces. It didn’t take those fellows half a second
to decide what to do. With yells of dismay, they
charged back, out of that hornet’s nest, as if the devil
was after them. In headlong rout, they rushed wildly
back across the fields, and disappeared in the woods
They left four hundred and two of their number
in front of that fence, and before the fugitives
got out of range, their General of Division, General
Robinson, was seriously wounded.
Some of our men went out among the Federal
wounded to do what they could for their relief. An
officer of a Mississippi Regiment came upon a Federal
Colonel who lay to all appearance mortally
wounded, and gave him a drink of water, and did
what else he could for his comfort. The Federal
took out a fine gold watch, and said, “Here is a watch
that I value very highly. You have been very kind
to me, and I would like you to have it, as I am going
to die. If I should get over this, and send to you for
it you will let me have it, if not, I want you to keep
it. But,” he said sadly, “my wound is mortal, I
am obliged to die.” The Mississippian left him, and
went back to his post, supposing him dead.
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Many years after the war, the Mississippi officer
was in Baltimore at Barnum’s Hotel. One day, he
got into casual talk with a gentleman, at dinner, and,
as he seemed to be a good fellow, they smoked their
cigars together after dinner, and continued their conversation.
By and by they got on the war. It came
out, that both of them had served, and on opposite
sides. Finally, in telling some particular incidents of
his experience, the Federal soldier described this very
fight, his being, as he thought mortally wounded, the
kindness shown him by a Confederate officer, and his
gift to him, of his watch. The Southern man said,
“What is your name?” “Col. , of Robinson’s
Division,” he replied. “Can you be the man?
Have I struck you at last?” cried the ex-Confederate.
“I’ve got your watch, and here it is, with your name
engraved in it.”
It was a singular incident, that these two should
meet again so ! The meeting was most cordial; the
Federal was delighted to get his watch again, made
doubly valuable by so strange a history.
FROM THE RAPIDAN TO
A Sketch in Personal Narrative of the
Scenes a Soldier Saw
WILLIAM MEADE DAME, D.D.
Private, First Company