FIVE DAYS OF AWFUL FIGHTING

 
 

Table of Contents

(May 28 to June 1, inclusive)

IT is now well known that on Sheridan’s return with his troopers to the Army of the Potomac, Meade was forced by facts to admit that his contumacious cavalry com­ mander had fully accomplished all he promised to do. He had inflicted severe punishment upon the enemy’s cavalry whenever and wherever met, killed their favorite general and wrought great destruction to Confederate railroads and property. He had disconcerted and alarmed Lee, enabling Grant to move hi_s great army and enormous trains with comparatively little molestation. Above all, he had inspired the Union cavalry with confi­dence, not only in their leader but in themselves, which proved of incalculable benefit in all subsequent service. The perfected morale in our own regiment was appar­ ent. In a dozen or more successful charges, the Dragoons had impetuously swept the exultant enemy like cobwebs from before them. Instead of longer regarding the rebel cavalry as invincible, they now felt themselves better enti­tled to the claim of invincibility.

Perhaps the greatest enjoyment afforded us in return­ ing to the main army after our two or more weeks within the rebel lines, was the receipt of letters from home. These missives of love and affection were received and read with great avidity.

We sincerely hoped for a few days of rest, for all were tired, worn, and sleepy, having, according to Sheridan’s official report, traveled nearly three hundred miles, besides fighting several battles. But the next day, as we were trying to get a little sleep, or answer our home let­ters, the clarion notes of the division bugle were heard sounding “boots and saddles.”Soon the call was heard in the regiment. The poor, jaded horses were saddled, offi­cers and men buckled on their sabers, and we were off for an all-night ride. Not upon !’, holiday excursion: but to meet in shock of battle a still fierce and defiant enemy, passing through an experience, described in Major Smith’s jottings as “those awful days of fighting at Hawe’s Shop, Old Church, and Cold Harbor, which are stamped upon our memories as with fire.’

It should be stated that Colonel Gibbs, who, since the opening of the spring campaign had been in command of the Reserved Brigade, had just been returned to his regi­ment, and Merritt to t e brigade.

It appears that General Grant was mystified regarding Lee’s movements, and his cavalry was sent out to get possession of the fords on the Pamunkey River, and recon­noiter in various directions to learn what Lee was up to.

About 3 A. M. of the 27th we halted in the vicinity of Hanovertown Ferry, and, holding our horses, lay down to catch a little much-needed sleep. In the morning we crossed on pontoons and reconnoitered toward Rich­mond and Hanover Courtµouse. Small detachments of the enemy’s cavalry were met, but they usually kept their distance. That night Captain Lemen’s squadron, to which the writer belonged, picketed the road leading to Richmond and Hanover Courthouse, with reserves at an old church. About sundown, our pickets were driven in Pellmell, but for some reason, the reserves were not attacked. The greatest vigilance was observed all night, the horses being kept saddled, and a vigilant guard was thrown out. Some secured a little sleep by looping the halters around their arms.

The following account of the battle of Hawe’s Shop was written by an eye-witness the next morning: –

“At 9 A. M. we were relieved by a squadron of the Tenth New York Cavalry, of Gregg’s division, but had scarcely moved out when we heard the rebel yell, and a moment later saw the rebel cavalry dashing in on three roads. Ten minutes later our squadron would have been a goner, as the poor boys who took our places were merci­lessly shot down. Passing over the field later, we saw them in heaps about the old church. There were also a lot of dead rebs nearby.

“’I can not describe in full the scene which; followed, but instantly all was a commotion among our troops. Regiment after regiment was dashing up and forming in line of battle. Gregg immediately turned, and fiercely attacked them on the left. Only a few minutes later the Colonel called out, ‘Orderly bugler, sound the charge!’ and away we went. Other regiments were swinging into line until it must have reached at least two miles. The batteries on both sides began their roar, and the scream­ ing shells were flying thick and fast. We were dis­mounted, and charged down into a deep ravine. As we came op on the other side, we ran almost into the rebel line. They must have been greatly surprised, for, as we rushed out of the thick bushes, they gave us a volley at short range, but did n.o damage. Our boys rushed upon them, pouring the lead into their ranks from the seven­ shooters at such a lively rate that they broke and ran in confusion, leaving lots of their dead and wounded behind them.

“My business was to carry ammunition along the line, and I had a splendid opportunity to see the whole battle. I did n ‘t get a scratch but got as close a call as I cared for, one side of my blouse being shot away. How one ball could have torn it so badly, I can’t understand.

“Fortune favored us on the right, and our regiment suffered but little. The poor fellows on the left, how­ ever, suffered terribly, having had not only cavalry but a brigade of infantry to contend with. Colonel Gibbs does not know just what the loss on our side is but thinks it can not be less than five hundred, and the rebel loss must have been as great.

“About 9 P. M. the infantry came up and relieved ns, and during the night we came over here, near New Castle, where I hasten to write this. They say this is Sunday, but no one would suspect it.

“I must tell you what a treat my mess had the other day- a big dish of .strawberries and sugar. As we lay at Old Church, I got a rebel woman to pick me a quart; and what do you think she charged me1- Only $50. Said that’s what they were worth in Richmond, in Con­ federate money, and she wanted that in greenbacks. She went into paroxysms of rage when I threw down twenty-five cents and bade her good day, madam.'”1

On the 30th was fought the battle of Old Church or Matadequin Creek. The struggle was for the possession of Cold Harbor, a strategetic point greatly desired by both Grant and Lee. The engagement began about four miles north of that place, Devin’s brigade having been attacked by a superior force as he was picketing the Matadeqnin Creek.

(footnote from Bowen) The old church where we had our picket reserve, I think, was known as “Salem Church.”With crayon, I drew a large spread eagle on the wall back of the pulpit. and In a scroll the words. “Compliments of First New York Dragoons.”

When the firing commenced, the Dragoons were a mile or more distant, and grazing their horses in a clover field. A courier dashed rapidly up to brigade headquar­ters, and instantly ” boots and saddles”was heard, fol­ lowed by the call in all the regiments, and the entire brigade moved at a rapid gait np to Devin’s support.

Says Torbert: ”The enemy was strongly posted on the south bank of the Matadequin, a deep and in some places impassable stream. Here a sharp engagement ensued, and it was found necessary to put in the Reserve Brigade (Merritt’s) and two regiments of Custer’s. The enemy was driven from one position to another for a dis­tance of three miles, ending in a retreat to Cold Harbor, and we bivouacked one mile and a half from that place.”This battle was regarded by Grant as of vast importance in paving the way for the occupancy of Cold Har­ bor, but before that could be accomplished, the cavalry.y passed through two of the severest conflicts of the war. 

To give our readers, inexperienced in battle. a better idea of how things appeared on the field, the following extract from a letter written during the progress of the battle is given: –

ON THE BATTLEFIELD, NEAR OLD CHURCH, VA., May 30, 1864

. . . You may think this a strange place to be writing a Jetter, with the dead and wounded around me, and the saucy rebs in full view; but you must bear in mind that during these busy days and nights of fighting, marching, and picketing, that if we write at all, we must snatch every opportunity.

I had just got out my material to write when “boots and sad­dles”sounded, but stuck a. coup! of sheets of paper .in my pocket; and now as the line of battle has, for some reason, halted, I will write all I can. If my letters are crumpled and mussed, and written with pencil, you mustn’t complain, but be thankful to get any at all.

Well, “Uncle Tommy,”as the Ninth boys call General Devin, got into a tight place, and we came up to help him out. As we hove in sight, the Johnnies were socking it to Devin’s boys at a lively rate; but let me tell you it didn’t take Thorp and Scott a month, or even a minute, to ha.ve us off our horses and making for them gray-back scalawags on the double-quick.

The rebs have become familiar with Colonel Thorp’s stentorian voice, ·and when they hear it, know It means seven-shooters backed up by the liveliest lot of lads they ever faced in battle. At all events, Thorp had scarcely begun tooting his big steamboat whistle before the Johnnies in our front were seen breaking for the rear. Perhaps you imagine we go into battle with long, solemn faces, and with fear and trembling. Well, it wasn’t that way today. When the rebs began to skedaddle, the boys set up a derisive yell, and laughed till their sides ached to see them “git.”Someone yelled, “Hold on, Johnny; come back and take your pills; “but as they refused our invitation, we had to dose them while on the canter. Occasionally their officers will frantically rally them, but one good dose from the Spencers makes them turn tail, and away they go again.

By the way, what do you imagine our boys are doing just now -shaking in their boots?- Well, not much. We have now been halted for about twenty minutes, and already some are stretched out sound asleep, some are playing cards, and some laughing and joking as though nothing unusual was going on. I see one man doing as I am, writing a letter, and another writer in his diary. The rebel line is in sight, and within easy bullet range; but there is no firing, unless someone moves about, when they send a bullet whizzing this way. Between the two lines, and about fifteen rods away, a wounded Johnny is calling for help: “For God’s sake, Yanks, come and help me.”
    But the bugle is sounding the advance, and as the men rise, the lead begins to fly this way, so I must chuck this in-my pocket and be off. 

Later. -As the battle line moved forward, and several of us buglers were ordered to assist in gathering up the wounded and aid the doctor. And this reminds me that after nearly a month’s absence in the Potomac Army, Doc. is back with us.
    We found more dead and wounded rebs than of our men, and I particularly noticed that we found more along the track of the Dra­ goons than elsewhere. I talked with an intelligent wounded South Carolina sergeant, and when I told him I was a Dragoon, he replied:

“Them New York Dragoons-ge whiz! We’re getting pretty blamed well acquainted with them cusses and dread them worse than any regiment in the Yankee army. It was one of them that plugged me.”
    The rebs must have been re-enforced, for after the halt they were more obstinate; but a savage charge was made along the whole line. resulting in a complete and demoralized rout. Our joy is clouded, however, as Corporal Barrager was fata11y wounded in the breast, so we fear.

The horses were brought up, and we are camped near where the battle ended. But it is my turn to go on duty as an orderly bugler, and my instructions are to “be upon the alert,”as there is great danger of an attack. That means no sleep for me tonight.     James.

THE STRUGGLE FOR COLD HARBOR

As heretofore intimated, Cold Harbor was the “bone of contention “between Grant and Lee, and both were de­termined to secure it at all hazards. Already Le.e had concentrated his cavalry there, and infantry was being pushed forward to their support.

During the afternoon of May 31 the advance on Cold Harbor began, our brigade (the Reserve) taking the lead on the direct road, Devin’11 brigade was sent on another road, but for some reason, says Torbert, he failed to carry out his part of the program. We had scarcely gone half a mile before striking the enemy in force, and at once began the attack, Custer’s brigade deploying on the left of ours. The Sixth Pennsylvania was on the left of our regiment, and the Fifth Regulars were supposed to be on our right.

The enemy opened upon us with a severe determina­tion, but when the Dragoons and the brave Michigan men of Custer’s line opened upon them with their Spencers, they broke, as on previous· occasions. They were pur­ sued until they reached their breastworks, where they at once assumed the defensive and poured upon us a most withering fire. They had decidedly the advantage and could shoot ns down like turkeys in a pen1 while our shots were ineffective. Nothing now but a desperate charge could dislodge them, and the most difficult point to cap­ture on the entire line was directly in front of the First New York Dragoons. On the brow of the hill above us ran a heavy rail fence, which, strengthened with logs and earth, made quite a formidable breastwork.

Says Merritt: “These works were too strong to be taken without great loss, if at all. The First and Sec­ond United States Cavalry were accordingly ordered to make a detour through the woods, and turn the enemy’s left flank. In the meantime, the First New York Dragoons and Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry occupied their attention in· front, and here was accomplished a work of which everyone connected with the brigade is justly proud; a success by cavalry which has no parallel in this war – a single brigade contending with and taking from an enemy at least three times its numbers, and one-third infantry, a naturally strong position, and made doubly strong by artificial means.”

None of us will ever forget that occasion, when Colonel Thorp and Major Scott informed us that that hill must be taken, and ordered the advance, or rather led the advance; for they·never said “Go! “but “Come on, boys! “It has always seemed a marvel how any of us escaped alive, for the shower of lead was simply ter­rific. But we went up the hill and up to the breastworks, pouring an irresistible fire into their ranks. As our boys leaped over, there were many hand-to-hand struggles. We, however, quickly r_outed and put them to flight, .our regiment alone capturing sixty-one prisoners, including several officers.

– A comrade in Co. I furnished me the following thrill­ ing incident, copied from one of his old letters: –

“As we climbed the fence, and began to gather up prisoners, a rebel captain struck a savage blow to crush Harry Wheeler’s head. Harry threw up his carbine, and partially warded off the blow, but got a hard whack on the neck. He then knocked the officer flat, and ran­ sacked his pockets. As he began to unbuckle his saber and revolver, the reb sprang up, saying he refused to surrender to a private. Harry replied that he ranked him just then and did n ‘t want any of his foolings, and if he did n ‘t hand over those things without another word, he’d let daylight into him. As he drew up his carbine, the reb passed them over to him.”

An incident also of this battle left such an impression on the memory of the writer that it is as vividly recalled as if of yesterday’s occurrence. I was an orderly bugler that day and kept busy going from end to end of the line. Just over the left of our line, a wounded man called to me; he must have been of the Sixth Pennsylvania. He presented a horrible sight: the left side of his face was shot away, and he had a ball through his body. The face was covered with blood, and the big blow-flies had already got in their work. He was a fine, intelligent man, with a beard d la Burnside. Like all wounded men he was thirsty, and I gave him water. Though suffering terribly, he coolly said: “My friend, I want to ask a favor of you, and don’t want you to refuse me. You see I’m mortally wounded, and there is no hope for me. I’m in awful agony, and I want you to put your revolver to my temple and put me out of my suffering.”When I told him I couldn’t do it, he pleaded all the harder. I made him as comfortable as possible and wetted my handkerchief, and spread it over the wound, with the promise · that just as soon as possible I would get an opiate for him. I did so; but before I could get back, he had been picked up and taken away, but those glassy eyes, and that “0, for God’s sake, shoot me! “have never been forgotten.

Reader, please do not get the impression that these incidents are in any sense imaginative, for no old soldier who passed through such trying ordeals as did the First New York Dragoons need have any occasion to draw on the imagination. On the contrary, no pen or brush can adequately portray the horror of war, as we so often saw them. Truly, “truth is stranger than fiction.”

Among the wounded officers were Major Scott, Captains Thorp and Leach, and Lieutenants Burr and Bur­lison.

Says Sheridan: ”Cold Harbor was now mine, but I was about nine miles from our nearest infantry. My isolated position made me uneasy. I learned from pris­ oners that the balance of Hoke’s division was en route for Cold Harbor and Kershaw near at hand. I notified General Meade that I had taken Cold Harbor, but could not hold it, and gave directions to withdraw, but received a dispatch from Meade to hold it at all hazard.”Meade also informed him that he had dispatched the Sixth Corps to his aid.

Says Willis J. Abbot, in “Battlefields and Victory:”“’Wearily the troops returned to their rifle pits. They had been on duty for eighteen consecutive hours, marching, fighting, and marching again; but there was but the one thought, to hold the ground against any and all odds. Scarcely had the eastern sky begun to flush with the com­ ing sun before the bullets of the Confederate sharp-shooters began humming like bumblebees. The men in the trenches were ready and picked up their arms with alacrity. All night they had been working. reversing the rebel redoubts to face the other way. By the side of each man was a pile of cartridges that he might load and fire with greater rapidity. The center of the Union line was held by a New York regiment (the First New York Dra­ goons) and armed with repeating rifles, firing seven shots without reloading. Twice the Confederates advanced boldly to the assault. ‘Hold your fire until they are close upon us,’ was the order passed along the Union line. Save for the Confederate cheers, there was perfect silence as the gray ranks swept forward to the assault. But hen they came within point-blank range of the Union works, there was a crash of musketry, and the redoubt was hid­ den in yellow smoke. Cries of agony arose from the ranks ·of the assailants. The charge was checked for a time, but as the unhurt rallied, and continued their advance, the repeating rifles in the Union center poured in their rapid and deadly volleys.

Though the Confederate loss was heavy, their num­bers were large, and their determination to drive Sheridan from his position was indomitable. For four hours the bat­tle raged, hut at nine o’clock the Sixth Corps, which had marched all night, appeared upon the scene, and the hard-pressed cavalrymen were relieved.”

It will thus be noticed that an impartial historian gives our regiment great credit for the Union’s success in winning this very important battle. Torbert gives the Reserve Brigade the credit, as was done in nearly every instance; when, in fact, the dragoons alone were entitled to the credit, they have done all the fighting. Merritt, how­ ever, in his report, says: ” Two severe charges were made by the enemy, but each time they were repulsed with considerable loss. The First New York Dragoons and Second Cavalry did great and good service in the fight.”

Sergeant Walter H. Jackson, in charge of the regi­ mental brass band, who has kindly furnished several items of interest, thus writes: “In the early morning of June 1, 1864, we were lying behind the slender barricade at Cold Harbor, when three lines of rebel infantry marched toward our front. The first line consisted of Louisiana troops, and wore blue uniforms, similar to those of Union troops; but through a break in the line the col­onel discovered others dressed in gray, and commanded, ‘ Give them hell, boys, they are rebels.’ Turning to me, he said, ‘Sergeant, give us some music. ‘We at once struck up’ Yankee Doodle.’ After their first repulse, and when they had fallen back to reform, we gave them ‘Dixie;’ and when they advanced the second· time, gave them Hail Columbia’ on our horns, while the boys put in the variations with their carbines, smashing their ranks worse than before. When they fell back this time, we played, ‘ When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again.’ Not satisfied with what they had received, the plucky rebs tried it again, we furnished them with the ‘Red, White, and Blue,’ as they came up, and with ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me ‘ as they went back, satisfied not to come again. Some of the Sixth Corps boys came up to see the fight, and were astonished to hear a band playing on the battle line.”

We all remember our brass band; not only did they cheer us in camp, but materially aided us in. time of bat­tle by discoursing sweet music while we fought.

The enemy we so successfully repulsed in the battle of June 1, was Confederate infantry under Kershaw, while their cavalry equaled ours in number. It is no exaggeration to say that those brave Confederates under Kers aw were literally piled in heaps from the effects of our destructive fire.

Says Lieutenant Flint: “To add to the horror of the scene, the woods took fire from exploding shells from Williston’s battery, and the shrieks of the rebel wounded were first heightened, then stifled, by the flames.”Such are some of the horrors of war that came within our obser­vation and experience.

Though unable to record much individual history of comrades since the disbanding of the regiment, we give place to the following: –

Since the close of the war, many of the Dragoons have achieved success in business or some chosen profession, but it is quite safe to acknowledge comrade George A. Peavy as the champion patriarch of the regiment. He writes: “I have a record second to none as to the size of family, mine consisting of twelve boys and three girls, fifteen in all. Eight of the boys belong to the Sons of Veterans. Now, comrades, who of our noble regiment can beat that record?