Sunday, August 16, 2015

“The Only Relief Seemed Our Continuous Yell”: The Army of the Potomac at Rappahannock Station, Part 1.

This post is about screaming, swearing, and killing. In battle, those things tend to go together. A Union officer from Maine tells us why. Here is his story.

On November 7, 1863, Adjutant Charles Amory Clark was having a rather bad day. In the morning, he was nearly captured by Mosby’s Rangers. At the time, Clark’s regiment was encamped at Warrenton, Virginia, and while there, a friend of his, Captain Solomon Wright Russell, Jr. of the brigade staff, wanted to visit a woman he was courting, Anna Ashton Dixon, who lived outside of town. Shortly after the two officers visited the Dixon farm, Mosby’s men showed up, catching them far from their regiment. Clark and Russell beat a hasty retreat, with Clark remembering, “We had a narrow escape from Moseby’s men, one of whom in a blue uniform, stood looking into our faces as we rode away.”

The day continued to get worse. Next, Clark’s horse was killed under him. After a thirteen-mile march from Warrenton to Rappahannock Station, his regiment, the 6th Maine, deployed as skirmishers. While directing the skirmishers into the fray, carrying out the orders of Brig. Gen. David A. Russell, Clark was abruptly dismounted by a Confederate bullet and had to make his way back to the line on foot, “only too glad” to do so, he later wrote.

Finally, at dusk, Clark learned that high command wanted his brigade to spearhead an attack against a Confederate bridgehead at Rappahannock Station. About 2,000 Confederate soldiers from Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s division sat entrenched on the north side of the Rappahannock River, defending a pontoon bridge, the only stable structure for miles in any direction capable of supporting the Army of the Potomac’s heavy equipment. The army commander, Major General George Meade, wanted to get across the river and reach Brandy Station. Some Union troops would have to clear the path and seize the bridge. It fell to two brigades, Col. Peter Ellmaker’s and Col. Emory Upton’s, to do it.  Clark knew that his no-good, very bad day was about the get plenty worse.

Adjutant Clark’s regiment, the 6th Maine, formed the front rank of Ellmaker’s brigade, its left flank anchored along the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. As the golden autumn sun began to set, the divisional commander, General Russell, rode along the line, causing the Maine soldiers to raise a cheer, all of them apparently eager to try their hand at besting Early’s rebels. Russell’s regimental commanders gave out specific instructions. The men were allowed to load their rifles before the charge but were not allowed to cap them. The officers told their men not to fire a shot until they had penetrated Early’s entrenchments. It was a chilling proposition. The bluecoats had to cross no-man’s-land by a single gallant rush, with no way to return fire. Although numbering only 321 officers and men, the Maine regiment’s cheer reverberated loudly. Clark recalled, “Probably so small a number of men never before made such an uproar.” After a short cannonade, General Russell sent the infantry forward.

Immediately, four Confederate artillery pieces began throwing projectiles into the tightly-packed Union brigade. Clark remembered the nail-biting moments of the 6th Maine’s charge:

The fire which was opened upon us as we swept forward was simply terrific. It is impossible to describe it. The sensation with me was, that the air was so filled with bullets that it was heated to a high degree of temperature, and scalded my throat and lungs when inhaled. Men were seized with the wildest transports of rage and frenzy. We seemed to me marching against a blind, inscrutable force, which defied all of our efforts to reach it or grapple with it. The only relief seemed our continuous yell, which every man kept up until the fortifications in front of us were reached.

The men of the 6th Maine broke over the Confederate earthworks like a crashing wave, followed closely by the regiment behind them, the 5th Wisconsin. Unfortunately, the two regiments had lost their cohesion in crossing the field. Further, Confederate artillery and rifle fire had felled many bluecoats. The 6th Maine lost thirty-eight killed and 101 wounded. To Clark, the situation looked dire: “We entered the enemy’s lines attenuated and scattered, a handful here and there, among swarms of the enemy.”

There was only one way to win this fight. The soldiers had to scream and curse loudly. Shrieking like a banshee, with sword drawn, Clark plunged his weapon through the bowels of a Confederate soldier. Everywhere, hand-to-hand combat became the order of the day; one soldier from the 6th Maine stabbed two Confederate soldiers with his bayonet and brained another with the butt of his musket. Clark witnessed one terrible clubbing up close. As several Confederate soldiers moved to stab him, over the parapet emerged the gigantic form of one of the 6th Maine’s sergeants. Although Clark never identified the man, he called him “the most devout Christian I have ever known. He was our ‘praying sergeant,’ and every night before he slept, no matter where he might be, or who might be present, he never failed to address the throne of grace in solemn and earnest prayer.” On this occasion, the religious sergeant forgot his Christianity and began skewering and braining Confederates left and right, punctuating his eviscerations with a host of epithets. As Clark described it, “he came up with an infuriated yell, and with profanity which was fierce and appalling, he aided with bayonet and clubbed musket in speedily dispersing the enemy around us.”

In all, the shock of the 6th Maine’s charge did the trick. After only a few minutes—although it seemed like ages to Clark—the Confederate line gave way to a precipitous rout, with Early’s troops scrambling south across the pontoon bridge to safety. The other regiments from Ellmaker’s brigade, the 49th Pennsylvania, the 119th Pennsylvania, and the 5th Wisconsin, added their weight to the assault, and in short order, Clark was beside himself with joy. Having experienced so much bad luck earlier in the day, he was surprised to see a Union victory occur so suddenly. He wondered, “Why they recoiled from their entrenchments none of us have ever been quite able to understand.”

But just as the shouts of battle died down, Clark’s bad luck caught up to him. As he was standing upon a rifle pit, a Confederate ball struck him on the left leg, rolling him off his perch. Stung by the sudden pain, he admitted that he fell to the bottom of the pit, “with a confused feeling of rage and utter helplessness.” Some soldiers from the 6th Maine came to Clark’s assistance and placed him on a stretcher, but while being carried to the rear, they found Captain Russell, the officer that Clark had accompanied to the Dixon farm that morning, lying wounded. Clark insisted upon giving up his stretcher, telling the men to place Captain Russell on it instead. With another man to act as a crutch, Clark proposed to hobble his way to the field hospital. Clark survived his wound, although it led to his eventual discharge from the 6th Maine in February 1864. He recovered and returned to the service as a brigade staff officer for Brig. Gen. Hiram Burnham. Clark died in 1913.

As of November 8, 1863, the day after the battle, Clark’s road to recovery was just beginning. But unlike the previous day, November 8 started auspiciously enough. While Clark was lying wounded in the field hospital, the Christian sergeant who had scattered the Confederates so vigorously during the battle came by to apologize. Apologize? Clark was confused. The sergeant was deeply contrite, he remembered, “[he] implored me to forget the awful frenzy that had taken possession of him when he fought the foe at such close quarters.” Affably, Clark accepted the apology, but he had to have known that the sergeant’s profanity was the right thing at the right time. Like the sergeant, Clark had also screamed and yelled during the attack. When faced with the awful task of killing Confederates face-to-face, loud obscenity was the only thing that got the 6th Maine out of its sticky situation.

Lt. Charles Amory Clark, 6th Maine Volunteers, stabbed a Confederate with a sword at Rappahannock Station. He was shocked when his sergeant apologized for using an obscenity at the same battle.

This sketch by Alfred Waud depicts the Union troops from David Russell's 1st Division, 6th Corps, overrunning the Confederate earthworks. The scene is looking east. The river and pontoon bridge can be seen at right in the background.

This map from the Civil War Trust depicts the Union deployment at Rappahannock Station. Take note of Ellmaker's brigade along the west side of the railroad. The 6th Maine spearheaded that attack.

This Alfred Waud sketch depicts the aftermath of Rappahannock Station, Nov. 8, 1863. Note the Confederate earthworks in the background and the Union soldiers from Ellmaker's brigade parading around their captured battle flags.

No comments:

Post a Comment