In the last post, I introduced to you the 93rd New York, a regiment photographed by Timothy O’Sullivan at Bealton Station in August 1863. Having served as headquarters guard for two years, the soldiers of the 93rd experienced a bloodless war; however, that changed abruptly on May 5, 1864, when the regiment accompanied the Army of the Potomac into the Wilderness.
Undoubtedly, the officers in the 93rd New York exhibited anxiety at their sudden change of duty. Although they expressed eagerness to get into the fight, some of them wondered what their first taste of battle would be like. Most of the officers knew the eyes of the brigade would be upon them. After all, their brigade, the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, 2nd Corps, contained eight seasoned regiments, veterans of the Army of the Potomac’s most famous campaigns. Would the soft bread soldiers of the 93rd be able to stomach the bloody fight that was sure to erupt?
At 11 o’clock, May 3, the 93rd New York quietly broke up camp at Brandy Station and took up a line of march toward Ely’s Ford, a crossing point on the Rapidan River. After eating breakfast near the ford on May 4, the column reached Chancellorsville. A sense of urgency spread throughout the army; everyone was certain that battle was on the horizon.
The narrator of today’s tale is one of the officers who accompanied the 93rd New York into the Wilderness, First Lieutenant William Leggett Bramhall, age twenty-four. Before the war, Bramhall was curator of the American Numismatic Society. An avid Republican, Bramhall designed many of the medals used by Abraham Lincoln’s “Wide Awakes” during the Election of 1860. (If you are a collector of political campaign medals, check out the work, as it may be of Bramhall’s design.)
Taking note of his new routine as a combat infantryman, Bramhall wrote to his brother describing the march across the Rapidan: “Our march was a rapid and fatiguing one with few and far between, and the day was hot and sultry from early morning until 3 1/2 o’clock p. m. . . . All were foot-sore and weary, especially our recruits, after the forced march of 27 miles, and our mess, like most others, drank our hot coffee with our ‘hard tack’ and fried ham, and then laid down to delicious sleep and pleasant dreams among the Rebel graves on the old Chancellorsville battle-field.”
The next morning, May 5, the 93rd New York and the other regiments belonging to Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays’s brigade struck their tents, ate breakfast, and made haste for Todd’s Tavern, a crossroads west of Spotsylvania Court House. Bramhall continued, “The day was very warm and sultry, but our pace was rather accelerated than abated.” The bluecoats reached the tavern at noon, where they stopped for lunch. Suddenly, said Bramhall, “artillery and light musketry fire broke upon our ears.” Although the New Yorkers did not yet know it, the 5th Corps had made contact with Confederates along the Orange Turnpike in the Wilderness. Soon, buglers blared the assembly. With their lunch interrupted, the New Yorkers strapped on their accoutrements and made haste yet again. Bramhall continued, “nearly half of the time ‘double-quicking,’ we continued for more than an hour, when we were finally halted in the Wilderness, where we rested for about ten minutes, and filled our canteens with the best water we could procure. Then commenced a terrific fire of musketry away off to the right, which rolled along to near our front in continued waves, and assured us that the fight had now commenced in earnest.”
After that, the soldiers of the 93rd New York did not have long to wait. The regiment formed for battle on the north side of the Orange Plank Road, and together with Hays’s other regiments, it moved forward for half a mile through a thick growth of oak trees. Suddenly, a frightened Pennsylvania regiment belonging to Brig. Gen. Frank Wheaton’s 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, 6th Corps, came barreling out of the woods, and “came running through our ranks in a manner too precipitate to call good order,” recalled Bramhall. Pushing through the routed Pennsylvanians, the New Yorkers passed over a ditch, then up a roll of ground, and met a terrific volley from the Confederates belonging to Colonel John M. Stone’s brigade. Bramhall wrote, “Though halted, we did not flinch, but replied vigorously, and gradually advanced, the enemy failing back, but halting to give us a volley as we came up to them each time. “
The battle burst upon the 93rd New York like a torrent, with soldiers falling left and right. Bramhall wrote down some of disjointed memories of the battle:
One of the first to fall was Lieut. Gray, of Co. G. the ball passing directly through his head. He fell to the ground lifeless without a murmur. (He was slightly wounded by a spent ball a moment before, and after going to the rear a few steps, and finding the wound a trifling one, he returned.) One by one the men were pierced by the enemy’s bullets, either wounded or killed outright. Not a groan or cry escaped one of them, but in the calm possession of every faculty, they would turn to an officer and cooly say, ‘I am wounded,’ and then pass, or be carried to the rear. One instance I would mention, I saw a corporal in the ranks of my company wounded in the leg, while in the act of loading his gun; he deliberately aimed his piece and fired, exclaiming ‘Take that,’ he then turned and said ‘Lieutenant, I am wounded and can do no more.’ He went to the field hospital and had his wound dressed, and soon after came back to the line, saying, ‘I must have another pop at the rascals.’ That corporal must be promoted.
It was not much longer until a bullet found Bramhall. A musket ball raked his scalp. “I felt the ball strike,” he recalled, “and the next I knew was, that, dizzy and weak, I raised myself off the ground and saw the blood spouting from my wound, and not a little ‘clot’ on the ground.” Bramhall staggered over to Captain Henry C. Newton, telling him that he had been hit. Newton replied, “Hurry to the rear and go low.” Bramhall wandered to the rear, barely able to stand up straight. When he came to the ditch that his regiment had crossed, he tumbled into it. Luckily, the sergeant-major came to his assistance and guided him to a field hospital stationed along the Orange Plank Road.
An ambulance carried Bramhall to Fredericksburg, where he occupied a bare floor along with eleven other wounded officers from his regiment. In a few days, he received a transfer to the Georgetown Hospital in Washington, D.C. Bramhall returned to duty later that summer, but due to the effects of sunstroke, he left the regiment after the Battle of Deep Bottom. Bramhall mustered out in November, settled in Washington, where he became, at various times, a lawyer, a real estate broker, and a deputy collector of taxes. He died in 1902.
Bramhall’s description of the Battle of the Wilderness is quite exciting, and that, in its own right, makes it a valuable source. However, what I find interesting is that Bramhall, like the other officers of the 93rd New York, waited expectantly to experience his first battle. He waited for two years, operating as headquarters guard, and during that time, he saw no heavy combat. Then, at his first battle, the Wilderness, he endured only a few whirlwind minutes of combat before a bullet knocked him out of the fight. It proves a truth: just a few minutes of Civil War combat was far more than anyone could ever want.
This is Lt. William Leggett Bramhall, the author of the letter that narrated the 93rd New York's first harrowing moments of battle.
This is a postwar image of Bramhall.
This is 2nd Lt. Robert Liston Gray, the officer from Company G who died from a gunshot wound to the head.