If you have been keeping up with my blog, you know that in the four previous posts I have been connecting the well-known photographs of the 93rd New York taken at Bealton Station to that regiment’s first battle experience during the Overland Campaign. For the most part, I have let the officers tell the story. Today, a young private gets to tell his tale.
Here it goes.
On May 5, 1864, as Colonel John Crocker’s brigade gave way to a Confederate counterattack, nineteen-year-old Private Samuel Giles Payn, Jr. of Albany, New York, found himself in a tight spot. Private Payn was trapped between the two hostile lines of battle. He needed to run and follow his retreating regiment, the 93rd New York, to safety. However, filled as he was filled with the bravado of youth, instead he decided to give the oncoming Confederates one last shot. Payn fired his rifle, and then turned to run. He had hardly gone a few paces when a Confederate ball struck him in the knee. At first, Payn thought he had been disabled, but he looked down to see that he had suffered only a glancing blow. “Not yet!” he muttered to himself. He kept running. Then, a second ball struck him in the head. Blood spurted out and Payn thought he had been dealt a mortal wound. However, it was yet another glancing blow. Payn put his hand to his scalp, felt no brains oozing between his fingers, and again said, “Not yet!”
The two close calls made Payn rethink his recklessness. He decided to seek cover. He dived behind an oak tree, making up his mind that if the Confederates came, he would fight them to the death, as he preferred to perish than go to a Confederate prison. Luckily, he never had an opportunity to test that resolve. The Confederate advance stalled just short of his position, and later, his regiment swept back across the area, retaking the lost ground. When his regiment arrived, Payn joined its advance, but got struck two more times. One bullet even hit him in the chest, but did no damage, as it bounced off a pack of playing cards he kept in his pocket. On both sides of him, two comrades, Private David Van Buren and Private Dennis McVay, fell dead. At the end of the day, Payn counted up his bullet holes. In addition to the wounds to his scalp, knee, and chest, he had six holes in his knapsack, some of which had shattered his hardtack.
On May 7, two days after the harrowing fight in the Wilderness, the lieutenant colonel of the 93rd New York appointed Payn to the color guard. That day, he scratched out a letter to his father, addressed from the “battle field.”
DEAR FATHER:—Bill and I are safe so far, we were engaged yesterday afternoon; the Rebs attacked us in our breastworks; we repulsed them every time and drove them off; they left their dead and wounded in heaps in front of us. One regiment broke—ours took their place. The Rebs had got over our works when we got there; the left of our line charged them, capturing them all and two stands of colors which they had planted on our entrenchments. There were nine of our regiment [company] hurt in the attack; both Lieutenants are unhurt; the Orderly Sergeant, who stopped with me when I was home, is wounded in the head or neck and gone to the rear (night of the 7th.) We were engaged again this morning and lost a few men—Bill and I are safe yet. I was made corporal this afternoon, and am on the color guard. I suppose we will move tonight. We have punished the Rebs severely. Brig.- Gen. Hayes was killed in the first day’s fight. Our Colonel is in command of the brigade. He is a brave man as ever I saw. Love to all.
From your son, S. G. PAYN
At first, Payn did not mention his wounds, but then, two days later, Payn wrote a second letter, and almost as an afterthought he explained, “I have received four slight wounds, the first one is on top of my head, an inch over, and it would have laid me out, but a miss is as good as a mile.”
Payn accompanied the 93rd New York’s color guard into the next fight, the attack against the Mule Shoe salient on May 12. Once again, he was struck on the breast by a spent ball. During the chaos, the bearer of the state colors, Corporal Charles A. Culver, was captured, but an unnamed private somehow rescued the flag. Payn believed the brave private should be the new bearer, but when that private’s face began to swell up from poison ivy, he turned the flag over to Payn. The next day, Payn wrote to his father. Unlike his previous letters, he made it abundantly clear that he and his comrades were enduring a hard campaign.
Dear Father—I write you a few lines to let you know I am alive and safe. We had a hard battle yesterday. We started a line of battle at daylight in the morning, composed of one Division, took the Rebs by surprise, stormed their works, drove them two and half miles, capturing more prisoners than were in our own storming party, also 30 or 40 guns, 21 of which were taken off the field, 3 Generals, 2 Johnsons and 1 Stuart. We fell back about a mile and still hold our ground. The Rebs tried their best. It rained all day yesterday and last night we suffered a great deal; was without a blanket, overcoat, or tent-sheet; did not have anything to eat for twenty-four hours, except some crackers, but feel well after having some coffee this morning. William was wounded in the hand, not very bad; has gone to the hospital. I was knocked down by a spent ball. I carry the colors now; the color-bearer was killed yesterday. I will write more the first opportunity. Both Lieuts. are wounded pretty bad; there are three privates, three Sergeants, and three Corporals in our company at present.
S. G. PAYN, Jr.
Payn carried his regiment’s state banner until May 23. That day, the 93rd New York participated in the Union attack against Henagan’s Redoubt on the North Anna River. Determined to be the first color-bearer to plant a flag upon the enemy earthworks, Payn rushed ahead, only to be shot through the left knee. Another bearer picked up the flag as the battle line rushed over him, and the stricken corporal lay on the field for hours before receiving any medical treatment. Eventually, Union transports shipped him to Port Royal, then to Alexandria, and finally to his hometown of Albany. It was not an easy recovery. The wound discharged pus for eight years and he endured four operations to remove the damaged bone. In 1895, when the regimental historian collected Payn’s story, he commented, “The wound has ever been a drain upon his system, and will continue to be so while he lives.”
Payn died in 1917. He is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery.
This is an image of Samuel Giles Payn, Jr. taken after he received his wound. Here, he bears the rank insignia of a second lieutenant.