Thursday, June 26, 2014

A 6th Corps Casualty at Salem Church: The 6th Corps' Chancellorsville Campaign, Part 2

In the previous post, I offered a glimpse of the 6th Corps’ dramatic breakthrough at Marye’s Heights. In this post, I am going to offer a similar glimpse at the second phase of the 6th Corps’ action at Chancellorsville (or Second Fredericksburg, if you prefer the term), the engagement at Salem Church. For this, I decided to let a soldier from the 121st New York tell this tale.

First, let’s establish the context.

Soon after the 6th Corps captured Marye’s Heights, General Sedgwick ordered his men to pursue the retreating Confederates down the Orange Plank Road. According to the information he had received from General Hooker, Sedgwick believed that most of the Confederate army was in retreat toward Gordonsville. He did not yet realize that the Army of the Potomac had been beaten that morning, and that a stiff Confederate defense awaited him atop Salem Heights, a gently-sloping, wooded ridge about three miles west of Fredericksburg.

General William T. H. Brooks’s 1st Division led the advance down the Orange Plank Road, as it was the only division that had not engaged at Marye’s Heights earlier that morning. At 4 P.M., the division reached the base of Salem Heights. The bluecoats could see a distinctive brick church atop the acclivity. To their frustration, they also beheld a Confederate line-of-battle. Sedgwick had expected only limited resistance—perhaps a brigade—but the Army of Northern Virginia had, in fact, assembled five brigades to defend the area.

(Here, you can see a photograph of Brooks's division taken by Andrew J. Russell on the morning of May 3. Brooks's men are near the pontoon crossing; the Rappahannock River is in the background near the houses on the horizon. In a few hours, some of the soldiers in this photograph found themselves killed or wounded at Salem Heights.)
Eleven of Brooks’s regiments made a valiant attempt to drive the rebels from their defensive position, but steady, accurate rifle fire cut them down. In about an hour, the 6th Corps counted another 4,611 losses.

(This sketch depicts the Battle of Salem Church from the perspective of the 6th Corps Artillery. The heights can be seen at distance. The smoke arising at the middle-left of the sketch is where the battle is raging.)
The long list of wounded included Private Fernando Wendell Wright of Company A, 121st New York, whose regiment reached the south side of the church grounds.

At the height of the action, Wright was struck in the arm and throat. Not hearing the order to retreat, Wright looked back, noticing that too few of his comrades held the position. When he looked to see where his comrades had gone, a musket ball struck him in the back of the neck. The ball exited just in front of Wright’s left ear. Wright wrote:

After I fell, as the force of the ball knocked me down, I suddenly recovered and found I was in a very dangerous place, as the balls and pieces of shell were falling all around me. I got up on my knees and, upon looking in front of me, I saw Lt. [Frederick E.] Ford. I looked at him a few moments, but from some cause could not speak; so I crawled on a little further and then got upon my feet. When looking around I saw several of our boys lying dead and dying upon the ground from where our Regiment had retreated.—I was going up to speak with some of them when a rebel came up and said I had better go with him, I told him, if he would give me some water and lead me I would go, for I had bled so much I was quite faint and the blood dried upon my face and I could scarcely see, so he unclasped my cartridge belt for me and relieved me of my knapsack.

Wright stayed at a Confederate field hospital for several days. On May 6, Confederate medical personnel moved him to Salem Church, the scene of the battle three days earlier. On May 8, after he recovered sufficient strength to move, Wright went onto the field to survey the carnage. As he wrote, “I went out to look after the dead as they had not yet been buried.” He recognized five men from his own company, as well as the body of Lieutenant Frederick Ford, the officer he had seen on the battlefield. Finally, he found the body of Captain Nelson O. Wendell, his uncle. “There were many others,” Wright explained, “but I did not know their names.” Wright set about the grim task of writing friends back in Herkimer and Montgomery Counties, letting them know where their loved ones had fallen, but it was a hard task. Not only was it a sad subject, but Wright’s wound had left his left arm paralyzed.

On May 21, the Confederates commenced burying the Union dead and paroling the wounded prisoners. With that, Wright began his long journey back to Union lines and his even longer journey to recovery. Wright offered his captors some praise for his treatment. He wrote, “Our treatment while over in the rebel lines was of the best—that is they did all they could for us, after we were in the Hospital.”

Wright returned to New York and regained his old profession, writing for his local newspaper, the Mohawk Valley Register. In 1866, he married a women named Ellen Boyer and raised two sons. He died in 1904.

The 6th Corps endured the worst of its punishment at Salem Church. Private Wright got to see and experience the battle’s carnage more than most. Not only was he wounded, but for more than a week, he was hospitalized at Salem Church, the scene of the fray. No doubt, he would have retreated had he heard the order, but he delayed. Just then, an unlucky musket ball struck him down. As a consequence, he remained on the battlefield longer than he wanted. Surely, he never forgot Salem Church.

(This is a modern image of Salem Church. During the battle, the 6th Corps surged across the foreground. In fact, F. W. Wright's regiment charged across the ground where I took this picture. After the battle, this scene was filled with dead and wounded.)

(This is an unidentified 6th Corps soldier. He is wearing the Greek Cross badge, the emblem of the corps.)

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