Monday, August 25, 2014

Rescued at Reams Station

Today, August 25, is the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Reams Station, a nasty little fight that cost the Army of the Potomac 2,747 men. For the bluecoats, this battle resulted in a clear-cut defeat. It happened because the normally-stalwart 2nd Corps gave way to a determined Confederate attack. For the veterans of the 2nd Corps, Reams Station was a hard defeat to swallow. The 2nd Corps had always boasted a reputation as a fighting unit; it had performed admirably on the Peninsula and it fought hard at Antietam, at Fredericksburg, at Gettysburg, and during the Overland Campaign. Reams Station produced a collective shame that no other battle ever duplicated. (Indeed, one contemporary once said of Maj. General Winfield S. Hancock, the corps commander, that if one could read his heart, “Reams Station” would be inscribed upon it.) After the battle, veterans found it hard to offset the disgrace. Unlike the aftermath of Fredericksburg, they could not recount any stories that featured personal daring. Simply put, few bluecoats accomplished anything heroic.

One regiment tried.

The 14th Connecticut Volunteers was one of the regiments caught in the 2nd Corps’ unfortunate stampede. (On the map below, the 14th Connecticut held the southern bend in the Union entrenchments, part of Brig. Gen. Thomas Smyth’s brigade.) After the battle, the diminutive Connecticut regiment counted fifty-one officers and men killed, wounded, or missing. Among the wounded was one of their favorite officers, Captain James R. Nickels of Company I, a clerk from Norwich. Nickels received a gunshot wound to the leg. When the Confederates overran the 14th Connecticut’s position, the rebels did nothing to evacuate him, leaving the young captain to die.

(This is the Civil War Trust's map of Reams Station. The Union earthworks formed a loop around the Station. The 14th Connecticut held a position on the southeast side.)

Amazingly, although he was caught behind enemy lines, Nickels’s comrades reach managed to reach him and it was they who evacuated him to a field hospital. Sergeant Henry Lydall of Company F left behind an account of this incident, describing how he helped to recover Captain Nickels. Lydall survived the fighting, but was caught up in the retreat. As he ran to the rear, the severe Confederate gunfire prompted him to hide on the battlefield until nightfall. Lydall found a small, unused rifle pit. He jumped in, and as he narrated, “Here I found a comparatively safe, but unpleasant shelter, where I was compelled to lie flat until the shadows of night concealed me from the view of the enemy.”

After darkness fell, Lydall peered out to “see the flickering lights of many lanterns, and I knew that the human vultures were at their unholy work of robbing the dead and wounded.” Braving the murky unknown, Lydall wandered back toward the Union entrenchments. Along the way, he found a few wounded comrades, aided them, and for a time, he even wandered into enemy lines and became a prisoner of war. However, Lydall and another comrade, Private Alfred Pardee, slipped past their guards and began heading back to the Union position east of the Weldon Railroad. En route, Lydall and Pardee found Captain Nickels. Lydall’s narrative described the scene:

We worked our way cautiously over the battle-field until we came to the breastworks we had assisted in throwing up that day, when we heard a voice calling for assistance: stopping to investigate we found it came from Captain Nickels, Company D [sic], laying there wounded, shot through the leg and unable to move, and to add to his misery the rebel cavalry had been there and robbed him of hat, coat, watch, money and other valuables, and only desisted from taking his boots on discovering that in trying to move them from his wounded limb, they caused him such intolerable suffering as to touch the heart of even a rebel cavalryman; and as if to add still more to the poor Captain’s suffering the rain just then began to pour down in torrents, and we not being able to carry him, made him as comfortable as possible with our rubber blankets to protect him somewhat from the inclemency of the weather. We then started, he giving us directions where to go, hoping to get assistance that we might return and bring the Captain within our lines where he could be cared for. We had proceeded perhaps two miles in the direction he had pointed out to us, when we met Adjutant [William B.] Hincks and another comrade who had heard of Captain Nickels being left on the field, and were coming back in search of him, and with them we retraced our steps and brought the wounded man to where our ambulance train was stationed, when Adjutant Hincks left me to take charge of him until we should reach such a place as he could be attended to by the surgeons. But the end of that night’s hardships was not yet, for after the ambulances had started, its way being over stumps, stones and uneven ground, making such thumping and jostling that Captain Nickels was unable to endure the pain it caused, and I was compelled to procure a stretcher and with such help as I could procure from stragglers I tramped along through that whole night, some times I would be without help and would be compelled to wait, accosting the weary stragglers as they passed, imploring them to give the Captain a little assistance towards safety, and the treatment he stood so much in need of. Fourteen weary miles we tramped carrying the wounded man that night, through woods and swamps and over rocks until just as day dawned upon us, we reached the hospital tent more dead than alive, and left the brave man to the tender mercies of the surgeons.

After the fourteen-mile trek, Nickels arrived at City Point, the supply hub for Ulysses Grant’s siege of Petersburg and the site of the Army of the Potomac’s largest field hospital. The 14th Connecticut’s surgeon, Frederick Dudley, was already at City Point, and although he was prostrated by illness, he went to see Captain Nickels as soon as he arrived. Dudley’s friend, Cornelia Hancock, wrote to her sister describing the touching scene: “In the fight at Reams Station Capt. [William H.] Hawley [of the 14th Connecticut] was killed and three Capt. Wounded severely[.] the evening they arrived at City Point; Dr. Dudley was sick in bed but he got up, came as far as my quarters, rested a while and went to see every one of them. They were all very glad to see him and absolutely hugged each other. The next day he dressed every one of their wounds. “

Later on, the Army moved Nickels to Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C. The surgeons grew hopeful of his chances for recovery, but on February 20, 1865, Nickels died from the effects of his wounds. He was twenty-two years old.

The survivors of the 2nd Corps always remembered Reams Station as a great disappointment. However, for the 14th Connecticut, the battle initially offered some solace and vindication because the veterans had done everything in their power to rescue one of their favorite captains. But when Nickels died, it must have struck the regiment heavy blow. Not only did the regiment lose a beloved officer, but once again, Reams Station was thrust back into their consciousness as a pure, unalloyed failure. In the end, Nickels’s incredible rescue had been for nothing.

(Capt. James R. Nickels, 14th Connecticut, was mortally wounded at Reams Station, August 25, 1864. He died on February 20, 1865, at Armory Square Hospital.)

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