Monday, August 17, 2015

Overwhelmed, But by a Smaller Force: The Army of the Potomac at Rappahannock Station, Part 2.

In the previous post, I examined the Union attack at Rappahannock Station from the perspective of an officer in the 6th Maine, a regiment that formed part of Col. Peter Ellmaker’s brigade. In this post, a Union officer from the other brigade involved in the attack, Col. Emory Upton’s, shall narrate.

As dusk settled on a bright, cloudless day, November 7, 1863, Upton’s brigade formed up at the front-right of Brig. Gen. David A. Russell’s 1st Division, 6th Corps. Colonel Upton lined up his four regiments, the 5th Maine and 121st New York in the first line and the 95th and 96th Pennsylvania in the second. As the soldiers stood poised in golden twilight, they could see the successful charge of Ellmaker’s brigade occurring off to their left, carrying the earthworks held by Col. Archibald Godwin’s North Carolina brigade.

Soon, Col. Upton came galloping along the line, telling his soldiers that they must charge the earthworks in their front, which contained the infamous Louisiana Tiger Brigade from Stonewall Jackson’s old division. Captain Cleaveland J. Campbell of Company C, 121st New York, remembered that when the news passed down the line, murmuring went up from the men. He wrote, “But the long line of rifle-pits is still filled with the famous (in southern hearts) Louisiana Tigers, carrying on their banners, the name of every battle field from West Point to Bristol, in which the Stonewall Division has taken part, for they were the pet brigade of the misguided enthusiast Jackson. They knew the ground thoroughly, until now they supposed themselves able to hold a position against twenty thousand men; almost total darkness has fallen upon the scene.” Indeed, the situation looked daunting. The two lead regiments contained only 568 officers and men. If they charged, they would have to overtake 1,400 Louisianans, all of them secure inside  the walls of a well-made fort.

At a distance of 275 yards from the Confederate line, Upton’s brigade loaded their muskets and changed their pace to the double-quick. One hundred and forty yards beyond that, the men unslung their knapsacks and fixed bayonets. They moved swiftly. In about five minutes, the two lead regiments, the 5th Maine and 121st New York, had taken the outer Confederate rifle pits without firing a shot, and wrote Captain Campbell, “thanks to the darkness with [only] slight loss.”

When it became clear that the Louisiana brigade intended to shift to its right and retake the earthworks lost by Godwin’s men, Upton decided it was time to attack. Turning to the soldiers of the 121st New York, Upton shouted, “don’t fire a shot; if they fire at you, lie down; there are three lines of battle behind; let them march over you, and storm the works.” Captain Robert P. Wilson, of Upton’s staff called out, “Forward, every lover of his country.” Major Andrew E. Mather of the 121st cried out, imploring the soldiers to remember the dead from a previous battle:  “Remember Salem Chapel!”

Thus encouraged, the two regiments surged across the last bit of deadly ground. They stormed the parapet, and much like Ellmaker’s brigade, found themselves amid swarms of angry rebels. Captain Campbell narrated the assault in a November 20, 1863, letter to the Cherry Valley Gazette:

This time they were crowded with the enemy, but confused by their recent change of front, supposing as they afterwards strongly expressed it, that ‘all hell was corning,’ and thinking that their only chance for mercy, lay in non-resistance to our over­whelming force, over fourteen hundred rebels surrendered to five hundred and  sixty-eight loyal men, and throwing down their arms begged for that quarter, which the Louisiana brigade is charged with having often refused to the unfortunate prisoners they have taken. The left of the 121st was swung around to the river, cutting off all retreat, and nothing remained but to gather the spoils. They were even beyond expectation. As the result of less than an hour’s engagement, the 3d brigade had captured a fort, four pieces of artillery, a battle-flag, and many prisoners.

The trickiest part of the whole affair was getting the Louisianans to throw down their weapons and surrender. A few minutes earlier, Ellmaker’s brigade had penetrated Godwin’s line only to face a bloody hand-to-hand fight complete with stabbings and bludgeoning. The Louisianans put up considerably less resistance. The brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Harry Hays, fled as soon as Upton’s men entered the works. As Campbell humorously put it, “The rebel General Hayes, unfortunately escaped, having important business to transact on the other side of the river, just after the commencement of the attack.” The next senior officer, Colonel David P. Penn, lacked the stomach to put up a fight.  Col. Clark S. Edwards, commanding the 5th  Maine, invited Penn to surrender. “In manner somewhat peremptory,” explained Campbell, Penn asked time for deliberation. Edwards refused his request. “Not a moment,” he said, and called up his provost guard to take Penn into custody whether he liked it or not. “Then here is my sword,” replied Penn, handing it to him. Edwards asked Penn if the other Louisianans were surrendered on account of their commander raising the white flag. Being as unhelpful as possible, Penn replied, “I am no longer in command. You must ask the new commanding officer.” In any event, Upton’s brigade captured the remainder. Campbell, who helped corral the Louisianans, wrote, “So each surrendered for himself, and very anxious each was to do it,—and very much mortified was each, the next morning, to learn that they—the invincibles—behind entrenchments, had surrendered to a force of less than half their number.”

Although effuse with praise for his regiment, his brigade, and for Col. Upton, Captain Campbell marveled at the unpredictability of the whole affair. Two small regiments had captured a brigade three times their size and with minimal losses. He opined:

There can scarcely be a question but that the two regiments were saved from annihilation by Col. Upton’s masterly handling of his small force, and by the skillful manner in which he conveyed to the enemy the idea that they were to be overwhelmed. No words of praise are too strong to be applied to the gallant men, who, that night, so distinguished themselves by their cool, determined courage. The loss so slight, (about two hundred in the 3d Brigade, and only sixty in the 2d,) in comparison with that, in so many hard-fought, but fruitless struggles, does not obscure the victory of the living with the blood of the dead. Those who survive will cherish the memory of that proud moment of their lives, and those who fell will be still more honored for having taken part in the glorious struggle in which they met their deaths.

More amazing, Upton’s men had spared their foe a grisly fate by convincing them to surrender. Indeed, a small force could, at times, be overwhelming.

Captain Cleaveland John Campbell commanded Company C, 121st New York Volunteers, at Rappahannock Station. He is shown here as colonel, 23rd U.S.C.T. 
Here is the Civil War Trust map from the previous post. You can see the assault by Upton's regiments along the west side of the map.
Colonel Clark S. Edwards, 5th Maine, negotiated the surrender of the Louisiana Brigade at Rappahannock Station.


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