Monday, September 23, 2019

Fishing Buddies: The Life and Death of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery, Part 4.

One a summer day in 1863, near Fort DeRussy, in Tennallytown, Lt. Fred Mather of Battery L, 7th New York Heavy Artillery, met with an old school chum, Captain George Seward Dawson of Battery F, 2nd New York Heavy Artillery. They went fishing.

My loyal readers who have been following the saga of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery will remember Lt. Mather’s name. In my previous post about the Battle of Cold Harbor, I used his 1896 narrative from the National Tribune as my primary source to narrate the experiences of the regiment at that awful engagement.

Mather loved to fish. More than anything in the world, he found solace in it. As Mather claimed later on in life, as a boy, he had no further desire “than to be in the woods or on the waters,” and he had “no taste for anything like the harness of civilization.” His friend, Captain Dawson, also loved to fish, and for whatever reason, on this day in 1863, they found peace fishing together. “That day’s fishing was firmly fixed in my mind,” Mather later wrote. Sadly, he continued, “I never fished with him again.” The two fishing buddies parted ways forever a year later when they engaged at the Battle of Petersburg, June 16, 1864. 

Those two memories—a fond afternoon of fishing and a final farewell before a forlorn attack—form the centerpiece of this post.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First of all, what happened to the 7th New York Heavy Artillery after the Battle of Cold Harbor?

At the end of that battle, the 7th New York Heavy Artillery looked like a shadow of its former self. It had arrived at Spotsylvania on May 18 as a “band box” regiment, glistening with spit and polish. But for the past eighteen days, the men had endured a veritable hell on earth. More than two weeks of marching and fighting had taken a heavy toll on the survivors. One of them wrote, “Assigning some limit to human endurance, I think I speak truth in saying that rarely have the energies of fellow mortals been more severely taxed than have those of this regiment since we issued from the fortifications in defence of Washington. Our experience has been one succession of forced marches, severe fighting or rapid entrenching.” 

In short, few of the heavy artillerymen realized that war could be like this.

Moreover, eighteen days of hard fighting had subtracted many good men from the regiment. Already, nine officers and 201 enlisted men had been killed or mortally wounded. Meanwhile, dozens of others were wounded or missing. The once magnificently-sized regiment had dwindled down to half strength. The 7th New York Heavy Artillery had left Fort Reno with 1,850 officers and men. As of June 5, 1864, it counted only 932 officers and men remaining. It took incredible inner fortitude for the survivors to weigh this horrible loss of life against the object to be gained. One of the regimental correspondents explained, “There is no doubt that the price of human blood and treasure, at which the accomplishment of this national object is estimated, is of a most unstinted liberality. Therefore, appearing as we do, as actors in this bloody drama, at this, its approaching catastrophe, we must summon up all our fortitude and patriotic endurance to reconcile us to the unspeakable sacrifices that are daily demanded of us.”

The week following the Battle of Cold Harbor offered a much-needed respite to the daily “unspeakable sacrifices,” but the Army of the Potomac’s campaigning did not cease. After eight days on the battlefield, on June 12, 1864, the Army of the Potomac marched south, crossing the Chickahominy River. Two days later, it reached the massive pontoon bridge constructed at Weyanoke, where it crossed to the south side of the James River. From there, the bluecoats turned west, bearing down on Petersburg, hoping to reach that crucial city before Robert E. Lee’s legions could occupy the massive ring of earthworks that surrounded it. For a moment, it looked as if the Army of the Potomac would get its chance to bring the “bloody drama” to its climactic end.

It was not to be.

Catastrophe followed. The 7th New York wandered into another hellish fight on June 16, 1864, one that culled the regiment by another 50%.

This engagement, known as the Battle of Petersburg, happened because the 7th New York Heavy Artillery spearheaded another desperate frontal assault against a well-defended line of Confederate earthworks. Only this time, the soldiers of the 7th New York were not so fortunate as to break the enemy position and occupy the entrenchments. Instead, they stopped short of their goal, and one-third of them were captured. Easily, June 16 was that regiment’s darkest day of the war.

It happened this way.

The Battle of Petersburg began on June 15, when the vanguard of the Army of the Potomac—Maj. Gen. Baldy Smith’s 18th Corps—reached the outskirts of the “Dimmock Line,” the ring of earthworks that surrounded the city. At the time, only five Confederate regiments remained attached to the Petersburg garrison, leaving the Dimmock Line all but undefended. Unfortunately, the Union 18th Corps fumbled its opportunity to take the important earthworks on June 15, leaving it to the 2nd and 9th Corps to execute a general assault along the enemy line the next day.

At daylight, June 16, Brig. Gen. Francis Barlow’s division (to which the 7th New York Heavy Artillery belonged) formed just east of Redoubt Number 13, one of the forts abandoned by the Petersburg garrison. In fact, the Union troops now controlled the first fourteen of the Dimmock Line’s redoubts. But a new obstruction confronted Barlow’s men. To the west, across Harrison’s Creek, the Petersburg garrison had constructed a second line, which now offered the only obstacle between the bluecoats and Petersburg. For hours, the officers from the 7th New York Heavy Artillery peered through their field glasses, watching the near-empty works with anticipation. If the army moved quickly, they could take the Harrison’s Creek line without losing heavily. But hour after hour passed, and no orders came. The regiment—and the entire corps for that matter—stayed put.

The sun rose high, but still nothing. But then, at 4 P.M., an ear-piercing train whistle shrieked from the vicinity of Petersburg, signaling the arrival of Confederate reinforcements. Lee’s army had arrived from Richmond! With characteristic alacrity, they de-trained and began taking possession of the Harrison’s Creek field-works. The soldiers of the 7th New York watched in horror as their moment of opportunity vanished. Lt. Fred Mather of Battery L recalled, “Within half an hour we saw the enemy file into the works on the double-quick, and then the men saw that serious work was at hand.” It was clear to everyone. The Army of the Potomac’s unaccountable delay had botched their golden opportunity to march into Petersburg unopposed.

For awhile, none of the heavy artillerymen expected their division would receive orders to attack. As Lt. Mather recollected, at that moment, his friend, Captain Dawson, arrived, seeking him out. Dawson’s regiment—the 2nd New York Heavy Artillery—also belonged to Barlow’s division. (Specifically, it was assigned to a brigade in the second line.) Also, Dawson’s regiment had, likewise, suffered heavily at Cold Harbor. At the time, neither Mather nor Dawson yet knew if the other had survived. But at this moment, Dawson found Mather, and a happy reunion occurred. Using a few free minutes available to them, Mather and Dawson talked over old schoolyard days and reminisced their last time fishing, the glorious day outside Fort DeRussy.

Suddenly, a bugle blared, calling Dawson back to his command. But he did not think it meant the army would attack. He said, “I think we will entrench here and besiege Petersburg, and then we can visit often!” Dawson called out “Goodbye!” and ran off.

Then came the order to attack.

At 5:00, the sluggish Union high command finally issued orders to Barlow’s men, instructing them to go forward with bayonets fixed. Sadly, everyone could see the situation had changed from what it had been an hour earlier. A bayonet assault would likely cause the division to suffer heavy casualties. However, there was no time to argue. The attack had to occur at dusk, which was about one hour away. One of the 7th New York’s battalion commanders, Maj. Edward A. Springsteed, called his four battery commanders over to him, briefing them on the mission. Lt. Mather, who had assumed command of Battery L after the engagement at Cold Harbor, joined the discussion. Springsteed said, “There will be a general charge all along our line at sundown; have your men in readiness.”

Mather was disgusted by the news. Four weeks of fighting had soured his opinion on bayonet charges. As he rushed to his company to inform them of the planned assault, Mather passed by the new commander of the 7th New York, Lt. Col. John Hastings. Calling to him, Mather sneered, “Colonel, it looks like another Cold Harbor to charge now; we could have walked over [those earthworks] an hour ago!” If Hastings made any reply, Mather did not record it. Most likely, Hastings agreed. The situation looked identical to the setting from thirteen days earlier.

At 6:00 P.M., as planned, Union artillery began pummeling the Confederate earthworks and then Barlow’s division made its forlorn advance. Lt. Mather recalled, “The hissing, screeching shells went over us with a most terrific racket; the musketry opened on us as we crossed the rail fence in the cornfield, and the combined noises almost drowned out our cheers.” 

Men fell at every step, or so it seemed. A shell tore out the eye and cheekbone of Lt. Morton Havens. A bullet struck Lt. Charles L. Yearsley in the stomach as he tried to climb a fence. A shell landed atop the color guard, killing or wounding nearly everyone who surrounded the flag. Another shell wounded the brigade commander, Col. James A. Beaver, forcing Lt. Col. Hastings to assume command of the brigade in the midst of the advance. All along the track of its advance, the 7th New York Heavy Artillery left a wake of dead and dying men.

As had happened at Cold Harbor, the veteran regiments of Barlow’s command broke first. Part of Barlow’s first line, consisting of the vaunted Irish Brigade, turned and ran for the rear. Then, most of Col. Beaver’s brigade followed suit. To the rear, the other brigades—under Brig. Gen. Nelson Miles and Col. Clinton MacDougall—suffered heavily, falling apart before reaching Harrison’s Creek. Only the 7th New York surged on, heedless of disaster, along with a small cluster of dedicated men from the 145th Pennsylvania.

However, unlike Cold Harbor, the 7th New York did not breach the rebel works. This time, the heavy artillerymen came within fifty yards of the enemy line and halted, throwing themselves upon the ground. From their prone position, the New Yorkers fired indiscriminately into the Confederates. Incorrectly, they assumed the Irish Brigade was still on their right and that Barlow’s second line—Miles’s and MacDougall’s brigades—were coming to their rescue. But neither assumption held true. In the growing darkness, few in the 7th New York realized the danger of their exposed position. They were all alone.

It didn’t take long for the Confederates to capitalize upon the situation. Colonel John Fulton’s Tennessee brigade left the earthworks and began creeping around the right flank and rear of the 7th New York. In just a few minutes, the heavy artillerymen were surrounded. The battalions on the left flank panicked and ran as soon as they took fire from the rear. Those on the right realized the Confederate presence too late and surrendered. As Lt. Mather recalled, “I was busy getting the broken line in shape . . . when shots from the rear showed that the right of our line was surrounded.” The situation in Mather’s Battery looked grim. Mather called for his two second lieutenants. Neither of them answered. 

Suddenly, the battalion commander, Major Springsteed, came running by, terrified, asking Mather if he had seen Lt. Col. Hastings. Mather replied in the negative. Without losing a step, Springsteed kept running, disappearing into the night. Somehow, Springsteed made it back to Union lines.

Mather and the men from Battery L were not so lucky. Every one of them was captured. When Mather realized there was no chance for escape, he rushed to the colors (apparently a different flag from the one lost at Cold Harbor) and helped a sergeant to bury them in the sand. Next, he tried to bury his sword. Before he could complete this task, a threatening voice came from the rear: “Yank! Drop that and get over the works!” A dozen bayonets emerged from the darkness, and Mather realized the horrible truth. He’d been caught.

The attack of June 16, 1864, cost the 7th New York a total of 501 officers and men. Only 36 had been killed; 301 were taken prisoner and the rest were wounded. Mather’s Battery L had taken 32 enlisted men into the action. Along with Mather, all of them were taken prisoner. That proved to be a death sentence. In 1896, as he looked back on his wartime experience, Mather recalled, “of the 32 men of my command that day only three came out of prison alive. That is a terrible story, and someday I hope to tell it to you.”

Mather never saw his friend, Captain Dawson, ever again. When he returned from Libby Prison, he discovered that Captain Dawson had been mortally wounded in the same engagement. During the June 16 attack, a musket ball shattered Dawson’s left knee. Surgeons amputated his leg and initially gave Dawson an optimistic prognosis, but apparently during the cutting, the operating surgeon had accidentally damaged more of the bone. Gangrene set in and Dawson died of his wound on December 6, 1864. He was 26-years-old.

After Dawson’s death, the State of New York promoted him by brevet to the rank of lieutenant colonel. As his fishing buddy, Lt. Mather, remembered him, Dawson was a “young soldier, whose life of promised usefulness was, like so many others, brought to a sudden end, but cannot be considered wasted.”

Incidentally, Lt. Mather never did tell the story of his Civil War prison experience. He dedicated the rest of his life to studying fish. After the war, he started a fish hatchery at Honeoye Falls. When the federal government established the United States Fish Commission in 1872, Mather received an appointment as an assistant commissioner. In 1880, he managed an exhibit at the Fisheries Exhibition in Berlin. In 1883, he was appointed superintendent of the New York Fish Commission station at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, and for years, he authored books on fish culture, including Men I Have Fished With (1897), Modern Fish Culture (1900) and Ichthyology of the Adirondacks (1885). He died on February 14, 1900. He is buried in Duluth, Minnesota.

I wonder if, after every fish he caught, Mather thought of his friend, Captain Dawson, and the horrible day that killed him, June 16, 1864.

This is 1st Lieutenant Fred Mather, Battery L, 7th New York Heavy Artillery. He was captured at the Battle of Petersburg, June 16, 1864. Throughout his life, he searched for fishing buddies. During the Civil War, his best fishing buddy was mortally wounded at the same battle.

This is Captain George Seward Dawson, Battery F, 2nd New York Heavy Artillery. Dawson was Mather's fishing buddy. He was mortally wounded during the June 16, 1864, assault on the Petersburg entrenchments.

The scene of the 7th New York's capture on June 16, 1864, is on wooded ground south of Siege Road on land owned by Petersburg National Battlefield. A trail traverses the ground where Barlow's division formed up, but not where the surrender took place. Hopefully, one day, there will be a new walking trail to this important site.

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