Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Last Ditch: The Life and Death of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery, Part 5.

The 7th New York Heavy Artillery had five commanders. The third one died in a ditch. His name was Edward Springsteed. Unlike most soldiers attached to the 7th New York Heavy Artillery, he was an old hand at war.

This tale belongs to him.

Edward Augustus Springsteed was born on January 31, 1840, the son of an Albany physician. During the war’s first summer, he received a commission as first lieutenant, Company D, 43rd New York Infantry. He served during the Peninsula Campaign, fighting at Lee’s Mill, Williamsburg, Goulding’s Farm, Savage’s Station, White Oak Swamp Bridge, and Malvern Hill. During the summer of 1862, Lieutenant Springsteed resigned his commission and returned to Albany to help raise the 113th New York, a story that I described in my earlier post. Although he was only twenty-two-years old, Springsteed’s extensive combat experience made him a shoe-in for field command. He mustered in as major and took command of one of the regiment’s three battalions. After the 113th was sent to Tennallytown and converted into heavy artillery, Springsteed assumed command of Fort DeRussy.

When Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant called forth the heavy artillery regiments in mid-May 1864, Major Springsteed accompanied the 7th New York Heavy Artillery to the front and participated in its first battles. He survived the blood-letting at Alsop’s Farm, Milford’s Station, North Anna River, and Cold Harbor. He participated in the disastrous attack against the Harrison’s Creek earthworks on June 16, 1864.

My readers might recall Major Springsteed from the previous post. That tale—narrated by Battery L’s fishing-loving commander, Lt. Fred Mather—mentioned Major Springsteed in several instances. Most notably, when Battery L found itself surrounded, Major Springsteed ran by frantically, neglecting to tell Mather that his men were almost caught by the rebels.

Unsurprisingly, Springsteed told a different story. This is what he had to say.

During that attack, Major Springsteed led the right-most battalion of the 7th New York, the one that was supposed to connect with the Irish Brigade. When the Irish Brigade fled the field in disorder, Major Springsteed was compelled to halt his battalion in a gulch on the opposite side of Harrison’s Creek. The heavy artillerymen tried to weaken the Confederate position with their firepower, but with the Irish Brigade in full retreat, the regiment’s decision to halt just made it a tempting target for Colonel John Fulton’s Tennessee brigade, which eventually left its earthworks to encircle the stranded heavy artillerymen. As Major Springsteed recalled it, his troops had not halted for long when he was struck by a Confederate musket ball. As he wrote to his father, “I supposed at first that it was one of our own men in the rear trying to fire over us, but I soon found out that the enemy had got around our right flank, and were firing at us from the rear.”

The ball hurt Springsteed, but it did not disable him. The unfriendly projectile struck him in the small of his back. Coming from the right side, it clipped his belt, cutting off his pistol and holster, and then dug into his flesh before bouncing off into the gulch. Still, Springsteed realized he had escaped death through a little bit of luck. A narrow inch of metal had saved his life. The hostile bullet had glanced off a small brass ring attached to Springsteed’s sword belt—where the scabbard’s straps hooked into the belt—preventing the ball from ripping into his spine, “in which case,” Springsteed wrote to his father, “I should probably not have been writing this letter now.”

From the darkness, Springsteed heard chilling sounds. The rebel yell resounded from three sides and the Tennesseans demanded the heavy artillerymen’s surrender. At that point, it was clear the enemy had got around the right flank and into the 7th New York’s rear.

Springsteed’s response was swift and decisive. He ordered his men to keep firing. As he recalled it, “I was senior officer then, but did not want to give up.”

Undoubtedly, it had to have been a profound moment for the young officer. Springsteed had selected his last ditch. It wasn’t pretty, but Springsteed was willing to defend this ugly hole to the death.

For the next hour, the heavy artillerymen held on, firing into the darkness. Eventually, the Confederates stopped firing, and again, they called upon the New Yorkers to surrender.

For a second time, Springsteed advised his men to keep firing. He assumed if they kept the battle going, another regiment or two would come to their rescue. (Probably, this was unlikely. Nearly all of Brig. Gen. Francis Barlow’s division had routed, and were a mile away beyond Redoubt 13.) 

Unfortunately for Springsteed, his men had other ideas. As he recalled it, “I ordered the men to stay where they were, but some of them threw down their arms and went in, and the rest soon followed.” In utter amazement, he watched as the bulk of his battalion surrendered.

If he was going to defend his “last ditch,” he would defend it alone.

At that moment, Springsteed began turning over the consequences in his head. Should he surrender with them? Should he run for it? Should he keep fighting? In the end, he considered it wisest to run for the rear and risk being shot in the back. Like many Union soldiers, he believed that going to a Confederate prison amounted to a death sentence. He narrated the next few minutes:

I stayed there until nearly all the men were gone; when I thought it better to risk the enemy’s bullets than a prison. So I made a dash through a space which the rebel line did not cover, and succeeded in getting away under a heavy fire. I am very thankful that I did get away, and that I am wounded no more.

Presumably, as he ran to the rear, making his bid for freedom, he passed by Lt. Fred Mather and Battery L, the incident mentioned in the previous post.

When the remnant of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery assembled near the Dunn House that evening, the surviving officers counted up what was left of their regiment. Only 150 men and ten officers reported for duty. One of the battalion commanders, Major Francis Pruyn, was missing and presumed captured. The regimental commander, Lt. Col. Hastings, now commanded the brigade. One member of the regimental staff wrote, “So murderous and exhausting a campaign is not recorded in military annals. . . . I am going to spend today in collecting a list of casualties incurred in our last engagement—a melancholy duty.” Likewise, Springsteed wrote his father, “It was a terrible day for our regiment. We lost very heavily in crossing the field, but the men behaved splendidly. I have no doubt but that we should have taken the works if it had not been for stopping where we did, in consequence of some of the lines giving away.”

The next day, Major Springsteed left for an army hospital in Washington to have his wound treated. He did not require a long hospitalization, so he requested (and received) a thirty-day furlough, traveling back to Albany to recuperate with his family. While there, he received news that Lt. Col. John Hastings, the regimental commander, had resigned his commission. Eager to return to his unit and assume command of the regiment, he cut his furlough short and journeyed back to Virginia several days early. While en route, his train was held up in Washington, D.C., which was then under attack by Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s Confederates. Under the direction of Maj. Gen. Christopher C. Augur, Maj. Springsteed assumed command of a brigade of Emergency Militia and took them to some of the very earthworks he and his men from the 7th New York had manned the year before. Early’s men retired without making a major assault, and Springsteed continued on his way to the front.

When he reached the regiment at Petersburg, Springsteed sought endorsements from his superior officers. He wanted a promotion to fill the regiment’s vacant colonelcy. Col. James A. Beaver, Brig. Gen. Nelson Miles, and Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock all wrote letters of recommendation on his behalf. In his request to Governor Horatio Seymour, Springsteed explained, “Being the senior officer of the regiment, I naturally feel very desirous for the promotion. Believing that the appointment would give general satisfaction to the officers and men of the regiment, I respectfully urge that my request be granted.”

As Governor Seymour considered Springsteed’s case, the young major led his regiment in its next battles. In late-July and early-August, the 7th New York Heavy Artillery participated in the First and Second Battles of Deep Bottom, losing another thirty men. And then came the Battle of Reams Station. On August 21, the 2nd Corps—about 9,000 strong—reached this whistle-stop along the Weldon Railroad, eight miles south of the city of Petersburg, and the next day, the bluecoats began tearing up the track. Two days’ worth of destruction accomplished the mission of cutting off one of the vital supply lines into Petersburg, but rather than withdraw from the area immediately, Maj. Gen. Hancock unwisely ordered his troops to dig a U-shaped line of earthworks around nearby Oak Grove Church. Had Hancock withdrawn his troops overnight, he might have avoided the disastrous battle that followed, but instead, the very next day, Hancock’s troops came face-to-face with two Confederate divisions that had come down from Petersburg to push them off the railroad.

The battle began at 10 A.M., August 25. Confederate forces under Maj. Gen. William Mahone formed up inside a thick woods off to the west of the Union earthworks, while cavalry under Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton circled around to the south. The 7th New York Heavy Artillery helped open the engagement. Early in the morning, Brig. Gen. Miles ordered Major Springsteed to take his regiment—which then contained about 200 men—along with the 145th Pennsylvania to the far left flank to support a line of Union cavalry under Maj. Gen. David Gregg. Arriving at the point designated, the New Yorkers opened a “lively skirmish” with Wade Hampton’s cavalry, losing one man killed and three wounded. When Mahone’s infantry made its first attempt to break through the Union earthworks, Springsteed ordered his men to fall back and resume their place inside the works alongside the rest of Miles’s 1st Division.

The Confederates attacked three times. The first two assaults—both probing actions—struck the Union line, but each time, the rebels fell back in disorder. One member of the 7th New York recalled, “The men stood and received the desperate charges of the rebels with the coolness of veterans, decimating and demolishing their ranks with the murderous discharges they poured into them as they advanced.”

But then, at 5 P.M., the Confederates came forward a third time, aiming for a salient occupied by the “consolidated brigade,” a unit of conscripts, substitutes, and veterans from several defunct regiments. The consolidated brigade broke, and when the hole opened up in the 2nd Corps line, the edges peeled back rapidly. Within minutes, the 2nd Corps line had been rent asunder. The massive gap could not be plugged.

Inevitably, the 7th New York Heavy Artillery became a part of the rout. As a member of the regiment recalled, “The bullets whistled, the shells hummed, and with the wildest yells the rebs charged and the line gave way in utter confusion.” Another man, Sergeant-Major Frederick E. Lockley, wrote, “The rebels gained so immensely in force during the day that on the last charge they seemed to swarm everywhere. A perfect hellfire was directed upon us, and it is feared that most of our missing men were wounded in their efforts to escape to the rear.”

Major Edward Springsteed fell during the last enemy charge. I have yet to stumble onto an account that describes his final moments, but apparently, a bullet felled him just as his line gave way, and the last that anyone saw of him, he was lying in a pit, mortally wounded. The 7th New York’s second-in-command, Major Joseph Murphy, directed Quartermaster-Sergeant William O’Brien to stay with Springsteed. As the rebels surged over the line, both men were captured. Springsteed died before the end of the day. O’Brien was sent to the prison camp at Salisbury, North Carolina. Eventually, he died there on January 18, 1865.

In the end, Major Springsteed had, indeed, died in his last ditch.

The survivors of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery were frustrated with the defeat. The Battle at Reams Station had cost the regiment another 96 men and six officers killed, wounded, or missing. Sergeant-Major Lockley argued that this “was the most desperate battle we have yet fought.” But the losses didn’t seem at all necessary. The whole corps could have left the scene before the Confederate attack. After all, the Union troops had already destroyed the tracks. There was no logical reason to stay an additional day. One disgruntled veteran later remembered, “The position we lost was worth nothing; we had done our work, and I do not see why we were not withdrawn in the night, as we might have been.”

The news of Springsteed’s death saddened the survivors, particularly since none of them (except Sergeant O’Brien) were there to watch him breathe his last. However, if there was a silver lining, the 2nd Corps veterans now considered the heavy artillerymen as one of them. Sergeant-Major Lockley explained:

We are at our old work ‘campaigning,’ and you have had experience enough in the 2d corps to receive that expression in its full acceptation. Fighting, digging and marching are our only alternations of employment, only we now have the addition of bad weather. Lying on the wet grass with a rubber blanket over you—if you are fortunate enough to own one—and the rain peppering you all night, having now lost its novelty, may be received as agreeable or not, just as a man’s taste leads him. Our boys are healthy, though, stand the tug well, and have now become tough, well tried soldiers.

As the 7th New York marched away from Reams Station, Major Springsteed moved to one more ditch. The New Yorkers recovered his remains and sent them for burial in Albany Rural Cemetery, the same graveyard where Col. Morris was laid to rest two months earlier.

On September 15, 1864, Springsteed’s commission arrived at the 7th New York’s encampment at Fort Morton outside of Petersburg. Governor Seymour had approved his promotion to colonel.

So, yeah. In the end, most of us get to lie in a ditch for a really long time. Let us hope it is well-chosen.

This is Major Edward Augustus Springsteed, the commander of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery. He died in a ditch at the Battle of Reams Station.


  1. I would like to say thank you for the post I was able to learn a little history and felt personally connected to this story. I intend to share it with my Family. Sincerely Henry S Springsteed
    P.S I would very much like to learn more about Edward A Springsteed in the hopes of learning about my Family heritage. Email

  2. The correct spelling of Edwards last name is Springstead. The different records show it spelled Springsteed a d Springstead. His descendant Tim Springstead.

    1. Strange. Every single source I've ever seen spells it as Springsteed: 1) Heroes of Albany, 2) Keating's Carnival of Blood, 3) Frederick Phisterer's New York in the War of the Rebellion, 4) The State Report of the Adjutant General of New York, 6) The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. In his reports, Springsteed spells his name "Springsteed."