Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

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Army life in Virginia by George Grenville Benedict.

July 4, 2013

Army life in Virginia by George Grenville Benedict, 12th Regiment Vermont Volunteers.

The Battle of Gettysburg — Personal
Observations And Experiences.

Headquarters Second Vt. Brigade,
Battlefield of Gettysburg,

July 4, 1863.

Dear Free Press:

The scene has shifted since I wrote you last from the shores of the Occoquan to the fields of Pennsylvania, from pleasant camp life to scenes of battle and frightful bloodshed. My last letter was hardly closed when we got the exciting news that Lee’s army was in full march to the north, through the Shenandoah Valley, and that the Army of the Potomac was on its way north to protect the National Capital—news soon confirmed by the appearance of troops of contrabands and long columns of the cavalry and infantry of three army corps, with forty batteries of the reserve artillery, which came streaming past for four days and as many nights.

On the 23d of June General Stannard received notice that his brigade had been attached to the Third division of the First Army Corps; that it was to hold the line of the Occoquan till the main army had passed, and then was to follow the corps and join it if possible before the great battle which was expected. On the 25th ult. the brigade started. I was sent to Washington that day by General Stannard, on special duty, and did not overtake the brigade till it had passed into Maryland. The march to Gettysburg lasted a week—seven weary days of continuous marching through the mud. Our men, you know, were not inured to marching. Some were poorly shod, for in view of the speedy termination of their service they had not been allowed to exchange old shoes for new; but they marched well. With sore and blistered and often bleeding feet, in some cases barefooted, they pushed along and made their twenty miles, or nearly that, a day, and gained nearly a day’s march on the First corps, before it joined it on the battlefield.

I spent the night of the 28th in Frederick City, which was full of soldiers, and considered myself fortunate to get a cot to sleep on in a private house, where next morning I met Charles Carleton Coffin and Mr. Crounse, the army correspondents of the Boston Journal and N. Y. Times, who directed me to the headquarters of the army, just outside the city. Thither I hurried in a drizzling rain to find Colonel Edward R. Piatt, of General Hooker’s staff, who, being a Vermonter I thought would know where I could find the Second Vermont brigade. As I reached headquarters, I met General Hooker with several officers of his staff, riding away. As he returned my salute, I noticed the expression upon his striking features, and said to myself: “Something is going wrong with Hooker; he is not happy.” Later I learned that he had been relieved; had just turned over the command to General Meade, and was then taking his final departure from army headquarters. Getting directions on what road to follow the First corps; and being lucky enough to hire a horse of a farmer, who accompanied me on horseback to make sure of the return of his beast, I pushed to the north, overhauled the brigade about noon, and was glad to join General Stannard at the head of the column, and to exchange the Marylander’s gray mare for my own horse.

The next afternoon I was sent forward by General Stannard with a report to General John B. Reynolds, commanding the First corps. To reach his headquarters involved a ride of ten miles in the strong current of the Army of the Potomac, moving to the north. The march of an army of a hundred thousand men is an imposing spectacle, though the uniforms be dusty and the marchers footsore. All the roads and avenues throughout a wide stretch of country were thronged with artillery and army wagons; the newly-made but already bare and hard-trodden pathways along the roadsides were filled with troops; the very landscape seemed to move with the movement of armed men.

It was after sundown when I reached the head of the column of the corps, then halted for the night. I found General Reynolds at a little country tavern, about five miles from Gettysburg. He was resting from the fatigue of the day, his tall form stretched at full length upon a wooden settle. He received my report without rising, and scarcely raising his head from his arms, folded under it, made some inquiries in regard to the strength of the Vermont brigade, sent back a message to General Stannard, and remarked that he was glad to have the brigade join the corps, for he thought all the men they could get might be needed before many hours. This was my first and last sight of this brave and able general. Next morning he was beyond the need of men or mortal help, with a confederate bullet in his brain.

When I returned to the brigade, bivouacking near Emmittsburg, the word was running through the ranks that 30,000 rebs were in Cashtown, Pa., twelve miles away. Lee, then, had turned back from Harrisburg. The armies were converging. How long before they would meet in mortal struggle?

The first news that the great battle we were expecting had begun reached us about noon of Wednesday, July 1, when a courier, spurring a tired horse, met General Stannard riding at the head of his brigade, eight or nine miles south of Gettysburg, with word from General Doubleday that a big fight was in progress at Gettysburg; that General Reynolds had been killed and he had succeeded to the command of the First corps; that the corps and cavalry were fighting a large part of the rebel army and having hard work to hold their ground, and that Stannard must hasten forward as fast as possible.

He did so, but the heat was oppressive, the men were tired, and they moved all too wearily till crossing a crest four or five miles from the field, the heavy roar of cannon in front reached all ears. The sound put life into the men, and there was no lagging after that. As we neared Gettysburg we began to see groups of excited inhabitants, most of them women, gathered wherever there was an outlook toward the field. Their anxious faces were bent upon us with varied expressions, some seeming by their sad gaze to say, “Alas, that these too should be food for powder,” while the eyes of others, as they glanced down the long column of the brigade which had more men in it than some divisions, lighted with hope, and they waved us on as to certain victory.

The smoke of the battle was now mounting high over the field, and the “sultry thunder” of artillery, rolling continuously and heavily, filled the air. About sundown, as the brigade reached the outskirts of the field, I was again sent forward to report its arrival to the division commander and was thus the first man of the brigade to reach the actual battle ground.

The artillery firing had ceased, but carbines were cracking on the plain as I rode across it. Passing inside of a skirmish line of dismounted cavalry I took my way to a low hill, which seemed to be the centre of operations. Batteries were in position on the brow of the hill and troops forming along its top. They were what was left of the Eleventh corps, after its retreat through the village, rallying on a new line to meet an anticipated attack from the enemy, then apparently forming for an assault, at the foot of the hill. I rode up to a colonel who was directing the disposition of a line of battle. A white handkerchief was wound around his neck, through the folds of which blood was oozing from a wound in his throat. He directed me where he thought I could find a portion of the First corps, and I found Gen. Rowley, commanding the Third division of the corps, stretched on the ground by a little white house. He was asleep, overcome by fatigue, or something, and his aids would not wake him. They told me to guide the brigade to that point; and after a while, the tired men stretched themselves upon their arms in a wheat field, and sank into the deep and reckless sleep of the weary soldier. There was rest for the men; but not for our general. Gen. Stannard was appointed general field officer of the day, or of the night rather, in that part of the field, and had to see to the posting of the pickets of another corps besides our own. The duty called for a night in the saddle, upon the army lines.

The second day of the battle opened on Thursday without firing, save now and then a shot from the pickets, but we saw considerable moving of troops on our side behind the low ridge which concealed us from the enemy, and doubtless the same process was going on, on their side, unseen by us. The batteries alone on the crests of the ridges menaced each other, like grim bulldogs, in silence.

The three regiments present of our brigade— the Twelfth having been held back and the Fifteenth sent back to guard the ammunition trains in the rear—were placed behind Cemetery Hill, a round hill crowned by a cemetery laid out with an amount of taste unusual in a place of the size of Gettysburg; and General Stannard was notified that he was in command of the infantry supports of the batteries upon the left of the hill, and would be held responsible for their safety.

Our batteries were planted, not actually upon the graves, but close to them within the cemetery —such are the necessities of war. Our regiments lay behind the hill through the forenoon, the men lounging on the grass, till about 3 o’clock, when the ball opened by the whizzing of shell around our ears. The first thrown exploded over the Thirteenth regiment, and two or three men of it were wounded by the fragments. A sudden scampering to the rear of orderlies, ambulances, and all whose duties did not hold them to the spot, followed. The troops were moved a little closer under the hill and made to lie down; our own batteries opened sharply, and an artillery duel followed. The shells came screaming through the air with not altogether agreeable frequency, mingled, for those of us whose duties called us to the top of the hill, with the frequent humming of minie balls. Occasionally a battery horse would plunge and rear for a moment and then drop. As I passed one of the guns, I noticed a fine looking sergeant of the battery, watching eagerly the effect of the shot he had just aimed; as I came back again, two minutes later, he was lying dead by his gun. Men came by us from the skirmish line in front, with gun-shot wounds of arm or leg or head. A company was called for as support to the skirmishers. Captain Foster, of General Stannard’s staff, was sent out to station them, and was brought back in a few minutes shot through both legs. We were told by the old warriors that this thundering of cannon must be the prelude to a charge upon our lines, and all watched to see where it would come. About six, the nearing of musketry firing to our left indicated the spot, and in a few minutes we heard, above the din, the yell with which the rebels charge. There was scarce time to think what it meant, when orders came for our brigade to hurry to the left, where the lines were now being borne back by the enemy. Several regiments had broken for the rear; a batten had been taken, and our brigade was called for to fill the gap. Five companies of the Thirteenth, under Colonel Randall, led the advance on the double quick. The left wing of the regiment, under Lieut. Col. Munson, had been supporting a battery to the right and brought up the rear of the column. General Hancock was rallying the troops on the spot. “Can you retake that battery, Colonel?” was his question, as they came up. “Forward, boys,” was the reply, and in they went. Captain Lonergan’s company of “bould soldier boys” took the lead and rushed at the battery with their Irish yell. Colonel Randall’s gray horse fell under him, shot through the shoulder, and he went on, on foot. The guns were reached, wheeled round and passed to the rear, and pressing on, the boys of the Thirteenth took two rebel guns with some eighty odd of the “graybacks” who were supporting them. This ended the fighting for the night. The Thirteenth fell back to the main line, which, thus restored by the Vermonters, was held by our brigade to the close of the battle, at the point on the left centre at and around which the hardest fighting of the next day took place.

With the darkness the firing ceased, and we then heard from our front that sound which once heard will not be forgotten by any one—a low, steady, indescribable moan—the groans of the wounded, lying by thousands on the battle-field. As the moon was rising I rode out upon the field in front of our lines. My horse started aside at every rod from the bodies of dead men or horses; and wounded men, Union soldiers and rebels in about equal proportions, were making their way slowly within our lines. Some of the latter said that General Barksdale, of Mississippi, lay mortally wounded out beyond, and begged to be brought in. A party from the Fourteenth was sent to search for him, but he was not found till near morning. I saw his body soon after the life had left it, next morning, and, having seen him on the floor of Congress, recognized it at once. He was dressed in a suit of the light-bluish-gray mixture of cotton and wool, worn commonly by the rebel officers, with gold lace upon the coat sleeves and down the seams of the trousers. His vest thrown open disclosed a ball hole through the breast, and his legs were bandaged and bloody from gunshots through both of them. He had fought without the wig which Speaker Grow once knocked off in the Hall of Representatives, and his bald head and broad face, with open unblinking eyes, lay uncovered in the sunshine. There he lay alone, without a comrade to brush the flies from his corpse.

Our men slept Thursday night upon their arms.

Returning to headquarters, simply a spot on the open field where the brigade headquarters flag was planted amid the lines of sleeping soldiers, I stretched myself, supperless—for our headquarters cooks and mess wagon disappeared when the artillery firing began that day, and were lost to sight, though to memory dear, throughout the rest of the battle—on the ground, but had got only an hour’s sleep when I was aroused by an orderly.

General Stannard, anticipating harder fighting on the morrow, wanted more cartridges for his men, and sent me to find the division ammunition train, supposed to be at or near Rock Creek Church, three or four miles away, and procure a supply. Followed by a mounted orderly I went to the place, to find that the trains had been ordered back no one knew where; but that some First corps wagons, probably containing ammunition, had moved up near the field. I spent the rest of the night in search of these wagons, zigzagging around the field wherever I saw a camp fire or light. I stopped at a dozen or more of the great Pennsylvania barns, looking more like large factory buildings than like our New England barns. Each of them was a field hospital; its floor covered with mutilated soldiers, and surgeons busy at the lantern-lighted operating tables.

By the door of one of them was a ghastly pile of amputated arms and legs, and around each of them lay multitudes of wounded men, covering the ground by the acre, wrapped in their blankets and awaiting their turns under the knife. I was stopped hundreds of times by wounded men, sometimes accompanied by a comrade but often wandering alone, to be asked in faint tones the way to the hospital of their division, till the accumulated sense of the bloodshed and suffering of the day became absolutely appalling. It seemed to me as if every square yard of the ground, for many square miles, must have its blood stain. After three or four hours of such fruitless wandering I gave up the search and started back for the brigade. The moon, now setting, had become obscured, and, lacking its guiding light and following a road which I supposed to be that over which I went to Rock Creek Church, but which was really, as I afterwards learned, the Baltimore pike, I found myself toward morning passing under a tall arch, beyond which stood two field pieces in the roadway.

Everything was still around, but as I rode between the guns, a form rose from beside them, and a voice asked where I was going. I explained and was told that I would find nothing in that direction till I struck the rebel lines. The arch was the entrance gate to the cemetery; and the rebel lines were near by at the base of the hill. I had completely lost my way, and but for the warning of the artillery man I should now probably be on my way to Libby prison.

I reached brigade headquarters as day was breaking, and as the cannonade of Friday morning began. A shell struck near my feet without exploding, as I dismounted. A minute later another broke the leg of an orderly’s horse ten feet away. Still another took off the hoof of another horse, close by. It was plain that the horses were drawing the enemy’s fire, and they were removed beyond the ridge behind us. From that time on until the close of the battle, with one or two exceptions, we saw no horses or mounted men anywhere near where we were, except those of the batteries on that front.

The artillery fire was quite sharp for a while in the morning from the rebel batteries opposite us, but died away in an hour or so. It was perhaps intended to divert attention while the enemy was preparing a desperate attack upon our extreme right. Gen. Stannard adjusted a little the positions of his regiments. The Sixteenth was on the skirmish line in front. The Fourteenth was moved forward several rods to a line where some scattered trees and bushes afforded a partial cover. The Thirteenth was placed to the right and a little to the rear of the Fourteenth. No troops were in front of us. The ground had been fought over the day before, and a number of the dead of both armies lay scattered upon it. Fearing that the sight of these bloody corpses might dishearten some of our men, I suggested to the general that it would be well to cover them with some of the blankets which lay about, and aided by an orderly I covered a number of the bodies where our men lay, the living and dead side by side. About six o’clock the musketry firing became tremendous about a mile to our right. We could see nothing of it but the white smoke rising above the tree tops; but the volleys rolled in one continuous crash for six hours. The sound did not recede or advance, and we inferred that each side held its ground.

While this was going on, Gen. Lee, as it turned out, was collecting his batteries behind the crest of the ridge over against us. The ground here is a broad open stretch of meadow land, sloping away from the ridge on which our batteries were placed, in front of which, further down the slope, our infantry lay in three lines of battle perhaps 50 yards apart, and then rising to a rounded ridge over against us, from half to three-fourths of a mile away, which was held by the enemy. Our men improved the lull to make a little protection by collecting the rails which had been fences a day or two before, and piling them in a low breastwork perhaps two feet high. This would of course be a very slight protection for men standing; but for men lying prostrate they proved a valuable cover, and we found we needed every such assistance before night.

About one o’clock a couple of guns from the enemy gave the signal; from seventy-five to a hundred guns[1] were run out upon the ridge right over against us, and for an hour and a half, what old veterans pronounce the severest cannonade of the war was opened directly upon us. The air seemed to be literally filled with flying missiles. Shells whizzed and popped on every side. Spherical case exploded over our heads and rained iron bullets upon us; the Whitworth solid shot, easily distinguished by their clear musical ring, flew singing by; grape hurtled around us or rattled in an iron storm against the low protections of rails, and round shot ploughed up the ground before and majors’ swords, when the order came to “about face” and meet another charge. A body of the enemy, evidently the supporting body of the main rebel column, was coming down to the left of us, apparently aiming at the position of the Fourteenth. The same mode of treatment was applied to their case, with the happiest result. The Fourteenth met them with a hot fire in front, and Colonel Veazey with the Sixteenth, hurrying back on the double quick, took them on the flank and bagged about a brigade of them.

The Sixteenth took in this charge the colors of the Second Florida—a beautiful silk flag inscribed with “Williamsburg” and “Seven Pines”— the colors of the Eighth Virginia, and the battle flag of another regiment, which was foolishly thrown away by the sergeant to whom it was given to carry, who pitched it into the bushes, declaring that he could not fight with that flag in his hands.

With these repulses of the enemy the big fight in effect closed. There was some skirmishing on our left, but no more hard fighting. At dark I was sent out with a detail of men, and stationed a picket line across the front of our brigade, and at 9 o’clock our Vermont regiments were relieved from their position in the front line and allowed to find rest and comparative relief from care a little distance in the rear.

I cannot give the loss of the brigade, as the list of casualties has not yet been prepared. It cannot be much less than 300 killed and wounded.[2] The list of missing will be small. I did not at any time see a man of the brigade making for the rear.

The length of this hurried letter compels me to leave undescribed many an interesting incident of the fight, some of which I may perhaps describe in a future letter. One or two, however, must not be passed over.

Gen. Hancock was shot from his horse while he was talking to Gen. Stannard. I helped the latter to bandage Hancock’s wound and his blood stained my hands. I might say stains my hands, for there has been no water to wash with, and not much to drink, where we have been on this field.

During the last sharp shower of grape and shell, with which the enemy strove to cover their retreat, Gen. Stannard was wounded in the right leg by a shrapnel ball, which passed down for three inches into the muscle of the thigh. The wound was very painful until a surgeon came and removed the ball, but the general refused to leave the field, though urged to go by Gen. Doubleday He kept up till the regiments had marched back and till the wounded had been removed and then sank fainting on the ground and was taken to the rear.

He was about the coolest man I saw on the field, exposing himself in a way that would have been rashness, were it not for the need he felt of animating his men by his example. He was a constant mark for the enemy’s sharpshooters, but nothing daunted or disconcerted him. To his presence of mind and timely orders is largely due the glorious success of yesterday. The general is proud of his troops and they of him; and Vermont may well be proud of both.

The brigade, or the three regiments engaged, is still on the battlefield. We have no tents, no fires and nothing to cook if we had. The men stand or sit in knots near their stacked arms, worn, hungry and battlestained; but a better feeling body of men one does not often see. The big battle is over; and every man is glad to have had a part in it.

Yours, B.

[1] One hundred and fifty guns were employed by General Lee in this cannonade.

[2] The official reports of the loss of the brigade showed 46 killed; 240 wounded ; and 56 missing—total 342. The missing proved to be almost wholly men who had fallen out on the march to the battlefield, and came in before the brigade left the field. Of the wounded 19 died of their wounds.

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