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

Post image for The Wilderness.–“The woods were full of smoke, in many places on fire, and nothing could be seen twenty yards ahead.”–Diary of Josiah Marshall Favill.

The Wilderness.–“The woods were full of smoke, in many places on fire, and nothing could be seen twenty yards ahead.”–Diary of Josiah Marshall Favill.

May 5, 2014

Diary of a Young Officer–Josiah Marshall Favill (57th New York Infantry)

Early on the morning of the 5th we fell in and marched towards Todd’s tavern, halting in a clearing about nine o’clock, the enemy close at hand on the Wilderness pike. Very hot, and both men and animals suffered much. While halted here, the head of our column was in contact with a strong cavalry force skirmishing with the enemy, in the effort to locate his position. All was excitement and vastly interesting. Very soon after halting we were ordered to countermarch and take position on the Brock road, our right resting near the Orange Court House plank road. Shortly after forming on this road, Frank’s brigade was advanced on our extreme left to watch a road leading into the Cartharpin road, over which the enemy were reported to be advancing. The Brock road runs through a dense wilderness slightly elevated above the ground to the southwest. In rear of our left, the ground was open, and the whole artillery of the corps took position on it. Our line connected on the right with Gibbon, and he with Birney. The right swung back, making a northward curve from the Orange plank road and was prolonged by Warren and Sedgwick.

As soon as the division was in position it began building breastworks alongside the road with logs, etc., and made some slight slashings. In front of us to the southwest was a dense woods, through which at a considerable distance ran an unfinished railroad, almost parallel to the Brock road, where the enemy were supposed to be in position. Frank was directed to march forward, inclining slightly to the right, so as to look up this road and form across it, but for some reason did not go far enough, and so the rebels had a fine place for forming their troops. Hancock, Barlow, and Gibbon, each had their headquarters on the road, which was lined with troops, and for several hours we did nothing but ride up and down this road, awaiting orders to advance. About four o’clock the fighting opened on the right, and immediately the silence of the woods was changed into an uproar indescribable; tremendous volleys of musketry followed each other with such extraordinary rapidity, it seemed that one or another of the armies must be annihilated. Presently we were ordered to move forward and attack through the woods, with two of our brigades, Brooke and Smith. They were soon across the breastworks, struggling with the interminable undergrowth, where it seemed impossible to keep any kind of alignment, yet we did, especially Brooke, who advanced nearly six hundred yards and immediately became engaged with the rebels who lay hid from view in front.

The fighting on the right was severe, and several times reinforcements were sent from our part of the line to assist. Whilst the fighting in the woods in front was in progress, the staff were kept riding between them and the main road, a most difficult, dangerous, and disagreeable duty; not only was it almost impossible to ride a horse through the labyrinth of undergrowth, but one could only keep his direction by the sound of the firing. The woods were full of smoke, in many places on fire, and nothing could be seen twenty yards ahead. On one occasion I should have ridden directly into the enemy’s lines but for Colonel Striker, of the Second Delaware, who saw me in front of his line just in time to call me back. I supposed I was riding in exactly the opposite direction to what I really was. Boots and clothes were torn to pieces and the horses became frantic. Colonel Chapman, of my regiment, happened to be division field officer of the day, and as his duties only commenced with the establishment of the picket line at night, he as was usual rode with the division staff, conspicuous by his sash worn across his shoulder. Riding along the road together in rear of the general, the colonel appeared to me to be unusually depressed and I asked him what was the matter. He said he felt a presentiment that he was going to be killed and could not get over it. I said what I could to dispel his low spirits, but apparently without result. Soon afterwards a tremendous fire opened on Brooke, and Barlow turned to ask some one to ride to the lines and see what was going on, when Chapman instantly volunteered and immediately rode into the woods. In a very few moments some one came out and reported him killed, when Barlow ordered me to go to Brooke, and in the confusion and amidst the terrible firing I forgot all about Chapman, but as soon as I reached the road again, I found the report only too true, and at that time he was dead and had been carried out of the woods. It completely upset me for the time being; we had chatted together constantly during the day, and his low spirits and unhappy appearance made me feel very sorry for him. He was so conspicuously brave and gallant that I have no doubt he felt certain of his death, and yet in face of such forebodings, he instantly proposed to go himself, when it was some one else’s duty and now “he sleeps an iron sleep, slain, fighting for his country.”

Brooke and Smyth succeeded in driving the enemy before them, getting within range of the plank road on ground a little higher than that in rear, and thus improved their position. The staff was never worked harder; both Barlow and Hancock kept the main road, while we were incessantly struggling back and forth through the woods to the fighting lines. Under ordinary circumstances no one would have dreamed of riding a horse into such a place, but now we rode right into it, never thinking of the consequences in the excitement. The rolling of musketry was continuous, the woods retained the sound, and echoed back from line to line the repeated volleys and continuous file firing. An occasional shell tore through the woods, clearing a passage for itself, as neatly as though cut by an axe, and in many places the dry undergrowth was on fire. Fighting continued till dark when it generally ceased, and the dead and wounded were gathered up in front. The losses were heavy, and the result about an even thing. We could not see much of anything, and consequently generally directed our fire by that of the enemy, guessing results by the slackening or increasing of the enemy’s fire. A great many officers fell, amongst them General Alex Hayes, a popular and excellent officer, commanding a brigade in our Second division.

Preparations were made for renewing the attack at four o’clock next morning, and after serving out ammunition, the troops prepared their coffee and ate their first meal for the day. Then slept in their ranks.

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