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

Post image for Army life in Virginia by George Grenville Benedict.

Army life in Virginia by George Grenville Benedict.

July 14, 2013

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

Additional Details of Gettysburg—Close of the Service of the Brigade.

Camp of the Twelfth Vermont,
Brattleboro, Vt., July 14, 1863.

Dear Free Press:

If I recollect aright, my last letter, from the battle-field of Gettysburg, contained an intimation that in a subsequent epistle I might attempt to set down some additional incidents of the great battle. I take the first opportunity to fulfill the promise—finding it only here, ten days after the fight and many hundred miles from the field. As hitherto, I write only of what passed under my own eye, leaving to others the description of the battle as a whole.

As some of the army correspondents have given more or less erroneous accounts of the wounding of General Hancock, I will describe it as it happened. Just after General Stannard had ordered the Thirteenth and Sixteenth Vermont regiments out on Pickett’s flank, General Hancock, followed by a single mounted orderly, rode down to speak to General Stannard. Lieutenant George W. Hooker and myself were standing near the general’s side. The din of artillery and musketry was deafening at the time, and I did not hear the words that passed between the two generals. But my eyes were upon Hancock’s striking figure —I thought him the most splendid looking man I ever saw on horseback, and magnificent in the flush and excitement of battle— when he uttered an exclamation and I saw that he was reeling in his saddle.

Hooker and I with a common impulse sprang toward him, and caught him as he toppled from his horse into our outstretched arms. General Stannard bent over him as we laid him upon the ground, and opening his clothing where he indicated by a movement of his hand that he was hurt, a ragged hole, an inch or more in diameter, from which the blood was pouring profusely, was disclosed in the upper part and on the inside of his thigh. He was naturally in some alarm for his life. “Don’t let me bleed to death,” he said, “Get something around it quick.” Stanhard had whipped out his handkerchief, and as I helped to pass it around General Hancock’s leg, I saw that the blood, being of dark color and not coming in jets, could not be from an artery, and I said to him: “This is not arterial blood, General; you will not bleed to death.” From my use of the surgical term he took me for a surgeon, and replied, with a sigh of relief: “That’s good; thank you for that, Doctor.” We tightened the ligature by twisting it with the barrel of a pistol, and soon stopped the flow of blood. Major Mitchell of Hancock’s staff rode up as we were at work over the general, and uttering an exclamation of pain as he saw the condition of his chief, turned and darted away after a surgeon. One came in fifteen minutes, and removing the handkerchief thrust his forefinger to the knuckle into the wound and brought out from it an iron nail bent double. “This is what hit you, General,” he said, holding up the nail, “and you are not so badly hurt as you think.”[1]

I was sent by General Stannard, about this time, with orders to the Vermont regiments then actively engaged in front, and did not return until the repulse of Pickett’s division was complete. General Hancock was still lying where he fell. He had just sent a message to General Meade announcing the repulse of the great assault of the enemy, and was evidently more cheerful in mind than he had been half an hour before. I helped to lift him into an ambulance and saw him no more.

I wish I could describe the great cannonade of Friday afternoon, but it was simply indescribable. At one time, when it was at the hottest, I took out my watch and counted for a minute the shells that came so nearly in the line of my sight that I could see them like black spots in the air. I counted six such in sixty seconds. Most of these went just over our heads or I should not be writing this.

The most destructive shot I noticed took effect in the Thirteenth regiment, as it was marching back to resume its place in line after the surrender of the greater portion of the main rebel column. I was hurrying past with an order, when a thud and cry of horror close behind me attracted my attention above the cracking of exploding shell. I turned to find a cruel gap in the column. Of a file of four men three had been prostrated by a shell, together with two officers marching by their side. The outer man was thrown to the ground but I believe not seriously injured; the second was hit and killed by the passing missile; the third was struck in the centre of the body and literally dismembered, one leg, bared of all but the shoe and stocking, being thrown several feet from the body. The fragments of the shell exploding at the same moment killed the sergeant-major of the regiment, Smith, to whom I had just spoken a cheering word, and threw senseless to the ground Lieut. Col. Munson, who was walking at the moment at the sergeant-major’s elbow. For a moment the men in the rear of the file which had thus been swept away halted and drew back aghast; but discipline prevailed in another moment, and stepping over their mangled comrades, they closed up the gap and marched on.

That I have made no mention of individual cases of good conduct on the field, is simply because such were altogether too numerous to mention. The troops of our brigade, being on their first battlefield, were not greatly counted on at the outset by our corps and division generals; and as we afterwards learned, strong supports were placed back of us to take our places when we should fall to the rear. But the supports were not needed. Our men endured that fearful cannonade as steadily as the oldest veteran regiment on the field. They rose into the cast-iron tornado that was sweeping over them, as promptly as if they had been on dress parade, and when their line moved, it was to the front instead of to the rear. They took the only two guns, so far as I can learn, that were taken from the enemy during the battle, and probably lessened Mr. Lee’s army, in killed and wounded and prisoners, at the rate of two or three men for every one of our own engaged. Our friends of the First brigade have been wont to call the Second brigade ”the picnic party.” I am sorry they were not present on the spot to see the picnic party go in, July 2d and 3d.

But one instance of unmanly want of fortitude attracted my notice among our Vermont troops. One young man, struck down by a shot which shattered one leg, as the regiment was hurrying forward, burst forth into loud entreaties to his comrades not to leave him, and rising on one knee tried to stop them by catching at the skirts of their coats as they passed him. They could not stay, of course, and it may have been the next day possibly before he was cared for. Such was the case with many of our wounded. The rule which forbids the rank and file leaving the ranks to attend to the wounded, hard as it seems, is one of necessity, and if more rigidly enforced in all our battles would have saved a hundred lives for every one lost by it.

I was not at Gen. Stannard’s side when he was wounded, having been sent by him a little before with an order to Lieut. Col. Rose, commanding the detachment of the Fourteenth Vermont which supported the Sixteenth in its charge on Wilcox’s brigade. The men of the battalion had just been ordered to cease firing, when I reached their line, the enemy in their immediate front having thrown down their arms. One or two men, in their excitement, paid no heed to the order and kept on firing till fairly collared by Major Hall.

The risks of battle were, I think, more apparent to me while I was going to and fro on this errand, than at any other time; for the rebel batteries had opened afresh to cover Wilcox’s retreat, and I had to cross two places which, owing to the conformation of the ground, were receiving especial attention from them. The ground at these points was being literally swept by grape, and ploughed into long furrows by shell, and it did not look as if a man crossing them had much chance for his life; but I was fortunate enough to get down and back without being hit; and a spent ball which struck a pistol-cartridge box on my side and doubled down a Smith & Wesson cartridge without exploding it, was the only hostile missile that touched me, during the battle.

After Stannard was taken to the rear Colonel Randall assumed command of the brigade, which remained on the field, with the corps, for three days after the battle, while the old brigade with the Sixth corps, which had been held in reserve, pushed after Lee’s retreating army.

I rode over the ground on Sunday, from right to left; but can give but little space to the horrors of the battle-field. I have seen nothing with which to compare them, except Brady’s photographic views of the field of Antietam—and there are in them no evidences of carnage at all equalling what I saw in twenty places on the field of Gettysburg. In the open ground in front of our lines on the centre and left, multitudes of the dead of both armies still lay unburied, though strong burial parties had been at work for twenty-four hours. They had died from almost every conceivable form of mutilation and shot-wound. Most of them lay on their backs, with clothes commonly thrown open in front, perhaps by the man himself in his dying agony, or by some human jackal searching for money on the corpse, and breast and stomach often exposed. The faces, as a general rule, had turned black—not a purplish discoloration, such as I had imagined in reading of the “blackened corpses” so often mentioned in descriptions of battle-grounds, but a deep bluish black, giving to a corpse with black hair the appearance of a negro, and to one with light or red hair and whiskers a strange and revolting aspect. In the woods on our right, where the long musketry fight of Friday forenoon raged, I found the rebel dead (our own having been mostly buried) literally covering the ground. In a circle of fifty feet radius as near as I could estimate, I counted forty-seven dead rebels. The number of the enemy’s dead in two acres of that oak grove, was estimated at 2,000, and I cannot say that I think it exaggerated. On the knoll just on the right of the position of our brigade, occupied successively by two of our batteries on Friday, I counted the dead bodies of twenty-nine horses. As late as Sunday noon, wounded men were still being brought into the field hospitals, some of whom had lain on the field since Thursday.

I could relate other scenes and incidents of the battle, as noteworthy as those I have mentioned, but time and space are failing me.

On Sunday night, after midnight, as I lay asleep, face up to the sky, on the field, a man shook me by the shoulder. It was an orderly with a led horse, who came with a message from General Stannard, directing me to join him at the farm house several miles away to which he had been carried. The night was pitch dark, and how we made out to thread the lines of sleeping soldiers and find our way to the house, I cannot understand; but we did it before daylight. Next day I took him, in an ambulance, to Westminster, a twenty-seven mile ride, and we spent that night in a freight car, one of a train of fifty or more cars, which were filled with wounded officers. Most of them were wholly unattended and groaned the night away on the bare floors. Of course this was the result of no intentional neglect; but the number of wounded, exceeding twenty thousand, swamped all ordinary means of relief. I left the general in Baltimore, while I went to Washington to obtain transportation for him to Vermont, whither I accompanied him a little later. One of the first men I met at the War Department was Brig. Gen. Carl Schurz. He lectured in Burlington, as some will remember, just before this “great unpleasantness” began, and having seen something of the civil war of the Swiss Cantons before he came to America, he ventured the prediction that while there was sure to be war between the North and South, with us as with the Swiss one battle would settle the dispute and there would not be much bloodshed. I reminded him of his prophecy, and he said he had changed his mind about our war, since then. But enough of this gossip. The Second Vermont brigade is disbanded. The Twelfth regiment, having remained on arduous duty in the Army of the Potomac a week beyond the utmost limit of its time—for which it received the thanks of General Newton, commanding the First corps, in a highly complimentary order—took its leave with the hearty goodwill of all with whom it has been associated, and has been mustered out and ceased to exist as a military body. The Thirteenth has also arrived here covered with dust and laurels, and in a few days will be no more as a regiment. Two weeks more will see the other regiments on their way home.

The service of the brigade has not been what most of us expected, for we counted on active campaigns in the field, and hoped to be in at the death of the rebellion. But if less glorious than that of some, the duty which has mainly occupied us in the defence of Washington has been honorable, and more laborious than the average. And though not permitted to see within our term the close of this great war, we have been allowed to have a hand in the greatest battle that has been fought in it, and can go to our homes, feeling that with the glorious successes in the West and the opening of the Mississippi, the back-bone of the rebellion is indeed broken.

And now with prayers for the speedy triumph of the Good Cause, in the service of which it is honor enough to have had even a small share; with heartiest good wishes for his comrades in arms, for many of whom he has formed friendships which will be life-long; and with kindest regard for the gentle readers who have received with such kind interest his hasty and unstudied sketches, your correspondent brings these letters to a close, and takes his leave of camps and army correspondence.

Yours, B.

[1] Four months after the battle I met Hancock in Willard’s Hotel in Washington. He remembered my face and I spent an hour talking over the battle with him. He told me that though his wound soon healed externally, it gave him immense pain till, after a number of weeks, the surgeons opened it and probed it more thoroughly, when, eight inches from the opening, they found and extracted a minie ball and a round plug of wood. The explanation of this curious assortment of missiles to be taken from a single wound was a simple one. Hancock was nearly facing the enemy when hit. The ball passed first through the pommel of his McClellan saddle, took from it the nail and a round piece of wood the size of the ball, and carried both with it into his body. I may add that I possess and prize a note in General Hancock’s peculiar handwriting, addressed to myself, in which he says: “I have reason to remember you and Colonel Hooker on that field, for to you I am indebted for your kindly aid in assisting me from my horse when I was struck and about to fall to the ground, and that incident is of course indelibly impressed upon my memory.”

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