Colonel Lewis Grant’s Report on the 1st Vermont Brigade at the Battle of the Wilderness

Col Lewis A. GrantOn May 5th, 1864, the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia clashed in the Battle of the Wilderness, the first battle of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign.  There was another Union commander named Grant in this battle, though he was not related to the General In Chief.  Colonel Lewis A. Grant commanded the 2nd Brigade of Brigadier General George W. Getty’s  2nd Division of the Major General John Sedgwick’s 6th Corps.  Lewis Grant’s brigade was an all Vermont outfit consisting of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th Vermont Infantry Regiments, and the brigade was better known as the 1st Vermont Brigade.

Getty’s division was ordered to hold the vital Brock Road–Orange Plank Road intersection.  The division arrived at the intersection late in the morning of the 5th, and by 1:00, the 1st Vermont Brigade was in position south of the Orange Plank Road constructing earthworks.  Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s 2nd Corps was ordered to support Getty, and his forces began arriving early in the afternoon.   At about 4:00, Hancock received orders that Getty was to attack immediately and that the 2nd Corps was to support that attack.  Hancock complied with the order, even though his divisions were not yet fully in place.

The 1st Vermont Brigade attacked was heavily engaged with Major General Henry Heth’s Division of Lieutenant General A. P. Hill’s Confederate 3rd Corps. Visibility was difficult in the densely wooded Wilderness, and the fighting was intense.  Grant was reinforced by Brigadier General J.H.H. Ward’s brigade from the 2nd Corps.  The 1st Vermont Brigade continued fighting until Getty’s division was replaced and withdrew from the front line at about 6:00.

The Union attack on Hill’s Corps resumed early in the morning of May 6th, and Lewis Grant’s Vermonters were again in the thick of the fighting.  After initially driving Hill back, Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps arrived and attacked the Federals, pushing them back.  Attacks and counterattacks followed for the rest of the day, and by the close of fighting late in the afternoon, the Federals had reestablished a defensive line and repulsed the last Confederate attack of the day.  Rather than attack again or withdraw from the area, Lt. General Grant decided to maneuver and began to move the army forward toward Spotsylvania Court House.

Colonel Lewis Grant filed this report on his brigade’s fighting at the Battle of the Wilderness:

HEADQUARTERS FIRST VERMONT BRIGADE,
August 27, 1864.

SIR: I have the honor to report that this brigade crossed the Rapidan May 4, 1864, and encamped 2 miles south of Germanna Ford. On the morning of May 5 we marched to Old Wilderness Tavern and halted several hours. Soon after noon this brigade and two others (the First and Fourth) of this division, Brigadier-General Getty commanding, were detached from the Sixth Corps and ordered forward across the old pike and along the Brock road to where it crosses the plank road leading from Chancellorsville to Orange Court-House. Upon arriving at the cross-roads, the First Brigade became engaged with the enemy’s advance, which was coming down the plank road, driving before it a force of our cavalry. The point having been gained, this brigade passed the First Brigade and took position in two lines on the left of the plank road. Capt. C. J. Gumsbee, Fifth Vermont Volunteers, with Companies D and K, of that regiment, held the skirmish line. The Fourth Vermont, Col. George P. Foster, and the Third Vermont, Col. T. O. Seavet, constituted the first line. The Second Vermont, Col. Newton Stone; the Sixth Vermont, Col. E. L. Barney, and the Fifth Vermont, Lieut. Col. J. R. Lewis, constituted the second line. A section of artillery occupied the road, and the other two brigades took position on the right. As soon as this brigade took position, the regiments commenced throwing up rude defensive works, which subsequently proved of great value. The

Throwing Up Breastworks in the Wilderness

Second Corps, Major-General Hancock commanding, was moving up from the left. But a few regiments only had got into position; an order came for us to make an immediate attack. The skirmish line and two lines of battle were simultaneously ordered forward. All advanced promptly to the attack, except the left of the skirmish line, which, for some unknown cause, failed to advance with the rest. It was doubtless owing to the want of a prompt communication of the order along the skirmish line. Captain Ormsbee was at the time attending to his duties near the right of the line. The ground was covered with brush and small timber, so dense that it was impossible for an officer at any point of the line to see any other point several yards distant. The brigade had advanced but a short distance before the skirmish line on the right, and very soon thereafter the Fourth Regiment became engaged. The Third Regiment moved obliquely to the left, passed the skirmish line, and became engaged a short time after the firing upon the right had commenced. About this time the artillery opened fire, and the engagement became general along the line of the three brigades. The enemy had but few or no skirmishers out, and, with the exception of the skirmishing of short duration on our right, the engagement commenced with terrible volleys of musketry from both sides. The Second and Sixth Regiments moved up promptly to the support of the Fourth and Third, respectively, and the Fifth held a position farther to the left. As soon as the first volleys were over, our men hugged the ground as closely as possible, and kept up a rapid fire; the enemy did the same. The rebels had the advantage of position, inasmuch as their line was partially protected by a slight swell of ground, while ours was on nearly level ground. The attempt was made to dislodge them from that position, but the moment our men rose to advance the rapid and constant fire of musketry cut them down with such slaughter that it was found impracticable to do more than maintain our then present position. The enemy could not advance on us for the same reason. The Second Regiment crept forward upon nearly the same line of the Fourth, and both regiments poured a constant and destructive fire into the enemy’s line. The Third Regiment retired a short distance, and the position was firmly held by the Sixth. The condition of affairs was represented to General Getty, and by his order to Major-General Birney, then commanding the right of the Second Corps, who expressed a readiness to render us all the support in his power. Accordingly three regiments moved in to our support. One took position in rear of the Second and Fourth, and subsequently a position of it went to the rear; two others took position in rear of the Fifth. I went to Major Dudley, commanding the Fifth (Colonel Lewis having been previously wounded), and called his attention to the fact that

Men of the 1st Vermont Brigade

the position of the enemy in his front was less protected than it was in front of the rest of the brigade, and asked him if he could, with the support of the two regiments in his rear, break the enemy’s line. “I think we can,” was the reply of the gallant major. I went to the commanders of those two regiments, and asked them to support the Fifth in its advance. The men rose and with a cheer answered, “We will.” The order for the charge was given, and all advanced in good style, and the enemy partially gave way. The two rear regiments were thrown into some confusion, and soon halted and laid down, and Major Dudley, finding his regiment far in the advance, and exposed to a flank fire, wisely did the same. Our ammunition soon became well nigh exhausted, and a force from the Second Corps was sent in to relieve us. The regiments on the right were relieved first. As soon as the Second and Fourth were relieved and ordered to retire the enemy pressed forward and occupied the ground. So sudden was the enemy’s advance that the staff officer who was sent to order back the Fifth fell into the hands of the enemy. The Fifth finding itself flanked judiciously retired. The brigade fell back to its former position on the Brock road. The Second Corps now held the front; darkness soon came on and the firing ceased. One engaged in that terrible conflict may well pause to reflect upon the horrors of that night. Officers and men lay down to rest amid the groans of the wounded and dying and the dead bodies of their comrades as they were brought to the rear. One thousand brave officers and men of the Vermont brigade fell on that bloody field. Was the result commensurate to the sacrifice? Whether it was or not the battle once commenced had to be fought. There was safety only in success. A retreat would have resulted in defeat, rout, and greater carnage. It is claimed, and it is believed admitted by division, corps, and army commanders, that the positive results of this engagement can hardly be overestimated. A glance at the situation will show this. The rebel army was advancing in two heavy columns; one down the old pike and the other down the plank road. These roads run nearly parallel, and at this point are about 2 miles distant. Our army was not yet in position. The Second Corps, which rested near Chancellorsville the previous night, was moving up circuitously from the left to this position. The Fifth Corps was in position on the pike preparing for the attack; part of the Sixth Corps had been left to guard the approaches to our right and rear, and the remainder was in reserve or moving up to support the Fifth Corps. The Ninth Corps had not yet arrived. The rebel column on the plank road was moving down rapidly and was likely to gain the cross-roads before the Second Corps possibly could. The three brigades of this division were sent to take and hold the position. Our arrival was opportune, as the rebel advance was then within a few yards of the crossing. The advance being repulsed, the enemy was evidently preparing for a vigorous attack. It is indeed claimed by some that the enemy was advancing to the attack at the same time we did, and it is instanced as one of the few remarkable occasions where two armies moved to attack at the same time. However this may be, there is but little doubt that the enemy was preparing for an attack, a portion of which must have fallen upon a part of the Second Corps before it was in position and while the rest of the corps was not in supporting distance. Our attack not only held the enemy in check, but put him upon the defensive while the Second Corps was moving into position. Had it been otherwise, the result cannot of course be stated. The Second Corps might have been able to sustain itself against any force hurled against it, but the enemy would have secured the important position and completely cut off that corps from the rest of the army.

May 6, the entire army attacked the enemy at daylight. This brigade advanced on the plank road in two lines; two regiments upon the right and three upon the left of the plank road. The regiments were commanded as follows: Second Vermont, Lieut. Col. S. E. Pingree; Third Vermont, Col. T. O. Seaver; Fourth Vermont, Maj. J. E. Pratt; Fifth Vermont, Maj. C. P. Dudley; Sixth Vermont, Lieut. Col. O. A. Hale. There were two lines of battle from the Second Corps in our front, and during the advance two lines from the Fifth Corps came from the right and filed in front of the others. At this time there was a general movement to the left, and the brigade all came together on the left of the road. The enemy had fallen back a short distance during the night, and when met was driven back nearly a mile farther. During this advance, there being two and some of the time four lines in front, this brigade suffered only from stray bullets and shells which came to the rear. Soon, however, the advance was checked, and the enemy fought with great desperation. The tide of battle turned. Our front line was shattered and broken, and men came disorganized to the rear. This brigade at the time happened to occupy a slightly elevated or rolling position, where the enemy had, for his own use, thrown together two irregular lines of old logs and decayed timber. The regiments took position behind these lines of logs and rubbish, and awaited the progress of battle. In less than half an hour the four lines in our front were swept away, and heavy lines of the advancing enemy came upon us with great force. They were received with a bold front and galling fire, and their advance was completely checked and thrown back in confusion. Still determined, the enemy reformed his lines, and again advanced to the attack, and again went back. The attack was many times repeated, and as many times repulsed. The repulse, however, was complete only in front of this brigade.

Battle of the Wilderness Desperate Fight at Orange Plank Road Neat Todd's Tavern May 6 1864 by Kurz and Allison

Every time the enemy made an attack he made a substantial advance upon both our right and left, and the Union troops gradually gave way, especially upon the right. Bullets came from the right across the plank road. Major Pratt promptly faced the Fourth Regiment to the right, and opened fire across the road. The state of affairs in that direction becoming critical, it was represented to the division commander, who placed another brigade under my command. That brigade was immediately placed on the right of this, partially facing the plank road, so as to protect our right and rear should the enemy gain further advantage in that direction. Perhaps the valor of Vermont troops and the steadiness and unbroken front of those noble regiments were never more signally displayed. They stood out in the very midst of the enemy, unyieldingly, dealing death and slaughter in front and flank. Only the day before one-third of their number and many of their beloved leaders had fallen, but not disheartened the brave men living seemed determined to avenge the fallen, and most effectually they did it. For more than three hours did the brigade hold this advanced position, repelling every attack. Foiled in every attempt at this point, the enemy massed forces, about one-fourth of a mile to our left, and made a vigorous attack. Our lines at that point suddenly gave way and came in confusion past our rear. I immediately ordered two regiments to face to the left, but before the order could be executed the enemy rushed through the breach and opened fire into our rear, and at the same time made another attack in front. Perceiving that it was worse than useless to attempt further resistance there, I ordered the regiments to rally behind the breast-works on the Brock road, at which point we had been ordered to rally in case of disaster. Our entire lines at this part of the army went back in disorder. All organization and control seemed to have been lost. But out of that disorder the Vermont brigade quietly and deliberately took its position in the front works on the Brock road, and awaited the enemy’s advance. Other troops were rallied and placed on the right and left and rear, though thousands went beyond reach or immediate control. The lines of the left of the Second Corps were unbroken, and now took position on the Brock road. Other troops came up from the right and our position was made strong again, and here we awaited the enemy’s attack. It came late in the afternoon; a vigorous, determined, and desperate attack. The heaviest part fell upon the troops on our immediate left, but a portion of it fell upon this brigade, and was handsomely repulsed. Later in the evening the First and Fourth Brigades went back to join the Sixth Corps. It was said that this brigade could not be relieved from the important position it held until morning, when it could join our corps.

May 7, in the morning, there was only skirmishing in our front, and parties were sent out to collect and bury our dead. – I made application to join our corps, and was informed that orders in that respect had been changed, and that the brigade must remain. Under direction of Major-General Birney, commanding, I sent a strong skirmish line, under command of Major Crandall, of the Sixth Vermont, to drive back the skirmishers, and ascertain the enemy’s position farther up the plank road. Major Crandall drove them back sufficiently far to ascertain that the main body had retired. He captured a large number of muskets, which the enemy had collected from the battle-field of the day before, and was drawing away. General Birney sent out teams and brought them in. This skirmish line was afterward relieved and another sent out from the Fifth Vermont, under command of Major Nelson, of the Third Vermont. In the afternoon orders came to join the Sixth Corps. The Sixth Corps was at this time on the extreme right of the army, with its right thrown back facing the Rapidan. We joined the corps about sundown, and soon after dark commenced the flank movement toward Spotsylvania, via Chancellorsville.

It is, perhaps, a fact worthy of note that the key-point to all the movements of that portion of the army was on the plank road, which position the Vermont brigade held during the entire engagements. In the maneuvering of troops at one time three regiments of the brigade were placed on the right a short distance from it, but they were almost immediately ordered back by General Hancock. For their gallant conduct my thanks are especially due to the regimental commanders.

Col E.L. Barney 6th Vermont InfantryThe list of killed and wounded contains the names of some of the most valuable officers in the service. Col. E. L. Barney, Sixth Vermont, who fell seriously wounded in the head and survived only a few days, was one of Vermont’s purest and best. He was always prompt and faithful in the execution of his duties. In camp and field he was a good disciplinarian and a gallant officer, and on every occasion he exhibited in himself the highest type of a Christian gentleman.

Col. Newton Stone, Second Vermont, whose dead body was brought from the field the night of the first day’s battle, had but recently been promoted to his command. He was a good officer, gallant by nature, prompt in his duties, and urbane in his manner. He was beloved by his command and all who knew him. Lieut. Col. John S. Tyler, Second Vermont, who received a severe wound, and subsequently died from its effects, was a young officer of great promise. Always cool, especially in battle, he could be relied upon. His loss is deeply felt. Of the captains who were killed, or have subsequently died from the effects of wounds, there were Capts. Orville Bixby, of the Second Regiment; Enoch H. Bartlett and Erastus Buck, of the Third Regiment; J. W. D. Carpenter, Dennie W. Farr and Daniel Lillie, of the Fourth Regiment; A. R. Hurlbut, George D. Davenport, and Charles J. Ormsbee, of the Fifth Regiment; Riley A. Bird, and George C. Randall, of the Sixth Regiment, each and all of whom were valuable officers. It is no disparagement to those who survive to say that the places of these captains cannot be filled. Lieuts. Abel Morrill, Third Regiment; Isaac A. Putnam, Thomas Ensworth, Winfield S. Wooster, and W. H. Martin, of the Fourth Regiment; Orris H. Sweet and Watson O. Beach, of the Fifth Regiment, and Albert A. Crane, of the Sixth Regiment, all offered up their lives as a sacrifice to our holy cause. Col. George P. Foster, of the Fourth Regiment, and Lieut. Col. J. R. Lewis, of the Fifth Regiment, officers whom Vermont may well delight to honor, were both severely wounded. Colonel Lewis lost his left arm. Capts. Elijah Wales, P. E. Chase, D. S. White, E.G. Ballou, W. H. Cady, and Lieuts. J.P. Sawyer, James Allen, George W. Bridgeman, and E. N. Drury, of the Second Regiment; Capt. H. W. Floyd, and Lieuts. Henry C. Miller, Charles E. Osgood, and Richard P. Goodall, of the Third Regiment; Capts. George H. Amidon, A. W. Fisher, and Lieuts. George B. French, E. W. Carter, J. B. Brooks, L. B. Scott, William C. Tracy, W. W. Morton, and L. Richardson, of the Fourth Regiment; Capts. F. H. Barney, W. B. Robinson, and Lieuts. Miner E. Fish, W. G. Davenport, and L. J. Brownson, of the Fifth Regiment, and Capt. C. W. Dwinell, and Lieut. S. H. Lincoln, of the Sixth Regiment, all received honorable wounds.

Justice requires special mention of the officers of my staff. They fearlessly exposed themselves to all the dangers of battle whenever and wherever duty called them. Lieut. J. J. Bain, Second Vermont, acting aide-de-camp, received a severe wound in the face while in the discharge of his duties, and Lieut. Horace French, acting aide-de-camp, had his horse shot, and was captured by the enemy while going to deliver an order to the Fifth Regiment. Those casualties occurred in the battle of the first day, leaving Capt. A. Brown. Fourth Vermont, assistant inspector-general, alone upon the staff during the remainder of the battles of the Wilderness, and most gallantly and nobly he performed the duties of three officers. It was an occasion which called for unusual abilities, courage, and powers of endurance, and Captain Brown was found fully equal to the occasion.

Honorable mention ought also to be made of Corpl. Thomas J. Miller, Company K, Third Vermont, and Privates Thomas J. McCally, Company F, Second Vermont; and James R. McGibbon, Company H, Fifth Vermont, mounted orderlies, who were constantly employed in carrying and delivering orders, and who performed their duties with a promptness, courage, and intelligence for which any staff officer might well be commended. Sergt. Isaac M. Burton, Company E, Fifth Vermont, is also honorably mentioned for seizing and safely carrying the colors of the regiment after they had been shot from the hands of the color-bearer. It would be a pleasure to mention at length individual cases of daring and noble heroism, but when all did so nobly it is impossible to further particularize.

It was a terrible struggle–a time which truly “tried men’s souls.”

The memory of those who fell will be sacredly cherished among the true and tried patriots of Vermont; and those who survive, well may proudly say, “I, too, was in the battles of the Wilderness.”

I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
L. A. GRANT,
Brigadier-General, Commanding.

PETER T. WASHBURN,
Adjutant and Inspector General.

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXXVI, Part 1

Colonel Grant listed a lot of officers as casualties, and for good reason.  The 1st Vermont Brigade suffered 1269 total casualties in the Battle of the Wilderness with 195 killed, 1017 wounded, and 57 missing.  Dozens of the wounded later died of  their wounds, adding to the death toll. The 2nd Vermont Infantry’s 348 total casualties were the most of any single Union regiment in the battle.  Despite the horrific casualty figures, the brigade was again in action at Spotsylvania Court House just a few days later as the Overland Campaign continued.

5th Vermont Infantry in 1861

Additional Sources:

Bloody Roads South:  The Wilderness to Cold Harbor by Noah Andre Trudeau

Regimental Losses in the American Civil War1861-1865 by William F. Fox

Staff Ride Handbook for the Overland Campaign, Virginia, 4May to 15 June 1864:  A Study in Operational Level Command by Dr. Curtis S. King, Dr. William Glenn Robertson, and Steven E. Clay.

Through the Wilderness by Alexander S. Webb.  In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume IV.

 

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