Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry’s Report on the Fighting at Laurel Hill Near Spotsylvania Court House Virginia May 1864
On May 8th, 1864, the Union Army’s 5th and 6th Corps (commanded by Major Generals Gouverneur K. Warren and John Sedgwick respectively) attacked the Confederate 1st Corps, commanded by Major General Richard Anderson, and the 2nd Corps of Lieutenant General Richard Ewell at Laurel Hill, about a mile and a half northwest of Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia. Union troops would fight at Laurel Hill for five days, making repeated attacks that would be beaten back by the entrenched and determined Rebel defenders. These actions were part of the overall Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.
One of Warren’s 5th Corps units was the somewhat revamped Iron Brigade. In March, the badly depleted Union 1st Corps was merged into the 5th Corps, and the Iron Brigade became the 1st Brigade of the 4th Division. The Iron Brigade regiments–the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin, 19th Indiana, and 24th Michigan–had been greatly reduced in strength due to losses in battle. They were now reinforced by the addition of the 7th Indiana Infantry and the 1st Battalion of New York Sharpshooters.
The 6th Wisconsin’s Colonel Edward S. Bragg was given command to the 4th Division’s 3rd Brigade, and Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Dawes assumed command of the 6th Wisconsin. Commanding the 6th wasn’t really new to Dawes; he took over at Antietam when Bragg was wounded in that battle, and was also in command at Gettysburg when Bragg was ill and unfit for field duty. Here is Dawes’ Official Report on the 6th Wisconsin’s actions in the fighting at Laurel Hill:
HDQRS. SIXTH WISCONSIN VETERAN VOLUNTEERS,
Before Petersburg, August 7, 1864.
CAPTAIN: In compliance with special orders from headquarters Army of the Potomac, I have the honor to submit the following reports of the part taken by my command in the several operations of the campaign from Spotsylvania Court-House to the assault upon the enemy’s works before Petersburg, July 30.
On the 7th of May, 1864, by the assignment of Colonel Bragg to command of the Third Brigade of this division, I succeeded to command of this regiment, then in presence of the enemy near the Wilderness Tavern. About 8 p.m. of that day the movement of the corps toward Spotsylvania commenced. Taxed by the exertion of two days’ battle, the march, continued throughout the entire night, was very trying upon the strength and energies of the men. It gives me great satisfaction to say that when, on the morning of the 8th, the brigade was placed in order of attack, the ranks of my regiment were full. About 10 a.m. of the 8th the brigade moved forward to assault the enemy in position at Laurel Hill, near Spotsylvania Court-House. This regiment was assigned to position in the second line, but as the lines moved forward, in obedience to instructions from Col. W. W. Robinson, commanding brigade, I placed my regiment on the right of the front line. When I reached this position the brigade halted, and, in compliance with orders, I advanced my regiment a few rods with the right retired, in order to protect our right flank. The officer in command of the skirmishers immediately reported to me that the enemy had driven in his line and was advancing in two lines of battle. I threw out a few skirmishers to guard the right and notify me of any movement in that direction, and ordered the regiment to kneel and fire by file upon the enemy as soon as they appeared through the woods and tangled brush. A brisk fire was immediately opened, which checked any farther advance of the enemy, who laid down in a ravine in my front and replied by scattering shots to our fire. My skirmishers on the right were driven in, and reported the enemy moving without opposition around our right. The line on my left retreated in confusion before the pressure in their front. I endeavored to preserve the integrity of my command by retiring slowly through the woods, but outflanked both ways and pressed by the enemy from all sides, the line broke in disorder. By great exertion on part of many officers of the brigade, a line was reformed about 40 rods in rear, when, for about an hour, there was heavy skirmishing with the enemy. Upon this line the brigade was subsequently reorganized and intrenched. The loss of my regiment in this affair I have no means now of accurately stating. Lieut. Howard F. Pruyn, disdaining to run when the line broke, was instantly killed while moving leisurely to the rear and striving to rally his men. This officer was promoted from the ranks for conspicuous good conduct upon the battle-field, and participating in every engagement in which his regiment has taken part, he uniformly distinguished himself for efficiency and devoted bravery.
Corpl. John P. Hart, of Company E, a brave and faithful soldier, and a young man of more than ordinary promise, was also killed.
I deem the strenuous efforts of Capt. William N. Remington to rally the men upon this occasion worthy of special and honorable mention. During the remainder of this day and the 9th the position of the regiment was unchanged from the front intrenched by it. There was continual skirmishing, taken part in by details from the regiment. On the evening of the 9th an effort was made to drive back the enemy’s skirmishers, when a spirited engagement ensued. The re-enforcement to the skirmish detail was composed entirely of volunteers, about 30 men, whose gallantry is worthy of mention. Lieut. William Goltermann. Company F, and Sergt. George Fairfield, of Company C, were in charge of the party.
At 12.30 p.m. the 10th brigade moved-forward in one line to attack the enemy in his intrenched position, my regiment one from the left. The ground over which we advanced was covered with timber and underbrush. The line on the left approached very near the enemy’s works without becoming aware of their proximity, and suddenly and unexpectedly, while tangled in the brush, received a terribly destructive enfilading fire. Temporary confusion ensued, but falling back a few rods to cover of a ravine the men reformed promptly, and I moved my regiment under crest of a hill to a position within 200 yards of the enemy’s works. Remained here until directed to move back to our old position at 4 p.m. The loss of the regiment was quite severe. Captain Remington and Lieutenant Timmons were wounded in the assault, and Lieut. Oscar Graetz was killed as the line was falling back. The conduct of officers and men under the trying circumstances to which they were subjected was worthy of all commendation. On the evening of the 10th a column of attack was formed, but no assault made on our front. Nothing worthy of particular mention occurred on the 11th. At 8.30 a.m. on the 12th the brigade moved forward to attack the enemy, Colonel Bragg’s brigade in support. The brigade moved to a breast-work a few hundred yards from the enemy’s works, occupied by troops of General Crawford’s division, where it was halted for half an hour, and the men laid down. At the end of that time I received instruction from the brigade commander that the line would move forward over the breast-works and assault at once. Moving guide left, I ordered “Forward, guide left,” with holding the command of execution for the line on the left to show sign of moving. After a lapse of ten minutes Lieutenant Hyatt, acting aide on the staff of Colonel Robinson, communicated the following order: “Colonel Bragg directs that the Sixth Wisconsin move forward.” I immediately ordered the regiment forward. The men sprang over the breastworks with great alacrity, closely followed by Colonel Bragg’s line and a few of General Crawford’s men, and continued advancing under a heavy and destructive fire for several rods, when, finding no line on my right or left so far as I could see through the timber, such men as were in front of the works having thrown themselves upon the ground and commenced firing, I ordered my line to halt and open fire until the right and left should move to our support. After a few minutes of rapid firing, suffering meanwhile severe loss, convinced of the futility of striving without support to advance through the abatis of sharpened stakes in our front, while to remain longer was wanton sacrifice of life, I ordered my men back behind the breast-works and at once reported the fact to Colonel Robinson, commanding brigade. The fire from the enemy was unusually fatal, large proportion of the wounds proving mortal.
I cannot speak too highly of the conduct of officers and men. They advanced to the assault readily and earnestly, and stood up to their duty with heroic tenacity when it became evident that their efforts could not achieve success. There was no disorganization nor demoralization in falling back, under fire, to the breast-works. Several of my best and truest men were killed. On the afternoon of the 12th the brigade moved 4 miles to the left and went into position in support of troops of the Sixth Corps, fighting to hold the works captured by General Hancock. Here we were subjected to a scattering fire, which inflicted a loss of several men in the regiment. Toward evening moved back 2 miles toward the right, and while the balance of the brigade threw up works I held my regiment in readiness for picket. Orders for picket were shortly countermanded, and in the midst of darkness and a driving rain-storm I proceeded to construct a breast-work, when we were again ordered back to our position in rear of the troops engaged. My regiment was sent forward to relieve the Seventh Wisconsin, firing upon the enemy’s works, and in compliance with instructions, I kept up fire during the entire night. The mud was near 6 inches deep, the night dark and stormy, and the hardship of this service to men exhausted by the battle, marching, and work of the day before, can scarcely be appreciated.
On the morning of the 13th I was relieved by troops of the Sixth Corps, but the division had moved. Allowing my men, absolutely prostrated with overexertion, a few hours for rest and sleep, I rejoined the brigade near the old position in front of Laurel Hill. During the night of the 13th the brigade marched 6 miles to the left, and went into position in front of Spotsylvania Court-House, where this regiment took part in no active operations. These operations were most exhaustive to the energies of the men, and perhaps most trying to their morale of anything in the experience of the oldest in service, but the hardships and dangers were undergone with fortitude, and the men were always ready to put forth their best efforts in the most perilous undertaking. The aggregate casualties in my command from the 8th to the 13th of May were 10 killed, 69 wounded, 4 missing.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
R. R. DAWES,
Lieutenant-Colonel, Commanding Regiment.
Capt. J. D. Wood,
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXXVI, Part 1.
In his memoirs, Dawes referred to the assault on May 12th as being “manifestly hopeless at the outset. Company H suffered terribly, owing to the fact that they stood where a road passed through the woods. Their First Sergeant, a fine soldier, Nicholas Snyder, was killed and half of the men present were killed or wounded”.
Dawes came through the fighting unharmed. However, he was erroneously reported in several newspapers as being killed in action, causing great anxiety in his family before the mistake was corrected.
If It Takes All Summer: The Battle of Spotsylvania
by William D. Matter
Service With the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers by Rufus Dawes
Staff Ride Handbook for the Overland Campaign, Virginia, 4 May to 15 June 1864: A Study in Operational Level Command by Curtis S. King, William Glenn Robertson, and Steven E. Clay.