General John Gibbon’s Report on His Division in the Overland Campaign
John Gibbon was born in Philadelphia in 1827 but spent much of his childhood in Charlotte, North Carolina. Gibbon was an 1847 graduate of West Point and career army officer at the time the Civil War began. He had also been an artillery instructor at West point and wrote The Artillerist’s Manual, considered the standard text on the subject of artillery tactics at the time.
Though he had strong ties to the south, and several family members served in the Confederate Army, John Gibbon remained loyal to the Union. In 1862, he commanded the Iron Brigade at the Battle of Brawner’s Farm during the Second Manassas Campaign, and at South Mountain and Antietam. He was promoted to division command and was wounded at Fredericksburg in December 1862. After recovering, he was assigned to command the 2nd Division of the Union 2nd Corps and was wounded again while leading his men in the defense of Cemetery Ridge during the repulse of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg on July 3rd, 1863.
Gibbon recovered from his Gettysburg wound in time to resume his 2nd Corps division command for the commencement of General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign in May of 1864. Gibbon’s command fought in nearly every battle in the Overland Campaign, and was usually heavily engaged in the fighting of some of the most intense and bloody battles of the war. The General filed this report on his division’s action during the campaign:
HDQRS. SECOND DIVISION, SECOND ARMY CORPS,
November 7, 1864.
SIR: I have the honor to transmit the following report of the operations of this division since the 3d of May last. This report has been unavoidably delayed until the present time, and even now has to be forwarded without many of the sub-reports which should accompany it:
THE WILDERNESS, FROM MAY 3 TO MAY 8, 1864.
Leaving camp near Stevensburg on the night of the 3d, the division reached Todd’s Tavern on the morning of the 5th, from whence it was recalled and marched with the rest of the corps up the Brock road. About 5 p.m. we reached the scene of the battle. Carroll was pushed forward and directed to report to Major-General Birney, near the plank road. As the head of Webb’s brigade came in sight of the firing, the enemy was close to the Brock road, firing rapidly upon our disordered troops. We were marching left in front, but there was no time to change the formation. The file closers were shifted to the right flank, and as the leading regiments came up they were faced to the left, and by their fire soon drove the enemy back, took possession of the road, and held it. As Owen’s brigade arrived upon the ground it was posted on Webb’s right. The day closed with heavy skirmishing. By order of Major-General Hancock, I was on the 6th placed in command of the left of the army, composed of General Barlow’s division and my own. During the 6th all of the brigades of the division were more or less detached from my command to aid in the attack on the enemy’s position, and for the particulars of their services I refer to the reports of Generals Webb and Carroll. No report has been received from General Owen.
The country in which the battle was fought was almost an impenetrable thicket through which it was impossible to see for more than a few yards. The weather being very dry and hot, the woods soon took fire, and many of our poor wounded were burned to death. In the afternoon the enemy made a furious attack upon us, and judging from the firing that he had broken through our line, I sent Brooke’s brigade, of the First Division, through the burning wood toward the point of attack. This fine brigade with its gallant commander marched through in line of battle, and arrived in time to reassure our exhausted troops, which had, with the assistance of Carroll’s brigade, repulsed the attack. On the 7th, the division was not engaged except by skirmishers, and that night, or rather about daylight on the 8th, we took up the march for Todd’s Tavern. In the battle of the Wilderness the division lost heavily both in officers and men. The gallant Colonel (now Brigadier-General) Carroll was wounded in the arm, but still kept the field. Colonel Macy, Twentieth Massachusetts, who had just rejoined his regiment, was wounded, and Maj. H. L. Abbott, of the same regiment, after earning for himself the highest reputation as a soldier, fell mortally wounded while gallantly fighting with his regiment, besides many others whose names cannot be more particularly mentioned in consequence of the absence of brigade and regimental reports. Very little artillery was used in consequence of the nature of the country.
SPOTSYLVANIA COURT-HOUSE.–MAY 8 TO MAY 20.
The division reached the vicinity of Spotsylvania Court-House in the afternoon, bivouacking for the night on the road in rear of the Fifth and Sixth Corps. The next morning it was first placed in position, faced to the rear, and afterward marched up and took position faced to the Po River, to the rear of the right flank of the Fifth Corps. Just before dark it crossed the Po, and the next morning, the 10th, recrossed the river to support the Fifth Corps, engaged in making an attack on the enemy’s intrenched position. Here Webb’s and Carroll’s brigades were placed in line, Owen’s being held in reserve. Webb’s and Carroll’s brigades made two ineffectual assaults on the enemy’s works, the first under orders from Major-General Warren, the second, later in the afternoon, under orders from Major-General Hancock. The position occupied by these troops was in a dense wood, filled with dead cedar trees, whose hard dry branches, projecting like so many bayonets from the stem, rendered the movement of a line of battle in any sort of order utterly impracticable. The only result of the two assaults was to kill and wound a large number of men, many of whom were burnt to death by the fierce conflagration which raged iii the dry timber. The brigades, however, held their original positions until the next night, when they were withdrawn and marched during the night to the left of the army, when the division took up position in two lines in rear of the First and Third Divisions, Owen’s and Carroll’s brigades being in the front line, Webb’s in the second.
May 12, shortly after daylight our troops moved to the assault. Owen’s and Carroll’s brigades were almost immediately started in support, and arrived in time to aid in carrying the enemy’s works. Webb was soon after ordered up, and while rapidly moving forward on to the enemy’s second line, the gallant general was severely wounded and left the field. I beg leave to call special attention to the officers mentioned for gallant services by Generals Webb and Carroll. I personally remarked the gallant conduct of Captain Butterfield, Eighth Ohio, of General Carroll’s staff, in turning the enemy’s guns and serving them against him. We held the line we had gained, and the next day, while intrepidly exposing himself during a reconnaissance, General Carroll, now suffering severely from the wound in his right arm, received in the Wilderness, had his left arm shattered by a rifle bullet and was carried from the field. His conspicuous daring during the campaign had been most marked, and the loss of two such brigade commanders as himself and General Webb was a severe blow to the division. During the 13th and 14th more or less skirmishing was going on all the time, and the troops were engaged in securing the trophies, burying the dead. &c.; and orders were given for an assault to take place at daylight, on the 15th, but subsequently countermanded, and the division was moved to the left and in the afternoon moved back again to protect the right flank of the army from a threatened attack. On the 16th the division was moved several miles to the right for the purpose of bringing in some 600 or 700 of our wounded lying in temporary hospitals, which was effected without interruption from the enemy.
At daylight on the 18th the division was in position at the breastworks taken on the 12th, ready for another assault on the enemy’s interior line. The Corcoran Legion, Col. Mathew Murphy, Sixty-ninth Regiment New York National Guard Artillery, commanding, had the day before joined the army and been assigned to my division as the Fourth Brigade, and Col. Thomas A. Smyth, First Delaware Volunteers, and Col. H. B. McKeen, Eighty-first Pennsylvania Volunteers, reported to me for duty, and were assigned to the command of the Third and First Brigades, respectively. The division was formed in two lines, the first line composed of McKeen’s and Murphy’s brigades (First and Fourth) in line of battle connecting with Barlow’s division on the left, and the Sixth Corps on the right, and supported by the second line. Owen’s and Smyth’s brigades (Second and Third) formed in line of battalions en masse. Directly in front of the center of my line was a thick, heavy wood, which prevented any considerable portion of the division from being seen from any one point. The troops moved to the assault at 4.30 a.m., and gallantly carried some of the enemy’s works in their front, when the second line was ordered forward in support. We soon, however, came upon the enemy’s main line of works, well manned both with, infantry and artillery, and protected in front with abatis, from which the fire was so heavy that the troops made no headway against it, and were forced to retire. During the action Major Mitchell, of General Hancock’s staff, informed me that Brigadier-General Owen’s brigade instead of moving forward as directed in support of the first line, had fallen back into a line of works into its rear. An investigation into the facts proved the correctness of the report. The brigade had not at all supported the attack made by the front line. We lost heavily in this attack, mostly from McKeen’s and Murphy’s brigades, Colonel Murphy himself being wounded. After night we withdrew from the position, moved to the left in the vicinity of Anderson’s Mill, where we remained massed in reserve until the night of the 20th, when the corps marched via Bowling Green and Milford Station to a position across the Mattapony, where it intrenched and remained until the morning of the 23d, when we resumed the march, and reaching the North Anna River, took up a position on the left of Birney’s division, the enemy opening on us from his batteries on the south side of the river.
THE NORTH ANNA, FROM MAY 23 TO MAY 27.
The bridge head at the river was assaulted and carried by Birney’s division at 6 p.m., batteries being placed in position along my line to reply to the enemy’s fire. The next morning a foot bridge was constructed, across which my line of skirmishers was pushed, and soon afterward occupied the enemy’s deserted line of works. Smyth’s brigade was then crossed on a pontoon bridge, followed immediately by the whole division. Smyth was pushed forward in line of battle, supported by a portion of McKeen’s and afterward by Owen’s brigade. The Fourth Brigade, now under command of Col. J.P. McIvor, One hundred and seventieth New York Volunteers, formed a second line. Smyth advanced, carried a line of the enemy’s works, and afterward was furiously assaulted, but with the assistance of the troops sent him from the other brigades (the Sixty-ninth and One hundred and seventieth New York, Sixty-ninth Pennsylvania, and Fifteenth and Nineteenth Massachusetts), held his line in the midst of a furious rain storm. Smyth was afterward re-enforced by the rest of McKeen’s brigade, and the battle continued until after dark with no change in the relative positions of the troops. No fighting except skirmishing occurred on my front during the 25th and 26th, and that night we withdrew to the north bank of the Anna, the last of the division crossing about 1 a.m. On the 27th we commenced the march for the Pamunkey, which we reached and crossed the next day near Hanovertown, taking up position on the left of the Sixth Corps.
TOTOPOTOMOY AND COLD HARBOR, FROM MAY 28 TO JUNE 12.
The 28th and 29th the division was in position at the crossing of the Pamunkey. On the 29th Brig. Gen. R. O. Tyler, U. S. Volunteers, reported to me for duty and was assigned to the
command of the Fourth Brigade, now increased by the Eighth New York Heavy Artillery, Col. P. A. Porter. On the 30th the division moved out and took up position on Totopotomoy Creek, driving in the enemy’s skirmishers, and the next day a farther advance was made, the First, Second, and Third Brigades being thrown across the creek and the Fourth held in reserve. Constant skirmishing and cannonading was going on in our front, where the enemy’s position was developed until the night of the 1st of June, when the division was withdrawn and reached Cold Harbor the next morning at 6 o’clock, taking position on the left of the Sixth Corps.
June 3, the division was directed to be in readiness to move to the assault of the enemy’s works at 4.30 a.m. Tyler’s and Smyth’s brigades, the First on the right, the Second on the left, were ordered to move forward in line of battle at the given signal, followed by McKeen’s on the right and Owen’s on the left, formed in close column of regiments. Tyler and Smyth were already in position and McKeen and Owen were ordered to be in position before daylight the next morning to follow promptly the movement of the front line. The latter had orders to push rapidly forward and over the front line in column and effect a lodgment, if possible, on the enemy’s works, and not to deploy till they got there. At daylight I rode to the line and found Owen’s brigade not even under arms, and, of course, not in the advanced position I had assigned it the day before. As soon as it was put in position the signal was given and the troops moved to the attack. The country was rolling, in places intersected by ravines and marches, and my line was cut in two by a deep, impassable swamp, which widened as we advanced toward the enemy. The troops pushed gallantly forward under a most terrific fire of cannon and musketry until close up to the enemy’s works. General Tyler fell severely wounded early in the action, but his troops pushed on, followed on the right by McKeen, who, following his orders, struggled against the heavy fire of the enemy until himself and many of his gallant command lay dead upon the field, and his ranks were much thinned and
scattered. The gallant Haskell succeeded to the command, and was almost immediately carried from the field mortally wounded in a second attempt to rush upon the enemy’s works. On the left, and separated from his brigade by the swamp, the heroic Colonel McMahon, with a portion of his regiment, One hundred and sixty-fourth New York, gained the breastwork, and, while alongside of his colors cheering on his men, fell covered with wounds, and expired in the enemy’s hands, they capturing also his colors and the men with it. A portion of the Third Brigade also gained the enemy’s works, but being unsupported were unable to hold them. General Owen, instead of pushing forward in column through Smyth’s line, deployed on his left as soon as the latter became fully engaged, and thus lost the opportunity of having his brigade well in hand and ready to support the lodgment made by Smyth and McMahon. In this bloody assault the division lost many valuable officers and men. The gallant Colonel Porter, Eighth New York Heavy Artillery, fell only a few yards from the enemy’s works, surrounded by the dead of his regiment, which, although new to the work, fought like veterans. The loss of such officers as McKeen and Haskell cannot be overestimated. Captain Palmer, Nineteenth Massachusetts, division ordnance officer, had his horse shot under him, and was himself slightly wounded by a bullet while gallantly carrying an order for me. The next day Captain Wheelock, Fifteenth Massachusetts, chief of pioneers, was slightly wounded while performing the same duty on the right of the line. Where the ground was open some portions of the First and Fourth Brigades got so far forward and were subjected to such a close fire that the only way they succeeded in extricating themselves was to take advantage of the inequalities of the ground and construct covered ways, working mostly at night. The wounded could be recovered and the dead buried only by means of a flag of truce, arrangements for which were made four days afterward. The division lost in this assault 65 officers and 1,032 men killed and wounded.
From the 3d to the 12th the division was occupied in perfecting its position and pushing forward works toward the enemy constantly under fire, both cannon and musketry, day and night, and losing some 280 officers and men killed and wounded. During these twelve days the labor and military duty of the division were of the hardest kind and performed under the most disadvantageous circumstances-confined for ten days in narrow trenches with no water to wash with and none to drink except that obtained at the risk of losing life. Unable to obey a call of nature or to stand erect without forming targets for hostile bullets, and subjected to the heat and dust of midsummer, which soon produced sickness and vermin, the position was indeed a trying one, but all bore it cheerfully and contentedly, constructed covered ways down to the water and to the rear, and joked of the hostile bullets as they whistled over their heads to find perhaps a less protected target far in the rear of the lines. I regard this as having been the most trying period of this most trying campaign.
To give some idea in regard to the losses and services of the division during this eventful campaign it becomes necessary to refer to certain facts:
The division left camp May 3 with three brigades, numbering in the aggregate 6,799. At Spotsylvania Court-House, May 16, it was joined by the Corcoran Legion, 1,521, and the Thirty-sixth Wisconsin Volunteers, Col. F. A. Haskell, 765: on the next day by the Eighth New York Heavy Artillery, Col. P. A. Porter, 1,654, and during first two weeks in June was further increased by 323. Total, 11,062.
Its losses up to July 30 were: Killed, 77 officers and 971 men; total, 1,048. Wounded, 202 officers and 3,825 men; total. 4,027. Total, 5,075, or 46 per cent. of the whole strength in killed and wounded alone. The Corcoran Legion and Eighth New York Heavy Artillery were formed into a fourth brigade. The brigades have had 17 different commanders, of whom 3 have been killed and 6 wounded. Of the 279 officers killed and wounded 40 were regimental commanders. Of course, the bravest and most efficient officers and men were those who fell; it is always so. These facts serve to demonstrate the wear and tear on the division, and to show why it is that the troops, which at the commencement of the campaign were equal to almost any undertaking, became toward the end of it unfit for almost any. The effect upon the troops of the loss of such leaders as Tyler, Webb, Carroll, Baxter, Connor, McKeen, Ramsey, Blaisdell, Coons, Haskell, Porter, Murphy, McMahon, Macy, Curry, Pierce, Abbott, Davis, Curtis, and a host of others, can be truly estimated only by one who has witnessed their conduct in the different battles. This report, written in the midst of active operations, is scarcely more than a general sketch, and must necessarily be very defective from the absence of so many sub-reports and the loss of so many commanders whose information would have served as a guide in awarding credit by special mention to many gallant officers and men, both of those who fell and those who have survived through this eventful and unexampled campaign. All the sub-reports received are inclosed herewith.
I have to thank the members of my staff for uniform and energetic attention to their duties, and gallant conduct in conveying orders on the field. They are Maj. J. M. Norvell, assistant adjutant-general; Capt. A. H. Embler, Eighty-second New York Volunteers, assistant commissary of musters and aide-de-camp; Capt. W. L. Palmer, Nineteenth Massachusetts Volunteers, ordnance officer (wounded); Capt. J. C. Lynch, One hundred and sixth Pennsylvania Volunteers, assistant inspector-general; Capt. William R. Wheelock, Fifteenth Massachusetts Volunteers, chief of pioneers (wounded); Capt. William P. Seville, First Delaware Volunteers, assistant topographical engineer; Capt W Gale, Fifteenth Massachusetts Volunteers, judge-advocate; Lieut. Edward Moale, Nineteenth U.S. Infantry, aide-de-camp. If there is any one preeminently entitled to special mention it is Captain Embler, Eighty-second New York, who has repeatedly demonstrated his gallantry and soldierly conduct on the field, and as repeatedly been recommended for promotion, but without effect. Surg. J. F. Dyer, Nineteenth Massachusetts Volunteers, medical director of the division; Capt. G. A. Shallenberger, assistant quartermaster, and Capt T. S. Crombargar, commissary of subsistence, were unremitting in their attention to the duties of their several positions, and the sick, wounded and well wanted for nothing which their zeal and energy could supply. Capt. M. Black, Second Company Minnesota Sharpshooters, provost-marshal, was untiring in the duties of his office on the march and in camp, as well as on the field, where his command lost heavily.
I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Major-General of Volunteers, Comdg. Division.
Maj. S. CARNCROSS,
Assistant Adjutant-General, Second Army Corps.
Gibbon was extremely critical of his 2nd Brigade commander, Brigadier General Joshua T. Owen, and filed charges against him for failure to obey orders. Owen was mustered out of service on July 18th, 1854 on General Grant’s recommendation.
Gibbon remained in command of his division during the siege operations around Petersburg from June to January of 1865, when he was promoted to command of the 24th Corps of the Army of the James. General Gibbon remained in the army after the Civil War, serving mostly on the plains and in the west until his retirement on 1891.
Bloody Roads South: The Wilderness to Cold Harbor May–June 1864 by Noah Andre Trudeau
Generals in Blue by Ezra J. Warner
If It Takes All Summer: The Battle of Spotsylvania by William D. Matter
Not War But Murder: Cold Harbor 1864 by Ernest B. Ferguson
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion Series I, Volume XXXVI, Part 1.