Sunday, May 4, 2014

A Reminiscence of George Henry Hill at the Battle of the Wilderness

George Hill's Reminiscence has long been one of my favorite stories from the 13th Mass. Association Circulars.  As it is the 150th Anniversary of these events, I offer you his story.  It is very long, so I will divide it into separate posts - don't worry, I'll put up part two in a day or so.


     The winter of 1863 was passed by the Thirteenth Massachusetts Regiment at Mitchell's Station, Va., where it occupied the position of extreme outpost of the army of the Potomac, in connection with the cavalry, to form a picket guard.  The duty was arduous and often exciting.  With the vanguard of the army in the memorable campaign which under Grant led up to the glorious victory at Appomatox, we crossed the Rapidan river at Germanna Ford on the fourth day of May, 1864, and became engaged in the Battle of the Wilderness.

     It is not my purpose to describe the part taken by the Thirteenth Massachusetts Regiment in this battle, or to record acts of heroism of its members, or chronicle its fatalities.

     Abler hands have written its history and no word of mine can add interest thereto, or give further detail of organized action.

     Every soldier has an individual history, and thinking possibly a simple story of my experience, after leaving the regiment on that memorable fifth day of May, will be of interest to my comrades, I will, as briefly as possible, tell where I was while the regiment was following Grant to victory.

     At about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, during a lull in the battle, which had been raging fiercely all day with apparently small results for either side, our regiment was moved by the left flank some half mile and faced to the front.  It was apparent that no skirmish or picket line was between us and the rebel force.  Colonel Hovey, then in command of the regiment, called for volunteers to go forward and ascertain, if possible, the proximity of the enemy.  From a number responding to this call, four were detailed to advance cautiously, each taking distance to cover the regimental front, and report back to him.

     As one of this four I had an independent command (myself) and I know nothing of the action or report of the others constituting the detail and have forgotten their names.

     After advancing some six or eight hundred yards I heard voices and distinguished that it was rebel skirmishers in search of wounded comrades.  Returning I reported to Colonel Hovey, who detailed a company of the regiment to deploy and cover our front and ordered me to go forward again and bring definite information as to the position of the rebel line of battle.  Retracing my steps I passed the place of my former halt and seeing or hearing nothing continued my advance some eighth of a mile, when to my surprise I saw, coming towards me, a man in the uniform of a Federal soldier, unarmed.  This proved to be Sergeant Fuller, of the Ninth New York Regiment, who had been hunting for his captain's sword which was lost during the engagement earlier in the day.  Surprised that he had found no rebels in front, I insisted that he should go back with me, and together we cautiously advanced until within hearing distance of the rebel skirmish line.

     Listening for some time to their conversation, we learned that they were as ignorant of the whereabouts of our line as we of theirs, and that they, like us, were waiting to be attacked, and then, on our hands and knees, we crawled out of harm's way (as we supposed) toward our line.  The wilderness!  Who that was ever there needs reminder of the dense foliage and undergrowth through which we struggled - impenetrable at times except by little narrow paths made by feet smaller than those of man.  Feeling secure that we had left our enemy behind and would find only friends in front, we boldly followed one of those little paths, until, turning an abrupt angle, we came face to face with four full-fledged "Johnny Rebs," whose leveled muskets touched our bodies.

     The far-famed Coon of Davy Crockett never “came down” with better grace than did we as we heard the words "surrender, or we fire."

"Tis easy in the battle's wrath
To lead the charge when foemen run,
But in the rifle's deadly path
With empty cartridge box and gun,
To stand, a firm, unyielding wall
Of bodies brave enough to bleed,
This-this- is heroes' work indeed!"

     True to the letter; but under these circumstances we were not "heroes" and not "brave enough to bleed," and so, inwardly cursing our luck and blaming ourselves for over-confidence, we marched back, inside the rebel picket line, which we had such a short time previous left, thinking we were candidates for honorable mention in the Congress of the United States.  It was always a matter of dispute between Fuller and myself which was to blame for our capture - he claiming that but for me he would have safely returned to his regiment, and I, that I would never have gone so far beyond our line but for him.

     No special attention was paid to us, beyond a few questions by General Longstreet as to what part of our army was in his front, etc., and we were coralled with a large lot of prisoners, previously taken, just back of their field hospital, and were kept awake much of the night by the cries and groans of their wounded, under the agony of surgical operation.  Next morning occurred an incident which demonstrates the difference, so marked all through my prison life, between soldiers at the front, whose generosity was so often shown on both sides, and the "hospital beat" and home guard contingent wherever found.

     While standing near the guard line, talking with a fellow-prisoner, I was accosted by one of the above described hospital attendants thus:  "Yank, I reckon I want that hat," and before I could reply my hat was snatched from my head and from that time until my release, ten months later, I was bareheaded.

     From the action of our guard it was evident that no victory had been gained for the rebel side, and we were shortly taken to the rear of their line, some ten miles, put on board a train of cars, which evidently had just brought some of their own troops to the front, and taken, through Lynchburg, to Danville, Va.  Here we were quartered in a large brick building, evidently a tobacco warehouse, and where we first tasted "home guard" bravery and valor.  The sight of a prisoner at a window was sure to bring a shot from one of these brave heroes, and a howl of cheers if any evidence of success attended the exploit.  One or two prisoners were hit, none seriously, but we kept away from the windows. During this time we were fairly well fed and, except occasionally, had no cause to complain of harsh treatment.

     We remained in this place three days, and then by rail, in box freight cars, - we started south.  No stop was made, except to change cars at some station, the name of which I have forgotten (if I ever knew), until we reached Andersonville, Ga.  Leaving the cars we were drawn up in line and systematically searched.  So faithful was this search that even our mouths were examined, lest some article of jewelry or coin, or greenback, should be secreted beyond their ken.  Some, whose shoes were good, were forced to exchange with the guards for theirs, which were nearly worthless, and often even this consideration was denied, and shoes, hats, and coats were taken, leaving the owner nearly naked.  At last the large gate was opened and marching past the guard, into a large open space containing sixteen acres, the walls formed by pine logs set end ways into the ground and standing twenty feet high, so close together as to leave no crack between, a sight burst upon my eyes, equaled only by the pictures drawn by old time theologists of the place of torture allotted to the damned.

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