Thursday, May 8, 2014

May 8, 1864 - 13th Mass.

May 8th was a tough day for the regiment.  With only 2 1/2 months left to serve, they had their heaviest casualties of the campaign on this day.

     I will start this story with Charles E. Davis, Jr.'s narrative from the regimental history, "Three Years in the Army."

     Following that will be Sam Webster's more personal account of the days events. [Sam Webster, Co. D, pictured. Photo courtesy of Tim Sewell.]

     Last, excerpts from a letter Color Sgt. David Sloss wrote in 1910 in remembrance of the events of this day.

From "Three Years in the Army"

Saturday May 7.
     We remained in the earthworks until 4 P.M., when we were withdrawn to a hill looking down upon the junction of the Orange pike and the plank-road.  Rations of fresh meat were issued, large fires were built, and coffee cooked.

May 7, 1864, 3 P.M.


At 8.30 P.M., Major-General Warren, commanding Fifth Corps, will move to Spottsylvania Court House, by way of Brock Road and Todd’s Tavern.

 By command of

     In obedience to this order, at 9 P.M. we started for Spottsylvania Court House, and marched all night.  As we passed along in the rear of the rifle-pits, we noticed the tired soldiers fast asleep on the ground, oblivious to the steady tramp of soldiers who were marching within a few yards of them.  We wished we were in the same blissful state.  Finally the extreme left of the line was reached when we entered a narrow, crooked road in the woods which were dark as a pocket.  Silently and stealthily the trail was followed in single file, and with great care, as the path became obscured.  We were now in the heart of the Wilderness.  Instructions were whispered along from the head of the line to “Jump the run;”  “look out for the log,” etc., with cautionary orders not to lose connection with each other, nor to get out of the path. In this way we noiselessly marched until nearly daylight, when a halt was made, and the men, tired out, threw themselves on the ground for rest or sleep.  We had overtaken the cavalry which was in advance, and now waited for daylight, having marched only twelve miles, owing to the difficulties we encountered on the way.  We were now within four miles of Spottsylvania Court House.

Sunday, May 8. 
        When daylight afforded us an opportunity of seeing each others faces, it was impossible to refrain our laughter at the comical appearance we presented. The woods where we halted had been burned over by the fire which had been raging for twenty-four hours previously, making a bed of black ashes which stuck to our perspiring faces, so that, on waking, we looked more like drivers of charcoal wagons than soldiers.

       Some were hastily cooking their coffee while others were engaged in removing the black from their faces, when we were hurried forward, our division being in the advance.  It was now learned that both armies were hastening to Spottsylvania Court House.  Our present position was near Todd’s Tavern, north-east from the town.  The cavalry under General Sheridan opened the fight and were soon relieved by our (General Robinson’s) Division.  As we passed out of the woods we charged the wooded hill in front, occupied by rebel dismounted cavalry, who retreated as we advanced, making a stand on another wooded hill half a mile beyond. Here they kept up a brisk fire, aided by artillery.  Another charge was ordered, and up the hill we double-quicked, driving the enemy from the crest across an open plain.  We were told by General Warren that we should find nothing but dismounted cavalry, but instead, we found Longstreets’s corps. [Major-General G. K. Warren, pictured] A section of a battery was discovered to the south and east of us that had been used to retard our advance.  The “Johnnies” were busy getting it away, so we directed our fire toward the group of men and horses, hoping to capture it.  A company of cavalry now rode out from the woods on the flank and hailed the battery.  We supposed it to be Union cavalry demanding its surrender, and consequently reserved our fire. We soon discovered our error as we saw them running off the battery with drag ropes, whereupon we resumed our firing, but were unable to prevent their securing the gun.
Little time was granted us for rest.

       Soon we received an order from General Robinson to advance on the double-quick over the plain. [Brigadier-General John C. Robinson, pictured.]   It was obeyed as well as it was possible for men to obey after two previous charges following an all-night march.  There wasn’t any double-quick in us.  Though nearly played out, we slowly advanced, while the rebel skirmishers fell back to the crest of Laurel Hill.  The firing from the rebel line behind earthworks on the hill now became general, and although the men of our division (the Second) were exhausted, yet we mustered strength enough to make another charge on this division of rebel infantry.  As we advanced, the firing became more effective.  The foot of the hill was gained.  As the Thirteenth was picking its way through the abatis and under-brush, shouting was heard in our rear.  On looking back, we saw a whole brigade of rebels in line of battle, swinging round from the rebel right flank.  A general retreat was taking place among our troops in the rear, so we followed suit by taking a circuitous route to avoid the rebel line which was preparing to capture us.  Upon reaching the hill from which we advanced we halted and made a stand.  Our loss so far was one officer killed and one wounded, and fourteen men wounded and twelve missing – probably captured.  The staff of the national colors was shattered by a solid shot.  During the repulse, General Warren took the flag with its shattered staff to rally a Maryland brigade, a picture of which appeared in “Harper’s Weekly” for 1864, page 372.

Pictured below is the image artist Alfred Waud sketched of General Warren rallying the Maryland Troops with the National Flag of the 13th Mass. as it appeared in the magazine.   Image is from

A halt of a few minutes now took place, while we returned the fire from still another hill on the Alsop farm.

     At night we were moved out in front of the earthworks and laid on our arms.

     During the day the heat was intense.

     General Robinson, our division commander, lost a leg in the fight to-day.  He was a real loss to the Army of the Potomac, as he ranked very high, being considered one of the bravest as well as one of the most efficient officers in the army.  

[NOTE:  General Robinson made a special request that  Hospital attendant Chandler Robbins, of the 13th Mass., Company K,  remain with him while he recovered from his wounds. - From information found in Robbins Pension files. - B.F.]

Diary of Sam Webster
From the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA

     Spottsylvania – Halted this morning about daybreak.  Laid down on the ground in the woods, which had burnt over, and was still smoking in places, and went to sleep with a piece of hard tack in my hand and a piece in my mouth. Turned out in a few minutes and, relieving the cavalry, pitched into the rebels; we suppose, about 3 or 4 miles from Spottsylvnia C.H.   They were driven back to “Laurel Hill” in  three charges, - very long ones, apparently ½ to 1 mile each – and where our division “stuck” the army did also.  Gen. J. C. Robinson, commanding the division, wounded. Alden, Thompson, and others also.  Thompson was hit in the back (small of it) by a spent ball, as the line fell back from the last rebel position.  In advancing, as the regiment came out into an open field, the centre was between two gate posts.  As it was necessary to move to the left they “left oblique’d” – a rebel battery playing upon them meanwhile, and down the road along which others were coming. 
As a shell passed Walker, who carried the National Color, he said to Joe Keating who was with him, “That fellow means me.”  The next shell cut the staff at the lower fastening of the silk, caught the upper part of his knapsack and carried it some rods, spilling its contents along its route, and knocking its owner some feet. I helped dress his shoulder which was awfully bruised.  The boys had driven the rebs from the two guns, but seeing a Company of cavalry come out of the woods, who hailed them, thought it all right, and withheld their fire at 150 yards, and Stuart saved his guns.  Just after that in passing the woods Capt. Whitcomb was killed.  Loss 1 officer and 1 man killed, 1 officer wounded and taken prisoner, 4 men wounded and 12 missing.  After repulse lay in edge of the woods.  2nd Corps came up in P.M. over same road as 5th.  [Dennis G. Walker, Company A, pictured, whose knapsack was struck by a piece of shell and was hurled several feet from the impact.  Walker survived the war.  I  don't have a picture of Keating.  Photo courtesy of Mr. Tim Sewell.]

[Note: Davy Sloss carried the State Flag, Keating picked up the National Colors when Walker was hit. – B.F.]

Excerpt of a Letter from David Sloss

David Sloss who carried the State Colors for the Regiment recalled more of the story of the flag and General G. K. Warren in a letter to comrade William R. Warner, dated July 21, 1910.  The letter resides in the collection of Colonel Leonard's papers at the Gilder Lehrman Collection in New York. [GLC3343]   Post war image of David Sloss taken by Gettysburg Photographer Tipton,  at the dedication of the 13th Mass. Monument, Sept., 1885.

In part of the letter Sloss writes Warner:

     "We then went about a mile further when we saw a Battery on the edge of a wood we could see them getting out of their blankets.    The 39th Mass., Col Davis were ahead of us when we started to charge but did not go fast enough for me so the two Regts were close together when a shell came down through the center of the two Regts Killing a Lieut of the 39th and hitting D G Walker who had the American Colors and breaking the staff.  (I had the State Color) 
[Pictured is a scan of the sketch of the incident as artist Alfred Waud drew it.]
Keating picked up the flag and tied it with a canteen strap.  We went on about a mile further chasing the Battery but they got away.  One of our Lieuts was Killed in the woods.*   We advanced until we came upon McLaws whole division behind a low earthwork.  We fired here until we saw from this flank fire,  then we broke and run perhaps a  [?]  When we saw Warren and Staff trying to rally the runners I got behind a big tree and told the boys to stand as we could stand as long as Warren could. 

     Robinson had been shot falling back his head on his breast and back to a tree.  Warren pointed to him saying “there is the only soldier in your Division you are all a pack of damned cowards.”  Every thing was flying  past us when Warren seized the top of the National Color over Keating’s sholder and it parted he waved it about 15 minutes in the Maryland Brigade that had some formation but they soon got by.   Keating went up and asked Warren for it but he would not give it to him.  I ordered the Guard to go and get it and he gave it to them.  He saw their [sp] was going to be trouble and their [sp] was enough around there at this time."

*Lt. Charles Whitcomb was killed.

The Roster in the book “Three Years in the Army” by Charles E. Davis, Jr. lists the following soldiers killed or died of wounds received this day.  I have added the appropriate number of years to the soldiers age at enlistment to come up with an approximate age at time of death.  – I did not have time to check the list against the Massachusetts Adjt. Genls. Roster. – B.F

Pictured at right is Rolla Nichols.  The only one of the killed whom I currently have an image.

Selah B. Alden died of his wounds. (to the head) Corporal, Company D, about age 31.
William Sanders. Recruit of July 1863, age about 32, Company E.
John Schnell.  Private, Company E, age about 30.
Charles A. Williams. Private,  recruit of July, 1863, Company E, age about 24.
Rolla Nicholas. [Or Nichols]  Private, Company F, died of wounds June 2nd 1864, age about 26.
Thomas E. Bancroft. Private, Company G, missing after May 8, supposed to have been killed. Age about 25.
Charles E. Colburn. Company H, private, age about 21.
Charles W. Whitcomb. Company I, 2nd Lieutenant, age about 25.
Charles W. Mosher. Company I, Corporal, age about 21.
John P. Peebles. Company I, Corporal,  age about 27.
William P. Farqueson. Company I, private,  age about 21.
Charles F. Rice,  Company K, private, was a recruit of ’62, age about 21.


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