Shock Troops of the Confederacy

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14     The North Anna and Cold Harbor

“Honor is nothing more than a puff of wind”

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Thus far the Confederates had good reason to be pleased with the performance of their new sharpshooter battalions. The Army of the Potomac, however, continued to tolerate a very uneven performance on the skirmish line and in the petite guerre. As one historian put it: “Various [Union] corps’ headquarters were using different maps of the region. The differences in these maps brought about much confusion. Officers had scant knowledge of roads and terrain. The army as a whole wasted an enormous amount of man-power in the mis-application of reconnaissance techniques. Cavalry and infantry seemed to be at odds in attempting to achieve vague goals. Orders were poorly written and were often ambiguous and erroneous.” Yet at the very time the sharpshooters were becoming increasingly important to Lee’s army and were being organized at higher and higher levels, the Federals allowed their light infantry to atrophy. They had broken up the Brigade of Sharpshooters (the 1st and 2nd U.S.S.S.) after Gettysburg and assigned each sharpshooter regiment directly to a brigade. Their division commander, General David Birney, who apparently developed an appreciation for the sharpshooters’ capabilities, changed this after the battle at Spotsylvania. On May 13 Birney informed the division “that the 1st & 2nd S. S. were to be attached to no Brigade, but were to stop at [his division’s] Head Quarters only, when on duty.” Still, they had lost many of their experienced officers, most notably Colonel Caspar Trepp, and both regiments grew weaker as the campaign wore on. As for the rest of the Federal army, some brigade commanders habitually designated certain regiments as skirmishers, but on the whole it never seemed to occur to the Army of the Potomac’s by-the-book commanders that a sizable light infantry force might be a great help when moving, as they now were, through densely wooded country where they had no reliable maps and few guides. Light infantry would have been especially valuable given the fact that Sheridan’s cavalry had been absent much of the time. This would be a critical shortcoming in the Yankees’ next big move and subsequent engagement at the North Anna.[i]

After Grant broke off the battle at Spotsylvania the 1st and 2nd U.S.S.S. crept southward seeking the Rebels. “No unusual incident occurred to mark the progress of the sharp shooters,” said one, “until the twenty-first, when the [1st] regiment, by a sudden dash, occupied the little village of Bowling Green,” where they found and freed “some hundreds of negro slaves” who had been locked up and were due to be sent south. Shortly afterward they fought a skirmish with some green Confederate troops who dropped their knapsacks and ran, leaving their contents to the sharpshooters, which gave them “the opportunity of renewing their own somewhat dilapidated wardrobes.” Their luck continued to improve the next day when they stumbled across the county Poor House, where “they proceeded to gratify a soldier’s natural curiosity to see what might be found on the premises to eke out their unsatisfactory rations.” Much to their delight they found “chickens, mutton, milk and eggs in profusion.” If this was how the poor ate in Virginia, said one Yank, they were “greatly to be envied.” The next day, however, their easy living ended when they found their way “once again blocked by the rebel army in a strong position behind the North Anna river.”[ii]

Henagan’s Redoubt

Kershaw’s South Carolina brigade, now under John Henagan, occupied an earthen fort—to become known as “Henagan’s Redoubt”—on the north side of the river guarding the Telegraph Road bridge. Late on the afternoon of May 23 the men of the Third South Carolina Battalion—Kershaw’s sharpshooters—could see three brigades of the Union II Corps forming for an attack. Soon the Union skirmish line, mostly composed of the 1st and 2nd U.S.S.S., began to advance. South Carolinian Jim Milling watched as “one of Longstreet’s scouts” drew a bead with his “globe-sighted” Whitworth rifle. The scout fired and knocked a Federal officer off his horse at distance Milling thought “was near a full mile.” He and his fellow sharpshooters, having only Enfields, waited until the Yankees came within six hundred yards before they, too, began to fire. “If ever I enjoyed a battle,” he wrote later, “it was that one.” The sharpshooters would “make it hot” for their Yankee counterparts, who would lie down, then get up and charge. The Federals brought their artillery into the action and knocked down a chimney near the South Carolinians, wounding one of them. Still, Milling and his comrades held their ground until someone yelled, “Look out boys. Look to the left.” Henagan’s flank had collapsed and “the Yankee colors was almost in our rear.” Then it was every man for himself. Milling, who had a horror of being captured, made it back across the bridge, but many of his comrades had to choose between swimming or surrender. In the midst of this confusion Milling’s commander, Captain Benjamin Whitener, suddenly remembered that he had left his sword. He ran back into the redoubt to get it, brandishing a huge pistol that Milling waggishly suggested must have weighed as much as one of his soldier’s rifles. Whitener rejoined the battalion the next morning with his sword, claiming to have shot down a Yankee officer to get it.[iii]

Private William Greene of the 2nd U.S.S.S., one of the men on the skirmish line, claimed that “Our boys stood up manfully under the hot fire of shells, grape shots, and bullets.” It had been “a hard fight [but] we compelled them to skedadle.” Though “there was considerably many killed & wounded on both sides,” the works had been formidable enough, and Greene thought the Confederates should have been able to hold them.[iv]

Jericho Mills

During the fracas at Henagan’s redoubt General Gouverneur Warren’s Union V Corps crossed the North Anna four miles upstream at Jericho Mills and drove off the Confederate cavalry guarding the ford. The horse soldiers took word to General A. P. Hill, whose Third Corps held the area, that the Yankee force was small—only two brigades or so of cavalry. Since holding the line of the river was critical, Hill decided to strike back at once. Cadmus Wilcox’s division drew the task, and in mid-afternoon on May 23 he sent a regiment from McGowan’s brigade to investigate. The regiment soon came back in disorder, so Colonel J. N. Brown, who now commanded McGowan’s brigade, sent in the sharpshooters. Captain Dunlop was absent with dysentery, which left Captain William Brunson in command of the battalion. The sharpshooter battalion moved forward, and “the feeling process now began.” They found more than cavalry at the Jericho Mills ford, but the Federal pickets were napping and they “went crashing through their lines like an Alpine avalanche, dispersing the force and capturing a number of prisoners.” The sharpshooters continued until they bumped into “a second and much stronger line,” then stopped to await reinforcements. Even though it was obvious that a strong enemy force was in front of them—it was, in fact, three full Union divisions—Wilcox formed his infantry brigades and attacked at about five o’clock.[v]

“We sharpshooters deployed and forwarded ahead of the Brigade through a thick woods,” wrote Marion Fitzpatrick of Brigadier General Edward Thomas’s Georgia brigade. “We soon ran up with the yankee skirmish line, and fought them hot and heavy, drove them in and fought the line of battle for awhile.” Many of the Federals at the ford, oblivious to the repeated probes of the sharpshooters, had stacked their arms and started to cook dinner. Wilcox’s surprise assault nearly drove them into the river, but the combination of intense Union artillery fire and a panic by one of his attacking regiments caused the Southern offensive to founder. The Yankees rallied and drove Wilcox’s men back with loss but did not press their advantage.[vi]

Brunson’s sharpshooters stayed near Warren’s corps that evening as a combination picket and rear guard, keeping an eye on the Yankees. The rest of Wilcox’s division withdrew to dig in at Anderson’s Station, which lay about a mile and a half south of Quarles’s Ford. “It is useless to tell you how tired and sore I am,” Fitzpatrick wrote his wife. “I have not changed clothes or shaved since the fighting commenced.”[vii]

Lee faced a quandary. He needed to defend the vital rail center at Hanover Junction and continue to engage Grant as far away from Richmond as possible, but the Federals had just convincingly forced the line of the North Anna at minimal cost. The Confederates still held Ox Ford, between Jericho Mills and Hanover Junction, where high bluffs and rapidly improving fortifications discouraged a direct attack by Burnside’s IX Corps. With Warren’s V Corps now south of the river on his left, however, Lee’s position was effectively turned. Hancock, meanwhile, was preparing to force a crossing with his II Corps on Lee’s right at Chesterfield bridge, downstream from Ox Ford.

Lee’s response to this point had been so anemic, in fact, that Grant concluded the Army of Northern Virginia was retreating to Richmond. Grant underestimated his opponent, however, who was about to lay a clever snare. Drawing on his background as a military engineer, Lee devised a unique plan to turn his weakness into strength: by holding the high ground at Ox Ford and drawing back his wings south along the rising ground behind it in an inverted V, he would put his army in a giant and virtually impregnable salient, quickly dubbed the “hog snout.” This gave him an interior position from which he could easily reinforce either flank of his army, while his opponent would have to divide his army into three parts once he crossed the North Anna. To reinforce either Yankee wing would require crossing two rivers—a lengthy process—giving Lee an ideal opportunity to strike an isolated part of the Union army. For the trap to work, however, Lee needed to deceive Grant as to the exact nature of his position for as long as possible. The Confederate sharpshooters would play an essential part by screening the location of the army’s lines and by giving the Southern army time to dig their entrenchments unmolested.

The first rays of light on May 24 found Captain Brunson and his sharpshooters in an extremely vulnerable position, right under the noses of the Federals and far from their own division. As soon as it was light enough to see, the bluecoats moved on them, but Brunson was ready and fell back “at a run” with the Yankees hot on his heels. When they reached the edge of the nearby woods, the sharpshooters stopped, turned on their pursuers, dropping a number of them. In the woods they fought Indian fashion and “stubbornly contested every inch of the ground back to the station” until nearly noon. The sharpshooters continued to withdraw until they were about four hundred yards in front of Wilcox’s new line, just northwest of Anderson’s Station, and there the Federals let them stay. Though Wilcox’s assault had failed, Brunson’s sharpshooters had performed just the sort of mission for which they had been trained. The previous day’s major failing had been their inability to accurately scout the strength of the Union position, a fault more likely due to the cavalry’s incorrect intelligence and a lack of time.[viii]

On a different part of the battlefield, Warren sent the 1st Pennsylvania Reserves downstream to make contact with Hancock’s men. The regiment’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Warren Stewart, moved his men single file along the riverbank to avoid detection, but the sharpshooters of Mahone’s Virginia brigade, who had double-quicked some two miles to get there, caught up with at the ford near Quarles’s Mill. “We advanced,” said one of Mahone’s men, “firing as we did so, taking advantage of such protection from the trees as we could until we reached a point where a line could be established.” Shortly afterward the sharpshooters of Colonel John Sanders’s Alabama brigade arrived. Barely had the Confederates gotten into position and thrown up some fence rails for protection when the blue-coated skirmishers began probing them, and the Pennsylvanians soon followed with a full-scale attack. It failed, leaving Colonel Stewart pinned against the river. He managed to attract the attention of some IX Corps pickets across the river “and succeeded, after some difficulty, in convincing them that he and his regiment were of the National army.”[ix]

In a postwar account Confederate captain John E. Laughton described how his sharpshooters operated in this action in groups of three. This appears to be a variation of the normal four-man section used in skirmish drill, perhaps because of reduced number of men available in 1864. In any case Laughton specified that “the men in these posts of three each always fired by file, one gun always being loaded.” This was fairly standard practice to cover the front during the time needed to recharge a muzzle loader. Tactically this was, of course, completely different from having a line of battle fire by volleys, and using three-man sections ensured that the sharpshooters in their extended line did not get caught with unloaded rifles.[x]

Word of Stewart’s plight reached General Warren, and about noon he dispatched General Samuel Crawford’s Pennsylvania Reserves division down the bank to their rescue. Even when faced with an entire division, however, the Confederate riflemen gave ground grudgingly. “Such was the coolness of the men and the accuracy of their aim,” boasted Laughton, “that this line [of battle] was repulsed with great loss to them. A second and a third charge were made, with stronger lines each time, but they had underestimated the character of the men before them, and were in turn cut down and driven back, some having been killed within thirty feet of our posts.” Crawford eventually accepted defeat, after which “the enemy gathered in front and on the flanks of the Reserves in strong force.” He formed a perimeter around the ford and awaited reinforcements. “During this time our troops were throwing up a line of entrenchments about half a mile in rear,” said Laughton, “and seemed satisfied to leave us to act as a ‘reception committee.’”[xi]

More Union reinforcements arrived in the form of Major General Thomas Crittenden’s division of IX Corps, which sent a brigade across at Quarles’s Mill under the protection of the Crawford’s Pennsylvanians. Crittenden’s division then advanced southeast toward Ox Ford, the last remaining Confederate-held crossing on the North Anna.

Downstream Hancock crossed the river at Chesterfield bridge under the covering fire of his own sharpshooter regiments. The 2nd U.S.S.S. suffered “serious casualties” from Rebel rifle and artillery fire, but by mid-morning the Confederates had pulled back from the bridge, and Hancock’s Union II Corps pushed south after them through densely wooded terrain toward Hanover Junction.[xii]

Ox Ford

Brigadier General James Ledlie’s brigade of Crittenden’s division led the Federal advance on Ox Ford that afternoon. Ledlie, one of many Union political generals, was rash, tactically inept, and fond of the bottle—qualities that would cost his men dearly that day. He sent out the 35th Massachusetts as skirmishers, and these veterans slowly pushed back Mahone’s and Sanders’s weary sharpshooters, who occasionally paused long enough to throw a shot back at them. After moving through thick brush for a mile or so they entered a cleared area near Ox Ford and came up against the western face of Lee’s defensive line. On the rising ground before them some of the most formidable fortifications of the war stared down at them, covered by a line of rifle pits into which the Confederate sharpshooters had withdrawn. Ledlie, who by all accounts had had a snootful (as did, apparently, most of his staff), recklessly decided to assault the works and take Ox Ford. It was madness, as everyone knew but he. The men of the 35th Massachusetts entered the clearing and started trading shots with the Confederate sharpshooters, then drew back. “Come on to Richmond!” came a taunt from the trenches.[xiii]

Ledlie formed the green 56th, 57th, and 59th Massachusetts into two lines, stationed them to the right of the reformed 35th, and sent their skirmishers forward to clear the rifle pits. After a nasty and indecisive fight failed to take them, he ordered in his line of battle. Under gathering storm clouds the grayback riflemen started to pick off the newcomers, who lost their formation as they broke into a wild charge. As the Bay Staters neared the earthworks the Confederate batteries opened up, mowing down whole squads with grape and canister. A violent summer thunderstorm boomed into life, soaking Yankee and Confederate alike. In the pandemonium the Massachusetts men tried to form around their colors, but the Confederates shot them down and launched a counterattack, breaking them and capturing 150 men as the rest scrambled back to the ford at Quarles’s Mill. The Union command had begun to get an inkling of the sort of defense they faced. As for Ledlie, he not only survived but assumed division command when General Crittenden stepped down two weeks later. In the months ahead he would have one more major role to play.[xiv]

[i] Patrick McDonald, Opportunities Lost, The Battle of Cold Harbor, unpublished but available online at; William H. Hastings, ed., Letters from a Sharpshooter: The Civil War Letters of William B. Greene, Co. G, Berdan’s Sharpshooters (Belleville, WI: Historic Publications, 1993), 207. The former division commander, General Hobart Ward, had been relieved at Spotsylvania for drunkenness and was eventually cashiered.

[ii] Ripley, A History of Company F, 168.

[iii] Ibid., 169; Milling, “Jim Milling and the War,” 7. The term “globe sight” here is an indefinite one. Technically it refers to a globe and post sight, i.e. a hooded iron sight mounted near the muzzle. However,

a speaker of the day may have been referring to the four power Davidson telescopic sight mounted on the Whitworth. Longstreet may have had a separate corps of sharpshooters at corps level armed with Whitworth or similar rifles; see chapter 22.

[iv] Hastings, ed., Letters from a Sharpshooter, 210-1.

[v] Dunlop, Lee’s Sharpshooters, 81.

[vi] Lowe and Hodges, eds., Letters to Amanda, 147

[vii] Ibid., 148.

[viii] Dunlop, Lee’s Sharpshooters, 82.

[ix] John Laughton, “The Sharpshooters of Mahone’s Brigade,” SHSP 22 (1894): 102-103; Sypher, History of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps, 542. British rifle regiments in the Napoleonic wars had used a similar procedure with two-man sections.

[x] Laughton, “The Sharpshooters of Mahone’s Brigade,” SHSP 22 (1894): 103.

[xi] Laughton, “The Sharpshooters of Mahone’s Brigade,” SHSP 22 (1894): 103; Sypher, History of the Pennsylvania Reserve Corps, 542.

[xii] C. A. Stevens, Berdan’s U.S. Sharpshooters in the Army of the Potomac, 1861-1865 (St. Paul, MN: Price-McGill, 1892), 434.

[xiii] Michael J. Miller, The North Anna Campaign: “Even to Hell Itself” (Lynchburg, VA: H. E. Howard, 1989), 101-103

[xiv] See generally Gordon Rhea, To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13-25, 1864 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000), 338-41.

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