War Reminiscences of the Bethel Company, Company I, Fifth Maine Regiment [Number 6]


War Reminiscences of the Bethel Company, Company I, Fifth Maine Regiment [Number 6]


Bethel News, Vol. 2, No. 37


February 10, 1897



The transcribed text below may include some minor changes in punctuation, capitalization, and spelling to improve readability.



Full Text


Company I, Fifth Maine Regiment.

By Col. Clark S. Edwards

number vi

On the night of May 3, and the following morning, Gen. Lee greatly strengthened his forces on Fredericksburg Heights, which he had reoccupied, thus cutting off almost completely every avenue of escape for the Sixth Corps. As the morning of May 4th dawned, we realized the precarious situation in which we were. On our front was nearly the whole of Lee's army, on our left and in the rear were large forces, while on the right was a swollen river almost impassable. The only way opened for a retreat was by a single road leading to a ford above Fredericksburg five or six miles. At an early hour the regiment was under arms. It moved back a short distance toward the river. A line of battle was formed something like the shape of a horseshoe, with Newton's division on the right, Howe's division on the left and Brooks' division in the center.

The Fifth Maine was on the left of the second brigade in Brooks' division, there being four regiments of the brigade on our right. We remained in this position till the middle of the afternoon, not a gun being heard from the main army under Hooker, when the rebels in expectation of annihilating or capturing the entire Sixth Corps, began, what they supposed in their jubilation over our hemmed-in situation, would be our last battle. Before the attack was made, I remember of seeing thousands of the rebel troops, passing our front in the direction of Fredericksburg. I then knew that Mary's Heights, which we had carried a short time before at a terrible loss of life had fallen into the hands of the enemy. Only twenty-four hours before this time, the entire corps was in excellent spirits, thinking that a sure route to Richmond had been opened, and that in a short time the Confederate Capitol would be entered. A few hours often bring many changes. As we remained in line of battle, realizing that the chances of escape were against us, I must confess that time did not pass quickly, and to use one of uncle Solon's expressions, "It seemed that Joshua had been tampering with the sun again."

About three o'clock in the afternoon, the battle began on our left and finally became general along the lines. The divisions of the rebel generals, Early, Anderson and McLane, came upon us with deafening yells. Howe's division received the heaviest blows. His division nobly withstood the attack and prevented the enemy from breaking our lines and thus cutting of our retreat. By the gallantry of Howe's division, the corps was enabled to cross the river at Bank's Ford. Over a thousand men had fallen, yet their lives had purchased the safety of the entire command.

Doubtless some members of the Bethel Company will remember how Gen. Sedgwick, "uncle John," as he was sometimes called, looked, as he sat upon his horse with glass in hand, directly in our front late in the afternoon. The Fifth Maine at this time was supporting the First Massachusetts Battery. With General Sedgwick were his staff officers, also General or "Fighting Joe" Bartlett, General Russell and the colonels of the brigade. While watching the enemy massing their forces in our front across the Gordonsville turnpike, we could see their lines of battle as they marched out of a ravine by a large brick building. Gen. Sedgwick, I distinctly remember, as he saw this movement, turned in his saddle and said to Gen. Brooks, "They are coming butt end in front." He then turned to Capt. McCartney of the Battery and said, "Captain, can you start those fellows up a little?" The captain replied, "I will try," jumped from his horse, sighted the gun then pulled the lanyard. I was looking for the result of the shell. Instantly the house became almost a total wreck. Never have I seen a single shot do greater damage. Soon after two batteries in concert with the First Massachusetts Battery opened on the "rebs" a murderous fire. The battle continued till evening, the enemy withdrawing from our front. As darkness came on, our brigade had orders to move, crossing the river at Bank's Ford. Each man was thankful that he had escaped from the perilous situation of the day that had threatened either on the field or starvation horrors in prison.

While passing over the bridge at Bank's Ford the batteries of the enemy on a bluff nearby attempted to prevent our crossing, but were unable to depress their guns sufficiently to do any harm, for the shot fell into the water some twenty feet below the bridge. We all thought that our escape was miraculous. We moved a short distance from the river, where we bivouacked, as we supposed, for the night. Just as I was about to forget trouble, I received orders to counter-march or retrace our steps till we had passed the entire corps. Not knowing what was awaiting us after the terrible day that had just closed, I will frankly admit that I was more than somewhat anxious, when the order was received.

The Fifth Maine marched back some two miles toward the grounds we left; when we reached the rear of the corps, we faced about, deploying a company on each side of the road. The 121st New York regiment was with us at this time. We had been selected by the gallant Sedgwick to cover the retreat of the Sixth Corps. On the morning of May 5th the corps recrossed the Rappahannock on the pontoon bridge at Bank's Ford, the 5th being the last to cross the river. While we had occupied many important positions during the second campaign around Fredericksburg, yet no greater honor came to us than this selection of the regiment to cover the retreat of the "fighting" Sixth Corps. At three o'clock in the morning of May 5th, the Sixth Corps was safe on the north bank of the Rappahannock, and the bridge taken up.

We will now give a brief sketch of Clement S. Heath, son of Tilton B. Heath, born in Gilead in 1823, enlisted in the Bethel Company April 29, 1861, and mustered into the U.S. service June 23, was discharged for disability the following August.

In his boyhood days he resided in North Albany and attended what is known as the Bennett school, and lived to manhood in the red house above the school building.

After his return he lived in different places in and around our village. He was living in what is known as the Frost house near the Mills Brown crossing at the time of his death. His wife, a daughter of the late Andrew Stiles, died some two years previous. He was an honest, upright man, one who had a mind of his own, and borrowed but few ideas from others. He was always ready for an argument, and many a one has come out second best who undertook to floor him. He died leaving a portion of his property to the Universalist church of this place.

Henry Vallaincourt enlisted in the Bethel Company April 28, 1861, and was mustered into the U.S. service June 23rd and mustered out July 27, 1862. He was of French descent, his native place being Quebec. At the time he enlisted, he was working for the Russells in the furniture shop at Walker's Mills, now South Bethel. He was a good soldier, always ready to do his part in camp or battle. He was not often known to answer to the surgeon or sick call, but preferred guard duty or drill to quinine and whiskey.

He being a British subject, on request of his father, the government was obliged to discharge him. His papers came to me, and as I handed them to him that July morning when encamped on the James river at Harrison's Landing, I remember that as he received them, the tears were trickling down his manly cheeks, and he said, "Captain, this is no fault of mine; I must obey my father."

He was one of the first to enlist in the Bethel Company and left here that memorable May morning, of which I have so often spoken. While with us he was always with his Company and took part in the battles of Bull Run, West Point at the head of York river, Gaines' Hill, Charles City, Cross Roads and Malvern Hill.

[to be continued.]