War Reminiscences of the Bethel Company, Company I, Fifth Maine Regiment [Number 14]


War Reminiscences of the Bethel Company, Company I, Fifth Maine Regiment [Number 14]


Bethel News, Vol. 2, No. 45


April 7, 1897



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Full Text


Company I, Fifth Maine Regiment.

By Col. Clark S. Edwards

number xiv

After the battle of Rappahannock Station, Company I of the 5th Maine Regiment, went into camp on the high bank south of Hazel River where we remained about a fortnight, when orders to move were given.

The forward march began on the morning of November 26 in the direction of the Rapidan River which was crossed by the army. Our brigade was assigned to the duty of rear-guard of the division. As it was usual for the wagons to follow the troops, the Bethel Company with others had a trying experience with "Virginia mud," for the cry, "Hold on, a team stuck," was frequently heard. Ropes were at once attached to the unfortunate wagon and away pulled the boys, defying all horse or mule-flesh. Many laughable incidents could be related of how our boys, in their attempt to go to Richmond, pulled as well as marched. I speak of these things without going into detail, for the purpose of carrying back the minds of the survivors of the Company, who may chance to read these lines, to the exciting scenes of by-gone days.

Our Thanksgiving dinner, this year, consisted of fat, raw pork, hard bread, and cold water—not an inviting feast for the tired and worn-out soldier. As we pushed on we soon heard heavy musketry in our front. The Third Corps had met the enemy and was hotly engaged. We immediately assumed position and advanced in line toward the battlefield. When we were within five hundred yards of the rebel position, we halted and threw up a sort of breastwork made of fence rails. Here we received our full share of shot, shell, and bullets, though we did little to weaken the forces of the enemy, for another line of our troops was in our front and thus prevented us from giving the foe the benefit of our muskets.

As evening came on, the rebels fell back. On the following day, we pursued them toward Robinson's Tavern, advancing into a piece of woods called the Wilderness, some three miles or more. The greatest difficulty was experienced in this march in the forest, it being impossible for one to keep on his horse or to see more than a rod or two in any direction. There were many anxious hearts in the regiment, for a volley from the rebel infantry or from some concealed battery was momentarily expected.

Finally we reached the top of a hill overlooking a valley, beyond which, less than a mile away, on a slight rise of ground, the enemy was most strongly entrenched; in fact, holding a position that seemed almost impregnable. We halted upon the hill, waiting, as we supposed, for the remaining portions of the Corps to advance into position. The halt was an agreeable one for the boys, for they were not only tired, but were cold and wet, and did not have much disposition under these circumstances to engage in mortal conflict.

As soon as it was dark I received orders from Division headquarters to establish the picket line in front of the Sixth Corps, some one hundred and fifty rods; not a pleasant job, as it was a dark night and we knew nothing of what was in front of us. Before dark we could see on the hillside opposite, a long line of rifle-pits and redoubts newly made, but could not see one of those who had done the work, but we knew they were there in ambush. The 5th Maine picketed on the left of the line, and the 121st New York on the extreme right. Sunday morning, Nov. 29, found us almost door neighbors with rebels; our line ran parallel with the Mine Run stream and about forty rods from it. During the night our boys had built barricades of fence rails, about eight rods apart, and behind each, three men were stationed. Soon after daylight, a squad of rebel sharpshooters on our left commenced their cruel work, and during the day they wounded a number from our regiment, but none were killed. About mid-day, as I was passing over the line, they took me for a target. I was very polite as usual, and lifted my hat at each shot, and five were fired while I was going from one post to the other. They all passed harmlessly by, but one would have saved the barber a little work had I employed one at the time, but we made it even with them that afternoon; as we were passing back over our lines again, I met Gens. Sedgwick, Wright, Howe, and Russell. We cautioned them about passing over the knoll where the Rebs had practiced on us. They thanked me, as they moved up a ravine Gen. Wright turned and said, "You may open on those fellows, if they are too saucy." On the hillside directly in front of us was a growth of young, pine timber containing three or four acres. About one o'clock in the afternoon, little columns of smoke, hundreds in number, were seen rising heavenward above the tops of those trees, then we knew the "varmints" were cooking their dinners. The distance from us, I judged, was nice or ten hundred yards. We sent the order over the line to have every man load his musket with two rounds of powder and a single ball, to raise the sight to shoot eleven hundred yards, and be ready when the order came to fire; soon the sharpshooters fired at one of our men. We then gave the order to fire, which took them unawares as, we had not fired a shot into those woods for the day, in fact, we had not fired a shot only in answer to the sharpshooters. We came in sight of these works the afternoon before, and up to this time not a rebel had been seen, but we knew for a certainty there were five secreted among some rocks on our left, but this volley brought them out, and thousands could be seen as they jumped out of the pits onto their works. Why, it reminded me of disturbing a swarm of bees. I distinctly heard them call in these sharpshooters who had been annoying us all this time. As they went back our boys gave them some—well, not very elegant language, and they returned the compliment. It was not the talk one would be likely to hear in a Sunday afternoon temperance meeting.

After we gave them that volley, I went back up the hillside, where I could look over and could see the stretcher-bearers taking back their wounded. Our picket remained here for two days, and not another shot was fired from either side. I will repeat here what I said then, that picket shooting is next to murder. Think for a moment of old soldiers on the picket line, trying to shoot one another, when there was not a hard feeling nor an old grudge to settle. After the war we might expect many murders to be committed by this class, but I am proud to say that old soldiers are guilty of very few crimes. The murders of today are largely committed by the foreign element and when under the influence of liquor, but the young scapegoat does his full share, and but little is said.

This shooting of ours was the last done in the 6th Corps in the fall campaign of '63 under Mead.

During the night of Nov. 29th, we moved a short distance to the right, expecting to make an attack by daylight, and strike the enemy's flank. General Warren on the extreme right was to open the battle with artillery, and the infantry was to attack along the whole line, but Warren failed to carry out the order. Sedgwick, with the 5th and 6th Corps, opened his batteries and the rebels replied with vigor, but soon there came a message from Warren, saying the enemy was so strongly entrenched that it would be throwing away lives with no possible chance of success. I think some of the Bethel boys will remember that cold, dismal morning, Nov. 30, when they piled their knapsacks, and gave their money, watches, and many little keepsakes from loved ones at home, into the hands of the good old chaplain, who was there giving courage and council, and telling the boys to do their duty in the coming fight, which we momentarily expected.

There were many letters written to the dear mothers at home, bidding them "good bye," till the meeting on the other shore, as they had reason to believe this would be their last fight, and why? Because between the two armies lay seventy-five or eighty rods of open ground and the Mine Run stream, about the size of our Alder River, full of floating ice, to plunge through, and a rise of two hundred feet or more, before we could reach their works and then to meet the enemy in his rifle-pits and redoubts, with an equal number at the start. The old veteran in the ranks understood it all, also the young boys and recruits would hear it from the lips of their comrades. They all knew what was before them, and was it strange they should send messages home? There were some in that good company who requested me, if I lived through the battle and they were killed, to tell their parents that they died bravely fighting for home and country. We had then seen nearly three years of active service, but I had never before seen men with such determined looks. There was fight in their eyes. Our lines were formed, our bayonets fixed, waiting for the signal gun, we were then to move at once, but instead of the gun came an orderly, dashing down our lines to the commanding general. A moment later we were informed that no charge would be made, that the enemy was too strong, and that an advance would be merely rushing into the jaws of death. The sense of relief that came to the men when they learned that they would not be asked to attempt the impossible, I cannot describe. It seemed as if Providence had interfered in our behalf, for if the advance movement, as proposed, had been made, the regiment would have been completely wiped out. It could not have been otherwise.

The army fell back through the woods and fields, over brooks, ravines, and rocks, passing along the roughest kind of roads, much like the roads in some of our logging camps in the fall, until we reached our old quarters near the Hazel River, where we went into camp. More than one man could be heard singing "Oh! Ain't I glad to get out of the wilderness, out of the wilderness, out of the wilderness." As soon as our pontoon bridge arrived, we moved over the river, settling down for the winter on the Major's plantation, where we had the finest brigade camp in the Potomac Army.

Several months were spent here in camp. The wives of several officers visited camp, during the winter of '63 and '64. To break up the monotony of camp life, the soldiers frequently indulged in amusements of different kinds, baseball, football, horse racing, and cockfighting, being the chief features that afforded recreation.

The time pleasantly spent here was merely the lull before the storm which broke upon us in great fury, early in May, '64.

While in camp near Hazel River, the company met with a lost that was keenly felt by us all. Our record up to this time had been one of "giving as good as receiving," but on this occasion the "Rebs" got the better of us, and carried away as prisoners several of our noble men.

It happened as follows: On the 14th of December, 1863, Lieut. John H. Stevens, of the 5th Maine, Co. D. with a detail of eight or ten men was ordered to go outside our picket line to procure material for fitting up our camps for the winter. When a mile or more from camp, a band of Moseby's guerillas bore down upon them, killing Stevens' horse beneath him, and finally capturing both him and three of his men, though not till fight had been show, and it was seen that it was a case of life or death. The Bethel Company now numbered only about thirty men, and the loss of three members by capture occasioned grief and sadness that were hard to bear. I plainly remember passing among the boys of the company on the afternoon of December 14, soon after the capture of their comrades. Never before had I seen them so melancholy. Sorrow was pictured in every face. The captured men of the company were Thomas Spencer Peabody of Gilead, Alanson M. Whitman of Woodstock, and Milo C. Walker; the last two mentioned have been spoken of in previous numbers.

They were sent to that starvation prison at Andersonville, Georgia where they died after untold suffering. Thomas Spencer Peabody was the son of Thomas Peabody of Gilead. He was among the first to enlist in April, 1861, and was one of our number when we left the Bethel station on that May morning nearly thirty-six years ago. He was one of those men who enlisted to see the end of the war, though death in a rebel prison claimed him sometime before the surrender of Lee. He was always cheerful and apparently happy. His presence always inspired hope among his associates, even at times of greatest discouragement. He was ever at his post where his presence was needed, true and courageous.

I think he was in every movement of the regiment from June, 1861, to the time of his capture, bravely participating in the battles of Bull Run, West Point, on the Peninsular, Gaines' Hill, Golden Farm, Charles City, Cross Roads, Malvern Hill, Second Bull Run, Crampton Pass, Antietam, First Fredericksburg, Second Fredericksburg, Salem Church, Gettysburg, Funkstown, Rappahannock Station and Mine Run. His entire record sheds luster upon Gilead's history and his townsmen and kindred may justly feel proud of the noble life that was given for home and country.

[to be continued.]