June 21, 2018
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Night attack in Virginia cost Washington County dearly

By Brian Swartz, Special to the BDN

Washington County will bleed this Saturday, Nov. 7, 1863.

Partially concealed in a thick forest just north of the Rappahannock River, the men of Co. D, 6th Maine Infantry Regiment, check their gear as Capt. Reuel Furlong awaits the signal to form his company into line and advance toward the enemy.

Wherever Furlong stands, his men can see him; at 6 foot-6, he towers above a regiment well-known for its tall, muscular lumberjacks, farmers, mill workers, sailors, and fishermen. Furlong was a Calais schoolteacher when local men formed Co. D in early summer 1861. Elected lieutenant, he has served well with Co. D. Despite his intimidating height, his pleasant disposition has earned him the nickname “Gentle Giant.”

But the regiment must fight this pleasant November day in central Virginia. Bobby Lee pulled his boys south across the Rappahannock last month. The only Rebels this side of the river hold a bridgehead on the river’s north bank at Rappahannock Station, a nondescript whistle stop on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.

Union Gen. George Gordon Meade dispatches his V and VI corps to eliminate the bridgehead. Commanded by Lt. Col. Benjamin Harris of Machias, the 6th Maine belongs to the 3rd Brigade led by Col. Peter Ellmaker. The brigade belongs to VI Corps’ 1st Division, commanded by Brig. Gen. David Russell.

Departing its camps near Warrenton about 7 a.m. on Nov. 7, the division marches south “a distance of a dozen miles or such matter,” says 6th Maine adjutant Charles Clark.

The 3rd Brigade reaches the tree line north of the Confederate defenses between noon and 1 p.m. Ellmaker soon orders Harris to deploy his 6th Maine boys as skirmishers; “then I knew we were in for it,” 2nd Lt. John Honey of Co. B and Amherst informs his father later.

Splitting the regiment, Harris tells Maj. George Fuller of Corinth to take five companies and probe the Confederate defenses. From west to east (or right to left), companies A, F, D, I, and C debouche from the trees; “we advanced over a broad and open plain,” Clark says.

The veterans in the ranks don’t like what they see. To the left (east), Co. C brushes against the torn-up railroad, the de facto boundary between the V and VI corps. The railroad angles southwest to the Rappahannock. From there, on the river bank just west of the burned railroad bridge, Confederate trenches extend west to two redoubts; from there, additional rifle pits and trenches parallel the river southwest to where it gradually curves northwest.

The bridgehead’s defenders, including the Louisiana Guard Artillery and its four rifled cannons, belong to the “Louisiana Tigers” brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Harry T. Hays.

The 6th Maine skirmishers advance about 2:30 p.m. Muskets pop and gun smoke swirls as the Confederate and Union skirmishers trade shots and casualties.

A Confederate shell hits Co. C; Harris will later report Pvt. James Bradbury as “killed” and privates William Elderkin and Jeremiah Hennessey as “severely” wounded. Skirmishing steadily through the afternoon, the 6th Maine boys reach a position some 400 yards from the redoubts, or so 1st Sgt. William Coan of Co. H and Dexter estimates.

Sometime during the afternoon, the Co. C boys discover that the nearest V Corps skirmishers beyond the railroad bed belong to the 20th Maine and that Capt. Walter Morrill commands them.

Other Mainers are here at Rappahannock Station, too. The 121st New York anchors the 6th Maine’s right (west) flank, and to the right of the New Yorkers spreads the 5th Maine.

At 4:30 p.m. the North Carolina brigade commanded by Col. Archibald Godwin crosses the Rappahannock to reinforce the bridgehead. Daylight wanes, and soldiers in blue and gray expect the fighting to fade with nightfall.

Then, “just at dusk” Russell “received orders to assault the entrenchments,” the startled Clark learns. “The other wing of our regiment (companies B, E, G, H, and K) was deployed with those already on the skirmish line[,] making a double line of skirmishers.”

He estimates that the Confederate defenders number “more than two thousand infantry,” plus the “four field pieces.” Clark knows the 6th Maine numbers only 342 men (321 enlisted men and 21 officers) today. Looking across the darkening plain, he believes that no other Union regiment has deployed to support the 6th Maine.

But behind him in the deep November darkness spreads the 5th Wisconsin Infantry, the 6th Maine’s “sister” regiment. Russell has ordered Harris to delay his assault until the 5th Wisconsin moves into position, but “the boys were either anxious to share the glory alone or misunderstood the order,” Coan recalls.

Suddenly “the order for the attack was given” by Harris; “the regiment … rushed forward to the assault,” Clark says.

Their muskets uncapped (loaded, but lacking percussion caps), the 6th Maine boys leap to their feet and charge. Screaming a “continuous yell which every man kept up until the fortifications in front of us were reached,” the soldiers race in their double line, Clark recalls.

The Louisianans loosen a volley. “The fire which was open upon us as we swept forward was simply terrific,” notices Clark, running with his sword drawn. “It is impossible to describe it. The sensation with me was that the air was so filled with bullets that it was heated to a high degree of temperature and scalded my throat and lungs when inhaled.

“Seized with the wildest transports of rage and frenzy,” the angry Mainers scream their fury as they charge toward “a blind inscrutable force which defied all of our efforts to reach it or grapple with it,” Clark says.

Learning about the 6th Maine’s impending attack, Morrill tells his 20th Maine men that they lack orders to join the charge. He’s going, and he won’t order his men to come with him, but they can if they want.

And they does so “because they … thought we needed help,” Clark quips later.

Over on the right flank, the 121st New York and the 5th Maine have already gone belly to earth under orders to hold the positions they had gained earlier. Russell will later report that as the 6th Maine boys launch their charge, Capt. J.D. Fish of the 121st New York’s Co. D. led his men into the melee.

Confederate infantrymen fire repeatedly at the swiftly approaching 6th Maine. “Onward!” Harris urges his men, they wade through a water-filled ditch, and suddenly the first Mainers reach the redoubts’ walls.

Color Sgt. John Gray, that magnificent and crazy fool of a hero who had carried the regimental flag up and over the Sunken Road and Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg last May 3, now carries that flag up a redoubt wall defended by the 8th Louisiana.

No miracle spares Gray this night; Confederates shoot him dead.

Other 6th Maine boys scramble up the redoubts’ earthen walls. Otis Roberts leaps down among the defenders. So does Honey; “when I mounted the parapet and looked down into the fort[,] it was full of Rebels[,] and I didn’t know what was the best to do,” he recalls. “I concluded it was best to go in after having come so far[,] and down I went.”

“We entered the enemy’s lines attenuated and scattered a handful [of Maine soldiers] here and there among swarms of the enemy,” Clark notices. “At the point where I entered [a redoubt] there seemed to be a Confederate army to two or three of us.”

Wild fighting engulfs the relatively few Maine boys stabbing and clubbing the enemy soldiers swarming around them. “Bayonets slid into strong men’s bosoms. Gunstocks smashed skulls to the chin[,] and some not content with their murderous weapons threw them down and[,] drawing their knives, slashed into each other, howling all the time like maddened wolves,” Coan recalls.

Captured when he lands alone among the defenders, Roberts gains his freedom moments later. Five Maine berserkers land beside him; Roberts snatches up a musket, and the six men attack the nearest Confederates. Thrusting with their bayonets and thumping skulls with musket butts, the 6th Maine boys plow into the few men still standing around the 8th Louisiana’s flag; Roberts captures it.

Ascending a parapet, Furlong and his Co. D plunge into the hard-fighting Confederates. “After emptying his revolver” he “fought with a clubbed musket[,] swinging it around his head until he fell dead,” Clark says later. “After the battle his body was found among a pile of [enemy] dead, several of whom had been killed by the blows of a musket stock.”

Savage fighting pushes the Louisiana regiments from the redoubts, but counterattacking Confederates now shove the 6th Maine boys backwards. “The Confederate guns” (cannons) around which the men fight “were defended with desperate bravery and determination,” Clark says. “The rebel yell mingled with our cheers of victory[,] and the musketry on both sides continued sharp and furious.”

Morrill and his 20th Maine lads attack the eastern redoubt, get tossed out twice, and go back for good a third time. The 5th Maine and 121st New York suddenly hit the Confederates’ left flank downriver from the redoubts, and the 5th Wisconsin now “stormed the works [where the 6th Maine fought] and springing over them were engaged in a desperate struggle[,] some of the fighting being hand to hand” and “bayonets being freely used,” Clark says.

The redoubt fighting surges back and forth; Union troops suddenly eject their opponents, and Confederate defenses collapse. Some Johnnies run for the pontoon bridge; others swim the river. The 49th and 119th Pennsylvania infantry regiments pour into the redoubts, and Confederates surrender in their hundreds, an estimated 1,200 in all.

“Just before the firing ceased[,] a minie bullet struck my left leg[,] and I rolled from the rifle pit upon which I was standing with a confused feeling of rage and utter helplessness,” Clark recalls.

He survives, although his wound “concluded my campaigning with the Sixth Maine.”

Dawn on Sunday reveals the carnage within the Confederate defenses. Clark reports the 6th Maine’s total casualties as 38 men killed and 101 wounded; of the 21 officers who charged with the regiment, “sixteen were killed or wounded,” he calculates.

The 139 casualties represent 41 percent of the 6th Maine’s strength in early afternoon.

The battle is over, but the ramifications of Rappahannock Station have just begun for many Maine lads and their families. Roberts is home in Maine on Dec. 28 when “the president of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor” to him for capturing the “the flag of 8th Louisiana Infantry (Confederate States of America) in a hand-to-hand struggle with the Color Bearer.”

Harris suffers a bad leg wound; he will survive, but not so Pvt. Thomas Tibbetts of Co. D (and Calais), whom Harris reports as “dangerously” wounded and then “since dead.”

The casualty report that Harris files with Maine Adjutant Gen. John Hodgdon goes on line after line for 4¼ long pages. Name follows name in sequence by companies, two officers are outright killed, and Co. D’s 1st Lt. Henry Waite later dies from his wounds.

He and Furlong will travel home together to Calais.

In Co. A, Pvt. Ozro Davis is dead. So is Lt. James McKinley of Co. E, which the Confederates have absolutely hammered; excluding McKinley, the company’s casualty list extends to 22 names.

Each listed beside a number, the names continue for 139 lines. In numerical order, the dead heroes of Co. K are Sgts. George Corbett (103) and John Gray (104), Corp. Thomas Sharkey (105), and privates George Brown (106), Thomas Brisley (107), Charles Hammond (108), and Charles Nelson (109). Listed on Line 110 is the first of Co. K’s wounded, Sgt. Thatcher Vose.

Every name on Harris’s report represents a family back home in Maine. Just for Co. K, black bunting will adorn the Corbett, Gray, Hammond, and Sharkey homes in Eastport, and Nelson’s family will mourn him in Calais. Brisley came from Cooper, a small Washington County town then and now, and Brown hailed from Centerville.

The cost is terrible, and the regiment will never be the same.

Brian Swartz ican be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net or visit his blog at http:maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.

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