« PreviousContinue »
thousand to five thousand men, posted in a strong position on the opposite side of the bridge—three earth-works and a masked battery on the right and left; in advance of the stream, thirty pieces of artillery and a large force of cavalry."
In face of this portentous report of the numbers and strength of position of the enemy, the troops were drawn up in line of battle, and prepared to give fight. The soldiers, though previously fatigued by their long and rapid march, and dispirited by the fatal mistake of the previous night, were at once reanimated by the prospect of a struggle. "It put a new spirit into the men, as the word passed down the line. They were no longer tired and sleepy. Each freshened up to his place in the ranks and closed up in column."
The skirmishers, now led by Lieutenant-Colonel Warren, were again thrown forward on the right and left, supported by the advance guard of Duryea's Zouaves and three pieces of United States artillery, under the command of Lieutenant Greble. The enemy at once opened fire from their batteries directly facing the road, but our men answered with a shout, and continued to press forward.
The enemy's fire was so heavy that it was found useless to attempt to meet it directly by discharges of musketry, and accordingly the Federal forces were deployed. Lieutenant Greble, with his three howitzers, being posted in the road toward the front, was left alone to face the batteries, while the rest as
sumed positions toward the enemy's right and left, with the view of flanking.
Colonel Duryea's Zouaves and Colonel Townsend's Albany regiment crossed from the road on the left through some cultivated farm-ground and orchards, to an open field on the enemy's right, with their skirmishers in advance, and the Germans, the Massachusetts men, and Vermonters passed into a forest on the right of the road, and toward the left of the enemy.
As the Zouaves advanced, the enemy opened their batteries upon them. Colonel Duryea, however, urged them forward at the double-quick step, until, finding the fire very "destructive," he thought it prudent to seek refuge in a neighboring wood, where he halted to rest his men, and to complete his preparations for charging the batteries in flank. After remaining two hours and a half in this imperfect cover, where they were still within range of the enemy's guns, the Zouaves returned to the open field and spiritedly advanced toward the rebel batteries, with the intention of making an attempt to carry them by storm. They had not proceeded far, however, before they discovered lying across their path an almost impassable swamp, with a small stream running through it. These proved to be insurmountable obstacles. They persevered, however, with great spirit till the order came from General Pierce to retreat. Colonel Duryea, now collecting such of his killed and wounded as he could find, withdrew his men and took to the road in the rear.
The Germans, at the same time, were
acting on the right in conjunction with the Zouaves on the left, and, like them, had made several spirited attempts at charging the batteries, but foiled by the same obstacles of morass and creek and heavy fire, were also fbrced to withdraw.
Lieutenant Greble, with his three pieces of artillery, had, in the mean time, been returning the fire of the enemy with considerable effect, and had steadily advanced until he reached within two hundred yards of the Confederate works.
The skirmishers, headed by Lieutenant-Colonel Warren, had made good progress. "We continued to advance," reported Captain Kilpatrick, in command, "clearing all before us, till we reached a point just on the edge of the woods where the lire was so hot and heavy that we were compelled to halt, and there we remained as directed by Lieutenant-Colonel Warren, till that gallant officer had made dispositions to turn their flanks. The enemy's fire at this time began to tell upon us with great effect. My men were falling one after another, as was the case of the rest of the command.
"Our object being now accomplished, to remain longer in this exposed position was useless; numbers of our men being killed and wounded, having received a grape-shot through my thigh, which tore off a portion of the rectangle on Colonel Duryea's left shoulder, passed through my leg. and killed a soldier in the rear, I withdrew my men to the skirts of the wood. We managed to reach Lieutenant Greble's battery and
bring to his aid several of my men. The charge was then sounded, and Lieutenant Greble opened fire with grape and canister within two hundred yards of the enemy's lines. Captains Wmslow, Bartlett, and myself charged with our commands in front; Captain Denike and Lieutenant Duryea (son of Colonel Duryea), and about two hundred of the Troy Rifles, upon the right; Colonel Townsend, with his men, to the left. The enemy were forced out of the first battery, all the forces were rapidly advancing, and everything promised a speedy victory, when we were ordered to fall back. Where this order came from, I do not know. We maintained our position till Colonel Townsend began to retire with his whqle command. Being left thus alone, and no prospects of receiving aid, we ordered the men to fall back, which they did, and in good order, forming their line of battle about one hundred and fifty yards in the rear. A few minutes afterward, orders came from General Pierce to cease firing and retire."
Greble, after two hours of spirited work with his artillery, was struck by a cannon-ball in the head and killed instantly. With his death, the fall of the larger number of the artillerists, and the exhaustion of ammunition, it was found necessary to withdraw the guns, which was done by the Massachusetts men and Vermonters, under Lieutenant-Colonel Washburne. The body of the young lieutenant was borne off, lying upon one of those cannon which he had so gallantly served.
The New York regiment sent to reinforce the Federal troops, reached the battle-field in time to share in the engagement. The commander, Colonel Allen, in his official report, says: "Upon reporting to General Pierce, he directed me to proceed to the front and deploy my regiment in front of the battery, which I did, and so remained for one hour and forty minutes under a heavy fire of at least twenty guns, some of them rifled, and about four shell guns—the enemy deploying in my front with about 1,200 men and two guns, but made no advance. They, however, threw out two heavy flanking parties on my right and left, the former with two guns, and completely outflanked the entire brigade t at which time General Pierce deemed it proper to retire."
The number of Federal troops on the field of battle, including the reinforcements, amounted to about four thousand. Of these, sixteen were killed, thirty-four wounded, and five missing, making a total of fifty-three. The Federal loss, moreover, was increased by the fatal blunder, which resulted in killing two and wounding nineteen.
The enemy reported that their whole force engaged did not exceed eleven hundred men, under the command of General Magruder, and one killed and two wounded, as the total of their loss. One who served with them gave this account of the affair:
"On Monday morning, six hundred infantry and two guns, under General Magruder, left the camp and proceeded toward Hampton, but after advancing a
mile or two, received information that the Yankees were coming in large force. We then retired, and after reaching camp the guns were placed in battery and the infantry took their places behind their breast-work. Everybody was cool, and all were anxious to give the invaders a good reception. About nine o'clock the glittering bayonets of the enemy appeared on the hill opposite, and above them waved the star-spangled banner. The moment the head of the column advanced far enough to show one or two companies, the Parrott gun of the howitzer battery opened on them, throwing a shell right into their midst. Their ranks broke in confusion, and the column, or as much of it as we could see, retreated behind two small farm-houses. From their position a fire was opened on us, which was replied to by our battery, which commanded the route of their approach. Our firing was excellent, and the shells scattered in all directions, when they burst. They could hardly approach the guns which they were firing, for the shells which came from our battery. Within our encampment fell a perfect hail-storm of canister shot, bullets, and balls. Remarkable to say, not one of our men was killed inside of our encampment. Several horses were slain by the shells and bullets. Finding that bombardment would not answer, the enemy, about eleven o'clock, tried to carry the position by assault, but met a terrible repulse at the hands of the infantry as he tried to scale the breast-works. The men disregarded sometimes the defences
erected for ihem, and, leaping on the embankment, stood and fired at the Yankees, cutting them down as they came up. One company of the New York Seventh Regiment, under Captain Winthrop, attempted to take the redoubt on the left. The marsh they crossed was strewn with their bodies. Their captain, a fine-looking man, reached the fence, and, leaping on a log, waved his sword, crying, 'Come on, boys! one charge, and the day is ours!' The words were his last, for a Carolina rifle ended his life the next moment, and his men fled in terror back. At the redoubt on the right, a company of about three hundred New York Zouaves charged one of our guns, but could not stand the fire of the infantry, and retreated precipitately. During these charges the main body of the enemy on the hill were attempting to concentrate for a general assault, but the shells from the howitzer battery prevented them. As one regiment would give up the effort, another would be marched to the position, but with no better success, for a shell would scatter them like chaff. The men did not seem able to stand fire at all. About one o'clock their guns were silenced, and a few moments after, their infantry retreated precipitately down the road to Hampton. Our cavalry, numbering three companies, went in pursuit, and harassed them down to the edge of Hampton. As they retreated, many of the wounded fell along the road and died, and the whole road to Hampton was strewn with haversacks, overcoats, canteens, muskets,
etc., which the men had thrown off in their retreat."
The Federal officers engaged in the unfortunate affairs of Little and Big Bethel strove to justify their conduct of the expedition, or to shift upon one another the responsibility of its failure. The commander-in-chief, General Butler, consoled himself with the thought, '' in the unfortunate combination of circumstances, and the result which we have experienced, we have gained more than we have lost. Our troops have learned to have confidence in themselves under fire, the enemy have shown that they will not meet us in the open field, and our officers have learned wherein their organization and drill are deficient."
The militia Brigadier-General Pierce, who commanded the expedition, was so overwhelmed with censure, that he was forced to seek refuge within the columns of the newspaper, and persisting in the assertion of the excellence of his military conduct, promised a future justification of his skill as a commander :*
"Camp Hamilton, June 12, 1861. "To The Editors Of The Boston Jotjrnal:
"Please correct the erroneous reports set afloat by my enemies. There were but seven killed of the forces that went from this camp, in the expedition to Little and Big Bethel, on the 10th of this month, and Colonel Townsend, of the Third Regiment New York Volunteers, who was formerly adjutant-gen
e His justification was subsequently published. It cast the blame upon his superior in command.
eral of the State of New York, offers to certify that I gave my orders properly, and that, under the circumstances, the battle could not have been managed better.
"This I write that the public may not judge me before I have time to be heard.
"Captain Haggerty and Major Winthrop, of General Butler's staff, were with me, and advising me to do as I did. General Butler has not intimated to me, as yet, that he blames me at all. In haste, yours, E. W. Pieece."
He subsequently confessed his incompetency as an officer by modestly retiring from the brigadier-generalship, and proved his patriotism by serving as a private in the ranks.
The soldiers unquestionably behaved with even more gallantry and firmness than might have been expected from raw troops, indiscreetly exposed to the batteries of a concealed and numerous enemy, and unskilfully managed by incompetent leaders. There were many instances of individual courage, which proved the spirit of the men and their capability, under proper command, of effectively serving the cause which they had so eagerly adopted.
During the retreat, Captain Wilson, of Colonel Carr's regiment of Troy (N. Y.), finding that a six-pounder had been left on the field, about fifty rods from the battery, shouted to his men: "Boys! there's a cannon; we must not leave it behind; we must take it with us." The whole company to a man cried out, "We'll take it;" and they were immediately marched back to ob
tain the piece. They had hardly reached it, when the enemy opened fire upon them, killing one of the brave fellows and wounding two others. The dragropes were detached, but the men tied them to the gun, in the midst of a shower of shot, and with a cheer ran it into the woods bordering the road. Captain Wilson, then, followed by five men, returned once more to the exposed spot to which the enemy's fire was hotly aimed, and securing the caisson, and also the body of poor Greble, who had fallen dead at his post, retired again to the cover of the woods, whence he retreated in safety with his hard-earned trophies. A score of men only, under the command of Lieutenant White, after firing their last charges from their howitzer, were left far in the rear, and being the last to leave the field, kept at bay a squadron of the enemy's cavalry and some infantry during their retreat to the main body.
The young Major Winthrop fell while gallantly urging on the troops, by his example and stirring words, to the attack. A fellow-officer who was with him during the engagement has testified to his spirit. "I made a reconnoissance," he said, "with Major Winthrop about twelve o'clock in the day, and can testify to his bravery and daring. He was very much exhausted, having wanted for sleep, food, and water, and the day had turned out very hot. We stuck our heads out of some underbrush, and instantly there was a perfect shower of balls rained upon us, which compelled us to withdraw a few paces. Major