Thursday, March 7, 2013

Cold Harbor: A Soldier's View - Continued

See Part One
See Part Two

Rain continued to fall during the night of Thursday, June 2, 1864 at Cold Harbor, as a front moved through bringing cooler temperatures. At roughly 3 o'clock on the morning of June 3 Colonel George M. Guion roused the men of the 148th New York and ordered them to prepare breakfast. The men made a hasty meal and before 4 a.m. began to move through the mists to the front. Lieutenant General Grant had ordered an army-wide assault to begin at 4:30, and the 148th was assigned to lead Brig. Gen. John H. Martindale's division toward the Confederate works.

General Martindale had received orders to form his command in columns of division in mass, deploy a strong line of skirmishers, and to advance along a ravine that led toward the Confederate entrenchments. Martindale deployed his men in the compact, exceedingly narrow formation prescribed. The total width of his front was two companies in double line, with regiments stacked one behind another. To head the assault column he chose the brigade of Colonel Griffin A. Stedman, Jr. For his skirmishers: the 148th New York.

Stedman's brigade would advance along the north side of the ravine. At promptly 4:30, the brigade moved out, with the men of the 148th deployed forward at very short intervals to cover the brigade's front and right flank. Behind the New Yorkers came the 12th New Hampshire heading the assault column. The men moved through a line of trees, pushing Confederate skirmishers back until they reached a clearing that stretched nearly 400 yards over flat, open ground to the Confederate main line. Here, the 148th halted and skirmished with the rebels while the rest of the brigade closed up in the woods behind them. On the right of the 148th's line the woods had fallen away more quickly, leaving the soldiers little or no cover as they skirmished in the open fields. Sergeant John L. Hoster and his comrades likely spent much of this morning lying in prone position as they sparred with their Confederate counterparts.

While the skirmish action heated up, Colonel Stedman halted the brigade in the trees to await the sounds of the rest of the 18th Corps's attack. Mounted and brandishing a ramrod as a sword, Stedman had ordered his men to uncap their pieces and to fix bayonets. He wanted his men to take the Confederate works with a rush when the orders came.

Veteran Mississippians, Alabamians, and Georgians held the Confederate line opposite Stedman's brigade, and had spent all night fortifying it. According to historian Gordon Rhea, the rebels awaited the assault in two lines behind waist-high breastworks. They had taken advantage of the terrain to form a horseshoe shaped line that would allow them to fire on federal attackers from three directions.

Soon enough, General Martindale heard firing off to his left and ordered his division forward. While the 148th held its ground skirmishing, the deep columns of Stedman's command pushed forward intrepidly. In his official report, Colonel Stedman recalled the scene as the 12th New Hampshire rushed forward:
Immediately a heavy fire of musketry was poured upon the whole left flank, mingled with grape and canister. So intense was this flank fire as to confuse the rear and push it constantly to the right, but with determined bravery the column pushed on over a perfectly open and level field, which is considered the most effective obstacle that can be opposed to advancing troops. The head of the column reached the rifle-pits of the enemy, from which their skirmishers were driven. At this moment the enemy opened upon the head of the column a fearful fire of musketry, grape, and canister, none having been fired from that point of their works before. No troops could advance under it, and the brigade, already decimated by the flank fire, broke upon meeting the direct, and retiring to the woods reformed, ready, if ordered, to repeat the attempt.
Leading the assault, the 12th New Hampshire suffered fearfully, losing over half of its strength. Seeing the futility of its charge, Colonel Stedman ordered his brigade back to the treeline, where they remained under harassing fire for much of the rest of the day. Here the men threw up breastworks using cups, plates, bayonets and whatever other tools they possessed.

For the 148th, June 3 had been a harrowing day as they faced the Army of Northern Virginia for the first time. The regiment had lost over 100 men skirmishing in the fields in front of the Confederate works that morning, including more than thirty killed or mortally wounded. On June 7, Chaplain Ferris Scott wrote home to update his friends and neighbors on the casualty lists in the regiment. For Company A, Sergeant Hoster's company, he reported the following losses:
Co. A—Marvin Burroughs, right hand; Thomas O'Grady, left side and arm; L. B. Cross, left hip, slight; Samuel Scott, right temple, slight; Serg't Fred S. Gibbs, face; James H. Stout, both legs and arms; Serg't H. W. Rumsey, leg; Corp. Thos. Pringle, finger—is on duty; Corp. John O'Keisinger, killed; Theodore Van Rennselaer, abdomen, mortally; George Matthews, both legs, slight; Thos. Hastie, left fore-finger; Burton A. Tuttle, right thumb; Charles D. Graham, right shoulder; William White, both thighs, flesh wounds; Joseph Feeder, heel, slight; Isaac Conkey, neck and breast; _. W. Pilbeam, left foot; David B. Hull, rght elbow; William J. Updike, ankle out of joint; John Hanntz, killed; Michael Dunnington, killed.
Late on the evening of June 3, after a long and emotionally draining day, John L. Hoster wrote a brief entry into his diary:
Friday, June 3rd
Cool and pleasant to those who are not exposed to the fire of Johnny Reb. We were called up at 3 o'clock and told to get our breakfast. We moved in three quarters of an hour to the front, and our regiment went out as skirmishers. We marched near the enemy's works and met with a terrible slaughter. We were forced to fall back on the rifle pits. Our Company then moved to the left where we lay till we were relieved at night. There were only 4 or 5 of us with the Lt.
[Cortland Van Rensselaer] when we came in, the rest being scattered far and wide. We went back to the rifle pit where we spent the night. Some of our boys were wounded by shell from our own battery. Ball struck twice near my head, filling my eyes with dust, I saw Reb flag and piece of artillery through my glass.
The end of Grant's failed assault at Cold Harbor was just the beginning for Sergeant Hoster. The next ten days would be some of his most eventful during the war.

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