Tuesday, May 6, 2014

"For a Season Hell Laughed While Zion Wept" - Seymour's Brigade, Morning May 6

The soldier does not live who can ever forget his emotions on going into a battle.[1]
While Colonel J. Warren Keifer spent the night of May 5th/6th drifting into and out of fanciful dreams at the third division's field hospital, the survivors of Seymour's brigade had little chance for rest. "At night we slept with our guns in our hand," recalled Lorenzo D. Barnhart of Company B, 110th Ohio. "We could not sleep well, the country being so desperate and God forsaken, that we hoped we would not get killed.... None of us wished to die here."[1]

Osceola Lewis of the 138th Pennsylvania vividly remembered the eerie atmosphere as night covered the landscape:
The troops slept on their arms that eventful night within one hundred yards of the enemy's pickets. The doleful cry of the "whippoorwill," the moans of the wounded between the two lines of skirmishers; the sharp challenge of sentinels on either side; the ominous click and sudden discharge of a musket where a "halt!" was disregarded,--were sounds heard which tended to create very solemn impressions.[2]
Once the bloody fire-fight waged by the 110th Ohio and 6th Maryland had sputtered out in the deepening darkness, the exhausted front line had fallen back about two hundred yards and the soldiers struggled to find what rest they could. Colonel William H. Ball and 200 soldiers of his 122nd Ohio were detailed to picket the front of the brigade. "Through the night the rebels were actively engaged in cutting timber, strengthening their works, and moving to our right," Col. Ball reported. "Brigadier-General Seymour...was repeatedly notified during the night and early morning of the 6th of the movements of the enemy."[3]

Judging from various accounts, Truman Seymour must not have gotten much sleep either. Not only did he receive repeated warnings from Col. Ball's picket line, his other regiments heard the sounds too. "The noise of axes and falling timber was heard along the enemy's line, for he was preparing to contest his position behind strong works," recollected a veteran of the 126th Ohio.[4] Colonel Matthew R. McClennan of the 138th also sent word of the ominous sounds in front and extending to the right. "I personally reported this fact to General Seymour and recommended him to take measures to prevent a flank attack," he later wrote.[6]

Toward morning, the brigade's second line relieved the fought-out 110th Ohio and 6th Maryland. From left to right the new main line ran 122nd Ohio - 138th Pennsylvania - 126th Ohio, with the two bloodied regiments in a supporting line. As first light approached, Seymour grappled with a difficult situation. Headquarters had instructed the Sixth Corps to resume the assault at 5 a.m. as part of a larger, army-wide movement. Yet, Seymour also knew the situation in his front, and his regimental officers had certainly expressed negative views of the prospects for a successful assault from their precarious position on the federal flank. In later years the officers of his brigade criticized Seymour for failing to alert his superiors of his situation. Yet there was likely little Seymour could do to change his orders.

The restless night came to an end around 4:30 a.m. with the roar of Confederate artillery. Richard Ewell had beaten John Sedgwick to the punch, and his rebel forces swarmed over their defenses and began to push the federal skirmish line back and to probe the main line, testing its strength. The rebel foray was beaten back with relative ease, and the combat for a time settled into a constant struggle between the two skirmish lines.[7] After a few hours of this back-and-forth, Seymour received renewed orders to push his attack. Despite repeated notifications from the regimental officers on the front lines that the Confederate works extended beyond the federal lines, somewhere along the chain of command there was still hope of turning Ewell out of his entrenchments. Sometime after 7 a.m., the orders went out to the 122nd, 138th, and 126th: attack at once. Osceola Lewis recalled:
This assault...had no promises of victory, for every man who bore his part in it, from the private soldier up to the Regimental commander, knew by the experiences of the previous night, and by the difficulties already met, that such an attack in such force, was next to madness. But trusting in the sagacity of General officers and hoping for success, despite of ill prospects, these men obeyed and struggled manfully.
Colonel Benjamin F. Smith
Col. McClennan and Col. Ball, of the 138th and 122nd, stood calmly at the center of their commands, while Col. Benjamin F. Smith of the 126th sat his horse directly behind the center of his line.[8] Francis Cordrey of Company E, 126th Ohio, later remembered hearing Smith's ringing command: "Fall in! Fix bayonets! Forward - Double-quick - March!" Cordrey's account continued:
Our lines moved forward, struggling through the natural abatis, while a blast of leaden hail from the enemy's thundering guns poured in the face of our advancing line; but nearer and nearer the Stars and Stripes were carried to that parapet of death.[9]
As the ragged lines crawled through the brambles and thickets, Col. Smith remained undisturbed on his horse behind the 126th, snapping his fingers and shouting "Give it to 'em boys!" Meanwhile, in the 138th Pennsylvania, the fire cut down men left and right. Color Sergeant Samuel Aikens had his hand mangled by a bullet and dropped the flag, only to have Sergeant Charles H. Fitzgerald of Company C seize it and plant it in the ground so that he could continue to fire away with his musket.[10] Cyrus G. Cook of Company G later recalled that nearly all the men on either side of him had been killed or wounded. When he looked to his left and right he could only find First Sergeant Nicholas G. Wilson and Corporal William Reed.[11]

The three regiments advanced to within one hundred yards of the Confederate line on the slope above. Sheets of flame erupted from behind the protective earthworks. "The enemy was found to be not only in strong number," Cordrey wrote,
but situated in a strong position, having in front of it a large log heap as long as its line.... These logs received our lead, while the bodies of our country's defenders received that of the enemy. For a season, hell laughed while Zion wept.[12]
Looking up the slight slope toward the Confederate works in the vicinity of where Seymour's brigade made their assault on the
morning of May 6th. You can access this ground today by hiking the NPS "Gordon's Flank Attack" trail.
The 126th Ohio's Lieutenant Colonel Aaron W. Ebright and acting adjutant Thomas J. Hyatt had their horses killed underneath them. For perhaps an hour the federal soldiers continued the unequal contest, making little headway but suffering dreadfully.[13] Eventually, the futility of further combat became apparent to Seymour, and he issued orders for his command to fall back to its starting position. In the retrograde movement, many of the dead and wounded of the three regiments were left in no-man's land between the lines. As Cyrus G. Cook fell back with the other survivors of his company, he noted that the underbrush, which had been impenetrable during the advance, had been completely shot away by Confederate fire.[14] 

The failed charge had cost Seymour's brigade dearly. It is difficult to state the casualty figures with exactitude, as the brigade's fight on May 6th was not over. But over the course of the day the 126th Ohio lost 23 men killed, 136 wounded and 70 missing; a total of 229 men out of a regiment that numbered 578 when it crossed the Rapidan. In the 138th, the casualty lists for the battle counted 27 killed, 94 wounded, 9 missing and 26 captured - a total of 165. The 122nd Ohio recorded 18 men killed, 111 wounded, 28 missing and 28 captured, a grand total of 185. Some of these casualties, particularly the high number of missing and captured, resulted from fighting on the evening of May 6th. Yet the proportion of the casualties that resulted from the morning's charge was undoubtedly high.[15]

After the war, many of the veterans of Seymour's brigade reflected bitterly on their experiences in the Wilderness, which many deemed a useless sacrifice. Colonel William H. Ball of the 122nd Ohio complained in his report that "in the assault my regiment had no support whatever." Meanwhile Osceola Lewis summed up the feelings of many--fairly or unfairly--when he pinned the blame on the man who had led the brigade for all of two days: "The same authority that governed the unlucky day at Olustee, and led the fruitless assault on Fort Wagner, conducted this handful of braves in the charge of May 6th against fortified thousands...."[16]

Seymour's brigade had now suffered bloody repulses twice on the right flank of the Army of the Potomac. As it withdrew to its lines to rest and recover, the men could not know that before the day was out they would feel a more stinging defeat, one coupled with despair and humiliation.

[1] J.H. Gilson, Concise History of the 126th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry (Salem Ohio: Walton, Steam Job and Label Printer, 1883), 32.
[2] Lorenzo D. Barnhart, The Reminiscences of Lorenzo D. Barnhart, Company B, 110th Ohio, available online at http://www.frontierfamilies.net/family/Wildenet.htm, accessed May 3, 2014.
[3] OR XXXVI Part 1, 745.
[4] Osceola Lewis, History of the 138th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry (Norristown, PA: Wills, Iredell & Jenkins, 1866), 84.
[5] Gilson, Concise History, 33.
[6] OR XXXVI Part 1, 751.
[7] Gordon Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5-6, 1864 (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1994, 318-319);  Edward Steere, The Wilderness Campaign: The Meeting of Grant and Lee (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1960), 319-320.
[8] Lewis, History of the 138th, 85-86.
[9] Francis Cordrey, "The Wilderness: What a Private Saw and Felt in that Horrible Place," National Tribune, June 21, 1894.
[10] Lewis, History of the 138th, 85-86.
[11] "Personal Sketch of Cyrus G. Cook," Personal Sketches Presented to Corporal Skelly G.A.R. Post 9, Adams County Historical Society (1892), 51.
[12] Cordrey, "The Wilderness: What a Private Saw and Felt in that Horrible Place." NT, June 21, 1894.
[13] OR XXXVI Part 1, 748.
[14] Lewis, History of the 138th, 88; "Personal Sketch of Cyrus G. Cook," Personal Sketches.
[15] OR XXXVI Part 1, 748; Lewis, History of the 138th, 93; Moses Moorhead Granger, The Official War Record of the 122nd Regiment of Ohio Volunteer Infantry (Zanesville, Ohio: George Lilienthal, Printer, 1912), 70.
[16] OR XXVI Part I, 745; Lewis, History of the 138th, 90.

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