Wednesday, November 27, 2013

French's Pets - First Blood at Payne's Farm

Part 5 in a series. Click here to see other related posts.

Just after midnight on November 27, 1863, Army of the Potomac Headquarters issued a circular to corps commanders outlining the orders for the following morning. After a frustrating day of delays crossing the Rapidan River, General George Gordon Meade hoped that he could still steal a march on Robert E. Lee and strike the Army of Northern Virginia's right flank with overwhelming force. Headquarters set the movement of the army for 7 a.m. The Second Corps under Maj. Gen. G.K. Warren would push out on the Orange Turnpike to
ward New Verdierville, while the rest of the army would endeavor to close on the 2nd at that location and protect its flanks. Once assembled, Meade hoped his army could strike a blow.

The army's camps stirred early the next morning. As he began to execute his orders, Third Corps commander Maj. Gen. William French ran into difficulty navigating the unfamiliar network of country paths through the Wilderness. Aware of his proximity to the enemy, French proceeded cautiously. His second division under General Henry Prince led the march, and third division commander Joseph Bradford Carr kept his men close behind, with flanking parties sent out to protect the column's right flank. Prince received authority to call upon his supports if needed. Meanwhile, French sent word to Headquarters that most of his artillery, which had a nightmare of a time crossing the Rapidan on the 26th, had still not arrived, and that horses and men would be in no shape for further exertions when they did. At 9:20 a.m., he sent another communication to headquarters:
The head of my column is near the Plank Road and waiting for General Warren.
Meade already blamed French for many of the delays experienced on the 26th, and now tensions between Headquarters and the Third Corps escalated. In reply to French, an exasperated Chief of Staff Andrew A. Humphreys wrote:
What are you waiting for? No orders have been sent to you to wait for General Warren anywhere upon your route. Robertson's Tavern is the point where he takes precedence and he is there now engaged with the enemy who are in strong force. He is waiting for you. The commanding general directs that you move forward as rapidly as possible to Robertson's Tavern where your corps is wanted.
Close to noon, French reported to headquarters that the enemy had appeared in force along his front on the Raccoon Ford Road. Headquarters ordered French to attack, and to throw his left forward in an attempt to connect with Warren's men. The Battle of Payne's Farm was about to begin.

The ridge ascended by Morris's men in their charge at Payne's Farm.
The meeting engagement took place between Prince's second division and Confederates under command of Edward Johnson at the intersection of the Jacob's Ford Road and the Raccoon Ford Road. When it bogged down into a stalemate in the untamed woods adjacent to these two roads, Prince sent back word to his supports in the third division. First to arrive on the scene was the brigade of Colonel William H. Morris, consisting of the 14th New Jersey, the 5th New York Heavy Artillery, the 151st New York, and the 10th Vermont. These troops were almost entirely green. They moved into the woods on Prince's left flank, and took position at the bottom of a ridge. The brigade advanced, crossing over a small stream and scaling the ridge in its front. Their arrival coincided with a Confederate attempt to turn Prince's flank, and Morris's men drove Confederate skirmishers back while taking casualties.

The noise of battle grew to a crescendo. "It was truly a baptism of fire," according to The History of the 10th Vermont Volunteers, USA, "while it was a deluge of lead and iron that swept over us. The musketry was not in the least of a jerky or intermittent sort, but one continuous roll." On the other side of the engagement, a member of the 3rd North Carolina reported that it was "as warm a contest as this regiment was ever engaged in.... it seemed as if the enemy was throwing minie-balls upon us by the bucket-full."

Accompanying the Third Corps on this afternoon, New York Herald correspondent Thomas E. Cook penned a full account of the action:
At first it was exclusively musketry, and right lively it was. I have heard it surpassed, but not often. It was a continuous, deafening roar, rising louder and fiercer as additional troops became engaged, running along the line from right to left, until finally the whole line was engaged. Then gradually the roar modulated into a distinct rattle as the first volleys were discharged and the men were required to load their pieces. Then came a shout, a long, glad shout of triumph, as the charging foe fell back dismayed before the steady and unflinching fire of our valiant men.
"This was the first severe action these men had participated in," Cook recorded of Morris's men....
They are a portion of the recent accession to the corps, and, with the remainder of the division, have been impatient to show the old veterans of the corps that they were not made of inferior stuff. The opportunity was well improved.
Morris's men crested the rise of ground and found shelter behind a worm fence at the edge of the woods. Colonel J. Warren Keifer's 2nd brigade moved behind Morris's men and lengthened the battle line on his left flank. Keifer's men, the 6th Maryland, 110th and 122nd Ohio, and the 138th Pennsylvania, had seen scarcely more combat than the 1st brigade. Yet the two brigades arrayed behind the fence presented a formidable position, and soon Confederate battle lines appeared to resume the contest. "They came out in splendid battle array, with waving banners..." Sergeant John R. King of the 6th Maryland recalled, "It was a desperate attempt to dislodge us." Osceola Lewis of the 138th recorded his account of what happened next on the left end of Carr's battle line:
J. Warren Keifer
'Get ready men!' commanded Colonel McClennan, and the 'click' of five hundred muskets gave notice that it was done. Then burst forth in thundering tones five hundred iron throats, and 'buck and ball' were hurled against the advancing enemy with telling effect. His lines wavered, hesitated and finally halted, but the storm of battle did not abate. The opposing lines became wrapt in one dense sheet of musketry, and from left to right the terrible crash of arms resounded.
The 138th used its .69 caliber muskets with deadly effect at close range, but suffered in return. Colonel McClellan was carried from the field after a minie ball pierced his foot, while Captain Charles Fisher of Company A and Adjutant J.W. Cress also suffered serious wounds. Morris and Keifer's men withstood multiple Confederate charges, and clung to their position for several hours, until ammunition ran out. Near dark, the troops were relieved by men from David Birney's first division. They retired to the rear and took stock of their losses. In the 110th Ohio, the men mourned the loss of Lieutenant James A. Fox. "He had risen from the ranks, but was a proud-spirited and promising officer," Colonel Keifer would relate, "We buried him at midnight, in full uniform, wrapped in his blanket, behind a near-by garden fence." In all, Keifer lost 172 men, though he proudly noted that none had been captured.

The Battle of Payne's Farm or Locust Grove was inconclusive. The federal lines held against a foe with inferior numbers, but the battle delayed French's Corps for an entire afternoon, buying time for Robert E. Lee to react to the Army of the Potomac's attempt to turn his flank. The lost time doomed Meade's Mine Run Campaign. Yet for French's Pets, the battle marked a first opportunity to prove themselves in battle, and they made the most of their chance. Writing for the Herald, correspondent Cook summed up his thoughts of the green soldiers:  "Althogether, this division did nobly. It was their baptism under fire, and henceforth they must be sharers in the glory and renown of the gallant to which they are attached."

Not all agreed fully with Cook's assessment. The third brigade of Carr's division, under Colonel Benjamin F. Smith, fell into confusion as it passed through a low, swampy thicket in an attempt to extend Keifer's flank. It retired in confusion after Confederates skirmishers fired upon it in this state. By and large, the rest of the Army of the Potomac would take little notice of the performance put in by Carr's two remaining brigades. In the aftermath of the Mine Run Campaign's failure, the spotlight would fall not on his men, but on French himself, and on his slow and deliberate performance. Meade's volunteer aide Theodore Lyman summed up views at Headquarters when he wrote home:
If you ask what were the causes of failure, they lie in a nutshell - Slowness and want of Detail. We have fought for two years and a half, but it takes no wiseacre to see that we have yet much to learn. Were it not for the remarkable intelligence of the men, we could not do even as well as we do...
Meade blamed French for the campaign's failures, and that winter would find no place for French in his reorganized army.

A Note on Sources:
Sources include several regimental histories and personal memoirs available via google books and other online archives. I also utilized the Official Records, Thomas E. Cook's account of the battle that appeared in the New York Herald on December 4th, 1863, and the interpretive signage on the Payne's Farm Battlefield completed by the Civil War Trust.

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