…Our company made the last charge. The general was killed, shot by 5 balls; nobody knew who was the senior in command & Col. Lee ordered a retreat. But we were determined to have one more shot. So Frank ordered a charge & we rushed along, followed by all our men without an exception, & by Lieut. Hallowell with 20 men, making about 60 in all. So we charged across the field about half way, when we saw the enemy in full sight. They had just come out of the wood & had halted at our advance. There they were in their dirty gray clothes, their banner waving, cavalry on the flank. For a moment there was a pause. And then, simultaneously, we fired & there came a murderous discharge from the full rebel force. Of course we retreated, but not a man went faster than a walk.
When we got back to the wood, we found the whole regiment cut to pieces & broken up, all the other forces gone & Col. Lee sitting under a tree, swearing he wouldn’t go another step, but had rather be taken prisoner. However, we got him to go & we all started down the bank, every body knowing, however, there was no chance of an escape. The col. Ordered a surrender & had a white flag raised but the rebels fired on us & we were obliged to retreat to the river’s edge, the rebels pouring down a murderous fire…
We rallied the men & then proposed to swim across… Most of them reached the opposite shore in safety, notwithstanding a heavy fire opened on the swimmers immediately…
The good of the action is this. It shows the pluck of our men. They followed their commanders admirably, except in the last charge that we made. Cas wanted to go with us but his men, who had been pretty well cut up, refused to follow. He swore & raved awfully, but it was no go.
The men of our company couldn’t possibly have behaved better. They never fired once without an order. They never advanced without an order, as all the rest did. They never retreated without an order, as some of the others did. Inshort, they never once lost their presence of mind, & behaved as well as if on the parade ground.
Give my love to mamma & the rest.
Your aff. Son,
Henry Livermore Abbot to Josiah Gardner Abbott. H.L. Abbott was a second lieutenant in Company I, 20th Massachusetts Regiment.
Swim Across The River
There were disasters on many Civil War battlefields (beyond the battle itself). Sometimes leadership troubles or logistics caused the problems; other times it was topography. Hills, slopes, sunken roads, stonewall, orchards, cornfields, mountains, rocks, bramble bushes, rivers, creeks, fords, etc. etc. created plenty of challenges. Battlefields weren’t perfect, flat park-like settings (contrary to what we sometimes see at re-enactments…at least on the west coast.)
Rivers made plenty of trouble – especially at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. On October 21, 1861, Union troops were literally stranded on the Southern side of the Potomac River. The fight was going against them, and they retreated to the bluffs. (More battle details in the last week’s blog post.) Unfortunately, there wasn’t a shallow ford. No boats. No pontoon bridges. Desperate Union soldiers tried to swim across the river. The Confederates followed them to the river bank, continuing to fire at the retreating soldiers. A number of Union soldiers were killed or injured as they tried to swim across the river.
Did the leaders learn from the transportation/retreat disaster at Ball’s Bluff? Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. (Wait ’til you meet General Burnside in 1862!)
20th Massachusetts Regiment’s First Battle
Organized at the end of August and beginning of September, the 20th Massachusetts Regiment spent the early months of service on guard duty. Ball’s Bluff was their first battle.
First battles were always a milestone for the soldiers in the units. It was a testing of their training and courage. It set precedent and established (or broke) their reputations in the brigade and division.
The 20th Massachusetts survived their first combat and took pride in their battle actions. They would go on to fight at most of the major battles in the east including The Peninsula Campaign, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Bristoe Station, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Petersburg, and the Appomattox Campaign.
Military pride. It’s a crucial balance. If soldiers and leaders are too over-confident and rash, there’s a problem…but – at the same time – a unit has to have a “proper” level of pride. It’s part of what keeps soldiers together in that unit and keeps them moving forward (or retreating in good order). Unit reputation plays a role in all wars.
There was an added component of military pride during the Civil War. With regiments recruited from states and usually from certain counties or communities, there was added pressure: representing their state or town. If a regiment got a cowardly reputation, it would reflect on their community. If they were incredibly brave, it was positive and brought glory (albeit usually tragic glory) to their home state/town.
P.S. I wonder how Henry Abbott’s mother felt when she read the letter?