Seven days after surviving a horrific battle in Virginia in August 1862, Abial Hall Edwards shared his vivid memories with the young Maine woman who would one day become his wife.
Had one particular Confederate bullet zipped a few inches lower, the marriage would never have occurred.
Born in Casco in 1843, Edwards worked a little while at a Lewiston textile mill in 1861. There he met 18-year-old Anna Lucinda Conant of Canton; like many Maine women, she sought employment in Lewiston to support herself.
The patriotic Edwards enlisted in Co. K, 10th Maine Infantry Regiment, on Friday, Sept. 6, 1861. The company numbered 115 officers and enlisted men when it mustered into the United States Army in Portland on Friday, Oct. 4.
After leaving Maine two days later, Edwards started receiving mail from his sister, Marcia, and from some young women in Lewiston. The letters written by Conant soon captured his attention; addressing his first letter to her on April 16, 1862, Edwards would spend the next three years sharing with her his eyewitness accounts of bloody battles.
The first such description came in a letter written from Culpeper Court House, Va. on Saturday, Aug. 16, 1862. Just seven days earlier the federal Army of Virginia, commanded by Maj. Gen. John Pope, had attacked Confederate troops commanded by Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson beside a Virginia hill called Cedar Mountain.
Led by Col. George Lafayette Beal, the 10th Maine marched into battle in a brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Samuel Crawford, a Pennsylvanian. In his Aug. 16 letter to Conant, Edwards explained what happened when the 10th Maine crossed a wheatfield north of the Culpeper Road late in the battle.
Initially concealed in woods, the under-strength regiment emerged from the treeline and advanced against at least 11 Confederate regiments: Alabamians, Georgians, North Carolinians, Tennesseans, and Virginians. The Maine boys marched unsupported after enduring a pounding by enemy artillery.
“Dear Friend since I wrote to you last the 1st Brigade Composed of the 10th Maine 5th Conn — 28th N.Y. & 46 Penn — Regts has been in the most bloody Battle of the war,” Edwards wrote. On Friday, Aug, 8, “we marched about 5 miles tward the Rapidam [sic] and stoped [sic] for the night” as Confederate “Pickets were close to us.”
While Confederate and Union artillery batteries banged away below Cedar Mountain on that blistering hot Saturday, Aug. 9, Crawford’s brigade waited. About 4:30 p.m. “our Brigade had orders to advance and fire at” nearby enemy infantry, Edwards wrote. The brigade attacked without the 10th Maine, temporarily detailed to support nearby Federal artillery.
Word soon came for Beal to take his regiment into action. “This was a solemn time for many Anna for we knew that some would never leave [the battlefield] alive,” Edwards remembered.
“When I entered the feild [sic] I never expected to leave it alive but I felt willing and ready if it need be to offer up my life,” he told Conant.
The brigade “advanced steadily through the woods the enimy’s bullets flying in all directions until we got into a feild [sic] in sight of them,” he informed her. “Then our Regt advanced with loud cheers [and with] the Old Stars and Stripes flying in our Center.”
The imagery remains striking more than 150 years later. The 10th Maine Infantry marched in two long lines, with the national and regimental flags proudly carried by the color guard. As the regiment advanced and men in the first line tumbled when stuck by lead bullets, the so-called “file closers” — the men directly behind the now open holes — stepped forward to keep the front line intact.
“The path of the Maine soldiers into the field took them down a gentle slope, then up the midfield rise and over its top,” wrote Robert K. Krick in “Stonewall Jackson at Cedar Mountain.” Survivors of the retreating 1st Brigade, sent into the fight earlier without the 10th Maine, fled past the advancing regiment and around the wheat shocks scattered across the field; Beal shouted at his Maine boys to give their bloodied comrades three cheers.
The 10th Maine ultimately deployed “in the middle of the [wheat]field near the crest of the ridge and opened fire against the woods to the west,” Krick wrote. After retreating Union troops finally vanished, “the Tenth Maine loosed what its veterans always remembered as its mightiest volley of the war,” he wrote.
“We kept on close to them [even with] their bullitts [sic] doing fearful work in our ranks,” wrote Edwards. “Our Regiment stood their ground and fought bravely while the enimy sent Regiment after Regt and Brigade after Brigade to fight us.”
The 10th Maine boys maintained their alignment as they traded multiple volleys with Confederate infantry. Casualties piled up. Captain Andrew C. Cloudman of Portland commanded Company E; he “stood by my side and was shot down,” apparently “the first one” to fall, but Edwards could not be sure; amidst the gun smoke and frightful battle din, he could not see far to his right or left across the wheatfield‘s uneven terrain. Other Maine men probably fell before Cloudman did.
“The fellow that was standing with me was shot in the face,” Edwards remembered the fate that befell the soldier standing in line behind him. “The bullet that wounded him just grazed my ear[,] causing it to bleed.
“Another bullitt [sic] passed through the top of my cap” and “a buck shot [went] through my coat sleeve and still I remained uninjured,” Edwards recalled.
He estimated that “we were in the engagement just 30 minutes”; some other 10th Maine survivors thought that they stood and fought for only five minutes. Confederate infantry soon threatened the regiment’s right flank, and there the Maine boys dropped in droves.
Beal correctly “read” his regiment’s fortune and soon ordered his men to retreat. Leaving many comrades in the wheat field, the 10th Maine boys broke for the woods behind them.
Many got away; many did not. Crawford’s 1st Brigade “went into action with just 1,630 men,” and “only 811 men came out uninjured,” a figure “just ½ lacking four killed and wounded” to represent a 50-percent casualty rate, Edwards calculated.
As for the 10th Maine Infantry, he told Conant that 480 men had marched toward the enemy and that the regiment had lost “176 killed and wounded,” with “24 out of the number killed on the feild.
“My company went into the fight with near 20 men,” a shocking number compared against the 115 soldiers who had mustered with Company K in October 1861. Edwards counted “16 wounded [including himself] 1 killed and 1 missing,” meaning that his company suffered 90-percent casualties.
The 10th Maine’s official records indicated that the regiment suffered 173 casualties among the 461 men who went into battle. Company K officially lost one soldier killed and 14 wounded.
Crawford, his shattered brigade, and other Union troops withdrew from the battlefield after dark. Stonewall Jackson withdrew on Sunday, Aug. 10, and Union troops reoccupied the body-strewn fields beneath Cedar Mountain.
“Oh Anna the scene is awful beyond description,” Edwards struggled to convey the horror of a modern battlefield to a 19-year-old woman living far away in Lewiston. “Th[e] enimy retreated The next day leaving the Battle field in our possession.
“They did not even stop to bury their own dead all of them,” he wrote.
The 10th Maine boys sought their dead and missing after returning to the site of the regiment’s gallant stand. As they walked across the battlefield, Edwards and his comrades discovered evidence of ghoulish behavior that occurred well after dark on Saturday.
“The Rebels held possession of the Battle ground that night and robbed our dead and even robbed the Pockets of the wounded[,] takeing [sic] of the shoes from both our dead and wounded” and “also stripping our dead Officers of every thing they had on,” Edwards wrote in a passage that probably shocked Conant.