Ordered to charge Confederate defenses at Rappahannock Station, Va. after dark on Saturday, Nov. 7, 1863, the men of the 6th Maine Infantry Regiment believe they are going in alone.
“Probably so small a number of men never before made such an uproar,” Adjutant Charles Clark will comment long afterwards.
But behind him (and probably unseen by Clark in the deep November darkness) spreads the 5th Wisconsin Infantry, the 6th Maine’s “sister” regiment. Both outfits have fought side by side for a long time; the men from Maine and Wisconsin admire their counterparts from the Upper Midwest and New England.
Division commander Brig. Gen. David Russell has ordered Lt. Col. Benhamin Harris to delay his assault until the 5th Wisconsin moves into position, but “the boys were either anxious to share the glory alone or misunderstood the order,” 1st Sgt. William Coan recalls.
Suddenly “the order for the attack was given” by Harris; “the regiment … rushed forward to the assault,” Clark says.
Their muskets uncapped (loaded, but lacking percussion caps), the 6th Maine boys leap to their feet and charge. Screaming a “continuous yell which every man kept up until the fortifications in front of us were reached,” the soldiers race in their double line, Clark recalls.
The Louisianans defending the redoubts loosen a volley. “The fire which was open upon us as we swept forward was simply terrific,” notices Clark, running with his sword drawn. “It is impossible to describe it. The sensation with me was that the air was so filled with bullets that it was heated to a high degree of temperature and scalded my throat and lungs when inhaled.
“Seized with the wildest transports of rage and frenzy,” the angry Mainers scream their fury as they charge toward “a blind inscrutable force which defied all of our efforts to reach it or grapple with it,” Clark says.
Capt. Walter Morrill tells his 20th Maine Infantry men skirmishing beyond the 6th Maine’s left flank that they lack orders to join the charge. He’s going, but he won’t order them to come with him, but they can if they want.
And they does so “because they … thought we needed help,” Clark quips later.
Over on the right flank, the 121st New York and the 5th Maine have already gone belly to earth under orders to hold the positions they had gained earlier. Brigade commander Brig. Gen. Emory Upton has received no orders to support the 6th Maine.
Russell will later report that as the Maine boys launch their charge, Capt. J.D. Fish of the 121st New York’s Co. D. will lead his men into the melee.
Confederate infantry fire repeatedly at the swiftly approaching 6th Maine. Men go down, but their comrades ignore the pathetic screaming and mewling. “Onward!” Harris urges his men, they wade through a water-filled ditch, and suddenly the first Mainers reach the redoubts’ walls.
Color Sgt. John Gray, that magnificent and crazy fool of a hero who had carried the regimental flag up and over the Sunken Road and Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg last May 3, now carries that flag up a redoubt wall defended by the 8th Louisiana.
No miracle spares Gray this night; Confederates shoot him dead.
Other 6th Maine boys scramble up the redoubts’ earthen walls. Climbing near where Gray died, Otis Roberts leaps down among the defenders. So does 2nd Lt. John Honey; “when I mounted the parapet and looked down into the fort[,] it was full of Rebels[,] and I didn’t know what was the best to do,” he recalls. “I concluded it was best to go in after having come so far[,] and down I went.”
“We entered the enemy’s lines attenuated and scattered a handful [of Maine soldiers] here and there among swarms of the enemy,” Clark notices. “At the point where I entered [a redoubt] there seemed to be a Confederate army to two or three of us.”
Wild fighting engulfs the relatively few Maine boys stabbing and clubbing the enemy soldiers swarming around them. “Bayonets slid into strong men’s bosoms. Gunstocks smashed skulls to the chin[,] and some not content with their murderous weapons threw them down and[,] drawing their knives, slashed into each other, howling all the time like maddened wolves,” Coan recalls.
Captured when he lands alone among the defenders, Roberts gains his freedom moments later. Five Maine berserkers land beside him; Roberts snatches up a musket, and the six men attack the nearest Confederates. Thrusting with their bayonets and thumping skulls with musket butts, the 6th Maine boys plow into the few men still standing around the 8th Louisiana’s colors; Roberts captures them.
Avoiding the messy details, Clark does not deny that “he drove his sword into his adversary.” He sees “a sudden reenforcement (sic) for us” appear “in the gigantic form” of a 6th Maine sergeant, “the most devout Christian I have ever known.
“He was our praying sergeant” who “never failed to address the throne of grace in solemn and earnest prayer” before turning in each night, Clark describes his savior. Now the sergeant “came up with an infuriated yell[,] and with profanity which was fierce and appalling he aided with bayonet and clubbed musket in speedily dispersing the enemy around us.”
Ascending a parapet, Furlong and his Co. D plunge into the hard-fighting Confederates. “After emptying his revolver” he “fought with a clubbed musket[,] swinging it around his head until he fell dead,” Clark says later. “After the battle his body was found among a pile of [enemy] dead, several of whom had been killed by the blows of a musket stock.”
“I never saw men fight like our boys did,” says Pvt. Henry White of Sangerville. “They jumped over the rifle pits and went into them with clubbed rifles and bayonets.”
Savage fighting pushes the two Louisiana regiments from the redoubts, but counterattacking Confederates now shove the 6th Maine boys backwards. “The Confederate guns” (cannons) around which the men fight “were defended with desperate bravery and determination,” Clark says. “The rebel yell mingled with our cheers of victory[,] and the musketry on both sides continued sharp and furious.”
Morrill and his 20th Maine lads attack the eastern redoubt, get tossed out twice, and go back for good a third time. The 5th Maine and 121st New York hit the Confederates’ left flank downriver from the redoubts, and the 5th Wisconsin now “stormed the works [where the 6th Maine fought] and springing over them were engaged in a desperate struggle[,] some of the fighting being hand to hand” and “bayonets being freely used,” Clark says.
The redoubt fighting surges back and forth; Union troops suddenly eject their opponents, and Confederate defenses collapse. Some Johnnies run for the pontoon bridge; others swim the river. The 49th and 119th Pennsylvania infantry regiments pour into the redoubts, and Confederates surrender in their hundreds, an estimated 1,200 in all.
“Just before the firing ceased[,] a minie bullet struck my left leg[,] and I rolled from the rifle pit upon which I was standing with a confused feeling of rage and utter helplessness,” Clark recalls.
“Realizing that my own [wound] was what the boys called just a good furlough wound,” Clark waits until stretcher bearers find him. “As I was being carried from the field … we accidentally came across [Capt. S.W.] Russell in the dark[,] and I recognized his voice.”
The young Russell is David Russell’s son and aide. “Finding how desperately and fearfully wounded he was … I made the men take me from the stretcher and carry my comrade and friend to the field hospital,” Clark recalls. “Speedy and skillful succor and a good constitution brought him through all right.”
Clark survives, too, although his wound “concluded my campaigning with the Sixth Maine.”
On Nov. 8 he receives a hospital visitor, the chagrined Christian sergeant who “in a spirit of deep contrition implored me to forget the awful frenzy that had taken possession of him when he fought the foe at such close quarters.”
Dawn on Sunday reveals the carnage within the Confederate defenses. Clark reports the 6th Maine’s casualties as 38 enlisted men killed and 101 wounded; of the 21 officers who charged with the regiment, “sixteen were killed or wounded,” he calculates.
The 139 casualties represent 43 percent of the 6th Maine’s strength in early afternoon.
Among the people exploring the battlefield the next day are Thomas Hyde of Bath, who had led the 7th Maine Infantry in its disastrous charge at Antietam, and the artist Edwin Forbes. “I counted forty of the 6th Maine, great stalwart fellows, lying dead, close to each other,” Hyde says.
Forbes sketches the Union soldiers inside a captured redoubt. Some cluster around a captured Confederate flag (Union boys took three on Nov. 7), and a solitary captured cannon peers north over the ramparts.
One Union soldier kneels poignantly beside a fallen comrade whom Forbes brusquely identifies as a “dead soldier.”
The battle is over, but the ramifications of Rappahannock Station have just begun for many Maine lads and their families. Roberts is home in Maine on. Dec. 28 when “the president of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor” to him for capturing the “the flag of 8th Louisiana Infantry (Confederate States of America) in a hand-to-hand struggle with the Color Bearer.”
Reuel Furlong will go home, too, to a hero’s funeral and burial in the Calais City Cemetery.
Harris suffered a bad leg wound; he will survive, but not so Pvt. Thomas Tibbetts of Co. D (and Calais), whom Harris reports as “dangerously” wounded and then “since dead.” He initially describes Sgt. Henry Tapley of Co. E as “mortally” wounded, but “since dead,” too, Pvt. Greenleaf Webster of Co. E succumbs to his wound. Tapley and Webster are Bucksport men.
The casualty report that Harris files with Maine Adjutant Gen. John Hodgdon goes on line after line for 4¼ long pages. Name follows name in sequence by companies, two officers are outright killed, and Co. D’s 1st Lt. Henry Waite later dies from his wounds.
He and Furlong will travel home together.
In Co. A, Pvt. Ozro Davis is dead. So are Corp. Oliver Goodwin and four privates of Co. B. So is Lt. James McKinley of Co. E, which the Confederates have absolutely hammered; excluding McKinley, the company’s casualty list extends to 22 names.
Each listed beside a number, the names continue for 139 lines. In numerical order, the dead heroes of Co. K are Sgts. George Corbett (103) and John Gray (104), Corp. Thomas Sharkey (105), and privates George Brown (106), Thomas Brisley (107), Charles Hammond (108), and Charles Nelson (109). Listed on Line 110 is the first of Co. K’s wounded, Sgt. Thatcher Vose.
Every name on Harris’s report represents a family back home in Maine. Just for Co. K, black bunting will adorn the Corbett, Gray, Hammond, and Sharkey homes in Eastport, and Nelson’s family will mourn him in Calais. Brisley came from Cooper, a small Washington County town then and now, and Brown hailed from Centerville.
The 6th Maine Infantry Regiment has again covered itself in blood and glory, and the “win” at Rappahannock Station represents one of the war’s few successful nighttime attacks. But the cost is terrible, and the regiment will never be the same.
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com.