After Col. Charles Herring reached the expanding battlefield northwest of Spotsylvania Court House, Va. at 10 a.m. on Sunday, May 8, 1864, Union generals kept maneuvering his ad hoc brigade hither and yon throughout the day to meet threats imagined and real as fighting engulfed nearby Laurel Hill.
At 6 p.m., according to Pvt. Theodore Gerrish of Co. H, 20th Maine Infantry, “we were again pushed up to the front, where our lines were being formed, to assault the enemy’s position near Laurel hill.”
Fifth Corps commander Gouverneur K. Warren had hurled other charges against the Confederate infantrymen entrenching along the hill; his regiments suffered terrible casualties in the unsuccessful attacks. Now the Union “troops were in three lines, our regiment being in the third,” Gerrish noted.
Warren planned to launch this latest charge “under the cover of darkness,” but Confederate Gen. Richard Anderson was “also preparing to make the assault,” Gerrish learned later.
“Just at dark, when forms could be indistinctly discerned at a short distance, there was a heavy crash of musketry, and a wild, savage yell, as they (Confederates) rushed upon our first line of battle, which soon gave way and fell back upon the second,” he noted.
In the “indescribable” confusion, “it was only with the greatest difficulty that we could tell friend from foe,” Gerrish realized. An officer ordered the advance, and buglers likely sounded a charge; “as we rushed up to reinforce our comrades, the glare of the guns revealed to us the desperate character of the conflict,” Gerrish recalled.
Only cannon and rifle flames illuminated the smoke-filled darkness, from which bayonet-wielding Confederates emerged. Many Union soldiers suddenly melted away, “leaving us in the breach thus made,” Gerrish noticed.
Into this widening gap “the rebels came on with terrible energy, to follow up the advantage they had thus gained.” Colliding with the 20th Maine boys (including Gerrish), the Confederates pushed them “back for a short distance.”
The veteran Maine soldiers suddenly realized that “we were alone,” Gerrish reported. “The other regiments had fallen back.”
At that nocturnal moment somewhere well up the northern slope of an insignificant Virginia hill, the Maine boys should have fled; instead they stayed because “our men were in just the right mood to fight,—weary, hungry, discouraged, mad,” Gerrish explained the anger rippling through the regiment at that moment in time.
“In such a condition it is as easy to die as to run, and so they decided to hold their position until ordered to leave it,” Gerrish concurred with his comrades. “The situation was as desperate as any we occupied during the war, but officers and men alike were determined to fight, to sell their lives as dearly as possible, a willing sacrifice upon the altar of the country they loved.”
Confederates poured past the 20th Maine, whose veterans discovered “rebels in front of us, on both flanks, and to the rear of us,” Gerrish realized.
In fact “it was an easy task to find a rebel anywhere,” he admitted.
A “struggle at close quarters” erupted as the men fought “hand-to-hand,” the swirling, shooting, and stabbing shadows resembling “a mob in its character,” Gerrish sensed as he waged war on his enemies.
Like pugilists locked in a no-rules match, Confederates and Yankees “seemed to forget all the noble and refined elements of manhood, and for that hour on Laurel hill they were brutes, made wild with passion and blood, engaged in a conflict as deadly and fierce as ever raged upon the continent,” remembered Gerrish, a veteran of the Little Round Top carnage 10 months earlier.
“Men were transformed to giants” by the shifting light, and “the air was filled with a medley of sounds,” such as “shouts, cheers, commands, oaths, the sharp reports of rifles, the hissing shot, dull, heavy thuds of clubbed muskets, the swish of swords and sabers, groans and prayers, all combining to send a thrill of excitement and inspiration to heavy heart,” Gerrish wrote later.
With Confederates popping continually through the gun smoke-dimmed dark, many Maine boys lacked “the time … to load their guns”; instead “they clubbed their muskets and fought,” he recalled. A “too sorely pressed” Maine soldier would drop his rifle “and clinch the enemy in single combat, until Federal and Confederate would roll upon the ground in the death struggle.”
That night “our officers all fought like demons” and gave their “revolvers and swords” a “baptism of blood,” Gerrish noticed the officers fighting alongside their enlisted comrades, just as they had at Little Round Top.
Wounded men “refused to go to the rear, but with the blood pouring from their wounds continued to fight,” he recalled. Their numbers dwindling — Confederate lead and steel kept finding targets in the darkness — the Maine boys fought; declining to cite specific individuals, Gerrish stated, “Every man in that little band was a hero of whom his native state may well be proud.”
The combat continued until “at last, to our great joy and surprise, the enemy fell back, leaving us victors upon the field” and encumbered with “a large number of prisoners,” the elated Gerrish said. The prisoners and wounded Maine soldiers soon “went back to the rear” and discovered “a picket line, and a line of battle” formed there, possibly near where unpaved Hancock Avenue follows the Union trench line today.
While some Maine soldiers formed a picket line on Laurel Hill, “our noble fellows lay down to sleep … where they had so bravely fought,” Gerrish noticed. “Silent and motionless lay the dead and the living throughout the remaining hours of the night.”
The 20th Maine boys held their positions until 3 a.m., Monday, May 9, when orders recalled the exhausted soldiers to the main Union line. “Bearing our dead comrades with us to a place where we could give them a soldier’s burial, we marched to the position assigned us,” Gerrish described the regiment’s move to the rear.
He apparently believed the 20th Maine had fought unsupported that night, but at least two more Union regiments, including the 16th Michigan and 118th Pennsylvania, had also savagely disputed the Confederate charge.
At Laurel Hill, as they had 10 months ago on another hill some 125 miles away in Pennsylvania, the 20th Maine boys “won much honor and praise from our commanding generals for the gallant conduct we had displayed,” Gerrish learned …
… “but our loss had been heavy.”
Next week: Spotsylvania Court House, Part III: Witnesses to a war’s past horrors
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.