As the battle-weary men of his 2nd Brigade shuffled through the Chancellorsville battlefield on Sunday morning, May 8, 1864, Col. Emory Upton could see the year-old carnage not yet concealed by Virginia’s brilliant spring growth.
He could not foresee the similar fate awaiting four of his five regiments within the next 25 days.
The 2nd Brigade encompassed four veteran infantry regiments: the 5th Maine, the 121st New York, and the 95th and 96th Pennsylvania infantries; the novice 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery would not join the brigade until May 21. Upton’s brigade belonged to the 1st Division commanded by Brig. Gen. Horatio Wright and the Sixth Corps led by Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, nicknamed “Uncle John” by his admiring men.
The past three days, the Sixth Corps had held the extreme right flank of the Army of the Potomac during the murderous Battle of the Wilderness. Sedgwick had lost many men, and Confederate Gen. John Gordon had almost “rolled up” the corps’ right flank during a surprise May 6 attack in the thick woods north of the Orange Turnpike.
“At midnight the command (Upton’s brigade) fell back upon the [Germanna] plank-road” and “they intrenched (sic) themselves, that they might be in readiness for the enemy,” related George W. Bicknell, the former 5th Maine adjutant. Wounded in a previous battle, he no longer actively served with the regiment; surviving comrades later told him what transpired at The Wilderness and during subsequent fighting in Virginia.
“The following day (May 7) was comparatively quiet, with little fighting taking place in the vicinity of the regiment,” Bicknell noted.
The Wilderness had cost Grant 17,000 to 18,000 men, hence his request to the War Department to empty the D.C. forts of their untested heavy artillery regiments. Grant quietly withdrew Federal troops from their Wilderness entrenchments on May 7 and started Union divisions on a long southeasterly march to the temporarily strategic hamlet of Spotsylvania Court House.
The Sixth Corps headed east on the Orange Plank Road (modern Route 3) that Sunday morning. The 5th Maine boys crossed the Chancellorsville battlefield, and the battle-scarred landscape jolted Col. Clark Edwards and his men, according to Bicknell.
Despite a year’s passage, nature had not erased the horrors of war. The Chancellor House lay in ruins, and the hardened 5th Maine veterans noticed that “large numbers of skeletons lay in the woods,” according to Bicknell.
Discovering “some graves, so called, of Union soldiers,” the Maine boys gazed aghast at how “a leg or an arm showed itself” where comrades had been buried in May 1863 “with not enough of mother earth to cover their bones,” he wrote.
As they shuffled past the partially uncovered graves, the appalled soldiers surmised that of the Union boys buried there, “all of whom, doubtless, were among those reported as ‘missing’” in the Chancellorsville campaign, Bicknell commented.
Probably after the 2nd Brigade turned south on the Catharpin Road, the 5th Maine boys figured out from the sound that heavy fighting “seemed now to be in progress in the front of the Fifth [Corps], though at considerable distance,” Bicknell noted. “Pushing steadily forward,” the brigade “arrived at the scene of action” about 2 p.m.
The advance took the 5th Maine past the day’s earlier fighting at the Alsop Farm. “To add to the horror of the scene, the woods in places were on fire,” Bicknell related. Fighting had ignited forest fires in the Wilderness; now, on the opening day of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, “many poor fellows of both armies, being wounded in the severe fight of an hour previous and unable to help themselves or escape from the flames, had been burned to death.
“The sight made the heart sick,” Bicknell shared a memory common to the 5th Maine veterans who would survive the upcoming fight and the war.
Upton initially received orders to form his brigade to attack Confederate defenses on Laurel Hill. “To our boys, the prospect appeared anything but cheerful,” Bicknell shared the veterans’ jaundiced view of the battlefield. “The rebel lines were admirably posted on a thick wooded crest, and their sharp-shooters made every shot tell while our men were awaiting the order to advance.”
Then a wise senior officer cancelled the planned attack, and the 2nd Brigade shifted “to the right (west) into a piece of woods where they were to bivouac for the night,” according to Bicknell. The supply wagons arrived after sunset and delivered “rations for the boys.”
Throughout that Sunday night, “false alarms … kept the men in a constant state of agitation, and prevented, of course, much sleep,” Bicknell recalled a memory common to every 5th Maine soldier attempting to rest in that wooded grove. Skirmishers kept blasting away — Bicknell referred to “three consecutive times” that Maine officers were “roused … by a terrible fire of musketry” — and few soldiers slept.
That night brought little rest to Upton, a native New Yorker and an 1861 West Point graduate who suffered his first wounds at the Battle of Manassas. By late October 1862 he was colonel of the 121st New York Infantry, and he commanded the 2nd Brigade at Gettysburg nine months later.
Upton was also a tactician who could assess a problem and sometimes develop a solution to it. At dawn on Monday, May 9, he probably did not know that with 36 hours he would propose an unusual way to attack the Confederate lines at Spotsylvania Court House.
Senior Army officers would approve the proposal, and Upton would lead the attack, which would cost a whole lot of men dearly.
Next week: Spotsylvania, Part IV: Maine regiments joined Emory Upton’s battering ram
Brian Swartz can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.