Yelling at his men, Capt. O’Neil W. Robinson Jr. hurtled his 4th Maine Battery across country as they approached a Union firing line about 8 miles southwest of Culpeper, Va. on Saturday, Aug. 9, 1862.
Riding on caissons and limbers or running alongside the horse-drawn artillery, the Maine men sweated profusely as they approached the Robert Hudson House, just off the Mitchell Station Road running southeast past Cedar Mountain. Robinson had been ordered to deploy his six ordnance rifles the north side of the house, or to the left (southern) flank of the Union batteries already in action.
Confederate forces commanded by Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and the II Corps of Union Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks had collided that morning at Cedar Mountain, a monadnock rising from the Piedmont southwest of Culpeper. Part of the 2nd Brigade (Brig. Gen. Henry Prince) of the 2nd Division (Brig. Gen. Christopher C. Augur) of II Corps, the 4th Maine Battery lads had not experienced combat or, in the era’s phrase, “seen the elephant.”
As the ordnance rifles, caissons, and limbers jolted toward the Hudson House, Corp. Judson Ames recalled the moment he encountered the elephant. “We first heard the music of shells … tearing through the air over our heads,” he said.
The shells “passed high enough over us to be harmless,” and Maine men laughed as an exploding shell sent feeding calves stampeding in a nearby field around 3 p.m.
Reality sank in 15 minutes later as the gunners assigned to Robinson’s No. 2 gun ascended the hill alongside the Hudson House. Ames watched stretcher bearers carry away “some severely wounded men” from a shell-damaged battery, perhaps Battery K, 1st New York Artillery, commanded by Capt. Lorenzo Crounse. Ames also saw several harnessed horses, just struck and gutted by enemy shells.
Suddenly the elephant walked across Ames and his comrades.
Firing from their higher perch on Cedar Mountain, Confederate gunners swung their tubes to target the unlimbering 4th Maine Battery. Robinson deployed his ordnance rifles in three two-gun sections.
That of Junior 1st Lt. Hamlin F. Eaton “occupied lower ground” on the battery’s left flank, where the terrain partially sheltered the men from incoming fire, according to Ames.
Choosing a position with Eaton’s section, Robinson watched the effect that his battery’s outgoing shells had on the opposing artillery.
A shell fragment struck Pvt. Abel Davis of No. 6 gun in the leg; Pvt. Charles H. Sally stepped into Davis’s position.
Another shell fragment laced a “severe scalp wound” across Sally’s skull. Bleeding profusely, the private “did not have to be carried off the field, because none of the boys could catch him,” said Ames, too busy to pursue the fleeing Sally.
Senior 1st Lt. Lucius M.S. Haynes commanded the right-flank section, comprising the No. 1 gun of Sgt. Jere Owen and the No. 2 gun of Sgt. Algernon Bangs. Ames furiously worked with Bangs’ gunners as both ordnance rifles fired some 50 rounds; suddenly “a shell struck the wheel of Sergeant Bang’s piece,” ricocheted, and “struck Byron Phillips, tearing away part of his chin and shoulder.”
Confederate gunners utilized every weapon in their arsenals to silence the Union artillery. A shell struck and broke the axle of No. 1 gun. The shell’s impact hurled wood splinters that wounded some gunners; the concussion of the shell’s explosion permanently deafened Ambrose Vittum in one ear.
A case shot hurled a round steel ball into a boot worn by Hannibal Powers of No. 1 gun. Feeling the ball lodged in his sock, Powers assumed he was wounded; he had started for the rear when someone suggested that he remove the damaged boot “and see how bad the wound was,” Ames noted.
“When the boot was pulled off the bullet rolled out and Powers resumed his duties,” he said.
Robinson lost other men as the dueling continued. From their elevated perches on Cedar Mountain, “the enemy’s batteries … were nearly concealed [and] they had much the advantage of us,” realized Ames. With No. 1 gun hors d’combat and No. 2 short on men, Robinson transferred Haynes and his section to the left of Eaton’s section around 5 p.m. Haynes joined the No. 2 gun crew as they shelled Confederate artillery hidden by foliage and smoke.
Robinson learned suddenly toward dusk that Confederate infantry had ejected Union infantry from the corn field faced by his guns. “A volley from the corn field, not many yards in front of us, passed just over our heads,” said Ames. Orders came to withdraw; gunners brought up an intact horse to replace a wounded animal in its harness, and the horse team pulled away its caisson.
Confederate infantrymen suddenly erupted from the corn field and charged the Union artillery. Just beyond the Hudson House, Capt. Freeman McGilvery and his 6th Maine Battery “stoutly resisted the charge made on them” and “held their ground until all others had time to get by,” Ames said.
Swept into the mad race for survival, Robinson and his gunners escaped capture.
Thumping across Cedar Run and through woods, the Mainers encountered lead elements of the reinforcing III Corps of Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell, moving up to stop the Confederate advance.
“As we passed through their line a sense of security at once prevailed and the rush ceased,” Ames breathed.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.