Appointment with a Wilderness destiny, part 1

Hardwoods sprout green leaves in the Wilderness during a wet Virginia spring. Union soldiers plunging into this murky second-growth forest in May 1864 encountered scrub trees and tangled undergrowth so thick that men lost sight of each other along a regimental firing line. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Sgt. Charles H. Haynes of Ellsworth marched toward his appointment with destiny as he crossed the Rapidan River on a pontoon bridge around sunset on Wednesday, May 4, 1864.

His life would change dramatically within 72 hours.

A December 1861 enlistee in the 2nd Maine Infantry, Sgt. Charles H. Haynes transferred to Co. E, 20th Maine Infantry when the 2nd Maine disbanded. He fought on the Peninsula and at Gettysburg. (Courtesy Photo)

Twenty-six when he enlisted in Co. I, 2nd Maine Infantry Regiment on December 13, 1861, the married Haynes showed enough initiative that he soon made sergeant. “After serving nearly two years in the 2nd Me. Vols., I was transferred to the 20th Me.” in spring 1863, recalled Haynes, assigned to Co. E in the regiment then commanded by Joshua L. Chamberlain.

The Army sent him home on leave in March 1864. During the morning of Monday, March 28, he left for Bangor accompanied by “J.F. Whitcomb, Lena and Carrie.” Bundled into a horse-drawn stage or a sleigh while traveling northwest through the Dedham Hills, “we had a very pleasant time from Ellsworth to Bangor,” Haynes noted.

Boarding a Maine Central Railroad train with at least five other 20th Maine comrades, Haynes rumbled out of Bangor at 7 a.m., Tuesday. “We had a very pleasant time through to Boston,” wrote the jolly traveler from Ellsworth.

Haynes probably looked back as the Bangor railroad station receded in the distance. “I found it much harder leaving home this time then it was the first times for this reason, that we have not been successful in the Army of the Potomac,” he admitted to his diary.

While cavalrymen cross the Rapidan River at Ely’s Ford on May 4, 1864, infantrymen tramp across a nearby pontoon bridge (background). The 20th Maine Infantry crossed this bridge this same day. (Harper’s Weekly)

Haynes had stood in that disintegrating line of heroes on Little Round Top, had survived two winters in camps that Maine loggers would deem execrable. Hopping by train from Boston to Philadelphia on Wednesday and from Philly to arrive in Washington at 8.a.m., Thursday, March 31, Haynes wondered (as did countless other soldiers) if Ulysses S. Grant would succeed where every Union general had failed in Virginia.

We feel in hopes that this spring campaign will cause Richard and other important points now in the hands of the rebs to be cleaned out and held by the Union Armies,” Haynes wrote.

A military train delivered him “at the Regiment” at 3 p.m., April Fool’s Day. Haynes “found everything quiet and mighty lonesome.

I feel a little homesick tonight,” he confided to his diary.

At 2 p.m., Thursday, May 5, 1864, Maj. Ellis Spear received orders to advance his 20th Maine Infantry through thick woods to the edge of a field on the right flank of the Army of the Potomac in the Wilderness. Split by the Orange Turnpike (modern Route 20, left), Saunders Field was among the few open areas in the Wilderness. The 20th Maine lads formed in the distant treeline, to the right of the road. The view extends east from Confederate lines. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Actually commanded by George Gordon Meade (Grant was the U.S. Army’s supreme commander), the Army of the Potomac spent April preparing for the expected spring offensive. One or two bad storms raised the rivers to flood stage, and on Sunday, April 10 “we are nearly surrounded by water,” Haynes noticed.

Company E drilled, target practiced, drilled some more, “went on picket,” and ate crappy food for so long that Haynes could write “we have not had one decent meal” on Monday, April 18. Cooks issued “S. bread, coffee, sugar and stale pork and one turnip a week for five” soldiers,” which meant they had only “S. bread, pork and coffee for breakfast, the same for dinner, and the same warmed over for supper.”

Assigned to the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, V Corps (commanded by Gouverneur Warren), the 20th Maine lads finally marched out (about “six miles”) on Saturday, May 1, crossed the Rapidan River at 8 p.m., May 4, “and had a little skirmish” with Confederates who quickly skedaddled,” Haynes wrote.

Union infantrymen from the VI Corps commanded by John Sedgwick fire on Confederate troops at the Wilderness on May 6, 1864. (Edwin Forbes/Library of Congress)

With Grant and Robert E. Lee whaling away at each other in the Wilderness, the 20th Maine and its division and corps camped Wednesday night on the Federal army’s right flank, near the junction of Germanna Highway (modern Route 3) and the Orange Turnpike, now called Constitution Highway (Route 20). Confederates lurked nearby, and the fighting then raging elsewhere in the Wilderness was horrendous.

A howitzer placed amidst Confederate trenches along the western edge of Saunders Field points toward the distant treeline from which Sgt. Charles Haynes and the 20th Maine emerged in midafternoon, Thursday, May 5, 1864. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Around sunrise on Thursday, May 5, the 20th Maine lads started constructing “breast works” and cutting “down a lot of trees in front of us,” Haynes wrote.

After working very hard for four hours, we finished the work and cleared up in front of us,” he noted. At 2 p.m. came orders for the 20th Maine and other regiments “to advance in line of battle” through “a thick woods until we came to a field where we halted at the edge of the woods.”

Haynes looked west-southwest across Saunders Field, roughly equivalent to a moderate Maine hay field in size. Spreading across Orange Turnpike, Saunders presented significant open terrain in the Wilderness, so overgrown that soldiers could see only short distances.

Confederates lurked somewhere along the western treeline.

When the order came, Charles Haynes advanced to his destiny.

Next week: A Maine soldier bids “adieu” to a loyal friend

Source: Diary of Sergeant Charles H. Haynes; Maine Adjutant General’s Report 1861

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.