Hell comes to Rappahannock Station on a dark November night: Part II


A Union soldier bayonets a Confederate color bearer as other Federal troops assault the Confederate bridgehead at Rappahannock Station, Va. after dark on Saturday, Nov. 7, 1863. Some Confederate soldiers are already fleeing across the pontoon bridge (center, right) that linked their defenses to the south bank of the Rappahannock River. Artist Alfred Waud sketched this scene from a point near where the 5th Maine Infantry struck the Confederate lines. (Harper;s Weekly)

Cold steel is coming to Rappahannock Station on a dark November night. The bridgehead defended by the “Louisiana Tigers” and a North Carolina brigade faces assault along its entire defensive length — and the 5th Maine Infantry will “go in” on the Union right.

Meanwhile, “about 500 yards” from “the enemy’s rifle pits, we were directed to lie down where the crest of a small elevation of ground afforded us a little protection,” recalls 5th Maine adjutant George Bicknell.

“There “we very quietly proceeded to stack our arms and rest,” he says. Suddenly a shell burst strikes “down Lieutenant-colonel [Henry] Millett” of Palmyra, and he is borne to the rear.”

Then minutes later, “out upon the air upon our left, rung the wildest yells, with a grand chorus of cheers and musketry.” Some Maine boys probably leap to their feet to see what was happening at “that exciting moment.”

Bicknell later learns that “inspired with a mighty will and resolute courage, the Sixth Maine had dashed upon the enemy and captured a part of his position.”

Kindling low fires, the 5th Maine boys and the adjacent 121st New Yorkers brew coffee. As darkness settles around them, Bicknell and other nervous soldiers “laid down to sleep and to rest” as pickets watch the too-close-by-far Confederate forts.

Too restless to sleep, Bicknell lays back beneath his blanket and studies the clear, moonless sky. Darkness lays thick upon central Virginia; “only a very faint starlight beamed in through the night’s mantle,” he notices.

George Bicknell, the adjutant of the 5th Maine Infantry, participated in the regiment’s Nov. 7, 1863 night attack against the Confederate bridgehead at Rappahannock Station, Va. (Maine State Archives)

But Col. Emory Upton does not intend to rest his regiments this night. At “nearly 7 o’clock P.M. … I received orders to move my regiment forward,” recalls the 5th Maine’s commander. Col. Clark Edwards.

“When all was still and quiet as silence itself,” Bicknell senses movement in the ranks. Officers and sergeants spread among the sleeping 5th Maine boys and, while shaking exhausted men awake, whisper, “Get up, quick. Fall in, silent and lively.”

Edwards deploys his regiment in line of battle; the 121st New Yorkers deploy “in close column by divisions,” thus “presenting a much shorter front than that of the Fifth,” Bicknell notices.

He approves that “every movement was conducted as silently as possible” to avoid warning the alert Confederate pickets as to “our intentions.”

The 5th Maine boys expect to withdraw. Then the mounted Emory Upton looms out of the night and “rides along the line and gives his instructions,” Bicknell says.

“We were to advance,” he realizes. “We, a handful of men, were to storm” the Confederate lines “under the cover of the friendly darkness.”

Now Edwards adds his instructions to Upton’s. The Mainers and New Yorkers will advance “in silence until the proper time,” Bicknell paraphrases his colonel’s orders. When the first Confederate shoots, the Maine boys “shall lie down at once, unsling their knapsacks, and allow the [anticipated] volley … to pass over us instead of into us,” Bicknell says.

The Union infantrymen step off, advancing “up the gentle slope” toward the enemy breastworks so quietly that “not a sound breaks the stillness,” Bicknell notices. The boys are nervous, probably frightened; “men’s hearts almost cease to beat,” he says, and “the eye strains to pierce the darkness.”

The yards drop away as “nearer,—nearer,—nearer the boys in blue approach” the enemy lines, Bicknell recalls. “Ten thousand thoughts flash through the brain.”

A musket fires; “a bullet sings by our colors,” he notices. Confederate pickets shout warnings, and another musket fires.

“Lie down!” Edwards shouts.

Union boys hit the dirt; “at the next instant, from over the [enemy] rifle-pits, flashes a full volley of musketry,” Bicknell cannot believe his luck. The tremendous flash illuminates the breastworks; he realizes that “not a dozen rods are between us” and the Confederate defenses.

As enemy troops hastily reload, Edwards stands and shouts, “Double quick! Charge!”

“Like tigers eager for their prey, our boys spring forward with a yell which was both terrible and deafening,” says Bicknell, probably screaming like a banshee himself. Before the Confederates finish reloading, demons wielding the cold steel of 17-inch triangle bayonets emerge through the swirling gun smoke.

Hell has come to Rappahannock Station after sunset on Saturday, Nov. 7, 1863.

The Mainers and New Yorkers surge upslope through the Confederate rifle-pits. “Over the works, up into the fortifications, our men rush like a whirlwind” while “swinging and thrashing their bayonets right and left,” Bicknell describes the wild charge. Into Confederate ranks the 5th Maine boys pour, and “hand to hand [combat[ was now the conflict.”

“Forward!” shouts Edwards, remembered by Bicknell as “a brave man at the head of brave men.”

The 5th Maine apparently slams into the 54th North Carolina; behind their upstream breastworks, the brave Louisianans hold their positions despite the cacophonous din erupting on their right flank.

Shocked by the bayonet-wielding terrors emerging from the night, “on every side, the enemy throw down their guns, crying for mercy,” Bicknell says. Confederate troops outnumber the Union boys, but confusion swirls among the defenders.

Accompanied by a few Co. G men, Edwards turns right and races along the breastworks toward the river. Suddenly he realizes that many Confederates hold the nearby rifle-pits, but the Johnnies do not shoot; flaming muskets and screaming men confuse the Louisianans, and a senior officer fatally hesitates.

“Where is the officer in command of these troops?” Edwards shouts.

“Here, and who are you, sir?” responds a Confederate colonel, possibly T.M. Terry of the 7th Louisiana; Capt. J.G. Angell commands the depleted 5th Louisiana, and Edwards clearly identifies the Confederate officer as a colonel.

“I am Colonel Edwards of the Fifth Maine, and I demand you to surrender your command,” Edwards replies.

Attempting to buy time, the Confederate says, “I will confer with my officers first.”

“Not a moment will I allow, sir. Don’t you see my columns advancing?” Edwards bluffs his opponent. Musket flashes illuminate many soldiers moving nearby; pointing to them, Edwards informs the Confederate colonel that “your forces on the right have all been captured, and your retreat is cut off.”

Then Edwards shouts, “Forward, 5th Maine and 121st New York!”

“I surrender, sir,” the Confederate tells Edwards — who never informs his counterpart that the soldiers the Johnnies thought were Union boys actually are captured Confederates being herded from the breastworks.

There aren’t enough Mainers and New Yorkers to deal with the Louisianans if they suddenly counterattack.

So Edwards and his few men capture the two Louisiana regiments. Many Confederates escape, some across the pontoon bridge before its capture, others by swimming the fast-flowing river.

Elsewhere the 5th Maine boys fight, kill, and die. Sensing their retreat across the Rappahannock cut off, Confederates surrender in their hundreds; “the enemy seemed paralyzed,” Edwards realizes. “By a rapid movement to the right, we succeeded in capturing nearly the whole force in the pits who were then ignorant of those on the left” flank of the 5th Maine and 121st New York.

Over that way, to the east, the 6th Maine boys have covered themselves with glory, blood, and death only seven nights after Halloween 1863.

The successful night attack stuns Hays. Savage fighting shatters the three Louisiana regiments — 6th, 8th, and 9th — respectively defending the right flank and center of the bridgehead. He reports that Union troops (the 5th Maine and 121st New York) “had formed in a ravine above our extreme left” and then “moved down the stream, thus inclosing Hoke’s brigade and the Seventh and the Fifth Louisiana Regiments in a manner that rendered escape impossible.”

Reporting that “the force of the enemy, I am confident, could not have been less than 20,000 to 25,000,” Hays observes that “few of my brigade were wounded or killed, owing to the enemy’s advancing without firing.”

The battle costs the 5th Maine “7 killed and 28 wounded,” according to Edwards. He proudly stresses that “during the entire charge my regiment did not fire a gun, carrying all at the point of the bayonet.”

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.

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.