After capturing Confederate-held trenches at the western edge of Saunders Field in The Wilderness on May 5, 1864, 20th Maine Infantry soldiers kept pushing their enemies through the tangled undergrowth beyond those trenches. The Maine soldiers advanced across this particular terrain just west of the trenches still found at Saunders Field.
Anchoring his regiment’s left flank almost cost 1st Lt. Holman Staples Melcher his freedom on Thursday, May 5, 1864, but the intrepid officer from Topsham played and won a game of blind man’s bluff with veteran Confederate infantrymen. He lived to fight another day …
… or at least a few days longer.
At 1 p.m. that Thursday, Brig. Gen. Charles Griffin received orders to advance his 1st Division west along the Orange Turnpike in the Wilderness, the thick central Virginia forest in which the Army of the Potomac had camped overnight. Griffin had deployed his three brigades about a mile west of the Old Wilderness Tavern.
On Thursday morning, Griffin had started passing to the Fifth Corps’ commander, Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, reports of Union pickets skirmishing with Confederates east along the turnpike. Greater numbers of enemy troops appeared; worried that he might be outflanked, Warren ordered Griffin to probe west and find out how many Confederates might be out there in the woods.
Griffin ordered his three brigades into a line of battle with the 3rd Brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Joseph Bartlett, in the center. Aligned from south to north (from left to right), Bartlett’s first line comprised the 118th Massachusetts Infantry, 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry, and 44th New York Infantry; the Orange Turnpike separated the Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers.
Forming the second line were the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry on the left and the 20th Maine on the right, located behind the 83rd Pennsylvania. Major Ellis Spear commanded the 20th Maine that day; Melcher and Co. F formed on the regiment’s far left flank.
Driving Confederate skirmishers before them, the soldiers in Bartlett’s first line emerged from the trees at the eastern edge of Saunders Field. The Union boys charged — and paid a terrible price.
Up came Bartlett’s second line. Now “as we emerged from the woods into this [Saunders] field, General Bartlett, our brigade commander, came galloping down the line from the right (or north), waving his sword and shouting, ’Come on, boys, let us go in and help them!’” Melcher recalled.
Led by the brave Bartlett, the 20th Maine boys on the right and the 118th Pennsylvania boys on the left never hesitated. “And go we did,” Melcher later wrote. “Pulling our hats low down over our eyes, we rushed across the field, and overtaking those of our comrades who had survived the fearful crossing of the front line, just as they were breaking over the enemy’s lines, we joined with them in this deadly encounter …”
Confederate troops had spent some time digging trenches along the western edge of Saunders Field. Union troops flooded over the trenches and flowed into “that thicket of brushes and briers,” Melcher recalled.
Amidst “the groans of the dying, the shrieks of the wounded, the terrible roar of musketry and the shouts of command and cheers of encouragement,” the 20th Maine boys “swept them (Confederates) away before us like a whirlwind …”
South of the Orange Turnpike, Union troops apparently broke through defenses more weakly held than those just across the road, where Federal regiments suffered horrible casualties. The 20th Maine boys pressed westward through the entangled undergrowth; “the pursuit of my company and those immediately about me continued for about half a mile, until there were no rebels to be seen or heard,” Melcher noticed.
Emerging into “a small clearing,” his men stopped and looked around. Melcher could hear combat raging nearby, but in the Wilderness’s jumbled growth, “I found there was no line to form, or to connect … with,” he realized. “I could not find my regimental colors or the regiment.”
Melcher and his little band of heroes — he counted “fifteen men of my company with two others of the regiment” — had possibly advanced the farthest west of all Union soldiers who had charged across Saunders Field. Throughout the Wilderness, similar scattered bands of men in blue and gray would wander lost during the next few days; Holman, who apparently had a good sense of direction, knew that the Union lines lay behind him, to the east.
Somewhere not far away, Ellis Spear was yanking together the scattered 20th Maine Infantry. He ordered the regimental colors trooped in a small field; moments later, Confederate volleys turned the field into a death trap.
Spear realized that Confederate reinforcements advancing east on the Orange Turnpike had swung south and cut off the 20th Maine. He brought many of his men safely to the Union lines.
Melcher knew only that he and 17 Maine boys were alone somewhere behind enemy lines. The 22-year-old lieutenant conferred with “my brave and trusted first sergeant,” 23-year-old Ammi Smith of Co. F. Joining them was Sgt. Frank Rogers from Co. H.
“There was nothing in front to fight that we could see or hear, but to go back seemed the way for cowards to move, as we did not know whether our colors were at the rear or farther to the front,” Melcher realized.
Cowardice was a virtue this day, however. Forming his men in a single “‘line of battle,’” he led them east “quietly and unobserved” through the thickets and woods. The Maine boys soon glimpsed enemy infantrymen in the jumbled growth; to Melcher’s delight, the “‘Johnnies’ were all intent on watch for the ‘Yanks’ in front, not for a moment having a suspicion that they were to be attacked from the rear,” he recalled.
A Confederate soldier apparently turned and spotted the Yankees just “ten or fifteen paces” away, Melcher estimated the distance. “On the first intimation that we were discovered, every one of our little band picked his man and fired.”
“Surrender or die!” the Maine boys shouted “as much as if we were a thousand,” then charged the startled Confederates and plowed “on to them, with sword and bayonets being our weapons.”
Believing a large Union force attacked them, Confederates fled or surrendered. “The desperately brave fought us, hand to hand,” Melcher remembered. His men stabbed and thrust liberally with their bayonets in this bloody fight, which “was the first, and … the last time that I saw the bayonet used in its most terrible and effective manner.”
Fighting beside Melcher, a Maine youth “called out to a rebel to throw down his gun.” Instead the Confederate veteran raised his rifle “to his shoulder,” aimed at his would-be captor‘s face, and pulled the trigger, Melcher watched in horror.
The rifle failed to fire; “quick as a flash,” the 20th Maine lad “sprang forward and plunged his bayonet into” the Confederate’s “breast, and throwing him backward pinned him to the ground,” Melcher later related.
“I’ll teach you, old Reb, how to snap your gun in my face!” the Maine soldier exclaimed.
The outnumbered 20th Maine boys fought tenaciously. Admitting that his sword blade was dull, but glad that “the point was keen,” Melcher suddenly “saw a tall, lank rebel, only a few paces from me,” draw a bead on a Union soldier.
Melcher “sprang forward” and swung his sword “with all my strength.” Making contact too soon, “the point cut the scalp on the back of his head and split his coat all the way down his back.
“The blow hurt and startled him so much that he dropped his musket without firing” and raised his hands. Melcher, who had intended “to split his head open,” accepted the man’s surrender.
The brief slug fest opened a hole in the Confederate lines. Leaving behind two dead comrades and bringing with them “several more or less severely wounded,” Melcher and his men surrounded their 32 prisoners and “started them along on the double quick, or as near to it as we could and keep the wounded along with us.”
Rallying Confederates “fired after us,” Melcher noticed, “but as there were many more of the Gray than the Blue in our ranks,” the enemy troops slackened their shooting “as they saw they would be more likely to kill friends than foes.”
Reaching Union lines, Melcher and his surviving heroes (except for the wounded) herded their prisoners to the rear, where a provost marshal signed a written receipt for the chagrined Johnnies.
Melcher almost failed to carry that receipt home to Maine; he was critically wounded three days later during the 20th Maine’s brutal brawl at Laurel Hill, not far from another killing ground dubbed Spotsylvania Courthouse.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.