Wednesday, December 31, 2014

May 1864: The Wilderness

On May 4th, 1864, the 11th NJ Volunteer Infantry Regiment was a part of Second Corps along with the old 2nd NJ Brigade [5th, 6th, 7th and 8th NJ Volunteer Infantry Regiments].  On that day, the 11th NJ crossed the Rapidan River and joined its new brigade at the Chancellorsville battlefield.  While General Gershom Mott was in command of the third Division, Colonel Robert McAllister, of Belvidere & Oxford Furnace, was in command of the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Division. 

On May 5th, the troops entered the dense wooded area of Virginia known as The Wilderness. Lieutenant Colonel John Schoonover, of Oxford Furnace, reported, "After proceeding a very short distance through the dense underbrush, I was directed by the Brigade Commander to form in line of battle, which I did, so far as circumstances would permit.  With the regiments on the right and left crowding, and in the midst of almost impassable underbrush, it was found impossible to form a line of battle in the space I occupied on the road.  There was much confusion in the ranks 'till the regiment reached the crest of the hill, when, by detailing three left companies, I succeeded in placing the remainder of the regiment in proper line.  As yet, we had received no fire from the enemy, except for the occasional shot from the skirmish line, which was returned.  We had been in this position but a short time, when a few volleys of musketry was heard to the extreme left and rear, and immediately, the line the line of the left, as far as I could see, commenced falling back in confusion.  This was rapidly carried to the right, and when the 16th Massachusetts, which was on my immediate left, took up the movement, my regiment followed, and all efforts to rally the men were fruitless. 

"The troops seemed panic-stricken, and for what reason, I was never able to imagine.  They acted as if their only safety was the works which they had so hastily erected.  I desire to mention one exception.  The Color Company and color-guard, under the command of Captain [Edward] Kennedy [of Belvidere], retained its position for sometime after the troops on my right and left had disappeared, and until he received a direct order from me to fall back. The officers upon this occasion, so far as I could see, made every effort to keep their men in kine.  The regiment was reformed on the road, and the report showed a list of twelve wounded.
"At half-past four o'clock, on the morning of the 6th, we again advanced in line of battle through the woods.  We continued to advance slowly until seven o'clock, a.m., when heavy fire was opened by the regiments on my right and left, which was taken up for a short time by my regiment.  I soon, however, succeeded in stopping it, as I considered it perfectly useless, as we were at the time receiving no fire from the enemy - neither was he in sight.  The regiment continued to advance, with frequent halts, until about nine o'clock, a.m., when we received a heavy volley from the enemy.  Advancing some distance further, the line was halted, a skirmish line thrown out, and the regiment remained in this position until shots were received from our left and rear, when a change of front was ordered by Colonel [William]   Sewell, then in command of the 5th, 6th and 11th Regiments.  This change of front took place about half-past ten o'clock, a.m.  At eleven, the enemy was heard advancing in our front, with heavy firing and cheering; soon after, the troops composing the front line passed over us in much confusion.  I then passed along the whole length of my regiment, and directed them to reserve their fire until they received orders.  At this time, there were but few of the enemy's shots passing over us."
Schoonover wrote in his report, "The approaching yell and loud firing gave us sufficient warning of the advance and position of the enemy.  In a few minutes, I directed the regiment to commence firing.  The regiment, with scarcely an exception, acted with perfect coolness.  Not a man flinched.  There seemed to be a determination to retrieve what they had lost the day previous.  The fire was continued for some time, when the regiment on my immediate left fell back.  The one on my right followed.  I turned to ask Colonel Sewell for instruction, and I was told by one of my officers that he had gone to the rear with the remainder of the line. At this time, an officer from the left of the regiment came to me and said that Colonel Sewell had left orders for me to fall back.  As no troops were to be seen on either my right or left, I deemed it proper to do so.  The regiment retired to Brock Road, where it took position in the rear of the second line of works on the left of the 16th Massachusetts.  It remained in this position during the afternoon, assisting in the repulse of the enemy at four o'clock, and also took part in the charge upon the first line of works which had been captured by the enemy, and from which they were driven. At half-past four o'clock, p.m., May 7th, the regiment, after moving to the right of the plank road, with the brigade, was detailed for picket, where it remained until ten o'clock, a.m., the next day. "
Not long after the advance of the earthworks by the 11th NJ and the 16th Massachusetts, Colonel McAllister's horse was killed as he rode it, and a spent musket ball temporarily paralyzed his leg.  The Colonel returned to his brigade the next day.
Schoonover observed, "None who passed through the battle of the Wilderness will ever forget it.  On the night of the 7th, I was picket officer for the division; and this night's duty was one of the most unpleasant I ever performed in the army. To establish a picket line at night, in the almost impenetrable wilderness, would be at any time a difficult task, but in addition to this, it lay through the battleground of the previous day, and in many places the bodies of the dead strewed the ground so thickly that it was difficult to guide my horse among them.  At this point, which was on the right of the plank road, the two lines fought with a small stream between them, and on the brow of the hill on one side, the rebel dead lay in perfect line, for at least 200 yards, so closely as to enable a person to step from one to another for the entire distance."
Similar fighting was experienced by the men of the 15th and 10th NJ Regiments.
Copyright 1997-2014: Jay C. Richards