«MAJ. GEN. CHARLES S. HAMILTON HISTORY of THE THIRD REGIMENT of WISCONSIN VETERAN VOLUNTEER INFANTRY 1861 — 1865. BY EDWIN E. BRYANT Late Adjutant. ...»
While our operations were going on, our friends, the enemy, deeply resented this invasion of the “sacred soil,” especially the depredations of the foragers, and collected a force to bag us or hustle us out. Col. Turner Ashby, with about 300 militia, 230 mounted men and two pieces of cannon, one rifled and one a 24-pounder (as he reports) — the infantry being a part of two regiments, one under Col. Albert and one under Major Finter — prepared to attack us. He arranged with Gen. Evans, who was in command at Leesburg, to send a battery with supports to ascend Loudoun Heights, on the bold end of the Blue Ridge, which is directly across the Shenandoah from Harper’s Ferry, to shell us from that quarter and use sharpshooters as much as possible, while he, Ashby, advanced upon us from the direction of Halltown.
At about eight o’clock in the morning a spirited fire was heard from our picket line along Bolivar Heights. A detail of thirty men, under Sergeant Marvin, from Company H, were on duty as a reserve to the picket line. When it was attacked, Marvin boldly led his men to the aid of the picket at the ridge and stoutly resisted the advance. But the enemy came down the road, disregarding the opposition of Company H, and pressed on so fast that
-28Marvin’s men did not have time to stop and get their overcoats and blankets, at their reserve post. The other companies at once flew to arms. Colonel Geary, who had been apprized of the advance of the enemy — it had been expected for two or three days — soon appeared upon the scene. One or two of his companies had been sent over a day or two before to assist in picket duty. He ordered Capt. Bertram to protect the left flank and Shenandoah road. Lieut. O’Brien was as the same time directed to protect the left flank of Bertram, and Capt. Whitman to hold the center. Company A, under Bertram, at once deployed skirmishers and advanced from the upper town toward Bolivar, but on coming to the ravine between the two towns, he filed down into the Shenandoah road. Advancing up this road we found no rebels approaching from that direction. Bertram then climbed up the rocks and found himself on the flank of the enemy, who were moving over the heights, down toward Bolivar. He directed Lieut. Bryant to bring the company up the bluff.
Clambering up the steeps, the company was ranged in skirmish line along the top of the heights, just as the enemy had planted their gun in the outskirts of Bolivar, sheltered from our battery on Maryland Heights by a large brick house. A large force of infantry was just behind the battery. Just at this moment Bertram’s company opened upon them a galling fire. This they returned, but in a moment showed symptoms of disorder. Our line of skirmishers advanced. Lieut O’Brien seeing that Company A was engaged, rushed forward with Company C and poured in a volley. The enemy then fled across the field to the timber on Bolivar Heights. The two companies advanced upon a sharp fire to a large brick house. From the windows and doors of this we kept up a brisk fire. The enemy’s marksmanship was good.
Stewart Mosher of Company C was killed while near this house — shot through the heart. Not satisfied with our work here in merely holding in check, the impetuous Bertram ordered a charge upon a gun planted in the road on the southeasterly side of Bolivar Heights. Lieut. Bryant with a dozen men of Company A was ordered to bear off to the left and protect the flank, while the rest of Company A, and a part of Company C, charged up the road for the gun. This little line charged on at more than double quick. But it brought the charging party under the fire of all Ashby’s infantry; the 300 militia entrenched behind the log breastworks, which they had relaid to front our advance, poured in a hot fire. Still the party pressed on. The gunners undertook to haul off their gun, the 24-pounder, but in their haste they broke the axle,7 drove in a spike and scampered away. The fire had become so hot that our little party with no support on its right, sought the shelter of the trees and hillocks; and One of the stories the Confederates tell to illustrate Ashby’s prowess, is that in this skirmish, “His cannoneers were shot down and the enemy rushing with loud shouts upon his artillery, he seized the sponge staff and loaded and fired with his own hands, driving them back with shattered ranks into the town.”
-29Bertram seeing no chance for support to come up, ordered a retreat. The instant they began to fall back, Ashby’s cavalry dashed over the hill upon them with dare-devil impetuosity. Lieut. Bryant and his group of flankers were in open field on the left of the road; and they had a long run with the cavalry close upon them; but an old garden fence over which they leaped unceremoniously saved their heads from the sabers which were swishing about their ears very unpleasantly.
The cavalry gave Corp. William H. Foster, who had been wounded in the leg and was limping off the field, a blow about the back of the neck, which, but for his coat collar, would have finished him. He suffered from it for some time. In this pell-mell retreat the hindmost of our party were likely to fare hard, for the horsemen were among them and about them. It would have been the end of Bertram and his men had not the gallant O’Brien rallied his men, some twenty of which were near him, and fired into the troopers, who were sabering right and left, shooting revolvers and yelling like Indian devils. This brisk and timely fire took all the courage out of Ashby’s cavaliers; and they turned and scampered back behind the hill as fast as horse flesh could carry them. We then clung to the edge of Bolivar. The enemy had by this time a line of sharp shooters along Bolivar Heights, and their fire was very annoying. The minie balls whistled every time one of our men showed himself; and frequent shots from their rifled gun went screaming down the street. Meantime, the enemy’s battery on Loudoun Heights had got into position with four guns over across the Shenandoah and high over our heads. They began to rain down upon us shell and slugs. The latter were made of railroad iron, cut into pieces about 15 inches long, with pieces of pine board fitted around them and the whole wound with telegraph wire to make the slug fit and fill the bore of the gun.
These missiles did us no harm; but the buzzing, whizzing, humming sound with which they went whirling through the air was enough to frighten forty battalions into panic. When one of those howlers passed over our heads, we shrunk into the smallest space possible, and ducked our heads in no time and one motion. Never was heard a more terrifying sound, it is safe to affirm, in all the war.
While our skirmish line was under cannonade from front, and rear from Loudoun, with sharp shooters all along the Bolivar Ridge, we held our own and watched patiently. Further to the right was Capt. Whitman with Company H, well up to the work, and still farther, the Thirteenth Massachusetts company held their own. Major Gould in command bore himself well; and the enemy all along were prevented from advancing over the ridge. Soon Col.
Geary had Capt. Tompkins run some guns up on Maryland Heights, and they began to play very closely on the rebel battery on Loudoun. It was quite musical for an hour or more, when Col. Geary, who had taken charge on our side, ordered up four companies of his own regiment, the Twenty-eighth
-30Pennsylvania, and Lieut. Martin, with one gun, of the Ninth New York battery.
Two of the Pennsylvania companies on the right flank got well upon the ridge, and our whole line was at once advanced. Martin poured his shell into the breastworks on the crest of Bolivar Heights, shooting off the wheel of their small cannon, and out line swept on, the enemy fleeing before us. When we had gained the Heights, their column was in full flight toward Halltown, and Martin’s gun sent after them a few farewell shots, that added materially to the nimbleness of their departure.
In this brisk, little skirmish — which, being our first, seemed to the participants a momentous battle — we lost four killed, seven wounded and two prisoners. All the losses save one of the prisoners, were from Companies A and C, of the Third regiment. Company H was more fortunate, though equally brave and conspicuous in the action from first to last.
The losses were in killed: Henry Clemens and Franklin L. Tuttle, of Company A, Stewart E. Mosher and Henry Raymond of Company C. Edgar Ross of C was mortally wounded and died at Halltown, a prisoner. George Buxton, of Company I, also died of wounds received, making six deaths in all.
Our other wounded were three in Company C, Corp. George Gay, Corp.
William H. Foster and private Thomas Hayden. Capt. Bertram had a narrow escape, a bullet passed through his clothing; and many of the men, as one expressed it, “got wounded in their clothes.” This little action came at a time when there was no war news of interest;
and the newspapers made much of it, and much was printed that was ridiculous. The New York and Philadelphia dailies had long accounts of the battle; and the 24-pounder8 that we had driven the enemy from, and prevented his removing, was claimed by the Pennsylvania journals as a trophy of the valor of her sons. It was presented to the city of Philadelphia as such trophy. The pictorials had Geary charging over the gun, and his advancing line in hand to hand conflict with the enemy in solid mass before him; all which shattered the sweet faith of our boys in pictorial representations of battle scenes ever after.
Our victory was complete. The enemy lost thirteen in killed and wounded and four prisoners, according to Ashby’s report of the casualties and Geary’s of the captures. Our men, who were confident that every one of their shots had taken effect, figured the enemy’s loss up into the hundreds; and Geary reported it at 150. Somehow, the reports of engagements made by the officers on opposite sides never could be made to agree.
It remains to be told that some of the riflemen on Loudoun Heights came down uncomfortably near to Harper’s Ferry, and from their high, hiding places covered the ferry across the river at the lower town. They were shelled out by So Ashby describes it. We took it to be, and Geary reported it, a 32-pounder.
-31our batteries. Our mission being accomplished, Col. Geary relieved us from duty; and on the 17th we returned by rail to Frederick, bringing our dead and wounded with us. The other companies of the regiment received out detachment and escorted us to the camp with military honors, through streets thronged with citizens, amid huzzas and waving of handkerchiefs by the loyal ladies; and every one of the sharers in the skirmish at Bolivar felt himself for the time a martial hero. It was our first baptism in fire; and it made a great sensation in camp. They had heard at Frederick the cannonade at Harper’s Ferry; and the news of our little victory had preceded us. It created in the regiment an ardent desire to participate in battles — a desire that later experience completely eradicated and made us very willing that fields should be won by strategy instead of the bloody collision of regiments in close engagement.
N THE 21st day of October we changed our camp ground, moving just O across the street, and made extended arrangements for a long stay.
Floors were put down in tents; for there was much sickness and several deaths in the regiment as the autumn chill came on. A busy day was spent in getting ready for tidy, camp life, and the many cheap comforts which we were fast learning how to provide. Tired with the day’s work the men were retiring to test their new made beds as soon as tattoo was over. Then the unwelcome command came to each company commander: “Cook one day’s rations, pack knapsacks, be ready to march in one hour.” Then all was bustle. In less than an hour the wagons were loaded and all ready for march. Then a drizzly night rain set in. Momentarily expecting the order to march, we waited till dawn, with wind and rain for our boon companions for the night. Daybreak found us pressing on to Edward’s Ferry.
We heard the booming of cannon in the distance. News came to us of the disaster at Ball’s Bluff. McClellan had ordered Banks’ command to the spot;
and it was reported that our division was crossing the Potomac. Cheer upon cheer rung out as we trudged on faster. We reached Poolville early next morning, and found great preparations made to cross the river. Our brigade (Hamilton’s) was up the river at Conrad’s Ferry; and thither we hastened.
Gen. Hamilton greeted us cordially, as we had been absent nearly two months. Next morning we were up early. In the near neighborhood were the Fifteenth Massachusetts, the “Tammany regiment,”9 and Col. Baker’s First California regiment, which had suffered terribly in the Ball’s Bluff affair,10 in which our forces across the river, had been routed with loss in killed, wounded, drowned and captured of 921 men. We waited for orders to cross.
On the 27th we marched with the whole of Banks’ command down the river to the former headquarters at Darnestown, and went into camp in a jungle of small pines, which was named “Camp Jo. Holt.” In the heart of the woods we were cozy enough, sheltered from the winds that soughed dismally in the boughs overhead. Here we remained for some weeks.11 The men built cabins of pine logs, lined them with boughs, and made very comfortable quarters. The most exciting event was the daily arrival of the mail. Rumors Forty-second New York.
ED. NOTE: Colonel Edward Dickinson Baker, 24 Feb 1811 - 21 Oct 1861, was killed at this battle.
Here Adjutant Bertram was promoted captain of Company A; Bryant, 1st lieutenant, and O. S.
Howard 2d lieutenant; Lieut. Van Brunt, Company I, was appointed adjutant, and Reed, of Company I, 1st lieutenant.
-33kept us constantly expecting a move. Once we thought we were selected for a southern expedition. The paymaster came and paid us two months’ pay on the 26th. On the 29th, Charley Johnson, the sutler, set a royal thanksgiving dinner for the officers. But the weather and the woods were dismal; and we longed for a change.