Monday, May 5, 2014

The Battle of the Wilderness - May 5

As a boy few Civil War battles captured my imagination quite like the Battle of the Wilderness. I am not sure if it was the gory tales I read in books like The Barefoot Brigade, which painted pictures in my mind of wounded soldiers seeking medical attention only to be burned by flaming underbrush. It may have been the thoughts of a brutal battle occurring among a dense thicket of second-growth timber; each side fighting desperately for every yard of ground. I could seemingly close my eyes and in my minds-eye see the thick smoke, hear the loud cracks of thousands of muskets, and feel the earth tremble with every report of artillery.

Visiting the Wilderness battlefield years later those thoughts came back. One account that has stuck with me about the battle was penned by Captain Samuel Buck of the 13th Virginia Infantry Regiment, which was part of Gen. John Pegram's (pictured) Brigade, in Jubal Early's Division and Ewell's Corps.

Buck was a native of Warren County, Virginia, and in the spring of 1864 a 23 year old company commander. The former Winchester dry goods clerk had joined up with other eager Confederates in the spring of 1861. He was made sergeant of Company H, the "Winchester Boomerangs," and soon thereafter earned his captain bars.

As the fighting died down on the night of May 5, 1864, Buck remembered:
"We wished for night. . . . Work on our right was as heavy almost as in our front and when night did come our line stood solid, immovable. Shall that terrible night ever be erased from my memory, the terrible groans of the wounded, the mournful sound of the owl and the awful shrill shrieks of the whipporwill; the most hideous of all noise I ever heard on a battle field after the firing had ceased. The terrible loneliness is of itself sufficient, and these birds seemed to mock at our grief and laugh at the groans of the dying. Pen and words fail to describe the scene. With these exceptions, all is quiet. When I heard the familiar voice of Capt. R. N. Wilson, A.[ssistant] A.[djutant] General, calling and asking along the line for me. As I had just been on duty I felt he could not want me for regular work so concluded a scout and search for the enemy would be the call and while thus thinking had walked up the line and met him. Speaking clearly as he always did he informed me that Col. Hoffman wished me to establish a picket line as close to the enemy as I could. Not being my turn to go duty and knowing it meant staying up all night, I told Col. Wilson that he should send some one else. Admitting the justice of what I said he repeated the request saying Col. Hoffman desired it and promised to relieve me as soon as I got the line established. No escape and fully expecting to have another volley fired into me, I formed my picket line immediately in front and moved forward, stumbling over the dead and dying and they lay thicker then I ever saw them and it was hard to keep of them in the darkness.

At last I was in speaking distance of the enemy and they seemed disposed to have a truce for the night and we were rid of the usual and useless picket firing. I instructed my men not to fire and it seemed that the officer on the other side did the same as we were so close we could hear them talking plainly."

After hours of fighting how terrifying and tiring it must have been to blindly wander out beyond one's own lines to try to feel the enemy's position, knowing all the while a bullet could strike you at any minute. Sadly, Buck's experience was just one man's out of thousands of others that May 5 night.  

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