Monday, January 13, 2020

Capt. Augustus Merrill - Capturing the Enemy and Earning the Medal of Honor

Maybe only second to capturing a flag, taking enemy combatants helped a number of Union soldiers earn the Medal of Honor. One of those men was Capt. Augustus Merrill of Company B, 1st Maine Veteran Volunteer Infantry, who received the special medal on October 23, 1891. On April 2, 1865, Merrill was among the VI Corps (Hyde's Brigade, Getty's Division) soldiers who broke through the Confederate earthworks on the ground occupied today by Pamplin Historical Park.

Merrill's Medal of Honor citation simply reads: "With six men captured 69 Confederate prisoners and recaptured several soldiers who had fallen into enemy's hands." The actual happenings were, of course, much more dramatic. Thankfully, Merrill shared his daring story in the 1901 book Deeds of Valor: How American's Heroes Won the Medal of Honor.

Under the title "A Profitable Reconnaissance," Merrill relayed that after breaking through the Confederate line they pivoted to the southwest (left) and he was deployed in front of the sweeping VI Corps working with a company of skirmishers to determine the level of remaining Confederate resistance. Merrill remembered, "I took twenty men, deployed them as skirmishers, and advanced through the woods, coming upon an old camp. Here I captured a lieutenant and three men belonging to [A. P.] Hill's Corps, who informed me that slight resistance would be made 'this side of Hatcher's Run.'

When our line advanced I pressed on, meeting no opposition, picking up the rebel stragglers and sending them to the rear, until I reached Hatcher's Run and found that the enemy were in position on the opposite side. Supposing that the Corps was following in that direction, and not having very definite instructions, I determined to dislodge the Confederates from their position if possible. To my left was a bridge over which the telegraph road [Boydton Plank Road] runs, defended by strong  works on the other side. Near the bridge was an old wooden mill [Burgess Mill]. With a small party of men who volunteered for the occasion, and who belonged to five or six different regiments of this [VI] Corps, I moved along the run to the right through the woods, my left flank on the run. The eagerness of the men induced me to keep some distance. We came to an old dam, where we discovered indications that a crossing had been made that morning, and immediately moved over by the left flank, the enemy firing a few shots as we crossed. It was a dangerous place; one man fell into the run, but came out safely, however, minus his musket, leaving me fifteen armed men. With these I advanced and captured the skirmish line, firing but a few shots. Guarding the prisoners closely, I moved on and soon came upon a rebel guard surrounding Captain John Tifft, Ninth New York Artillery. We captured the guard and released the captain, making the number of prisoners we had thus far taken sixty-four, mostly Virginia sharpshooters, who told of their various raids on our picket line during the winter, and acted as thought they would like to overpower our small squad and march us off. I told them it would be useless to resist, as we had a large force in the rear, and their whole line would be taken. Two of my men then reconnoitered the woods and came to the open field, where they found a line of battle behind the enemy works facing the Second Corps. Their left then rested on Hatcher's Run, we being directly behind them. I took the prisoners across the run and marched them to the rear without being molested by the enemy. The reconnaissance was a complete success in that the information gained was of much value to our commander.

Three of the men, who upon my request had volunteered to remain and watch the movements of the enemy captured five more prisoners, making our total sixty-nine. A receipt for sixty-four was given me by the provost-guard, Second Division, and the three other men got credit for the capture of five."

I had not previously come across accounts of the provost guard issuing receipts for prisoners of war as Merrill relates, but it certainly makes sense and seems like a logical way to make official counts. I'll be keeping my eyes open for other references to receipts issued to captors.

Image courtesy of Find A Grave.

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