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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Wilderness of Woe"

Journal Opinion

April 30 , 2014

This map shows the location of the Vermont Brigade under the command of  Lewis Grant at the crossroads of the Brock Road and the Orange Plank Road.  Face with overwhelming odds the Vermonters suffered 1,000 casualties that day.  (Courtesy Gary Gallagher)

Many of the deaths at the Battle of the Wilderness were caused by the fires that 
broke out.  Many of those who died were burned beyond recognition.

An Incident at the Battle of the Wilderness.  In late May 1864 Frank Leslie's Illustrated published
this woodcut of Union generals George Meade (left) and Ulysses S. Grant (right) in an article describing the recent successes of the Union forces in the Overland Campaign.

 Vermont Monument at the Wilderness.  On Sept. 16, 2006 a ceremony dedicated this monument to Vermont's sacrifice at the Battle of the Wilderness.  Designed by Vermont Civil War Historian Howard Coffin, the Barre granite was etched in the shape of Camel's Hump.  Coffin also led the effort to preserve 500 acres of the battlefield endangered by development. (Courtesy of Stonesentinels.com)     

“Yet it is to the Wilderness that one must go to find the place where the soldiers from Vermont made their greatest sacrifice for the cause of the American Union.  Around that historic and unlovely place where two country roads still meet, Vermonters by the hundreds fell bleeding…. The Brock-Orange Plank roads intersection is Vermont’s great Civil War battle scene.”  Howard Coffin, Full Duty: Vermonters in the Civil War

     This is the fourth column in my observance of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the role of local men in that conflict. The first described the response of the Bradford Guard to Lincoln’s call for troops. This was followed by a column on the Sept. 2, 1862 battle at Antietam, the single bloodiest day in American warfare and then one on the July 1863 battle at Gettysburg, the single greatest battle in our history.  These three columns can be found on my blog at larrycoffin.blogspot.com.

     This column describes the May 5-6, 1864 Battle of the Wilderness, the 150th anniversary of which will be observed next week. The first day of the Battle of the Wilderness was the bloodiest day in the history of Vermont. In this two-day battle, Vermont lost over 1420 of its soldiers, killed, wounded or missing.  Local soldiers from both Vermont and New Hampshire were among those who participated in the battle and sacrificed their lives. 

     The sources used include  Coffin’s book mentioned above, The Wilderness Campaign, edited by Gary Gallagher, Duane Shaffer’s Men of Granite: New Hampshire Soldiers in the Civil War as well as regimental and town histories.  

      By the spring of 1864 the Civil War was entering its fourth year of terrible conflict. Seeking a more aggressive military leader, President Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as the commander of Union forces. Using the Union’s superior numbers of troops and resources, Grant planned to destroy the economy of the South, defeat the Confederate forces and capture Richmond in a strategy that today might be called “shock and awe.” 

     With George Meade in direct command of the Union’s Army of the Potomac, Grant began his Overland Campaign. Union troops, including many from our area, moved out of winter encampments on May 3, 1864. Their objectives were to seize the fords on the Rapidan River, march through the area known as the Wilderness and confront Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  As they marched, soldiers discarded many of the items they had accumulated during the winter lull, leaving the roads littered with extra clothing and other supplies.

     The Wilderness was a heavily-wooded area with thick tangled undergrowth crisscrossed by narrow country roads.  Although he lost some initiative by failing to move quickly, Lee moved his forces into the region with the goals of seizing the strategic roads, dividing the Federal army and driving them back across the river. The Confederates’ familiarity with the territory gave them an advantage over the superior numbers and firepower of the Federals and created “the impression of a much larger attacking force than really existed.”    

     At about noon on May 5 the shooting began. Confederate troops moved to seize the key Brock-Orange Plank roads intersection and sever the Federal forces. Meade sent George Getty’s division of the 6th Corps under Gen. John Sedgwick to hold that position. This included the Vermont Brigade under the command of Col. Lewis A. Grant. There they were joined by a portion of Gen. Winfield Hancock’s Second Corps and for hours took “terrible fire from a concealed foe at a distance of less than 75 yards.” 

      Wilbur Fisk of Tunbridge, a private in the 2nd Vermont Regiment wrote: “Here was a high point of land where the roads cross at right angles, and it is in the midst of an endless wilderness, ‘a wilderness of woe,’ as the boys call it.” He went on “the rebs gave us a warm welcome. We were under fire for over three hours before we were relieved.  Our regiment lost 264 killed and wounded.”

     Joining the 2nd were the other elements of the Vermont Brigade, the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th  Regiments, as well as the 17th Vermont Regiments.  The Vermont Brigade of about 3,000 men held of an enemy force of about 14,000 for four hours.  Thee were 1,000 casualties in those regiments included many officers and a number of local men, killed or wounded.  They include Charles Burbank  of West Fairlee, Reuben Goodwin of Groton and Darling Jones of Topsham.   

     The nature of the two days of battle was captured in the following by Frank Wilkeson a New Yorker artilleryman who left his company and fought alongside Hancock’s 2nd Corp. “The uproar was deafening; the bullets flew through the air thickly. Now our line would move forward a few yards, now fall back…blazing away at an indistinct, smoke-and-tree obscured line of men in gray and slouch-hatted.” Coffin writes “Two great armies groped, advanced, and retreated in confusion, yet in unrelenting determination.”

     Pvt. Seth Eastman of Topsham, of the 3rd Vermont Regiment recalled that his comrades built low breastworks out of logs and loose fences.  He said that when other Union troops came up as reinforcements, the confusion, thick underbrush and powder smoke led to crossfire and resulted in the death of some of his comrades. The 3rd suffered 239 casualties, “losing one in three of its rank and file.” Benjamin Homer of Groton and Martin Brock of Lyme were among those wounded. Morris Page of Groton was killed and his brother Leverett was wounded. 

      At the end of the day, Eastman recalled “We were as tired and sorry a lot of fellows as were ever known. Most all of my friends lay dead or wounded, scattered in the field somewhere. Two of my comrades fell dead at my side—Moody Martin and Asa Whitcomb. They were killed instantly—they never spoke a word or uttered a groan.”

     Moody Martin was one of three brothers in Company B of the 6th Regiment, the other two being Remembrance and Harrison. Twenty-five-year-old Moody was the oldest of the three and had reenlisted in November 1863 to be with his two younger brothers.   During the battle Remembrance was wounded.  He was my wife’s great grandfather. Moody’s body was never recovered and is probably one of thousands of unknowns buried in the national cemetery at nearby Fredericksburg, VA. A cenotaph headstone in Bradford’s Upper Plain Cemetery memorializes his life and contribution to the Union cause. 

     There were 216 casualties of the 6th Regiment at the Wilderness.  It was said that they “fought desperately and suffered enormously.  Of the 441 that went into battle, 69 were killed including Henry Wright of Ryegate and 127 were wounded.  A number of men were taken prisoner including Franklin Bixby of Topsham, Moses Stratton of Bradford and Gilbert Clifford of Fairlee. George Whitehill and Daniel Miller were both taken prisoner and sent to Andersonville Prison and died as a result of conditions there.  

     Another cenotaph, this one in Oxbow cemetery in Newbury, is that of  Pvt. William Heath of Newbury, a member of the 4th Vermont Regiment.  By the end of the battle the 4th had suffered more casualties than any other regiment in the Vermont Brigade, with 257 of its 600 men killed, wounded or missing.

      Others from that regiment that were killed include: William Aiken of Corinth, Louis Paquette of Newbury, Bryon Wilson and Daniel Skinner of Bradford, Thomas Lowler of West Fairlee and John Wilmot of Thetford.  Moses Stratton of Bradford was taken prisoner and died soon after release the following year. 

     The 17th Regiment was the newest Vermont regiment. The members had been recruited during the early months of 1864 and included men from Thetford and West Fairlee.  In the fighting on May 5, this untested regiment was “hotly engaged “and lost more men than any other regiment in the 2nd Brigade.  It was not uncommon for there to be a higher casualty count among untested troops such as this.  

       The 1st Vermont Calvary Regiment was also involved and penetrated within the enemy lines. When their commander was killed, Lt. Col. John Bennett of Newbury assumed command.  Brothers Edwin and Henry Cilley of Thetford were among the members of this regiment wounded in the fighting.

     A number of local men were among the two regiments of sharpshooters that were “engaged in some of the hardest fighting.”  William Humphrey of the 2nd US recalled: “We thought we had seen hard fighting and hardships before, but this was war twice told.”  Daniel Davis of Fairlee was one of those who died of their wounds received during the battle and James Guthrie of Ryegate was taken prisoner.

     On the second day of the battle men of New Hampshire’s 6th, 9th and 11th Regiments became fully engaged in the “bloody brawl in the tangled undergrowth.” These regiments included a number of men from Grafton County as well as neighboring states and foreign countries.  Sixty percent of the members of the 6h Regiment were foreign born, indicative of the migration of the early 19th century.   

     The 6h was among those that charged forward on the afternoon of May 6. Company B was under the command of Capt. Samuel Adams of Haverhill.  They were successful in capturing a number of prisoners.  However, Priv. Kund Olson of Piermont was taken prisoner during the action and held at Andersonville Prison. Forty-five members of the regiment were killed or wounded.  Among the wounded were George Smith and Joseph Weed, both of Haverhill.

     The 11th had only recently completed an overland march from Eastern Tennessee and had arrived at the battle after a 50-mile forced march. Colonel Walter Harriman recalled that while the 11th charged the enemy lines “under the fiercest musketry fire that this war has known,” they found themselves without support and 40 including Harriman were taken captive. Nine men of the 11th were killed and 30 were wounded.  Included among those killed was Arthur Hutchins of Bath.  Many of those who survived the Wilderness would go on to significantly less luck in the ensuing battles at Spotsylvania and Petersburg later that year.      

      In the late morning of May 6, 7,000 Confederate troops under the command of Gen. James Longstreet charged the Union line in a flanking attack. The Vermont Brigade was isolated, but stood their ground until their position became untenable and then retreated, returning fire as they went.

      New Hampshire’s only light battery company, under the command of Capt. Frederick Edgell of Orford, was positioned at one of the few accessible places for artillery.  It was guarding the Plank Road and confronted the “shock” of Longstreet’s flanking action. Firing double charges of canister from its 12 cannons, the company inflicted severe losses on the enemy while sustaining only the loss of a few horses.  

     Not only was the Confederate attack repulsed, Longstreet was critically wounded by friendly fire.  Later in the afternoon the attack was resumed and came very close to overrunning the Union positions.  But, as it had on the previous day, the undergrowth caught fire and that, along with the resolve of the Federals, caused the Confederates to withdraw.

      Many of the wounded lay helpless, “haunted with the dread of fire.”  “Smoke was at time blinding and the air was sickening, with the smell of the burning bodies” both of the dead and the severely wounded. It was reported that some committed suicide in the face of the fire.    

     When the Confederates were repulsed the inconclusive Battle of the Wilderness came to an end.  Gallagher writes “The maelstrom in the Wilderness yielded no clear-cut winners.  Neither side was driven from the field and a majority of the soldiers in both armies probably believed they had bested their opponents.”

     The Union suffered 17,666 casualties from among the 101,895 troops in Grant’s forces. Lee had entered the battle with 60,000 and suffered about 8,000 losses.  Every community in our region felt the weight of these losses for their men were among the hundreds of Vermont and New Hampshire troops killed, wounded or missing. 

      Rather than “skedaddling” as other earlier Union commanders had done, Grant turned his forces south, staying on the offensive.  Within days, the two forces met again in nearby Spotsylvania in the most costly battle of the campaign.  In April 1865, Grant’s Overland Campaign achieved success with the fall of Richmond and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House.

     In 2006, the 500 acres of the Wilderness where Vermont soldiers fought was in danger of being developed.  Vermont’s premier Civil War historian Howard Coffin, with the assistance of Senator James Jeffords, secured Congressional funding for the purchase of the property. With financing from the Vermont Legislature, Coffin designed a monument in the shape of Camel’s Hump.  The monument was dedicated on September 16, 2006. 

     As we approach the 150th anniversary of this battle that involved so many from this area of Vermont and New Hampshire, Coffin’s remarks at that ceremony seems appropriate to recall: “Vermont remembers that the ancient causes of freedom and unity to which our existence as a state were pledged long before 1864, were magnificently defended here amid horror, smoke and thunder.”

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Do You Think You Know Bradford History?

YOU KNOW BRADFORD HISTORY IF YOU KNOW: (Taken From the Bradford Historical Society 2014 Newsletter)    Answers below:

1.     Who are the authors of the two Bradford histories (1876 & 1967)?

2.     What is one of the names for Bradford before it became Bradford.

3.     What happens after the golf course floods three times?

4.     Where was the building that is now the Old Church Theatre originally located?

5.     What was the name of the sea captain whose home was on the site of the present Merchant’s Bank

6.     Where was the armory for the Bradford Guard prior to the building of the 3rd floor armory in the present Richardson Office Building?

7.     What was the name of the garage/auto dealership located in the building that is now the Bottle Shoppe?

8.     What building is featured on the town seal, now part of the official Bradford250 logo?

9.     Who/what is the Waits River named for?  

10.   Who was the man who donated funds to building the Bradford Academy and the building that houses the Bradford Public Library?

11.   Who is the man whose statute is in the park in front of the Bradford Public Library?

12.   What is the name of the early business leader who built the Brick Mill, the former Legion Hall and a large paper mill above the present dam?
















  1. Rev. Silas McKeen and Harold Haskins
  2. Waits Town, Mooretown (in honor of N.Y. Royal Governor S. Henry Moore), Salem, and by Act of the General Assembly of the Republic of Vermont in 1788, Bradford.
  3. Spring (or at least that is the common lore).
  4. Town Church was located on the Upper Plain
  5. Capt. William Trotter who retired to Bradford with his wife in 1804 and built a home that after his death in 1822 became the Trotter House. It burned in 1887.
  6. Located just behind the Legion Hall. 
  7. Perry’s Garage
  8. Brick Mill
  9. Capt. Joseph Wait of the Rogers Rangers who shot a deer on the meadow in 1759.
  10.  John L. Woods
  11. Admiral Charles E. Clark, hero of the Spanish American War
  12. Asa Low