The 34th Massachusetts at the Battle of New Market

The 34th Massachusetts did most of its fighting in the Shenandoah Valley and Western Virginia.  It did not participate in the more famous battles such as Antietam, Gettysburg or Spotsylvania.  As a result, it has not received the historical recognition that it truly deserves.  The regiment was extremely well disciplined and drilled under the tutelage of its commander, Colonel George D. Wells, a veteran officers from the 1st Massachusetts Infantry.  Under his leadership, the regiment played important roles and endured heavy losses in battles at New Market, Piedmont, Lynchburg, Snicker’s Gap, Opequon Creek and Fisher’s Hill.  Wells was mortally wounded in a skirmish at Hupp’s Hill near Cedar Creek on October 13,  1864.  The regiment would go onto participate in the Battle of Cedar Creek where it was among the first troops attacked during Jubal Early’s pre-dawn attack on Sheridan’s Camp.

The 34th Massachusetts in camp

Head Quarters 34th Mass. Inf.

In the Field at Cedar Creek, Va.

May 17, 1864

At the date of my last letter we were in camp near Woodstock. saturday morning we sent out a train of eight wagons foraging with a guard of two officers and 60 men. Knox, our cook wanted to go with them to try and get me chickens; so he took the horse that I have been riding; about 11 o’clock in the forenoon we received orders to march immediately with all our baggage — it was raining quite hard at the time, as indeed, it had been more or less for several days. We marched through the town of Woodstock and about two miles beyond Edenburg, a distance of about 10 miles without halting. All along the road were dismounted cavalrymen, some with arms and equipments and some without. They informed us that they had been having quite a fight with Imboden at Mount Jackson. We pushed on towards that place, but before we arrived there we could hear the booming of cannon, and could see the smoke rising just beyond the town. We had marched about 18 miles at a very fast pace, most of the time in a drenching rain — I had walked most of the way and my feet were very sore. I had a hole in my shoe and the mud and gravel had worked inside of my stocking and raised a large blood blister — I hobbled along to the teams which were just ahead of our regiment and took out of my knapsack a dry pair of socks and another pair of shoes and staid in the wagon until after we had passed through and al.most four miles beyond Mount Jackson, and within about two miles of New Market. We were then nearly up with the contending parties; we could see the shells bursting in the air quite plainly; the wagon train halted there and the regiment kept on about half a mile further and then halted to arrange their equipment and load. I was in a good safe place and could have stopped there with perhaps just as much honor as to go ahead, but I could not stand it to see the boys go along without me — I had no arms except my revolver, but when I came up with the regiment I found in the rear several men who had just been taken with severe sick headache. I took the gun and equipments from one of them while the surgeon was recommending him to go home to his mother — and went along and fell in with my Company; it was the first time that I had carried a gun in the Company for about twenty months; my appearance then and there amongst them with a gun on my shoulder surprised many of the boys, for they had imagined that I had got a good safe job and would not “go in,” in case of a fight. More than a dozen (amongst them the Captain) held out their hands to me and welcomed me back to the Company.

We soon came near the town which is situated in a hollow with high hills to the north and south. The Confederates had their battery planted on the hill south of the town, and we had two planted on north side of the town. The Col. then moved the regiment around and under the hill in rear of the battery so as to support it in case it was charged upon; he then went up on top of the hill to take a look at the rebels. I followed him up a short distance and heard him direct the Adjutant to send us around to watch the ridge in front of our battery and notify him if any force appeared in front of our guns. I volunteered for the job — he gave me my instructions and went back over the hill — I could see the flash of the enemy’s guns and then hear the shell come whizzing along — if it was coming near me, down I would go to my face and there lie until it either passed or exploded. While in this position several burst near me and several pieces came as near as I wished to see them — one particular one I could hear coming directly towards me — and I was almost certain I was hit — down I went, flat on my face. I heard the Colonel laughing behind me, but I ad a chance to turn it in a few moments — the particular shell that I was dodging struck the ground in a direct line about two rods in front of me and burst ; how the mud flew — one piece of shell came so near me that I rolled over and picked it up. I put it in my pocket and have it now. The Col. stood laughing in which I heartily joined him but in another moment we saw the flash of the rebel gun. We stood waiting and listening for the shell. Finally it came. I saw it burst in the air in front of us. I glanced at the Colonel — down he went — thinks I to myself, “Follow suit or you may be trumped,” and again I ran my nose into the ground like a regular porker. One piece passed just over the Colonel — another just over striking within ten feet of me.

It was then almost dark and after one or two more rounds the rebels withdrew for the night. Our batteries fell back and the infantry was thrown forward and around to the right of the town. It had been raining a good share of the time and many of the boys had no blankets, and we were all wet through. No fires were to be built, but the rebels were in the woods all around and in front of us — we were tired and hungry and the rain still poured down — we had all got stretched out on the ground to pass the night as comfortably as possible when the picket line commenced firing. I was lying close to the Col. — we were speaking of the probability of being routed out — the shots grew faster and more of them until suddenly came two terrific volleys, the flash of the guns in the darkness fired within eight rods of us and the singing of the minnies through the trees, leading us to think a whole regiment was right upon us. Col. Wells came up on his feet in an instant, shouting “Up boys.” In less time than it takes me to write it, the regiment were in line and every gun was ready and bearing upon the spot where we expected the rebels to appear, but that was their last attempt that night, everything grew quiet and we lay down again. I slept sound with my head on my cartridge box and the rain pouring on me most of the time. At 3 o’clock we were routed out and stood to our arms until daylight.

At 6 o’clock our wagons came up and we had some coffee, bread and butter. We got our tent up, some good fires going and tried to warm up. They were hardly going when the sharp report of artillery, and the shrieking and bursting shells were heard. All this time shells had been bursting around us but providentially no one was injured. Only six regiments of infantry were brought into line on our side. Cavalry were in front of us. About noon three rebel lines, either one of them as large as our entire line came charging up over the brow of the hill. We could see all three rebel lines as they came on — as soon as they appeared in sight they opened fire, we replied from our batteries, and from where I was I could see the shells mow them down by scores. As soon as they came within range our boys opened with killing effect — by that time the “minnies,” “shells,” solid shot and railroad iron were whistling past and around us in a perfect storm. The first rebel line melted away, but the second and third still came on — thicker and faster came the iron hail — human endurance could not stand it — our line gradually ave away and we fell back across the fields. You can form some slight idea of the fire we were exposed to from the fact that of the 450 men in line of the 34th over 200 were killed and wounded within fifteen minutes, on an average five out of every six of our men bear the marks of bullets about their person. About the time we commenced falling back, Col. Wells was hit on the left arm and on the head. I gave him the horse I was on and then hunted up his boy and mounted one of the other horses. As I was mounting a minnie came close by my leg and hit the horse on the leg, but not so as to disable him. I mounted and kept along with the boys. As they fell back there was no running; they went at common time, occasionally a stand would be made until overpowering numbers would force us back again. The Colonel’s horse was shot from under me, two bullets passing clear through him, one before and one behind my legs. I succeeded in bringing the saddle which is a valuable one and the bridle safely off the field. The horse was a very fine one and was presented to the Col. by the citizens of Boston; they gave $500 for him. We fell back across the north branch of the Shenandoah which was much swollen by the rain. After all our troops were over we destroyed the bridge and took up our line of march for this place. We marched all night in the rain and mud; my feet were all blistered on the bottom. Our horses were mostly occupied by wounded soldiers. I picked up a good horse on the way back, but there was a poor fellow walking side of me who had his nose shot off and was quite weak. I put him in the saddle and led the horse for him. About 7 o’clock we halted, got some coffee, and slept until 2 o’clock when we again started reaching the creek about 6 o’clock last night. Lt. Col. Lincoln was wounded and fell into the hands of the enemy. Two Captains and one Lieut. were killed, and one Captain and three Lieuts. wounded. Six out of the eight color Corporals were either killed or wounded. Our total loss is 217 of killed wounded and missing; 29 men killed. In Company D two men were killed and wounded.

9 Comments

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9 responses to “The 34th Massachusetts at the Battle of New Market

  1. Incredible letter! Yet another mention of the “no camp fires” orders issued to Moor’s troops the night of the 14th to further shoot down Imboden’s claim that “the light of the campfires revealed the enemy’s position”…And per Col Wells’ letters, he was quite upset at the loss of his horse “Boston Bar.”

  2. A unit with some very interesting service, and one that I regularly encounter in my work with Cole’s Cavalry. Hoping to get Col. Lincoln’s book on the unit sometime this year.

  3. You mention that they fought at Cedar Creek. Now there’s a battle which should be more famous, for ended the Confederate’s reign in the Shenandoah Valley and freed Sheridan to go to Petersburg.

    • He could have gone to Charlottesville, Gordonsville, Lynchburg, Richmond, Petersburg in late September after Fisher’s Hill as Grant wanted him to do. Why did he wait five months? Early’s army was a fragmented shell at Cedar Creek and the outcome was to be expected given its crippling losses it suffered at Opequon Creek and Fisher’s Hill. Even then, Sheridan did not move for more than four months after Cedar Creek. To use the expression of Eric Wittenberg, Cedar Creek was a battle “utterly bereft” of benefit to the Union cause. It simply prevented a disaster and then Sheridan went back to doing nothing.

  4. Will Hickox

    If you look closely at the photograph, it appears the cameraman had the whole regiment take one step forward and hold it, to give the illusion of the 34th marching forward. (Cameras couldn’t capture motion at that time.)

  5. Dave Powell

    Scott,

    An outstanding letter. Obviously from a soldier correspondent, but what is the source? Paper and date? I’d like to track it down…

    Dave Powell

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