The Battle of Piedmont: Account by Adjutant Caldwell, 12th West Virginia Infantry

On the 18th of May, our regiment and the Thirty-fourth Massachusetts with two pieces of artillery moved from Cedar Creek, five or six miles up the Valley to Fisher’s Hill, and occupied it as a picket. Gen. Sigel came out to our camp there. The next day the two regiments fell back two or three miles to Strasburg and occupied an old fort there built by Gen. Banks. We received today mail – always a welcome receipt to the boys, the first since leaving Winchester, ten days before. In the evening the Thirty-fourth band came to the headquarters of the Twelfth to give us a serenade. Speeches were made by Col. Curtis, Adjt. Caldwell and Capt. Smiley of our regiment.

 

On the 2nd, Gen. Sigel was relieved from command here and Gen. Hunter assigned to his place. Three days later we were reinforced at Cedar Creek by three more regiments of infantry, the Second Maryland, the Fourth Virginia and the One Hundred and Sixtieth Ohio, and about this time, or a little later we were further reinforced by the Fifth New York Heavy artillery.

 

On the 25th, we drew ten days’ rations of coffee and sugar and three days’ rations of hard bread. The troops from Cedar Creek came up, all having had marching orders. We were now about to start on the memorable campaign against Lynchburg. Hunter had issued his famous order announcing to his troops that they were about to enter on an explosion of hardships, in which they would have to live off the enemy, and if need be to eat mule meat. The infantry were required to carry each man 80 or 100 rounds of ammunition. A little after noon of this day the great march began of what was known as Hunter’s raid. We camped in the evening near Woodstock. On the way the cavalry burned a house and barn, by orders of Gen. Hunter, the owner having been engaged in bushwhacking.

 

On the 29th we resumed our march passing through Edinburg and Mount Jackson, crossing the Shenandoah here on a bridge newly built by the Rebels to replace the one burnt by Sigel and camped near New Market and the ground of the battle of two weeks before. Some members of the regiment looked over the battle field. They found that our dead had been buried in a heap where some stone had been quarried out. The dead of the enemy that had not been taken to their homes, had been buried in the cemetery at New Market. The enemy had left 31 of our wounded at this town and vicinity, who it had appeared had been quite well taken care of. This night our regiment went on picket on the bridge over the river in our rear. The second day after our arrival here, two companies of the Twelfth I and K were detailed to fill in with stone the wodden abuttments of the bridge, and the Thirty-fourth Massachusetts went out foraging; thus making a beginning of living off the enemy.

 

We remained here until June 2nd, when we marched at 5 o’clock A. M. our regiment in the rear of the wagon train, arriving at Harrisburg in the evening, our advance having driven Imboden out of town. The Rebels left some sixty of our wounded and thirty of theirs here, brought up from New Market. Distance marched this day 24 miles.

 

On the 4th, we marched from here taking the pike leading to Staunton, but Hunter finding Imboden posted about seven miles ahead at Mount Crawford after examining this position, turned to the left taking a side road leading via Port Republic. Seven miles from Harrisburg we came to Cross Keys where the forces of Fremont and Jackson fought on June 8th, 1862, and a little farther on to where the Rebel Col. Ashy was killed. At Port Republic on the south branch of the Shenandoah our pioneers put a pontoon bridge over the river on which we crossed and marched about one mile on the road leading to Staunton.

 

Early in the morning of the 5th, we resumed our march, but did not go far until our cavalry began skirmishing with the Rebels, driving them and capturing a number of prisoners. It may be well to say here that an Irish woman, who accompanied the First New York cavalry was noticed helping tenderly to bury some of the killed “my (her) boys” of that regiment that morning.
Seven miles from Port Republic we found the Rebels in force, consisting of the commands of Generals Vaughn and Imboden, and a number of militia, numbering in all, as learned from prisoners, between 8,000 and 9,000 men, all under the command of Gen. W. E. Jones. Hunter’s command consisted in all of 8,500 men, the infantry in two brigades the First commanded by Col. Moor, and the Second by Col. Thoburn. The cavalry were under command of Gen. Stahl, the infantry under Gen. Sullivan.

 

The enemy were posted on either side of the pike their right drawn back somewhat. They had breastworks of rails extending at least from the pike to the Middle river on their left, several hundred yards distant. Hunter made disposition for battle at once, and the engagement that followed is known as the Battle of Piedmont. The First Brigade was formed on the right of the pike, and the Second Brigade on the left. The opposing forces faced each other from either side from the edge of woods, with several hundred yards of cleared land between.

 

The battle began. It was opened by the artillery from each side. The Twelfth and the Thirty-fourth Massachusetts of Thoburn’s brigade were ordered forward through the woods, on the left of the pike with a view to charging some of the enemy’s artillery; when being discovered they were vigorously shelled by the enemy. After awhile they were brought back to the point where they had entered the woods. While waiting here for the coming of the balance of their brigade Colonels Thoburn and Curtis and Adjt. G. B. Caldwell with their orderlies, rode out into the open ground forming a group, for the purpose of watching the effect of the artillery fire. They were discovered by the Rebels, who threw a shell right into their midst, which exploding took off the fore-leg of the Adjutant’s little mare. That group immediately dispersed.

 

The other regiments having come up, Col Thoburn moved his brigade forward in the open ground into a slight hollow, within 200 yards of the enemy for the purpose of making a flank charge upon him. While the infantry were moving forward into this position, the artillery on each side opened up a heavy fire, and the Rebel band played “Dixie,” while ours played “Yankee Doodle.” Just before the charge that gallant young officer Capt. Meigs, of Hunter’s staff rode backward and forward along the line encouraging the men to do their duty on this charge, and the day would be ours, that they must not hesitate or falter but go right through, that we were now a hundred miles from our lines, and that defeat would be disastrous. The First Brigade had made three charges right in the face of the Rebel front and had been repulsed. But we will let Adjt. G. B. Caldwell of the Twelfth tell the story of the battle in his graphic and enthusiastic way, as it came red hot from his pen a few days after for the Wheeling Intelligencer; or more particularly of the part taken in the engagement by the Twelfth. The letter was written from the headquarters of the regiment at Staunton and is as follows:

 

This regiment moved from camp at Port Republic at 6 o’clock A. M., June 5, 1864. Our forces marching forward towards Staunton some four miles, our cavalry became engaged and drove the enemy a distance of one and a half miles, suffering a loss of thirty, killed and wounded. Capt. Imboden a brother of the general’s was taken here. The ball then opened by the loud mouthed artillery bellowing forth, both Union and Rebel in hellish dialogue of the death answering each other’s thunderous salutations. Post the crackling and roaring of Rebel woolen factories, consumed by flames kindled by the land of Union retributive justice; past the roaring batteries; past Carlin’s braves stripped to the shirt sewing out iron vengeance to traitors, the Second Brigade, our fearless, cool and sound-judging Col. Joe Thoburn commanding, marched a mile to the very front, forming the left of our force. The position was 150 yards from the Rebel lines drawn tip behind a fortification of fence rails, so arranged as to make perfect protection against musketry. Here for one hour and a half in a woods at one and one-half miles range, the two twenty pounder Parrott guns of the enemy were served entirely against us with all possible rapidity and great precision, amid the tremendous explosion of shell, the profuse of rain of case shoe the fall of trees and limbs, amid wounded and dying among all these combinations of horror, with not a gun fired by us and no excitement to cause a wild carelessness of danger, our line never wavered.

 

The first Brigade (our right) being heavily pressed moved us in retreat perhaps half a mile undetected by the enemy. This manouver was admirably masked in the woods like our advance before in the morning. A wide hollow whose descending sides were open fields stretched between the First and Second Brigades. Across this we must go. Our batteries open their fiercest fire, from hill to hill leap the ponderous black messengers of destruction, the reverberations of half a hundred, guns, on both sides, brought into action by the endeavor our batteries make to attract the attention of the enemy’s ordnance, make earth tremble, and the air roar while we run the fiery gauntlet to reinforce our right. With unbroken lines we march over with steady tread.

 

The Rebels occupy a woods in whose edge they have as on their right, an admirably impromptu fence barricaded. Up we go to within 100 yards, lie down, fire and draw the Rebel fire. Men are struck all along the line. Most of the enemy’s rifles are empty. Springing to their feet and cheering wildly the men rush forward and over the parapet. Our color bearer plants that banner of holy hopes and hallowed memories right where the sheet of Rebel flame runs crackling along, and mounting up cries, “Come on boys here’s where I want you.” Gloriously forward we go right into the woods our flag the first our regiment the foremost, the Rebels contending in a hand to hand struggle. Prisoners stream to the rear by the hundreds. Other regiments come to our support.

 

The character of the conflict is attested by bayoneted Rebel dead. The emblematic rags of treason their battle flags, a few minutes before planted in the dirt. They flee in utter rout and one wild shout of “Victory is ours!” runs along for more than a mile through infantry, artillery, cavalry, through stragglers and wagon trains, till the very wounded in the hospitals cheer again and again. The conduct of the men cannot be too much praising. Often a soldier would press forward so furiously as to be enclosed single-handed among a mass of Rebels, surrendering to be recaptured instantly by his advancing comrades. The whole Rebel force having fled, we camped for the night in the woods among the Rebel dead, too numerous to be buried till the morrow.

 

Thirty ambulances constantly running with the attendants, cannot collect all the wounded into hospitals, even in the long hours of this summer afternoon and evening. They have from two to three to our one in killed and wounded, and 1,000 able bodied prisoners, 60 officers, four or five colonels, Brig. Gen. Jones, their commanded killed, 1,700 stand of arms, four or five stand of colors and last and best Staunton grace our triumph.

 

 

Corp Joseph Halstead, 12th West Virginia Inf. W. B. Curtis Collection, WVU

Corp Joseph Halstead, 12th West Virginia Inf.
W. B. Curtis Collection, WVU

And here let me pause to pay a tribute to the memory of one of our own country’s martyrs in our holy cause, our color bearer Corporal Joseph S. Halstead. A braver spirit never bore the banner of beauty and glory forward amid the bursting shells and the leaden rain of death. With comrades falling all around him he went ahead of the bravest, ahead of his brigade. The head and front of that terrific charge into the jaws of death, he rushed forward and planted our flag on the very parapet sheeted with flames from the enemy’s rifles. Then over and forward again goes our banner into the hand to hand conflict in which that glorious day’s fate was decided. He falls at last, but if there be consolation in such an hour, and to a Christian and one so wholly a soldier as he, he has it to the full a knowledge of his country’s glory and his own. In the moment of victory with a broken and dispirited enemy flying before us with the shouts of comrades drunk with the enthusiasm of the hour rendering the very sky, with the valor of our arms attested by the piles of grey-clothed dead and hurt around him with the deep heart-felt admiration of all, attracted by his surpassing daring, with his comrades standing around him in speechless and tearful sympathy, with prisoners streaming or crowding to the rear, colonels and subordinates in traitor regalia, their perjured leader stricken dead by loyal vengeance, he fell at the very acme of our triumph, battling the flag which be had borne so royally to glory and to victory, with blood as noble as ever coursed through patriot veins. Poor Halstead among the brave the choicest spirit of them all, long will his memory be cherished and his valor in that, hour of carnage and triumph be the theme of the bivonac talks of his comrades.

 

Col. William B. Curtis 12th West Virginia Inf W. B. Curtis Collection WVU

Col. William B. Curtis
12th West Virginia Inf
W. B. Curtis Collection
WVU

Col. Curtis had the pleasure of receiving the sword of a Virginia regiment’s colonel, whose surrender he demanded. One of our Marshall county boys had the honor of bringing a Rebel colonel “to time.” He, the Marshall county boy is a young fellow of about 17. Another from Hancock county, I. N. Cullen, (Comp.) had a grey header Confed bring a musket to his breast with an order to surrender. He threw the musket aside and twisted it out of the old fellow’s hands, then kicking him over the parapet and out of the woods saying, “Old man you’re too old for me to bayonet.” Another Ohio county boy mounted the parapet in the charge and looking down on the Rebs, says “Lookout Johnnys we’re coming down on you like a thousand of brick” That was funny at such a time – It was “in the cool.”

 

In the morning before the fight, Gen. Jones drew his men tip and told them that we were going to avenge Fort Pillow, that to surrender would be to die; and such stuff for an hour. If anything was wanting to prove the superior humanity of the Union soldiers or the barbarism induced in the South by slavery here it might have been found. First Sergeant Hart Marks, of Company K, accepted the surrender of a Rebel lieutenant and passed on to the front. The Rebel drew a revolver from under his coat and shot him, fortunately slightly, in the back, yet our boys spared him. I know of more such cases, several. Marks shortly afterwards received two wounds, one in side, and one in the shoulder, the last having passed through a twisted blanket, while charging the woods, the Rebels being behind the trees. Another of our regiment, the eccentric Barney Wyles, pressed ahead too far and was surrounded; he surrendered but his captor shot at him after surrender, with a revolver, cutting his clothes. Our men rushed on him, wrested the revolver from him, and then spared him. All evening could you see Union soldiers feeding wounded Rebels, and food was scarce with us then, having to come all in the shape of forage. In every regiment a number of instances can be given of such treachery as above. Could any contrast be greater?


For more on the battle of Piedmont see:

197.0 Piedmont Battle

 

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