Barney fights the rebels at Harris Farm
As told in Shirt-tail Sunday: Barney Rosenblatt, Part 3 – Barney crosses the Rapidan, Barney remained with Company D in the rear of the troops, guarding the supply and ordnance wagons and General Grant’s headquarters at the Lacy home. Most of the rest of the Army of the Potomac advanced into battle against Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Union soldiers fell into line and marched into a forest that was densely covered with pine trees. Artillery was set up behind shoulder-high breastworks built from logs and mud. When the fighting commenced, Company D’s soldiers could hear the roar of the battle and see the smoke rising from the woods. Barney’s fellow soldier James D. Lockwood (in Company D) recalled:
The firing, if possible, is double what it was before. Pandemonium is turned loose; the earth seems to rock; the sun becomes obscured by the stifling, sulphurous smoke, which fills the atmosphere. Stray bullets strike trees and whistle and scream about, making doleful music for the reserves, and increasing their desire to get near enough to return compliments, and yet they are not called but stand grimly and firmly to arms.”
Lockwood described the scene that Barney saw as soldiers re-emerged from the woods and passed Company D:
. . . as they pass that reserve along the road, and paths, and through the open glades of the forest, wounded in every conceivable form, walking, those who could, others being carried on stretchers; also long lines of ambulances filled to their uttermost capacity with wounded and dying men; take your cup and go down to that little stream which an hour ago ran clear as crystal and dip up what? Not water, but blood, the red life blood of the loyal North . . .”
Two days of combat on May 6 and May 7—referred to now as the Battle of the Wilderness—ended in a stalemate for both sides, with neither gaining any ground. General Grant decided to continue moving his troops south to the James River. They would not retreat and return north of the Rapidan River as Union troops had done the previous year. Grant issued the following orders on May 7:
Make all preparations during the day for a night march to take position at Spottsylvania C. H. [Courthouse] with one army corps, at Todd’s Tavern with one, and another near the intersection of the Piney Branch and Spottsylvania road with the road from Alsop’s to Old Court House. If this move is made the trains should be thrown forward early in the morning to the Ny River.”
Realizing they were advancing south toward Richmond rather than retreating, Union soldiers were optimistic that the end of the war was near.
Company D was assigned to guard the headquarters train during the advance. Since there was always fear that the enemy would attack the supply and ammunition trains, the trains were kept far to the rear of the battles that ensued from May 8 to May 18 near Spottsylvania Courthouse.
On May 18, Barney, along with Company D, was temporarily attached to Colonel J. Howard Kitching’s artillery brigade. Kitching’s small brigade, consisting only of two other New York heavy artillery regiments, was now serving as infantry. The brigade had seen action at Spottsylvania Courthouse. To augment the brigade’s troops Company D (plus 4th NYHA Company H and K) was temporarily added to it.
Kitching’s brigade was deployed along Fredericksburg Road, securing for the Union Army an important route to their supply depot in Bell Plains and to their hospital in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The rest of the Army of the Potomac continued its march south. A lull in the fighting and marching provided an opportunity for Barney’s battalion to finally butcher an ox that had been allotted to them, and cook and eat their meal.
On Thursday, May 19, Company D, led by Captain D. K. Smith Jones, was sent out as pickets to search the area for enemy troops. Picket duty constituted the most hazardous work of infantrymen in the field. Being the first to find any major enemy movement, they were also the first liable to be killed, wounded, or captured. And the most likely targets of snipers. Picket duty, by regulation, was rotated regularly in a regiment.
A few Confederate stragglers fired at the troops on picket. At noon, a rebel scout was captured by Company D but the scout was released by Major William Arthur (brother of 21st U.S. President Chester Allen Arthur). The Union officers had no idea that Confederate General Robert E. Lee had ordered Confederate General Richard Ewell to launch an attack against the Union troops with 6,000 of his soldiers, in an effort to separate the Union army from its supply route.
Company D was relieved from picket duty by Company K and made their way to Susan Alsop’s house where their rations awaited them. It was a hot day. As the skies turned dark, thunder rumbled. Rain started as a trickle but quickly turned into a downpour.
Barney and his fellow soldiers were in the Alsop house and had just collected their rations when they heard a volley of shots. The Confederates were attacking the soldiers from Company K at the Harris House nearby. Company D approached the house. Some of the men assembled along the edge of the forest nearby. Several, under Corporal Cooley, crouched into a ditch where they could see the house overrun by rebels. They shot at the rebels surrounding the house, with Corporal Cooley shooting a rebel who was standing in the doorway.
“We got a shower of lead that would have annihilated us if it had been correctly aimed,” said Cooley. Cooley and his crew abandoned the ditch and joined his company at the edge of the forest.
For 30 minutes, the small band in Company D battled the attacking rebels and stood their ground until reinforcements arrived.
One of the arriving soldiers observed:
The ground was literally covered with the dead and wounded of the heavy artillery regiments. Not having experience in fighting, they had neglected the precautions that veterans take, and instead of lying down, or taking advantage of the ground, they had taken their position on the crest of the hill, where they stood erect and furnished most admirable targets for the enemy, who fought as usual in the woods and behind fences. This fight was called the battle of Pine Grove or Harris Farm, the Harris House being located some forty rods north of the log house belonging to Miss Susan Alsop, which was located in the rear of our line.”
Barney survived the battle uninjured. Other soldiers in Company D did not fare as well. Killed that day in Company D were John Barnes, Henry Albert Jones, and Frederick Knapp. The wounded were H. Page Burnell, Eugene A. Cooley, Samuel R. Dunlap, Andrew Fry, Brainard Harkness, Charles S. Hanley, Emory L. Hoffman, William A. Hunt, Samuel M. Johnson, Edward B. Kenyon, James D. Leroy, Andrew G. Palmer, and R. P. Smith. Two were captured: James Ferguson and Charles H. Greenman.
Captain Augustus Brown (Company H) described how he, Barney, and their fellow soldiers spent the day after the battle:
The day was spent caring for the wounded, burying the dead, our own as well as those of the enemy, and throwing up a line of rifle-pits where we were engaged the day before. Trenches were dug in the light soil some six feet wide and two or three feet deep, and the dead were laid side by side with no winding sheets but overcoats or blankets, though occasionally an empty box which had contained Springfield rifles did duty as a coffin. Care was taken to cover the faces of the dead with the capes of their overcoats or with blankets, and where the name, company, regiment, division or corps could be ascertained, the information was written in pencil on a board or smoothly whittled piece of wood, which was driven into the earth at the man’s head, and the grounds about the Harris House presented the appearance of a cemetery.”
The Battle of Harris Farm claimed 1,598 casualties on both sides. The engagement was the end of the long Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse.
The Brooklyn Eagle reported on Saturday, May 21:
To be continued: Part 5 – Barney crosses the James River
Life and Adventures of a Drummer Boy, or Seven Years a Soldier, by James D. Lockwood, Published by John Skiner, Albany, New York, 1893.
Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs. New York: C.L. Webster, 1885–86; Bartleby.com, 2000. http://www.bartleby.com/1011/, accessed Jan. 28, 2015
Heavy guns and light: a history of the 4th New York Heavy Artillery, by Hyland C. Kirk, 1890, New York: C.T. Dillingham
The Diary of a Line Officer, by Captain Augustus C. Brown at Openlibrary.org, accessed Dec. 30, 2014
Harris Farm Engagement, accessed May 10, 2015 at wikipedia.org