Battle of the Wilderness

This excerpt from H. N. Minnigh’s “History of Company K. 1st (Inft,) Penn’a Reserves.” (iBooks) sets the stage for the diary:

“April 29th, we pulled up stakes again, and entered upon our last campaign. We broke camp and marched to Warrenton, a distance of thirty miles, and on the next morning continued on in the direction of Culpepper, and rejoined our old comrades of the main army, in the evening of that day.

We all knew that we were on the eve of an important campaign, and one that would in all probability close the war. The soldiers were very enthusiastic, and had the utmost confidence in the two great commanders who were to lead them.

On the 3rd of May there was great excitement in camp, and all anxiously waited for orders to move. The army had been reinforced, and everything now appeared to be in readiness to commence the campaign that was to end the war.

Directly after mid-night, May 4th. the reveille was beat, and was heard echoing and re-echoing all along the line of camps, and soon after the great movement against the rebel capitol had begun. Our corps (the Fifth) moved in the direction of Germania ford on the Rapidan river, and having crossed at that point, we marched until four o’clock in the afternoon, when we halted for the night, having marched fully thirty miles. Our camp for the night was in the vicinity of the Wilderness tavern. About sunrise on the 5th we continued the march but had not gone far, when we found the enemy in our front. Preparation was immediately made to give them battle. Our position was on the Lacy farm, until ten o’clock, when we moved to Parker’s store and formed line of battle, our regiment and the Bucktails being on the extreme left.

John W. Urban in his “Battlefield and Prison pen” says, “Capt. Wasson of Co. D, was ordered to take his company and move through the woods beyond for the purpose of reconnoitering the enemy’s lines.” This is an error. The party was made up of a special detail of twenty men, two from each company in the regiment. Captains Minnigh and Wasson were in charge, and the actual mission was entirely unknown to Capt. Wasson, who was ordered to take charge of the men and assist Capt. Minnigh, in the duty which had been secretly communicated to him. Wasson, nor any of the men knew what was to be done. Fortunately, I have in my possession the order, delivered to me, at Division Head-quarters, on said occasion. This order reads as follows:—

“Captain, You will proceed, at once, to the front bearing slightly to the left, to the Plank-road, and (if possible,) find out what troops are moving on it & in which direction they are moving.”

It was intimated at the same time, that the mission was of a peculiar character, and that Capt. Wasson would obey my orders.

Comrade Urban’s description of our advance, is in the main correct, but when we found the enemy before us, I asked Capt. Wasson to withdraw a few paces into the woods through which we had advanced, then and there informing him of the orders placed in my hands. He began at once to put on airs, (a habit of his,) and positively refused to obey my orders. He advanced the detail out into an open field, when one single shot stampeded the party, and they returned to our line, with the enemy on their heels.

I abandoned the detail hastily, and moving toward the left parallel with the Plank-road, soon discovered the enemy on that road, moving toward the extreme right of the position occupied by the Union army, which movement culminated in the attack on the outpost position occupied by the Penn’a reserves, and upon the Sixth corps later on.

Having accomplished my mission, I had no trouble in getting back to our line, and reported to Head-quarters, when the advance at the Parker house had been forced back to the main line, and when the Seventh Reserves had been captured. My impression has always been, that if Capt. Wasson had heeded my advice, the enemy would not have made the advance on our front at Parker’s, and the Seventh regiment would not have been taken prisoners. I do not fear to speak upon this point, as the question has been considerably agitated, as to what led to the capture referred to.

If Co. D, was sent out on a reconnisance, as stated by Urban, I am unacquainted with the fact. Urban also says, that subsequently, “Lieut. Wilder, (we presume he means Weidler,) and ten men were sent on a reconnoisance in the same direction, and encountered the enemy, and after being driven back, Companies C and K were sent to dislodge them; but finding the enemy in strong force, fell back in haste to our lines.”

It is not our object to contradict this last quotation, but it does seem to us, that this jumble of details from one single regiment, out of a whole division, needs an explanation at least.

A single proof of the correctness of the statement I have here made, is this:—Gen’l Crawford was much surprised when I reported to him, all begrimmed with dirt and smoke, having passed through the burning woods on my return to our line. Having reported, he said, “We never expected to see you again, … but, your service shall be duly reported to the Secretary of war.” This may account for the peculiar wording of the Commission as Brevet-Major, now in my possession, which reads as follows:—”for gallant and meritorious services in the Wilderness campaign, Virginia, May 5,. 1864.” Here we leave this subject.

Safely back to the Lacy farm we rested for the night, waiting anxiously for the dawning of another day, that the terrible conflict might be continued.

Early on the morning of the 6th, the rebel forces were concentrated against Hancock on the left, where a terrible battle raged nearly all day. Such a continuous roar of musketry, inasmuch as artillery could not be used, we never heard in all our experience before.

During the heavy fighting on the left, we became engaged with the enemy in our front, driving them back, and in the evening started to the aid Hancock, but not being needed we returned to our old position.

Under cover of the night, Lee rapidly moved a heavy column forward, and hurled them on our extreme right. Our division was ordered to the support of Sedgwick, whose communication had been severed from the main army. In the darkness we felt our way cautiously, but our services were not needed, as the Sixth corps had stopped the advance of the enemy, so we returned to our former position.

And now one of the peculiar movements, from the right to the left flank commenced, preserving all the while an unbroken front.

We moved slowly during the night of the 6th, but as the new day dawned we moved faster, and by nine or ten o’clock it was a double-quick. It was said to have been a race between Grant and Lee for position at Spottsylvania Court House, and Lee won the race, securing the position, having had the inside track.”

Page 12

[Editor’s Note: There is a discrepancy in the dates and events that Danner has written in his diary and that of Minnigh’s history of the 30th Pennsylvania (see above). Minnigh claims the long 30-mile march was made on 4 May 1864.

May 4th [1864] — Thursday [Wednesday?]. We are now encamped 1 mile from Culpepper and have shelter tents. Rained today. Had company and regimental drill today.

May 6th [1864] — Friday. Was ordered out this morning at half past twelve o’clock and marched 31 miles towards Fredericksburg on the Plank Road. Crossed the Rapidan on pontoons. The whole army moved today.

May 7th [1864] — Saturday. Was in a battle today. Fighting all night along the line. Had orders to double quick out the Plank Road 4 miles to reinforce the 16th Corps and returned to camp at 10 o’clock in the morning. Marched between our skirmishes and the rebels but was not fired upon.

[May] 8th [1864] — Sunday. Got in behind on the trenches this morning for 1 hour and was then …

Page 13

…relieved by a regiment of heavy artillerymen. We then supported a battery for about 1 hour [and] returned to breastworks again.

[May] 9th [1864] — Monday. Left the breastworks this morning at 1 o’clock and marched to the left of the army about 16 miles. The rebels fired grape and canister into our ranks a few minutes before we made a charge. Jim Rouzer was struck in the mouth with a buckshot and had two teeth knocked out. We made a charge on the rebs about 2 o’clock today and drove them back in their rifle pits and took five prisoners. Made another charge but had to fall back again. Fell back in a woods and laid down to rest.


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