STORY OF A REGIMENT
A RECORD OF THE MILITARY SERVICE
FIFTY-SEVENTH NEW YORK STATE
WAR OF THE REBELLIN
1861 - 1865.
GILBERT FREDERICK, D. D.
LATE CAPTAIN 57TH N. Y. V. I.
MAY 31ST TO JUNE 25TH, 1862.
BY the 20th of May the Army of the Potomac had concentrated near the north bank of the Chickahominy River and on the 25th the Fourth Corps, under General Keyes, had crossed and taken a position at Seven Pines, within six miles of Richmond. The Third Corps under General Heintzelman also crossed, and these two corps constituted the left wing of the army. The centre and right wings, consisting of three corps, remained on the north side of the river until the 31st. On that day at two o’clock, the enemy, having planned to attack the left-wing with overwhelming numbers and to drive it into the swamp before assistance could cross the swollen stream, began to swarm from the woods along the Williamsburg Road and the battle of Fair Oaks was soon on in dead earnest. The heavy rains had so raised the river and flooded the swamp that it was very difficult to move men and nearly impossible to move artillery. Everything favored the success of the Confederate plan, indeed, only a miracle could save the left wing if Confederate orders were carried out. These orders were not fully carried out, as is usual in battle, and General Sumner, an old war horse, scenting the battle from afar, took in the situation instantly, marched his corps out of the camp north of the river, headed for the bridges and awaited the order he knew must soon come.
It could not be expected that our left wing would hold long in check nearly the whole of the rebel army, and as the afternoon wore away and the fight became hotter it fell back, but yielded ground slowly, and finally took up new positions from which it could not be dislodged. When Sumner received his orders to cross the river he hurried his men over the shaky bridges, and reached the field just in time to save the day.
Richardson’s division, which had been camped near the Tyler House, started about two o’clock in the afternoon of the 31st for, the scene of action, crossing at Grapevine bridge, which was now submerged and partly swept away. It. waded the stream, now about half a mile wide and in places up to the arm pits in depth. General Richardson dismounted and led the way, thus setting a good example to his men. About dusk a halt was made in the woods near Fair Oaks Station on the Richmond and York River Railroad and after dark position was taken forward in the clearing. A detail sent to ascertain whose pickets were in front captured one of the Louisiana Tigers, and Lee of Company K went to the next post and captured that also but he and his prize were both taken by the rebels before they reached our lines. That night we slept on our arms in a drizzling rain expecting an attack at any moment and were up before daylight to get ready for work.
The first movement Sunday, June 1st, was by the Fifth’ New Hampshire, which passed to our left and formed line of battle along the railroad. We could now see the enemy in our front crossing the road beyond the station and going into position in the woods. Soon after we also moved to the left, crossed the railroad, advanced into the woods and halted near a creek, our right resting near the railroad. Here we were sitting on the ground or standing around when suddenly, like a clap of thunder, a volley from the Confederate lines threw the regiment into momentary confusion. We knew we were on the line of battle and expected, of course, that something would soon happen, but this was so sudden that some of the men and even officers forgot for the time which way a soldier should face in the presence of an enemy, a little mistake that cost one officer at least his commission. A private in his precipitate retreat fell into the railroad ditch, which on top was covered with brush but underneath was full of water, and, with some difficulty, was fished out of the water by his comrades. This was our first battle and it is not strange that it took a little time to get down to business. All kinds of reports were going the rounds. It was said we were within the enemy’s line, that we were firing on our own men and some one gave the order to fall back. However the regiment held its ground and finally got into fighting trim, so that as line after line of the enemy advanced they were successfully resisted and driven off. General French and Colonel Zook were omnipresent, directing the movements and encouraging the men. Finally we moved a little by the left, swung around, took the enemy on the flank, drove him from his position and advanced without opposition until commanded to halt. This flank mbvement seemed to turn the fortunes of the day in our favor as no other attempts were made by the enemy to renew the conflict. The regiment was now moved about, first into a position to support the Irish Brigade, then in support of a battery and finally settled down again near the place where it had done its fighting. Much of the enemy’s firing was wild, perhaps ours was no better. Part of their ammunition was buck and shot and a part rifle ball, the former did little execution.
During the afternoon and night the troops on both sides were in a fever of excitement, one accidental shot would set off a whole line of musketry. Especially was this true after dark when the men, trying to sleep, were awakened by the firing and imagined a night attack. Sleep was very fitful and sometimes a man would spring to his feet, grasp his gun, rub his eyes and find he was in a dream. Several times in the night orders were given to fall into line and the boys, expecting to advance, would examine their guns, see that everything was in shape for action, then be ordered to stack arms and lie down again. From three o’clock until daylight everybody stood in line to prevent a possible surprise.
General Alexander S. Webb in his book on “The Peninsular Campaign”, speaks of our part in the day’s fight as follows:
“On the morning of June 1st the enemy’s cavalry with a line of infantry pickets was seen about 5 a. m. deploying in an open field on the right of the position held by General Richardson. About 6:30 a furious fire of musketry began from a distance of about fifty yards. Our men returned the fire with vivacity and the fire became the heaviest yet experienced, the enemy putting in fresh regiments five times. This lasted an hour and a half when, the enemy, unable any longer to bear the fire fell back, but in the course of half an hour renewed the contest with reinforcements, when an action of about one hour’s duration ensued, at the end of which time the division charged the enemy in their front, by General French in person and compelled them to fall back, their retreat being precipitated by the fire of four guns of Pettit’s battery. The division lost 900 killed, wounded and missing. The attempt of the rebels to drive the left wing into the Chickahominy, which opened with every prospect of success was turned first into defeat and then into disaster, which sent them back to Richmond in a panic oii the night of June 1st.”
General F. A. Walker, in his” History of the Second Arniy Corps,” mentions our division, brigade and regiment in describing the battle of June 1st. “Richardson’s division had during the night been disposed of as follows: French’s brigade along the railroad, extending from Sedgwick’s toward Birney’s brigade, the nearest of the troops of the third corps upon the left. French’s front was covered by Cross’ Fifth New Hampshire Regiment of Howard’s Brigade, as an advance guard. Meagher’s brigade was in the third line. At 3 o'clock the Fifth New Hampshire was quietly withdrawn from its post as advance guard, and the next two hours were passed by French’s brigade in silence. At daylight an extensive gap between Richardson and Birney appearing, Richardson moved French ‘to the left the length of three battalions. Whether it was this movement which brought our troops into collision with the enemy or whether the latter were at that moment advancing to begin the attack is not wholly clear. Whoever began it, the action broke out in fury between half past six and seven. French’s whole line was ‘instantly involved, and that veteran officer fought his command with energy and intrepidity. The Fifty-Second New York suffered severely both in front and from an attempt of the enemy to turn its flank, losing one-hundred and twenty men, including eight officers. Further to the right, Zook—the Zook of Gettysburg— shook off the fiercest attacks upon his front, with the Fifty-Seventh New York, supported by Pinckney of the Sixty-Sixth. The attack was renewed with considerable vivacity by the brigades of Pickett, Pryor and Wilcox. On the extreme left flank General French swung around the Fifty-Seventh and Sixty-Sixth New York until they were formed almost at right angles to the general line and led them forward in person to charge across the front of ‘the other regiments of the division. That settled it. The Confederates withdrew before our advancing lines. The Fifty-Seventh and, Sixty-Sixth moved forward without firing, encountering oniy a single regiment, which easily gave way and the battle of June 1st is over. To the troops engaged, the action was highly creditable. Richardson’s division, for the first time in battle, displayed not only courage and endurance under trying circumstances, but also that capacity of free and ready movement, to the front, to the flank and to the rear, according to orders, which was to distinguish this gallant body of troops to the end of the war.”
Our brigade lost , in this battle 242 men. Our regiment lost three killed, four who died of wounds and eleven wounded who recovered. Alexander Stewart, the Color Sergeant is said to have been the first man of our regiment killed in the war. He was shot through the head at the first volley from the enemy. Captain Fiske, Regimental Adjutant, but detached as Assistant Adjutant-General to General French was severely wounded in the knee while fearlessly carrying orders through the thickest of the fight.
We give quite fully General French’s report of the battle, every word of which is inspiring. “When the heavy firing at about 1 p. m. on the 31st of May was heard in our front, whilst in camp near Cold Harbor, my brigade was at once placed under arms and in readiness to march as soon as orders were received from the general of division. At about 12 o’clock p. m. after waiting for the construction of a temporary bridge across a meadow flooded by the swollen Chickahominy, my brigade filed across through the water in places waist deep. This delay kept the brigade, which was the advance of the division from participating in the action of the 31st of May. It was at 8 p. m. when I crossed the field of battle of that day, and under the immediate directions of the general of division my front was established, the regiments were permitted to stack arms, and the fatigued soldiers laid down behind them to rest.
At 2 o’clock on the morning of the 1st of June Colonel Cross, commanding the Fifth New Hampshire (Howards) who had been’ thrown out as the division advance guard awakened me to point out that three regiments of the enemy had, unconscious of our presence gone into bivouac in the woods about 100 yards to the right of my line. Communicating at once with the general of division, and receiving authority I changed front to right, placing my regiments en echelon until the break of day. I found that the enemy under pressure of Davis, whose brigade was on my right, had deserted their position when the line established the night before was resumed. As General Richardson had impressed upon me the importance of communicating during the night with Brigadier General Birney on my left, this was continually done and he was kept informed of our relative positions. ‘At 5 o’clock a. m. I was authorized by General Richardson to move the length of the front of three regiments to the left. The movement covered the front of attack. In a few moments after the connection of the line had been established (with the addition of the Eighty-First Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers of Howard’s brigade) the enemy made an attack upon my whole front. My troops (with the exception of the Sixty-Sixth New York) to form line of battle had to cross the railroad through a dense thicket and swamp, which covered the approach of the enemy who opened his first fire at about 50 yards distance. Although this attack was bold and sudden the line never swerved. The fire was returned coolly and deliberately. The first attack was at once repulsed.
After a few moments pause the heads of several columns of the enemy threw themselves upon the intervals of the regiments on the right and left of the Fifty-Second New York. For some time the most desperate efforts were made to break our line. The left of the Fifty-Third Pennsylvania, consisting of seven companies, led on by the gallant Colonel Brooke, repulsed them again, and again. The dashing Colonel Frank of the Fifty-Second New York, after holding theni in his front and finding them turning his left flank, threw back three companies to receive and repulse the attack. Up to this moment I had been in constant communication with the general of division who through his staff had assured me that reinforcements were at my disposal whenever called for. Entirely relieved from anxiety, on this account my batteries continued to hold their positions until the ammunition had to be renewed, when I called on Brigadier-. General Howard, who with the Sixty-First New York, was waiting impatiently on the railroad in the rear to pass my lines. This was done in the most regular manner. Taking advantage of the temporary cessation of our fire the enemy threw upon the advancing supports all their remaining fresh troops.
At this time my Adjutant-General Fiske fell wounded at my side. Both lines, the relieving and the relieved, were being shot down. Joining himself to the SixtyFirst New York, Colonel Brooke of the Fifty-Third Pennsylvania, instead of retiring to the second line, continued to charge the enemy. It was now that the gallant Brigadier-General Howard was twice wounded, and the brave Major Yeager was killed, fighting hand to hand with the enemy. Not for one moment in the entire fight during this contest for the mastery did our lines blench. The enemy threw in fresh troops, regiment after regiment. The passage of lines, directed with ability and judgment, baffled all their efforts. About two hours had elapsed, and the second and third lines of the division having interposed in the front of my left wing I moved the right wing consisting of the Sixty-Sixth and FiftySeventh New York, which had earlier in the action cleared their front of the enemy, in a direction at right angles to the first line of battle, to feel the left and rear of the enemy’s flank. After penetrating the swamps and thicket about three-fourths of a mile the skirmishers of the Sixth-Sixth encountered the Forty-First Virginia. A heavy fire being opened upon them, followed by a charge with the bayonet, the enemy broke and precipitately fled, when my brigade, occupying the ground thus conquered, notwithstanding its losses in the battle, remained upon the field unbroken and exultant.
Upon the Fifty-Second New York, Colonel Paul Frank, and the Fifty-Third Pennslyvania, Colonel Brooke, devolved the honor of holding that position of my line most seriously attacked, under fearful odds, against the best troops of the enemy directed by their ablest commanders. To Colonel Zook, of the Fifty-Seventh New York, whose regiment repulsed the attack on my right and by a heavy and continued fire directed it toward the left, and to Colonel Pinckney, of the Sixty-Sixth New York, who led the flanking movement around the enemy’s left, contributed greatly to cause his retreat, are due whatever success attended the operations of these regiments. The conduct of the officers and men must be judged by the results of a hard fought field. I heartily concur in the recommendations and praises of the regimental commanders.
Of my own staff Assistant Adjutant-General Fiske was desperately wounded in the front of the fire, displaying the most undaunted courage, Lieutenant and Aide-de-Camp Plume was constantly engaged communicating with division headquarters and leading in reenforcements, subjected to great exposure. Aide-deCamp William H. French, Jr., was on duty with the front of the line and shared its dangers. Brigade Surgeon Grant was in readiness to relieve the wounded, and undetered by the battle around, performed his duties with coolness and ability. I respectfully request for them the favorable notice of the general commanding division. I must not omit the conspicuous conduct of Assistant Surgeon Dean of the Fifty-Seventh New York, who came forward, and, receiving the wounded as they fell, operated behind the rank of file-closers unconscious of peril. The Rev. M. Dwight, Chaplin of the Sixth-Sixth New York, was on the field during the action, administering to the wounded and dying. Captain Kirk, of the Fifty-Seventh New York, in charge of the guard which accompanied me during the latter part of the engagement, displayed great coolness under the hottest fire.”
Colonel Zook’s report of the battle is here given in full: “In accordance with orders received from Brigadier-General French the regiment marched at 2:30 p. m. with the other regiments of the brigade to support General Casy’s division, then engaged with the enemy. The Chickahominy being much swollen, and intersected by ditches five to six feet deep, rendered it very ‘difficult and dangerous to ford. We succeeded, however, in a short time in crossing directly west of Tyler’s, advancing as rapidly as the bad state of the roads would permit, coming up too late to take any part in the action of that day. May 31st, 1802, I received orders from General French to form my command in line of battle nearly parallel to the railroad and on the left of the Sixty-Sixth Regiment New York Volunteers, within 200 yards of dense woods on our front and right which were occupied by the enemy during the night, after which the men were ordered to sleep upon their arms in position. At 3:30 a. m. I received orders to form my regiment and at 5:30 a. m. follow on the right of the Fifty-Third Pennsylvania Volunteers into the woods which were very dense. We halted when the right of the regiment had passed the railroad about thirty yards and formed in line of battle. In about half an hour the enemy opened a very heavy fire upon the whole line at about forty yards distance killing one and wounding four. The fire was instantly returned in the coolest manner causing the enemy to fall back, whereupon we advanced at the charge, driving him entirely from his position, killing and wounding a large number, among the number several officers.
After the enemy were driven back, having no instructions to follow him any distance, I halted the regiment and stood at shoulder arms. When, before we discovered him, the enemy had again approached under cover of the thick undergrowth and opened a terrible fire upon us, killing two, one of them Color-Sergeant Henry L. Stewart, and wounding twelve. We immediately returned this second attack with vigor, and again drove the enemy back. At this moment Brigadier-General French arrived from the left of the line, and seeing our position and that of the enemy, ordered me to , move my command obliquely to the right, throwing out two companies fifty yards in front from the right and faced towards the left, flanking our entire line. Captain Charles McKay was charged with the execution of this movement. As soon as the position was taken we discovered the enemy advancing upon the front and right in great force, evidently intending to turn our right. We at once opened a rapid and continuous fire from the front, and the two flanking companies, which completely surprised him causing him after a desperate effort to break and fly in great confusion. This movement cleared that part of the woods, and in my opinion contributed very materially in deciding the action of the day.
Directly after this affair I was ordered by General Richardson, commanding division, to march my command out of the woods that he might shell them. We moved across the railroad into the field we occupied the night previous, and formed parallel to the railroad the right resting near the station. In this position two men of the right company were wounded by the enemy’s sharpshooters. At 1 p. m. in accordance with orders received from General French, I marched my command into the woods in support of General Meagher’s brigade. We remained in this position one hour and a half, then moved to the left to support Hazzard’s battery, Fourth Artillery, the firing having ceased three hours. My staff was very efficient, Assistant Surgeon H. C. Dean removing the wounded under a very heavy fire, and Surgeon Robert V. McKim discharging his duties at the hospital very creditably.
I feel it my duty to call especial attention to Captain W. A Kirk, as he was present without his company, which was detached on fatigue duty at White House, and afforded great assistance to the regiment. Both officers and men behaved in the most admirable manner, and I am gratified to express my entire satisfaction with the behavior of all.”
Several officers and men were conspicuous in this battle for their soldierly bearing. Several of them were mentioned in the general reports and some in other reports. Sergeant R. S. Alcoke was honorably mentioned for good conduct and later was promoted. Sergeant 0. F. Middleton was advanced to First-Lieutenant, the commission dating at this battle. Many not mentioned in the reports were brought to notice by their coolness and daring, so as to be marked men thereafter. There were others who found themselves constitutionally incapacitated for fighting, they could not stand in a battle or, if they did, there was no push, no persistency, no fight in them. W. T. Smith relates the following incident: “After the firing ceased at Fair Oaks, Dr. McKirn, two of the Pioneers, two drummers and myself, went outside of the line to carry in the wounded. We came across a wounded “Reb’ ‘—an officer—and were in the act of putting him on a stretcher when we noticed another “Reb” coming out of the bushes. He carried his gun but, apparently, did not suspect we were “Yanks” until he was very near us, then he looked scared and the Doctor, noticing his hesitation as to whether to shoot at usor not, said quickly and in an authoritative tone, “Put down your gun and help this man on to the stretcher.” Seeing the wounded man referred to was a rebel officer, the stranger ‘stuck his gun into the ground and the Doctor immediately took possession of it. We then secured the newcomer and took him into camp a prisoner.”
R. G. Russell, says: “After the firing had ceased I saw some rebel trying, as I supposed, to pick off Colonel Zook, I sprang from the ranks and made for him. We both met on an old log road, I being the quickest got the draw on him and took him prisoner. On his cap was a white band, his gun was brass mounted and had a saber bayonet. Sergeant John E. Millard took him to General French.”
The third day of the battle little was attempted by either side, and on the fourth we began to have the feeling that the battle was over. Two regiments, the Second Delaware and the Sixty-Fourth New York were now added to, our brigade making a total of six regiments instead of four as previously. For two weeks it rained incessenti so that all the bridges over the Chickahominy were carried away and the army for some time was cut in two, without possible communication between them, part being on the north side and a part on the south side of the river. The reddish clay soil and quicksands had become a vast morass, wagons and batteries sinking down to the hubs merely by their own weight. Whenever work was possible ditches and trenches and breastworks were dug or corduroy roads were laid but the principal occupation was an endeavor to keep out of the mud.
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