June 3, 1864 (Friday)
‘Before sunrise on the morning of the 3rd a few shots were fired by our pickets, and our videttes on the parapet called out, “Look out, they are coming.”‘
But in the predawn, there was first a cannonade. Scores upon scores of pieces bursting shot and shell above their enemies. There was smoke and screaming, dying and survival.
“Out of the powder smoke came an officer from the battle-lines of infantry. He told us to stop firing, as the soldiers were about to charge. He disappeared to carry the message to other batteries. Our cannon became silent. The smoke drifted off of the field. I noticed that the sun was not yet up. Suddenly the foremost line of our troops, which were lying on the ground in front of us, sprang to their feet and dashed at the Confederate earthworks at a run. Instantly those works were manned. Cannon belched forth a torrent of canister, the works glowed brightly with musketry, a storm of lead and iron struck the blue line, cutting gaps in it. Still they pushed on, and on, and on. But, how many of them fell! – Pvt. Frank Wilkeson, 11th New York Battery, watching the advance of Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps, the right of the Federal attack.
“Just before I could see the sun,” Col. William Oates of the 48th Alabama, recalled after the war. “I heard a volley in the woods, saw the major running up the ravine in the direction of Anderson’s brigade, which lay to the right of Law’s, and the skirmishers running in, pursued by a column of the enemy ten lines deep, with arms at a trail, and yelling “Huzzah! huzzah!” I ordered my men to take arms and fix bayonets. just then I remembered that not a gun in the regiment was loaded. I ordered the men to load and the officers each to take an ax and stand to the works. I was apprehensive that the enemy would be on our works before the men could load.”
“We never even reached the enemy’s works,” wrote Captain Lemuel Abbot, 10th Vermont Infantry of Horatio Wright’s Sixth Corps in his diary on this day. “The attack commenced on the right and ran along the line until it reached the left. We advanced under a murderous fire in our front from the enemy’s artillery, sharpshooters and when in range of its main line of battle and were simply slaughtered.”
A sergeant in the 12th New Hampshire, assailing Oates’ Alabamians wrote after the war: “The men bent down as they pushed forward, as if trying, as they were, to breast a tempest, and the files of men went down like rows of blocks or bricks pushed over by striking against each other.”
And Col. Oats continued: “‘Sergeant, give them double charges of canister; fire, men; fire!’ The order was obeyed with alacrity. The enemy were within thirty steps. They halted and began to dodge, lie down, and recoil. […] The blaze of fife from it at each shot went right into the ranks of our assailants and made frightful gaps through the dense mass of men. They endured it but for one or two minutes, when they retreated, leaving the ground covered with their dead and dying.”
Returning to the Union left, Hancock’s front, -A. DuBois of Co. F, 7th NY Heavy Artillery (used here as infantry), related their early success before the Confederate works: “At the command, double quick, it was but a few moments ere we were scrambling up its incline. So quick had been our movements only a few musket shots had been fired by the enemy. […] The enemy bravely stood their ground, not waiting for us to come over their works, but meeting us on the parapet. They contested every inch. I remember as I reached the top of the works a brave fellow confronted us. Standing below he thrust his bayonet into the comrade by my side, and was about to give me the same dose, but a charge from my gun changed his mind. It was a hand-to-hand fight to the finish. Clubbed muskets, bayonets, and swords got in their deadly work. Both sides can be equally credited with deeds of valor.
“It was evident from the first that the odds were against the enemy. The bravest could not have withstood the impetuous onslaught of our superior numbers. And like any true soldiers they gave discretion the preference to valor, and doubtless with heavy hearts submitted to the inevitable.
“Thus far we had had it about all our own way; but looking off in a field beyond, what was our dismay in seeing a long line of the gray approaching on the run.
“What was to be done? We had lost all semblance of organization— a veritable mob with no means to turn the captured guns upon the enemy. In this dilemma. each man decided that question for himself. Green soldiers though we were, our short experience had taught us to know just when to run, and run we did, I assure you. We did our level best to get to a place of safety, though we did not reach it till many had been stricken down by the bullets of the approaching column and were left between the lines, the dead to lie there till their decomposed bodies appealed for their burial, while the wounded suffered untold agonies in the broiling sun until death came to their relief. None dared to rescue them. In one instance a rescuing party went out in the night and brought in one of our boys, who had lain for two days so near the opposing lines his cries for water awakened the better nature of the enemy who kindly threw canteens of water to him.”
As a sort of second way, Baldy Smith’s Eighteenth Corps attacked. ” Forward moved the divisions,” wrote Joseph Waldo Denny of the 25th Massachusetts. “With loud cheers they rushed on and saw lines of impregnable works — cannon to the left of them, to their right and in their front, and over the earthworks, men standing ready to receive them with the bayonet. As they advanced, they saw dead men behind them, dead men to the right and left—wounded men creeping to the rear or trying to find shelter from other wounds. The loud-mouthed cannon roared, musketry in the hands of fifty thousand foemen joined the volume of sound that swelled the note of death.”
Col. Oates also witnessed this: “The charging column, which aimed to strike the Fourth Alabama, received the most destructive fire I ever saw. They were subjected to a front and flank fire from the infantry, at short range, while my piece of artillery poured double charges of canister into them. The Georgians loaded for the Alabamians to fire. I could see the dust fog out of a man’s clothing in two or three places at once where as many balls would strike him at the same moment. In two minutes not a man of them was standing.”
There were various parries and thrusts across the field, but not long after the first shots were fired, it was clear that day could not be won. General Baldy Smith wrote to General Meade, commanding the army: “My troops are very much cut up, and have no hope of being able to carry the works in my front unless a movement of the Sixth Corps on my left may relieve at least one of my flanks from this galling fire.”
“This assault cost us heavily and probably without benefit to compensate,” wrote General Grant in his Memoirs, “but the enemy was not cheered by the occurrence sufficiently to induce him to take the offensive. In fact, nowhere after the battle of the Wilderness did Lee show any disposition to leave his defenses far behind him.
“Fighting was substantially over by half-past seven in the morning. At eleven o’clock I started to visit all the corps commanders to see for myself the different positions gained and to get their opinion of the practicability of doing anything more in their respective fronts.
“Hancock gave the opinion that in his front the enemy was too strong to make any further assault promise success. Wright thought he could gain the lines of the enemy, but it would require the cooperation of Hancock’s and Smith’s corps. Smith thought a lodgment possible, but was not sanguine: Burnside thought something could be done in his front, but Warren differed. I concluded, therefore to make no more assaults….
“The remainder of the day was spent in strengthening the line we now held. By night we were as strong against Lee as he was against us.”
That night, Robert E. Lee wrote Jefferson Davis: “Our loss today has been small, and our success, under the blessing of God, all that we could expect.”1
- Sources: Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac by Frank Wilkeson; Personal Recollections and Civil War Diary, 1864 by Lemuel Abijah Abbott; The War Between the Union and the Confederacy, and Its Lost Opportunities by William Calvin Oates; History of the Twelfth Regiment, New Hampshire Volunteers by Asa W. Bartlett; Southern Historical Society Papers, Volumes 30-31; Wearing the Blue in the Twenty-fifth Mass. Volunteer Infantry by Joseph Waldo Denny; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant.” [↩]