Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Second Battle of Greenbrier, Installment six

The battle is joined


"My men fell around me like dead flies on a frosty morning." Officer in Dana's" brigade


"The thundering of artillery, the roaring of bursting shells, the rolling of musketry, and humming of deadly fragments and bullets. and sometimes the yells of the rebels and our own cheers all seemed to fill the whole horizon and drive peace away forever." 
Thomas Livermore


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Editor's notes:  Historians almost universally divide the Second Battle of Greenbrier into three distinct phases; the great meadow phase, the rocky upland phase, and the walled pasture phase. This narrative will follow that practice. 

Federal artillery was the determining factor of the battle; sixty guns in ten six-gun batteries were brought to the field. Of note is that five of the Union batteries were regular army artillery.  The Confederates had a paucity of guns; sixteen guns in four four-gun batteries, furthermore 75% of their guns were smooth-bore twelve-pounders whereas the Federal batteries had a majority of rifled 3" ordnance rifles with a range of up to two miles at great accuracy.

The artillery of both sides made very effective use of canister.  Canister is a projectile that consists of 28 one-and-one-half inch diameter iron balls packed, with sawdust, into a light tin canister.  Effective at ranges under 400 yards, canister turns a cannon into a giant sawed-off shotgun and has devastating results upon the troops upon whom it is deployed.


Confederate general Ambrose Powell Hill referred to the Second Battle of Greenbrier as "Yankee artillery's finest hour."


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It is seven o'clock in the morning October 29th,1862 three miles to the west of Greenbrier Maryland in the Cumberland Valley.  The Third Division of the Third Corps, Army of the Potomac, under Major General Alpheus Williams has been dispatched to intercept the combined divisions of Confederate General A.P. Hill, and John Bell Hood of the Army of Northern Virginia.  The Federals have approached the field from the southeast and the Confederates from the southwest.

The great meadow phase: 7:00 - 10:00 am.

On the northern end of the battlefield lies a fifteen-acre meadow.  The battle, which was to have been joined at first light was delayed until the dense fog lifted and the proceedings got underway only at seven a.m.

The opposing sides faced each other over 200 yards of open ground and opened fire almost simultaneously and casualties were significant in both lines.

Volley fire continued for nearly forty minutes with neither side showing any sign of weakening.  The opposing lines were equally matched and neither could find an advantage to dislodge the other.

It began to appear to the opposing commanders that there would be no decisive moment in the contest as neither side wavered.

It was only after the Confederates were flanked by  Union artillery, while under sustained fire to their front, did they finally - after nearly two hours of fighting - retire in some haste from the field.








"...a great tumbling together of all heaven and earth - the slaughter on both sides was enormous." Private, 6th Wisconsin



"The fire now became fearful and incessant...merged into a tumultuous chorus that made the earth tremble a thousand distant drums..." Felix de Fontaine Charleston Daily Courier



"Very soon our Reg was under fire the balls whisin [sic] over us...I commenced loading and shooting with all my might but my gun got chooked [sic] the first round, and I picked up a gun of one of my comrades who fell by my side and continued to fire...I do not know whether I killed any one or not."  Private Calvin Leach, 1st n. Carolina












Union artillery opened fire upon the Confederate and shortly thereafter the Rebels retired.


Thus ended the short, but sharp, "Great Meadow" phase.  The victorious, but severely battered, Federals retained the field, consolidated their position, and awaited developments.




The rocky upland phase: 9:30 am - 1:00 pm.


The center of the Confederate line - the "rocky upland" was a very strong defensive position.  Here the Confederates had only two depleted regiments successfully holding the high ground owing to the advantage provided by the rocky slopes.


Union commanders recognized the advantage of the strong rebel position and were reluctant to mount a direct assault but opted for infantry volley fire at a very long range of 375 yards.


The fire at this range exacted minimal casualties on either side though the Federals did suffer a higher percentage of killed and wounded.


A little over ninety minutes into the exchange four batteries of Federal guns deployed at a distance of one mile and opened with bolt and case shot.  The results of the shrapnel from the case and the showers of rock fragments from the bolts exacted a heavy toll on the two small rebel regiments.  For nearly two hours the valiant rebels absorbed the blows as casualties mounted. By 12:30 pm the 1st regiment of United States Sharpshooters ("Berdan's") flanked the Confederate left,making their position untenable and the desperate defenders were driven in disarray from the heights.  Federal's advanced to the former Confederate positions and held that portion of the field for the remainder of the day. 













Though understrength, the Confederates enjoyed the advantage of high ground as they fired at the Federals below.




A battery of Federal rifled guns zeros in the Rebel stronghold.



"The enemy fell like grass before the mower...it seemed as if whole companies were wiped out of existence."  Major Orrin Crane, 7th Ohio.

"...legs, arms, and other parts of human bodies were flying in the air like straw in a whirlwind.  The dogs of war were loose, and 'havoc' was their cry."  Soldier, 4th Texas




The walled pasture phase: 2:30 - 5:30 pm.

The walled pasture phase saw Union and Confederate firing lines at a mere 100 yards distant. On the northern side of the pasture were two Confederate regiments - the 2nd Mississippi and the  17th Virginia.  On the southern end of the field were the veteran 3rd Michigan and the rookie 17th Maine.  This was a close-quarters fight.

Firing commenced around 3:00 with both sides sustaining casualties at such short range.  After two volleys the order was given to fire by company, then by file, and finally to "fire at will".  The firing continued for forty minutes with neither side gaining advantage.

On his own and without orders, the inexperienced commander of the 17th Maine, Colonel Warren West, desiring to force the issue, ordered his regiment forward.  As the men from Maine advanced they were met with withering musket fire delivered from the men of the 2nd Mississippi, yet still they advanced. About five minutes before the 17th stepped off a section (two guns) of Confederate artillery arrived and deployed beside the Mississippians.  "Double canister" was ordered and the rebel twelve-pounders opened a devastating fire in the faces of the faltering Federals.

Colonel West's ill-conceived effort was broken and his men, in full and disorganized retreat, took refuge behind the lines of the 3rd Michigan, much shaken and of little use for the remainder of the engagement.

Hoping to capitalize upon the disarray and confusion of his enemy, Colonel John M. Stone of the 2nd Mississippi ordered a counterattack on the heels of the fleeing 17th Maine, but by this time Union artillery had taken the field and the Federal regulars quickly manhandled their full battery into position, loaded canister, and devastated the Confederate advance, and continued to fire upon the Rebel line forcing the much damaged 2nd Mississippi as well as the men from Virginia to retire from the field.



The 3rd Michigan arrives on the field.




Movement is seen in the woods beyond the pasture.








The veterans of the 17th Virginia are taking up position.


"Hooker's men were fully up to their work, they saw their General every where in the front, never away from the fire, and all the troops believed in their commander and fought with a will."  George Smalley New York Tribune













The order rings out - "Commence firing!"




" The two battle lines, scarcely fifty yards apart, erupted in sheets of flame and smoke."  Private Alexander Hunter, 17th Virginia


"The truth is, when bullets are whacking against tree trunks and solid shot are cracking skulls like eggshells, the consuming passion in the breast of the average man is to get out of the way."  Soldier, 9th New York








Even the jaded veterans from Michigan look on in slack-jawed disbelief as the rookie 17th Maine, without support, leaves the firing line and advances toward the enemy.


"The total disregard of all ordinary military precaution in their swift and solitary advance was so manifest that it was observed and criticized as the devoted band moved on."  Francis W. Palfrey, 20th Massachusetts.







Confederate gunners load double canister and open fire immediately.






"Men, I can not say fell; they were knocked out of the ranks by the dozens..."
Major Rufus Dawes, 6th Wisconsin

"...brought down the enemy as grain falls before a reaper." 
Colonel F.M. Parker, 30th North Carolina




The chaotic retreat of the 17th Maine is halted only by the stalwart lines of the Men from the Wolverine state.


Colonel John M. Stone immediately mounts a counter attack.




The men of the 2nd Mississippi advance.


The 3rd Michigan delivers a blistering volley of accurate fire.




Still the Mississippians advanced.


Again, as throughout the day, the timely arrival of Federal artillery will turn the tide.








Canister breaks the rebel advance and the men from Mississippi take to their heels.


"...the Rebels followed with a yell but three for four of our batteries being in position they were received with a tornado of canister."  General Alpheus Williams


Rally boys, rally! Die like men; don't run like dogs!"  Mississippi soldier





With this the curtain came down upon the battle,

"Within a space of four square miles lay two thousand men, some stiff and stark, looking with visionless eyes up into the pitying heavens; some tossing on the beds of the hospital, or lying maimed and bleeding under the trees..."    Union soldier






At the close of a blistering eleven-hour contest the Federals were in possession of the field and Hill and Hood were retreating across the Potomac back into Virginia.  The valiant Third Corps of the Army of the Potomac proved its mettle yet again, and surely not for the final time.

Of 17,000 soldiers, both Union and Confederate engaged, some 2,750 were left on the field dead or wounded.

The war would last another two and a half years, but most historians agree that after the Second Battle of Greenbriar, the tide had finally turned in the east.


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Editor's note: In 1922 the Maryland State Lands Commission hired professor Daniel Brewer to survey the Greenbrier battlefield preparatory to designating it "a state holding of preservation for the education and enjoyment of the people of Maryland."  Brewer's survey comprised about three square miles of the battle area as well as his recommendations.  Although the state legislature approved the establishment of a "state holding" (park) the funding was never approved, and the ground has remained, little changed, in private hands for over one hundred and fifty years.

Herewith are three of the twenty-seven survey photos taken by Brewer.

The "Great Meadow".  The Confederate line was to the right, Federal to the left.



Confederate positions on the "rocky upland."


Federal position at the "walled pasture."



And what of the people of Greenbriar?  The final installment will be posted next weekend.

Soldier on!

Mannie