When War Came: One Family’s Encounter with America’s Civil War…Part 2

Part two in a series

Margaret was at her grandmother’s when the Fifth Corps arrived. “All around us was bustle and commotion, infantry marching, cavalry dashing about, artillery and ammunition wagons rumbling through the fields.” In the lower fields, shells plowed the ground. Artillery began to fall close to the house, a shell passing through the barn and another destroying the kitchen chimney. Slaves ran toward the cover of the main house, where Margaret and the housemaid, Jane, shoved extra clothing and valuables into a trunk to be taken with the family. Meanwhile, the male slaves harnessed the horses to the carriage and a mule to the farm cart. They then went inside to retrieve their owner and carried her to the wagon and away to safety.

Frail, fragile, and ill, Sarah Watt initially refused to leave the place she and her husband had made into a prospering farm, where memories of their lives together lingered. Outside, the world she had known was upended and a lifetime of love and labor was literally being dismantled as soldiers tore down the farm’s fences, cleared trees, and converted the area around the house into a headquarters; horses’ hooves and the artillery’s wheels dug away at the planted fields and gardens. “Grandmother flatly refused to leave her home,” remembered Margaret, “but yielded to our entreaties on the condition that Uncle Peter would remain to take care of the house and the negroes.” From the back of a wagon, Sarah and her granddaughter passed “regiment after regiment drawn up in battle array” and made their way to the house of a friend nearby. Peter, who was informed by a Federal officer that the Fifth Corps would make a stand on the farm, stayed only long enough to take care of a few final things before he, too, became a refugee.

They were not alone. According to Margaret, nearly 40 others, “driven from their homes by the tide of battle,” had taken refuge near Cold Harbor. From there they looked back toward Springfield, now a raging battlefield. “The smoke of battle hung a sulphurous canopy over the woods bounding the horizon, and the roar of the guns was deafening,” recalled Margaret. Shells arched over the tree line, exploding above soldiers, raining down lead and iron onto the men and horses below. The staccato of small arms accented the thunder of the cannon, both drowning out the shouts of orders and the cries of the wounded. The Watt refugees and their neighbors were helpless. “Separately or in groups we sat about the yards or on the porches, with bowed heads and tearful eyes.” Margaret made no mention of the slaves’ reactions.

Near nightfall, Lee ordered his forces forward for one last attempt at breaking Porter’s lines. John Bell Hood, leading the Texas Brigade, slammed into the Federals across Boatswain’s Creek, causing their exhausted lines to give and then break. The Confederates pursued the retreating Federals up the slopes toward Watt’s home, over the very creek and hillsides Margaret, her siblings, and her cousins had played a decade earlier. At the top of the hill, fleeing Federals ran between the outbuildings that were now pockmarked by small arms fire and windowless, the panes of glass shattered by shot, shell, and the concussion of the guns. The Federal line, which ran nearly a mile and a half across the ridge past and through Watt’s neighbors’ farms, broke as the men fled to the other side of the Chickahominy. Darkness and exhaustion brought a close to the battle. The Federals achieved the required delay, and the Confederates achieved a tactical victory; the combined cost was 9,000 American casualties.

The sights and sounds of the battle were discernible in Richmond, where people gathered on the heights around the city to watch the rising smoke and arching shells. The following day, George, Sarah’s youngest son, rode from his home in the city to the farm looking for his mother. He found her and the others near Cold Harbor and informed them that the farm “had been the scene of the fiercest fighting of the day, and was a total wreck.” The quaint farmhouse was converted into a field hospital and all the surrounding buildings housed wounded and dying soldiers from both armies. The dead—both horses and men—were scattered about the field, quickly rotting in the hot summer sun. The scene was a disaster, and the farm would never—could never—be the same place again. Within three weeks, George placed an advertisement in the Richmond Dispatch announcing the sale of the farm’s cattle, mules, horses, market carts, and the farm’s wagon; there was no mention of the slaves. The once-fruitful farm was practically useless “because of the breaking up of my mother’s estate by the Friday’s battle on Boatswain Swamp, near Gaines’s Mill, in Hanover County.”

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In early September, Margaret and other family members again turned off the Hanover County road and onto the farm lane leading to grandmother’s house. The sweet smells of summer that Margaret remembered as a child were replaced by a “sickening odor” that “pervaded the air.” The farm, which used to bustle with life and activity, was eerily quiet, and the picturesque setting of the tidy house and outbuildings was replaced by “a scene of desolation.” A “profound stillness and mournful silence brooded over the scene.”

“As we wandered over the fields, we found graves everywhere,” remembered Margaret. From some of these, the rain had washed away much of the earth, disclosing grinning skulls and protruding hands upon which the skin had dried away like a shriveled glove. Into others, wild animals had burrowed….” The family walked silently over what were now not just ordinary orchards and farm fields, but a battlefield. Dead horses marked the location of artillery batteries and long trenches marked the mass graves. Lastly, they visited the house:

 “Rank weeds had sprung up even to the doors, except where the yellow clay glared in the sunlight. Even in the corners of the yard there were graves, and bordering it was a long trench, in the garden was another trench said to contain forty dead. The house, what a wreck! The walls and roof were torn by shot and shell, the weather-boarding honeycombed by minié balls, and every pane of glass shattered. And the floors!—grandmother’s immaculate floors! From garret to cellar there was scarcely a space of flooring as large as a man’s hand that did not bear the purple stain of blood.”

The farm was an absolute disaster, the sight of which Sarah’s family kept from her. George, acting as the family’s agent, published a second advertisement in the October 22 edition of the Richmond Dispatch announcing the sale of a “valuable farm” that was “known by the name of ‘Springfield’ on which Mrs. Watt resided.” This advertisement failed to describe the devastation; it would prove a difficult sell. Sarah never returned to her farm alive. In April 1863, she died at her daughter Mary’s home, “Oak Grove.” Her family took her remains back to Springfield to be buried alongside her husband in a grave that remains unmarked in a location unknown.

The experience of the Watt family and the Battle of Gaines’ Mill serves as an example of the cataclysmic, transformative experience of the war on participants, non-combatants, and on the physical landscape itself. For one family—and one person in Sarah Watt—a lifetime of labor was destroyed in a matter of hours. Their lives were rent by a violent dividing line: the years before the battle and the time after. The “off corner of the world” was no longer a place unknown. For nearly 90,000 participants, Gaines’ Mill and the Watt Farm would hold a central place in their memory of the war, largely because of the violence and suffering experienced and witnessed there. The wounded who survived forever carried physical reminders of their experience and for the families of the dead the name Gaines’ Mill and the Watt Farm—although most would never visit the site—were remembered for the sorrow associated with a loved one lost there.

Although it would be remembered for what it once was and for the good, innocent times had there, Springfield would never be just a place to be nostalgically remembered by just one family because of the very thing that family experienced—America’s Civil War.

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Sixty acres of Sarah Watt’s “Springfield” are preserved as the Gaines’ Mill unit of Richmond National Battlefield Park. Restored by the National Park Service, Sarah’s house still stands. 

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Recommended Reading:  Haw, M.J. “My Visits to Grandmother.” Christian Observer, 18 May 1910, 22-23.

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