On the evening of November 7, 1863, two Union brigades commanded by Colonels Peter C. Ellmaker and Emory Upton seized Confederate rifle pits on the Rappahannock River protecting the vital crossing of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Their success eliminated the Confederate presence on the north bank of the river, one which Robert E. Lee would never regain. Success owed to excellent small-unit leadership in employing innovative tactics under the cover of nightfall. However, close analysis of the primary sources from the battle still reveals a chaotic experience for those engaged, especially in their auditory descriptions.
The plan for assault on the Confederate tete-du-pont called for skirmishers from the Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac to envelop the position from downstream and to prevent additional reinforcements from the main Confederate force from lending a hand. The Vermont Brigade of the Sixth Corps would do the same upstream. Ellmaker doubled the size of his skirmish line directly fronting the rifle pits and intended them to creep as close to the Confederate position as possible without tipping their hand that they intended to attack. The Fifth Wisconsin followed behind with two Pennsylvania regiments prepared to exploit any advantages.
To Ellmaker’s right, Upton’s brigade hunkered down within range of the Confederate guns and prepared for an attack of their own. A surgeon in the brigade remembered that Upton addressed them “with all the coolness imaginable” and informed the men in a loud enough voice—so that the enemy could hear as well—that four heavy lines supported them; “that die probably many of us soon would, but it was a good and glorious cause, and that he was there to share their fate, and thus by his own dauntless bearing and cheerful words of patriotism, infused a spirit in the hearts, and nerved the arms of his men sufficient to insure success to any enterprise.”
“It seemed to the soldier that the whole Sixth Corps would not be too strong a column for such an undertaking,” wrote another of Upton’s men. “But not much time was given to such soliloquizing. There soon rode out in front of the brigade one whose very presence on such occasions would electrify even the most obtuse. It was Upton. In clear and distinct tone rang out the command, ‘Forward!’ It was enough. His brigade followed across that plain in as perfect order as it ever had maneuvered on the drill ground.”
“Then rose from that line of battle a terrible shout. It was not the usual charging cheer,” remembered James S. Anderson of the Fifth Wisconsin. “It was a yell of rage, a shout of encouragement, an implication of vengeance all in one. Only one shout and then a terrible, significant silence. They had no breath to waste.” A surgeon with the Fiftieth New York Engineers claimed the first shout could be heard from two miles away.
The Sixth Maine’s cheer sounded like a “terrible panther-like yell” according to its adjutant. “So small a number of men never before made such an uproar… Men were seized with the wildest transports of rage and frenzy. We seemed to be marching against a blind, inscrutable force, which defied all of our efforts to reach it or grapple with it. The only relief seemed our continuous yell, which every man kept up until the fortifications in front of us were reached.” Once the Union soldiers reached the works, Anderson recalled that now “the air was filled with a medley of shouts, shrieks and groans, calls to surrender, yells of defiance, imprecations and curses and through and above all other sounds the increasing crash of musketry.”
Reinforcements lent their bayonets and their voices to the assault. A Pennsylvanian remembered making “all the noise we could by yelling and shouting, so as to confuse the rebels. When the rebels heard us they gave one of their long, blood-curdling yells, and poured into us a heavy volley of musketry.” The Forty-ninth Pennsylvania “went up the hill yelling like Indians.” Major Aaron S. Daggett believed the Fifth Maine gave a yell “that seemed to make the very earth tremble, and without firing a shot, the whole line burst like a tornado upon the works.” The regimental historian agreed: “Like tigers eager for the prey, our boys spring forward with a yell which was both terrible and deafening.”
A normally pious and reserved officer in the Sixth Maine known as the “praying sergeant” entered the earthworks “with an infuriated yell, and with profanity which was fierce and appalling, he aided with bayonet and clubbed musket in speedily dispersing the enemy around us.” So ferocious was the fighting that William J. Seymour of Hays’ Brigade believed the Union soldiers were “stimulated by the free use of whiskey,” a claim that reveals a mindset of the defenders but one that is not supported by evidence. “The enemy poured in yelling like so many demons, many of them being in a state of beastly drunkeness.” A Confederate prisoner later told his captors: “We all allowed that the whole Army of the Potomac were coming, you’uns kept up such a wicked yelling.”
“Men forget the danger in the excitement,” noticed a Massachusetts private, “and when our Colors are planted within the enemy’s lines every one feels like shouting.” Successful in this daring attack, the men’s voices took on a new tone. “Then the cheers which rent the air tell the pride of the soldier and his appreciation for noble, courageous action, attended with glowing impulse,” commented another in the regiment. Positioned at a supporting distance from his fellow soldiers in the Sixth Corps in the growing darkness, William Dunlap of the One Hundred and Thirty-ninth Pennsylvania could still immediately tell of success. “We could hear them cheer when they took the rifle pits,” he wrote afterwards.
Despite this intense cacophony from the fight, an acoustic shadow prevented Confederate headquarters south of the river from hearing the severity of the battle until it was too late to offer assistance. At the cost of 419 men, two Union brigades captured 1,600 Confederate infantry, 2,000 small arms, 4 cannon, 8 battle flags, and the crucial crossing over the Rappahannock River. The war’s end still lay a year and a half in the future, but every engagement in the pending climactic campaigns between Lee & Grant would lay south of a river that had previously tripped up each Union general who tested its waters.