“The fairest of targets…” June 3, 1864
“Chip, chip, chip” rang out in the predawn darkness along the stretch of lines held by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. An incessant chipping sound as metal object, mostly axes, cut into Virginia timber.
Ironically, two centuries before Virginia timber helped keep the young nascent Virginia colony alive, as the virgin forests were harvested and sent back to England. Now, Virginians, North Carolinian, South Carolinian, every seceded Confederate state was represented as the men wielding axes again.
They were also trying to preserve their lives, this time from a known foe. This time from the massive Union assault they knew was coming with dawn.
One Union soldier remarked when hearing the unmistakable sound of the Confederates strengthening their entrenchments as June 3rd dawned;
“As it happened, [the preparing of the defenses] they were preparing to cut down 10,000 blue men…”
Ulysses S. Grant had set the hour for the advance and when that time came, the Union Army of the Potomac would go crashing into the Confederate line. Grant was going to hammer his way through, somewhere the Confederate line would be vulnerable, somewhere he could break through, and in that somewhere, he would have the chance he needed to destroy Lee’s army. Then, approximately 12 miles away, stood Richmond.
The solitary canon shot, the agreed upon signal and the Union forces surged forward.
Straining to see the formations, the solid dark blue mass of men moving forward were the Confederate pickets. Out of the mist came the Union advance and zigzagging back were the Confederate soldiers, some getting off a quick round, the sound reverberating like the first pops of popcorn in a modern day microwave.
Many students, historians, enthusiasts look back and with the benefit of hindsight, sigh and conclude the Union soldiers did not stand a chance. They pinpoint one example, of a failed charge late in the day that cost Grant upwards of 4,000 casualties in one half-hour.
However, that was not the case. The Union assault did strike home, the terrain (and I invite anyone who has the chance to walk the preserved portions of the battlefield), was not a straight and level field. The contours of the ground allowed for some protection.
Yet, for most of the Union soldiers, the attacks were bloodily repulsed. The Confederate rate of fire was tremendous, in some instances rifles were passed to the front as not all the infantrymen could stand in the front line. Imagine, instead of facing the normal 3-4 rounds per minute, some of the Union assaults faced 3x or 4x times that rate of fire!
Rows of blue were cut down.
One Texan remembered the horde of blue that came toward the Confederate lines provided “the fairest of targets for Texas and Arkansas marksmanship.” For a lot of Northern families, he would unfortunately, be right.
But, on the Union soldiers came, “gallantly forward under a most terrific fire of cannon and musketry.” The men, were “mowed down” like “grain before a reaper.”
As the sun was beginning to crest, Winfield Hancock’s Second Corps achieved an opening. Francis Barlow’s division punctured the Confederate defenses and routed the enemy troops around the breach. Hand-to-hand, rifles used as clubs, and men exerting every ounce of human energy to stave off death. Union numbers prevailed.
What the Yankees did not know, was that only a thin skirmish line was holding the front line earthworks as a confusion of orders had removed most of the infantry to a reserve line. In that reserve line was approximately 400 Marylanders that had cast their lot with the Confederacy. Alongside, these “orphans of the east” was the only Floridians serving with Lee’s army.
Thus, the men hailing from the farthest Southern state to secede and a state that never seceded saved the breach.
“The men were so excited…we rushed up…drove the enemy back and recovered the trenches…” was all that one survivor could remember of the adrenaline packed counterattack.
Meanwhile, on the Union right flank, the two corps; Fifth under Gouverneur Warren and the Ninth under Ambrose Burnside tried their luck on the Confederate left flank; still being held by the Second Corps under Jubal Early and a solitary Third Corps division under Harry Heth.
Accurately and succinctly summing up how the assaults fared was an account of one Union veteran;
“[I] would never forget the storm of bullets, grape, and canister.”
Burnside, mistakenly believed he had captured the Confederate earthworks, but after evaluation, he had only broken through the skirmish line earthworks. This delay sapped the forward momentum and like their brethren in arms, the Ninth Corps could not advance, so they did the next logical thing; they dug in.
As darkness crept in on the night of June 3rd, the misery of thousands was just beginning. Cries of the wounded, many beyond help, in no-man’s land rent the air. The sounds of men crying, cursing, praying, talking deliriously wafted with the smell of blood, burnt flesh, and quickly decaying severed limbs behind the front lines.
On the front lines, death still came, singularly, if one was not careful in the dusk hours, as sharpshooters scanned for movements.
Death was in the air, death was also underground, as many of the combatants realized when they prepared their entrenchments. This same land was fought over in 1862 during the Seven Days’ Campaign and hastily buried former comrades and antagonists remains, in some places, crested through the hastily topsoil of their graves. Bony hands reaching up out of the ground; as an omen of more death to come? Or a silent reminder of what was already lost?
Another harvest of death had been sewn. June 3, 1864 now belonged to the history books and to a certain degree mythology.