Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Mike Block
“Skirmishers play a most important part, whose importance is every day increasing with the improvements in small arms. They are employed in large bodies to attack a post or position, the columns of attack then move forward, protected by their fire, which becomes more close and converging as they approach the object of attack, and the position is carried by the bayonet.”[i]
The traditional vision of Civil War skirmishers are small groups of soldiers, out in front of a main battle line, acting as either an offensive or defensive tripwire. Alone along a line, the skirmisher, by firing, announces to the enemy and his friends to prepare for action. One doesn’t usually imagine a large body of men advancing.
However, on November 7, 1863, the Fifth Corps was utilized as skirmishers. Late on that early November afternoon, over 900 men advanced toward the Rebels in the redoubts just beyond where the Orange and Alexandria bends toward the Rappahannock River.
Major General George Sykes, Commander of the 5th Corps, was given simple orders: “Move at early daylight and take position on the left of the Sixth Corps.” Sykes was placed under the overall command of Major General John Sedgwick, whom with the 5th and his own 6th Corps, was to “assault and drive the enemy from his positions there [Rappahannock Station] on this and the other side of the river and move on towards Brandy Station.” The two Corps would use the O&A rail bed (the rails had been removed) as the Corps dividing line. Sykes’ primary responsibility was to ensure he had coverage from the O&A to the Rappahannock River and not allow any Rebels to escape or advance downriver to threaten the Federal assault at Kelly’s Ford.[ii]
Sykes successfully fulfilled his mission.
By mid-afternoon, the two Corps had linked, and at 3:30 P. M., under the command of Brigadier General Kenner Garrard, the 5th Corps skirmishers composed from elements of the 1st and 2nd Division advanced. The First Division skirmishers were composed of 550 men from Colonel Joseph Hays 1st Brigade and Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s 2nd Brigade. Second Division Commander Brigadier General Roman Ayers sent forward 350 men from six regular infantry regiments.
Garrard advanced an hour to before his left was firmly on the Rappahannock, but the right of the line was bent back due to enemy fire. In a postwar account, Sergeant J. B, Potter (83rd Pennsylvania Infantry), described this portion of the fight. “[…we] were to advance upon the front of the fort, until we arrived at the place where an old house had burned down, and engage the enemy, and stay there until the Sixth Corps charged upon their flank from the direction of Beverly Ford. We went and staid, too, until ammunition got so scarce that the Johnnies loaded their cannon with railroad spikes, until the chimneys of the old house – still standing – couldn’t stand any longer, but came down with a crash….Fortunately this was anticipated, and no one was hurt by it; but it deprived us of all shelter, and made ‘staying’ undesirable.[iii]
The ground in front of the Federals, was swampy and cut with ditches, and Tinpot Run formed a barrier near the railroad, which, near the river was on a raised embankment. It was believed that the ground was unsuitable to assault the earthworks from this direction. But that thought changed as Colonel Peter Ellmaker’s Sixth Corps Brigade began their assault at 5 P.M.
By time the attack began, the skirmish line was in a small tree line, about 600 yards from the redoubts. Chamberlain’s Brigade rested its right along the railroad, with Hay’s men on their left. In fact, the 20th Maine was on the right, and a portion of its line spilled over to the over side, and merged with the Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Harris’s 6th Maine Infantry. Captain Walter G. Morrill was in command of the 20th’s detachment and learned that the assault was impending. Quickly, he came running back along the skirmish line shouting, “Boys, the 6th Maine is on our right, let’s go in with them!”[iv]
When the 6th went forward, Morrill and about 80 men from the 20th joined in the charge, as did others from both 1st Division brigades. Major George Fuller, commanding the 6th Maine after Harris was wounded during the attack, wrote in his after- report, “I would here mention that about 80 men belonging to the Fifth Corps, under the command of Captain Morrill, of the Twentieth Maine regiment, forming a skirmish line upon our left, rendered valuable aid in carrying and holding the works.”[v]
Morrill, acting without orders, led the assault from through the swampy ground and across Tinpot Run, over the embankment and into the works. Walter Morrill would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor on this day. The citation, in-part, read, “Learning that an assault was to be made upon the enemy’s works by other troops, this officer voluntarily joined the storming party with about 50 men of his regiment, and by his dash and gallantry rendered effective service in the assault.” Morrill received his medal on March 28, 1898, in the mail. He was never formally presented with the honor.[vi]
Like the battle, Sykes’ report on the actual assault was brief, “In the development of the attack, which was successful, the pickets of the Fifth Corps shared and entered the redoubt simultaneously with the troops of General Wright (6th Corps acting commander), capturing 1 flag, 8 commissioned officers and 78 enlisted men.
The cost for the 5th Corps was low. Hay’s Brigade had 26 killed and wounded, Chamberlain’s men suffered 20 total casualties. Ayres’ 2nd Division lost 11. (7 killed/45 wounded/5 captured or missing).[vii]
In the end, the 900 man skirmish line did its assigned mission, they secured the ground, moved forward, converged towards the objective and carried the position.
[i] Craighill, William, The 1862 Army Officers Pocket Companion, Stackpole Books, 2002, p177
[ii] OR, Series I, Vol. 29, Part II, pp 425, 427 At its greatest distance, the 5th Corps needed to cover a front a mile and a half long.
[iii] OR, Part 1, p 578, National Tribune, May 24, 1888
[iv] Pullen, John J., The Twentieth Maine: A Volunteer Regiment in the Civil War, Morningside Books, 1991, p 163.
[v] OR, Part 1, p 599.
[vi] Congressional Medal of Honor Society website, http://www.cmohs.org/recipient-detail/954/morrill-walter-g.php, accessed November 4, 2015, Haskell, Robert L, Yankee Warrior, Bangor Publishing Company, 1993, p 217.
[vii] OR, Part 1, pp 558-559.