One of my favorite stories from the battle of the Wilderness is a small tale of daring-do passed along by Theodore Gerrish of the 20th Maine. The event took place on the afternoon of May 5, 1864.
After his brigade’s initial assault across Saunders Field stalled and the men retreated, Gerrish spotted an officer he assumed to be his brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Joseph Bartlett, who unexpectedly found himself in a tight spot:
“[A] Union officer . . . also came out into the field, not twenty rods from the rebel line. He was on horseback; not a staff officer was with him; his uniform was torn and bloody; blood was trickling from several wounds in his face and head. . . . The rebels saw him, the moment he emerged from the forest, and called upon him to surrender, while a wild yell rang along their line as they saw their fancied prize.
“But they did not know the man with whom they had to deal. Shaking his fist at them in defiance, he put spurs to his horse and dashed away. He was a target for every rifle in the rebel line. Five hundred guns were pointed at him, and five hundred bullets whistled around him, the enemy pursuing as they fired. It was a brilliant ride for life. . . .
“Over one-half the distance across that field had been passed, and yet . . . [a] deep ditch must be crossed before they could gain the cover of the forest. . . . The horse and rider evidently saw the obstacle at the same moment and prepared to meet it. Firmly the rider sat in his saddle, and gathered the reins of his horse with a firm hand. I never beheld a nobler spectacle than that presented by the gallant steed—his nostrils dilated, his ears pointed forward, his eyes seeming to clash with the fire of conscious strength as he made the fearful leap. For a moment I thought they were safe, but rebel bullets pierced the horse, and turning a complete somersault he fell stone dead, burying the rider beneath him as he fell.
“Again the rebels cheered and rushed on, but to my surprise, the officer, with the assistance of a few wounded soldiers, extricated himself from his dead horse, ran across the edge of the field, and made his escape.”
The original account comes from: Gerrish, Theodore. Army Life: A Private’s Reminiscences of the Civil War. Portland, ME: Hoyt, Fogg & Donham, 1882. Pg. 168-9. Gerrish wrote his account as a single paragraph, but I’ve broken it up here for easier reading.