On the morning of November 30, 1863, as the Army of the Potomac prepared to assault the Confederate position west of Mine Run, the men in the ranks understood the grim task laid before them. “After leaving the wood the ground sloped to the run, then up a slope to where the rebs had their works; their batteries showed their teeth at every favorable place,” wrote Sgt. Austin C. Stearns with the 13th Massachusetts’s Co. K. “[F]rom the time we left the woods we should have been under their fire, and the run lined with briars and bushes with steep banks and water three feet deep and freezing cold was a barrier not easily surmounted.”
It was, Federals realized, a perfect killing field.
“The Federals study with attention, then with uneasiness, the positions which they are about to assault,” another observer noted:
Almost all have witnessed Fredericksburg and Gettysburg; they know by a double experience that a bloody defeat is reserved to one of the two armies which takes the offensive.
It is said that most of them on the morning of the 30th took care to pin to their coats pieces of paper bearing their names. They wished that their names might be placed over the fresh earth which was to cover them in their everlasting sleep. No hope of glory was occupying their minds at that supreme hour, but they were anxious to secure on that distant soil the modest epitaph which allows the soldier’s family to distinguish his remains, instead of having to kneel at the grave of the unknown.
It was in this manner, it is related, that they silently showed the conviction that they were going to be asked for a useless sacrifice. If it is only a legend—for legends are sometimes easily made—it is worth being quoted, for it perfectly describes the character of the Army of the Potomac.
But it was no legend.
“Recognizing that the task now before them was of the character of a forlorn hope,” one newspaper correspondent reported, “knowing well that no man could here count on escaping death, the soldiers, without sign of shrinking from the sacrifice, were seen quietly pinning on the breast of their blouses of blue slips of paper on which each had written his name.”
“We knew very well what this meant if undertaken,” the historian of the 13th Massachusetts later attested. “To climb those heights in face of guns that could sweep every inch of ground with grape and canister was not the kind of jobs we hankered after. . . .”
Stearns’s account comes from Three Years with Company K. Arthur Kent, ed. (London: Associated University Presses, 1976). The other accounts come from Three Years in the Army: The Story of the Thirteenth Massachusetts Volunteers from July 16, 1861, to August 1, 1864 by Charles E. Davis, Jr., (Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1864).