To the west, the sounds of industry clank and crunch through the forest. The insistent warning of a backing-up truck beep-beep-beeps in discordant competition. The gravel pit, nestled up to the edge of North Anna Battlefield Park, does not rest today on the anniversary of the battle.
Aside from those audible reminders, there’s also the gravel path crunching beneath my footsteps to remind me that I am not far from civilization, although it otherwise might seem so as I make the trek out to Ox Ford. One of the things I love most about this battlefield is the immersive green in all its shades and hues.
To my left run earthworks built by Nathanial Harris’s Mississippians, part of Little Billy Mahone’s division. After 155 years, they remain formidable. On the afternoon of May 24, 1864, the heavens opened on these men as they repulsed an ill-advised assault by Brig. Gen. James H. Ledlie’s brigade of the Federal IX Corps. Ledlie, drunk and against orders, felt the need to prove something—what, we don’t really know unless it was history’s disapproving judgment of his own lack of judgment and talent.
Any men deserved better, but I have come to know these men in particular a little better over the last few years. Their brigade had served under division commander Brig. Gen. Thomas Greeley Stevenson when Stevenson was killed at Spotsylvania on May 10. The four Massachusetts regiments of the brigade—the 35th, 56th, 57th, and 59th—came mostly from Worchester and from the Reedville neighborhood of Boston. They had been posted along the driveway to Whig Hill, the Beverly plantation house directly across modern Route 208 from today’s Stevenson Ridge. Meanwhile, the brigade’s two regiments of U.S. Regulars—the 4th and 10th—had at the time been detached to the right flank of the corps, stretching from the northern edge of Stevenson Ridge through Ni River swampland to connect with the Union II Corps.
The proximity of these men in geography and history to me has made me sympathetic to them.
For years, their story has hung in the upstairs hallway of my home. In 2008, when my writing partner Kris White got married, he gave to me a copy of Donna Neary’s painting Even to Hell Itself, which depicts the attack of the 57th Massachusetts against the extreme right of A.P. Hill’s line held by the Mississippians. Kris knew of my love of the North Anna battlefield, and Neary’s was the only painting that showed any action related to the battle. It’s a gift I’ve treasured.
As the assault started, wrote a member of the 57th, “The brigade was finally launched out like a thunderbolt from the dark, threatening clouds from which the rain was just beginning to descend.”
Neary’s painting picks up the story shortly thereafter. In it, the regiment’s commander, Lt. Col. Charles Chandler, tries to rally his men. Beside him, a corporal wheels around from the impact of a bullet. Lightning tears the sky. Rain, Confederate gray, blots the sky. The far end of the Mississippians’ line blends into the raging weather itself. In a few moments, Chandler himself would be struck down, mortally wounded, and “the gallant charge” said one member of the regiment, would be “turned into a complete rout”—although at this moment of courage, captured on canvas, Chandler has no way of knowing that yet.
There’s nothing to say anything would have worked out differently for these Massachusetts men had Stevenson lived except that his death at the division level opened the vacancy that led to the command shuffle that placed Ledlie in charge of the first brigade. Stevenson, said a member of the 57th Massachusetts, “was esteemed very highly by all who knew him as possessing those brave and sterling qualities which can be relied upon in the performance of duty.”
Ledlie, meanwhile, possessed “artificial courage…the quantity of which seemed to be sufficient to sustain him through this or any other trying ordeal, but the quality was not of the enduring kind…. [T]here was no knowing how long it would stay or when it would be there again.”
The descriptions of the two men could not paint more different pictures of their leadership styles.
Such ponderings are ultimately useless, but they’re nonetheless inevitable when they’re tied to people you’ve come to know through reading and research and shared geography. Empathy is often a historian’s greatest tool for understanding, but today, wondering about these poor men in the pouring rain following orders from a drink buffoon, it just makes me feel bad.
A copy of Neary’s painting greets visitors to Hanover County’s North Anna Battlefield Park. Beside it stands the park’s only monument honoring ““all the valiant men who lost their lives on the battlefield of the North Anna.” The trail that leads from there to the ford— made possible by the very gravel company whose work churns onward in the distance—connects memory to history to geography. It is a good path to walk.
You can read more from the 57th Massachusetts in their online regimental history, written by Capt. John Anderson.
You can read more about Donna Neary’s wonderful painting in an appendix in my book Strike Them a Blow: Battle Along the North Anna River, available here as part of the Emerging Civil War Series.
You can also visit Donna’s website and order prints of her wonderful painting.