Unless you’re walking a loop trail on a battlefield or have a vehicle waiting to pick you up, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll have to walk back the way you crossed a field. For many battlefield visits, I focused on “the attack route” and I could’ve cared less about the return trip to the parking areas. That started to change as I studied the Battle of New Market and found some very poignant descriptions of the Virginia Military Institute cadets walking back over the fields and positions they had fought through, looking for fallen comrades. Whether anyone militarily retreated across the attack route (think of the repulse of the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble charge at Gettysburg) or the post-attack saga is more of an aftermath scenario, there is history to explore in the land after you “about face” for the return walk.
Sometimes, I tried to explore the return experience and look for the possible or recorded locations of field hospitals or first-aid stations. How far did the wounded have to go? Or if it’s ground where there was a military retreat, I want to see how that might have looked. Did the troops find any shelter in the topography on their return? Was it an orderly retreat that could’ve taken advantage of any land features (if they exist) or was it a broken retreat with everyman for himself?
These thoughts came to mind last week when I walked through the south side of Saunders’ Field on The Wilderness Battlefield. I wanted to look at the topography from a Union perspective in both attack and retreat, though I had had to see it in reverse order. I parked in one of the pull-offs on Hill-Ewell Drive, walked around the earthworks, and headed into the field from the Confederate position. For the trip across, I stayed closer to the treeline than the road (Route 20/Orange Turnpike) and I was already noticing that the land closer to the road could’ve been better for attack and that was the area that Union General Bartlett used for his attack which briefly broke through the Confederate lines on May 5, 1864. When I reached the far side of the field, I marched back closer to the road and to the earthworks (which I went around instead of over!).
While it was interesting and insightful to see the attack route from the Union perspective, I kept thinking about the retreats through Saunders’ Field. Walking alone in the open space and seeing how artillery and rifle fire easily swept most of the field sent shivers up my spine. There’s little effective cover which could be frightening enough in an attack, but must have been absolutely terrifying when those battle lines broke and the soldiers tried to dash across the open ground to cover in the opposite treeline.
Captain Judson of the 83rd Pennsylvania Regiment which was in Bartlett’s 3rd Brigade in Griffin’s 1st Division of the V Corps described his regiment’s attack across the field as swift and effective. However, the brigade got disorganized and when the Confederates rallied and brought in reinforcements the tide turned:
“…our brigade alone with both flanks exposed and without any support. It was now the Johnnies’ turn to come…and right well did they improve the opportunity. Every man saw the danger, and without waiting for orders to fall back, broke for the rear on the double quick. The rebels, in their turn, commenced yelling and sending minies after us, killing and wounded many of our men…. We ran almost every step of the way back, and when we got there we laid down on our backs and panted like so many hounds which had just come in from a ten hours’ chase after a gang of foxes.”
Others recrossed Saunders’ Field wounded. Theodore Gerrish, a soldier from the 20th Maine Regiment—also in Bartlett’s brigade—wrote about his personal retreat in his chapter about The Wilderness in Army Life, which was published in 1882.
It is impossible to describe the sensations experienced by a person when wounded for the first time. The first intimation I had that I was wounded was my falling upon the ground. My leg was numb to my body, and for a moment I fancied that my foot had been carried away; but I soon learned the true condition of my situation. Our regiment was rapidly retreating, and the rebels as rapidly advancing. The forest trees around me were on fire , and the bullets were falling thick and fast. If I remained where I was, the most favorable result that I could hope for was captivity, which, in reality, would be worse than death by the bullet on the field.
I stood up, and, to my joy, found that my leg was not entirely useless. I could step with it, and so long as it remained straight I could bear my weight upon it, but when bent at the knee it refused to bear me up, and I would fall to the ground. Under existing circumstances I determined to retreat. Under existing circumstances I determined to retreat. I threw off all my baggage and equipments, and turned my face toward the line of breastworks, which we had that morning built. Fear lent wings to my flight, and away I dashed. Frequently my wounded leg would refuse to do good service, and as a result I would tumble headlong upon the ground, then rising, I would rush on again, and I doubt if there has been a champion on the sawdust track in Maine for the last five years who has made such a record of speed as I made on that retreat through the Wilderness. In my haste I did not keep so far to my right as I should have done, and consequently was obliged to cross the lower end of the field over which we had made our charge. It was a sad spectacle, that lonely field in the forest. Here and there a wounded man was limping painfully to the rear; dead men, and others wounded too severely to move, were scattered thickly upon the ground.
Fighting continued to rage around and through Saunders’ Fields over the next hours, with more regiments attacking and retreating. On the opposite side of the Orange Turnpike, some retreating soldiers ran holding their metal canteens to the back of their heads in a small attempt at protection. Regiments became completely disorganized. Some soldiers lay down behind dead horses or piled into the field’s small gully in an effort to get out of the line of fire and find protection.
Perhaps it’s not glamorous to look at a field from the perspective of chaotic retreats, but it is part of the military history and the saga of human will to survive. And when we choose to see a piece of battlefield from that perspective, perhaps we are closer to understanding the destruction and the panic of war than in the pursuit of the footsteps which broke through the lines with no time to stop for fallen comrades. A retreat through the eyes of history and in the words of the participants brings different words to the pages and different emotions to the forefront, and whether an attack field was recrossed swiftly in retreat or more slowly looking for the fallen, there is a confrontation of the sobering effects of that “glorious charge” of a prior time.
For another story from the Federal retreat through Saunders Field, see “A Daring Dash in the Wilderness” from 12 January 2016.