On September 18, 1863, Henry Abbott of the 20th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment wrote to his father:
We have been in sight all this time of Cedar Mountain. Part of our corps, at a distance of several miles, rests upon it. If possible by any means, I shall go to the battle field. It has made me feel more sad than a man ought to be in the presence of the enemy, & I have tried to counteract the feeling, but whenever I see the mountain, it is impossible not to think of that terrible time.[i]
The terrible time looming in Henry’s mind had occurred over a year prior, on August 9, 1862. His beloved older brother, Edward G. Abbott, a captain in the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry Regiment had been killed during the battle of Cedar Mountain. In the ensuing months, the younger brother had tried to attach meaning to his sibling’s death and had been painstakingly piecing together all the written reports and eyewitness interviews he could acquire about the circumstances of his brother’s final hours.
Shortly after penning the September 18 letter, Henry reported to the homefront: “I went over day before yesterday to Cedar Mt. battle field, in company with Capt. Wood of Gen. Gibbon’s staff, who got to the field shortly after the battle & was able to point out to me the exact spot where Gordon’s brigade was massacred.” He described the Confederate’s position which his soldier’s eye immediately recognized as “strong by nature” and believed that even if the Federals had secured a victory during the battle of Cedar Mountain, it would have “extremely improbable, & if gained, must be barren of results.”
The younger brother wrote more. Standing on the battlefield seemed to allow him to finally understand and grapple with his family hero’s last combat actions:
Ned came through the wood, skirmishing the way for the regiment. The regiment halts at the edge of the wood, & Ned advances through the field, where he is met by a heavy fire from the front and bushes on his right, driving him back with tremendous loss, & it is back on the edge of the wood that he is at last hit.
When I look at the place, I think he was murdered. How could an officer cross this open field rising toward the rebels & with his right entirely uncovered…offering the strongest temptation to the rebels to creep across through the bushes & entirely out flank him. Think of that noble life lost by the heartless vanity of a politician who wishes to have the newspapers say that he advanced &c….[ii]
Edward Gardiner Abbott had been the eldest of eleven children in an influential Bostonian family. Born in 1840, he entered Harvard in 1856 and graduated 4 years later in the middle range of his class. For a few months, he studied law in his father’s office, but the national events had fired his imagination and patriotism. Hailed as one of the first to volunteer, Edward (called Ned by his family) obtained an officer’s position in the 2nd Massachusetts Regiments through his father’s influence and aid. One of his younger brothers, Fletcher, also enlisted at the same time with him.
The 2nd Massachusetts mustered in May 1861 and spent time in Maryland and the Shenandoah Valley before joining the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division in Bank’s II Corps in the Army of Virginia. (Later, they would be re-designated the XII Corps of the Army of the Potomac.)
In June 1862, Henry Abbott writing from his own regiment, remarked proudly about his older brother and how the 2nd Massachusetts had helped to cover the Union retreat from Winchester to the Potomac River during the Valley Campaign: “But what a glorious thing the 2nd have done. I consider them unquestionably the first regiment in the service, regular & volunteer. Their hardship have been immense…. Ned of course belongs to the bravest of the brave. Every body always knew what he would be.[iii]
Following the Federal defeats in the Shenandoah Valley, part of the Union army that had been operating in that region was integrated into the newly formed Army of Virginia under General John Pope’s command. During the summer, this force struck into the center of Virginia, operating near the upper Rappahannock and then turning toward Culpeper and Gordonsville.
After McClellan retreated with his Union army from the threshold of Richmond, the Confederates divided forces in late July, and Lee sent “Stonewall” Jackson to confront Pope’s advance. The enemy forces clashed near Cedar Mountain, a prominent topographical feature about 6.5 miles southwest of Culpeper.
Colonel George Andrew wrote the official report of the 2nd Massachusetts from the battle of Cedar Mountain. Early in the morning of the 9th, “the regiment, with the rest of the brigade, marched from camp near Culpeper Court House.” The hot day took its toll and one soldier in their unit died from the effects of the blazing weather. The regiment “reached a wood near Slaughter Mountain and some 1,600 yards from the enemy’s position, where it was formed in line.” After stacking their guns, the officers allowed the men to break ranks and rest.
After some initial confusion of orders, the 2nd Massachusetts headed for the already unfolding battle, taking position “to the right” and moving through some woods toward the Confederate lines. “Company A, Captain Abbott, deployed as skirmishers, covering the advance. On emerging from the wood I found the enemy concealed in the woods and fields opposite and pouring in a heavy fire of musketry. The regiment was formed in line at the edge of the wood, but was soon moved farther to the right. The fire of the regiment was mostly reserved until the advancing of the line of the enemy afforded a fair mark, when I ordered the fire by file, which was opened and continued with perfect coolness and great effect.”
Abbott and his skirmishers entered the infamous wheatfield and waded two-thirds of the way through it. In the advance position, the captain ordered his men to lie down while waiting for the rest of his regiment and the brigade to come up.[iv] Rough terrain broke up the alignment of the advancing brigade, but the 2nd Massachusetts followed orders and charged forward and then fired by file, as mentioned in the colonel’s report.
In this fire-fight in the wheatfield, Captain Abbott was mortally wounded. In one eyewitness version, a bullet ripped into his neck, Ned managed to answer “yes” when asked if he was wounded but could not answer other caring questions.[v] Another account claimed that Ned was shot in the back as the company started with withdraw under orders. He “wore a proud, defiant, earnest look, as when he fell, with the words on his lips: ‘Give it to that flag, men!’ pointing to the Rebel emblem opposite.”[vi] The differing accounts to not necessarily contradict each other; he could have been wounded twice — possibly in the back first, then in the throat. However it happened, the result was the same. Edward Abbott did not leave the wheatfield at Cedar Mountain alive.
After the action, Colonel Andrews praised the calmness of his officers and men in their fight, reporting, “The enemy having gained our right, their fire became so destructive that the right was obliged to fall back, my right company losing its captain and more than half of its men.” In short, the 2nd Massachusetts advanced on orders, got badly flanked, and was forced to fall back. Ultimately, they accomplished little on the battlefield, but took heavy losses. At Cedar Mountain, the regiment lost “5 commissioned officers killed, 6 wounded and 3 missing out of 22 in action; 25 non-commissioned officers and privates killed, 95 wounded and 37 missing out of 474 in action.”
Captain Edward Abbott was mentioned by name in the report’s eulogy which also added: “Saddening as is the loss of these brave, gallant officers, all of whom were men of education, ability, and high social position, who had devoted themselves to the service of their country in her hour of need and proved themselves able and faithful in the discharge of duty, there remains the consolation that they died gloriously in the defense of as a righteous a cause as man could fight for.”
The concept of duty and righteous cause sounded grand, but did not stop the overwhelming grief experienced by family member’s as news of Ned’s death made its way home and to other military camps. On the Virginia Peninsula, it took approximately two weeks for Henry Abbott to receive confirmation of the tragic rumors from Cedar Mountain.
“Untill I got the newspapers & mamma’s letter day before yesterday, I thought Ned only wounded. I got your letter yesterday. Today, we finished our march & I can answer. It came upon me with terrible force. I could hardly believe it. I thought Ned would surely come through all right. I wish to God I could have seen him on the battle field. Tell me all about it as soon as you can learn. I know how awful the blow is to you, for he was the best son you had & was so sure to have been a great man. It is very hard to think that we will never see him again. If I could only have seen his body. Every time my company is drawn up it reminds me of Ned, for I have been thinking lately of getting it into fine shape to show to Ned when we got up there. Do let me know all you find out about it. Your aff. Son, H. L. Abbott.[vii]
Edward’s body had been left on the field when his regiment retreated. Later, the Confederates stripped his corpse of his uniform and other articles of clothes, but eventually allowed the body to be taken in Union lines where his remains were casketed and sent to his family for the funeral and burial. His family in Massachusetts found some closure at the funeral on August 17, and his mother found comfort in the idea that Ned’s soul hovered around her and other family members. [viii] For Henry, though, the younger brother closest to Ned, closure did not come easily. Unable to return home for the burial, Henry grieved at a distance and privately while in a military camp surrounded by scenes that reminded him of his brother. When one of Henry’s friends in the 20th Massachusetts died in front of him a few months later at Fredericksburg, it almost cathartically helped him come to grips with his own brother’s death and the feelings – perhaps guilt – that he had not been at his brother’s side.
Over a year after the battle of Cedar Mountain, Henry went to that battlefield. While admitting he could never be certain of the exact place his brother had died, he seemed to find some of the elusive closure and meaning. He blamed a political general for the failed attack and yet still felt the weight of his brother’s heroism. On the then-silent battlefield, he knew he was looking at the land where a “tornado of fire” had “swept heroic souls from earth, — all falling where only the brave fall.”[ix]
Alonzo H. Quint, Record of the Second Massachusetts Infantry, 1861-1865. (1867). Accessed via Google Books.
[i] Henry Abbott. Edited by Robert Garth Scott. Fallen Leaves: The Civil War Letters of Major Henry Livermore Abbott. (Kent: The Kent State University Press, 1991.) Page 217.
[ii] Ibid., Pages 217-218.
[iii] Ibid., Page 131.
[iv] M. Chris Bryan, Cedar Mountain to Antietam: A Civil War Campaign History of the Union XII Corps, July-September 1862. (El Dorado: Savas Beatie, 2022). Page 98.
[v] Ibid., Page 103.
[vi] Michael E. Block, The Carnage was Fearful: The Battle of Cedar Mountain, August 9, 1862. (El Dorado: Savas Beatie, 2022). Page 138.
[vii] Henry Abbott. Edited by Robert Garth Scott. Fallen Leaves: The Civil War Letters of Major Henry Livermore Abbott. (Kent: The Kent State University Press, 1991.) Page 136.
[viii] Ibid., Page 138.
[ix] George Henry Gordon, The Organization and Early History of the Second Mass. Regiment of Infantry, An Address. (1873). Accessed via Google Books, page 23.