In his seminal book Battle Tactics of the Civil War, author Paddy Griffith talks about the value of what he calls “tactical snippets”—excerpts from letters, reports, books, etc. that show something of the tactics in use at the time. Whereas he confined himself mainly to the line of battle, I prefer the skirmish line.
Here’s one from a sergeant in the 24th New York Cavalry, a dismounted outfit that was brigaded with two heavy artillery outfits in Col. Elisha Marshall’s Provisional Brigade, Ninth Corps. These non-infantry units were thrown into the Overland Campaign when Grant began to run out of warm bodies on the firing line. Sergeant Daniel G. Kelley tells about his capture.
Then came the 2d of June, that, to me, ever memorable day, when we engaged the enemy at Cold Harbor. How well I remember that afternoon, when we fought the enemy successfully until dark, and then, as night set in, I, with a detachment of our company, advanced to do picket duty in front of our regiment. About midnight a corporal of our company came down from the right and asked if I had seen Sergeant Pomeroy. He said the Colonel had sent him to recall Pomeroy, who had been sent out with tenmen to reconnoitre. I told him I had not seen him, but he might be further down on the left;and the corporal moved on in search of the sergeant’s detachment. The night was very dark, and a short time after the corporal left us we could just discern a squad of men a few feet in our rear. Supposing he had found the object of his search, and that they were returning to the regiment, I stepped back and spoke to them. One of the men asked me what regiment mine was, and I replied: “Twenty-fourth New York Cavalry.” Now, if you can, imagine my surprise when he rejoined: “You are my prisoner! I belong to the Sixty-first Alabama Sharpshooters.”
There were now ten to one, and resistance would have been folly. I was taken to the rear, and within thirty rods we passed at least five thousand rebels. I was taken before General Daniels, who commanded a rebel brigade. He asked me to what corps I belonged, and if the Yankees were in force in front. I replied, that although a prisoner, I was under no obligation to answer his questions. After he had asked a few more questions, with the same success, he ordered me to be taken to the provost guard, which proved to be about a mile in the rear. Here I found the corporal, who had been taken prisoner only a few minutes before I was taken, and by the same squad. There was also another of our company, and many of our regiment; also men of other regiments, – in all about two hundred men.
Now arises the question, how came this squad of rebels in our rear? – and it is answered thus: Each regiment picketed its own front, and the 14th Heavy Artillery, which joined our regiment on the left, had removed to the rear (for some reason unknown to me) in the darkness, withdrawing their pickets at the same time. This left an open space where the rebels could come in at will, and thus gain the rear of our pickets; and once there, darkness prevented a distinction between them and the federal soldiers.
The Rebel sharpshooters here are from Battle’s brigade, Rodes’ division. Their battalion was the first formed and was, unfortunately for Yankees, one of the best. Like wolves who seek the weakest animal in the herd, the sharpshooters went after new and inexperienced outfits like the Provisional Brigade. Normal practice was to use a single skirmish line under one officer for each brigade or even for an entire division rather than having each unit provide its own picket line. Otherwise, as above, it was easy for gaps to develop and for the Confederates to exploit them. Indeed a favorite tactic was to slip through the picket line and and take the pickets from the rear.
Kelley assuredly did not talk to General Junius Daniel, since he had been mortally wounded on May 12. It’s also doubtful he talked to Brigadier Cullen Battle, who had been wounded.
Ironically the 61st Alabama was just as green as the 24th New York Cavalry. The New Yorkers formed in August 1863, the Alabamians in September. Both had their first combat experience in the Wilderness and had been fighting for slightly less than a month at Cold Harbor. The difference is that the 61st was brigaded with four veteran regiments, while the 24th served with two equally inexperienced units.
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