“Heavy” Fighting at the Harris Farm, Part 2

by Dan O'Connell on March 17, 2012 · 0 comments

Field Of Battle

Preparations for the Confederate move lasted until about 1400. The route selected by Ewell was a wide arc, initially taking his column away from the Union defenses on the Brock Road. To speed the rate of advance and to thwart any Federal advance in his absence Ewell also opted to take along only a six gun battery from LTC Carter Braxton’s artillery battalion. The Confederates turned back to the northeast on the Gordon road and crossed the Ni. Shortly after crossing the river Ewell split his infantry away from the main road and moved east on a wagon trail to the ruins of the Stevens farm. Rosser’s cavalry continued along the main road looking to strike the Fredericksburg Road. The narrow wagon trail had been softened by recent rains and the artillery began to experience trouble. The artillery commanders, Braxton, became concerned that his pieces would become mired and have to be abandoned. Ewell was convinced that the loss of the guns was a real possibility and had Braxton return them to the main defenses. He would continue on with no artillery support save a small battery of horse artillery that was with Rosser still on the Gordon Road. BG Stephen Ramseur’s brigade of North Carolinians led the way east and into the heavily wooded area that separated them from the Union line.

Across the fields the 2nd Battalion of the 4th New York Heavy Artillery had established themselves in a position that offered reasonably good defensible ground. The area was described in a regimental history:

“The centre of the line was in front of two log houses; one of them was called “the old house”, and owned by Miss Susan Alsop. A lane led back to one of these, and between this house and our line was a fine spring of water.”

“A little farther a small stream ran through a swale. On the higher ground beyond was a log house with a door facing our way, which was used as picket headquarters. Beyond was an open meadow, probably sixty rods wide, then timber.”

On the left end of the 4th’s position, pickets from Company K (only about a half of the company went out on the first picket tour) crossed “a low, miry swamp” and formed a line facing west. The tree line wrapped around the picket posts on three sides forming a U with the open end facing the main line. The area also contained “two old tumble-down buildings.” Company D formed the extreme right of the Federal position facing the Fredericksburg Road.

While the open terrain in their front benefitted the New Yorkers the trees allowed Ramseur’s men to move undetected into close proximity to the Union pickets. Also helping to disguise their movements was the onset of an afternoon shower. The passage through the forest also restricted movement so that the Confederates were stacked up along the narrow track. Deploying a line of battle under these circumstances would be a slow process. Unfortunately for the Confederates it was time that they would not have.

Opening Stages

While the Confederates marched the pickets along the 4th New York line settled in for what they expected to be an uneventful day. The primary concern seemed to be making themselves comfortable and getting something to eat. An ox that had been issued to the battalion was slaughtered and beef rations allotted to each man. The picket reserve (Company H and the remainder of Company K) settled down to preparing their meal while they waited their turn on the picket line. The on duty pickets also lacked a sense of urgency at their post. One member of Company K remembered that his post and the adjacent one had got together “for a little game of cards” when “a squad of rebel cavalry came suddenly dashing out of the woods.” The two groups were equally surprised at the confrontation. The Federals scrambled for their weapons and the Confederate troopers drew their revolvers. The two sides exchanged wild gunfire. The enemy troopers galloped off leaving one Union soldier wounded in the hand. Around noon somewhat more alert pickets in the Company D sector captured “we supposed, a rebel scout.” The man was hustled to the rear and interrogated by Colonel Hamlink, the adjutant of the battalion. The man was released after taking the oath of allegiance. These seemingly unimportant events were enough for Kitching to forward a report to Warren about increased activity. When Warren, in turn, sent this message forward Meade ordered Tyler’s Heavy Artillery Division to reinforce Kitching. About 1500 the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery and the 2nd New York Heavy Artillery began moving up the Fredericksburg Road. The remainder of the division was put on notice to be prepared to move, but not until they received orders to do so. The deployment of these two units might be considered an overreaction to what appeared to be minor probes but as events would prove out it was most prudent.

After the brief flurry of activity things calmed back down and the pickets again relaxed, probably more than they should. As the first tour awaited their relief they became anxious to take part in their beef ration. The 1st Massachusetts began arriving shortly after 1600 and Companies D and F were pushed out into picket position. As the Bay Staters moved up, Warren Works, of Company K 4th NY, retired into one of the deserted buildings to cook his dinner when a line of Confederates broke out of the wood line. In the rain Ramseur’s skirmishers had bumped into the advanced positions of the 4th New York. The contact initiated a flurry of musketry. The retreating Federals were gathered around the house and CPT Seward Gould, Company K commander, attempted to make a stand. But the odds were too great. The Tar Heels fired a volley that seemed to the defenders “tore away the whole side of the building.” The Federal line disintegrated into a mad dash into the swamp in a rush for the main line. The retreating pickets joined Company D, who were just preparing to move forward to relieve the picket line. They were ordered into line “where we could see clearly across the open ground. “ The Confederates had occupied the house that had just been deserted by the retreating Federal pickets and were using it as a base from which to lay down effective fire on the Federal position. A half dozen intrepid members of Company D moved forward in a washout until they found a portion of the ditch that formed “a very good rifle–pit” and attempted to take the house under fire. After a few shots they received “a shower of lead “and were forced to return to the main line, losing one of their number in the trip back. The battle for Harris Farm was on.

“Lightning from clear skies”

While the 4th New York blazed away at the Confederate line the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery wheeled off the Fredericksburg Road and moved up on the left. Companies D and F were deployed as skirmishers. A battalion (Co.’s B, H, and K), under Major Frank Rolfe, was also advanced in tight order until they reached the edge of the trees. The enemy skirmishers retreated before them and hustled to join the main body. The battle wise main line of Confederates sought cover in the brush by taking crouched or prone positions to disguise their presence. Seeing no enemy force at the edge of the tree line Rolfe, determined to assess the strength of the attackers, ordered his line into the forest. At the command of “Forward” the battalion began the move.

Nearly 360 men surged into the trees completely unaware of the fate that was in store for them. The tightly packed Union line struggled to maintain cohesion in the broken ground. As they slowly worked their way into the wood Ramseur’s men waited. When they reached a distance of about 50 yards from the Confederates the Tar Heel line rose up and delivered a mass volley into them. A member of the ill-fated attack described these few minutes this way;

“We had proceeded but a short distance when we received a volley from Ramseur’s brigade, and so complete was the surprise and so deadly the effect that the battalion was demoralized. It was like a stroke of lightning from clear skies.”

The conspicuously mounted Rolfe fell dead with eleven rounds in his body. As many as half the battalion lay dead or wounded.

“The cries of pain from loved comrades, wounded or dying; the rattle of musketry; the sound of leaden missiles tearing through the trees and the dull thud of bullets that reached their human marks produced a feeling of horror among those whose ears could hear. It needed but one thing more to complete the scene, and we had not long to wait.”

Realizing that they had gained a good measure of surprise and that the initial volley left the Federals vulnerable, Ramseur’s men attacked. Raising a rebel yell the Confederates dashed through the smoke from their concealed positions and engaged the remnants of Rolfe’s battalion at close range. Pandemonium reigned in the Union ranks. Shocked, leaderless, and horrified the Union line broke for the rear under the weight of the assault. They raced back to join the battalion under Major Nathaniel Shatswell on the knoll.

The rebel attack pursued the retreating Federals but received a shock of their own. Shatswell’s battalion “directed a hot fire“on the attackers as the remains of Rolfe’s battalion reformed at the Harris house. The separation of the two forces created open fields of fire for Barnes’ artillery. The pieces roared into support with “a most effective dose of canister.” More importantly the 2nd New York Heavy Artillery was arriving into position on the left of the 1st Massachusetts. The commanding officer, Col. Joseph Whistler, formed his men and instructed them to aim low. The tightly packed ranks delivered a devastating volley. Unfortunately, part the fire struck some of the retreating Massachusetts troops. The rest of the massive volume of fire stopped the Confederates in their tracks. The changing odds were enough to convince the Confederate officers to order a retreat. “They fell back under cover of the woods.”

Battle Renewed

The timely arrival of the 1st Massachusetts and the 2nd New York pushed the initial Confederate attack back and gained a brief respite for both sides. The Federals used the time to consolidate their line. The 1st Massachusetts fell in on the left of the 4th New York with the 2nd New York on their left. The battered Confederates of Ramseur’s brigade regrouped as the remainder of Rodes’s division deployed. Col Bryan Grimes fell in on Ramseur’s left with his brigade of North Carolinians. BG Cullen Battle’s Alabama brigade deployed on Ramseur’s right. The small Georgia Brigade of BG George Doles formed the reserve. To the north BG John Gordon’s division formed a line consisting of two brigades; BG William Terry’s Virginians and Col Zebulon York’s Louisianans. Gordon’s line extended beyond the right end of the Federal line and had unfettered access to the Union supply train stalled on the Fredericksburg Road. Understandably the temptation proved too much for the hungry Confederates. The Confederate line fell into disorder as the men began looting the undefended wagons. The disruption created another delay which would cost the Confederates dearly.

Hearing the growing battle in the north Grant dispatched his aide Horace Porter with instructions for Tyler to release his remaining regiments, the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, 7th New York Heavy Artillery, and the 8th New York Heavy Artillery, to assist in the fight. Grant also promised further reinforcements from Warren’s Corps. He intended not only to halt the enemy movement but to seize the initiative and go on the offensive. He had the opportunity he had been waiting for. A portion of the ANV was isolated and out of the trenches and he meant to “destroy them, if possible.”

Tyler sent the three regiments up the Fredericksburg Road on the double quick. The 7th New York, leading the column, broke off to the left to support Company H of the 4th New York at the end of the Union line. Company commander, Captain Augustus Brown, was much relieved to see his fellow New Yorkers. As he had watched the Confederate line overlap his he “began to fear that Co. H was going to be surrounded.” While the 7th filed off the road, the 1st Maine was “ordered to pass by their rear”* and move up to the supply train. Realizing the danger the Confederates looting the wagons abandoned their booty and beat a hasty retreat back to their regiments. Colonel Daniel Chaplin posted a guard on the wagons and then turned the rest of his regiment west “to charge at once down on both sides of the road.” The Mainers were joined on the left by the 7th New York. After some difficulty adjusting the line the two regiments marched into the open to face the hasty defenses prepared by Gordon’s veterans. Standing in open terrain Chaplin’s men made easy targets. A mass volley stopped the advance but the stubborn Federals remained in the open to return the fire in parade ground fashion.

On the left the opening volley caused the newcomers from the 7th New York to momentarily falter. Some of the green troops broke for the rear. Regimental commander, Colonel Lewis Morris, steadied the men by reminding them of the embarrassment that a display of cowardice would cause back home. The men regained their composure and returned. The Confederates now faced a solid wall of blue that despite rapidly mounting casualties were resolved to stay the line.

Gordon’s chance had been lost. Instead of attacking Captain Augustus Brown’s lone company he now faced a line reinforced by more than 2500 muskets, with more on the way. The battle had reached a turning point. Ewell was faced with a difficult decision. He could either back away claiming that his probe had found the Union right too strong or he could continue the fight. He chose the latter attempting to interfere, as Lee had hoped, with Grant’s operations. A general attack across the entire line was ordered.

Harris Farm (Campaign Series)

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