Battle of Locust Grove

The Battle of Locust Grove, Va., Nov. 27, 1863.[1]

This was the real christening fight of the regiment, and was badly managed. In the assault on greatly superior numbers, the brigade was marched in line of battle in quick time through the forest which was fiercely shelled, as though at drill, the men not breaking—at least not in the Tenth Vermont—until within about seventy-five yards of the enemy's unusually strong and favorably posted skirmish line behind a very high rail fence in the edge of a large cleared field in the midst of the forest, a corner of which field opposite the three left companies of the regiment formed an acute angle slightly less than a right angle, the two long sides of which opposite us being skirted by a Virginia rail fence eight rails or more in height, in the edge of the woods, considerably higher than a man's head.

When in the woods in a ravine running parallel to the long base of the triangle directly in front—the sharp angle to the right—with gradually upward sloping ground toward the enemy about seventy-five yards away, the three left companies under severe fire had considerably curved to the rear, each being a little further back than the one on its right, as usual in such circumstances, which brought Company B being on the left of the regiment, not only exposed to the severest fire, but the furtherest to the rear of any. With reason, as unwisely no order had been given to fire in Company B, and the men being inexperienced and supposing they had got to await orders to do so as at drill, the line commenced to waver, when Colonel Albert B. Jewett approached from the rear and cried out loudly, among other things: "Company B, what's the matter?" or to that effect. As a matter of fact there was  matter enough, which he soon found after arriving, as he not only wisely sought cover himself, but someone ordered the men to do so by lying down. There were no troops immediately on the left of Company B and it drew the fire of the enemy's Infantry behind the fence, not only in front, but for some distance to the left; and as the ground occupied by the enemy was considerably higher the situation was most trying. I am aware it is claimed that the regiment was in the centre of the brigade,[2] but if it was, the regiment on its left was out of sight, and as it was almost a dead level along the ravine as far as the eye could reach through the woods from Company B which was on the left of the regiment, it couldn't be seen by me. It is not probable this and many other similar errors are the faults of the painstaking and estimable Historian Dr. E. M. Haynes, but it is more probably due to erroneous official reports of battles of regimental, brigade and other commanders as well as unreliable verbal reports, etc., which when once in history are hard to correct.

When forming, too, for the assault, Lieut. Ezra Stetson who was in command of Company B stood in front of it, and supposing he was going to advance in that position, I (then Second Lieutenant Company D, but assigned to fight with my old Company B that day), also took my position in front of the Company expecting to advance in the same way, but was finally ordered just before advancing, by Stetson, to go to the right of the front rank in line, where I supposed in my ignorance of warfare, although a fair tactician, I had got to remain and did until the line broke in the second advance, Stetson meantime being a novice in fighting men in battle, going to the rear of the Company. As it may be convenient for the good of the service for some to cite this battle, together with others, to Congressmen as an important reason why men with no experience in battle should never be placed in high position to command men especially in the regular army where it can generally be avoided, I feel constrained to state that the derisive smile and expression on the men's faces, etc., as I turned to obey Stetson's order plainly showed that they disapproved of any such arrangement and persistently hung back in the advance in consequence, which to say the least, was very embarrassing to a proud spirit, my pride being very much centered in my old Company, which I knew, if properly handled, would give a good account of itself. Several times I was greatly tempted to go in front of the men and lead them, as it was plain to be seen they sensibly wouldn't be driven at a slow gait into battle like so many lambs for slaughter without even being given the command to fire when within a stone's throw of the enemy, which with deadly aim was shooting them down deliberately, for there was nothing to prevent its doing so on our part, and why shouldn't it do so? It was war, that's what we were there for, and being veteran fighters they took advantage of the situation. Who wouldn't? The only trouble with us was there wasn't anyone with authority from the highest officer down on that part of the line, who knew how to fight the command or if there was they didn't do it. But they were not to blame for it. Who was? It was the Congress which makes the laws for the Government of the army; it has never enacted a law as important as it is, making it impossible to appoint men to high army positions who have never been in battle enough to know how to take care of their men, or to tell the officers of their command how to do so.

But realizing that to lead the Company and make a dash for the fence would be virtually taking the command from my superior officer, and only at that time having a crude idea of such things even in such an emergency, I held my peace, although the comparatively simple act of leading men in battle in the circumstances, as some Company Commanders did in this fight, would have been much more satisfactory to my troubled spirit than otherwise. As First Sergeant it was generally acknowledged I had made Company B the best drilled and disciplined Company in the regiment, and feeling much genuine pride in the Company I had never felt more anxious for it than in this battle, as I wanted it to give a good account of itself as a good fighting Company as well, which it did in the latter part of the battle, when it largely went over the fence in an endeavor to help make the star movement of the day, but which it failed in helping to do, because of the weakness of some of the left Company Commanders of the regiment. Although General Wm. H. Morris in his official report of the fight cites this movement as due to enthusiasm on the part of the men on the left of the Tenth Vermont, had he been on that part of the line he would not only have commended it in stronger terms than he did, but if a good strategist would have insisted on the movement being executed as if it was worth while to engage the enemy at all here—which is now greatly doubted as Meade's army wasn't then ready for a general engagement—it was certainly worth while to try and turn the enemy's flank at this point, which could have been done by advancing the three left companies of the regiment by a two-thirds right turn or wheel across the before-mentioned angle to the second fence. The enemy understood the importance of the move, which was one reason doubtless that made them contest so stubbornly the first line of fence. This we tried to do and in the second assault the men, led by some of the most daring wisely broke and made a dash for the first fence and over it half across the open field of the triangle to the second fence when we were recalled to the first behind which most had stopped and opened fire, including Stetson, Captain Hiram R. Steele and others. I was the only officer over the fence, so far as seen by me, and had fearlessly endeavored seeing at a glance an opportunity for an effective flank movement which would greatly relieve the entire brigade to the right to take the second line of fence on the opposite side of the triangle, which was just what was needed, and which could have been done if the movement had been supported with vim by the entire left wing of the regiment. During the day private G. D. Storrs was killed, and Sergeant H. M. Pierce, of Montpelier, and privates John Blanchard and Lafayette G. Ripley, of Barre, Peter Bover, H. W. Crossett, J. M. Mather and W. M. Thayer, and perhaps others of Company B, all brave good men, were so badly wounded as to disable most of them, such as did not die, for the balance of the war for duty at the front; but two or more of these died of their wounds.

Feeling nettled, although not in command of Company B, and not responsible for its behavior, at Colonel Jewett's brusque manner towards it in the ravine, when it was discovered that the flank movement before mentioned, would be a failure for want of support, in order to say I had been the furtherest to the front of anyone over the fence or in the regiment, I foolishly ran forward under heavy fire a few steps after ordered back, to a big stump, hit it with my sword savagely, as I was disgusted at not being fully supported, when on turning round I found myself alone with bullets flying about me faster than ever, and the men rapidly scaling the fence twenty-five yards in rear on the left in full retreat from the angle. The men of Company B had gone the furtherest ahead of any over the fence, Stetson and others repeatedly calling, "Come back! Come back!" As usual, whenever there was an exceedingly hot place on the line of battle in our front, Alexander Scott, A. H. Crown and others of the Burlington Company (D), as well as Z. M. Mansur, the Bruces, W. H. Blake, Judson Spofferd, J. W. Bancroft and others of Company K, were sure to be there fighting vigorously in the very front, as most of them were on this occasion. Fully forty or more men were with me from the three left companies, and it is regretted more of them can't be remembered by name, but the movement was too quickly executed, to go minutely into details, and forty years is a long time for a professional soldier where he has had to do with so many enlisted men meantime, to remember names.

Says General W. H. Morris in his official report of this battle which as a whole is not in the best judgment, although he was a brave, courageous man: "The enemy was holding a fence on the crest of a hill in our front. I ordered the Tenth Vermont to charge and take it, and the regiment advanced in gallant style and took the crest. The left wing in its enthusiasm having advanced too far beyond the fence, it was necessary to recall it * * * I cannot speak of the conduct of the officers and men with too much praise." The regiment's loss was seventy-one killed and wounded, of which eight were from Company B. This loss was as needless as the fight, as we suspected at the time, and as history has proved since.

Like most other engagements the most deserving who are generally on the fighting line where their work is not usually seen by such as can reward them in orders or otherwise, it was favorite staff officers and pets who were mentioned for gallantry in general orders afterwards. Had the men advanced less regularly in line as at drill, more independently and rapidly, firing meantime when in range of the enemy, our loss in comparison with what it was would have been insignificant. All the rest of the brigade had a less trying time of it than the three left companies of the Tenth Vermont, as they were advancing through the woods with no open field in front with two natural lines of breastworks, such as the formidable rail fences which bordered both long sides of the triangle before mentioned. This statement is in justice to the three left companies of the Tenth Vermont. The manner in which they stood the galling fire without breaking shows what splendid discipline they were under. I commanded all three companies afterwards in battle separately, and felt honored in doing so. There were few skulkers in these companies in any battle they were ever in when under my command.

This battle is another illustration of the folly of appointing men inexperienced in scientific warfare to high military office if it can be avoided, and it generally can be in time of peace, especially in the regular army. Every army, Corps, Division, Brigade and Regimental Commander, should be a man who has had enough actual experience in fighting to know how to take care of his men in battle. If such had been the case in this fight, comparatively few men would have been killed or wounded. It is criminal to make any man a general, especially in the regular army, who has not had enough experience in actual fighting to know how to fight his command without an unnecessary loss of life; and Congress which has the authority and is indirectly responsible in such matters, should make laws such as will render it impossible to do so except in emergencies, and until it does so every individual member of Congress will be criminally guilty before God for every man so sacrificed in battle. It is not known to me whose fault it was that orders were not given to advance more rapidly, and to fire sooner in the fight at Locust Grove.

[1]No diary was kept at this time by Major Abbott, hence the details of this battle are given here.

[2]See Haynes' "Hist. Tenth Regiment Vermont Infantry," p. 54.