Captain Reid of the 63rd Pennsylvania at Fair Oaks

    As promised in a previous post entitled "Buckeyes at Fair Oaks" (see here), today I am posting an incredible battle account of Fair Oaks written by Captain Bernard J. Reid of Co. F, 63rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. 

    You might be wondering what the Ohio connection is here as, after all, this is a blog focused on highlighting the contributions of Ohioans in the Civil War. It is this: Captain Reid wrote this letter to his brother James V. Reid who was the editor of the Steubenville Herald published in Steubenville, Ohio. James was so impressed with the letter that he published it in its entirety on the first page of the June 25, 1862 issue. As related previously, finding accounts written by participants of McClellan's Peninsula Campaign in Ohio newspapers is something of a rare treat, so without further ado...

Bivouac at Fair Oaks, 8 ½ miles from Richmond, Virginia
June 10, 1862

            My dear brother: I take advantage of an unexpected rainstorm, which confines us to our shelter tents, to write you a description of our recent battle. Although ever since kept under arms and in order of battle, expecting that any moment would bring on a renewal of the fight, I have managed to find time to write several telegrams and letters to the parents of the killed and wounded of my company (F).

            On the memorable 31st of May, our camp was about a mile this side of the Chickahominy, at some rifle pits on the railroad at the 11th milepost from Richmond. Two of our companies (I and K) were two miles distant, down the Chickahominy, erecting a bridge. Colonel Alexander Hays and Captain Berringer (acting major) were three or four miles off southward inspecting the picket lines of our (Kearney’s) division. At 2 o’clock, Co. F went to a knoll across the railroad to bury Corporal Dunmire, who had died early that morning. While at the grave, the heavy rattle of musketry was distinctly heard to the westward, mingled with the booming of cannon, which we had noticed an hour before without paying much attention to it, from its being of frequent occurrence. Hastening back to camp, after the close of ceremonies, we found the regiment forming for the march.

Colonel Alexander Hays of the 63rd Pennsylvania. Noted
for his bravery, Hays was promoted to the rank of brigadier
general in late 1862 and led a division at Gettysburg. He was killed
in action May 5, 1864 at the Battle of the Wilderness. 
            Our brigade (Brigadier General Charles D. Jameson’s) was ordered forward. Lieutenant Colonel Algemon S. Morgan was in command of the 63rd regiment. We started out the railroad track on the usual route step, but had not proceeded far when we were met by a courier from General Kearney and the command ‘double quick’ was given. Besides arms and accoutrements and over 60 rounds of ammunition in the men’s cartridge boxes, we had our canteens and our haversacks filled with three days’ ration. We had had a heavy thunderstorm the previous day and night and although the air was still clouded, the air was close and sultry.

            Sickness had thinned our ranks and considerably weakened most of those still on duty. For my own part, though not decidedly sick, I had been rather unwell for nearly two weeks and when it came to the double quick, I found it very hard work to keep up. Under almost any other circumstances, I should have sunk by the wayside, but by throwing away my haversack and making extraordinary exertions, I kept my place at the head of my company. Quite a number in the regiment fell out of ranks, unable to keep up; but on the regiment pressed towards the awful roar of firearms, growing closer and louder every moment.

            After making two and a half miles on the railroad, we obliqued across some fields to the left and struck the Williamsburg and Richmond turnpike near the point known as Seven Pines. Here we met a stream of men going back- some wounded- but most flying in panic. We kept our way along the turnpike amid a perfect shower of solid shot and shell from the enemy’s batteries that enfiladed the road and its immediate vicinity. This severe cannonade increased the haste and confusion of the fugitives, and gave us a foretaste of what was before us. On we pressed, led and cheered by General Jameson, who appeared unconscious of danger from the shells bursting on all sides. We double quicked over a mile, through this rainstorm, meeting now and then a piece of artillery or caisson in full retreat- having probably run out of ammunition and fearful of being captured. It was to turn back this tide of battle that we were pushing forward.

            Part of Berry’s brigade of our division had preceded us a little way and were already engaged in what seemed and unequal conflict with superior numbers. Casey’s division- the first attacked- had by this time all fallen far to the rear and was effectually hors du combat. At length we reached the point where the rifle balls of the enemy began to mingle with their heavier shot. We halted a moment to allow the left of the regiment to close up. In that short rest, I was obliged to sit down from sheer weakness and exhaustion. Then, up again, and forward. For some distance back, there had been woods on both sides; but we now reached a point where Casey had felled the timber on both sides to form an abatis. Just beyond were the large open fields where his camps had been, and where his deserted tents were still standing. Here was the enemy’s line of battle.

Battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia, May 31, 1862. (Map by Hal Jespersen,
    Our regiment was deployed on the left of the road- the 105th Pennsylvania and 87th New York of our brigade on the right. We deployed just behind the slash, or abatis, and had then to march over it or crawl through it, in line of battle to reach the front. Just as Co. F was filing into line, General Jameson cried out, “Captain Reid, go in there and don’t come out until you have driven every Rebel out of that brush!” As soon as the line was formed, we advanced through the slash, our right resting on the road. This advance was very difficult, owing to the felled and tangled timber. And, all the while, bullets and shells were flying like hail over and among us, coming from an enemy as yet unseen.

Brigadier General Charles D. Jameson of Maine contracted
typhoid fever during the Peninsula Campaign and died of the
disease November 6, 1862. 
            A few rods further were a belt of sapling pines and oaks on the left of the road, not yet felled. Passing a few rods through this brought us to the front where, just at the edge of the saplings, a slender line of Berry’s Michigan men were trying to hold their ground against a host of Rebels hid in a strip of brush and fallen timber, close in front of them, concealed behind Casey’s tents a little further beyond, and protected by three houses, a long row of cord wood, and a line of Casey’s rifle pits, still beyond, where they had captured two of our batteries and were now turning our own guns against us as with terrible effect. Here, just in the edge of the saplings, we halted and opened fire.

            The crash and roar was grand. The Michigan men were cheered up, and the Rebels appalled by the intensity of our steady and rapid fire. But the firing both ways was intense. Our line was already strewed with dead and wounded. Almost at the first fire, Sergeant Elgie of my company, a splendid soldier, fell by my side, dead. A little further along the line, to the right, Orderly Sergeant Delo (?) was a few moments afterwards killed.  Then Private Rhees fell near the former. Now and then, too, one of my men would walk or be carried wounded to the rear.

            We soon discovered that the most deadly fire came from the swampy brush wood and fallen timber close by us. We could see the smoke of the rifles among the brush, and by watching sharply, could distinguish a head or an arm half hidden. It was evident that that patch of brush was full of Rebels and we soon turned our attention chiefly in that direction. A Michigan man, close by me, fell dead just as he had loaded his piece. I thought I saw where the shot came from and seized his loaded gun in time to level it at a crouching Rebel there, who seemed about to fire again. He was not 30 yards from me. There appeared to be a race between us, but I shot first and that Rebel rolled over backwards in the swamp and troubled us no more. Under the circumstances, I had not compunctions about it. I took the balance of the dead man’s cartridges and used his gun for the rest of the evening. That spot soon became too hot for its occupants, and a few tried to fall back from it, but, as they had a piece of open field to pass in order to reach a safer shelter, scarcely one escaped alive. I was there two days afterwards and, although the Rebels had buried great numbers of their dead Saturday night and Sunday, I found that little piece of brushy swamp and abatis literally filled with Rebel dead. The scene was a sad and awful one, after the excitement of the battle was over.

            Middling early in the fight, our Lieutenant Colonel was wounded and carried off the field. Thus left without any field officer, we fought on, keeping our ground, unsupported by artillery and reinforcements, although the enemy had both. We could plainly see fresh regiments brought up and deployed in line, strengthening and relieving the others, thinned by our fire. Two or three times they appeared formed as if for a charge, but they did not attempt it where we were. They did, however, charge on the extreme right of our brigade, and by overwhelming pressure, compelled it to give way. The enemy followed up their advantage with great vigor, and before sundown they had succeeded in flanking us so far on that side that they had possession of the turnpike behind us. Then it was that Colonel Campbell coming up with his regiment (the 57th Pennsylvania of our brigade) and our own Colonel Hays with Companies I and K, made such splendid efforts to turn back the advancing wave. Colonel Hays rapidly gathered up about half a regiment o straggling fugitives, rallied them for a stand, and forming them about his own companies, led them to the charge, supported by the 57th. Both colonels and both regiments did gallantly, and checked the enemy for a while. But being reinforced, the latter advanced again with unbroken front, and Colonel Hays’ miscellaneous recruits gave way, leaving only Companies I and K to breast the wave. He reluctantly withdrew from the unequal contest, as did also the 57th.

            It was now sundown, and General Jameson had given the order for our whole brigade to fall back to an entrenched position on the turnpike about a mile and a half to the rear, having the advantage of wide open fields in front on both sides of the road where our batteries would have a good range to guard against a night attack. Somehow or the other, I believe from cowardice or other fault, the courier charged with the delivery of the order never reached us, and after the other regiments of the brigade had gone safely back and the enemy had followed them a considerable distance along the turnpike behind us, we still held our position on the left of the road where the hottest of the battle had been.

            I knew well from the direction of the firing on our right, that the enemy had succeeded in flanking us on that side and there was still light enough to see fresh regiments beyond the houses moving towards our left. Our men had shot away all their ammunition except perhaps one or two cartridges apiece, and had emptied besides the cartridge boxes of our dead and wounded. Captain Kirkwood of Co. B, succeeding to the command as senior captain, asked my advice as to what we should do. I told him we had done all we could for that day; that under the circumstances, to remain there longer was to expose what was left of the regiment to be sacrificed or captured; as, in a few minutes, the only avenue of escape would be cut off. We had sent back all our wounded that we could find; the dead we could not possibly take with us through the slash and swamps we would have to cross.

            Accordingly, the captain gave the order to fall back slowly, just as it was growing dark. After I had seen that we left none of our men behind and could get no further answer to my calls than the whiz of bullets that still came flying from the rifle pits behind the houses, we turned our men into a bypath that diverged considerably from the main road which was held by the enemy in force and from which they greeted us with random and harmless volleys. A little further on I was struck by a spent fragment of a shell, causing a slight smart for a few moments but without breaking the skin. That was the only time I was even touched that day by any of the enemy’s missiles. I never can be sufficiently thankful to Almighty God for my preservation, as from the showers of bullets that whistled close by me it seems almost incredible that I was not touched. I talked through that belt of little pines on Monday after the battle and it astonished even me to see how almost every sapling of two or three inches thickness was spotted all over with bullet marks, from the ground up to the height of a man’s head. It may be my lot to be in many another battle, but I do not believe I can ever be placed in a situation of greater apparent danger.

Colorful and combative division commander
Brigadier GeneralPhilip Kearny wouldn't survive the year either,
being killed in action September 1, 1862 at Chantilly.
            We succeeded in rejoining our brigade at about 10 o’clock that night. We found them on the east side of a large tract, of about a mile square, on both sides of the turnpike, collected and disposed in order of battle- protected in part by earthworks commenced by Generals Casey and Couch on their first advance and which our generals were now busy extending and strengthening to be ready for emergencies. Striking across the opening, we found some of Hooker’s division, which had arrived from the left and rear, just as the firing had ceased. They were fresh for the work in the morning. Inquiring as we went along the lines, we found that Kearney and Jameson were in the edge of the woods on the north side of the turnpike. General Jameson was overjoyed to see so many of the 63rd safe, and returning in a body in good order. He led us to General Kearney’s headquarters where we found Colonel Hays and Companies I and K. Here we got some crackers and hot coffee, and rested on our arms till morning. Here, too, we learned that besides Hooker, who came from the left, Richardson’s and Sedgewick’s divisions of Sumner’s corps had arrived from the other side of the Chickahominy on our right, just in time to give and take, before dark, a volley or two with the left wing of the Rebel army which was moving down on the north side of the railroad expecting to cut off our retreat. So, the prospect for the morning’s work was much more agreeable than it would have been in the absence of such comfortable reinforcements.

            Sunday morning, the Rebels advanced boldly to the attack, coming up to the edge of the woods in front of us, but Hooker’s division on the turnpike and Sumner’s troops on the railroad (our brigade being held as a reserve) met and routed them in a couple of hours fighting without any need of our help. Ever since, we have been kept in position, changing only by advancing, ready for battle at any moment. There has been some skirmishing since between pickets and an occasional cannonade from one or both sides, but nothing more as yet. I think, however, the great battle of Richmond will be fought this week if it is to be fought at all.

            Our regiment lost 25 killed, 81 wounded, and 17 missing. Those of my company who were in the fight and remained to see it out evinced a degree of coolness and bravery that makes me proud of them. The killed and wounded were among my very choicest soldiers; I shall miss them very much. I have now given you a pretty detailed account of our first great battle. I have not written any other account of it yet half so minute. I do so now because I know it will gratify you; because I happen to have time today (although the enemy’s shells are now bursting now and then in the field we are in), and because, until I get time to put an account in fuller or better shape, this may serve, if preserved, as a memorandum to show any of the rest of the family, or to refresh my own recollection at some future time.

Ever affectionately, your brother,
Bernard J. Reid


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