Grass Before the Mower: A New York Officer in the Midst of Chancellorsville
It was all about confidence.
Captain John J. Lamon of the 107th New York, writing a letter to a friend back in Iowa in the early morning hours of Saturday May 2, 1863, felt sure that with Joe Hooker in the lead, the Army of the Potomac would “destroy the Rebel army in Virginia or kill every man in our army. Fighting Joe Hooker is the man. He recognizes no flags of truce to bury the dead under which the Rebels have twice got away from us. We have not a slow and easy McClellan to command now but a regular fighting old war horse,” he wrote.
One of the factors that makes Captain Lamon’s letter special is when it was written: on Saturday morning before Jackson’s flank attack on the 11th Army Corps that turned the tide of battle. His account provides insight into the feelings of a Federal officer on the cusp of Chancellorsville and is a concrete illustration of the remarkable work that General Hooker performed during the winter and early spring of 1863 to restore morale in the Army of the Potomac. Captain Lamon’s letter oozes confidence and pride that the army would now show the Rebels it could fight. It is a rare treat to find a letter written in the midst of the battle; most Federal soldiers didn’t have the time to write about Chancellorsville until days after the battle when they had safely arrived in camp. By then, the bitter sting of disappointment colored the soldiers’ memories of how they felt as they marched across the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers.
The 107th New York, raised around Elmira under President Lincoln’s call for 300,000 troops after the failure of McClellan’s drive on Richmond the previous summer, served in the Third Brigade of General Alpheus Williams’ First Division of the 12th Army Corps. The brigade, led by General Thomas H. Ruger, consisted of the 27th Indiana, 2nd Massachusetts, two New York regiments (13th and 107th), and the 3rd Wisconsin. Also known as the Campbell Guards, the regiment had its baptism of fire at Antietam and would lose 83 casualties during the fight at Chancellorsville.
Captain Lamon’s letter first saw publication in the May 15, 1863, edition of the Cedar Falls Gazette published in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
|Captain John J. Lamon, Co. G, 107th New York Volunteers|
On the battlefield near U.S. Ford, Rappahannock River, Virginia
May 2, 1863
Since we parted, we have had stirring times in the grand Army of the Potomac. On Sunday the 26th ultimo at 4 p.m., our corps (the 12th) received orders top strike tents and be off. Where to or for what purpose, none knew. Speculation was rampant. Some were of the opinion our destination was Gordonsville; others that we were bound for Culpeper and yet even some very wise ones that we were again to be marched back to the fortifications around Fairfax Courthouse and Washington. Not even a corps general knew the place where he was to report.
On we went through mud and storm propelled by the greatest excitement and enthusiasm ever manifested by the army. The course was led by one of General Hooker’s aides, the only man in our corps who knew our destination, and such was the case with every corps. On Tuesday morning, in a heavy fog and drizzling rain, we crossed the Rappahannock at Kelley’s Ford about 25 miles southwest of Fredericksburg. Here we met no opposition. Taking the road to the Rapidan, we marched 15 miles and came to Germanna Ford about 7 p.m. Here we surprised 200 Rebels building a bridge. Their commander called out, “What army is that?” Colonel Silas Colgrove of the 27th Indiana replied with a volley of musketry, giving them to understand that old Fighting Joe Hooker was round. Our bullets had the desired effect and brought out a white flag. We bagged every man that not even one was left to tell the tale.
Wednesday noon, the 107th new York having the advance, we came suddenly upon a squad of about 50 Rebels who were out on a foraging expedition. There were very easily gobbled up and sent after their friends of the previous evening. We arrived at Chancellorsville about ten miles from Fredericksburg before the enemy knew of our advance, formed our lines, and advanced our pickets. Thursday morning April 30th the ball opened. Longstreet commanding in our front threw his whole force against our center with the intention of cutting through. His columns came up the Plank Road in most splendid style. Four batteries of the 1st New York Artillery had been planted in an orchard and a small scrub oak waiting for them. When the head of the column was within ten rods of us, they opened on them with canister and grape from 24 guns. Did you ever see grass fall before the mower? You then can form some idea of the carnage and slaughter. It was thought by the Rebel commander about this time best to change front, which was very suddenly done, and such skedaddling is not witnessed every day.
|"Fighting Joe Hooker is the man," Captain Lamon declared. "He recognizes no flags of truce to bury the dead under which the Rebels have twice got away from us."|
Our brigade, which consists of the 2nd Massachusetts, 3rd Wisconsin, 27th Indiana, 13th New York, and 107th New York, was ordered after the retreating enemy. When the order was given to forward, such yelling and cheering has seldom been heard. We bagged the whole of the 43rd Georgia, one Virginia, one North Carolina, and part of a Mississippi regiment, in all about 1,500 men. Most of them were well-pleased with the exchange.
The 11th Corps, Sigel’s old command but now commanded by General O.O. Howard was placed on our right and held the Rebels at bay all day and at night pitched in and drove them back two miles or within eight miles of Fredericksburg. The 5th Corps commanded by General Meade on our left held the ford and the heights back of it, making some most splendid charges, every time driving the Rebels and making the slaughter hideous. The firing was kept up until 11 p.m. on Thursday night and opened again on Friday at daylight, but seemed to lull before 10 a.m. About 4 p.m. the carnage again began along the whole line and was terrific. It seemed that desperation had taken possession of the Rebels, but their assaults did no good. Our lines were still unbroken and every charge they made was very disastrous to them.
I am now writing beside a log and can hardly see. It is 3 in the morning, and we are expecting a bloody fight today. Yet every man is determined to die or here demolish the Rebel army in Virginia. Fighting Joe Hooker is the man. He recognizes no flags of truce to bury the dead under which the Rebels have twice got away from us. There is now a flag of truce in from Longstreet asking the privilege of burying his dead. I hear cheering all along the line and have just heard that old Joe has sent back the truce with the remark to Longstreet and Lee that “their dead are no better than ours and must remain unburied until they surrender, or every man be killed.” We have not a slow and easy McClellan to command now but a regular fighting old war horse who has said he will now destroy the Rebel army in Virginia or kill every man in our army. I am certain every man and officer have the same opinion and possesses the same determination. This will be a hard fight and a long one for the enemy are fighting in “the last ditch” yet our success is certain and sure.
The order is given to fall in, and I must close. May God preserve us and the right. I will write again as soon as possible if I survive the fight.
Captain Lamon’s confidence and enthusiasm for future success must have been contagious as illustrated by the following letter written by his one of lieutenants in the days after Chancellorsville.
Camp 107th Regiment N. Y. Vols. near Falmouth, Virginia
May 12, 1863
Whatever may be the feelings of our friends at home, concerning the recent engagements in Virginia, the Army of the Potomac do not feel disheartened or discouraged, but that they have inflicted upon the Rebels a chastisement, from which they can never recover. The fact that we were ordered back across the Rappahannock, does not imply that we suffered a reverse, for facts show that the enemy had retired, previous to that movement of our forces, leaving their dead and wounded uncared for, which in point of numbers all concede to have been three to our one.
Every revelation shows the fact that all that men could do, was done at Chancellorsville; that the 12th Army Corps (who did the fighting) maintained every position; that entangled in dense thickets, and exposed to pelting storms, the worst weather to conceive of, and with numbers, too, against them more than twice their number, they fought to the end, retiring in the best of order, after punishing the Rebels terribly. Look at the casualties on both sides; the number of prisoners taken, of cannon captured, of the positions assailed and carried, and the groans which have since emanated from Richmond over their acknowledged heavy losses, and we will have little to dishearten us, while the prospects of the future possess everything to enthuse. Certainly our own corps is in the very best of spirits, are anxious once more to be led forth against the enemy, and will promise to present an unbroken front, and achieve as handsome results, as it did on the memorable Sunday, at Chancellorsville.
~Second Lieutenant Harvey G. Denniston, Co. G, 107th N.Y.
Letter from Captain John J. Lamon, Co. G, 107th New York Volunteer Infantry, Cedar Falls Gazette (Iowa), May 15, 1863, pg. 2
Letter from Second Lieutenant Harvey G. Denniston, Co. G, 107th New York Volunteer Infantry, New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center
Post a Comment