March 16, 1913
Plan Monument of site of most Deadly and Dramatic Battle of the Civil War
August 28, 1862, within forty miles of
Washington occurred one of the most dramatic and deadly battles of the Civil War
yet one almost unrecorded and unmarked by public park or monumental stone. Cross
the Potomac and follow the Warrenton Pike out past Annandale and Fairfax, past
Centerville and the Stone House, and just beyond the picturesque little hamlet
of Groveton on a ridge to the right of the road is the prosaic ground of a
battle as valorous, as deadly as any that history records. On that August day of
the gloomy summer Gen. John Pope's Army of Virginia was moving eastward from
Warrenton to Centerville in a vain endeavor to bag Stonewall Jackson. The
blue-clad columns were tolling along the Warrenton Pike, the railway and all
possible roads leading toward Centerville where Jackson was supposed to be and
was not. That wily leader had disappeared in the woods about Bull Run and no one
in the entire Union army knew where he and his 25,000 lean followers were
On the extreme left and rear of the Union army moving down the Warrenton Pike was King's Division of McDowell's Corps, four brigades , fifteen regiments, some 7,000 men in all. This division left Buckland Mills early but was delayed by Sigel's interminable wagon trains and again in the afternoon, near Gainesville, by Pope's orders. Now late in the evening, the head of the column, Hatch's brigade, was coming abreast of Groveton while in the rear, Patrick's brigade, was leaving Gainesville. Behind Hatch was Gibbon's brigade and behind Gibbon was Doubleday with three small regiments, mere battalions. The evening was calm and beautiful the men had had a good rest and coffee in the middle of the afternoon and now cheery with pipe and soldier talk, marched with easy swinging stride to cover the few miles that separated them from camp and supper. As the dying sun sank behind the western mountains it shone on the long sinuous column of men and was reflected back by many a spear tipped flag and sloping rifle along the old Warrenton Road. The bands played and why not? No enemy was near; they had Pope's word for that.
A mile west of Groveton the road dips into a swale, some tributary of Young's Branch. All along the southern side of the pike are dense woods but on the northern side, the country is clear, rising to low rolling ridges, save one wood which borders the road in the swale; a wood some 500 yards long and extending as far up the slope to the north. This wood has received from Gen. Charles King the name of the Douglas Wood. Beyond it is a long ridge and well back of that, further north, other woods that extend all the way eastward to Sudley Ford. In the southern border of this long wood is an old railway grade, in places an embankment, in places a trench. A quarter mile up from the pike near the northwest corner of the wood is a house, the Douglas or Brawner house, the only landmark in the whole area.
It is almost sundown. Hatch's advance has passed Groveton and is rising the ridge where the Confederate monument now stands. Behind it marches a brigade not heard of then but destined with that solemn hour to win immortal fame, the Iron Brigade of the West, commanded by Gen. John Gibbon. It was the one distinctive western brigade in the eastern armies made up of the 2d, 6th and 7th Wisconsin and the 19th Indiana, four regiments that were never separated from October 1861 until they were mustered out of service. The 2d had been through First Bull Run and swaggered a bit as veterans, in consequence. They rather patronized the others, put on veterans airs, swore by their own officers, O'Connor, Fairchild and Tom Allen but had little use for any one else. The 6th 7th and 19th had not had the 2d's opportunities but were sure that when the time came they could fight as well and stay as long. It was this that accounts in a large measure for the stirring feat of arms that followed. The 2d having talked so much could not be the first to fall back. The others would not budge while the 2d stayed.
The brigade was passing behind the Gibbon Wood which partly hid it from sight to the north, the 6th Wisconsin was just coming into view east of the wood and the 19th Indiana was yet west of it. Doubleday's little brigade was close behind but Patrick was well back towards Gainesville. At this hour of almost sleepy calm, when every one was thinking of camp and rest beyond Bull Run, bang! bang! burst forth - an iron-shotted salute from a deep-mouthed battery on the wooded ridges to the north. And the enemy had the range so accurately that shells were exploding directly over the column, while others passed close with terrifying screech to burst in the woods beyond the pike. For an instant, the ranks paused as if uncertain what to do. Then sharp stern commands rang out, the rear was hurried forward to the shelter of the wood and all dropped behind a low bank that bordered the fence. What was this that so suddenly plunged the lovely pastoral landscape into rude war? Within that screen of wood that closed the northern horizon less than a mile away was Stonewall Jackson with his 25,000 veterans watching this jaunty division as a tiger watches its prey.
An aid galloped swiftly to the rear and with crack of whip and clatter of hoofs, six guns came bounding up the stony pike and wheeled into battery front. It is Gibbon's old battery B of the 4th Regulars and on that ridge above, eighteen barking guns provided an animated target. The young soldiers sprawling behind the bank and fence watch with eager eyes the sudden unfolding of this startling drama. "It's Stuart scouting" said Gibbon "just one of his horse batteries" and calling Col. O'Connor with the 2d to follow, marched straight into the wood with the Bull Run veterans at his heels while the 7th and the 19th looked enviously on and complained of their luck, little dreaming that instant opportunity for glory and death awaited them all. It was Gibbon's plan to steal within musket range of these impudent Confederate guns, overwhelm them with a volley, then, while men and horses were in confusion, to pounce on them and score the first capture for this fiery brigade. But as he emerged from the northern border of the wood, another surprise awaited him, half way across the grassy field a long line of gray skirmishers rose to their feet and their volley, not his, crashed the opening salute of the bloodiest battle yet fought in that war. "Companies A and B as skirmishers" was the command as the 2d swung to the right to meet this apparition and out danced the the colonel at their heels, speeding buoyantly to his death. Fairchild has told how O'Connor waved some signal to him them stumbled and pitched headlong forward in the grass. Now rank after rank of gray-clad soldiers came pouring from out their leafy lair and as the sun dipped behind the western mountains, it glinted on many a red battalion field and blue St. Andrews cross as battalion after battalion and brigade after brigade of the divisions of Ewell and Taliaferro sprang forward to the attack. Gibbon in amazement saw the peril and darted back to bring up the remaining regiments. The Black Hats, left to their fate, recalled how they had told the 6th and the 7th what it meant to stand fire and if fifty brigades instead of five had burst upon them, there were men in those stubborn ranks who would never yield an inch. Down went the skirmishers while the lightning leaped from behind them, the 2d's challenge to Jackson's whole corps.
The whole corps was not confronting them but five of the fourteen brigades that made that wonderful campaign. there were Taliaferro's, the Stonewall and the Louisiana brigades of Jackson's old division, the brigades of Lawton and Trimble of Ewell's division; twenty-two regiments with the batteries of Wooding, Poague and Carpenter, besides two guns of the boy artillerist, Pelham. Taliaferro's men came forward first a few of his or Ewell's regiments now numbered more than 250 men but they advanced in three and sometimes four lines with the colors foremost as though each battalion had formed "double column on the center". Never yet, save possibly at Malvern Hill, had these veterans been long denied and not for a second did they doubt their power to scatter and smash the regiment in their front. But to their amazement the Black Hats did not even fall back to the shelter of the friendly wood, but kept in their tracks as though bidding the men in gray come on and then began a fire more swift and surely fatal than any Jackson's men had yet encountered. And now the other regiments came hurrying forward in support; Indiana 19th on the left near the Douglas House, Wisconsin 7th moving coolly into alignment to the right, the 6th right-obliquing to their place on the flank, the incomparable adjutant Frank Haskell pointing the line. Now all were in full view of the coming gray host, and with a crash that awoke the twilight woods, the Iron Brigade opened savagely upon its foe, Ewell and Taliaferro who had thought to sweep the field were compelled to halt and open fire and that halt lost them a victory. Now ensued a combat worthy of the 10th Legion or the Grenadiers of the Old Guard. The opposing lines looked into one another's eyes at deadly range, less than a hundred yards. There was comer of woods in the rear of both but no one sought it. Out in the dying daylight they stood the volleys reddening the darkness that gradually settled over the scene. The stars came out and still they stood firing in one another's faces. They could not advance. They would not retreat.
There was no maneuvering, little tactics. It was a contest of endurance and both endured. Despite his preponderance in numbers not an inch could Jackson drive these western men, three fourths of whom had never before faced fire in battle. "Obstinate determination," said Jackson, schooled by past success to see the foe break before the onslaught of his men. Nor was the battery behind the infantry ineffective. For though opposed by three, it poured a heavy and accurate fire, "forcing our batteries to select another position" as Jackson said in his report. Taliaferro said: "At one time I thought the annihilation of our batteries certain." Meanwhile King had hurried his aides to bring up support. Non came save Doubleday. He had three small regiments, some two hundred men in each. But before the order reached him, at the first fire he rushed his men to the cover of the wood. "Shall we go in?" asked the colonels of the 56th Pennsylvania and 76th New York, eager for the fray. Doubleday bowed assent and the men of Pennsylvania and New York pushed forward through the wood to the aid of their comrades from Wisconsin and Indiana. The other regiment, the 95th New York, was held to support the battery. No other help came. These six regiments withstood Jackson's twenty: smaller, it is true but much greater in total number and far more experienced. But the price paid was a dear one. When extreme darkness ended the fruitless slaughter, when the volleys died away in the night one-third of the Iron Brigade lay dead or wounded on the ground. Col O'Connor of the 2d had met his death. Col. Cutler of the 6th had been shot through the leg and carried from the field. Col. Robinson and Maj. Hamilton of the 7th had both been shot and taken to the rear. Maj. May of the 19th Indiana was mortally wounded and Col. Meredith crushed by his dying horse. Forty percent of the 2d and 19th lay dead or wounded on the line. The loss of the 6th and 7th was the 33 percent which is said to mark the breaking point of the best troops. That of Doubleday's regiments was severe, but not so great as these.
The Iron Brigade in its first battle lost 133 men killed and 539 wounded. There were also seventy-nine missing, most whom were killed or mortally wounded for few prisoners were taken in this conflict. The other two regiments lost enough to bring the total up to nearly 900. On the other side there was evidence that these farmer boys from the West possessed nerves more steady and an aim more deadly sure than any with whom the foot cavalry had as yet exchanged fire. Ewell lay out in front of the railway embankment helpless and bleeding with a ball through the knee that was to make him a cripple the remainder of his days. Taliaferro was wounded. Col. Botts of the 2d Virginia and Col. Neff of the 33d were dead. The colonel of the 27th and the majors of the 2d and 4th were wounded, the losses in the other two brigades were appalling. These were Taliferro's division. The two brigades of Ewell's division had 219 killed and 539 wounded; the total Confederate loss was considerably greater than that of Gibbon and Doubleday. It was a great day for promotion for such as lived to reap its chance rewards.
When the firing finally died away, King gathered his generals round a little fire to decide what was to be done. All now knew it was not one of Stuart's raiding parties. Details collected the wounded and carried them back through the wood to the roadside where the surgeons had established their rude hospital. Beyond the wood along an old worn fence and by the Douglas peach orchard, the dead and wounded lay almost in a continuous line. By a gloomy path through the wood some were dragging their maimed bodies while others lay beneath the trees unable to go farther. At the hospital by the dim light of a few candles, the surgeons worked feverishly, for all knew the position was dangerous. The regiments were withdrawn to the road and the men lay down to sleep for a few hours with arms in their hands. At midnight the generals had decided. The wounded, all that could bear transportation, were loaded in the ambulances; the men were aroused and sleepily fell in line. The command was forward again and the division filed off into the woods south of the pike. Stillness brooded over the dark ridge where Jackson lay, and the march to Manassas was unmolested.
Many have advanced reasons as to why Jackson made this attack. To the mind of the writer the reasons are all vain. This moving division of Gen. King was such a fine target that the artillery could not resist the temptation to fire on it. Once fired on, it was King's men that first advanced to the attack. Had King, when fired on, sheered off into the southern woods and marched on Manassas, there would have been no battle that day at Groveton. The Confederate artillery threw down the challenge and the Iron Brigade snatched it up. And some say that King should have turned aside to Manassas; that here was a point where discretion had been the better part of valor. The valor of this fight inspired the men of the Iron Brigade unto the end of war. Henceforth, this dauntless body was a banner to lead into the thickest of many a heady fight and when one brigade stood another could not go back. At Antietam, in the Wilderness and above all at Gettysburg, the Iron Brigade led the attack and heavy as was the death total, that of its opponent was still heavier. This effort was not wasted, those men who fell at Groveton did not die in vain. This heroic combat was the prelude to Second Bull Run. In the noise and confusion of that tremendous battle the combat of a lone division has been well nigh drowned. But one may read the annals of that battle and of many others with out finding a record of steadfast courage like that of the Iron Brigade of Groveton. No man has ever been able to write of the campaign without halting the course of his narrative to yield his tribute of admiration to those unflinching regiments.
Yet no monument marks that gray hill that witnessed their stubborn valor. The Gibbon Wood still borders the ruinous pike. A small frame house stands where the Douglas House then stood and a fence runs toward the edge of the wood roughly marking Gibbon's battle line. A small peach orchard surrounding the house as on that evening when as Jackson said "Taliaferro's command was now moving in gallant style until it reached an orchard on the right of our line and was less than a hundred yards from a large force of the enemy. The conflict here was fierce and sanguinary." Here Taliaferro's gallant movement stopped and never went farther. When the writer was there, two boys were shucking shock corn where the 19th Indiana brought him to a stop and nothing appeared to denote heroic ground. Some hogs rooted along the fence where the 2d Wisconsin, the most heroic regiment in the whole Union army formed and held its lines. The Iron Brigade, many claim, deserves a monument at Groveton. Every regiment, every company in that devoted hand deserves a monument to commemorate men who were willing to give their lives for an idea. When the Grecians of old erected a monument to the dead heroes of Thermopylae, they placed on it this inscription "Stranger who passes go and tell the Lacadaemon we obeyed her laws and here lie we." No laudation of war or mortal courage but only praise that these men had been steadfast even unto death to the laws of their native land. The courage and devotion of the Iron Brigade has its lesson that will still be applicable when the war drum throbs no longer and battle flags are forever furled.
After all the above discussion, today the site is as the author found it - unmarked and not memorialized - an empty site beyond the brush and dry grasses for those who do not come knowing the story .
For those that
fought and died here and many that still lie here
in unmarked graves . . .
The First Shots of Gainesville
La Crosse, Wis, May 3, 1913
General Charles King
My dear General:
Accept my thanks for the courtesy sending at copy of Washington Star, containing an account of what we accustomed to call the battle of Gainesville.
I read it with great interest and pleasure. It accords substantially with my recollection. Such additions and correction as occur to me would, not change it in any important respects.
But knowing your personal interest in the subject, I think I may with propriety, submit to you a few items which are quite clear in memory.
On north side of the road the ground ascended by a gradual slope to a plateau perhaps 60 to 75 feet higher than the road and the southern edge of the plateau ran substantially parallel with the road. Except at the eastern end of the slope and plateau, the road was hidden by a forest which extended a considerable distance up the slope, but grew steadily narrower towards the east and came to a point in the north line of the road near the east end of the slope. This left the east end of the slope and plateau open to view from the road.
The road at this point (as we found to be common in Virginia) had two tracks. On the north side, the traveled track ran on the natural surface of the ground. On the south side it was graded and built up to a height of four or five feet above the surface, and I believe was covered with gravel.
On that evening we were marching east, as described. The mounted officers, Gen. Gibbon, staff &c. were on the elevated roadway - on the south side, and the troops were marching on the surface roadway on the north side. The 2nd Wisconsin was leading the brigade, and company B - Capt. Colwell - was leading the regiment. I think the 2nd regiment had passed the point of the woods and was in the space where the view was open to the north; certainly the greater portion of it was. Capt. Colwell and I (first sergeant) were in the lead and about abreast of Gibbon and his staff on the "pike" above us.
The cannon shots came from the north as suddenly and unexpectedly as described by the writer. The first one crashed through the neck of a horse ridden by one of Gibbon's staff. The horse fell dead and rolled down the north side of the "pike" so suddenly that Colwell and I had hardly time to get out of the way. A number of other shots were fired, but went over and did no damage.
Order was given to the 2nd to lie down on the north side of the road. I as entirely sure that no order was given at this time to bring up our battery from the rear of the brigade.
Very soon, the 2nd was ordered to rise and go up into the field, and did so, presenting a battalion front to the north. Then, by the left flank, double-quick, not through the woods, but parallel with the diagonal edge of the woods. Gen. Gibbon did not go with us at this time.
After going some distance to the west - veering is the north along the woods, we came to front and advanced straight up the slope. A few scattering shots from confederate skirmishers met us, and our two companies - right and left - were at once deployed as skirmishers on a double-double quick. The confederate skirmishers fell back and we followed them until we were able to look over the edge of the plateau. I was in this skirmish line and what I saw as I now remember it was the enemy advancing in four lines, and apparently in the formation described by the writer. The skirmishers fell back and took their places in the line and the regiment advanced and took position on the edge of the plateau;
It would be idle for me to attempt description of what instantly followed. The writer of the article has done that perhaps as well as it can be done - certainly better that I could do it. I have seen one extract from Jackson's report (quoted, I believe, by Mr. Ropes) in which he calls it as action of "unparalleled intensity". I believe that. Certainly nothing I ever saw, heard of, or read about in the history of the civil war or any other war, can be compared with it.
How, in what way or at what time the 19th Indiana came into line on the left of the 2nd, or where, when and how the two regiments of Doubleday's brigade came in , I do not know. Being on the right of the 2nd I could only observe what took place to the right of us. Off to the right, and on a line with us, as I could see from the flash of the guns, our Battery B opened, firing with wonderful rapidity after we had been for some time engaged. After another interval musketry opened on the same part of the line. This, as I knew afterwards, was from the 6th Wisconsin. Then another interval and the 7th Wisconsin came up and formed on our right - a great new full regiment, which overlapped us by eight or ten files, so that we had to side step to the left to make room for them.
My recollection is that after the cessation of the fight we did not go back into the woods, but remained where we had fought until about midnight when we started on the march to Manassas.
I enclose with this a rough - very rough - out line of the field as I remember it.
The conduct of the confederates has always puzzled me. With their enormous superiority in numbers - and they of the best and most daring soldiers that the war produced - they certainly could have run over and swept out of the way the little regiment in their front. With a charge and rush in "Stonewall Jackson's way", they could easily have disposed of us before reinforcements could have reached us. Why was this? It seems to me they must have been surprised and confused at the sight of regiment rushing into their faces. They could not see what was down the hill behind us and it would not be strange if they assumed at first that a large force was advancing to attack them, and that prudence required them to stand on the defensive. Two circumstances aided in producing this result.
The sight of this greatly superior force in their front and so close seemed to inspire the men of the 2nd with a frantic energy that enabled them to start and maintain a fire such as now seems to me almost impossible. I knew of men - and do not doubt there were many more - who emptied their cartridge boxes and kept up the work with cartridges taken from their dead and disabled comrades.
At the instant of the first fire, a regular "rebel yell" was started, ran down the whole line and was kept up to the end. It was started, I believe by Corporal Dailey of our company (afterwards greatly distinguished by an act of wonderful personal daring at Petersburg). This decided novelty - on our side - must have had some effect in determining the enemy's conduct.
Leaving this, I am tempted to ask you a question often revolved vaguely in my mind but which I nave never had time to investigate. I presume that you have investigated it and can clear it up.
Pope and McDowell were hunting for Jackson. How they could possibly have missed him I pass over. The chief hope of success in their in their campaign depended upon catching him and crushing him before he could make a junction with Longstreet. His attempt to get possession of the only road by which he could make such junction had been baffled. He was not only discovered; he was bottled up. What prevented Pope and McDowell from concentrating at that point, that night, a force sufficient to attack him at daylight and crush him - capture or disperse his whole force? If Longstreet was near enough to be dangerous, could not a sufficient force have been diverted to delay, if not defeat him?
What remained of King's division, united with Ricketts would have been sufficient to hold him back until Jackson was disposed of.
If some day you have time to tell me, briefly as you may, what you know and think about this, I will appreciate it very highly.
Very sincerely yours
G. M. Woodward
1st. Sgt. Co B. 2d Wis
(Gilbert Motier Woodward was an member of the LaCrosse Light
Guard, initially as a Corporal when it became Co. B of the Second Wisconsin and was publicly commended by Brig. Gen. Meredith for gallant
behavior during the engagement at Gettysburg.
He was born in Washington D.C. in 1835 and in 1850 apprenticed in the printer's trade in Baltimore, Md. He worked as a printer and proof reader in that city and Washington, D.C. for the National Intelligencer until February, 1860 when came to La Crosse and studied law with the firm of Messmore & McKenney. He was admitted to the bar at Black River Falls but did not immediately enter into his profession as the war was beginning.
He became an Orderly Sergeant in Sept., 1861,; Second Lieutenant in August, 1862; First Lieutenant , September, 1862; and Adjutant of his regiment in June, 1863. He was acting Aide-de-Camp of the 1st Brigade, First Division, First Army Corps (Gen. James S. Wadsworth's Division) at the battle of Gettysburg. In this engagement he received a severe gunshot wound in the right forearm. His services as Aide-de-Camp were continued during the Wilderness Campaign, May 5 to June 11, 1864, his division then being part of the Fifth Corps. He mustered out of service at Madison, June 30, 1864 and returned to LaCrosse.
A leading lawyer in LaCrosse and one of it's best known citizens he was a member of Congress in 1882, mayor in 1874 and District Attorney in 1865, 1867, 1869, 1871 and 1876. He was active in Democratic politics and attended the national conventions as a delegate several times. )
Another Gainesville letter from the Second Wisconsin is from Anson Linscott who went out with Company G of the 2d as a 15 year old musician and became regimental drum major, this letter was sent to his parents in Portage after the battle:
Camp near Munson Hill, Va., Sept. 3,
Dear Father and Mother: I thought I would write you a few lines about the awful battles we have had. We have been under heavy cannon and musket fire and in battles for the last two weeks. Our regiment is about all gone, killed and wounded. There are only about ten men left in our company. The last battle we fought was on the old Bull Run battle-field, where we were engaged more than a year ago. I will try and give you a list of the killed, Archa was shot through the neck*. I was in the rear of the regiment, with the ambulances, taking care of the wounded, and saw him fall, but we could not save him; he died in a few minutes. Poor brother, it is hard, but it is true. Snyder, Billy Dean, Staley, Kent, Owen Davis, Plumbstead and some others fell dead, and a great many of our company are wounded. The regiment has about two hundred and fifty men left. I suppose they will put us in some place to stay a while and recruit; if they do, I will have a better chance to write to you. I have a poor chance now to write. We are marching and fighting all the time. I got out all safe, but I had many narrow escapes. All of our musicians had to go with the ambulances right up into the fight. I tell you, the bombshells and bullets whistled for miles around. Several shells hit close to me. Every time I could hear them coming I would drop flat on the grass. It was awful. Our regiment stood up and fought like tigers. Some New York troops threw down their arms and ran like sheep. Poor Archa was shot through the windpipe and lived only a few minutes. It was hard, father, but it cannot be helped. Archa took care of me when I was sick. There have been a great many men killed in these battles. I will write to you again in a few days and give you more particulars.
Drum Major Second Regiment Wisconsin Volunteers - what there is left of them.
*(recovered and still living)