Being a Civil War Tourist

In traveling to Civil War battlefields and sites, the first thing that one learns is that some of these places are preserved to a remarkable extent, considering the amount of change and development that has arisen in the United States in the one hundred and fifty-plus years since the end of the American Civil War.  And some are basically gone.  Trying to drive and walk through the Seven Pines/Fair Oaks battlefield, for example, just eight miles from the center of Richmond, and to find some connection to the events of the first truly big battle of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, and the first real experience the men of the 65th NY (also known as the 1st U.S. Chasseurs) faced under severe fire, is truly a challenge.  Richmond has expanded, with housing development sweeping over the battlefield site, and the Richmond International Airport astride the battlefield.  And yet Malvern Hill, the last significant battle of the Peninsula Campaign, and the second major test faced by the Chasseurs, and only a bit farther outside Richmond’s environs, is a gorgeously well-preserved and illustrative reminder of what men did there on July 1st, 1862.  

My first trip specifically undertaken with writing a book in mind, was a day trip during a family vacation in Washington, D.C. to what was once called Lewinsville, Virginia, but was now largely gobbled up by the sprawl of Northern Virginia development, and within McLean.  I had made contact with a local Civil War blogger who had made the study of the skirmish at Lewinsville a personal project.  I had learned from his blog about the first action in which parts of the Chasseur regiment engaged.  However, his job intervened and he was unable to meet me for the tour, so I took solace in my self-guided tour of the couple of signs which interpreted the action, and of the small park which contained the single building existent during the battle.  The Lewinsville skirmish wasn’t much of an affair anyway, I suppose, but the extent to which the needs of development in Northern Virginia outside D.C. have overcome any desire to try to preserve the historic events of the September 1861 skirmish remains irksome, at least to me.

Once I had committed to a ten year plan to write the history of the Chasseurs, figuring most of my work would be done during the summers in between my teaching and coaching duties at Irvington High School in Irvington, New York, I decided that I would try to travel to the battle and campaign sites I happened to be writing about at the time.  I have always found that walking the fields and trails on battlefields, or driving the roads, trying to see for myself some of the topography and distance, has been helpful as I write.  Sources like soldier letters, diaries, and battle reports are irreplaceable, but to an extent seeing the places for myself, even given the great change that has often come upon the sites, and my own limited abilities as an analyst of military sites, is just as important.  It is also something I very much enjoy.

The first such summer trip was destined to be following the route of General George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign of the Spring of 1862, or at least as much of the route as I could recapture in 2012, 150 years later.  I already well knew the long drive from New York southward along the New Jersey Turnpike/route I-95 from my six years living in Maryland, outside Washington, D.C.  And I knew it was more than a bit drab.  It would be livened up just a bit by a stop in Ridgefield at the grave of General Alexander Shaler, who was 2nd in command of the 65th NY at the time of the Peninsula Campaign and would go on to become regimental and then brigade commander of the Chasseurs, and he would win the Medal of Honor for his role at 2nd Fredericksburg in May 1863. 

General Alexander Shaler’s grave in Ridgefield, New Jersey (photo by author)

This time, after crossing the bridge into Delaware, I would be exiting I-95, heading southeast so that I could drive along the Delmarva Peninsula, with which I was less familiar.  My plan was to stay at the end of the long day’s drive at a classic old motel near Cape Charles, the Rittenhouse Motor Lodge, which was affordable and reasonably clean.  It also featured, behind the registration desk, the “World’s Largest Amber Collection,” which was nice but perhaps not as impressive as the name would lead one to believe.  What I really liked was the early 1960s-1970s vibe–maybe as I get older I find myself enjoying such throwback reminders of childhood trips more and more.  The fact that I was upgraded to a bigger room upon arrival for no extra cost was a plus, and the seafood restaurant not far down the road and close to the Chesapeake had a similar 1970s feel to it.  My first trip the next day over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel since childhood was enjoyable–it is a singularly impressive edifice.

Arriving in Hampton, Virginia, where General McCLellan’s 110,000+ man army, including the 65th NY, landed in March 1862, I headed straight to Fortress Monroe National Historic Site, recently designated in its historic status by President Obama.  A short walk over the bridge overlooking the moat around the fort brought one inside.  The American flag flew at half-mast as I entered the fort’s grounds, after a mass shooting in Colorado at a movie theater.  The fort was worth the visit for the Casemate Museum within the grounds, and especially to see the cell where Jefferson Davis was held for two years upon his capture at the end of the Civil War. The view from the fort’s parapet of Hampton Roads, where the Monitor and the Merrimac, the world’s first ironclad ships, had fought their epic if inconclusive battle, was lovely.   65th NY Major Joseph Hamblin had written home about the “veritable cheese-box” (the Monitor) which he had seen upon his arrival at Hampton.  And Fortress Monroe also saw a young Robert E. Lee based there.  Finally, a house on the grounds there served as President Abraham Lincon’s headquarters, as he planned and directed the recapture of the naval base across the water at Norfolk, which General McClellan had neglected, and whose capture resulted in the scuttling of the aforementioned Merrimac (now rechristened The Virginia).

After a nice visit at Fortress Monroe, I eschewed the effort to follow the exact route of the Chasseurs up the Peninsula on the local roads, knowing that Hampton was now a much bigger city, and that the roads weren’t likely to be much like the 1862 roads.  Also, Fort Eustis, a current military base, stood athwart the route.  Therefore I took the modern highway up past Williamsburg, then got off onto the local roads as I got closer to Richmond.    A stop for lunch at a place called the Rose and Crown, in a building that dated back to the war at New Kent Courthouse, where I Know the 65th NY Volunteers camped, was great not only for the history of the place but especially for the cheeseburger I had there.  

New Kent Courthouse.  Timothy Carroll, 65th NY Volunteers, likely marched right past this very house on the 1862 Peninsula Campaign (photo by author)

After lunch I headed up to Seven Pines National Cemetery, which along with a couple of signs along the road was all that remained to memorialize the Battle of Seven Pines/Fair Oaks.  This was the first significant battle in which the 65th New York fought, and they lost nine enlisted killed, and twenty-two wounded.  And yet my drive around to locate the 65th NY’s exact position was largely fruitless due to the housing that had been built on the battlefield.   A sign along the Nine Mile road about the Battle of Fair Oaks was at least a reminder that something of consequence had once happened here.  According to Lieutenant Andrew Byrne, of the 65th NY, “The Chasseurs deployed to the right facing the woods on the line of an old rail fence just as we halted and faced to the front the Enemy opened fire on us Knocking a fue men out of the Ranks.”  Major Hamblin wrote home, “Our regiment was fortunate, although engaged in actual combat for nearly two and a half  hours.”  I had no hope of getting close to that spot, but  walking amongst the graves of the Seven Pines National Cemetery, on the busy intersection where the East Williamsburg Road meets the Nine Mile Road, was at least one solemn place where one could reflect on what had happened here.

Seven Pines National Cemetery (photo by author)

The next day, after a stay in a nondescript motel near the airport and a shopping mall, I would follow the retreat of McClellan’s army after it was attacked by new commanding General Robert E. Lee during the Seven Days Battles, and make my way to the Malvern Hill battlefield, a beautifully preserved field which has always been one of my favorite battlefields.

The trip to Malvern Hill was not my first, as I had taken a trip following the route of Grant’s Overland Campaign in 1996, traveling with my father.  When Grant approached the cataclysmic battlefield of Cold Harbor, the Army of the Potomac had to march through fields from their 1862 Seven Days battles, and my father and I had visited Malvern Hill then, so I remembered it.  This time I approached it while following the June 1862 retreat route of General Darius Couch’s division, of which the 65th New York was a part.  But driving up to familiar sites like Willis’ Church, which had received a new coat of paint since I saw it last, was a unique and welcome sort of Civil War deja vu.  I tried to recapture my 1996 photo angle, remembering the slide show I had created as part of the presentation to my former school colleagues, which was a requirement of the grant I received to take the trip way back when.

Willis’ Church, site of a cavalry battle as part of the Cold Harbor campaign, and by which the 65th New York Volunteers marched on their retreat towards Malvern Hill (photo by author)

A new trail on land acquired by the American Battlefield Trust meant I could retrace the attack route of Stonewall Jackson’s troops as they approached the strong position which Couch’s division occupied on Malvern Hill.  The hill itself is gently sloped and not hard to climb; it is its remarkably clear fields of fire which made it such a deadly place for the Confederates to try to attack.  Unlike the lost fields of Seven Pines and Fair Oaks, the battlefield of Malvern Hill is a remarkably well preserved site.  It is a place where it isn’t hard to picture how the fighting went, knowing that the Union troops were backed by a massive artillery presence on a field uniquely suited to the cannons’ use.   Major Joseph Hamblin, writing home after the battle, said the Chasseurs went in with about 340 men, losing 66 of them killed, wounded, or missing, after being under fire for thirteen hours.  “Our men behaved nobly, standing up to the fire like a wall.” 

For Chasseur Lieutenant Andrew Byrne, the battle was intense.  “One shell killed and wounded about twelve of our men… one of our Sergeants had a leg cut off him.  He lay on the ground in great agony; it was distressing to hear him he begged for someone to shoot him and put him out of pain…”  Byrne himself was shot in the arm at about 7:30 that evening.  “I received a very serious gunshot wound in the left arm close to the shoulder joint completly severing the bone and breaking it into bits…I felt as if I was struck by a heavy instrument such as an ax or a sledge with a lightning like stroke with great force…I told the Colonel who was near me I was wounded.  I walked to the rear a short distance and growing very weak from the loss of blood I sat down behind a tree for a short time.  The bullets from the enemy’s front were passing me very lively and over a large open field which I had to cross in order to get out of range.  Tap Tap went the bullets into the tree where I sat….”  Byrne would manage to make his way to a nearby house, with some help from his comrades, and spend days without little food as he was left to be captured along with hundreds of other wounded men by the enemy when the army withdrew to Harrison’s Landing after the battle, despite the great victory the Army of the Potomac had won.  Byrne would spend some time in Richmond before being exchanged, and he would then spend months recovering, including some time in the winter of 1863 at Davids Island near New Rochelle, New York, near my own home, before rejoining the regiment in August 1863.

I had the beautiful battlefield to myself on a gorgeous sunny day.  Unlike Gettysburg or even Antietam, Malvern Hill is a place where it is easy to get away from the crowd.  Knowing what the 340 men of the 65th New York had been through here, it was a place to consider their suffering and sacrifice, and try to picture how men like my great-great grandfather Private Timothy Carroll held up here.  It will always be one of my favorite battlefields, partly because it 

Near the position of the 65th New York Volunteers at Malvern Hill (photo by author)

was the first of many truly horrific battles that the 65th New York would fight through, but also because it is such a beautiful and well-preserved place.

Despite the big victory which the Army of the Potomac had won over General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Malvern Hill, General George McClellan, the Union commander, was more intent on saving his army and getting to the safety of the James river and the Union gunboats protecting him there than taking advantage of Lee’s blunder and striking back.  So to Harrison’s Landing I would go next.  A thunderstorm had knocked out the power at the Berkeley Plantation, site of Harrison’s Landing and President William Henry Harrison’s house, and it was closed for tours.  As a collector of Presidential houses this was a disappointment, though I was able to tour the grounds and thus make it to the landing itself.

Berkeley Plantation, where General McClellan made his Headquarters after the Seven Days Battles (photo by author)

This would wrap up my tour of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign sites, so it was time to return home and try to use what time remained before cross country season started and another school year began.  This three day trip would set a pattern for me in the summers to come, and I would come to know the places where the Chasseurs had marched and fought well, particularly the beautiful state of Virginia.

Harrison’s Landing, where the Army of the Potomac camped for weeks after its retreat to the James River (photo by author)

The following summer I returned, this time focusing on the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, the next events in the 65th New York’s history I was writing about.  As the 6th Corps, which the 65th New York was now a part of, was assigned to take Fredericksburg in the 2nd battle, most of my time was focused there, though I did revisit the Chancellorsville battlefield as well.  The first noteworthy place to see was Chatham Mansion, Union Army of the Potomac commander General Burnside’s headquarters for the Fredericksburg campaign.  A beautiful house with a fine prospect in its back yard of Fredericksburg itself across the Rappahannock River, it was also worth visiting knowing that Robert E. Lee courted his wife here.  Moreover, the house was visited by Geroge Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, and Clara Barton.  Hard to find another home visited by such an illustrious group of people.

Chatham Mansion (photo by author)

For one on a quest to find Fredericksburg sites significant to the regiment itself, however, a more nondescript place was a must-visit.  Hazel Run, a sluggish stream on the southern side of town, where the 65th had seen fighting as skirmishers leading the 6th Corps into the town on the night of May 3, 1863, as part of the Chancellorsville campaign, is still accessible from a park which abuts the stream.  While the bridge spanning the stream lent a busier and more developed air to the site than existed in 1863, knowing that the Chasseurs splashed through under fire of rebel skirmishers brought the place a great deal more import to me than to probably any other person who might find themselves in the out of the way spot.  Colonel Joseph Hamblin reported in a letter home, “While crossing the creek, seven men fell.  The firing was heavy and from three sides, but badly directed.  At the time my horse was wounded, the men… for a moment hesitated.  Dismounting, I rallied them, fixed bayonets, and with a cheer occupied the town…”

Hazel Run, where the Chasseurs attacked Confederate skirmishers while they led the 6th Corps into Fredericksburg at the start of the May 1863 Chancellorsville campaign (photo by author)

I did visit the southern part of the 1st Fredericksburg battlefield, from December 1862, where the Chasseurs crossed the Rappahannock and took a position under artillery fire.  As they did not advance against the enemy in that ill-fated disaster, however, the spot held less significance for me.  Walking along the little Hazel Run near the very spot where Colonel Hamblin’s men saw their action in the later campaign, however,  brought more of a thrill to me.  

Once the Chasseurs had entered Fredericksburg in the very early morning May 3, 1863, they were left to recover from their wet skirmish in town while other elements of their brigade, led by their former commander General Alexander Shaler, charged Marye’s Heights, the very position where Longstreet’s men had pummeled Burnside’s army horribly back in December.  This time, with the hill much less strongly held by the Confederates, who had mostly gone off to deal with General Joseph Hooker’s offensive west of town at Chancellorsville, the Union troops succeeded in taking the position at the famous Stone Wall.

The Stone Wall at Marye’s Heights (photo by author)

With Hooker in trouble at Chancellorsville after a brilliant attack devised by General Lee and General Stonewall Jackson, the 6th Corps, the 65th NY among them, was tasked with pushing west to come to the rescue, or at least take some pressure off of Hooker.  But a rebel brigade at Salem’s Church had held them off, and after some sharp fighting and then Lee’s reinforcement the next day, the 6th Corps was stifled with its back against the river, until it once more crossed the river to safety in the early morning hours.  Later that day Hooker would follow with the main contingent of the army, despite his top officers voting to stay south of the river and slug it out with Lee the next day.  “My God! My God! What will the country say? What will the country say? ” President Lincoln exclaimed as he heard news of the terrible Union defeat at Chancellorsville, with its over seventeen thousand casualties suffered.  The Chasseurs had lost seventeen casualties, with one sergeant killed.  Though Salem Church itself remains well preserved, the busy corridor of Pizza Huts, strip malls, and parking lots around Route Three west of Fredericksburg, the Orange Plank Road, makes it literally dangerous to park one’s car and try to read the monuments left near the church to some of the Union regiments which fought there on May 3, 1863.  The church itself remains a small oasis in the midst of this ugly sprawl, but I imagine most drivers racing by it held little idea about its significance to the 1863 Chancellorsville Campaign.

Salem Church (photo by author)

It would be two summers before I would return to the Fredericksburg area, this time driving to retrace the steps of my 1996 drive following the Chasseurs on the Overland Campaign of May and June 1864, when General Ulysses S. Grant for the first time took charge of all the Union armies, and directed the operations of the Army of the Potomac with the capable help from General George Gordon Meade against General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  This time, in 2015, my first night I was based in Culpeper, from which the Union troops marched out from their camps to cross the Rapidan River and tried to draw Lee out to fight.

I had learned a lot since 1996 about the nature of the Overland Campaign, and the role of the 65th New York Volunteers within it.  Among other things, I had learned that General Shaler’s brigade, including the Chasseurs, had not actually crossed the river with the rest of the 6th Corps at Germanna Ford, but had been detached to escort the army’s wagon train, to cross on a pontoon bridge at the Culpeper Mine Ford.  Through the wonders of the internet, I had discovered earlier in the year the work of Mr. Bob Johnson, historian of the Lake of the Woods community adjacent to the Wilderness National Battlefield, through which ran the Culpeper Mine Road.  This nondescript wagon road along which the Chasseurs would march went from the Culpeper Mine Ford to the southwest to the position which the 65th New York would take along the lines at The Wilderness on May 6, 1864.  Having studied and mapped out with GPS coordinates the exact route of the Culper Mine Road (CMR), Mr. Johnson had contributed to a book about the road which I happened upon as I was researching for my chapter about the Battle of the Wilderness in my previous book.  I took the liberty of emailing Mr. Johnson, and he could not have been kinder or more responsive to my queries about the CMR.  In fact, he agreed to meet me in the summer when I made my trip, and to take me along the CMR within his Lake of the Woods community, a lovely gated community to which I would not have had access were it not for Bob.  

Once the trip logistics were arranged, Bob and I agreed to meet for lunch and do the tour.  As is often the case, some unexpected developments would arise.  First, the weather took a turn, as sometimes happens in rural Virginia.  Second, my own penchant for trying to achieve maximum historical accuracy would this time get me into some not insignificant trouble.

I woke up in my hotel room to an early morning downpour.  Having a scheduled lunch date with Bob, I knew if I was going to follow the 65th NY’s march route as best as I can, in other words leaving well maintained Route 3 before it crossed the Rapidan River at Germanna Ford, I would have to get started.  My plan was to follow some back roads off of Route 3 before it crossed the river, so as to get as close as possible to the old Culpeper MIne Ford.  Though this would not be an exact science, as the ford was on private land, at least I could come close to the spot in the river which held the ford, and thus capture some historical accuracy in my continuing quest, before getting to meet Bob with plenty of time to tour the CMR with him within Lake of Woods after lunch, then walk the Union line at the Wilderness Battlefield before calling it a day and heading to my new motel in Fredericksburg.  

The problem was the rain.  A heavy thunderstorm was passing through the area, as they often do in July in this part of Virginia.  The forecast said it would be passing through during the morning, but it seemed to have stalled over our area.  A flash flood watch was in effect.  I decided to wait until closer to checkout time before I headed out.  When I left, after 10 AM, the rain was still coming down in torrents, and veritable streams were crossing Route 3 as I headed southeast, towards the Rapidan River and The Wilderness.  Still, I was intent on getting to Culpeper Mine Ford, or at least as close as I could.  I had blithely crossed the Rapidan with my father in 1996 at Germanna Ford, convinced that I was following Great-Great Grandpa’s route.  Now, after nineteen years of study and learning, I was going to drive along roads which Shaler’s brigade, separated from its 6th Corps mates, had actually followed, or at least a close proximity.  What could go wrong?

The rain continued to pour down.  But I was on a schedule, considering my lunch date with Bob.  I had driven in rain storms before.  How bad could it be?  Ryan Bingham played in my CD player.

After about fifteen minutes, I saw my turn off–Route 669, Carrico Mills Road.  I made the turn, then headed due north briefly, before a quick right turn onto Route 610, Maddens Tavern Road.  This unpaved road would take me to a hamlet called Richardsville, where I would turn right onto Route 732, Halls Road, and make my way straight to the Rapidan River, not far from the location of the Culpeper Mine Ford.  Thus I would nearly retrace the steps of First Sergeant Timothy Caroll and his 65th NY comrades, and thus correct the historical error I had made in 1996, even though I would be doubling back to Route 3 and crossing at the bridge over Germanna Ford, as that was the only way to get to Lake of the Woods and The Wilderness by car.

Maddens Tavern Road was underwater.  I drove slowly through a deep puddle which encompassed the road, then through an even bigger one.  This was not something I had anticipated, despite all the warnings on the TV this morning about flash flooding.  I then made a sensible decision, if a disappointing one.  My Honda Civic, a low-riding car, was not designed for this, and I would have to give up my quest to get to Culpeper Mine Ford.  There would always be another chance in the future.  I turned left onto a road leading to a local camp, then back through the huge puddle.  Oh oh.  It seemed very deep in the middle of the road.  So I edged the car slightly to the right to try and avoid the deepest part and ended up…with my right tires stuck in the drainage ditch.  I was unable to extricate the car.  The rain continued to beat down, and I could see the water was high enough to reach the top of my tires.  “This isn’t good!” I said out loud to myself, thinking of TV videos I had seen of cars engulfed in flooded waters, when I often thought, “what was that idiot thinking when he or she drove into that morass.”   Ryan Bingham continued to belt it out.  I realized I would have to get out of the car, on the passenger side as the water was too deep in the middle of the road and I could get onto the berm next to the road on the right.  As I opened the door, a muddy river of water poured into my car, higher than the passenger seat.  I got out.

In the pouring rain, watching my car engulfed by the rising waters, in the middle of nowhere in rural Virginia, I called my wife.  Maybe she could get  in touch with my insurance agent, and get a tow truck.  I also called Bob Johnson, letting him know that not only would I be late for our planned lunch date, but that I was in trouble and could use some help.  The lovely and kind man that he is, he drove up from home.  Seeing Maddens Tavern Road’s condition, however, he knew better than to try it.  He called a friend with a truck.  I felt blessed to have such a local contact.  Meanwhile, the towing company said they could be there in an hour.  “I can’t wait an hour!” I told them on the phone.  “My car will be under water in an hour!”  I then called the state police. I told the dispatcher my situation, assured her I was personally safe on the berm, though increasingly soaked, but that my car was in a bad way.  

Mercifully, a van from the nearby camp pulled up, and the driver let me know he would be going to get a chain.  He returned not ten or fifteen minutes later, hooked up my car to the van, and successfully extricated my car.  Despite the several inches of water now sloshing around inside my car, it miraculously started–I love my car.  Shortly after, a state trooper arrived with his lights flashing.  I thanked him for coming, explaining that my car and I were now out of danger, and he proceeded to block the road with his car so that any other idiots like me would not end up attempting to drive through the flooded roadway.

I pulled up back to dry ground, found a place to pull over to the side of the road that was tilted slightly downward, grabbed a small plastic box of emergency supplies from the trunk, emptied it, and began using it to bail out my car.

At least I turned around on Maddens Road; it could have been worse.  It would have been better to have not made the attempt to drive down the road at all given its flooded condition.  Live and learn.  

I managed to get most of the water out; the heat and humidity, however, made the windows fog up if I didn’t open them a crack.  And the car had a dank, swampy smell to it.  I made it to the lunch with Bob, and he was kind enough to take me on the tour of the Lake of the Woods community and show me spots associated with the Battle of the Wilderness after lunch.  Bob graciously had prepared a binder filled with maps, pamphlets, some genealogical research into Timothy Carroll’s military record he had done, and information about The Wilderness.    He also showed me where the Culpeper Mine Road left his community and entered The Wilderness National Battlefield.  I walked this myself, recreating the 65th NY’s march and their route to the horrible battle, then walked the trail along the Union lines until I made it to the far right flank, where the Chasseurs were positioned on May 6th, having left their more cushy wagon guard duty behind.  LIke them, I was somewhat shaken at my fortunes during the day, but glad to have finally made it.  

The author at the entrance to the Culpeper Mine Road from the Lake of the Woods community (photo by Bob Johnson)

Late in the day of May 6, 1864, the Chasseurs would be hit hard when General John Gordon’s Confederate brigade attacked the exposed Union right flank.  First Lieutenant Frederick Volk, of Company C, described the action in his diary: 

Shot and shell are flying fast and thick over us, May God in his infinite mercy spare us!  about 7 Ock. while we were changing the pickets the rebs came on us in force.  We had nothing but a thin line of skirmishers and they broke and the whole line gave way we were completely surrounded and such confusion I never saw before but I did run then, because one could not rally the men they were thoroughly demoralised… The heaviest fire I was ever in a high fire from both sides.

The regiment lost fifty-seven officers and men killed, wounded, or missing, many of the latter captured, later to be sent to die in the nightmarish prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia.  Volk’s friend Captain William Tracy had been killed, his body buried on the field.  It was the worst battle the regiment had experienced since Malvern Hill back in June 1862.  They definitely had an even worse day than I had experienced, even including the way the lunch with Bob Johnson was now disagreeing with me, and with the damp car interior now smelling badly having been heated up in the parking lot for a couple of hours.

I was luckily now staying two days in a motel outside Fredericksburg, just east from the Wilderness battlefield, and not far from the Spotsylvania battlefield I was to visit tomorrow.  The plan for the trip had entailed leaving in the morning and getting back on the Chasseurs’ march route to Spotsylvania, then exploring their place in that horrible and costly battle.  However, at my wife’s urging I spent the morning waiting in the hotel for my car to receive the “Diamond” treatment at the car wash.   “Did you leave the windows open in the rain?”  “No; I drove into a flash flood yesterday,” I replied.  “You need THIS,” the car wash manager told me as he pointed at the most expensive option his establishment offered. Luckily the carwash was close enough to the motel that I could run back there.  I spent the morning in my room waiting on the car rather than out and about as I had planned on doing, but I could at least start in the afternoon for Spotsylvania knowing my car was as clean as a whistle.

Happily, the trip to Spotsylvania went uneventfully.  Having visited the battlefield a couple of times before, and having read a good deal about the 65th NY’s role there, especially in the famous May 10, 1864 attack known as Upton’s Assault, I had as my chief goal finding the trace of the farm road that Upton’s twelve picked regiments formed on before their column advanced from the woods to attack the strongly entrenched Confederates at a salient in the lines called the Mule Shoe.  Perhaps one sign that my luck was changing today as compared to yesterday’s challenges was that, upon arriving at an informational kiosk at the battlefield, I was greeted by a friendly volunteer.  We had a nice chat, and when he introduced himself as Chris Mackowski, I hurried to my now sparklingly clean car, to grab from the front seat a book called A Season of Slaughter, a combination history and car tour for Spotsylvania which Dr. Mackowski himself had co-written.  He graciously signed my copy for me, then helped direct me to where to find the trace of “Upton’s road.”  Mackowski, who I also recognized as the genial host of a number of “Emerging Civil War’ video battlefield tours, gave me his card and told me that he has a practice of walking along Upton’s road every May 10th.  That is the sort of dedication to studying history in the places where it is made that I can get behind!

Before my focus on the May 10th, 1864  assault would begin, and then the events of the horrible day of May 12, 1864, I stopped to pay tribute at a spot denoting the saddest event for the 6th Corps, and indeed the Army of the Potomac, of May 9, 1864.  This was the death of 6th Corps commander General John Sedgwick, killed by a sharpshooter near the front lines.  Sedgwick’s death was mourned not only by the men of the 65th NY and their fellow 6th corps soldiers, who had come to love “Uncle John,” but also by General Grant, who was in disbelief at the news of his death, and who said to one of his aides that it was the equivalent of the army  losing a division of men.  Sedgwick was the highest ranking officer of either side to be killed in the Civil War.  I had once made a long detour on the way back home from Vermont to visit Sedgwick’s grave and former home in Cornwall Hollow, Connecticut, and though I had visited the site of his death in the past, I consider it an essential Spotsylvania battlefield site to see and reflect upon.

The marker denoting the spot where 6th Corps commanding General John Sedgwick was killed by a Confederate sharpshooter, with my very shiny and clean car in the background, after having received the deluxe treatment at a Fredericksburg car wash (photo by author)

Having gotten oriented by Chris Mackowski, I looked for the spot from the roadway where Upton’s farm road could be recognized.  Sure enough, it was there, unmarked, though I worried that my limited photographic skills might not capture it well enough for it to be seen well in a book photograph.  One of those little cool discoveries that a researcher makes is associated with this famous May 10th assault, in that the Official Records show that not only did the Chasseurs act as skirmishers to clear out the Confederate pickets before Upton’s attack got underway, but that they had also pitched in to support the attack as well.  I was excited and pleased to know that the regiment about which I cared so much had played a role in such a key moment in the war.

Unfortunately, of course, playing a key role meant suffering for it heavily.  The Chasseurs lost 97 officers and men at Spotsylvania, including two officers killed and two wounded on May 10th.  For the men and officers of the 65th NY Volunteer Infantry, it was the worst battle of the war.  According to Lieutenant Volk, “about five Ock….we moved to the left and went into the fight we charged up to a line of breastworks just before I got up to the breastwork I got hit through the left arm and then in the left shoulder.  I got off the field as soon as possible.”

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The Farm Road where Upton’s Assault of May 10, 1864 Began (photo by author)

Colonel Upton’s assault, innovatively designed with a column puncturing a hole in the strong rebel line rather than trying another fruitless frontal assault, managed to capture 1000 Confederates, with from 200 to 300 rebels killed.  However, it went unsupported and after holding a portion of the Confederate line for a time, the men were withdrawn.  Volk’s diary the next day goes on to describe the cost of the fight in human terms.  “Woke up this morning feeling very well.  Lay around until 12 Ock when Dr. Stoddard said he was ready for me and I laid down on the table.  The Doctor told me when I laid down that if my arm had to come off he would wake me up and tell me so but I told him not to do anything of the kind but to go ahead…  … find chloroform very agreeable.  Poor [Captain John] Berry died today.”

On a hot and humid day one hundred and fifty-one years later, having been guided by Dr. Mackowski to the spot, I walked a few steps down Upton’s roadbed. However, perhaps cowed by my experience yesterday of nearly drowning my car north of The Wilderness, I stopped when I walked into a spiderweb and contented myself with looking down the roadbed, then taking the parallel prepared trail to the field opening in front of the Confederate lines.  I walked to the remnants of the Confederate breastworks, undoubtedly nearby where Lt. Volk had been shot in the arm, and perhaps nearby where my great-great grandfather had received a minor wound in the neck.  The latter wound, however, may have happened during the even bigger attack of May 12, 1864, when General Grant threw two whole corps at the Confederate “Mule Shoe.”   In twenty hours of close order combat, with Union and Confederate soldiers positioned on opposite sides of the same breastworks, in the pouring rain, at what became known as the “Bloody Angle,” some of the worst and most brutal fighting of the Civil War occurred.  Once again, the 65th NY was part of the fray, and once again they lost heavily.  Walking over the area the next day, after the Confederates has pulled back to a new line, Lieutenant Andrew Byrne observed, “the look of everything round about bore traces of a deadly struggle; the grass the trees and the thinnest shrub in front of the works were cut down.  I noticed one dead body in particular near the breatworks.  It was one of our men.  During my whole experience in this War, I never saw a body so completely riddled with bullets.”

The horrific casualties of the May 10th and May 12th assaults, coupled with the losses at the Wilderness on May 6, left the 65th NY a shell of its former self.  After deciding that the Confederate line would not be broken here, and picking up his march trying to get around the right of the Confederate line, the Army of the Potomac moved to the Southeast, until they found themselves almost due east of Richmond at a place called Cold Harbor.  I drove the approximate route of the march to get to Cold Harbor, first following Dr. Mackowski’s tour book to drive by Myer’s Hill, where the 65th NY had taken up a position during the latter stages of the Spotsylvania campaign.  From there, it was a drive south and east towards Cold Harbor.  Before heading back to the motel for the night, I stopped at Massaponax Church, the site of a series of photos showing Generals Grant and Meade meeting outside with their staffs, sitting on the church pews brought outside for their meeting.

Massaponax Church. A set of famous photos of Grant and Meade meeting with their staff were taken here (photo by author)

The next day I picked up my route south, following the march route from Spotsylvania as best as possible.  This would be the last day of this particular trip to Virginia.  A bridge was out so there was one stretch of the route that would be skipped, with one church on that section of the route where I had taken a picture in 1996 of my Dad walking to look at a plaque on the wall there.  In fact both in 1996 and again in 2015 I was seeing that it was churches more than anything else which marked the landmarks of the army’s route towards Cold Harbor.  Rather than backtrack, I decided I had driven the route in more accuracy in 1996 so I could take some liberties this time.  The memory of my ill-fated attempt to find the Culpeper Mine ford was still vibrant.

Along with churches, the men marched past one particular landmark of interest at Guiney Station.  Their letters and memoirs refer to going past the place where Stonewall Jackson died, so I stopped for a visit, as I had in 1996.  I was the lone visitor that day, and I enjoyed going in and seeing the artifacts there, such as the clock in the room when Jackson died.  For one like me who had watched the Ken Burns series many times in the class I teach on the Civil War, it was easy to remember Shelby Foote describing Jackson’s death scene there.

Stonewall Jackson Shrine, Guiney Station, Virginia (photo by author)

The men of the 6th Corps continued their march almost due south until they arrived at Carmel Church, on the north bank of the North Anna River, which had been their designated concentration point. After some time spent breaking up parts of the Virginia Central Railroad, and the realization by General Grant that the Confederate position south of the river was a trap which should be avoided, the march continued further south and east.  My time spent at Carmel Church was even briefer than the 65th New York’s time there, and I snapped a few pictures of the pretty old church before heading back into my car to pick up the trip again.

Carmel Church (photo by author)

The road continued past historic churches which the Chasseurs marched by, so I made a point of recording them in photographs, despite my limited photographic equipment and skills.  The unique and often beautiful architecture of these small churches was notable, and I was glad as I paused to see them that they had stood the test of time, and not been bulldozed for some strip mall or new housing development.

The Mangochick Church (photo by author)

One of my favorites of these churches had not in fact survived the Civil War.  Destroyed by artillery during the fighting associated with the Overland campaign, Polegreen Church is remembered in a most unique and beautiful way.  A sculpture outlining the footprint of the church remains, a memorial to not only the structure but also the congregation which once met there.  

Polegreen Church (photo by author)

By June 1st, 1864, after crossing Totopotomoy Creek the previous day, the 65th NY Volunteer Infantry regiment, or at least what was left of it, arrived at Cold Harbor and took up a position not far from the Garthright House.  Today the house remains, part of the county park which preserves much of the Cold Harbor battlefield, across the road from the Cold Harbor National Battlefield and National Cemetery.  “…Somewhat worn from fatigue…” Colonel Joseph Hamblin wrote home “by twilight” on June 7th, 1864 while “…perfect quiet prevails.  An armistice has been agreed upon, to bury the dead between the two armies.  Not a gun is fired…”  Unfortunately there were very many dead there, for the heavy fighting of June 1st and June 3rd had led to disastrous bloodshed, most of it suffered by the Union Army of the Potomac and its recent reinforcements from the Army of the James.

According to Lieutenant Byrne, the Chasseurs had arrived at Cold Harbor with only about ninety men.  “So depleted had we become not enough for a full Company.”  Byrne described the June 1st attack and the artillery casualties suffered by the regiment.  Six men from the regiment were killed, thirteen wounded at Cold Harbor.  With the 57 lost at the Wilderness, and 97 lost at Spotsylvania, the 65th New York Volunteers had lost 173 men killed, wounded, or captured, in less than four weeks.  The trails along the Union trench lines, remarkably well preserved at Cold Harbor, and the Garthright House, behind which the Chasseurs had formed for their June 1st assault on the strong rebel lines, meant that I could end this summer’s research trip knowing I was very close to the action described by Byrne and Hamblin.  

Union trench lines near the 65th New York position at Cold Harbor (photo by author)

The Garthright House, nearby where the Chasseurs formed for their June 1, 1864 assault at Cold Harbor (photo by author)

Before leaving Cold Harbor and beginning the long drive home to New York, one more duty drew me to the Cold Harbor National Cemetery.  At the national battlefield visitor center, I perused the list of men buried in the cemetery, a beautiful place enclosed by the standard brick wall I have grown used to seeing around national cemeteries.  Private John MIller, a victim of the Battle of Cold Harbor and a veteran of the 65th NY Volunteer Infantry, was there, and after finding his grave I purchased a small flag at the visitor center just before it closed to plant by his grave.  It was a small gesture, but it was a chance for me to recognize one individual Chasseur, buried among the many victims of not only the Battle of Cold Harbor, but also the Seven Days battles of 1862, fought nearby here.  Then, to home.

65th NY Private John Miller’s grave, in the foreground, at Cold Harbor National Cemetery (photo by author)

Published by 65th NY Guy

I am a high school history teacher in my 31st year of teaching. I have been studying the 65th NY Infantry, my great-great grandfather's regiment, since 1993. After 8 years of writing, I recently finally published my history of the regiment, "No Flinching From Fire." I also coach cross country and track and field, and I have a wife and two daughters.

3 thoughts on “Being a Civil War Tourist

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