State Highway Marker

State Highway Marker

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Story of a Trooper: Francis Colburn Adams in New Kent II . . . The Battle of Eltham

Continued from Story of a Trooper: Francis Colburn Adams in New Kent . . .

Drums beat, bugles sounded, and bands played on Brick House Point that night; and as the shadows of the setting sun played over the broad plateau, over the gleaming bayonets and flying banners, and over the ships on the broad river, giving to each a strange and shadowy outline, the scene became grand and imposing. The troops formed in line of battle as soon as landed, the right stretching away towards the Pamunky river, the left residing near the south bank of the York, and facing the ridge of wood where the enemy had his batteries. In a word, our thin line stretched nearly across the plateau, on each side of which there was a road leading to the wooded position in which the enemy was supposed to be concealed. 
We were entirely in the dark as to the enemy's strength, position, and intentions. Pickets were posted, and scouts were sent out, who soon returned and reported the enemy's pickets just in the edge of the wood, a few hundred yards south of us. The few people we found at Brick House Point had no information to give up. About ten o'clock at night our pickets captured and sent in two of the enemy's men, who, for some time, would give no particular account of themselves, except that they belonged to a Texas regiment, were out for a "look round,'' and didn't know our lines were so near their own. They were both intelligent men, and fine looking soldiers. One was both silent and sullen; from the other we ascertained that the rebel General Whiting, with two brigades of infantry, a small portion of Wade Hampton's cavalry, and two batteries of artillery, (one a Louisiana battery,) some of the best troops of their army, was in position in the woods in front of us, and would attack at daylight in the morning. This force consisted of that portion of the enemy's troops retreating along the bank of the York river.
A consultation was held at headquarters, and dispositions made to meet this attack with Newton's brigade, Newton being assigned to command the field. At nine o'clock, A. M., of the 7th, the enemy opened the fight with his skirmishers on our right and centre. This was the first time the troops of our division had been under fire, but they met the enemy with steadiness and fought with great spirit. The batteries on both sides opened about ten o'clock, and a fierce cannonading was kept up until one o'clock, the enemy fighting most of the time under cover of the woods.He now began to demonstrate on our right, and made several bold and desperate attempts to get possession of the road and turn our right. As soon as our batteries were got into position these attempts on our right were handsomely repulsed, with heavy loss to the enemy, regaining the ground we had temporarily lost. Newton was everywhere in the thickest of the fight, displaying remarkable coolness, great skill in handling his troops, and considerable power in encouraging his men. A little after one o'clock the 95th Pennsylvania, or Goslin Zouaves, were ordered to advance across a piece of open ground, and dislodge the enemy from a piece of wood, from which he had annoyed our center and left considerably. This regiment always had a bad reputation in the division, its material being of the very worst description.
It was noticed at this time that the regiment moved to its work in bad order, and with evident reluctance. It reached the edge of the woods, but broke in confusion at the enemy's first fire, and ran back like a flock of frightened sheep. The officers were quite as bad as the men. It was indeed amusing to hear the stories these distressed heroes told of meeting the enemy's infantry four deep, of getting waist deep into a swamp, of being led into a trap and cut down without any chance of defending themselves. Not a few of them sought a cover for their cowardice by attacking the general-
ship of the officer in command.*

This disgraceful affair of the Pennsylvanians encouraged the enemy to make one or two more bold movements on our right and center. The 3lst and 32d New York were now ordered up to do the work. It was a beautiful sight to see these regiments move promptly forward in a steady straight line, receive and return the enemy's fire as they approached the wood, and then charge into it, sweeping everything before them as they advanced up the hill. The enemy met them here with a deadly fire, the effect of which was seen in their thinned line. But there was no wavering in the ranks. The ground was here contested with

*Some of these absurd stories got into into the newspapers

great bravery on both sides, but the enemy began to give way before the steady advance of our troops, his fire slackened all along the line, and finally ceased about three o'clock, when he gathered up his dead and wounded and left the field. Just as the fight ended, the gunboats, which had found some difficulty in getting into position, owing to the tide, opened on the enemy's right, hastening his movements from the field. 
Various strange and somewhat romantic accounts have been written of this battle, if such it may be called, and given to the public for true. In nearly all of them the victory is credited to the gunboats, whereas they did not open their guns until the fight was essentially over. In one, General Morrill was credited with fighting the battle, and acting with great gallantry. Morrill was at least twenty miles away, and was much amused when he saw the part he had taken in a battle he was not in so carefully described by the veracious writer. Another intelligent correspondent wrote so remarkable a description of this battle as to astonish all the generals who were in it, and a good many who were not. He also described himself as continually in the thickest of the fight, and so "begrimed by the smoke of battle" as scarcely to be able to see the paper he was writing on, when, to tell the honest truth, he was spending the day on the West Point side of the river, gathering wild flowers. 
This was called a little fight, but there was some good fighting done, and General Newton deserves great credit for his coolness and gallantry during the day. Himself a Virginian, roared and educated amongst, and long the intimate associate of those who were now lighting to destroy the Republic, he stood firmly by his country, and no influence they could bring could make him a traitor. There were also three officers of lower rank whose coolness and bravery on the field that day deserve to be recorded. These were Colonel Pratt, of the 31st N. Y. V., and Colonel Matheson and Major Lemon, of the 32d N. Y. V., (formerly 2d California.) Nothing could have exceeded the steadiness and bravery with which these officers led their regiments into the woods, in the face of the enemy's hottest fire. They have since distinguished themselves on several battle fields. Pratt still lives, but was severely wounded at Gaines' Hill. The other two have given their lives to their country. Poor Lemon, in whose breast a more generous heart never beat, died of wounds received at the battle of Crampton's Gap.
The casualties of this battle, which was fought at Brick House Point, not West Point, as has been erroneously stated, were forty-four killed, and one hundred and fifty-two wounded, many seriously. We lost seventeen fine young officers killed. And out of a company of seventy-four men (31st N. Y. V.) which charged into the woods, only eight returned. The remainder, including its officers, were either killed or wounded. 
During the severest fighting on our right, Lieut. Baker of General Franklin's, and Captain Montgomery of General Newton's staffs, rode beyond our line, got confused, and fell into (he enemy's hands. A minute or two after, one of our batteries happened to drop a shell close to the spot where they were captured, causing the rebels to make a sudden movement for safety. Baker, who still had his horse, took advantage of this, started at full speed, and made his escape. Montgomery was not so fortunate. He had lost his horse, and lay on the ground affecting to be dead, when some rebel officers came up and began an inquisitive inquiry into the extent of his valuables. In the exercise of their chivalry his pockets had to be delicately examined, and as articles of jewelry and spare cash could be of no earthly use to a dead man, what harm could there be in appropriating them? "During this little operation," said the captain, "they tickled me. I could not stand that, and had to come to life, laughing." He claimed good treatment as their prisoner of war; but his captors were both sullen and earnest, and not disposed to enjoy such a joke, which they characterized as a mean Yankee way of "playing possum." But the captain was a pleasant gentleman, and by his manners soon succeeded in reconciling them to him. 
We had set the captain down as a prisoner. About 10 o'clock at night, however, he relieved our anxiety by walking into headquarters, and, of course, giving us a very interesting account of the way in which he made his escape, and what the rebels said and did while he enjoyed their hospitality. The captain's uniform was somewhat damaged; but the loss of his horse, sword, and watch was the most serious. 
There were acts of savagery committed on our dead and wounded by the enemy during this battle that were a disgrace to civilization, and should stand as an indelible proof of the cruel spirit which ruled in the southern army during the early stages of the war. One of our officers was found with his throat cut from ear to ear. And this act of savagery had been performed after his body had been pierced by balls. The bodies of two soldiers had been brutally cut with knives. The men reviewed these disfigured bodies with feelings deeply excited. Many of them swore to take revenge at the first opportunity; but the spirit of retribution did not accord with their notions of manliness, and I never heard of their treating the enemy's wounded and prisoners except with respect and kindness.
It was reported in camp that these acts of savagery were committed by Cherokee Indians, attached to Wade Hampton's command. It was also reported that negroes were seen dragging these bodies into the woods after they fell, and having stripped them of everything valuable, inflicted these wounds with knives. Being unable to trace these reports to a reliable source, I am inclined to discredit them, and to believe that these savage acts were committed by men with whiter hands, if not hearts. 
During the afternoon Lieut. Hoff, of General Franklin's staff, was sent with a steamer to West Point, to bring away about forty persons, mostly women and old men, who belonged in the vicinity of Fort Monroe, and had been taken and held by Magruder as hostages for a similar number of civilians " with rebel tendencies" arrested and held by Butler. The rebel force retreating from Gloucester Point had left them here. Lieut. Hoff found them in a most destitute condition, and took immediate steps to supply their wants and restore them to their homes. I shall not attempt to draw a picture of these poor people. Several of them were young, delicate girls, who told a sad and sickening story of the treatment they had received at the hands of men claiming to be southern gentlemen.

-To be continued-

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