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Thursday, December 11, 2014

"More Terribly They Suffer, The More Fiercely They Fight": An Account of the Battle of Eltham

Colonel J. Howard Kitching

Camp at " White House," Virginia, May 16, 1862.

....I had no chance to tell you anything about the battle at West Point on the 7th, and I knew that if you were sure I was safe, you would be quite willing to wait for particulars, until I could get time to write fully.
We left Yorktown on Tuesday morning, Franklin's division, about twelve thousand strong, in a large flotilla of boats of every description. The infantry were carried on large steamboats, while the cavalry and artillery were towed behind on large rafts made purposely for them, the guns being placed around the edge, forming a bulwark, inside of which the horses were placed, with harness on, just ready to be hitched to the guns at a moment's notice
We arrived at West Point just before dark, and after throwing a few shell into some rebel cavalry which made its appearance on the shore, we commenced landing our troops. You will at once see that this is rather a risky thing— landing ten thousand men, and horses, upon a hostile shore, when every moment expecting an attack, for it being necessarily slow work, landing the men by small boatloads at a time, the enemy could attack them as they arrived, and slaughter them in detail.
These rebels, however, appear to be rather afraid of our gunboats, for we can in no other way account for their not molesting us, than the fact of our having two gunboats. At any rate, they allowed their chance to slip by, and we worked hard all night, and just before daybreak we got all our artillery landed, losing only one horse out of five hundred.
My boating experience, as well as my knowledge of horses, was, I hope, of some service that night. If you could have seen me standing at the tiller, steering a huge raft, with one hundred and eighty horses on board, jumping and kicking, and trying their best to get overboard, whilst all the soldiers, worn out with hard work, were sleeping on all sides, you would have wondered what kind of craft I had got into.
 However, as I said, we got ashore at last, and about nine o'clock in the morning we were attacked by the enemy in large force, under Generals Lee and Smith.
Several New York regiments were immediately ordered out to meet them, and very soon the musketry firing became very heavy. We had four batteries of artillery ashore, and we were held in reserve, ready for action, waiting till the rebels should come out of the woods into the plain, and give us a chance at them. Our men, the 31st and 32d New York, and one Pennsylvania regiment, had hardly entered the woods, when the firing became very heavy, and almost incessant, the rebels yelling and cheering like fiends, as they drove our men back by mere force of numbers. Every few moments some poor fellow was carried past us, either dead or horribly wounded.
We never fired a shot until our men began to appear, retreating from the edge of the woods, when we loaded with shell, and just as soon as the enemy made their appearance, we let them have it, one gun at a time, slowly and deliberately. They stood their ground for a long time, and their shooting was terribly effective, almost all of our wounded being hit mortally and many killed instantly, by being shot through the head. Only one of our artillerymen was hit, however, getting a rifle-ball in his elbow.
Our solid shot and shells were too hot for them, and at last they began to retire, when our brave infantry again pushed into the woods, and drove them about two miles before night came on. It was a glorious victory, for our force was small; they outnumbering us, two to one. We have since seen their reports of the fight, and they acknowledge that "they intended driving us into the river as at Ball's Bluff, but that our artillery was too hot for them."
Indeed, General Newton has stated since that our guns saved the day .... Considering the numbers engaged, our loss was very severe; the 31st New York losing almost two entire companies,including four officers. The 32d New York also suffered terribly, as also the 16th New York, and the Pennsylvania regiment. General Franklin was with our battery during part of the time, and appeared pleased with our firing.
I believe that this army cannot be beaten now. They stand fire like veterans, and apparently the more terribly they suffer, the more fiercely they fight.

-"More Than Conqueror,": Or Memorials of Col. J. Howard Kitching, Sixth New York Artillery, Army of the Potomac-    Theodore Irving
Publisher    Hurd and Houghton, 1873

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