and the Twelfth New Hampshire Volunteers
By Rudy VanVeghten
PART 6: “Here’s What’s Left”
As they encamped that chilly night atop Hazel Grove, members of the 12th N.H. Regiment were perhaps disappointed they had still seen no significant battle action. They had done little more than dodge artillery shells during Fredericksburg in December and likely drew some criticism from units who were decimated by Burnside’s fruitless assault on Marye’s Heights. As the 558 effectives still filling the Mountaineers’ ranks shivered in their wet uniforms that night under the light of a full moon, they had no way of knowing that their time had come.
With little or no sleep, maybe a hastily swallowed meal of a flour-and-water paste and raw or poorly cooked bacon, the soldiers of the U.S. and CSA armies were back in action at first light on Sunday, May 3.
Hooker now had six full corps at his disposal in and around Chancellorsville, more than twice the strength of the pesky Rebels, but he contented himself to hold a defensive posture. He continued to rely on Sedgwick’s corps to take Fredericksburg and march west to Chancellorsville to force the surrender or retreat of Lee’s forces.
As dawn broke, Sickle’s corps, including the 12th N.H., were likely preparing to use that vantage point of Hazel Grove, located about a mile southwest of the Chancellor House, for a strategically placed artillery battery. But, surprisingly, Hooker sent orders for Sickles to abandon the hilltop and fall back within a defensive loop formed by Couch’s and Slocum’s corps. Their orders were to defend another rise called Fairview, only a half mile from the Chancellor Inn and Hooker’s headquarters.
“This was a request much easier to make than to comply with,” said Bartlett, “and no sooner is the attempt made than the enemy objects, and the battle commences.”
Whipple’s third division, including Col. Samuel M. Bowman’s 2nd Brigade, was first to move out, followed by Birney’s division. Bownam’s brigade consisted of three regiments, the 84th Pennsylvania, of which Bowman was himself the former regimental commander, the 110th Pennsylvania, and the 12th New Hampshire.
As the brigade retreated toward the artillery battery at Fairview, all of a sudden they were ordered to hit the ground in front. They held their ears and covered their faces as the federal cannons roared over their heads.
Stuart’s troops, meanwhile, couldn’t believe their good fortune when they reached the top of an abandoned Hazel Grove without opposition. They quickly set up their cannon battery and commenced firing back toward Fairview.
During the heavy fighting that ensued, Bowman and the two Quaker State regiments disappeared somewhere to the Union left, where CSA Brigadier General George Doles was pressing the attack. Left behind, Col. Potter’s 12th New Hampshire found themselves with no brigade commander and no orders how to proceed.
Gen. Whipple, however, saw the available regiment and ordered the 12th to fill a breach in the Union line off to the right where the general’s second in command, Brigadier General Charles K. Graham, was leading his brigade in a fierce battle with Confederate General Stephen D. Ramseur. Graham’s casualties mounted quickly, and his key defensive position began to buckle. Whipple ordered Potter and his regiment “to immediately advance your regiment into the woods, engage the enemy there, and hold him in check until the last man falls.”
With those ominous words, the Mountaineers moved into the forefront of the battle.
As they charged “double quick” into the ravine and mounted up the opposite steep slope, Potter caught sight of the enemy. “There the devils are,” he yelled. “Give them hell!”
In less than half an hour, General Whipple’s orders were close to coming true. Col. Potter was injured in the leg and removed from the field. His second in command, Major George Savage, was shot in the jaw and also taken back. Captains Moses Savage (George’s Brother), Keyes, Durgin, Mays, Shackford, Barker, and J.W. Lang Jr. of Meredith were also either killed or wounded and incapable of directing the regiment’s continuing battle. The recently promoted Lt. George Cram, also of Meredith, was killed and his gun and belongings confiscated by an enemy soldier.
Edwin E. Bedee, also recently promoted to lieutenant, received a minor wound. Rather than leave the field, however, he battled on, learning that he was now the regiment’s ranking officer.
An 1879 obituary for Twelfth veteran Lt. J.S. Tilton published in the Laconia (N.H.) Democrat described the battle this way: “The regiment was for a long time hotly engaged with a Rebel brigade and left unsupported; raw troops, as they were, never before in action, and not knowing the trick of veteran troops of ‘skedaddling’ from a place too hot for them, the gallant 12th for a long time showered ‘buck and ball’ from their old ‘Springfields’ upon twice their numbers, until human nature could stand no more and the few that were left of them retired.”
Gen. Doles’ Rebs were closing in on the Fairview battery, and there was no letup from Gen. Ramseur’s assault from the other side. With only about two dozen men left standing, Bedee sensed the enemy would soon have them encircled. “Rally round the flag, boys,” he yelled, “and get out of this,” according to Bartlett.
Nearly captured during their retreat, Bedee and his troops found a small lane up the side of the hill and rushed toward safety.
For the survivors of the decimated 12th N.H. and other units of Sickles’ corps, the battle was far from over. “From the woods [at Fairview] to the Chancellor House, a distance of perhaps half a mile, was an open field, and over this we had to pass,” recalled Sgt. Richard Musgrove. “The air was full of flying missiles and the ground was plowed up in all directions.” Some of these cannonballs were now coming from the cannons at Fairview, which the Rebs had captured and turned toward the new Union line anchored at the Chancellor Inn.
In Bartlett’s account, General Sickles was then directing a newly formed battery of Union artillery near the Chancellor House. He was about to launch another volley when he spotted a few blue uniforms moving toward him. “Hold on there,” he yelled to the artillery unit. “Hold your fire; those are my men in front.”
As the unit’s few survivors pulled themselves behind the new defensive line at the Chancellor House – a line that their bravery bought time to form – General Sickles asked Bedee, “What regiment, and where’s the rest of it?”
“12th New Hampshire,” responded the wounded lieutenant, “and here’s what’s left of it!”
A few minutes later, Bedee received a second and far more serious wound when a confederate-launched shrapnel bomb exploded nearby. A piece of the metal found the young soldier’s head, and he went down. Bedee was carried away for a two-month rehabilitation, during which time he received a promotion to captain for his leadership at Chancellorsville.
No sooner had the survivors moved to the back of the secured federal line than they dropped exhausted to the ground. “No one who has never (sic) been there himself can have any adequate idea how exhaustive to the vital forces is the struggle for victory between contending forces on the field of battle,” wrote Asa Bartlett. “The combatant finds himself almost as weak and fatigued as if he had just recovered from a long illness.”
Contributing to the exhaustion was the troops’ lack of food and drink. “Their stomachs were as empty as their cartridge boxes,” said Bartlett.