Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Lonesome Death of Eugene Pearce, Part Two

The Civil War sits astride two eras, at once the last great gasp of the Romantic period, and the screaming, bloody birth of the Modern.   

Modernity's birth is plainly seen.  All of the things that made the Twentieth Century run red with blood had their genesis in the Civil War:  Trench warfare; Mechanized warfare; Total War, where civilians were seen as "enemy combatants" and therefore fair game; Embedding reporters and photographers with battle regiments, thus giving the home front a close-up view of battle; even concentration camps and political assassinations and secret arms deals all have their prototypes in this conflict.

Evidences of the Romantic impulse are sprinkled across the war's bloody history.  Inspired by media reports on the exploits of French troops fighting in North Africa, dozens of volunteer regiments, both north and south, called themselves "Zouaves" and adopted the French unit's flamboyant Algerian-inspired uniforms as their own.  The most famous Zouaves units were the Louisiana Tigers in the Confederacy (which eventually inspired the nickname for the LSU sports teams), and the 5th New York and 14th Brooklyn Volunteers in the North, who dressed in red bloomers and matching fez:

The 5th New York, Top
Wheat's Louisiana Tigers, Bottom
Letters home penned by the men of the 8th Heavy Artillery carry this same romantic sentiment.  One man writes of witnessing the funeral of a Union enlisted man killed in battle, and wonders if he will ever get the opportunity to receive such an inspiring, hero-worthy send off.  Another assesses the prospects of facing the Rebel army with a cheery, "I expect we shall have a good time."  There was sickness and accident, even death for the 8th during their time manning the Maryland garrisons, but there was also time to write home and ask for care packages of honey and canned peaches, time to attend the Maryland State Fair, time to woo girls at church dances, time still to see war as a Grand Adventure.

The first week of May 1864, The Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers and began a full assault against Robert E. Lee's outmanned and outgunned Army of Northern Virginia.  The chief strategist of the Union forces, Ulysses S Grant, had secured the Mississippi in the Western theater of the war, and President Lincoln was counting on him to crush the rebellion in the East.  Grant called his strategy "The Overland Campaign", and intended to use a combination of rapid troop movements and superior numbers to overwhelm Lee's forces.

What the Confederates lacked in troop size, they compensated for in guile.  Lee managed to anticipate Grant's movements, and under the direction of some very talented engineers, situated his men behind well-placed, well-constructed trenches and barricades.

Grant attacked, first at The Wilderness, then two weeks later at Spotsylvania Court House.  The Union forces, many of them veterans of three years of fighting, fell in droves.  Grant suffered 18,000 casualties at The Wilderness, nearly 2,300 of them fatalities.  At Spotsylvania, 18,000 more Union troops fell, with more than 2,700 dead.

Despite having one-third of his force dead, wounded, or captured, Grant was determined to stay on the offensive.  Even behind the relative safety of their barricades, Lee's troops had suffered heavy casualties, too: nearly half of his force was dead or wounded, and he was desperately short on provisions and ammunition.  Grant knew this, and was convinced that with fresh troops, he could break Lee's army.  The 8th were ordered to the battlefront.

On 15 May 1864, a Sunday morning, the 8th Heavy Artillery marched out of Baltimore's Fort Federal Hill, bound for the battlefront.  The morning was marked by torrential rains; the regimental band played a popular tune, "The Girl I Left Behind Me".  Corporal Nelson Armstrong remembers the 8th marched "with buoyant step and hopeful hearts."  "What glory there seemed for the young soldier!" he writes.  "Merrily we tramped along through the rain and running water..."  There were about 1800 men in the regiment.

The 8th traveled by train to Washington, and from there boarded southbound steamers on the Potomac to "set foot on the soil of Old Virginia."  Two days of marching and the 8th arrived at Spotsylvania, joined there to the 2nd Corps of The Army of the Potomac.  That night, Confederate sharpshooters attacked; four hours of exchanging fire in the darkness resulted in 33 men killed, wounded or missing, the first casualties by enemy fire sustained by the men of the 8th.  

Faced with the realities of war -- it is one thing to lose a friend or brother to dysentery or cholera, another entirely to stand beside him as Rebel minie' balls rip through his body-- the letters home take a different color.  George Stone, distraught over the grievous wounding of a close friend, wrote home, listing his address as "Camp Somewhere in the sacred evil of Virginia, God only knows where," and confessed that "I am so worried...I cant keep my thoughts together two moments at a time..." 

Virgina in the late Spring is hot and humid and rainy.  The men of the 8th marched across battle-scarred territory, subsisting on hardtack and rancid, fatty salt pork.  Many of the men had abandoned their packs, hoping that a lighter load would lessen the effects of the heat.  Now they lacked canteens, and many were suffering the effects of heat stroke.  They were harassed by Confederate artillery and sniper attacks.    By 2 June, they camped within 3,000 feet of an entrenched Confederate line, just twelve miles north of Richmond, a place called Cold Harbor.

The next day, they would join with 48,000 other Union troops in a mad dash across an open field.  Grant's strategy, already unsuccessful at The Wilderness and at Spotsylvania, was to overwhelm Lee's entrenchments through sheer force of numbers, breaking the line and sending the Rebels into confusion.  It was a daring, reckless plan, and the 8th was at its center.  

It was raining.  It was hot. The men were exhausted.  At 2:00 that afternoon, the orders arrived:  "a good night's rest [should be given the men] preparatory to an assault at say 4.30 a.m. in the morning."

Tomorrow: The Lonesome Death of Eugene Pearce


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