At Malvern Hill, A First Person Account

By Lieut. Thomas Evans

Reprinted with the permission of Cowles Enthusiast Media, Civil War Times Illustrated magazine and
Copyright 1967/1968, Civil War Times Illustrated
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This is the second installment of the memoirs of Lieutenant Thomas Evans, a Welshman who came to America in 1850 and served for eleven years as an enlisted man in the Regular Army. Part I gave his impressions of the Battle of Gaines's Mill, where his regiment, the newly organized 12th U.S. Infantry, had its first combat. Evans, then a sergeant, was commended in official orders. The manuscript of this unusual memoir was furnished by Evans' granddaughter, Mrs. Angela Evans Todd of Indian Head, Md.- Editor

After our all night's march [after the battle of Gaines's Mill, June 27, 1862] through the swampy woods, in the early morning we come out on the road. A dash is made by the enemy's cavalry at the head of our column. Orders are given to load, and we form a line by the roadside. The section of a battery is ordered up to the front and fires two or three rounds, and the enemy's cavalry disperses in the woods. At noon we sit down, rifles in hand, ready for anything. It commences to rain; we cross the road and form in a field adjoining, stack arms, and rest.

Our pickets keep us in a perpetual state of excite-ment all that night. The men are nervous, and as the air is full of sluggish mists, they mistake every bush, fence post, and their own comrades for enemies. Their aim is unsteady, and the regiment, after keep-ing up a dropping fire all night and having the camp guard turned out every half hour, is under arms three times. Finally morning dawns and by the mercy of God no one has been shot in the dark by mistake.

But I often think of that night even now. If the enemy had been in the woods behind us, and there was no reason to believe they were not, the 12th and 14th Regiments would have fared badly. The men were weary and dispirited. An attack would certainly have produced a panic in the night, and as we hurried down to the road, a brigade of young troops just arrived would have thought us Rebels and peppered us considerably, if they themselves had not run first.

By the first faint light of the 30th we are again on the march. The road is full of wagons, for the horses and mules must have more rest than the men. The artillery has mostly got ahead, but plenty is still here to block the road. There is only room for one wagon to pass, and banks are steep. There are twenty-five miles of teams of one sort and another on the road. We go by twos, or by single file, dodging in and out among the mules as best we can. Occasionally there is a halt, and a convocation of teamsters assembles, and we have as much blasphemy-horrid, outlandish, and newly-invented oaths-as can be heard anywhere this side of hell.

I expect it is pretty trying to the temper to drive a team of six mules, and certainly teamsters excel in swearing. I have been in Billingsgate and St. Giles' in London; I have been in the Five Points, N.Y., and have heard some tolerably tall swearing and hard cursing in my time, but I never did think such strings of oaths could ever come from a human tongue as I have heard come from teamsters.

After some hours' marching we emerged from the woods and took up a position on an elevated plateau near Turkey Bend, in support of Stephen H. Weed's Battery I, 5th U.S. Artillery. There has been more or less fighting every day, and that work was pretty righteously distributed, so that those who fight today do not fight tomorrow, when it can be helped.

We had two companies, commanded by Captain William Sergeant, out on picket in advance of the battery; and in the afternoon these were driven in and a pretty good artillery duel commenced. A Federal gunboat in the river was throwing 11 inch shells up through the woods. These boats were considerably below us and veering with the tide. Hence their aim was sometimes wild, but their range enormous. Trees that stood in their way snapped like matches and any-one who had never seen heavier guns used than field artillery, would not wonder that the Secesh swore we were firing Dutch baked-beans at them, while the riggers were equally concerned. We could see the shells go tearing and roaring through the woods, opening a road that no obstacle seemed able to oppose, and could watch them for full three miles. When they exploded the report seemed more jarring than that from the field guns.

In the evening we attempted to have muster, it being the last day of June, but had to give it up after calling the names of two companies, for the enemy commenced shelling us. One shell exploded in a regiment of Volunteers that had formed behind us, sweeping a whole file and killing eleven men instantly. The regiment shifted its position and we laid down, arms in hand or by our sides, it not being improbable that we should have a dash made at the battery that had been annoying to the enemy all day. And so we re-mained during the night.

In the morning, July 1, the plateau was covered with men. Regiment after regiment had arrived during the night, and were posted all over it. Provisions had run short but our whole battalion made a first-rate breakfast out of stores left by a Volunteer regiment that had formed on our right early in the morning. We also took away enough for two or three more meals-corned beef, tongue, hams, and coffee. The Volunteer commissariat apparently was more varied than ours.

The enemy resumed artillery practice, and although Weed silenced and drove back the first battery that annoyed us, several others better posted and not so easily reached, opened on us, they being screened by the woods. One shot of theirs killed two of our battery horses, wounded three men, and then ricocheted clean over us without touching a man of the 12th Infantry. They also managed either cleverly or luckily to drop a shell and explode it directly under the colors in the center of a regiment formed in square. It soon became evident that they could shell the whole plateau [Malvern Hill] and that we could not occupy this position another night, or continue our retreat, without another severe battle.

Our heavy guns opened continuously first on the advancing enemy, followed by the light advanced batteries. This fire mingled with close and successive volleys of musketry. Along the whole of both lines the roar of artillery was incessant. Our own was not only splendidly served but advantageously posted. Nearly 300 pieces of artillery of different calibers and carrying different missiles were firing. Thousands of rifles were cracking, men with all sorts of wounds were carried or walked past, streaming with blood, but most of them still shouting and singing snatches of Union songs. Our brigade was ordered to make a flank charge upon a column of the enemy that was passing up through a ravine to carry our left batteries. The 3d and 4th Infantry took the high ground on the right. We scrambled down the steep sides of the plateau, without blankets, knapsack, haversack, or anything but the clothes on our backs and our rifles. The order had come so suddenly that although these things were within reach of our hands, we did not have time to put them on.

Perhaps the Battle of Malvern Hill depended on that very movement. So little a thing will turn the scale at the critical moment in an engagement.

We rushed down in column of companies, then came into line on the right company. We moved at a double quick, under cover of Weed's battery, and another farther in our rear, which threw its shots too near to be pleasant. The wheat is as high as our heads, and when we and the 14th on our left are in line, we still can see nothing before us. But we can hear and feel the minie bullets whistling by us.

It is impossible to keep the men dressed, and we have to leap over broad and deep ditches and climb fences. One of these fences is supported on the other side by a thick hedge and, in scrambling through, I and half a company go rolling down about eight feet into a road, pick ourselves up breathless and climb over another hedge, into another wheatfield.

We have been seen by friends, and by the enemy. Now our artillery doubles its efforts, our infantry fire is closer and more deadly, and the enemy columns that have rushed up madly to the very muzzles of our guns, waver, break, and seek the shelter of the woods at a run.

We have fought the Battle of Malvern Hill, the last general engagement of that campaign.

We march up and take post on the left and in front. The 14th is still on our left and a special de-tachment of ours is at the head of the ravine. The dead are thickly strewn around, but below, where the enemy have made their impetuous rushes during the day, they lie in dismembered heaps, in some places as regularly as the swath left by a mower. We throw two companies into a barn in advance of our position, and lie down for the night. And what a night!

It was the first time I had ever been on a field of battle after the heat and excitement of the day were over. I lay down and tried to sleep. But the din of the engagement was still in my ears, and kept up a perpetual buzzing that I could not drive away. I had a bad headache, my throat was parched, my eyes were aching. I could not sleep. I would have given ten dollars for a drink of water, but a hundred could not have procured it.

Lanterns were flitting over the field, where the enemy were gathering their wounded, whose piercing cries for help were heart-rending. One in particular we could hear for hours in the same strained, high-pitched key, alternately praying and cursing. A party of our men tried to find and bring him in, but were fired upon, and had to desist.

The majority of our men were sleeping soundly as if on beds of down. I cursed their snoring apathy, and after all was still and the lights had ceased flitting before us, I got up and tried to walk myself warm. Just before daybreak it commenced raining as if it had never rained before. Rain is almost certain to follow a heavy artillery engagement in a few hours. A poet might say, such are Heaven's tears over the dead and wounded, but there is no poetry in the fact.

We take up a new position by battalions, throw out a large body of skirmishers, and watch a detachment of our cavalry on our left, who are trying to make themselves look like a full brigade.

Now we can see the field of yesterday, its dead, its scattered muskets and cartridge boxes, its spent shot and fragments of shells. Near the woods we see the enemy dead in heaps, thick and wedged together like ramparts of human flesh.

I wonder if any living man of ordinary perceptions and feelings ever dared tell of the horrors of a battlefield. Those who have lived through a battle and passed the night afterwards upon the ground where it happened, would understand, if they were men and not demons, why never, for any slight cause, should war be inaugurated, and why of all wars, civil war should be the last, except under the direct necessity. Just as two brothers, when they come to fighting, will fight more determinedly and viciously, no matter how little or how great the cause of disagreement, so it is with the people of two sections of the same country. Their bitterness and vindictive spirit are extreme.

Our own dead and wounded were mostly within our own lines. It was the attack upon our battery that cost the enemy so dearly, and I have heard since that [Braxton] Bragg, having detected his own battery in our line, swore he would capture it at any cost, and poured column after column upon us to accomplish this end. But it was foiled in every instance. We did not lose a single gun, whereas they had rushed on to certain death.

At Gaines's Mill our losses had been heavy. Here, with far larger quantities brought against us, it was comparatively light, while that of the enemy was enormous. Here we were strongly posted and had the advantage of higher ground. Also the heavy shells from our gunboats in the James River caused favor-able diversion by harassing their right flank and rear. We were fighting for the very existence of our army, and our men fought well. But those among us who had underrated the soldiers of the South, found that we had an enemy not to be despised, who stood up manfully to their work, as long as they had a shadow of a chance of winning, and even when it was pal-pable they had none, they still fought on till night closed the bloody work.

Most of our wounded had been removed. The dead, of course, were left where they fell. But one poor young fellow, a mere boy in years, we found propped against a tree, with a painted blanket over him and a rifle bullet through his ankle. He had a tin pannikin in his hand in which he collected the rain water that lay in little pools, and had poured it over his wounded foot. His haversack with a few hard crackers was by his side, now reduced to a sticky mass.

That boy was a hero. We had not much to spare and we knew not when we might get rations again, but did know that his regiment had left him there to die, as the enemy might decree, or to linger in a Southern prison. We knew that he was cold and hungry and wounded and we gave him of our little store. There was a bright light in his eyes, drenched through as he was, that any old soldier, even a vet-eran of fifty battles, might have envied. I never think of Malvern Hill but that I see that boy, propped against the tree, as we passed by and left him to whatever fate was in store for him. I never saw or heard of him again.

General [Alfred] Pleasonton (Colonel he was then) came up to take command of us, with orders to march. The rain had been accompanied by a thick mist, which lasted until the sun had sufficient power to dispel it, and then we found our brigade was all that was left on the field of the thousands of yesterday. We had been last off the field of Gaines's Mill, the post of honor in a retreat being the rear. Now the army had all moved during the night and so quietly that even we had not heard them. We could scarcely believe our eyes, but such was the fact. We formed column by divisions and followed, cautiously withdrew our skirmishers and passed through our stopping place of yesterday; but blankets, knapsacks, haversacks, everything but a few wet crackers and some raw pork were gone. We sliced raw fat pork and smeared it over the crackers, each man catching a handful as he could, and ate it as we continued our march. Those ahead of us had profited by the chances of war and we were spoiled Egyptians.

We were ordered to go, with nothing but arms in our hands, and so we went-cheerfully, though we had not a dry inch of clothing on us. We descended the plateau on the opposite side, by a road so soft, steep, and slippery, that I pondered whether the simplest and safest plan would be to sit down and slide ourselves to the bottom. We could have been no wetter and scarcely dirtier when we reached it.

As we came out on the road we found a disabled baggage wagon, a dismounted gun, and a few rounds of fixed ammunition. At a short distance a party of cavalry were waiting for us, to destroy the bridge as soon as we had passed. A mile or two farther on we had to leave the road to the wagons and take to the woods, wading for miles through a continuous slush from six inches to knee deep. Twice by a false step I went in up to the hip, and some men stumbled in altogether. Travelling was slow, but we got out on the road again at last, and halted, letting the sun dry us out.

We have to wade a broad creek before reaching the mud hole where we are to rest for the night, but we send out for some pine and cedar branches to lay in the mud, so as not to be quite buried alive. We light fires and smoke our pipes, not very easily, for the tobacco is rather wet, but if the tobacco doesn't smoke, the wet wood does, and we are glad to give it up and try to sleep. The quartermaster fortunately has some painted blankets in the wagons, but no woolen ones. We make the best of it and go to sleep.

We awoke before dawn, chilled and water soaked, our skin wrinkled and pappy, a stream of water running down our backs and out of the tops of our boots. Those who had bank bills, memorandums, and postage stamps in their pockets found no more than a mass of pulp and mud in their place. Our boots, which had not been off for the same period, now refused force and coaxing alike, while those who could and did painfully remove them found it worse to get them on again. Even the tompions and rammers of the rifles were immovable, and to crown our misery some shells came cracking down among us.

We instantly had to form, uncertain whether we were attacked in force or by only a roving battery. The latter proved to be the fact, from near Charles City Court House. One of the Marine regiments nearest it made a bayonet dash at the battery, gallantly saying that they could not trust to the loads in their pieces but they could to the steel. The enemy guns and all their gun crews in a few minutes were captured.

Out we go into the mud again but not far this time. We have two or three mud holes and a sluggish creek to cross. We make some missteps, and staggering plunges, and then we find ourselves on a new camp-ing ground near Harrison's Landing.

Nearly all the army is ahead of us. The transports and the gunboats fill the river, and we pitch tents with a tolerable assurance that we shall lie here a month to recuperate.

We had left Fort Hamilton with 730 men and 20 officers actually present. We arrived here with 363 men and 13 officers, so that in four months we had lost by sickness, killed, wounded, and missing, more than half our men and nearly half our officers. But the worst was not yet. Excitement still kept the men up, and the reaction had yet to take place. The Richmond papers said we had selected "the hottest place this side of Tophet." I believe them in that, and about the sickliest too.

We arrived on the 3d of July and the 4th was kept in as good style as was possible under the circumstances. We paraded in our own camps and heard orders read from the General in Chief [McClellan] praising the good conduct of the men. Salutes to the Union were fired but we could only muster one weak band in the whole corps. Musicians were plentiful enough, but nearly all the instruments had been lost or destroyed, and the bandsmen and field music had been detailed to bring in and attend to the wounded.

This day I received my commission as 2d lieutenant.

On the 8th there was a moonlight review by the President, and he and McClellan were loudly cheered as they passed the lines, drawn up in brigades, by divisions.

Here then was an end to this campaign, and to the cry: "On to Richmond!"

The third installment of Lieut. Evans' memoirs will appear in an early issue. - Editor

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