A Civil War Soldier’s Memoir
Theodore F. Vaill, First Lieutenant and Adjutant, authored a History of the Second Connecticut Volunteer Heavy Artillery, published in 1868 in Winsted, Conn. The full text is available online through The University of Connecticut Library.
In trying to understand more about my family, I found this lucid, well-written book. While I haven’t read it in its entirety, I wanted to excerpt two passages; the first to give a sense of what Charley Seger and Robert Ames and the Sterry men experienced; the second because I was impressed with the frank discussion of race and racism made by Lieut. Vaill.
The first battalion, with the colors in the center, moved directly forward through the scattering woods, crossed the open field at a double-quick, and entered another pine wood, of younger and thicker growth, where it came upon the first line of rebel rifle pits, which was abandoned at its approach. Passing this line, the Battalion moved on over sloping ground until it reached a small, open hollow, within fifteen or twenty yards of the enemy’s main line of breastworks. There had been a thick growth of pine sprouts and saplings on this ground, but the rebels had cut them, probably that very day, and had arranged them so as to form a very effective abbattis,—thereby clearing the spot, and thus enabling them to see our movements.
Up to this point there had been no firing sufficient to confuse or check the battalion; but here the rebel musketry opened. The commander of the rebel battalion directly in our front, whoever he was, had his men under excellent control, and his fire was held until our line had reached the abbattis, and then systematically deliered—first by his rear rank, and then by his front rank. A sheet of flame, sudden as lightning, red as blood, and so near that it seemed to singe the men’s faces, burst along the rebel breastwork; and the ground and trees close behind our line were ploughed and riddled with a thousand balls that just missed the heads of the men.
The battalion dropped flat on the ground, and the second volley, like the first, nearly all went over. Several men were struck, but not a large number. It is more than probable that if there had been no other than this front fire, the rebel breastworks would have been ours, notwithstanding the pine boughs. But at that moment a long line of rebels on our left, extending all the way to the Richmond road, having nothing in their own front to engage their attention, and having unobstructed range on the battalion, opened a fire which no human valor could withstand, and which no pen can adequately describe. The appended list of casualties tells the story.
It was the work of almost a single minute. The air was filled with sulphurous smoke, and the shrieks and howls of more than two hundred and fifty mangled men rose above the yells of triumphant rebels and the roar of their musketry. About Face! shouted Colonel Kellogg,—but it was his last command. He had already been struck in the arm, and the words had scarcely passed his lips when another shot pierced his head, and he fell dead upon the interlacing pine boughs. Wild and blind with wounds, bruises, noise, smoke, and conflicting orders, the men staggered in every direction, some of them falling upon the very top of the rebel parapet, where they were completely riddled with bullets,—others wandering off into the woods on the right and front, to find their way to death by starvation at Andersonville, or never to be heard from again.
The news must have been devastating in this small community of interrelated families when they received word of the slaughter of the C.V.H.A. at Cold Harbor.
From Civil War Volunteer Sons of Connecticut by Blaikie Hines, American Patriot Press:
More soldiers credited to Kent were listed as casualties (15) on this day than on any other day of the war. Seven soldiers were killed, 7 wounded, and one wounded & captured in the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery. One of the wounded died.…
The date June 1, 1864 ranks 8th for total casualties (374) (89 killed, 10 missing, 246 wounded, 23 captured, 6 wounded & captured) for a single day for the State of Connecticut.
Vaill articulates the poignancy of their losses and the irony created by slow communication of the day:
Artillery and picket firing continued through the entire twelve days during which the lines at Cold Harbor were held, and casualties occurred in the regiment almost daily. On the 4th, the accumulated letters of many days arrived, in the first mail received since our departure from the Defences. Many, oh! how many letters came for those who were beneath the soil! The great New York dailies— the “Tribune,” “Times,” and “Herald,”—came to hand, full of war news; but for once we were the possessors of important news in advance of these almost omniscient journals.
After Cold Harbor, the Second Connecticut ferried across the Appamatox to the vicinity of Petersburg. Vaill recounts this encounter with black soldiers:
In the afternoon we moved to Harrison’s Creek, and relieved a portion of Hinks’ Brigade of Colored Troops, who were holding a line of rifle pits which, together with two guns, they had captured four days before. While halting a few minutes near one of their regiments we had a good opportunity to converse with and observe them, which was well improved. Many of them were men of fine physique, and soldierly bearing; and as we contemplated their stacks of muskets, and then surveyed the rebel lines just ahead, (which we knew somebody must take,) there was not a man of the “superior Anglo-Saxon race ” in all the division, with brains enough to put two ideas together, who would have deemed “niggers” unfit for soldiers.
“Well, you colored fellows have had a pretty rough job, I reckon,” said one of our men, in a tone of respectful and neighborly inquiry; (for observe, when white soldiers stand side by side with black ones, facing rebel breastworks, and not knowing what an hour may bring forth, they never “damn the niggers,” nor insult them in any way. Such proofs of what Pollard calls “superiourity” are only exhibited by warriors who fight battles at extreme long range—a range of five or six hundred miles—and who have meaner than “nigger” blood in their veins.) “Yes, we have,” was the reply, “as rough as we care for. We have to die for eight dollars a month, while you get thirteen for the same business. That’s what we call rough. It's poor encouragement, anyhow.”
Was not that a reasonable answer? It certainly would have been if it had come from a white man.