Chapter 22 - History of Wyoming County

CHAPTER XXII.

A HARD YEAR'S FIGHTING BY THE EIGHTH NEW YORK HEAVY ARTILLERY.

THE history of this regiment is a terrible one. Volumes that will never be written are expressed in the truth that during its services it .lost nearly twelve hundred men in killed, wounded and missing. Twenty-two officers and two hundred and eleven men were killed, twenty-nine officers and six hundred and fifty-three men were wounded and fifty men missing.

This regiment was organized in the gloomiest period of the war. The Union troops in front of Richmond had been repulsed, and they awaited help to check the advance northward of the enemy. The demand of the hour was men. In this crisis the President issued a call for 300,000 troops, and it was in response to this that the 8th heavy artillery was organized. It was raised in the counties of Wyoming, Niagara, Orleans and Genesee by Colonel Peter A. Porter, of Niagara Falls under authority granted by Governor Fenton. It was completed and mustered into the service at Camp Church (Lock port) on the 22nd of August, 1862, with the following regimental officers: Colonel, Peter A. Porter, Niagara Falls; lieutenant- colonel, W. W. Bates, Orleans county; major, James M. Willett, Batavia; adjutant, E. L. Blake, Lockport; quartermaster, George B. Wilson, Lockport; surgeon, James M. Leet, Lockport; assistant surgeon, H. C. Hill, Somerset; chaplain, Gilbert De La Matyr. Wyoming county had in this regiment the following representatives:

Elias M. Doty, James Ellis, Lawrence Flynn. Edward Hooper. John Hush, Henry M Jones, George W. Kendal, Henry McMay, Carl Martin. Frederick Pilgrim, Henry Rush, Augustus Stuby, William Silsal, Marion Buck, Luke White, Attica; John Amerdick, David Burleigh, Ira Cross, Ervin Ewell, Kirk L. Ewell, N. Ferner, Adam Grill, J. G. Husch, Mart. Lingfield, Andrew Lingfield, S. Dexter Ludden, Stephen Myers, Michael Myers, Charles Rice, Friend Rice, John Shum, H. H. Van Dake, Eugene Plumley. Bennington; Elias Burt, Charles Scribner, William Scribner, Castile; Lyman Bennett, Ezra Flint, George W. Johnson, Hiram Johnson, Gainesville; Charles H. Fuller, J. B. Jewett. Stephen Judd, Middlebury; Thomas Cofield, Perry; Elias Gratton. Sheldon; John Aiken, Charles C. Bishop, Michael Burke, Lewis B. Clement, George Gibson, Alfred W. Hoyt, Milton W. Hurlburt Abraham Ennis Keeney, L. D. Mapes, Alburtis Sammis, Thomas J. Scribner, Luther J. Spencer, Charles E. Whittam, Warsaw; and H. Z. Owen, Wethersfield.

The regiment served from the time of its muster till the spring of 1864 in the defenses of Baltimore, with the exception of a short campaign to Harper's Ferry and in western Virginia. There it was subjected to none of the privations and too few of the restraints of military life. Officers' balls, company dances, Christmas, New Year and Thanksgiving feasts and merry makings varied the monotony of garrison duty, but none of the hardships of the field were encountered. During nearly two years they "played soldier."

On the morning of May 15th, 1864, the regiment was ordered to the front. About five o'clock in the evening of the 17th it crossed' the river on a pontoon. In almost every building were crowded the wounded from the recent battles of the Wilderness and Spottsylvania Court-house. The regiment marched through Fredericksburg and up the heights beyond the town, until at eight o'clock it stopped for rest and supper. At ten o'clock it started on the march again. Soon after two o'clock in the morning the welcome order was given to rest until daylight.

With the first light of morning the dull booming of distant cannon was heard. The 8th regiment had joined the great "battering ram," the Army of the Potomac, and was at the front. After breakfast it started in the direction of the firing, which was not heavy, nor was the engagement general. As the troops neared the scene of action they met numbers of wounded men moving to the rear with mangled limbs and bloody faces, while near the front lines others were waiting for stretchers. On the night of May 18th, 1864, they rested quietly, camped in a lovely spot. They remained there during the next day awaiting orders.

On the night of the 19th the 8th had its first encounter with the enemy. About 4 o'clock in the afternoon of that day the troops heard heavy musketry firing to the northeast of them, and they immediately started in that direction on the double quick. They soon began to meet the wounded and the bullets began to whistle over their heads. The regiment took a strong position in the second line and lay down behind the crest of a ridge. At dusk it advanced across a small stream and through a cornfield and was soon engaged. The first charge was made into the woods, where it was dark. The 8th was there until about 9 o'clock, directing its fire by the flash of the enemy's guns. The loss was light - 33 killed, wounded and missing. The wounded were carried to a field hospital and soon all was quiet again. Morning revealed only abandoned positions, for the enemy had fled with the darkness. After burying its dead the regiment returned to its old camp.

At midnight on the night of May 20th the regiment broke camp and went, via Bowling Green, to Milford Station, on the Richmond and Potomac Railroad, a distance of twenty- five miles, arriving after a steady march of fifteen hours at 3 P. M. There had been a brisk cavalry fight at Milford Station that day, and some of the wounded, with a few prisoners, were still there. The 8th rested there for dinner and marched again at 10 o'clock that night. About 5 o'clock in the evening of the 23d it arrived at North Anna river in the vicinity of the Chesterfield bridge. The rebels held an ugly fortification, which at 6 P. M., after a vigorous fire from three sections of artillery, was stormed and captured by Pierce's and Egan's brigades, of Birney's division. Thirty of the garrison were captured, and the remainder sent across the river in such haste that they were not able to burn the bridge. The 8th lay on its arms till morning. The rebels sent their compliments with early dawn. The 8th replied and continued to fire all day. From this time until June 2nd the regiment was most of the time on the road to Cold Harbor, meantime engaging in several sharp skirmishes.

About it A. M., June 2nd, this regiment took the front at Cold Harbor, relieving other troops. In an eager and confident frame of mind the men received the order to be ready to charge at 4 o'clock; and at that hour they were found sitting behind their breastworks, every man grasping his gun, ready to spring at the command. One of the officers of the regiment says: "We were acting very much unlike the stern and silent soldiers we read of, for we were laughing and chatting, speculating upon the prospect before us as if it were a mere holiday or some bore of a parade." But it began to rain and the order was countermanded. The sun went down under a cloud and thus night settled.

Thousands beheld the dawn on the 3d for the last time. The signal gun was fired at daybreak, when the men were not thinking so much about the order to advance as they were about their coffee.

The distance between the lines of the 8th and the rebel lines has been variously estimated at from seven hundred to one thousand yards. The first battalion, on the left of the regiment, was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Bates; the second, in the center, by Captain McGinnis (Major Spaulding being sick); the third, on the extreme right, by Major Willett. The batteries in the rear of the regiment opened a heavy fire simultaneously with the advance of the charging column, and the rebels replied no less vigorously. One after another went down beneath the storm of iron and lead which swept the plain. As the ranks thinned they closed up sternly, and, with arms at a trail and bayonets fixed, they pressed forward on a run without firing a shot. Down went the colors, the staff splintered and broken as well as the hand that held it; brave hands seized them again and bore them onward until the enemy's works were close' at hand. Colonel Porter fell, crying, "Close in on the colors, boys!" Major Willett was wounded, a large number of line officers lay dead and dying, one-third of the rank and file was hers du combat, a part of the regiment was floundering in the mire, the rebels were pouring in double charges of grape and canister at less than point blank range, sweeping away a score every moment. The line, having lost its momentum, stopped from sheer exhaustion within a stone's throw of the enemy's works.

All this transpired in a short time. The supporting line failed to come up - old soldiers declaring that it was foolhardiness to advance under such a fire; so the brave men of the 8th were compelled to look out for themselves. They began to dig, and every man was working himself into the ground. Every stump, mole hill, bush and tree was a shelter. Thus the regiment lay all day under the very noses of the rebels, and came away in squads, under cover of the darkness. This seemed as hazardous as the charge itself; for no sooner did the rebels detect a movement in their front than they opened a murderous fire of both musketry and artillery. Some were killed in attempting to come out; among them Captain Gardner, of Company I. An officer, describing the fire, says: "It was either more severe than in the morning, or darkness made it seem more terrible."

At 9 that night the regiment was in its old position and had brought away most of the severely wounded, who had been unable to get back during the day. The dead were lying where they fell. Some were buried during the night following, and some lay exposed till the truce of June 6th. No one knew exactly where the body of Colonel Porter lay, and all effort to find it during the night of the 3d proved unavailing. It was discovered the next day midway between the advanced pickets, about twenty yards from either. To recover it during the day was too hazardous to attempt, for the rebel sharpshooters were always on the alert. About midnight on the 4th Le Roy Williams crept stealthily from his picket post, followed by Samuel Traverse, of Company B, and in a few minutes they reached the body without attracting the attention of their vigilant neighbors. But they could not carry the body without rising to their feet, and that they dared not do; so Williams watched the body while Traverse returned to the pit and sent a comrade to the regiment after ropes. In less than an hour they had tent ropes enough to reach the body, and, having fastened one end to the feet of their dead commander, they lay on their faces, one behind the other, and gradually dragged the body to a place of comparative safety. From there it was taken to Colonel Bates's headquarters and then to the hospital, where it arrived about 3 o'clock on the morning of June 5th.

Greeley once said, in speaking of Colonel Porter: "He was but one among thousands actuated by like motives, but none ever volunteered with purer motives, or served with more unselfish devotion than Peter A. Porter." On the evening previous to the battle, he was asked, "Don't you think it very foolish to charge across there? We don't expect that many of us will ever come back alive." The colonel replied, "That has nothing to do with the matter. If I am ordered to go / shall go, and I think my regiment will follow me."

The following figures tell something of the desperate work the 8th heavy artillery performed in this action: Killed, 9 officers and 146 men; wounded, 14 officers and 323 men; missing, 1 officer and 12 men; making an aggregate loss of 24 officers and 481 men. The material that composed the regiment was equal to any that went out, and the story of its experience June 3d carried desolation to many once happy homes.

The regiment went from Cold Harbor to Petersburg, under Colonel Willet, engaging in sharp skirmishes on the way. Its services from this time forward, until the close of the war, were in and about Petersburg. Arriving there June 16th it was in the engagement of that day, and took part again on the 18th and 22nd. It fought at Ream's Station, Deep Bottom, Hatcher's Run and Appomattox, doing its full share of duty, and suffering the loss of 13 officers and 65 men killed, 15 officers and 230 men wounded, and 4 officers and 238 men missing.

June 4th, 1865, six companies were transferred to other regiments, and the next day the remaining six were mustered out.

SOURCE:  History of Wyoming County, N.Y., with Illustrations, Biographical Sketches and Portraits of Some Pioneers and Prominent Residents; F. W. Beers & Co.; 1880