Consequences Of The Skirmish At Lewis Farm, March 29, 1865

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At the end of October the war in Virginia went into hibernation. One could still get killed in such raids as just mentioned, snipers still plied their trade, and pickets and patrols clashed; but there could be no more major battles until the weather warmed up and the roads dried. In the meantime three events affected Elisha’s life in major ways. First, the Union voted again for Lincoln, confirming that the war would go on until the Confederacy was smashed. Second, in February Elisha had a furlough. To recuperate? Was he one of those nicked in the sorties to tear up railroad tracks? Or was he sick? Typhoid, dysentery, and “camp fevers” were common among the ranks of the Army of the Potomac. Did he go home? In A Son of the Middle Border , Hamlin Garland recalls his father’s coming home on leave from Sherman’s Western army in 1864: “My soldier dad taught me the manual of arms, and for a year Harriet and I carried broom-sticks, flourished lath sabers, and hammered on dishpans in imitation of officers and drummers.” Did Elisha have such a reunion with his family? Or perhaps a binge and a week in a whorehouse? I can never know.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was the kind of man you want on your side in a war, but not necessarily as your commanding officer.

The other event during the lull between battles—and of the three the most portentous for Elisha as an individual—was the appointment of Brig. Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, my antifather (my meaning will become clear presently), as commander of the V Corps’s 1st Brigade. Extensive combat experience, tactical skill, and almost suicidal courage had made a magnificent soldier of unlikely material: Chamberlain had been a professor of modern languages at Bowdoin College before the war. His conduct of the defense of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg, a defense that culminated with a bayonet charge as ammunition ran out, won him the Medal of Honor. In June of 1864 in one of the clashes that took place in the first days of the Petersburg siege, he was shot through the lower body. The projectile entered through the right hip joint and exited behind the left hip. He continued fighting and was in command of his troops until he collapsed. For his conduct that day Grant made him a brigadier general on the field. When Chamberlain took command of the 1st Brigade in November, he walked only with difficulty and was still unable to ride a horse.

He was the kind of man you want on your side during a war, but not necessarily as your commanding officer. His superiors would never waste his talents and mad courage on a safe command, and if perchance they did, he would be sure somehow to get himself and his troops into harm’s way. His presence as leader of the 1st Brigade guaranteed that one day, when the weather turned pleasant, Elisha Crosby would find himself in dreadful jeopardy.

Grant’s plan for the first days of spring, 1865, was to send a force to the left and, if possible, around the fraying end of the Confederate line. Blue-coated cavalry troopers would swing wide and, with luck, turn the Confederate flank. The infantrymen of the V Corps would advance with the intention to occupy the fields and woods just beyond the Confederate trench line, an area Lee could not surrender without risking his flank and entire army.

On March 28 Grant briefed President Lincoln on the River Queen , anchored off City Point, and on the next morning went off to direct the battle. His luck would be “the luck of all of us,” Lincoln said, “except for the poor fellows who are killed. Success won’t do them any good. They are the only ones not to be benefited by it.”

Grant’s luck, good or bad, would produce casualties, perhaps as high as 10,000 to 12,000. The medical corps of the Army of the Potomac prepared. As many patients currently in the City Point Hospital as could be moved were transferred to ships for transport elsewhere. The hospital added to its 5,935 beds another 1,000. Also readied were 525 ambulances, 154 army wagons, 55 medicine wagons, 1,666 horses, 994 mules, and 979 stretchers to carry the wounded. The ambulance corps on the eve of the battle consisted of 44 officers and 1,068 enlisted men. All this for the most awkward of the debris of combat, men too injured to be of use but not dead enough to be handled like lumber.

The Union cavalry, nine thousand strong, set off on March 29 at first dawning. I will concern myself no more with them; I had no kin on horseback that day. In early morning the soldiers of the V Corps moved out. They marched double-quick westward through the dark, then north on Quaker Road. Their objective was the juncture of Quaker Road with the Boydton plank road. General Chamberlain and the 1st Brigade were in the van. The men of the 185th now began to pay the price for being a fresh regiment in a tired army and of having an extraordinarily courageous leader.

They encountered the enemy’s advance posts at a brook called Gravelly Run. The Confederates, a line of pickets, fell back on the main body of their forces. The men of the 1st Brigade waded the stream, re-formed on the other side, and advanced north. At 4:00 P.M. they came to a locality of wood and field called Lewis Farm. Elisha, a middle-aged man, had been on his feet for thirteen hours. The air was vibrant with the drone and crack of the passage of minié balls.