Captain B. J. Reid
Company F

Letter describing the Battle of Fair Oaks

“Bivouac at Fair Oaks, Va.,
Six and a half miles from Richmond
June 10, 1862

“On the memorable 21st of May, our camp was about a mile this side of the Chickahominy, at some rifle pits on the railroad, at eleventh milepost from Richmond. Two of our companies (I and K) were two miles distant, down the Chickahominy, erecting a bridge. Colonel Hays and Captain Berringer (acting Major) were three or four miles off, southward, inspecting the picket lines of our (Kearney's) division. At 2 o'clock Company F went to a knoll across the railroad to bury Corporal Dunmire, who had died early that morning. While at the grave the heavy rattle of musketry was distinctly heard to the westward, mingle with the booming of cannon, which we had noticed an hour before without paying much attention to it, from its being of frequent occurrence. Hastening back to camp, after the close of the ceremonies, we found the regiment forming for the march.

“Our brigade (Jameson's) was ordered forward. Lieutenant Colonel Morgan was in command of the Sixty-third Regiment. We started out the railroad track, on the usual “route-step”; but had not proceeded far when we were met b a courier from General Kearney, and the command “double quick!” was given. Besides arms and accoutrements and sixty rounds of ammunition in the men's cartridge boxes, we had our canteens and our haversacks filed with three days' rations. We had had a heavy thunder storm the previous day and night, and although the sky was still clouded, the air was close and sultry.

“Sickness had thinned our ranks and considerably weakened most of those still on duty * * * For my own part, though not decidedly sick, I had been rather unfit for nearly two weeks, and when it came to the double quick, I found it very hard to keep up. Under almost any other circumstances I should have sunk by the wayside; but, by throwing away my haversack and making extraordinary exertions, I kept my place at the head of my company. Quite a number in the regiment fell out of ranks, unable to keep it up; but on the regiment pressed toward the awful roar of fire arms, growing closer and louder every moment.

“After making two and a half miles on the railroad, we obliqued across some fields to the left and struck the Williamsburg and Richmond turnpike, near the point known as “Seven Pines”. Here we met a stream of men going back—some wounded—but most flying in panic. We made our way along the turnpike amid a perfect shower of solid shot and shell from the enemy's batteries, that enfiladed the road and its immediate vicinity. This severe cannonade increased the haste and confusion of the fugitives, and gave us a foretaste of what was before us.

“On we pressed, led and cheered on by General Jameson, who appeared unconscious of danger from the shells bursting on all sides. We double-quicked over a mile through this rainstorm, meeting now and then a piece of artillery or caisson in full retreat—having probably run out of ammunition, and fearful of being captured. IT was to turn back this tide of battle that we were pushing forward.

“Part of Berry's Brigade of our division had preceded us a little way, and were already engaged in what seemed an unequal conflict with superior numbers. Casey's Division—the first attacked—had by this time, all fallen far to the rear and were effectually hors du combat. At length we reached the point where the rifle balls of the enemy began to mingle with their heavier shot. We halted a moment to allow the left of the regiment to close up. Then up again and forward. For some distance back there had been woods on both sides; but we had now reached a point where Casey had felled the timber on both sides, to form an “abattis”. Just beyond were the large open fields where his camps had been, and where his deserted tents were still standing. Here was the enemy's line of battle.

“Our regiment was deployed on the left of the road—the One Hundred and Fifth Pennsylvania Volunteers and Eighty-seventh New York (of our brigade) on the right. We deployed just behind the “slash” or abattis, and had then to march over it, or crawl through it in line of battle, to reach the front. Just as Company F was filing into line, General Jameson cried out, “Captain Reid, go in there and don't come out until you have driven every rebel out of that brush!” As soon as the line was formed, we advanced through the slash, our line resting on the road. This advance was very difficult, owing to the felled and tangled timber. And all the while bullets and shells were flying like hail, over and among us, coming from an enemy as yet unseen.

“A few rods further was a belt of sapling pines and oaks, on the left of the road, not yet felled. Passing a few rods through this brought us to the front where, just at the edge of the saplings, a slender line of Berry's Brigade was trying to hold its ground against a host of rebels hid in a strip of brush and fallen timber, close in front of them concealed behind Casey's tents a little further beyond, and protected by three houses, a long row of cord-wood, and a line of Casey's rifle-pits, still beyond, where they had capture two of our batteries and were now turning our own guns against us with terrible effect. Here, just in the edge of the saplings, we halted and opened fire.

“The crash and roar was grand. Berry's men were cheered up, and the rebels appalled by the intensity of our steady and rapid fire. But the firing both ways was intense. Our line was already strewn with dead and wounded. Almost at the first fire, Sergeant Elgin of my company, a splendid soldier, fell at my side, dead. A little further along the line, to the right, Orderly Sergeant Delo was a few moments afterward killed. Then Private Rhees feel near the former. Now and then, two, one of my men would walk or be carried, wounded, to the rear.

“We soon discovered that the most deadly fire came from the swampy-brush-wood and fallen timber close by us. We could see the smoke of the rifles among the brush, and by watching sharply, could distinguish a head or an arm half hidden. IT was evident that the patch of brush was full of rebels, and we soon turned our attention chiefly in that direction. A Michigan man close by me fell dead, just as he loaded his piece. I thought I saw where the shot came from, and seized his loaded gun in time to level it at a crouching rebel there, who seemed about to fire again. He was not thirty yards from me. There appeared to be a race between us; but I shot first, and the rebel rolled over backwards in the swamp, and troubled us no more. Under the circumstances, I had no compunction about it. I took the balance of the dead man's cartridges and used his gun the rest of the evening.

“That spot soon became too hot for its occupants, and a few tried to fall back from it, but as they had a piece of open field to pass in order to reach a safer shelter, scarcely one escaped alive. I was there two days afterwards, and although the rebels had buried great numbers of their dead Saturday night and Sunday, I found that little piece of brushy swamp and abattis literally filled with rebel dead. The scene was a sad one after the excitement of battle was over.

“Middling early in the fight, our Lieutenant Colonel was wounded and carried off the field. Thus left without any field officer, we fought on, keeping our ground, unsupported by artillery and reinforcements, although the enemy had both. We could plainly see fresh regiments brought up and deployed in line, strengthening and relieving the others, thinned by our fire. Two or three times they appeared formed, as for a charge, but they did not attempt it where we were. They did, however, charge on the extreme right of our brigade and by overwhelming pressure, compelled it to give way.

“The enemy followed up their advantage with great vigor and before sundown they had succeeded in flanking us so far on that side, that they had possession of the turnpike behind us. Then it was that Colonel Campbell coming up with his regiment (the Fifty-seventh Pennsylvania of our brigade) and our own Colonel Hays with Companies I and K, made such splendid efforts to turn back the advancing wave. Colonel Hays rapidly gathered up about half a regiment of straggling fugitives, rallied them for a stand, and forming them about his own companies, led them to the charge, supported by the Fifty-seventh. Both Colonels and both regiments did gallantly and checked the enemy for awhile, but being reinforced, the latter advanced again with unbroken front and Colonel Hays' miscellaneous recruits gave way, leaving only Companies I and K to breast the wave. He reluctantly withdrew from the unequal contest, as did also the Fifty-seventh.

“It was sundown and General Jameson had given the order for our whole brigade to fall back to an entrenched position, on the turnpike about a mile and a half to the rear, having the advantages of wide, open fields in front on both sides of the road, where our batteries would have a good range to guard against a night attack. Somehow or other, I believe from the cowardice or other default of our courier charged with the delivery of the order, it never reached us, and after the other regiments of the brigade had gone safely back, and the enemy had followed them a considerable distance along the turnpike behind us, we still held our position on the left of the road in the very front of where the hottest of the battle had been.

“I knew well, from he direction of the firing on our right, that the enemy had succeeded in flanking us on that side, and there was still light enough to see fresh regiments beyond the houses moving toward our left. Our men had shot away all their ammunition, except perhaps one or two cartridges apiece, and had emptied besides, the cartridge boxes of our dead and wounded. Captain Kirkwood, of Company B, succeeding to the command as senior Captain, asked my advice as to what he should do. I told him we had done all we could for that day; that under the circumstances to remain there longer was to expose what was left of the regiment to be sacrificed or captured as in a few minutes the only avenue of escape left us would be cut off. We had sent back all our wounded that we could find; the dead we could not possibly take with us through the slash and swamps we would have to cross.

“Accordingly the Captain gave the order to fall back slowly, just as it was growing dark. After I had seen that we had left none of our men behind and could get no further answer to my calls than the whiz of bullets that still came flying from the rifle-pits behind the house, we turned our men into a by-path that diverged considerably from the main road, which was held by the enemy in force, and from which they greeted us with random and harmless volleys. A little further on I was struck by a spent fragment of a shell, causing a slight smart for a few minutes, but without breaking the skin. That was the only time I was even touched that day by any of the enemy's missiles. I never can be sufficiently thankful to Almighty God for my preservation from the showers of bullets that whistled close to me; it seemed almost incredible that I was not touched. I walked through that belt of little pines on Monday after the battle and it astonished even me to see how almost every sapling of two or three inches thickness was spotted all over with bullet marks, from the ground up to the height of a man's head. It may be my lot to be in many another battle, but I do not believe I can ever be placed in a situation of greater apparent danger.

* * * * *

“We succeeded in rejoining our brigade at about 10 o'clock that night. We found them on the east side of a large tract of about a mile square, on both sides of the turnpike, collected and disposed in order of battle—protected in part by earthworks, commenced by Generals Casey and Couch on their first advance, and which our generals were now busy extending and strengthening to be ready for emergencies.

“Striking across the opening, we found some of Hooker's division which had arrived from the left and rear just as the firing had ceased. They were fresh for the work in the morning. Inquiring as we went along the lines, we found that Kearney and Jameson were in the edge of the woods on the north side of the turnpike. * * *

“General Jameson was overjoyed to see so many of the Sixty-third safe, and returning in a body in good order. He led us to Kearney's headquarters, where we found Colonel Hays and Companies I and K. Here we got some crackers and hot coffee and rested on our arms until morning. Here, too, we learned that besides Hooker, who came from the left, Richardson's and Sedgwick's divisions of Sumner's Corps, had arrived from the other side of the Chickahominy on our right, just in time to give and take, before dark, a volley or two with the left wing of the Rebel Army, which was moving down on the north side of the railroad expecting to cut off our retreat. So the prospect for the morning's work was much more agreeable than it would have been in the absence of such comfortable reinforcements.

“* * * Sunday morning the rebels advanced boldly to the attack, coming up to the edge of he woods in front of us, but Hooker's division on the turnpike and Sumner's troops on the railroad—our brigade being held as a “reserve”—met and routed them in a couple of hours' fighting, without any need of our help.

“Ever since we have been kept in position, changing only by advancing, ready for battle at any moment. There has been some skirmishing since, between the pickets, and an occasional cannonade from one or both sides, but nothing more as yet. I think, however, the great Battle of Richmond will be fought this week, if it is to be fought at all.

“* * * Our regiment lost twenty-one killed, eighty-one wounded, and seventeen missing.”

B. J. Reid
Company F

Source: Gilbert Adams Hays, Captain. Under the Red Patch: Story of the Sixty-third Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1864. Published by the 63d Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment Association. Pittsburg: Market Review Publishing Company, 1908.






U. S. C. T.

©  Alice J. Gayley, all rights reserved

Web Space provided by