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Record 44/294
Compiled diaries of Richard Lester and Henry B. Harshaw (1st Sergeant and 2nd Lieutenant) Company E, 2nd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. Written when they were clerks in Madison, WI. The diary begins in May 1864 until muster out in Madison un July 1864. It gives great details of battles and marches: Operations of the "Iron Brigade" in the Spring Campaign of 1864 The "Iron Brigade" broke camp at Culpepper Ct., Va., at midnight of the 3rd of May, 1864, and marched, as part of the 5th Corps, by way of Stevensburg to old Wilderness Tavern, where it arrived at dusk of the 4th after a march of about twenty-five miles, having crossed the Rapidan river at Germania Ford. While the Corps bivouacked here for the night, the 2nd Wisconsin was strung out on the Chancellorsville pike as far as Chancellorsville for the purpose of keeping open communication with the 2nd Corps, which was bivouacked there. By daylight of the next morning the regiment had rejoined the brigade and with it, and the rest of the division, moved in a westerly direction across open ground, in front of the Tavern, and entered the woods. Soon after doing so the advance encountered the enemy in position. The division was immediately formed for attack. In the formation the 2nd Wisconsin became the rear of the brigade as reserve. At the command "Forward", the division crept, for some way, through the heavy growth of pine and underbrush and gallantly attacked the enemy with momentary success, driving in his first and second lines, when he being re-enforced the division had to retire before superior numbers. Soon after the troops became engaged, the 2nd Wisconsin, was, by order of Genl. Wadsworth, moved to the rear of the brigade on the left of ours with instructions to fire on some Penn. regiments in its immediate front if they broke. It gives me pleasure to state that no necessity arose for executing these instructions. When the tide of battle commenced turning against us the 2nd Wisconsin was moved by the right flank to the right of our brigade and then ordered to advance to the front and support our line. Moving by the left flank as briskly as possible, in such woods, the regiment was brought suddenly to a halt by receiving a terrific volley in its front. Stunned by such an unexpected reception, at that time, some time was lost, and a little confusion ensued, in hesitancy to return this fire, from the fear, that some of our own men would be the sufferers, while men were falling thick and fast from its severe and continuous effects. As soon, however, as a glimpse was had of the enemy, about seventy-five yards or less ahead, a proper return was made, but to little purpose, for a glance around showed, that this regiment only confronted the whole enemy, everything else having retired. With no support on the right, on the left nor in the rear (except one regiment which was met coming up in the rear, when retiring) a hasty withdrawal became imperative and was made. After this repulse the division assembled on the open ground, in front of the Tavern, and reformed. Thus ended this brief but fierce engagement, being the first, after crossing the Rapidan, in which infantry took part. On account of the difficulty of getting out of the woods a large loss in prisoners was sustained. The woods also became on fire and many of the wounded must have met a fearful death. The 2nd regiment went into this action with an effective force of about two hundred and twenty men and sustained a very heavy loss. After laying in line of battle, in front of the Tavern, until about 4 o'clock P. M., the division was ordered to go to the support of the 2d Corps, which was placed on the left of the 5th Corps, and which had become engaged by this time. The division was formed in the woods, in front of the position of the enemy known as the "Plank Roads." The 2nd Wisconsin was again in the rear of the brigade. A fierce struggle was going on for the possession of these roads. The 7th was, I believe, the only Wisconsin regiment which became actively engaged at this point, and I am not certain but what it was the only one of the brigade. All the troops in that vicinity, however, were subjected to a severe artillery fire. Things quieted down at dusk and the men lay on their arms all night, startled occasionally by the firing of the skirmishers. The skirmishers of the enemy and ours could, by persons in the rear line, be distinctly heard talking to each other during the night. Morning came and with it a renewal of the struggle, in which we were finally repulsed. The 7th Wisconsin once held, for a short time, the enemy's first line of breastworks in its front, being the only regiment of all those making the attempt which had done so. In the repulse this regiment got separated from the brigade and division and was deemed to have been captured until it rejoined us next morning. It had, it seems, got mixed up with the 2nd Corps and continued fighting therewith. After the repulse regiments were, to some extent, broken up, but soon quickly reformed and slowly retreated to the open ground. I might here state, that this open ground, in front of the Tavern, was somewhat in the shape of a basin, with raising hills skirted with heavy woods surrounding it. On this open ground, at the base of a hill facing in a westerly direction, the division was placed as, apparently, a reserve, and remained there during the night. In the afternoon of the 7th it was moved along the base of the hills some three hundred yards to the right. The brigade was then placed in rear of a line of breastworks on the brow of a hill held by some regular troops of our Corps. All quiet in our immediate front except the occasional firing of the skirmishers. Towards dusk troops commenced to assemble within the basin until it was apparently full. Sometime after it became dusk the "Johnnies" sent up their characteristic unearthly yell from one and of their lines to the others apparently by order, being taken up by regiment, while our men soon sent up a returning cheer, spontaneous and individual. At 9 o'clock P. M. the whole Corps moved to the Germania plank road and then proceeded in the direction of Spottsylvania C. H. Marching all night. Some part of the way in rear of the first line of the 2nd Corps, which was on the edge of the road on which our Corps was marching. It reached the base of Laurel Hill, at about 8 o'clock of the morning of the 8th, after a march of about fifteen miles. From the dead and dying which strewed the ground in this vicinity, it was evident, that the advance guard of cavalry had been hotly engaged. The infantry had now arrived to take their place. Lines of battle were rapidly formed at the base of the hill, and no sooner formed than advanced up the hill through thick woods for some way, but to no effect, as the enemy held it in strong force, in a position made impregnable by nature and art. Our forces soon retired to the base of the hill again and threw up, and occupied, strong intrenchments. The position of the brigade here, was in the edge of some woods on the top of a small hill, with an open hollow in front, about one hundred yards across, on the opposite side of which rose a steep hill, covered with thick woods, and from the brow of which it stretched forth an open field in front of the enemy's breastworks. Excepting heavy skirmishing, nothing was done here until the afternoon of the 10th, when the brigade advanced out of its works, crossed the open space and crept up the hill as far as the brow when the terrific and continuous fire which met them, proved an insurmountable obstacle to crossing the open field, and as it was sure death to stand up there and waste of powder to fire, the men lay down on the side of the hill for protection, until the attempt to force the enemy out of his strong position, was, for the time, abandoned, when they retired to their works in obedience to orders. At night a grand, but also an unsuccessful, attack was made on this position, with a portion of the 2nd Corps forming part of the attacking column, and the brigade in the rear 1ine. The brigade during the night was again ordered back to its works. The troops of the 2nd Corps, however, threw up and occupied breastworks on the side of the hill, in our front. On the 11th the 2nd Wisconsin, having become reduced to less than one hundred men for duty, was detailed as Division Provost Guard. On the morning of the 12th an unsuccessful attack was again made, on this position, in which the brigade took a part. The attack, by Hancock, on our left had proved a success and in the afternoon the Division moved to his support. At this point (right of 2nd Corps) a portion of the brigade on its arrival, received some of Hancock's troops who occupied the enemy's first line of intrenchments, gained in the attack in the morning, while the enemy held his second line. A constant fire was kept up here by our men during the whole afternoon and night to prevent the enemy from obtaining possession of, and using, some of his artillery, which lay between both lines. I believe that the 7th Wisconsin and the 7th Indiana (2nd Brigade) were the first regiments to relieve Hancock's troops and they in turn were relieved by the 6th Wisconsin and 24th Michigan. Sometime in the night the whole division, excepting the brigade, retraced its steps to near the position it had left in the morning. The brigade rejoined the division in the morning. Remained quietly in position here until about 9 o'clock P.M. of the 13th, when the whole Corps started to occupy Burnside's position, which was on the left of our army, he moving therefrom to the left. Marching all night without halting, in the deep darkness, in the rain, through the deep and sticky mud, through woods, and across fields as far as the river, which was spanned by a bridge, then crossing this, followed a road leading into the Fredericksburg and Spottsylvania Ct. road, then, when reached, taking the latter road in the direction of Spottsylvania Ct. and passing over a bridge across the river again, we arrived, by daylight of the 14th, within about a mile and a half of the C. H., after a march of about eight miles, where the division went into position behind works, on the right of the road. Remained in this position with occasional artillery duels and lively skirmishing until the 21st. In the afternoon of that day the division vacuated its position and prepared to take its part in the next grand flank movement of our army. Marching in a south-easterly direction until the Bowling Green pike was struck and then following it southward to near a farm house about five miles from Guineas' Station the division came to a halt about dusk after a march of about eight miles. Bivouacked here for the night with breastworks thrown up in front as the enemy (Ewell's Corps) was in close proximity. At 9 o'clock A.M. of the 22nd resuming the march we followed on the heels of the retreating enemy as far as Wolf's Church where we arrived at dusk after a march of some ten miles and bivouacked for the night. Early next morning we again resumed the march and arrived, at about 3 or 4 o'clock P.M. near the North Anna. river at a point a mile or so to the left of Jericho ford. On our arrival our cavalry were skirmishing with the enemy on the banks of the river and the brigade was sent to their assistance. In about an hour thereafter the 2nd Corps arrived to take the place of our corps when the brigade being relieved rejoined the division and lead the way to Jericho ford. It seems that immediately on our arrival near the river Griffin with his division had been sent to cross at Jericho ford and secure a position on the high hills beyond covering the ford. He had done so without opposition and intrenched himself. The enemy having discovered his position prepared to attack him in flank with overwhelming numbers and were in the act of doing so when our brigade commenced forming line on his right and consequently received the onslaught of the enemy before the formation was completed which threw it into confusion and caused it to fall back a little way. Order was quickly produced though and a bold front presented to the enemy. In the meantime Batry. "B", 4th U. S. Arty. had crossed the river and taken up position on a high hill overlooking the ford and when the brigade fell back opened with such effect on that point as to bring to a sudden halt the onward careen of the enemy. One hundred of the enemy's dead were found here next morning. This brief but severe engagement ended in the repulse of the enemy and the firm establishment of our lines on the south of the river. Remained on this battle field with everything quiet in the immediate front until the morning of the 25th. A division of the 6th Corps held a gap between the left of the 5th Corps and the right of the 2nd Corps. Early on the said morning our division moved about a mile and a half to the left to take up a position on the left of this division of the 6th Corps. Arriving there about 8 A.M. lines of battle were formed with skirmishers in front and an advance made into the woods. A successful establishment of our line with breastworks thrown up was made therein while heavy skirmishing was going on. Remained here with occasional skirmishing in front until 9 o'clock P.M. of the 26th when orders were received to recross the river. Starting in half an hour thereafter we moved slowly along crossing the river on a temporary constructed bridge covered over with sand to deaden the sound and reached Magnolia Church where rations were issued to the troops. Receiving these the march was continued to Mangobrick where we arrived at dusk on the 24th and bivouacked for the night. At 6 A.M. of the 28th we marched to and crossed the Paumuky (?) river near Uno Castle (?), climed the hills in front took position thereon and threw up breastworks. Distance marched this day about eighteen miles. At noon of the 29th moved south two miles to the front and at 9 o' clock A.M. next morning again moved about an equal distance to the front. While doing so Griffin's division which had moved before us and taken up an intrenched position in front of a road was finally attacked by the enemy and our division had to move up to his support on the "double quick" and take position on the left, throwing up slight breastworks in front. The enemy was repulsed on all sides and suffered very heavily. Heavy firing on our left and right on the 31st but quiet in the immediate front of the division. On the 1st of June moved about half a mile to the front and took intrenched position in the woods near Bethesda Church. Our lines being but a very short distance from those of the enemy. Here the division remained exposed day and night to the occasional firing of artillery and musketry until the 5th when it moved about five miles to the left to Cold Harbor. On the 7th it moved to the Chickahouming and the brigade was stationed near the north band of that river at a point about one mile to the right of where the Richmond and West Point R.R. crosses it. Up to the 11th the brigade was employed in doing picket duty here. Up to this time the 2nd Wisconsin had continued on duty as Provost Guard of the division and its term of duty having expired the now veterans of the regiment started at 4 o'clock A. M. of the 11th for the White House Landing and embarking on board a steamer at noon of the next day proceeded to Washington City and from there by rail to Madison Wis., where they arrived on the 18th. Owing to the delay consequent on awaiting the arrival of necessary papers from Washington the last of them were not mustered out of the service until the 2nd of July. I shall never--nor will, I think, any member of the command present--forget the splendid and hearty manner in which the "Old Second" was greeted on its return to the Capitol of the State. It had for three long years represented on the battle field in as good a cause as ever soldiers fought and died for. Richard Lester (This history of the Campaign of 1864 was compiled by Richard Lester and myself in September 1864 when we were clerks in Madison, Wis. The data taken from diaries kept by him and myself. H.B. Harshaw.)
History compiled from the diaries of Richard Lester and Henry Harshaw -THE CIVIL WAR -Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
Lester & Harshaw

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