Laurel Hill and Spotsylvania Court House
That evening the regiment began a "slow and tedious" all-night march toward Spotsylvania Court House, and arrived at the foot of Laurel Hill just after daybreak on May 8. The men had been "much fatigued by three days fighting." It was a difficult march, and although they passed many fresher troops along the way, they were allowed only a few ten minute stops. Both armies hurried to reach the town of Spotsylvania Court House, where several important roads merged. On the Brock Road, the main road between the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, the most important position was Laurel Hill, which commanded the road. Lee's army arrived at Laurel Hill first and the Confederate commanders placed troops across the road to hinder the Union advance. The cavalry leading the advance failed to overcome this opposition, and the infantry took the lead. Needing to quickly dislodge the enemy from its commanding position, the 44th N.Y. and the 83rd Penn. were ordered to attack what was thought to be only dismounted cavalry. (1)
The two regiments reached an open field to the right of the Brock road before 9 A.M.. Lines of battle were formed, with the 44th on the left of the road and the 83rd Penn. on the right. The weary, hungry men had just paused to eat their meager breakfast of hard tack when the order to attack arrived. Despite a protest from Colonel Conner over the strength of the enemy in their front, General Bartlett, their brigade commander, stood by the order. Without being allowed to even remove their knapsacks, the men, led by their company commanders, began a spirited charge against the enemy lines. (2) Woodworth, in his brightly colored suit, joined the charge in the front as a member of the color guard, in which four men remained out of the eight who had entered the Wilderness. (3)
As soon as the charging soldiers were within range, the Confederates released "a murderous fire of musketry and artillery" upon them, and they discovered well-entrenched infantry. The 83rd Penn. reached the Confederate works and began a "furious" bayonet battle. But the 44th N.Y. never reached the enemy's lines. Their charge was stopped short of the works by a tangle of log and brush. The Ellsworth Avengers exchanged "brisk" fire at close range with the enemy. Noticing the lack of any supporting troops on either side of the attacking units, the Confederates launched a counterattack against the left flank of the 44th N.Y., whose men failed to discover the movement until it was nearly too late. (4) Sergeant Charles Prudhom of Company E recalled that "the engagement was very fierce and sanguinary and fought under much confusion." (5) The Confederate attack soon threatened the rear of both regiments, and the situation became a matter of survival. Captain Wood lay on the ground near the front of the regiment, behind a little rise, and saw several of the color bearers shot down to his left. When Captain Nash grabbed the colors and ran to the rear, he knew it was time to escape. (6) He was too late, as he was surrounded by enemy soldiers. The 44th N.Y. retreated as the enemy attempted to surround them, and several men were missing when it reformed in the rear of the battlefield, including Captain Wood and James Woodworth. (7)
Looking at the battlefield, James Sperling, Woodworth's tentmate and longtime friend, noticed James Woodworth, still in his Zouave suit, lying about 250 feet away - dead. With the enemy in plain sight, however, it was not safe to go after the bodies on the field, and they stayed where they were. (8) Grant's army never took Laurel Hill; he later decided to march around Lee's army. The bodies were never recovered. The regiment was soon moved behind the general line of battle which had formed, and spent the remainder of the day in reserve. (9) The color guard had protected the flag, but lost all but one of its members. (10) The flag itself was badly shot up. Eighteen inches of the staff had been taken off, including the eagle that sat on top of it. (11) Within the regiment, a total of 20 men were killed, 41 wounded, 7 wounded and captured, and 23 captured, for a total of 91 men lost. Of that number, 5 killed, 5 wounded, and 4 captured were members of the Normal School Company. (12)
The captured men of Company E, including Captain Wood, Sergeant Prudhom, Corporal Oscar Tooker, and Private John Hocknell, were among 400 prisoners recaptured the next day by General George Custer's Brigade of General Philip Sheridan's Cavalry Corps, when they were within half a mile of the railroad cars that were to take them to Richmond. They instead traveled with the cavalry to a Union depot and rejoined the regiment on May 26. The regiment reformed in the rear of the battlefield, was moved behind the general line of battle which had formed, and spent the remainder of the day in reserve.
The regiment remained in reserve until noon of the 10th, when the 44th was ordered to the front to join a planned assault by the Fifth Corps on the enemy's lines, which appeared "very formidable" in "plain view." All preparations were made, the men stood in wait, but the movement failed and Griffin's division, located on the left of the corps front, was never called into action. (13)
After the failed assault, the 44th assumed a support role at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, with many short marches back and forth within the Union lines. The regiment saw little fighting, and suffered only 7 wounded, none of which were within Company E. The 44th relieved the 16th Mich. on picket duty on the May 11 and remained until the next morning, when the brigade was moved to works previously occupied by Hancock's Second Corps, which had assaulted and carried the first line of the Confederate works that morning. The remainder of the Fifth Corps, minus Bartlett's brigade, made another unsuccessful assault on Laurel Hill later that same morning. With Gouverneur Warren, the Fifth Corps commander out of favor with Grant and Meade due to overcautiousness, his corps was broken into various detachments and frequently moved around. By 7:30 A.M. the Third Brigade was removed from its position and sent to the left to support the Sixth Corps. Three hours later, it rejoined its division and was placed east of the Brock Road to protect the works of the Sixth Corps, which had been moved nearer to the fighting. During the late afternoon, the division marched to support the Second Corps, defending their newly captured works from the Confederates, who had fallen back to the safety of their second lines. At 2:00 A.M. on the May 13, the brigade was returned to the right of the Brock Road where it guarded the entrenchments of the Sixth Corps, and the Army of the Potomac received a congratulatory message from General Meade. (14)
At 9:00 P.M. that night, the regiment rejoined the Fifth Corps and commenced a rainy, muddy march toward Spotsylvania Court House. But Lee had occupied that town shortly before the Union arrival on the morning of May 14. Skirmishers were thrown out, breastworks were constructed, a line of battle was formed, and no movement was made until the May 17, when they moved 1 mile forward and "to the left" where the soldiers dug new trenches. The commanders again ordered out skirmishers, who were "hotly engaged." During this time Union artillery in the rear fired over the heads of the infantrymen toward the enemy. They remained in this same position until the May 21, and during this time, the men kept low to the ground to avoid sniper fire, an act that required "watchfulness and constant preparedness." Sufficient skirmishing occurred during the time to "keep the troops on the alert." The brigade left its position and marched to the rear on May 21. The opposing Confederates, believing it to be a retreat, sent out skirmishers who met the entrenched Sixth Corps and quickly retreated. The Army of the Potomac's march toward Richmond continued, with Grant attempting a series of flanking moves to get between Lee and Richmond and force a battle in an open field on his own terms against the outnumbered and depleted Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. (15)
1. Nash, 187-188.
2. Nash, 187-188. Bartlett had received the orders for the attack from General Griffin.
3. Nash, 189; James Sperling Deposition, November 17, 1866, Phebe B. Woodworth Pension File. It is not clear who carried the flag into battle.
4. Nash, 188-189. The Confederates were from General Joseph Kershaw's division of General Richard Anderson's corps.
5. Charles Prudhom Deposition, December 4, 1865, Phebe B. Woodworth Pension File.
6. Bradford Wood Jr. to Samuel Wood, May 17, 1864, New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs, 44th N.Y. Newspaper Clipping File. Bradford R. Wood, "Service With the Forty-Fourth N.Y. Vols. in 1864," in Nash, 286-290.
7. Phebe Woodworth Deposition, December 27, 1865, Phebe B. Woodworth Pension File.
8. James Sperling Deposition, November 17, 1866, Phebe B. Woodworth Pension File. As his body laid so close to where the regiment reformed, he was probably one of the first to fall during the charge.
9. Nash, 190; William D. Matter, If It Takes All Summer: The Battle of Spotsylvania (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1988), 149. The regiment remained in reserve until noon of May 10, when it was ordered to the front to join a planned assault by the Fifth Corps on the enemy's lines, which appeared "very formidable" and in "plain view." All preparations were made, the men stood in wait, but the movement failed and Griffin's division, located on the left of the corps front, was never called into action.
10. Nash, 189-190. The last member of the color guard dropped due to exhaustion and handed the flag to Captain Eugene Nash.
11. New York State Bureau of Military Statistics, Presentation of Flags of New York Volunteer Regiments to His Excellency Governor Fenton, July 4, 1865 (Albany: Weed & Parsons, 1865), 68-69.
12. Nash, 188-189, 238-239, 241. Even after Captain Wood and the other captured men returned to the regiment on May 26, Company E contained only 19 men, having lost 20 since leaving Alexandria. Bradford R. Wood, "Service With the Forty-Fourth N.Y. Vols. in 1864," in Nash, 286-290.
13. Nash, 190; William D. Matter, If it Takes All Summer: The Battle of Spotslvania, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1988): 149.
14. Nash, 190-192; Matter, 185, 227-230, 232, 254.
15. Nash, 193.
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