Editor’s note: In light of Veterans Day, this month’s Courier-Herald editions will include excerpts from a local Civil War soldier’s diary. To keep with the authenticity of the diary, misspellings have been kept in place, as well as words and phrases that would normally not be printed. This is part two of four.
When we last left Corporal Theodore Hill Jr., his regiment was furloughed, taking a break from battle.
What he doesn’t know, though, is he will soon be heading toward the Civil War’s most famous battle — the Battle of Gettysburg.
Fought from July 1 to July 3, 1863, it started with General Robert E. Lee’s second push into Northern territory, hoping to get the Confederacy intentional recognition. Lee believed he was on the verge of victory, and ordered General George Pickett to march his men almost a mile across an open field to attack Union soldiers embedded on Cemetery Ridge. This became known as the disastrous “Pickett’s Charge” as the half the company of 15,000 soldiers were killed in the rush.
The battle was a great loss for the Confederacy, which lost 28,000 men — estimated to be a third of Lee’s army at the time. Though the Union lost around 23,000 soldiers, the Battle of Gettysburg was the beginning of the end of the Confederacy. Without gaining the attention of Britain and France, Lee offered his resignation to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, but he refused.
June 4, 1863: At half past three this morning the regiment was formed on the color line and stood under arms for another half an hour. I don’t know the cause, but presume the rebels were making hostile demonstrations in some quarter. I should think this movement would give sufficient grounds to suppose our forces here are assuming the defensive.
June 8: Pleasant and cool — got orders in the morning to march on our way, We passed a number of fine houses. One of the best, and I think the prettiest, was a gray church. It was situated on a small hill in the middle of a beautiful grove of oak, locustwood and greenwood trees.
The country we passed through today was very beautiful — so quiet and calm — completely removed from battle — very few scars — only the mind is aware of the scars of battle not the land. Our march has been very hard today having gone about 16 miles. We halted at Bulger Ford on a low piece of ground. It is not so pleasant as it is on the high ground.
(For the rest of June, Hill marches 10 or 15 miles a day, heading toward Gettysburg. At some point during this month, Hill is promoted to sergeant.)
July 1: Plenty of reports are flying about, but very little seems reliable. We marched all night and arrived at Gettysberg at four this afternoon. At about the time we arrived they began a sharp cannonading and afterwards the infantry fight began. I’m uncertain of the results as yet, but it kept up until dark with very smart firing, the fifth corp being engaged.
July 2-3: At about four this morning, it began again with the men on the picket line firing. We were ordered to prepare to take our position on the left flank. We held until five when the battle seemed to turn to the right. During the night an occasional shell was thrown our way morely by accident than any design.
We are not in sight of the cannonading today, but its thunder can be heard all around. At one, the whole of our line of artillery opened on the enemy who was charging upon us. Five lines of battle they were, but seven of our artillery snowed them down so that they soon fell back.
At about five they began to waver and broke. A stillness came across the field leaving our army in complete command. We followed until dark, but soon were taking many prisoners, including a trainload of men. Many of them are ill and talk of those who were lost. Generals Longstreet and Hanswick both wounded.
(There is a gap in the diary until July 22 , and no reason why is given. In August, Hill is visited by his older brother Fred, who is a high ranking officer.)
Aug. 5: Tonight Fred and myself went out upon the hills to make a survey of the landscape. The scene was beautiful. We arrived upon the top of the hill just in time to see the sun sink from sight behind the mountains and witness the think bank of fog as it rolled from the valley up the mountain side and disappeared from our sight.
It disappeared into thin air as far to the southward as the eye could reach. When we saw the beautiful mountain range raising its majestic blue capped tops to heaves as if asserting in their silent eloquence the presence and existence of a supreme being.
Aug. 11: The regiment was mystified tonight having to do with the sentence passed upon the 5th Maine. His crime is desertion; sentence — to be shot in the presence of the division on the 14th. Men die in battle and if they desert that battle — they are to die anyway.
(Firing squad was a common sentence when it came to deserters, who were a problem for both armies; one estimate suggests more than 100,000 men deserted the Confederate army, and up to nearly three times that in the Union army — though because the Confederate army was smaller, desertion was a bigger problem for them. While deserting could net you the death sentence, President Lincoln didn’t like killing his own men, and would personally examine cases and issue pardons, especially if the soldier was less than 18 years of age. Instead of a death sentence, flogging and being branded with the letter “D” were used when the war was young; later, incarceration and wearing a ball and chain were other options.)
Aug. 14: This is the day of the execution. At half past ten the line was formed and we were marched to the ground which was selected for the purpose. The division formed three sides of a square. The 1st brigade on the right, 2nd on the left, and 3rd forming the center.
At half past one the prisoner was brought along. He was hauled around the inside of the square facing the front of each brigade. The band played as he passed round.
He was then taken from the wagon, placed upon his coffin in a sitting position. The chaplain of his regiment offered up a prayer. The provost marshall then blindfolded him, drew up the firing party to within fifteen paces. All was now ready and the word was given to fire.
Five shots took effect, three through his vitals, one through his neck and one through his head. Each man was then marched passed him as he law on the ground where he had fallen. We were marched off the field and returned to camp.
The day has been so hot that the boys suffered much, standing for the execution and then the march back, some of the boys were obliged to fall out.
Aug. 15: Quite hot again. This evening orders came to be ready to march at a moment’s warning with a three-days’ ration. All manner of reports are afloat as to our probable destination.
We have been within the short space of one-half day to New York, Alexandria and last of all, to Charleston by rumor route. I don’t know where we are going.
(Hill’s outfit remained stationary for the next month, as order after order were countermanded.)
Sept. 16: At four this morning we were called up to get our breakfast and be ready to start at five. At seven we started, crossed the Pappahannock at eight. At ten, passed through Jefferson; long hard march of only 17 miles today, but it was been very hard as we are heavy-loaded and the roads are bad.
(At this point, Hill’s company reaches Culpepper, Virginia, on Sept. 23, but the diary jumps to Feb. 22, 1864 with no explanation. In May, the Union and Confederacy were converging on Petersburg, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and Chancellorsville; known to historians as “The Wilderness Campaign.”)
May 10, 1864: We marched slowly through the night reaching Spotsylvania at 11 a.m. It is reported that General Smith has possession of Petersburg. Ordered to charge the pits (trenches), captured one division including a Major General and two Brigadiers, also some cannon. We regrouped and charged again capturing a line of enemy pits. The enemy rallied and came back — hard. We fought two lines of them from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on the 12th. We lay under a galling fire all that time. Our company loss is heavy. Lieutenants Smith and Morris were killed. Only three men in this company left on their feet,many falling out through fatigue.
May 16: We lay in the pits most of the pay At ten, 400 men were sent out on a picket. At 2, our regiment was called upon to go on picket along with some from the 49th making 120 in all. Were relieved from picket on the morning of the 17th.
Now in back of the rifle pit with orders to clean up our arms. We were allowed to take off our equipment for the first time in 12 days. General Burnside has been marching to the left today and all has been quiet since morning. The bands are now playing in all directions making this day of rest a welcome one as we are all at the point of exhaustion.
At about ten last night we were called up to get ready to march again. We went to the right and rear until 1 a.m. and halted. Here we learned the loss of last night’s firing was a heavy one and also a force of 4,000 rebels came upon a train bent on its capture, but were driven off by our forces.
The fight was made by raw troops and them not knowing how to take advantage of position, their losses were heavy. About 1,200 men in all. The rebels were routed and many prisoners taken. We went on picket at 7 and picked up many prisoners and arms. The rebels appear very much demoralized.
(Hill finds himself on the march for the rest of the month, at one point coming within 15 miles of the White House before heading for what would become known as the Battle of Cold Harbor, which lasts from May 31 to June 12.)