Monday, April 6, 2015

Washburn's Last Charge

The Appomattox Campaign

Today sees the worst fighting since the storming of the Petersburg entrenchments on April 2.

At Sailor's Creek the Confederate army suffers a catastrophe when several divisions are cut off and forced to surrender after heavy combat.  Almost 8,000 rebel soldiers are killed, wounded or (mostly) captured (a quarter of the entire army), including seven generals, among them Richard Ewell, one of Lee's three corps commanders.
(from Civil

Many soldiers were grievously injured during the desperate struggle, among them Private Samuel E Eddy of the 37th Massachusetts.  Samuel Eddy was forty years old and living in the Berkshire hill town of Chesterfield when he volunteered for the army in 1862.  On April 6 his regiment was involved in fierce combat with Confederate forces under the command of General Custis Lee (Robert E Lee's son), who began surrendering.  The National Park Service campaign website describes what happened next:
The Colonel next in command (of Lee's forces) was in the act of handing his sword to adjutant (John S.) Bradley, when, seeing how small was the command (300 men) opposed to him, he drew back his sword, and attacked the adjutant with his pistol. Bradley grappled with his foe though wounded by his pistol shot (passing near his shoulder blade)—and they rolled into a hollow, where surrounded by rebels, Bradley was shot through the thigh, when Samuel E. Eddy private Co. D. shot the rebel Colonel as he was about to shoot Bradley through the head with his pistol. A rebel who saw the man who killed his Colonel—put his bayonet through private Eddy's body, the bayonet passing through the lung and coming out near his spine. Eddy dropped his gun, and tore the bayonet out from his body, then in a hand to hand struggle with his foe temporarily disabled him and crawled to his gun, and with it killed his antagonist.
A fellow soldier reported:
I saw him (Eddy) after the battle sitting on the ground. I says to him are you wounded? He said they have run a bayonet through me. I looked and saw where it entered his body and came out on his back. He said it did not hurt so very much when it went through, but the man twisted it when withdrawing it but the man never bayoneted another soldier, for Mr. Eddy was so indignant, that he shot him then and there.
Amazingly, Eddy survived his wound.  Taken to a field hospital at City Point he was treated for a bayonet wound passing between his third and fourth ribs and exiting through his back near the spine.  Discharged on June 9 he returned to Chesterfield.  In 1897 he received the Medal of Honor for his actions that day.  His citation reads:
Saved the life of the adjutant of his regiment by voluntarily going beyond the line and there killing one of the enemy then in the act of firing upon the wounded officer. Was assailed by several of the enemy, run through the body with a bayonet, and pinned to the ground, but while so situated he shot and killed his assailant.
Mr Eddy lived to the age of 86, passing away in 1909.

The same afternoon a related engagement occurred several miles northwest of Sailor's Creek.  It seemed clear to the Union generals that Lee intended to get his army to the north side of the Appomattox River near Farmville.  General Ord, commanding the Army of the James, was ordered to destroy any bridge that the Confederates could retreat across.  The most obvious crossing point was High Bridge with its span of almost a half mile looming 125 feet above the river.
(High Bridge from usacivilwar. com)

On the morning of the 6th, Ord sent a raiding party to scout the area and, if possible, burn the bridge.  The party, under the command of General Theodore Read, consisted of two elements; about eighty 4th Massachusetts cavalry led by Colonel Francis Washburn and eight hundred infantry commanded by Lieutanent Colonel Horace Kellogg.  Washburn was 26 years old, a Harvard student who volunteered in 1861 and veteran of fighting in Virginia, South Carolina and Florida.

After Read left on his mission, Ord received information that Lee's infantry was approaching the bridge on a path that would place them in the rear of the raiding force.  Ord sent Read an order to retreat on a roundabout way to the north to avoid capture but the messenger was captured by the rebels leaving Read unaware of his danger.

Nearing the river, Read sent Washburn's troopers to scout the bridge and they drove off the Confederates defending it and were preparing to fire it when they heard firing to their rear; it was rebel cavalry and infantry attacking Read's infantry in overwhelming numbers.  Riding to the sound of fire, the 80 Massachusetts cavalry, accompanied by General Read, rode round the federal infantry and charged an estimated 2,000 Southern troops, engaging them in hand to hand fighting.  Read was shot and killed, likely by the Confederate commander General Dearing who, in turn, was killed as he discharged his pistol.  Washburn was shot in the mouth, fell from his horse and was cut across the skull by a saber while on the ground.   Of the eleven Union cavalry officers, four were killed or mortally wounded, four wounded and the remaining three captured and the entire command met the same fate.
(From Calkins, The Appomattox Campaign)

Michael Sorenson in his online biography of Washburn provides additional detail and anecdote (though he inaccurately implies that Washburn, not Read, commanded the entire raiding force).  He writes that after after the war Confederate General Rosser, also part of the action that day, upon meeting a Union veteran took his hand and exclaimed  "You belonged to the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry?  Give me your hand!  I have been many a day in hot fights.  I never saw anything approaching that at High Bridge.  While your Colonel kept his saddle, everything went down before him!"

General Ord wrote of the engagement (from the Sorenson biography which includes other official reports on Washburn's charge):
Charge after charge was made by the handful of cavalry, led by the chivalrous Washburn, who captured more rebels than he had men; but Read fell mortally wounded, then Washburn, and at last not an officer of the cavalry party remained alive or unwounded to lead the men, and not until then did they surrender.  But, as I learned afterward, this stubborn fight in his front led General Lee to believe that a heavy force had struck the head of his column; he halted his whole army, began entrenching, issued what was called a stampeding order, so that not longer afterward Sheridan's cavalry and the Sixth Corps did overtake and strike him [at Sailor's Creek], and swept his lines for some two miles.
Unfortunately, the Union infantry did not fight with the spirit of the cavalry and surrendered as a group after Washburn's charge.  The wounded Washburn was also captured, being released upon the surrender on April 9.  Taken to his brother's home in Worcester, Massachusetts he died of his wounds on April 22.  Washburn received a posthumous brevet promotion to Brigadier General for his actions at High Bridge.
                                          (Francis Washburn)


  1. Among others,The National Park Service story is amazing! dm

  2. He is one of my ancestors and I can believe he was tough, because all Washburns are stubborn, impetuous, and have balls! Proud to be one of his relatives!!!

    1. You should be proud. Before researching this series I did not know about Washburn. What an inspiring figure!