A narrative of service with the Third Wisconsin Infantry/At Cedar Mountain

At Cedar Mountain

On August 7 we broke camp again and marched to Culpeper Court House. Here we learned that the enemy had been seen in considerable force near Cedar Mountain. We were not surprised, therefore, on the morning after our arrival, to be hastily formed and ordered off toward Cedar Mountain. We arrived at Cedar Run in the early afternoon, and found Crawford's Brigade of our Division already skirmishing with the enemy. Our Brigade immediately formed in line of battle on the right of the road, and threw out its skirmish line. At about four o'clock, my Company and four others were moved forward to reënforce the skirmishers.

We had crossed Cedar Run Creek, and were waiting for further orders in a heavy stand of timber, when Captain Wilkins of General Williams's staff rode up, enquiring for General Banks. Lieutenant-Colonel Crane informed him that we had seen nothing of General Banks since we entered the woods. Captain Wilkins then explained to us that General Augur was meeting with considerable success on the left, and that General Crawford desired our Brigade to join his in a charge upon the right. The movement required the sanction of General Banks, who was, however, nowhere to be found, and time was so pressing that he almost felt justified in giving the order himself, as coming from General Banks. Captain Wilkins then turned and rode off, but had not been gone two minutes, and had not, I am confident, seen General Banks, when he returned, and gave Colonel Ruger orders to assemble the Regiment on the right of Crawford's Brigade and charge the enemy's lines.

Our skirmish line was now called in; we formed in line of battle, and marched through the woods as rapidly as the nature of the ground would permit. We had soon come to its edge, and found before us an open field about a hundred and twenty-five yards across, separated from us by a rail fence. Immediately beyond the field, rose the thickly-timbered slope of the mountain; and there too, stationed directly in our front, was a battery of artillery. Of infantry, there were none to be seen.

We hurried forward, pushed down the fence, and without stopping to reform our line started on a run for that battery. I noticed as we went, that Crawford's Brigade had not yet arrived, and that we were alone in the field. Suddenly, from the side of the slope and from the bushes and rocks on our front, arose the Confederate infantry, and poured into our ranks the most destructive musketry fire that I have ever experienced. Lieutenant-Colonel Crane was killed, and fell from his horse at the first volley. Major Scott was wounded, being carried off by his horse. Captain Hawley, of the company on our right, was wounded, and a third of his men were killed or wounded at the same time. The right began to fall back, some of the men helping off wounded comrades, others loading and firing at the enemy as they slowly retreated to the woods. On the left, all three of my companies were standing up to their work without flinching. My Company, though suffering severely, were fighting like veterans. We did not seem to be gaining any advantage, however, and shortly the order came to fall back to the woods. My Company, and that of Captain O'Brien on the left, were the last to leave the field.

Under the shelter of the woods we reformed our companies. I still had about twenty-five men, Captain O'Brien about as many more, and a number of men from Company F had joined me on the right. We at once returned to the edge of the woods, the Colonel leading back the two left companies, and opened fire on the enemy, who was preparing to cross the open field. We soon were sent to the right, however, in order to make room for the Tenth Maine, and saw no more active fighting for that day. At twilight, when we were threatened upon our right flank, we returned across Cedar Run to the ground from which we had started.

Of the 8,000 men that were engaged in this battle, we lost about 2,000 in killed and wounded.

The loss in our Regiment was 117, mostly from the six companies that started in the charge on the battery. Lieutenant-Colonel Crane was killed, and Captain O'Brien mortally wounded. O'Brien had at the first charge been severely wounded in the thigh. When we retreated to the woods, he had showed me that his shoe was full of blood. He had, however, returned to the fight after binding up his wound with his handkerchief, and had been killed at the edge of the woods. My Company had, out of forty-five men engaged, lost two killed and fourteen wounded. Of these all but two of the wounded had been struck in the field where we first drew the enemy's fire, and in a space of time which I am confident did not exceed three minutes.

As some 30,000 or 40,000 troops were in the vicinity, who had not fired a shot, I supposed that the battle would be renewed in the morning; but it was not. The corps of General Sigel and McDowell were moved to the front, but occupied themselves only with gathering up the wounded. On the 11th the enemy sent in a flag of truce, asking for an armistice to bury the dead. This was readily granted, for we also had still on the battle-field many dead and severely wounded. On the 12th it was found that the Confederates had taken advantage of the truce to retreat during the night. Indeed, they retired in such haste that they left large numbers of their wounded in our hands. General Sigel pursued them to the Rapidan, while our Corps returned to Culpeper for a much-needed rest.

A great deal of criticism has been heaped upon all those who were prominently connected with this battle. Banks has been assailed for fighting the battle at all. It has seemed to many, an inexcusable piece of folly that he should have ordered the attack in such apparent ignorance of the position and strength of the enemy, and so near sun down that even if he had been successful, he could not have reaped any advantage. I have, however, doubted whether he ever made the order; but when once it had been made, he was obliged to put in his whole command or abandon everything that had been gained. Captain Wilkins who brought the order for our charge, later wandered into the Confederate lines while carrying orders, and I never heard of him again.

Pope has been criticized for not seeing that Banks was properly supported; but all the evidence obtainable shows that Pope did not wish or expect to fight a battle at that time. McDowell has been criticized with particular bitterness for not going to the aid of Banks, and charges of treachery were freely made against him. It was quite generally believed, even in his own command, that McDowell had no heart in the cause; and this belief—which later gained public expression in the dying statement of Colonel Brodhead of the First Michigan Cavalry, that he "died a victim to the incompetency of Pope and the treachery of McDowell"—caused his retirement as a corps commander.