Gen. Battles counterattack
Gen. Battle's counterattack
In the opening battle of the Overland Campaign, the Federal V Corps pushed down the Orange Turnpike on May 5, 1864, meeting Confederate resistance as General Robert E. Lee hustled divisions into defensive positions. Brigadier General Joseph Bartlett’s brigade from Griffin’s Division lined up along the turnpike on the east side of a piece of open ground called Saunders’ Field. Bartlett’s brigade in the field that day included the 20th Maine, 18th Massachusetts, 1st Michigan, 44th New York, 83rd Pennsylvania, and 118th Pennsylvania. Battle-tested and historically famed for their defense of Little Round Top at Gettysburg, the brigade waited.
According to Samuel L. Miller, a veteran historian of the 20th Maine: “When the order was given to advance all three brigades started on the double-quick with a yell, driving the enemy in confusion back upon his reserves.”
The charge plunged across the field under heavy fire and crashed through the Confederate lines held by General Jones’s Virginians in the Second Corps near the crest of the high ground on the south side of the turnpike. In the Confederate rear reserve, Brigadier General Cullen A. Battle readied his command of Alabama regiments, the 5th, 3rd, 6th, 61st, and 12th. His men positioned on the northern side of the road ready to maneuver in an agile line of battle. According to a soldier in the 3rd Alabama: “Orders were given for regimental commanders to move up rapidly to the crest of the hill and hold it at all hazards in case Jones gave way. The woods in front were so thick that it was impossible to see more than 20 steps from our line, and
all thought that General Jones held the crest of the hill. Our enemy soon hurled a heavy column against General Jones, sweeping down on his flanks and it became evident that he was pressing our men back. At this juncture, Battle’s brigade moved up at a double-quick.”
Surprised to find Jones’s men scurrying in retreat, the majority of the Alabama Brigade swung like a door, sweeping across the Orange Turnpike and slamming into the advancing regiments of Bartlett’s brigade. The 6th and 61st Alabama near the center of the Confederate line captured two artillery pieces and many prisoners.
Unsupported and stopped by the Alabamians’ maneuver, Bartlett’s brigade found itself outflanked as well and were forced to fall back, leaving the high ground at Saunder’s Field in Confederate hands. Other Confederate units rallied, trying to block the escape of Union companies that had been separated. One 15-man company of the 20th Maine screeched “Surrender” to their enemies and charged back through the earthworks to reach their side of the field and fighting lines. General Bartlett himself was nearly killed when he tried to jump his horse over the Confederate earthworks during his retreat; enemy bullets felled the horse, but the general survived and staggered back toward his regiments in the field.
Though the Union attack’s coordination disintegrated in action, Bartlett’s brigade had pierced the Confederate lines and might have gained further ground except for the arrival of Battle’s Alabamians. The fighting over and around Saunders’ Field continued to rage through the rest of May 5th and into the 6th before both armies started maneuvering south for the next chapter of the Overland Campaign.
“Some half a mile back down the road from where we had just charged up through in our
advance, I could see a strong column of rebel infantry moving directly across the road into our
rear, completely cutting us of from the direction we had come . . . .
Lt. Holman S. Melcher, 20th
Battle’s brigade . . . rallied in time to do good service.
Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell
Much like Battle’s Brigade of Alabamians, in early 2021, CVBT helped filled a funding gap for a 36-acre tract of core battlefield land where the previously described dramatic events occurred. Continuing a tradition of cooperation with the American Battlefield Trust, CVBT pledged $24,500 to help preserve this piece of hallowed ground forever. In April 2021, CVBT announced the fundraising victory, giving thanks to the generous gifts by CVBT’s members and donors.