May 18 – 19, 1864
As Grant abandoned hope to destroy Lee’s army on May 18, 1864, he made plans to move around the Confederate right flank and head south. Lee suspected such a move and assigned Gen. Richard S. Ewell the task of discovering Union troop strength. Although his men were exhausted, Ewell nevertheless took his entire force of some 6,000, led by Gen. Stephen Ramseur, on the mission. Ewell’s artillery complement, consisting of six guns, had to be sent back to Lee’s lines when it could not get across the Ni River. But by around 3:00 P.M. the Confederate column, preceeded by a heavy skirmish line, had successfully crossed the river.
A thin line of green Union troops, from the 4th New York Heavy Artillery, ranged along a low ridge with an abandoned log house in its center. Like the other heavy artillery units in this encounter, the 4th New York was being used as infantry. “I saw a rebel picket line advancing across an open field in our front,” recalled New York Capt. Augustus Brown. “It was a magnificent sight, for the lines moved as steadily as if on parade.”
Immediately, the Southerners opened fire on the house. “The balls came through as if the building were paper,” said a Union survivor. The Rebels were bogged down in swampy ground before the cabin, and Brown’s men were able to wreak heavy damage. Soon, though, the Yankees had to yield their position. “The enemy’s fire was simply terrible; the ground which was brown and bare when we formed the line, was soon covered with a carpet of green leaves and foliage, cut from the limbs of the young pine trees.”
Union reinforcements poured in from all sides. Around 6:00 P.M. the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery arrived, taking up a line between the Alsop and Harris houses, opposite the now Confederate held ridge. The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery was close behind, along with other Union units. The 1st Massachusetts moved into the woods, where they ran headlong into Ramseur’s brigade. The confusion had just begun.
Fascinating Fact: As Ewell watched the confusion, his horse was shot out from under him. Soldiers found him another horse and then made him go to the rear.