ACCOUNTS OF THE BATTLE OF FAIR OAKS, VA.

(FROM LETTERS OF THE 20TH MASS. PARTICIPANTS)

  • Henry Abbott
  • John Summerhayes (who captured Lt. Col. Bull)
  • Henry Ropes
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
  • The Fate of the Characters

    20th Mass. officer Henry Abbott's account:

    "In about an hour we let up on the firing along the line, the smoke partially cleared, & we saw the rebels charging from the woods to take Rickets' battery, which, by the way, did admirably. Instantly there went up a tremendous shout along the line & the biggest volley of the battle sent the rebels yelping into the woods. Then our whole line charged, the first halfthe distance in quick time, without cheering, except from old Sumner, who cheered us as we passed, the second half the way taking the double-quick with the loudest cheers we could get up [...]

    Over the fence we went...It was now dark. We lay on our arms, on marshy ground; without blankets, officers being obliged to sit up, every body wet through as to his feet and trousers, & we had brought our blankets, but gave them all up to the wounded prisoners, of whom our regiment took a large number....My company took 10 unwounded, & 11 wounded rebels prisoner in the woods. Among the former, 5 of the celebrated Hampton Legion of South Carolina, & one Tennessee, two North Carolinans, a Georgia & a Louisiana Tiger.

    Among the wounded, Brig. Gen. Pettigrew of SC & Lt. Col. Bull of the 35th Georgians. Pettigrew had given up all his side arms to some of his people before they ran away, in anticipation of being taken prisoner, & had only his watch, which of course I returned to him. Pettigrew will get well. Bull had his side arms, of which I allowed Corp. Summerhayes, his captor, to keep his pistol, an ordinary affair, while I kept his sword, an ordinary US infantry sword, which I intended to send as a present to you, but the Col., knowing [p.129] his family's address, wants me to send it to them, & as the poor fellow is dead, of course I can't hesitate to do any thing which would comfort his family. His scabbard, however, I found very convenient, as mine got broken in the battle and I threw it away. I am going to send you, instead, a short rifle which I took from a H[ampton's] Legion fellow, who were all around with them & the sword bayonet. The rest of the rifles we of course turned over to the col., as in duty bound, except one revolving Colt's rifle, 5 barrels, worth $60 or $70 apiece...which one of my men took from a dying officer, & which I let him keep as a reward of valor."

    ---Robert Garth Scott, ed., Fallen Leaves: The Civil War Letters of Major Henry Livermore Abbott (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1991) pp. 128-129.

    20th Mass. Corporal John W. Summerhayes' account:

    "Lieutenant Abbott ordered me into the woods, with a file of men, to bring out all the wounded, and rebels, that could be found. As I started, seven came out, belonging to the Hampton Legion, SC, the finest brigade in the rebel service. After coming in with them, I advanced into the woods, and hearing a groaning, walked up and there found Lieut. Col. Bull of the 34th Georgia [sic]. I took his sword and revolver, and sent him in. After taking several more, I fell in with one, whom I knew, although his side arms were gone, was of some high rank, and so he proved to be. Although he would not give me any answers, the Colonel was more fortunate, for he found out that it was Brigadier General Pettigrew, of the State of South Carolina."

    --Richard F. Miller and Robert F. Mooney, The Civil War: The Nantucket Experience (Nantucket: Wesco Publishing, 1994) pp. 187.

    20th Mass. Lt. Henry Ropes' account:

    "[...] On Saturday last, May 31st, we had not the slightest idea of danger being near till about noon when very heavy firing broke out from the woods West of us and at one time approached very near. ... At about 4 o'cl. orders came to fall in with one day's rations and

    we marched from Camp, and crossed the Chickahominy on the log bridge built by the Mich. Regimt. We came out on a low meadow where our Artillery was stuck in the mud. The 19th Mass. was on picket behind us, the Tammany we left here, and the 7th Mich. and we pushed on alone. After passing the meadow we ascended a small hill, and found the country dry and hilly in front. Soon we halted, loaded and primed and then marched on again. In a few minutes we heard guns ahead, and we pushed on rapidly, crossed a stream knee deep and took the double quick, for musketry and artillery were now heard in front,

    rapidly increasing. We drove forward out of breath and very hot, saw the smoke rising over the trees, and soon the road turned from along the edge of the woods, and we saw at the farther end of a large field our Artillery firing with the greatest rapidity, the Infantry forming, all hid in smoke. We again took the double quick step and ran through deep mud and pools of water toward the battle. The whole field in the rear of the line of firing was covered with dead; and wounded men were coming in in great numbers, some walking, some limping, some carried on stretchers and blankets, many with shattered limbs exposed and dripping with blood. In a moment we entered the fire. The noise was terrific, the balls whistled by us and the shells exploded over us and by our side; the whole scene dark with smoke and lit up by the streams of fire from our battery and from our Infantry in line on each side. We were carried to the left and formed in line, and then marched by the left flank and advanced to the front and opened fire. Our men behaved with the greatest steadiness and stood up and fired and did exactly what they were told. The necessary confusion was very great, and it was as much as all the Officers could do to give the commands and see to the men. We changed position 2 or 3 times under a hot fire. Donnelly and Chase of my company fell not 2 feet from me. The shell and balls seemed all round us, and yet few seemed to fall. We kept up this heavy firing for some time, when the enemy came out of the woods in front and made a grand attack on the battery. They were met by grape and canister and a tremendous fire of the Infantry. They faltered and fell back. Some Regiment charged on them; the whole Rebel line was now in front of us, and Genl Sumner ordered our whole line to advance. We rushed on with tremendous cheers, the whole together at a charge. The Rebels did not wait for the bayonets but broke and fled. Our Regiment came over a newly ploughed field and sank to the knee. We drove them to the edge of the woods and opened a tremendous fire for a few moments, and then..

    ....We fired into the woods and then charged and drove them before us. We were then ordered back, and by the left flank and again charged the Rebels in a field on the left where they had rallied. We drove them and halted in the middle of the field and gave a few final volleys. It was then dark. We staid there that night. Ground covered with their killed and wounded. We took many prisoners.

    [...] All Officers well and unhurt. [...] Our total loss 30.

    B

    My Company suffered most in the battle.

    Henry."

    --From the Letters of Lt. Henry Ropes, 20th MA (ms, Boston, 1888)

    Rare Books and Manuscripts Dept., Boston Public Library

    Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library

    Oliver Wendell Holmes' Account

    ...May 31st We heard heavy firing from Casey's Div and soon our Div was under arms &

    marched 4 miles I sh'ld think-the last part through a stream above our knees and then

    double quick through mud a foot deep on the field of battle [....] Soon we filed round and

    formed under fire in 2nd posit. left of a N.Y. Regt. (34th New York) and opened fire on the

    Reb line wh. was visible--Our fire was soon stopped (by order) and we could see in the

    field (where our 3d position was later) Rebs moving by twos and threes-apparently broken

    up[....] When we got to the road the R. Wing entered the woods firing hard and the left

    wing advancing more slowly to avoid getting fired into by our own men- A Co. of Rebs

    trying to pass out of the woods was knocked to pieces-and thus we took the final position

    of the 1st day.. Here we blazed away left oblique into the woods till we were ordered to

    cease firing & remained masters of the field....Well we licked 'em and this time there was

    the maneurvering of a battle to be seen-splendid and awful to behold...It is singular what

    indifference one gets to look on the dead bodies in gray clothes which lie all around... As

    you go through the woods you stumble...perhaps tread on the swollen bodies, already fly

    blown and decaying, of men shot in the head back or bowels-Many of the wounds are

    terrible to look at.. [...]

    Source- Anthony J. Milano, "Letters from the Harvard Regiments: The Story of the 2nd and 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiments from 1861 through 1863 as told by the letters of their Officers" (Civil War: The Magazine of the Civil War Society, Vol. XIII, pp. 23-24)

    Back to Top of Page

    THE FATE OF THE CHARACTERS

  • Col. Lee, was too ill to resume command after Antietam and resigned on

    12/17/62. Died 1891

  • General Lee (CSA), spent the postwar years as President of Washington

    College, in Lexington VA. Died 1870

  • Lt. Henry Ropes, killed by friendly fire at Gettysburg
  • General Pettigrew (CSA), killed in the retreat from Gettysburg.
  • Capt. Henry Abbott, killed in the Battle of The Wilderness.
  • Lt. Robert Emory Park (CSA), survived the war to become Treasurer of Georgia

    in 1900.

  • Of the two men who fell wounded within feet of Lt. Ropes, Pvt. Chase was

    discharged for disabilities the following year, but Pvt. Donnelly never made

    it home. He was missing in action at the Battle of The Wilderness.

  • John W. Summerhayes, survived the war and made a career of the US Army. He

    died in 1911 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. survived three battle wounds and served on the US Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932
    Back to Top of Page

    Return to Top of Twentieth Mass Page