The Hays Guards: The Story of Company K of the Sixty Third Pennsylvania Volunteers (Part Five)
On 1 April 1864, Major James F. Ryan was discharged from service and Major George W. McCullough, captain of Company F, was promoted to regimental leader.
After the Pennsylvania Sixty-Third Voluntary Infantry, as part of General David Birney's Third Division of the Second Corps commanded by General Winfield Hancock, had broken winter camp in April 1864, they spent a few weeks maneuvering and made temporary camps around the area of Brandy Station, Virginia to enable the new draftees to become accustomed to marching and maneuvering. Division General Alexander Hays wanted his men to be moving efficiently, and the men wanted to oblige him, as he was their hero.
Just before midnight on 3 May 1864, the Army of the Potomac broke camp quietly and began the march that started the Wilderness Campaign. The men of the Sixty-Third were inwardly grinning, as they felt they had pulled the wool over the eyes of the Confederates. The orders to break camp were given so swiftly and quietly that the officers of the Confederate Army had no chance of discovering them. The next morning when the lookouts from the enemy army checked the movements of the camp, nary a Union Soldier could be found around the former camps of Culpeper, Brandy Station and Stevensburg, Virginia.
The Sitxy-Third, as a part of the Second Corps. crossed the Rapidan River by pontoon bridge at Ely's Ford, Virginia on 4 May 1863. Early that afternoon, the corps halted at the former battlefield at Chancellorsville, where the regiment had battled a year earlier. They camped there for the night, and many of the veterans reminisced about fallen comrades, stories from the battle, and war wounds from the battle.
On 5 May, the Second Corps was ready at five in the morning. The men marched to the intersection of Plank and Brock Roads near Spotsylvania, Virginia, where they made lines of battle. Finding no enemy, the brigade advanced towards the dense woods known as the Wilderness, assisting the Sixth Corps division led by George Getty. It was during this assault upon the Confederate troops that the "pride of the Sixty-Third, and in fact the whole army" General Alexander Hays was shot in the head as he was shouting a few words of encouragement to his men. He died just as he wished, in battle at the head of the Sixty-Third Pennsylvania Regiment. Colonel Crocker of the Ninety-Ninth New York assumed command of the Second Brigade upon Hay's death, as he had seniority.
The fight in The Wilderness was characterized by confusion due to dense undergrowth in the scond-growth forest. The 63rd advanced and retreated, as did nearly every regiment on both sides, through a forest that eventually caught fire which added to the misery and suffering. In the two days of fighting in the Battle of the Wilderness, half of the causalities in the Second Corps were from the Third Division. The Sixty-Third's losses were terrible. Major McCullough was killed. Eight other officers were severely wounded. Almost two hundred enlisted men were also casualties. Several men of company K were wounded; Captain George B. Chalmers, First Lieutenant Robert Standford, Sergeant George Fitzgerald, Corporal David McQuiston, and Privates Washington Bell, Luther Calkins, John Craig, Patrick Delaney, Thomas Farrell, Jeremiah Hetzel, and John Keagy. Privates James Carney, James Moran and Thomas Shaner were killed and Private William McMillin died two weeks later as a result of wounds received.
After the Battle of the Wilderness, the Confederate army retreated closer to Spotsylvania. General Ulysses S. Grant, who was at this time the general in chief of all Union armies, gave the men of the Army of the Potomac the order to pursue. Different brigades made the move at varying times over the next few days. The division under General Birney continued to hold their line from the Battle of the Wilderness and continued in skirmishes with Confederate troops until ordered to move to Spotsylvania.
The Sixty-Third, following the terrible losses of the previous battle, was combined with the Pennsylvania One Hundred and Fifth under the command of Major Levi Bird Duff, Captain George Weaver of Company C was given command of the Sixty-Third under Major Duff. The combined regiment consisted of merely five companies.
The Sixty Third, as part of the Second Corps, was brought to Spotsylvania on 9 May 1864 and had moved along the Brock Road to take position near the Fifth Corps, overlooking the Po River. Late in the afternoon on 9 May, the Second Corps crossed the river and moved east along the Shady Grove Church Road. Here they would camp for the night. The men of the Sixty-Third were happy with the decision to go after Lee instead of retreating back to Washington D.C. even though they were tired and battle weary.
On 11 May 1864, a severe thunderstorm swept through the area, and taking advantage of the storm General Hancock ordered his men to withdraw quietly from its camp. The men marched all night and early the next morning the corps had formed a double line of battle. The Sixty-Third came upon a rifle pit, comprised of Confederate pickets, whom they had surprised. Retreating, the pickets alerted the rest of the Confederate troops, who were holed up in a earthen fort on "Mule Shoe Salient" that posed a formidable threat to the Union soldiers. The southern army began an artillery barrage of cannon and a volley of shot upon the Sixty-Third and other Union soldiers in their brigade. The Union troops remained undaunted in their assault and were able to push through and capture the works, complete with the artillery. Several thousand Confederate soldiers were captured, including CSA brigade leader General George Hume Steuart, though several enemy troops were able to escape back to their army. The captured artillery was then turned forward towards the Confederates, as the enemy tried unsuccessfully several times that day to take back the cannon. In the attack, Privates James Q. Hodge and William Shaner of Company K were injured.
The Sixty-Third continued to hold the captured earthen work for two days, and spent those days engaged in tending to the wounded and burying the dead, though occasionally they were subjected to volleys and artillery from the Confederate troops, who had moved to a new line of battle. On 15 May 1864, the Second Corps was ordered to occupy and hold the Union battle line east of Spotsylvania Court House near the Ny River. For the next few days, the men of the Sixty-Third saw skirmishes that continued incessantly. The next day, 18 May 1863, the division was held in reserve as an attack was made on the enemy's front line. That night, they were relieved from duty for a full day, having seen constant battle since 3 May.
On 20 May 1864, orders were given to the men of the Second Corps to march twenty miles south through the towns of Bowling Green and Milford, Virginia. While in Bowling Green, many of the Union soldiers began to ransack the stores of the town and freed the prisoners of the local jail. Continuing south, the Second Corps regaled citizens of the South with Union music. By 23 May 1864, the Second Corps was in position at the North Anna River.Because Confederate General Lee had blocked the main highway, the Second Corps was separated from the rest of the Army of the Potomac, later, however the Second Corps linked with the Fifth Corps, just north of the North Anna River. Undaunted, Hancock ordered his men to attack a Confederate entrenched gun position overlooking the North Anna River next to the Chesterfield Bridge. The men of the division captured both the outpost and the bridge and held them overnight. During the assault however, Captain Daniel Doughtery of Company H was killed.
By 24 May 1864, the Union held some strategic points on the North Anna River and were gearing up for a push southward. A portion of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia fell back, initiating plans to trap the Army of the Potomac. However, while the plans were laid successfully, the Confederate troops could not carry them out due to the fact that General Lee became suddenly and severely ill. The Battle of North Anna River of late May ended in stalemate.
The Sixty-Third remained near their entrenchment at the North Anna River until the beginning of June, when they were sent south to assist in the fight at Cold Harbor, Virginia. The Sixty-Third and its division were held in reserve until late in the day on 3 June when they were ordered to fill in a gap at the front line, where Corporal Frederick Lathers of Company K was injured. They saw fighting and had several skirmishes over the next nine days as the Army of the Potomac continued to try to lay siege on the Northern Army of Virgina.
The men of the Sixty-Third had been fighting since April, and were learning what it meant to be part of a war of attrition. While there were no clear victories these past few months, one thing was certain; General Ulysses Grant was trying to wear down General Robert E. Lee and the armies of the Confederacy.
(Author’s note: One of the men of the PA 63rd, John D. Wood, was my great-great grandfather. I do not know what happened to any of the other men of the regiment nor do I have biographical information past what I have listed for some of the other men in this series of articles. If you have information you would like to share on any of the men listed in any part of “The Hays Guards: The Story of Company K of the Sixty Third Pennsylvania Volunteers” please do not hesitate to leave a comment or contact me via my family tree website. I do edit this series with genealogical information from others as I get it. I would also like to offer my most profound appreciation to my distant cousin and collaborator, William Bozic for his insights and edits to this series. I thank him immensely for the time and effort he has put in to making this work what it is.)
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