For one contingent of Connecticut’s loyal sons, the war seemed to bring one disaster after another.
The 16th Connecticut Infantry, raised in the late summer of 1862, was one of the Union Army’s particularly ill-fated units. The regiment fought at the Battle of Antietam when it was wholly unprepared for combat, with predictably catastrophic results. Then, on April 16, 1864, after a year and a half largely in garrison duty on the coasts of Virginia and North Carolina, the 16th was captured en masse at the Battle of Plymouth, N.C. Most of the men would spend months in the notorious Andersonville prison, where disease and starvation took a deadly toll. The horrors of those two disasters haunted the survivors until their final days.
THE BATTLE OF ANTIETAM On September 17, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan confronted Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, which had invaded Maryland with hopes of replenishing its troops as well as turning the tide of the Civil War. The resulting battle was the bloodiest single day of the entire war. Early that morning, Privates Ira Forbes and Robert Kellogg awoke to read the Bible and pray. Orders swiftly came to “fall in,” and fighting began at dawn. Confederate batteries began shelling their position. As Corporal Samuel B. Mettler, of Company C, described: “[W]e were lying under a hill, but their shot came so fast and so sure that we were obliged to run to the woods for protection—many falling from the enemy’s shots as they ran.” To Private Marx Neisener, of Company G, the artillery fire “came like rain— round shot, shells, shrapnel, grape and all. The regiment fell flat and the shot went over them.” At least an hour went by, and then the regiment moved to a cornfield to wait for two more hours.
The Battle of Antietam had commenced, and the noise of the shot and shell grew so loud that men had to shout to talk. “We had,” Private George Robbins recalled, “a magnificent view of the long battlefield stretching away to our right along the undulating country as far as the eye could see, with masses of blue clad soldiers showing for a few moments, then out of sight as the hills hid them from view.” The early morning shock of being fired upon by enemy artillery had made it abundantly clear that the regiment was about to go into battle. Exactly when and where they would engage, however, remained a mystery. The waiting only seemed to make things worse. As the hours slipped away, a few restless souls wandered off to pick peaches. Others had already been directly touched by fire. Kellogg had received a slight wound in received a slight wound in the arm, a shell fragment had cut out Chaplain Peter Finch’s coat pocket, and surgeon Abner Warner’s horse had been shot out from under him.
The battle’s frightening sounds and sights made some feel faint and weak, and when noon sick call came, they vanished to the rear. Private
George N. Lamphere explained: “The fact is well known to all soldiers that one of the most trying positions troops can be put into is to be lying around inactive and yet be under fire. It requires courage and it is a great consumer of nerve power.”
Sergeant William Relyea scornfully recalled that many of those suddenly “sick” just before battle were the loudest braggarts, who had vowed they would kill the regiment’s widely disliked colonel, Francis Beach. “Rid of regimental rubbish,” Relyea alleged, the 16th was then “free from everything that would or could tarnish our good name clear of all weakening influences now ready for the ordeal that awaited us.” Few in the 16th Connecticut, however, were ready for what they would soon face. By late afternoon, the 16th was sent south to try to outflank the Confederates and find a crossable ford on Antietam Creek. The men crossed the creek about a mile below Burnside Bridge, holding their guns and cartridge boxes high over their heads. Some later contended that the water was shoulder deep. After hurrying up the side of a hill to support a Union battery, officers ordered the men to hit the ground immediately. Rebel cannons took deadly aim on their position, pounding them with grape, canister and railroad iron. The hill’s crest protected most of the unit, but the artillery fire injured about a dozen of the men. A few privates joked nervously, seeking to break the thickening tension. Colonel Beach barked impatiently at the jokesters, silencing any attempts at levity.
Between 3:30 and 4 p.m., the brigade’s commander Colonel Edward Harland waited with increasing impatience for the 16th Connecticut and the 4th Rhode Island to advance. The 8th Connecticut had already moved forward some distance to the right of the regiments, creating a gap between units. Harland sent an aide to push the remainder of his brigade forward, and Brig. Gen. Isaac P. Rodman intervened personally to hasten the men along. Rodman discovered the 16th Connecticut still on the ground, near the edge of a cornfield, and as he began to converse intently with Colonel Beach, he spotted enemy movement to the left of the cornfield. Rodman rushed back to find the 4th Rhode Island while Beach quickly ordered the regiment into formation. Because the color-bearer forgot to take the flag out of its dark glazed bag, however, the regiment entered its first battle essentially waving a black flag. It was an eerie premonition of what was to come.
“Attention,” Beach bellowed from atop his white horse, riding up and down the lines, trying frantically to shift half of the regiment to refuse its left in order to protect its exposed flank. A wave of bullets suddenly whizzed through the ranks. As Kellogg recalled, it was “one of the most terrific volleys of musketry that I think was ever poured into a Regt.” “Our men,” he wrote, “fell on every side.” Maneuvering soldiers under fire is difficult for any officer to complete, but directing an undrilled and undisciplined regiment such as the 16th Connecticut was nearly impossible. The line officers were just as green and confused as the privates. One officer cried out in desperation, “Tell us what you want us to do and we’ll try to obey you.” “I want my men to face the enemy,” Beach replied.
The tall, uneven corn stalks compounded the chaos; men could only see a small portion of their line at a time. A few fell out of formation, losing track of their companies. Nearing a wooden fence, officers issued conflicting orders: “Tear the fence down,” and “Never mind the fence.”
Only a few minutes had passed, but it seemed like an eternity. As the officers struggled to find some order and direction, Confederate troops unleashed a deadly crossfire. “So dense was the corn,” wrote South Carolinian James F.J. Caldwell, “that the lines sometimes approached within thirty to forty yards of each other before [firing].” Another South Carolinian, Berry Ben son, recalled running through the corn, shooting a “galling fire into the fleeing foe.” Benson saw bunches of frightened bluecoats crowded into a small hollow at the bottom of the hill, afraid to cross the open slope behind them. “Grouped here in a crouching disorderly line,” he remembered, “we poured into them volley after volley, doubtless with terrible execution.”
Other Federals huddled behind a stone fence, sporadically breaking away, in small groups and individually, and fleeing to the rear. Some members of the regiment recalled firing only one round, and others alleged an actual charge was made. At least one soldier later recounted hearing the “hideous rebel yell.” Others remembered hearing orders to “fall back,” but it remains unclear whether there was ever any official call to retreat. No matter, the 16th Connecticut broke and fled in wild panic. The 4th Rhode Island, which had come up on the 16th’s left, held out a little longer before it too retreated in confusion.
Caught up in the swarm of panicked soldiers, Beach stubbornly fought to regain control. He attempted to rally a small remnant of his regiment with portions of the 11th Connecticut and redraw a battle line. But little could be done. Most in the 16th Connecticut’s ranks were dead, wounded or absent from the field. Dropping from mental and physical exhaustion, stragglers slept the night of September 17 under fences, on rocks and in thickets. Many wounded remained on the field all night into the next day.
Exactly 19 months later, the 16th Connecticut faced its second major engagement of the war, and this time things seemed entirely different. The men were more experienced and hardened, less idealistic about war. But they were no more prepared for a Confederate onslaught than they were on that fateful day in Maryland. And the results, like at Antietam, were devastating. Rather than panicking and fleeing from the field, however, the regiment—and the entire Federal garrison—was surrounded and captured.
THE BATTLE OF PLYMOUTH
It was a “beautiful Sabbath morning,” Sun- day, April 17, 1864, remembered musician Robert Holmes, and the men of the 16th Connecticut Infantry went through their regular routine without any indication of what lay ahead. Sergeant Oliver Gates recalled how, that morning, “our regiment lay in camp at Ply mouth, N.C. and none of us expected an Attack, but ere the day closed we were surrounded by twelve thousand Confederate Soldiers and Gen. [Robert] Hoke.” At noon, Union cavalry reported seeing the enemy just a few miles away. Private Robbins wrote in his diary that it had been a “bright pleasant day, but the Sab bath has been desecrated by the Rebels.” About 5 p.m., the 16th Connecticut had just marched onto the parade ground for dress parade when a courier rushed into camp reporting an enemy attack. Private Lamphere was among the skirmishers ordered to make a reconnaissance. “We went out,” Lamphere recalled, “in a front, across the esplanade to the edge of the timber, and a little beyond came upon the enemy in force. They pressed upon us and compelled us to fall back. We held out stubbornly, dodging behind stumps and logs and firing at the enemy all the way to our line of works.” Within a few hours all the skirmishers had returned to camp, and the Rebel attack was in full force. General Hoke was at the head of a combined land and naval operation that outnumbered the Federals nearly 4-to-1. The 16th Connecticut, totaling about 400 men, manned Fort Williams at the center of the Union breastworks. “Our position,” Robbins noted, “was on the west bank of the Roanoke [R]iver about eight miles from its mouth, protected by log breast-works from the attack of the enemy, running from the river in a circular form and encompassing the small town to a point some two-thirds of a semi-circle, leaving the space to the river on the south protected by light gun boats of which three were anchored abreast the town.” Kellogg wrote a short letter to his father at 8 p.m., a few hours after the assault began: “We are having an interesting time of it.” He urged his father to be firm in their Christian faith: “Don’t be anxious on my account—God will keep me. Trust him.” Leland Barlow also scribbled a quick note to his sister that evening: “The Rebs showed themselves about 5 PM and we are having a right smart artillery fight.” “Never fear,” he hastily closed.
Lamphere recalled that he and his comrades were confident at first, since they were on high ground and their works were defended by “good 12 pound brass howitzers” and an “abundance of ammunition.” “The troops,” he wrote, “were in good spirits; in fact we were in a state of the highest enthusiasm, as we were to fight behind breastworks, and we felt that we could whip four or five times our number, and we could and did for two days.” A swamp lay before them, “about 900 yards wide” with felled logs “sprawling in all directions over the miry and boggy ground.”
The Confederate assault, however, was unrelenting. By 11 p.m., Company H of the 16th Connecticut was ordered to escort “all loyal” women, children, and other noncombatants aboard the steamer Massasoit, which was headed for Roanoke Island. Private Forbes bitterly complained in his diary that the Confederates attacked without first allowing “the non-combatants to leave, and have thereby violated one of the principles of civilized warfare.” Meanwhile, Confederate artillery continued blasting away until nearly midnight and then resumed firing just before sunrise the next morning. Soon Rebel soldiers began pouring out of the woods and overpowered the Union skirmish lines, forcing the Federals to retreat inside their forts. Following a “sharp engagement” between a Rebel battery and the men in Fort Wessells on the Union right, there was a short respite. Then around 3 p.m., Forbes wrote, “the enemy moved forward in line of battle on the Washington Road.” This movement was checked, but the Confederates advanced again, driving “our pickets and skirmishers, and opened on us from a battery which they had succeeded in planting in a fine position.” For about three hours, the Confederate guns blasted away at Fort Williams until they were finally “silenced, and our picket line was again established.” Forbes judged that there was “splendid shooting on both sides,” with the Federals taking relatively “slight” casualties.
Confederate artillery and gunboats unleashed a withering fire that did not stop until 10 p.m. At one point, a battery planted itself directly in front of the regiment’s position and, according to Kellogg, “blazed away with the greatest rapidity upon our camp and Fort Williams.” Sergeant Samuel Grosvenor wrote it was “one of the most furious cannonades” he had ever witnessed.
Under the blizzard of fire, men began to falter and struggled to keep their composure. Lt. Col. John Burnham attempted to soothe the regiment’s nerves by ordering the band to play “National airs.” At first this seemed to work. Kellogg later remembered, “Brave hearts became braver, and if the patriotism of any waxed cold, and the courage of any faltered, they here grew warmer and stronger until the pride of country had touched the will, and an indomitable principle had been kindled that virtually declared the man a hero until death.” But before long Confederate artillery took aim at the musicians, and shells began to drop over their heads. At this moment, Kellogg recalled, “the musicians retired precipitately, the bass drummer throwing his sticks in one direction and his drum in another, leaving the defense of the breastworks to the boys with the rifles.”
As the enemy fire persisted into the night, Kellogg sought solace in faith: “God has given me courage and calmness. I try to trust in Jesus Christ. May His will be done.” Years later, Forbes gave credit to Burnham’s cool conduct during the siege: “He was a man of unquestioning bravery and held his men in perfect discipline awaiting the charge.”
With the siege continuing into a third day, the Federal outlook seemed bleak. “It was evident to us,” Lieutenant Bernard Blakeslee later wrote, “that we must either be killed or go to ‘Libby’ [Prison].” Kellogg declared on April 19, “This morning finds us in a rather bad plight.” Earlier, the Confederate ram Albemarle had slipped past the Federal guns and sunk USS Southfield, in the process driving off other Union gunboats and cutting off the position from outside communication. “We are surrounded,” Champlin wrote in his diary.
At one point, Major Henry L. Pasco ordered Lieutenant Alonzo Case to select a group of men and hold them “in readiness to charge over the works in case the rebels came up to them in our front.” Case was convinced few would return from such an extremely dangerous mission and initially offered the task to his own Company E, which consisted of about 40 men. To his surprise, every member of the company volunteered. “I was proud of that Company at that time,” he wrote. “They were more brave than I. I was ordered to go, they volunteered.”
Fort Wessells eventually fell, and Albemarle began shelling the town. “We went to work,” Lamphere wrote, “throwing up earthworks to defend us from the riverside and soon had some protection.” Soldiers were ordered to begin digging “for our lives, building traverses, bomb proofs, etc.” The men and their commanders never questioned such defensive behavior as unheroic or cowardly. It was simple survival. Firing continued into the dark, and the men had another sleepless night, anxious about what awaited them. “The ‘rebs’ evidently intend to take us,” Grosvenor predicted bleakly.
On Wednesday morning, the 16th was ordered to provide reinforcements on the left. “In doing so,” Lamphere wrote, “we had to pass through the village, and as we reached a point a little past Fort Williams, we discerned, not clearly, as it was not yet light, a black line within our defenses. We were formed in a line of battle and we marched cautiously toward it, and being sufficiently near discharged a broadside into their ranks, getting the first shot. The order was to fall back and to reload while so marching with face toward the enemy. This order was executed promptly.”
Lamphere was in the process of loading his gun when “murderous musketry fire from the enemy who had advanced on the run” tore through the ranks. Hit in the left arm by a Minié ball, Lamphere dropped his rifle. Ordered to head back to a hospital tent, he later recalled: “I did reach the tent, and it did not seem to me more than ten minutes until the whole place swarmed with the enemy who came pell mell, tearing and swearing and firing without much regard to the sanctity of the hospital flag, and the tent was riddled with bullets.”
Separated from the regiment, Lamphere and a few wounded comrades were captured. He never saw his unit again, moved first to the state capital of Raleigh, then to Salisbury, N.C., and then to Libby Prison in Richmond. His left arm was amputated on May 22. In the meantime, the Rebels pressed forward to take the town and began pounding Fort Williams from every direction. There was another flurry of fighting, and the artillery fire was “perfectly awful.” As the day unfolded, the Confederates demanded surrender, according to Lieutenant Blakeslee, on three occasions in order “to save further sacrifice of life.” But each time the Confederates were rebuffed. After the third offer, Hoke defiantly declared, “I will fill your citadel full of iron; I will compel your surrender, if I have to fight until the last man.”
“I was now completely enveloped on every side,” Brig. Gen. Henry Wessells later reported, “Fort Williams an in closed work in the center of the line, being my only hope. This was well understood by the enemy, and in less than an hour a cannonade of shot and shell was opened upon it from four different directions. This terrible fire had to be endured without reply, as no man could live at the guns.” Wessells decided that he had no more options. “This condition of affairs could not be long endured, and in compliance with the earnest desire of every officer I consented to hoist a white flag, and at 10 a.m. of April 20 I had the mortification of surrendering my post to the enemy with all it contained.”
“General this is the saddest day of my life,” Wessells reportedly observed to Hoke, who responded, “General Wessells, this is the proudest day of mine.” Sergeant Jacob Bauer later asserted that after the surrender, a member of his Company G still had his gun and aimed to fire it at a Confederate general, who was on horseback. Another soldier stopped him. “It was good luck,” Bauer maintained, “because had a Reb been killed after surrender, they would have killed us all.”
Instead, the “ ‘ rebs’ took us all,” Grosvenor scrawled in his diary that day. Indeed, nearly the entire regiment was captured except for Company H and a scattering of men on detached service. The regiment’s casualties (except for those captured) were relatively light: one killed and 12 wounded.
After the war, Kellogg concluded: “The comparatively small loss of the Sixteenth at Plymouth was by reason of its fighting behind defenses for the first time in its history. The attacking Confederate forces, fighting in the open, sustained losses so heavy that they were never reported in detail.”
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.