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Vortex Of Hell

When James Longstreet’s Confederate divisions advanced to the attack at 4:30 p.m. on August 30, the 1,000-man brigade of Colonel Gouverneur Warren held a wooded hill west of Young’s Branch in the direct path of John Bell Hood’s Confederate division. Warren’s command consisted of two Zouave regiments, the 5th and 10th New York.

The New Yorkers’ first indication of the oncoming storm in gray was the frantic retreat of skirmishers of the 10th New York. Years later, Private Alfred Davenport of the 5th recalled that just before that moment he thought “that some mischief was brewing.” Within minutes, the Southerners–Hood’s old Texas Brigade–appeared, unleashing a volley into the ranks of the two regiments. The waves of bullets, said a New Yorker, sounded like “an immense flock of partridges.”

The Zouave troops responded with two volleys, but that was all they could manage before the Texans engulfed their position. The 10th New York on the right gave way first, leaving the 5th isolated on the hill. Members of the regiment fell in clumps. One survivor called their location the “very vortex of hell.”

Someone shouted for the 5th to retreat, but few heard it, and by then it did not matter. The color guard had all but disappeared, and Confederates chased after them screaming. The New Yorkers tumbled down the opposite slope toward Young’s Branch. The Texans scorched their fleeing ranks. So many Yankees fell in the stream that their bodies dammed up the current.

It was all over within five minutes. During those hellish moments, however, the 5th New York lost more men killed in that time span than any other infantry regiment in the war. Out of 490 present, the 5th suffered 79 killed, 170 wounded (of whom 45 died), and 48 missing, for a total of 297. The 10th New York lost 23 killed, 65 wounded and 27 missing, for a total of 115.

The next day, a Texan revisited the scene of the slaughter. The bodies of the fallen Zouaves, dressed in gay blue jackets and red pants, reminded the Southerner of home. The knoll, he said, had “the appearance of a Texas hillside when carpeted in the spring by wild flowers of many hues and tints.”

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