The Civil War Letters of Forrest Little: The Battle of Savage Station
Carl Guarneri, Saint Mary's College History department
Covering the rear of the federal artillery and wagon trains, the Fifth Vermont marched south to Savage Station, a strategic railroad depot and supply point for the Union army. There chaos reigned on June 29th as retreating bluecoats scrambled to leave behind nothing useful to the enemy. They set fire to huge stores of provisions, blew up an ammunition train at the depot, and rolled a locomotive downhill to the river where it crashed through a burning bridge and fell into the water.
After guarding the Savage Station depot for two hours, General Smith's brigade started toward White Oak Swamp, but they were called back to fill gaps in the Union line in the late afternoon once the rebel army had arrived, taken position, and begun firing. Extending the Union left in a dark stand of woods, General Brooks's Vermonters attempted to hold the flank south of the Williamsburg road against Generals Kershaw, Semmes and Barksdale's Confederate brigades. On this wing the Union men were outnumbered and, at first lacking effective artillery support, outgunned. When men of the Fifth Vermont pushed through the woods and came into a clearing, they were caught in a devastating crossfire. Virginia batteries straight in front of them tore the Vermont men to pieces with grape and cannister (small iron balls in a container) while rebel soldiers fired their muskets from woods on the left and right. In less than an hour nearly half of the Fifth's fighters were killed or wounded. Despite the murderous conditions, the remaining Vermonters found a small rise to crouch behind and held their ground until the rebels' batteries were silenced and their troops backed off. By 9 p.m., when darkness ended the battle, the Confederates had pulled back their men and guns and the Union men held the field.
In the brief but bloody engagement at Savage Station the Fifth Vermont suffered the greatest loss in killed and wounded experienced by that state's regiments in any Civil War battle. Nearly half of their men (209 of 428) were casualties. Company E, Manchester's "Equinox Guards," which faced direct artillery fire, lost all but seven of the sixty men it had in line, including five brothers of the Cummings family.
The appropriately named Savage Station was Forrest Little's brutal introduction to the front line of battle. "Our brigade has been in a very severe fight," he wrote to his parents. Company F did not take the brunt of the punishment, but nine men had been wounded and at least two killed. "There was a ball went thrugh my coat sleeve I thought that clost enough," Forrest wrote. The Confederate cannons made "fearful holes in our ranks," but the Vermonters responded courageously. "Father I done my duty right up to the handle and our Regt stood right up to the rack." Forrest had fired his gun repeatedly until nearly out of bullets: "out of 64 cattridges that I had when the fight Began I had 11 rounds left when it ended." Boasting that the Vermonters had beaten the Rebels "like the old harry," Forrest was gleeful to see them "skedaddled of[f]." The Union men successfully held off General Magruder's pursuing troops, gained time for McClellan's massive army and its thousands of wagons to cross White Oak Swamp, and held the ground until they could follow the rest of the army under cover of darkness.
This was no time for celebration, however. Union casualties were nearly double those of Confederates. Rebel reinforcements were on their way, and the Fifth Vermont was ordered to abandon Savage Station immediately. Seventy-five of the Fifth's wounded men had to be left on the field. Twenty-five hundred sick and wounded Union men at the Savage Station field hospital were abandoned to the enemy, along with a dozen doctors and others who remained behind to care for them. Meanwhile the Vermonters, forced to leave equipment and provisions behind, marched southward through the night without food or rest. Shortly after daylight on the 30th they arrived at the White Oak Bridge and halted across it to provide protection as the last straggling wagons and troops crossed the swamp. The bridge was then blown up and the Vermont men, totally exhausted, parked themselves in a nearby field and slept. In a few hours they were awakened by two dozen cannons belonging to General "Stonewall" Jackson's army, which caught up with the bluecoats in time to harass them but too late to send men across the bridge. The return of fire by Smith's division preoccupied Jackson and prevented him from reinforcing the main body of General Lee's troops as they attacked another federal column at Glendale three miles away.
In the last of the Seven Days' Battles on July 1, Lee's army suffered a major defeat when they attempted to assault the federals at Malvern Hill. Still, McClellan had no thought of resuming the offensive and was intent on reaching the safety of Harrison's Landing. Worn out from the previous two days of fighting, the Fifth Vermont did not participate in the battle of Malvern Hill. The next day they followed the long caravan of wagons and exhausted soldiers headed toward Harrison's Landing. Colonel Wheelock Veazey of the Third Vermont described the scene: "Stragglers sick and dying, arms of every description, stores of all kinds, broken down horses and mules, mud so deep that no bottom could be reached. All these at every step; and then add the sickening feeling of defeat and retreat, and the momentary expectation of a rear attack. Such was our dreary march as a rear guard to Harrison's Landing."
-- Next: The Campaign Ends