The evening of August 30, 1862
by Sam Smith
"The Happiness of Unborn Millions"
Longstreet’s charge on August 30th was, with 28,000 men, the largest simultaneous attack of the war.
1.“There was a moment’s stillness and then – bang! bang, bang, bang!....not only were men wounded and killed, but they were riddled.” – Andrew Coats, 5th New York (USA)
For the first several hundred yards Longstreet’s assault was like a tide, rolling up the Union flank by sight alone. Private Coats and the 5th New York watched the mile-long mass approach from their position in front of Chinn Ridge and resolved to hold their ground. The first Confederate volley showed that they were in for a hot fight.
2. “For God’s sake don’t let them take my flag!” – Francis Spellman, 5th New York (USA)
The attack struck the New Yorkers with unimaginable force. Francis Spellman was gravely wounded in the midst of the chaos. He screamed one last request to the stubborn men around him. He would be dead in an hour.
3. “I have promised to drive you back or die under my guns, and I have kept my word.” -- Mark Kerns, Kerns’s Battery (USA)
The men manning Mark Kerns’s battery scattered when they saw the Confederate veterans charging towards them. Only Kerns remained, bravely loading and firing the dogs of war single-handedly until a man from Hood’s Texas Brigade brought him down. The admiring Confederates offered to take him to a field hospital, but he refused. Grey-coated soldiers were soon swarming over the advanced Union position and moving towards Chinn Ridge.
4. “The domned skillipins skedaddle extensively – extensively sir!” – James “Old Tarantula” Reilly, Reilly’s Battery (CSA)
Confederate guns were soon rolled into position near Kerns’s abandoned battery. Their fire broke up yet another Union line. Looking through his field glasses, Captain Reilly excitedly informed a staff officer of his success in his thick Irish brogue.
5. “My arm is broken.” – Brigadier General Robert Schenk (USA)
Robert Schenk was knocked from his horse by a Confederate bullet while trying to rally a group of frightened soldiers. A promising officer, his career was cut short at Chinn Ridge. He would live only after a hasty amputation. One in thirteen surviving veterans of the Civil War were amputees.
6. “Officers and men shouting, shells tearing through and exploding, the incessant rattle of muskets, the cries of the wounded—all combined made up a scene that was anything but encouraging.” – James Webb, 5th New York (USA)
Chinn Ridge was a swirling maelstrom of humanity. Through the smoke the Union soldiers could see Longstreet’s battle line swiftly approaching. Though the men would not have believed it, at this moment they were the Union army’s only hope of survival.
7. “Up to the fence and give them hell!” – William Patton, 7th Virginia (CSA)
William Patton led a regiment of Virginians up the swell of Chinn Ridge and into the sheets of flame exploding from the steadying Union line. His grandnephew, George Patton, would lead American soldiers to victory on battlefields in North Africa and Europe.
8. “We could see the muzzles of the guns…beside them stood the gunners….[the blast] seemed to shake the very Earth. Then the dull thud of the balls as they tore…through the bodies of the men—then the hiss of the grape—and mingled screams of agony and rage.” – Alex Hunter, Corse’s Brigade (CSA)
The Confederate assault slammed into the Union line on the ridge--and was held. The hill erupted with thousands of musket blasts as more grey-coated soldiers surged towards the determined Federals.
9. “Wounded men were everywhere…trying with all their strength to get away to a safe distance. [One] wounded man begged piteously for us to take him to the rear…every time he tried to speak the blood would fill his mouth and he would blow it in all directions….he was the most dreadful sight I ever saw. We could not help him, for it was of no use.” –Austin Stearns, 13th Massachusetts (USA)
In the furious battle there was no time to do anything but load and fire. The yellow grass was soon strewn with the wreckage of both armies.
10. “Ten feet to my left the tall sergeant of Company F sank down in a heap…my left hand mate whirled…F. went down…S was swearing like mad, shot through the thigh….A man I did not recognized dropped just in front. I heard the bullets chug into his body; it seemed half a dozen struck him.”— George Paine, 13th Massachusetts (USA)
George Paine was on the Union left exchanging crashing volleys with Confederate soldiers of the 17th Virginia and 5th Texas. Despite horrific losses on both sides there were simply too many Confederates joining the fight. After a heroic stand the Union defenders were forced off of Chinn Ridge. They had bought precious time for the army to meet Longstreet’s onslaught.
11. “I felt that the crisis of the nation was on hand, and that the happiness of unborn millions and the progress of the world depended on our success.” – Brigadier General Robert Milroy (USA)
The Confederate line continued to advance, though the fight on Chinn Ridge had left them disordered and exhausted. The remainder of the Union army formed on Henry House Hill, protecting Pope’s line of retreat. Longstreet’s charge had clinched the battle, but the stubborn Union defense here finally beat his men back, saving the Union army from outright annihilation.
12. “Yes, General, but have we whipped ‘em?” – Unknown Soldier, 4th Virginia (CSA)
In the aftermath of the battle Jackson rode along his line at the railroad cut. The ground was littered with dead and wounded men from both armies. He saw one Confederate soldier trying wretchedly to haul himself up the embankment. Jackson stopped and asked if the soldier was wounded. Receiving a brave reply, he asked which regiment the man belonged to. The wounded soldier told Jackson that he was a part of the 4th Virginia, Stonewall Brigade, a veteran of the Shenandoah Valley campaign, and that although this was his fourth wound he hoped to return to fight by Jackson’s side once more. Jackson knelt beside him and said: “You are worthy of the old brigade and I hope, with God’s blessing, that you will soon be well enough to return to it.” The wounded soldier began to sob. Jackson beckoned his medical director and placed the man under his care.
General Pope’s army retreated that night, harassed by Confederate cavalry and Lee’s swiftly pursuing infantry. Pope did not feel safe until he reached the fortifications surrounding Washington, D.C. Here the Union army was consumed by savage in-fighting. Fitz-John Porter was court-martialed and Pope was sent out west to fight the Dakota Wars. After defeating his second Union army in as many months, Lee felt confident enough to take his men north into Maryland and towards a rendezvous with destiny at Antietam.