The Alabama in the Civil War Message Board

5th Alabama Infantry Regiment - Bethesda Church

While positioned along the North Anna River, there was heavy cannonading throughout the day on May 24, 1864. The Confederate position where they had thrown up breastworks, was subjected to another galling and annoying enfilade fire. It rained at intervals through the day and night, and, being without shelter or blankets, the hours wore off wearily and uncomfortably. At times the sharpshooters did remarkably good execution among the enemy. They would infiltrate in small groups into the gaps between Federal units, lapping around the flanks and sniping from behind every bush and tree. In the meantime, the main Confederate force remained entrenched in an impregnable position. Federal General Hancock sent a Brigade around the Confederate right, attempting to turn the position where Rodes’ Division, which held the far right, abutted the swamp. Upon observing this move, Rodes doubled his skirmish line with the Sharpshooters from Battle’s Brigade positioned on the extreme right near the Doswell Plantation. The 19th Maine Infantry charged up a hill towards the Doswell House and found themselves in the open, with no support on either flank and the Confederate Sharpshooters crouching at the edge of the woods no more than twenty rods away. Amid “a storm of shot and shell” they tumbled back down the slope. So fierce was the Rebel fire that they were unable to recover their wounded. There was heavy skirmishing on May 25, 1864, but the 5th Alabama suffered only one casualty, the Regimental Color Sergeant Archibald Thompson, was wounded. Ultimately, the light Infantry tactics won the day. However, for those more familiar with the engagement, they will know that it is seen as a missed opportunity for Lee to strike a decisive blow to Grant’s forces.

Heavy and continuous rains fell the following day beating pitilessly upon the unprotected heads of the men and inundating the trenches. There was a brisk skirmish just before night started by the Yankees indicating the probability of an attack the next morning. However, early on the morning of May 27, 1864, it was ascertained that the enemy had disappeared during the night. General Grant having moved by the inevitable left flank after realizing that the Hanover Junction route was likely to provide a "hard road to travel" as the one through the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. Many of the men enjoyed an elegant breakfast of fresh beef which had been abandoned by the Yankees. It seemed elegant because for weeks they had eaten nothing but salt meat. General Lee immediately determined that Grant's design was to make for the Pamunkey River and the Peninsula and he took prompt and immediate steps to thwart and countermand him. At about six o'clock that morning, with Ewell’s 2nd Corps in the van, the men took up the line of march through Taylorsville on the Richmond and Fredericksburg Railroad, crossing the Little and South Anna rivers, passing near Hanover Court House and Ashland and on to a point within twelve miles of Richmond where they bivouacked for the night at about sundown.

The following day, the men were on the march at daybreak. General Lee rode up front with Generals Ewell and Rodes, followed by a long sweating line of gray infantry. General Ewell abruptly turned to General Lee and informed his commander that he was too ill to continue and wished to turn his command over to his senior Major General, Jubal Early. Lee assented and Ewell slowly left the column while Lee and Rodes continued on, discussing a possible temporary commander for Early’s Division. Both agreed that General Stephen Dodson Ramseur of Rodes’ Division was the best officer available. The men halted at about eleven o’clock that morning at the junction of the roads leading to Old Church on the Pamunkey River and Mechanicsville, remaining there through the day and night.

Everything was comparatively quiet on the morning of May 29, 1864. The Confederates busied themselves building earthworks and had several large guns mounted. Commissary Clerk Henry Beck moved forward with rations for the men, but when within a mile of the lines, the trains were turned back by General Rodes, due to the fact that the enemy was reported advancing on their position. General Grant’s army crossed the Pamunkey River and positioned themselves in line of battle. However, Grant soon discovered Lee’s lines were well entrenched behind a creek and decided to forego an assault. Shortly after four o’clock that afternoon skirmishing began, but it was a good distance in front of the men of the 5th Alabama. They were moved a few hundred yards and once in position, commenced building earthworks. At dark, the ration trains moved forward once again and General Battle sent cooking details which were guided to the trains.

On May 30, 1864, there was skirmishing along the lines throughout the morning. Rode’s Division was south of the Totopotomoy Creek entrenched across Shady Grove Road. In an attempt to flank the Union V Corps, General Early ordered the Divisions of Rodes, Ramseur, and Gordon, to move to the right and to take two trails through the woods, about a mile southeast where they intersected the Old Church Road. They were to travel eastward to the area of Bethesda Church and then form line of battle at right angle to the road, and attack the Federal forces to the north of their position.

Just before noon, Rodes started down the Old Church Road with Dole’s Brigade leading the column. When he spotted Federal skirmishers about a half mile before Bethesda, Rodes ordered the division to deploy. As always, he took great care with his preparations. Like he had done at Seven Pines and Chancellorsville, Rodes stipulated that the attack should be guided on the road. At 2:00 P.M. he sent the men forward. They encountered the 13th Pennsylvania that were serving as pickets. Surprising them, they were quickly overwhelmed and Rodes’ men swarmed onto the Tinsley farm hitting the Federal Brigade of General Hardin. After a short hot engagement, the unsupported Union Brigade gave way and retreated up the Walnut Grove Road towards the main body of Federal troops. An infantryman in Rodes’ Division recalled the moment of contact with Hardin’s brigade of Pennsylvania Reserves: “Had not gone far before we came across the enemy. They were posted in a slender breastwork, we saw them run out of this and they fled in great confusion.” Federal prisoners were sent to the rear as Rodes’ men rolled past Johnson’s Farm and approach Bethesda Church. Hardin later described it: “(Rodes’) column, five or six times the strength of the (Union) First Brigade came down the Mechanicsburg Pike at a run, it’s left resting on the pike, and it’s front extending off to the right......The volley or two delivered by our feeble force made no impression on the enemy, he ran over and around....(us).” The enemy was so confident of its ultimate success, he did not stop to secure the First Brigade prisoners, but continued on his charge down the pike.” Rodes’ battle lines smashed into the two remaining brigades of Union General Samuel Crawford’s Division near Bethesda Church. “We were attacked on both flanks with great fury,” one dazed Pennsylvanian recalled. Charles Wainwright, the Union V Corps artillery chief, figured that Hardin’s line held for perhaps five minutes, and the two brigade lines near the church for a little longer, before everything was shoved north.

The speed at which the Confederates had overrun Hardin, now worked against them. With reinforcements arriving, the Federals held firm and the fighting bogged down into a stalled small arms fight. Rodes’ men were intermixed and bunched up around Bethesda Church. Under increasing pressure, Rodes pulled back slightly to consolidate his line and held awaiting support from Generals Ramseur and Anderson. It took time to reorganize the lines and by the time they were ready to move forward, the Federals had prepared for the attack. Several Union batteries were put in place during the interlude and they were to decimate the attacking Rebels. Hours passed, however, before the Confederate reinforcements got into the fight. By then it was too late. At about 6:00 P.M. the Federals delivered a relentless counterattack that drove the entire Confederate line back. The Confederates had faced a maelstrom of shot and shell. "Our line melted away as if by magic. Every brigade, staff and field officer was cut down (mostly killed outright) in an incredibly short time. It was the heaviest and most murderous fire I had ever seen with grape, canister and musketry." A union soldier reported the following. "There were mangled forms, bloody and ghastly; men without heads, heads without bodies, hands wanting arms. There were fragments of human flesh hanging to the lattice fence, thrown there by cannon shot." Fortunately, Battle’s Brigade had not been sent forward in the interlude and their casualties were not increased. They were successful in taking a considerable number of Federal prisoners. At dark, Battle’s men fell back to the woods in the rear and remained there until morning.