Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Sheridan's repeating carbines at Cold Harbor

In partial response to the statement that neither Sheridan nor Forrest had repeating rifles . . .

At Cold Harbor Sheridan was sent ahead to hold it until a larger force arrived. Trudeau in his Bloody Roads South writes that Sheridan blocked all three roads to Cold Harbor. "Some twelve thousand Confederate troops pressed Sheridan's sixty-five hundred around Cold Harbor. Major General Robert F. Hoke's seven-thousand-man division was dug in less than a mile west of Cold Harbor . . .

On page 266 Trudeau writes, "Sheridan's men facing Keitt numbered only six hundred, but they were well armed with either Sharps breech-loading carbines or seven-shot Spencer magazine carbines. As Kershaw's Brigade hove into view, the dismounted cavalrymen allowed the yelling attackers to come close, then loosed an awesome display of massed firepower. Remembered Captain Rodenbough, 'A sheet of flame came from the cavalry line, and for three or four minutes the din was deafening. The repeating carbines raked the flank of the hostile column while the Sharps single-loaders kept up a steady rattle,' They were so badly demoralized,' added a trooper from the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, 'that they took to their heels and skedaddled back to the woods from which they had started on their charge.'

"Colonel Keitt was cythed off his horse by the first volley and killed. His inexperienced regiment dtood against the merciless leaden storm for perhaps five minutes. The the 20th South Carolina regiment broke. Artilleryman Robet Stiles was appalled: 'I have never seen any body of troops in such a condition f utter demoralization; they actually grovelled upon the ground and attempted to burrow under each other in holes and depressions.' Only the battle-hardened discipline of the other regiments prevented the rout from becoming a general one.

"So quickly was Kershaw advance repulsed that the fight was over before Hoke's men, on the right, realized it had started. 'Hoke did not become engaged,' noted the official diary of the First Corps."

Who had the force that was supposed to arrive at Cold Harbor next? Why Baldy Smith, previously mentioned as a general who never lived up to his own opinion of himself. "The morning was well under way before Grant's headquarters staff realized that 'Baldy' Smith's men had been marching the wrong way. . . Smith's men, who should have been assisting Sheridan at Cold Harbor, were instead five to six miles from the place."

Sheridan and his men were still on their own. "A second far less determined Confederate attack struggled forward before 10:00 AM. Sheridan's riders met it with the same hurricane of fire that had shattered the first, and it was quickly stopped. 'After the second failure,' Thompson Snyder of the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry recalled with weary gratitude, 'they let us alone.'

Comment: The above happened during a short period of time on June 1, 1864. I don't know precisely when Sheridan's men arrived at Cold Harbor but "at 5 A.M. . . coffee was prepared and served to the men as they stood to horse. . ."

Not until 08:00 was Colonel Keit's brigade ready to attack Sheridan's force. The second attack occurred at 10:00 and by that time the "first dust-caked, footsore infantrymen began to relive Sheridan's riders." -- Not Baldy Smith's footsore infantrymen to be sure but those of the Sixth Corps commander, Horatio Wright who was supposed to arrive "after" Smith.

My recollection is that Nathan Forrest had repeating rifles as well. He was a wealthy man and purchased them for his cavalry. I am quoting from memory; so perhaps I am wrong, but I am too lazy at this point to go searching for the reference.

Whenever I read such accounts as the above, I am once again appalled that the General Haig hadn't learned this lesson. At least Kershaw quit sending men against Sheridan's repeating carbines, but Haig sent wave after wave of men with fixed bayonets against machine guns -- not just Haig of course, they were all doing it back then, but Haig stands out in my recollection as being the worst of them.

It seems to me that our modern fighting forces in the West have given up tradition. With the rapid introduction of new sorts of weaponry, tactics have been modified in order to make the best use of them. It is no longer thought to be noble thing to stand up and charge against rapidly firing rifles or machine guns. We say today, well of course, only a fool couldn't see that, but back then, back during the time of the First World War and earlier, few seemed to, and those sent out to face those sheets of flame were criticized as cowards for burrowing in the ground to avoid it.

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