76th NY Volunteers at the Battle of the Wilderness

Contributed by Michael Ryan, 5775 Route 31, Brockport NY 14420

According to military records in the National Archives, Washington, D.C., Private Charles Bush, Co. B, 76th NY Volunteers was present with the regiment in May of 1864 when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan to do battle with Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. The 76th NY was then part of the 2nd Brigade under Brigadier General James C. Rice, Wadsworth's 4th Division, 5th Corps, Army of the Potomac.

In the early morning hours of May 5th the Division broke camp and marched from Wilderness Tavern along the Parker's Store Road, Rice's Brigade in the lead of the Division. After moving about 2 miles the division formed in line of battle at about 8:00 am and subsequently moved onto the dense woods of the Wilderness where they became heavily engaged with the enemy. As part of this move, three companies of the 76th NY were thrown out as skirmishers to protect the left flank of the brigade - Companies B, F, and K. Charles would have been with his company on the skirmish line.

Companies B, F, and K were subsequently cut off from the brigade when it was compelled to retire. They fought as skirmishers against superior numbers suffering many killed, wounded, and captured. A portion of Co. B in one instance engaged in hand-to-hand combat to protect their right flank. The Cortland County boys, with several companies from other regiments also cut off, attempted to march out of the Wilderness, but they were ambushed by Confederate forces. Virtually all those trying to so withdraw were killed outright or wounded and captured. The rest fled but were, almost to a man, captured.

The Company Muster Roll lists Charles Bush as Missing in Action that fateful May morning.

From History of the Seventy-Sixth Regiment New York Volunteers by A.P. Smith:

"May 4th, at one o'clock in the morning, the Second Brigade broke camp at Culpepper, and moved to the Rapidan river. It consisted, at that time, of the Seventy-sixth, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Cook; the Fourteenth Brooklyn, Colonel Fowler; the One Hundred Forty-seventh New York, Colonel Miller; the Ninety-fifth New York, Colonel Pye; and the Fifty-sixth Pennsylvania, Colonel Hofmann (sic). The Brigade had present a little over two thousand men and was commanded by Brigadier-General J.C. Rice.

The Brigade crossed the Rapidan over a pontoon bridge, at Germania (sic) Ford, about noon, and, marching to near Wilderness Tavern, encamped at five o'clock P.M.

At seven o'clock the next morning, the Second Brigade moved on Parker's store about four miles distant. After marching about two miles it was halted, formed in line of battle, and moved through a dense wood for a distance of nearly a mile, when it was met by a heavy fire of musketry from an unseen enemy. Here they halted and returned the fire, when a sharp engagement ensued. The Second Brigade at this time occupied the left flank of the Division.

Three companies of the Seventy-sixth, B, F, and K, were, at this point, thrown out as skirmishers, to cover the left flank, Major Young commanding them. They soon reported the enemy to be advancing in a line extending far beyond the left of our forces. Almost simultaneously with this report, the line on the right fell back in disorder, and was followed by this Brigade.

The skirmishers (had) marched to the required position without meeting any opposition. In a few moments, however, heavy firing was heard on the right, and a skirmish line at least twice as strong as ours appeared in front, and opened a heavy fire. Our skirmishers, and especially Company B, were in an open field, exposed to the enemy, who were covered by the wood. From this wood the balls came like rain, but not a rebel could be seen. The order was finally given to retreat to another wood about twenty rods to the rear.

The rebels, seeing our skirmishers retire, and considering it a defeat, rushed into the open field in pursuit. No sooner, however, had they reached the open space than they received a most destructive fire, which sent them reeling back in disorder to the wood again. They soon rallied and came out again with a rush and yell of defiance. Again they were received with a galling fire; but though they fell in great numbers, considering the force engaged, they kept on until they reached a fence about the middle of the field. A heavy fire was kept up on both sides. our skirmishers occupied a most dangerous position upon the side of a hill sloping toward the enemy, and though in the wood, there were no trees of very large size, and they were only screened from sight by bushes. Our men were, therefore, ordered back about fifteen rods, to a point more heavily timbered. The enemy advanced to the position thus abandoned. Here our skirmishers met with a new difficulty. A portion of the line on the right gave way and before the fact became known to the whole line, the enemy had turned our flank. A portion of Company B was sent out to drive them back, when a severe hand to hand conflict took place, resulting in our favor. When it was ascertained that our skirmish line was broken, a staff officer, who had accompanied the line, started back to learn the state of affairs in the rear. He had not rode over fifty rods, when he found a rebel line in rear of our skirmishers, which fired upon, wounded and captured him-"

The skirmishers of the 76th, along with several companies of other regiments, now attempted to withdraw from the area. They marched, as Smith wrote, "toward the sound of battle," believing that the Army of the Potomac was retreating toward the Rapidan.

Coming upon a small house in a clearing, they prevailed upon the farmer to act as a guide and show them the way to Gold Mills where the 76th had earlier encamped. This was done to a point described as a "direct road" upon which the assorted companies then marched coming across ground that had been burned over that very day and where 11 ... several dead bodies were strewn about, showing that they were still on the battle-field."

Smith continues:

"Advancing a few rods farther the detachment fell into an ambush, and received a volley from a whole rebel brigade. Being at short range the execution was fearful. Many fell wounded, among them Lieutenant William Cahill, of Company B, wounded in the shoulder, and one arm broken. All the wounded and about half the others were captured on the spot. The remainder broke and ran, but were pursued by a strong force and mostly captured.

The following officers of the Seventy-sixth were captured at this time:

Company B - Captain J.D. Clyde, First Lieutenant William Cahill, Second Lieutenant James Casler.

Company F - First Lieutenant William Buchanan, Second Lieutenant William H. Myers.

Company K - Captain E.J. swan, First Lieutenant Homer D. Call, Second Lieutenant Job Norwood."

(As noted in Col. Hoffman's report the 76th's Major Young, commanding the skirmish line, was also captured that morning. He spent nearly a year in the-hands of the enemy. Clearly, Co. B 76th NY suffered fearfully that morning.)

From the Report of Col. J. William Hoffman, 56 PA 2d Brigade, Wadsworth's Division (4th) 5th Corps Army of the Potomac:

At about 7:00 am on the 5th of May the division marched on Parker's Store about 4 miles distant. After about 2 miles halted until about 12 noon. At about noon the division formed in line of battle and moved through dense woods for about a mile (east from the Parker's Store Rd. toward the Higgerson Farm). They were met "with heavy musket fire from an unseen enemy." The officer in charge of skirmishers thrown out to cover the left flank reported the enemy to be "advancing in a line extending far beyond our left." The line to Hoffman's right fell back in disorder, followed by the 2d Brigade itself.

Col. Hoffman's report notes heavy casualties in killed, wounded, and captured, including specific mention of Lt. Col. Cook commanding the 76 NY, wounded, and the 76th's Major Young being captured.

Wrote Hoffman, "Three entire companies of the Seventy Sixth New York, sent out as skirmishers in the early part of the morning, were captured." (Companies B, F, and K.)

During this engagement Co. E, 95th NY was captured entire, as were parts of Co. A and Co. I of the 95th.

From the Report of Brig. Gen. Lysander Cutler Commanding Ist Brigade 4th Division 5th Corps Army of the Potomac OR Vol. XXXVI Pt. 1 pp. 610-611

Early on the morning of the 5th marched on the road to Parker's Store following Gen. Crawford's Division. The enemy soon made his appearance in front of Crawford. This Division (the 4th) formed in line of battle on the right of Crawford and attacked at 12 noon, pushing the enemy nearly a mile.

Wrote Cutler, "(Gen. James C.) Rice lost nearly all of his skirmishers as prisoners... 11

As they were in the same immediate vicinity, it is most probable that Confederate forces of Ewell's Corps were responsible for flanking and routing the 2nd Brigade's skirmishers, killing and capturing most of them.

From reports of the engagement it appears that Charles' company was most probably engaged near the Higgerson Farm west of the Parker Store Road.

"Our skirmishers, and especially Company B. were in an open field, exposed to the enemy, who were covered by the wood"

Historical maps show such a clearing referred to as Higgerson's Field, west of the Parker Store Road and south of Mill Branch creek. At noon on May 5th Wadsworth's Brigade was formed along the Parker Store Road fronting on Higgerson's Field and his skirmishers would have been earlier advanced through the clearing described. Woods surround the field and would have provided excellent cover for Confederate skirmishers - the "heavy musket fire from an unseen enemy" as Col. Hoffman reported.

At noon on May 5th Rebel forces of Johnson's, Rodes', and Early's Divisions of Ewell's Corps were on and astride the orange Turnpike immediately north of Mill Branch and Higgerson's Field. Rodes' and Early's Divisions in particular would have had skirmishers out on their flanks, moving through the woods south of the orange Turnpike and across Mill Branch, thence into Higgerson's Field from the west. These were doubtless the forces encountered by Charles and his comrades.

Here ends the trail as far as I have followed. It remains my desire to go to the Wilderness next summer and stand where the Cortland County boys stood that day. Eventually I want to research local records - land, tax, etc. - in the Town of Taylor and Cortland County for some clue as to Charles' fate.

Any information on Charles and the 76th NY itself is always greatly appreciated.

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- last updated January 1, 1999