[Ed. Note – In honor of the birthday of General “I can’t see the Confederates from where I am” Sickles (October 19, 1819), this post is from one of the Massachusetts boys who joined, with his company, the Excelsior Brigade. Sickles was a well known Democratic congressman who was also the first defendant to successfully use “temporary insanity” as a defense for murder. Sickles murdered his wife’s lover, Philip Barton Key, the son of Francis Scott Key, in the streets of Washington, DC. He was exonerated by reason of temporary insanity. His salient movement at Gettysburg suggests that his insanity might not have been temporary…it was at least episodic.
The Excelsior Brigade was raised mostly in New York by Gen. Daniel E. Sickle and consisted of the 70th, 71st, 72nd, 73rd, and 74th New York. Co. D of the 74th were boys from Cambridgeport, MA. Cambridgeport is generally described as the area north of MIT, near Kendall Square.
The author of the letter, Harlan Page Goddard was 20 years old when he enlisted in May of 1861. He enlisted in a company of soldiers being raised by Captain John T. Burgess. Goddard was a graduate of the Pierce Academy in Middleboro, Massachusetts and he was working as a printer when the war broke out. Captain Burgess kept his company together from about the middle of May onward, despite any show of support from the Massachusetts government. After the 1st of June, the Cambridge City Council despaired of their being called to active service and refused to support the company longer. However, patriotic citizens rallied and posted the troops to a hotel near Fresh Pond in Cambridge until arrangements were made for the company to join the Excelsior Brigade at Camp Scott on Long Island.
The regiment saw a great deal of service beginning with the Battle of Williamsburg where they had 143 casualties, 41 killed outright. They would lose another 20 here at Fair Oaks, including Goddard who was wounded here and eventually sent to a Hospital in New York where he joined the Veteran’s Reserve Corps.]
Co. D, 5th Regt., Excelsior Brigade
Fair Oaks, Va., June 13, 1862
Mr. Editor – Our division and brigade were in the action of June 1st, and have been pretty actively employed since that time, being in the advance on the Williamsburg road to Richmond, skirmishing, doing picket duty, and supporting the batteries in front of our position.
On the afternoon of Saturday, May 31st, toward sunset, we were ordered to fall in, with haversacks and canteens, leaving our knapsacks in charge of the quartermaster’s department. Heavy firing had been heard during the afternoon, and it was rumored that the enemy had gained some advantage over the Union troops, but farther than that we were in ignorance.
We set out at about dusk, and, marching with all possible haste, arrived at near nine o’clock, at the rifle pits and second line of fortifications, to which the rebels had driven back our advance divisions. On our left were the divisions of Casey and Couch, and on our right the Irish “Brigade” and Sumner’s division, which had succeeded in crossing the Chickahominy river, came up during the evening, and occupied a position just upon the other side of the railroad. Here we remained during the night. In the morning the enemy, mistaking our force, and ignorant of the reinforcements that had arrived during the night, renewed the engagement, and advancing without caution, were soon exposed to a heavy cross-fire, which decimated their ranks terribly, but, nothing daunted, they still poured in an ineffectual fire, till at length, by a series of flank movements and repeated and successful bayonet charges, they were forced back – back over the bodies, of their own dead – back, through the swamps and woods, beyond the original position held by our troops on Saturday, and, if fresh troops could have crossed the river, such was their terror and consternation, that there is little doubt the whole rebel army would have been captured or dispersed, and Richmond have been taken ere the rebel troops could be brought to a stand. It is said that during the early part of the fight, two of their divisions were brought forward as reinforcements, but on coming in sight of the piles of rebel slain, they became panic-stricken, refused to go forward, and turning, fled incontinently, despite the utmost efforts of their officers to rally them.
The loss of our brigade was inconsiderable, and, with the exception of one or two accidents, our regiment met with no casualties whatever. The second regiment of the brigade was not in the battle of Williamsburg, being left at Yorktown to guard the stores, and in the battle of Sunday they evinced the discipline of veterans, together with an impetuousity that could not be withstood. Their charges are made a subject of mention in McClellan’s dispatch.
The swamp through which we drove the enemy was miry and deep, and the rains of Friday and Saturday night had put the roads in a condition scarcely to be surpassed in point of depth both of water and mud. The people of Maryland call it “dust.” Whether they do so ironically, or whether they make no distinction between dirt, wet or dry, I know not; but to my mind the word mud is far too insignificant, and the term “slush,” used by the soldiers, though less elegant perhaps, is much more expressive.
Monday morning our brigade was sent forward to act as skirmishers and ascertain the position of the enemy. Tuesday, we acted as advance picket, during the hot sun of that day and the storm of rain that arose in the evening, but were relieved at about eleven o’clock in the evening by the third (New Jersey) brigade, and were taken in to the rear of the batteries, where, without tents or knapsacks, we lay down on the muddy ground and sheltered ourselves as best we could from the rain and water. Gen. Sickles was with us, sharing our hardships and fatigues, and his presence, sympathy, coolness, and self-possession, did much to revive the spirits of those under his command.
Tuesday afternoon, a reconnoitering party of about twenty or thirty men from our regiment, were fired at from an ambuscade, and several wounded – one from Co. G severely.
Since then we have alternated with the first and third brigades in performing the duties advance picket, and in supporting the line of works in front of what was formerly Casey’s position. The point has been strengthened by the advance of troops on the right and Kearney’s division on the left. The place is termed “Fair Oaks,” owing, I suppose, to a cluster of oak trees, of dark green foliage, in front of two buildings now used as hospitals, and which are said to have been visited by Jeff. Davis on the first day of the fight.
When on picket we go in “light marching order,” leaving our knapsacks in our tents, which are pitched in the woods on the left of the road, and about half a mile back from the rifle pits. We intend to hold the position at all hazards, and the enemy will hardly have the temerity to make another attack after the immense loss which they suffered in the late engagement. Out artillery did fearful execution among their ranks, and their dead were left scattered through the woods and swamp,
“Thick as autumnal leaves that strew the vales in Vallambrosa.”
The day following the battle, I discovered some beautiful red roses in the yard of a house filled with the rebel dead and wounded. Their color was that of blood, but their beauty and fragrance had little consonance with the carnage and strife of a battle field.
The weather has been quite warm, although we have had abundance of rain, and the stench arising from some portions of the battle field, where so many horses were slain and imperfectly buried, is intolerable.
The health of the soldiers, so far as I have had opportunity to learn, has been excellent. There are no serious cases of sickness in our regiment, and it would appear that by the endurance of the hardships and fatigues of today we become better prepared for those of to-morrow.
Most of us are looking forward, with earnest longing, for that time when, the supremacy of the government restored and maintained, our country will no longer need our services on the tented field, but, the rebellion ended, and the traitors who inaugurated it having received their deserts, we shall be permitted to return to our friends and homes, and rejoice once more in the blessings of peace, prosperity, and happiness. That such, ere long, may be the result of our labors, is the fervent wish of
Very truly yours,
H. P. G.