Virginia's Bloody Soil
DESCRIPTION: The singer calls on his audience to listen as he tells of the troubles of the Civil War, and describes how Unionists sprang to the colors after Fort Sumter. The rest of the song describes the battle of the Wilderness, and the death of the captain there
AUTHOR: James McCoy?
EARLIEST DATE: 1939 (Warner)
KEYWORDS: Civilwar battle death
May 5-7, 1864 - Battle of the Wilderness
FOUND IN: US(MA)
REFERENCES (5 citations):
Warner 24, "Virginia's Bloody Soil" (1 text, 1 tune)
Warner-Eastern, p. 70, "Virginia's Bloody Soil" (1 excerpt)
Silber-CivWarFull, pp. 254-255, "Virginia's Bloody Soil" (1 text, 1 tune)
Silber-CivWarAbbr, pp. 80-81, "Virginia's Bloody Soil" (1 text, 1 tune)
Lomax-FSNA 52, "Virginia's Bloody Soil" (1 text, 1 tune)
ST Wa024 (Partial)
cf. "The Battle of the Wilderness" (subject)
NOTES [1358 words]: It appears that this song has been collected only once, by the Warners. Their informant, "Yankee" John Galusha, said that this was a song local to his area, written by James McCoy about Captain Dennis Barnes, killed at the Battle of the Wilderness.
This seems likely enough. Although two battles were fought in the Rappahannock Wilderness (The Wilderness in 1864 and the earlier Battle of Chancellorsville on May 1-4, 1863), the song seems better suited to the 1864 battle, as it mentions the fires which consumed the Wilderness and also denies that the Federals retreated (after Chancellorsville the Union forces retreated; after the Wilderness, although it had suffered almost as bad a pounding as at Chancellorsville, Grant and Meade forced the federal army on to Spotsylvania).
Following a hint on the Internet, I was able to find a record of Captain Barnes. He was an officer in the 93rd New York regiment. NYReport, Volume 3, p. 91, reports that Dennis E. Barnes was commissioned a captain in the 93rd NY on Jan. 30, 1862, with the commission being dated November 22, 1861. So he was commissioned at the time the regiment formed. He was breveted Major New York Volunteers. He was killed in action in the Wilderness on May 6.
And if he is indeed the hero of the song, the battle must have been the Wilderness, because the 93rd was not really engaged at Chancellorsville. It was part of the Army of the Potomac's provost guard from 1862 through Gettysburg and beyond (Young, p. 384). But in 1864, in an effort to recruit up the army, many men and units on special service were put back in line (Catton, pp. 44-48). The 93rd became one of ten regiments in Alexander Hays's second brigade of David B. Birney's third division of Winfield Scott Hancock's II Corps (Rhea, Order of Battle following p. 452).
Hays's brigade was definitely mauled in the Wilderness. The first day of that battle was really two minimally connected struggles. The larger part of the Union Fifth Corps, later reinforced by much of the Sixth Corps, fought Richard Ewell's Confederate Second Corps in the northern fight, and got nowhere. Hancock's Second Corps fought in the south against elements of A. P. Hill's Confederate Third Corps. The Second Corps, plus Getty's division of the Sixth Corps, was put in piecemeal against the Confederate division of Harry Heth (see map on p. 192 of Rhea). Birney's division was supposed to support this attack. After Getty and parts of the Second Corps had failed in their attacks, Birney "decided to play his trump card. Fiery Alexander Hays, the red-bearded friend of Hancock's and Grant's, would be sent in with his whole brigade" (Rhea, p. 202). That was the unit containing the 93rd New York.
In the dense forest, it was hard to advance and easy to get killed. One soldier in the 93rd wrote, "The woods light up with the flashes of musketry as if with lightning, while the incessant roar of the volleys sound like the crashing of thunderbolts" (Rhea, p. 203). Rhea adds that the 93rd managed to say at the front for about twenty minutes before collapsing. The losses in the regiment, and the whole brigade, were severe; General Hays himself was among those killed (Rhea, p. 204).
That was on May 5, the first day of the battle. Federal losses had been substantial, and they had not shaken the Confederates at all; earlier in the war, the Union army might well have retreated after that. But neither General Meade, in direct command of the Army of the Potomac, nor General Grant, the Union General in Chief, was willing to give up that easily. They decided that they would make another push on May 6, with attacks all along the line, but the main thrust to be by Hancock's Second Corps (Rhea, p. 264). And the spearhead of the assault was to be made by the brigades of McAllister, Ward, and the now-dead Hays (Rhea, p. 269).
At first, the assault went well; they attacked the frazzled, disordered Confederate divisions of Heth and Wilcox, which had done an amazing job the day before but simply were too tired, and their organization and positions too messed up, for them to fight well (Rhea, pp. 281-288). The Confederate line started to collapse. Freeman, volume III, p. 356, declares, "There had been no danger [to Lee's army] more acute since the day the Federals had shattered the Confederate line at Sharpsburg."
"Leading the Union drive was Hays's brigade, now commanded by Elijah Walker, of the 4th Maine" (Rhea, pp. 293-294).
But the Federals had their own problems. The Wilderness was incredibly tangled, and it was hard to control the attacking troops. If the Confederate lines were disarrayed, the Federals found it almost impossible to stay in good order. "It was Braddock and his British Regulars fighting the Indians all over again, and the scrub pines, the brush piles, and the massed saplings broke the advancing lines apart, leaving fragments that felt isolated and alone" (Catton, p. 74). What was needed was additional troops to exploit the breakthrough. And those troops were available: Ambrose Burnside's Ninth Corps had been ordered to support the assault. But they didn't show up. The Federal advance slowed up to try to get their lines straightened out (Rhea, pp. 291-292).
And then James Longstreet's corps arrived, headed by the famous Texas Brigade (widely regarded as the best unit in the Confederate army), and blasted right through the Federal front (Freeman, pp. 356-359; Rhea, pp. 301-303). "This was Longstreet's fight, and he was doing a spectacular job of it, even by Lee's exacting standards" (Rhea, p. 313).
"Longstreet had reason to be proud. Within two hours, he had dramatically reversed the battle's momentum. With two divisions... Longstreet had brought nearly five victorious Union divisions to a standstill, mauling several so badly that they had ceased to function as combat units" (Rhea, p. 316).
Then, just as had happened a year ago in the same Wilderness when Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded, Confederates fired on Confederates. Brigadier General Micah Jenkins and two others were killed, and Longstreet took a bullet that went through his throat into his right shoulder (Freeman, p. 365). He was alive, but would be out of service for months -- at the time, there were fears the wound would be mortal (Rhea, p. 371). Even as preparations were made to get him to a hospital, he explained his plans to Lee and the generals nearby, but there was no experienced officer to take charge (Freeman, p. 366) -- Longstreet's two division commanders were both new to the job and had no idea how to lead a corps. It may have saved the Union army an even more severe blow. Still, the leading Federal elements had been severely mauled and forced back. With Hays's brigade at the very forefront. It was presumably at this time that Captain Barnes was killed, trying to hold back Longstreet's counterattack.
The desperate defense succeeded, more or less; in the end, the Battle of the Wilderness was basically a draw. The Army of the Potomac was able to continue its campaign toward Richmond. But the cost had been very high -- official figures were 2,246 Union soldiers killed, and total casualties of 17,666 (Rhea, p. 435) -- and Rhea thinks even that number a little low. On p. 436, he estimates that the Union army lost a sixth of its men, or roughly 20,000. That means probably 2,500-3,000 killed. Captain Barnes had lots of company.
Lee's losses cannot be precisely known; too many reports were not filed or were lost. But they were clearly on the same order (Rhea, p. 440). And he had lost his only trustworthy corps commander, and in consequence of that and other losses, only three of his eight division commanders had led their divisions as recently as Gettysburg, and only one had led his division at Chancellorsville. Both armies had been badly hurt, and would never be the same -- but Lee's army was probably closer to collapse. He would manage to keep up the fight for almost another year, but the sacrifices of Captain Barnes and others, although they had few short-term results, brought the end of the war a little closer.
This song is item dA35 in Laws's Appendix II. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.2
- Catton: Bruce Catton, A Stillness at Appomattox, Doubleday, 1953
- Freeman: Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee's Lieutenants, 3 volumes, Scribners, 1942-1945
- NYReport: (no author listed), State of New York Annual Report of the Adjutant General 1868, 3 volumes, Charles van Benthuysen & Sons, 1868
- Rhea: Gordon C. Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness: May 5-6, 1864. Louisiana State University Press, 1994
- Young: Jesse Bowman Young, The Battle of Gettysburg, 1913 (I use the 1996 John Kallman edition with a brief biography of the author)
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