Battles in the East, Portraits of Privates

36th Massachusetts in the Wilderness – Francis Knowles

Frances Knowles, 36th Massachusetts

“August 6th, 1862, being enrolled as a member of the ‘Warren Phalanx’ at the age of 19 years, 4 months, and 28 days”, Francis W. Knowles began his new career as a soldier with the 36th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. On August 11th, they traveled by rail to Camp Wool, in Worchester. For a couple of weeks, Knowles and those in his regiment were “devoted to drill in marching and the duties of a soldier. In the evenings, most of those who were in the tent with me enjoyed themselves with music in camp, or, getting a pass, went into the city and seranaded[sic] till the sma’ hours.”

The orders would come to move out and the regiment were given a day to say their goodbyes to friends and family before making their way to join up with the rest of the army. For the next year and a half, the regiment would play a roll in both eastern and western theater battles. At Antietam, they were attached to Willcox’s division within the IX Corps. They were also present at Fredericksburg that December, but suffered few losses. It was then they served in Kentucky for a short stint before swinging down to Vicksburg, Mississippi to support General Ulysses S. Grant in his efforts to take the port city. They were stationed at Snyder’s Bluff on the Yazoo River until Vicksburg surrendered, then participated in the pursuit of Confederate General Joseph Johnston before rejoining General Ambrose Burnside at Knoxville, Tennessee. Knowles, who was a clerk on Orlando Willcox’s staff, was part of the team to help guard communications during the Knoxville siege.

Tennessee Staff
“Tennessee Staff” – Knowles in back row, far left (Knowles’ Diary)

After the siege, Burnside was relieved from command of the Army of the Ohio. For the next couple of months, the 9th Corps engaged in some skirmishing and traveling through the Department of the Ohio. But on March 16th, 1864, orders were given for them to proceed directly to Annapolis, Maryland. They arrived in early April and the IX Corps was reorganized on April 20th, placing Willcox as the 3rd Division. By the 25th, they were in Alexandria, Virginia, then went on to Washington. The regiment was then reviewed by President Lincoln and Burnside from the balcony of the Willard Hotel. Knowles had bumped into an acquaintance, a librarian, and was shown around the Senate and “other interesting parts of the building”. His friend, Mr. Poole, also pointed out the prominent politicians of the day during his visit.

This would be one of the last pleasurable jaunts for Knowles and his fellow staff members, because they were immediately ordered to the battlefront. By May 4th, they were at Rappahannock Station. The Wilderness lay ahead of them. Below is an excerpt from his diary/sketchbook, rewritten in 1885 and supplemented with sketches and battle reports.

“On the 5th of May we marched from Rappahannock Station, crossed Germanna Ford, relieved Rickett’s division of the 6th Corps about two miles from the ford, and remained in position during the night, confronted by the enemy’s cavalry pickets. By 4 o’clock on the morning of the 6th, our troops were on the move, following the 2nd division (Potter) up the plank road to Parker Store Road. Hartranfts (1st) Brigade was detached to support the 2nd Division and Christ’s (2nd) Brigade with a section of Roemer’s artillery, went into position across the Parker Store Road. These troops were shelled by a battery of the enemy from a ridge across Wilderness Run, and skirmished with the enemy on their right and front till 2 p.m. when they were withdrawn by General Burnside’s orders, to support Hartranft’s brigade.

Wilderness May 6th - Hartranft
Wilderness, May 6th, 1864 (Hartranft’s Brigade in brackets)

“The 2nd Division having engaged the enemy in heavy force between the 5th and 2nd Corps, Hartranft advanced his brigade on their right, and charged the enemy’s works, which the 8th Michigan broke through capturing some prisoners, but this advantage was lost by the left being outflanked. Still, with his ranks somewhat broken, Hartranft held his main line until Willcox came up with Christ’s brigade, when the enemy were completely checked. At about 5 p.m. Willcox was ordered to attack at 6 o’clock, supported by the 2nd division. General Hancock was to attack at the same hour, but the enemy attacking him first, Willcox’s lines were formed rapidly and pushed forward at about 5:30 p.m.
“Our division drove in the enemy skirmishers, broke their main line, which had come out of their works, and forced it back. The left of the line – Christ’s brigade – broke through their entrenchments and held them for awhile with their dead and wounded in our hands, but the enemy outflanked us here, and the fire from the works was so severe on the right as to check Hartranft’s advance. Here we halted under a prolonged and severe fire from the enemy, our main line holding the ground up to the teeth of the enemy until night when the enemy retired.

Wilderness (Knowles’ Diary)

“About dark we were enabled to open communication with the 2nd Corps on our left. In this engagement our loss was 469 in killed and wounded and 12 missing. Of our division staff Major Lyon was injured by his horse falling on him. Captain Hutchins received a ball in the groin, which by first passing through his pocket book, was defected enough to escape cutting an artery. Major Draper, in command of the 36th, received a wound during the forenoon. From my company Sergt. Henry Tood, color bearer and private Charles M. Wescott were killed, Sergt John Lamont and private Louis P. Abbott, Daniel Lamont, James Robertson and James E. Spear were wounded.
“The General and his staff bivouaced[sic] with the troops. We clerks had been left with the wagon train on the extreme right of the troops engaged and about 1 o’clock on the morning of the 7th were ordered to move towards the left. This was done and the whole train moved through Chancellorsville towards Fredericksburg, seeing as we passed many marks of the fight under Hooker the year previous. The division marched from the Wilderness on the 8th, bringing up the rear and holding the enemy’s cavalry in check until all that could be moved of the wounded were got away.”

36th Mass Monument, Vicksburg, MS

The 36th Massachusetts would continue through the Overland Campaign, losing more men as the Army of the Potomac made their way south to Richmond and Petersburg. The specific casualty numbers during the campaign for the regiment are as follows: “At the Wilderness, May 6, it lost 85 men, of whom 23 were killed or mortally wounded. At Spotsylvania, May 12, it lost 107, of whom 25 were killed or mortally wounded. At North Anna the loss of the regiment was slight. At Bethesda Church near Cold Harbor, June 3, it lost 17 killed and 33 wounded. Crossing the James to the front of Petersburg and carrying into action but 90 men, in the assaults of June 17 and 18 it lost 10 killed and 18 wounded.”

By the end of the war, the 36th Mass would lose a total of 254 officers and privates. Frances Knowles would survive the war and in 1885 compiled his experiences with Willcox’s staff in a diary/scrapbook from the war between 1862 and 1865. His diary is available for digital viewing at the links below.

References: (Find Francis Knowles to download his full diary/sketchbook)
For more on the 36th Massachusetts:

Bunker Hill Club. A Brief Memorial of Lieut. P. Marion Holmes, of 36th Regt., Mass. Vols. Watson’s Press, 1864.

Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, 36th (1862-1865). History of the Thirty-Sixth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers. 1862-1865. Boston: Press of Rockwell and Churchill, 1884.;

McDaniel, Samuel W. An Address Delivered at the Funeral of Capt. William F. Brigham, in Feltonville, Mass., Feb. 18, 1865. Feltonville, Mass.: Charles A. Wood, Printer, 1865

Woman’s Association of the 36th Regiment Mass. Vols. Worcester, Mass.: Press of Gilbert G. Davis, 1896.

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