150 years ago: Lt. King, White Oak Swamp, and the Medal of Honor

June 30, 1862 began badly for the men of Captain George Hazzard’s combined Batteries A and C, Fourth U.S. Artillery.  The previous evening, the artillerists rested as best soldiers can after several days of battle.  They woke to find the Army of the Potomac in retreat… and the battery left behind.  Hazzard quickly gathered the men, horses, and 12-pdr Napoleons, then quietly took up the march.  Hazzard’s men barely made the crossing at White Oak Swamp.  For the remainder of the morning the men and horses caught what rest they could.

White Oak Swamp

Shortly after noon, the sounds of battle rousted the gunners yet again.  This was General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s command moving to cut behind the main Federal line of defense.  In his official account, Lieutenant Rufus King, Jr., who at that time commanded a section in Hazzard’s battery, described the incoming artillery fire:

About two hours after our arrival at Nelson’s farm we were suddenly aroused (most of the men sleeping soundly at the time) by a perfect hail storm of artillery missiles, the enemy having opened upon us with at least, in my estimation, three batteries. My reason for so thinking is from the immense rapidity of their fire and the different kinds of projectiles thrown, some of which I picked up myself, finding them to be the Armstrong gun, 6-pounder rifled and 6-pounder smooth-bore; also pieces of railroad iron from 6 to 12 inches long.

Seven Confederate batteries were dropping rounds on the Federal lines.  Hazzard’s battery was soon ordered up to counter this Confederate barrage.  From a position overlooking the White Oak Swamp bridge (or more accurately the remains thereof), Hazzard’s gunners joined a fast growing artillery duel.  King described the scene in his report:

We commenced firing between 1 and 2 o’clock p.m., firing very rapidly and drawing the entire fire of the enemy’s batteries upon us, no other battery being in position. The enemy was completely covered by a thick wood, and the only indication we had of their position was from the smoke of their guns. Their fire was very rapid and very precise, most of their shot and shell striking within 20 feet of the battery and a perfect shower of grape passing through the battery. Were it not for the splendid position we had, few of us would have left the battle-field that day without a serious wound. The brow of the hill forming a natural breastwork, our guns, just pointing over the top of the hill, were in a manner sheltered, and most of the solid shot fired by the enemy struck the brow of the hill and ricochetted harmlessly over our heads. The men stood to their guns nobly, working them as coolly as if it was an ordinary practice, the chiefs of pieces sighting their guns themselves and relieving the cannoneers from their arduous duties by performing them themselves. Captain Hazzard behaved in the most gallant manner, encouraging the men and cheering them when they appeared fatigued, also superintended the entire fire of the battery, frequently changing the direction of the guns and sighting them himself. At one piece, where three of the horses of the limber had been shot and the harness entangled by their fall, and two of the drivers shot through the legs and feet, being unable to disentangle them themselves, Captain Hazzard performed the deed himself, also carrying ammunition to one piece where the cannoneers were entirely tired out, and taking turns with myself in performing the duties of No. 1.

But Hazzard’s bravery did not shield him from injury.

About half an hour after we had been in action Captain Hazzard was standing by one of the limbers, superintending the taking out of the ammunition, when a shell burst in the battery, a fragment striking Captain Hazzard in the leg, breaking the bone, and wounding him severely. He was immediately carried off the field and sent to the rear. Great praise is due to Captain Hazzard for the soldierly conduct he displayed in this engagement. The command of the battery then devolved upon me, and continued firing until I had expended all my ammunition.

Despite the position, the battery suffered from the concentrated fire upon them.  Confederate shot and shell struck some of the Napoleon guns.  King reported many implements broken by enemy fire.  Out of ammunition, he received permission to retire and replenish.  Captain Rufus Pettit’s Battery B, 1st New York Light Artillery, armed with 10-pdr Parrotts, replaced King’s gunners in the line.  As the New Yorkers rolled into position, King took the time to point out each Confederate gun.  After a few rounds, Pettit’s gunners found the range with one of the 10-pdr projectiles finding a Confederate ammunition chest.

Federal Artillery at White Oak Swamp

King brought the guns back up as the engagement continued, but his men were simply too tired to serve the pieces.  They remained under cover, occasionally firing at Confederates attempting to repair the bridge over the swamp. That evening, Batteries A and C fell in with other Federals concentrating on the high ground of Malvern Hill.  A lone section, under Lieutenant Edward Field, was among the last to leave the battlefield at White Oak Swamp.

Captain Hazzard died of his wound on August 11, 1862.

For his actions after assuming command of the battery, Lieutenant King received a brevet promotion to Captain and later the Medal of Honor.

First Lieutenant and Medal of Honor w...

Lieutenant Rufus King, Jr.

He served through the rest of the war, commanding Battery A, 4th US Artillery again in 1864.

(King’s report of the actions is in the Official Records, Series I, Volume 11, Part II, Serial 13, Report No. 13, pages 57-60.   Rufus King, Jr. was the son of General Rufus King, who commanded the famous “Iron Brigade” before taking over 1st Division of First Corps. )

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One response to “150 years ago: Lt. King, White Oak Swamp, and the Medal of Honor

  1. Pingback: Closing in on the end of The Seven Days « Cenantua's Blog

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