The Battle at Prescott's Mill - 1863
By S. Michael Warren
It was a frosty Saturday morning in Virginia, with the rolling hills near Prescott’s Lumber Mill still clothed in the wispy mists of the early morning. The sun had not yet embraced the large field where lumber was meticulously stacked for retrieval by work crews later that day. There were gentle hills on each corner of what would become the battlefield, as well as light woods at the southwest edge and an apple orchard to the north.
It was beyond this orchard that Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s expeditionary force was bivouacked. The rail line that ran through Prescott’s Mill had been a vital resource to Confederate forces in the area, so when the rails were destroyed Major General Hancock knew the rebels would make a move on the supply of cut lumber in the field to facilitate repairs to the vital line. Hancock’s detachment contained units from the Irish Brigade; namely the 63rd, 69th, and 88th New York, the 28th Massachusetts, and the 116th Pennsylvania under the command of Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher. The infantry was supported by Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer’s 1st Michigan light cavalry and Colonel Henry Jackson Hunt’s foot artillery and their rifled 20 lb. Parrot guns.
As the morning’s sun slowly burned off the mists, Hancock’s men were enjoying a light breakfast. No word had come back from Custer’s scouts of Confederate activity nearby, so Hancock believed the area somewhat safe. Suddenly a rider raced into camp, directly to Major General Hancock’s command tent, brazenly entering the tent while the good General was enjoying his morning shave. Moments later officers began to scurry about, and the buglers suddenly trumpeted the call to arms. The Confederates had marched under cover of night and were, at this very moment, taking the very southern edge of the field.
The Irish Brigade mustered quickly, and fell into what would be General Hancock’s battle formation for the day. Colonel Hunt’s foot artillery would drive quickly up the right and gain control of a hill overlooking the field, supported by Custer’s cavalry. Hancock and Meagher advanced under cover of the orchard, while the bulk of Meagher’s infantry advanced in a marching formation up the left between another small hill and the orchard. To Major General Hancock’s dismay, the Confederates had already gained the southern portion of the field.
Through his spyglass, and based on scout reports, Hancock learned he was facing the newly-appointed Major General Meade’s forces. The scouts reported minor skirmishes with Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry after having sighted several units from the Texas brigade in full march. These units were none other than the crack 4th and 5th Texas, 3rd Arkansas, and the newly replenished 1st Texas and 18th Georgia. Major General Hancock knew that Meade wouldn’t be travelling without at least some artillery, thought reports indicated the Confederates only had a handful of 12 lb. Napoleon smoothbores to muster.
Meade’s forces seemed to have been split into several smaller units as they took to the field. On the Confederate left were the 18th Georgia and the 3rd Arkansas, still in full march and gaining ground quickly. The Confederate center, between a copse of trees and a smaller hill, was made up of the 4th and 5th Texas, with both generals Meade and Hood to their right. Hancock quickly noticed that the 1st Texas, as well as any Confederate cavalry or artillery, were nowhere to be seen. He surmised that these units were attempting a flanking maneuver to the Confederate right, using the hill there as cover.
With the initial posturing complete, the skirmish began in earnest and the so called Battle of Prescott’s Mill was underway. The Confederates needed the lumber to effect repairs on the damaged rail lines to the southwest, and the Union command knew that to stop them from gaining these supplies would greatly hinder any activities on the Confederates part.
The Texas brigade continued their momentum from the night’s march and quickly advanced into the open ground in the center of the field. The Georgia and Arkansas boys angled slightly to the left to secure the westernmost piles of lumber and to deal with Custer’s cavalry. The 4th and 5th Texas went straight up the middle, while the 1st Texas marched alongside the 4th Tennessee foot artillery in an effort to quickly gain the hill that anchored the Confederate right. Forrest’s cavalry raced up the right of the field to hopefully get around the Union lines and create a deadly crossfire.
Across the field, the Union troops seemed to be slow to react to the Confederate’s movements. Meagher’s infantry continued to march forward, making for the lumber stacks. Custer’s cavalry moved between the orchard and the smaller hill on the Union right albeit slowly and only at General Hancock’s personal invitation. Across the field, Forrest’s cavalry was finally seen; already well across the open ground and making for the Union rear.
The Confederate artillery gained the top of the hill at the Confederate right, while the 1st Texas formed into a line at the base of the hill as a screen. The rest of the Texas Brigade continued their rapid march across the field, and Forrest’s cavalry made it around the hill that marked the Union left. By this time, the infantry had made the center of the field and took up positions around the lumber piles. On the Confederate left the 3rd Arkansas showed immense bravery and formed their lines to contest Custer’s cavalry and the Union artillery that had taken the hill in front of them. The 18th Georgia, as well as the 4th and 5th Texas, marched between the lumber stacks showing excellent form by maintaining coherency. Once through the gaps, all three regiments formed their battle lines and prepared to defend their position from the Union infantry coming around the orchard. On the Confederate right, the 1st Texas swung their line to link up with the right flank of the 5th Texas. This maneuver formed one long line of Confederate infantry, somewhat ‘embracing’ the lumber piles.
At this point, Major General Hancock realized the precarious position his men were now in and spurred his troops into action. Atop the hill, Brigadier Hunt’s artillery opened up on the 3rd Arkansas as they checked their lines. The cannonade was devastating, and took away the Arkansas boys’ will to fight so they began to fall back. General Meade feared Custer’s cavalry would ride them down and kill them to a man, but General Custer was flustered by Forrest’s performance and therefore neglected to seize this opportunity. On the Union left, the 69th New York rapidly brings their formation into a line atop the small hill and in a panic lets off a long-range volley at Forrest’s Cavalry which had, by this time, ridden completely round the Union lines to threaten their line of retreat. Being long range, and at rapidly moving cavalry, the tirade has no effect.
In the center, the 63rd New York start advancing in line to close the distance but the crack 4th Texas are faster and fire a volley at them. The volley is accurate and demoralizing so the 63rd begin to fall back as the last few shots go over their heads. The 116th Pennsylvania, panicked at the near route of their companions, immediately open fire at the 5th Texas but nary a shot made its mark as it is extreme range even for their rifles. The Confederate Artillery, the 4th Tennessee foot, attempts to seize on the initiative of the Texas regiments’ accurate firing and fire on the 116th Pennsylvania but with all of the smoke and movement, the shots largely fall short and have no effect.
Seeing his 3rd Arkansas falling back, the advantageous position of the Union artillery and cavalry, and knowing his boys were tired from the night’s marching, Major General Meade calls for the retreat. Major General Hancock was a worthy opponent, and Meade did not wish to push his luck beyond bloodying the Union nose. The Confederate infantry used the cover of smoke and the wood piles to retreat in good order, though Brigadier General Forrest commanded his cavalry to brazenly ride between the disarrayed Union infantry in an effort to further show up the notoriously rash Brigadier Custer.
With that, the first day of Prescott’s Mill came to a close. Both generals retreated to their camps to plan the next day’s strategy and scold their cavalry commanders.