Ranald S. Mackenzie Takes Command

Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie
Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie

Immediately after receiving news of the action of June 1st, Governor Buckingham had sent a commission as colonel to Lieutenant-Colonel James Hubbard. He, however, was unwilling to assume the responsibility of the command; this had been his first battle, and he “drew the hasty inference that all the fighting was likely to consist of a similar walking into the jaws of hell. He afterwards found that this was a mistake.”

Upon General Upton’s advice, therefore, the officers recommended to the Governor the appointment of Ranald S. Mackenzie, then a captain of engineers on duty at headquarters, and this recommendation being favorably endorsed by superior officers up to the Lieutenant-General, was accepted, and Colonel Mackenzie took command on June 6th.

Of the man who was now to lead the regiment, Grant in his Memoirs writes twenty years later the following unqualified judgment: “I regarded Mackenzie as the most promising young officer in the army. Graduating at West Point as he did during the second year of the war, he had won his way up to the command of a corps before its close. This he did upon his own merit and without influence.” Such a statement from such a quarter is enough to show that once more the Second Connecticut was to be commanded by a soldier of more than ordinary qualities, a fact which was not long in developing.

Colonel Mackenzie’s active connection with the regiment lasted only some four months, but they were months of great activity and afforded such occasions for proof of his abilities that his speedy promotion was inevitable. He never achieved the general popularity with his men that had come to his predecessor, nor cared to, but he did gain quite as thoroughly their respect through his mastership of the business in hand. It was not long after he assumed command that, as the regimental history says, the men “began to grieve anew over the loss of Kellogg. That commander had chastised us with whips, but this one dealt in scorpions. By the time we reached the Shenandoah Valley, he had so far developed as to be a far greater terror, to both officers and men, than Early’s grape and canister. He was a Perpetual Punisher, and the Second Connecticut while under him was always a punished regiment. There is a regimental tradition to the effect that a well-defined purpose existed among the men, prior to the battle of Winchester, to dispose of this commanding scourge during the first fight that occurred. If he had known it, it would only have excited his contempt, for he cared not a copper for the good will of any except his military superiors, and certainly feared no man of woman born, on either side of the lines. But the purpose, if any existed, quailed and failed before his audacious pluck on that bloody day. He seemed to court destruction all day long. With his hat aloft on the point of his saber he galloped over forty-acre fields, through a perfect hailstorm of rebel lead and iron, with as much impunity as though he had been a ghost. The men hated him with the hate of hell, but they could not draw bead on so brave a man as that. Henceforth they firmly believed he bore a charmed life.”

Colonel Mackenzie’s advancement was brilliantly rapid, as Grant states, and at the time of Lee’s surrender he was in command of a corps of cavalry, which had shortly before taken an important part in the battle of Five Forks under his leadership.

When the war ended he became colonel of the Twenty-fourth Infantry in the regular army, and later received a cavalry command, gaining much distinction by his services in the Indian campaigns in the West and on the Mexican border. He was made brigadier-general in 1882, shortly after placed on the retired list, and died at Governor’s Island in 1889.

The unsuccessful assault on Lee’s works at Cold Harbor marked the end of the first part of Grant’s campaign. The next move was to swing the army southward to the line of the James River and prepare to move upon Richmond and its defenses from that side. This change of base was one of General Grant’s finest achievements, admirably planned, and so skilfully executed that for three days Lee remained in total ignorance of what his adversary was doing. The Second Connecticut withdrew from its position on June 12th, late at night, reached the river on the 16th, and, moving up it in transports, was disembarked and sent toward Petersburg, to a point on the left wing of the army. It reached position on the night of the 19th and entrenched. The usual occurrences of such marches as attended this change of scene were varied for the men, as the regimental history suggestively relates, by a notable circumstance–a bath in the river. “It was the only luxury we had had for weeks. It was a goodly sight to see half a dozen regiments disporting themselves in the tepid waters of the James. But no reader can possibly understand what enjoyment it afforded, unless he has slept on the ground for fourteen days without undressing, and been compelled to walk, cook, and live on all fours, lest a perpendicular assertion of his manhood should instantly convert it into clay.”

The operations against Petersburg had been going on for some time when the regiment arrived, and for two days it lay in the rifle pits it had dug under continual fire, with frequent resulting casualties. It was “the most intolerable position the regiment was ever required to hold. We had seen a deadlier spot at Cold Harbor, and others awaited us in the future; but they were agonies that did not last. Here, however, we had to stay, hour after hour, from before dawn until after dark, and that, too, where we could not move a rod without extreme danger. The enemy’s line was parallel with ours, just across the wheat field; then they had numerous sharpshooters, who were familiar with every acre of the ground, perched in tall trees on both our flanks; then they had artillery posted everywhere. No man could cast his eyes over the parapet, or expose himself ten feet in the rear of the trench without drawing fire. And yet they did thus expose themselves; for where there are even chances of being missed or hit, soldiers will take the chances rather than lie still and suffer from thirst, supineness, and want of all things. There was no getting to the rear until zig-zag passages were dug, and then the wounded were borne off. Our occupation continued during the night and the next day, the regiment being divided into two reliefs, the one off duty lying a little to the rear, in a cornfield near Harrison’s house. But it was a question whether ‘off’ or ‘on’ duty was the more dangerous.”

On the 21st, relieved from this post, the regiment was moved to a new position further southwest and about the same distance from the city of Petersburg, which lay in plain view and whose city clocks could be heard distinctly. The Sixth Corps was engaged in an operation having the purpose of breaking Lee’s communications with the South by the line of the Weldon Railroad, and in the course of this the Second Connecticut took part in a “sharp skirmish” with Hill’s Division, on June 22nd, an affair which to other experiences would be notable as a battle of some proportions. The desired result was not gained; the attempt on Petersburg, which if successful might have hastened the end of the Confederacy by six months, and which came so near success, was changed to besieging operations, and for some time Grant’s army lay comparatively quiet. In its four days in action here, the regiment suffered as follows: Killed or died of wounds, fifteen; wounded but not mortally, fifteen; missing, three; prisoners who died, five.

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