A wild raid on Robert E. Lee’s post-Gettysburg retreat lines earned a Calais officer a mention in dispatches — and almost got him shot.
A 25-year-old Calais schoolmaster in 1861, Reuel W. Furlong stood 6-2½ and had gray eyes, black hair, and a florid complexion. He joined the 6th Maine Infantry Regiment as Co. D’s first lieutenant on April 27, 1861 and soon became its captain.
Commanded by Col. Hiram Burnham, the 6th Maine belonged to the 3rd Brigade of Brig. Gen. David A. Russell, a native New Yorker and West Point graduate (’45) whose low academic grades sent him to the infantry rather than the vaunted U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He had initially led the 7th Massachusetts Infantry before gaining his star in 1862.
The 3rd Brigade belonged to the 1st Division (Brig. Gen. Horatio G. Wright) of VI Corps, led by Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick.
Writing from “In the Field” on Monday, July 13, Reuel Furlong told his father about the previous day’s excitement, including the incident in which “you came very near [to] having only two boys left.”
Saturday evening, July 11 found the 3rd Brigade camped “within about 2 miles of Funkstown, Md.,” Russell said. The brigade included the 5th Wisconsin Infantry (the 6th Maine’s soul mate) and the 49th and 119th Pennsylvania infantry regiments.
Hampered by Gettysburg’s heavy casualties and ammunition expenditures, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade had slowly pursued the retreating Robert E. Lee, or so President Abraham Lincoln and many Union soldiers believed. Once across South Mountain and nearer the Potomac River, Lee found his retreat delayed by rising water and by Union cavalry destroying a pontoon bridge.
He turned, dug in, bristled his bayonets, and awaited Meade. Confederates deployed near Antietam Creek and Funkstown. At 4:30 a.m., Sunday, July 12, with the air already promising heat and humidity, the brigade “broke camp and marched out about half a mile beyond Funkstown, where we halted and formed line of battle,” Russell said.
Its right flank “resting on the road” (possibly modern Alternate 40, also called the Frederick Road), the 6th Maine spread eastward across it. The 5th Wisconsin formed beyond the 6th Maine, the 119th Pennsylvania formed on the Mainers’ right flank, and Russell placed the 49th Pennsylvania “about a third of a mile” west of the road “to support a battery in position at that point.
“A strong line of skirmishers was thrown out in front of the Sixth Maine Volunteers, and the skirmish line … advanced a little during the morning, and some brisk skirmish firing ensued therein,” Russell noted.
Furlong received orders at 4 p.m. (Russell recorded the time as “about 2 p. m.”) to move Co. D “to the front[,] out by the skirmish line.” There he learned “that I was to make a sally on the enemy’s ‘skirmish] lines and gobble some prisoners if I could.”
Furlong studied the ground between Co. D and the enemy and looked over his own command, “a little handful of 24 men.
“It seemed to be perfect madness and folly” to attack, he thought. “I made up my mind to myself that we were going right straight into eternity.
“But I had my orders, and all a soldier has to do is to obey,” Furlong realized.
Stealth would not work, “so I instructed my men—which, by the way, are every one heroes—what we had to do,” he said.
“Away we dashed through our [skirmish] lines and with fixed bayonets and unearthly yells, at a double-quick, we soon struck the enemy,” Furlong recalled.
The attack sounded easier in ink than on the ground. “The run almost exhausted my men as it was very hot and they were in heavy marching order,” he explained. The Maine boys ran into flying lead; “the bullets flew thick and fast all about us[,] but” the Confederates “were so surprised” that they “could not fire with accuracy.
“We went into them right and left, each man trying to outdo the other,” the “panic stricken” enemy fired constantly for “about ten minutes,” and “it was exciting I tell you,” Furlong admitted.
He suddenly realized that “one rebel had his gun to his shoulder not more than two paces from me, and was just in the act of pulling the trigger” when Corp. William H. Weeks and Pvt. Alexander Hanson “both saw him and fired … they shot him dead. It looked kind of scaley at the time[,] but its all right now.”
Many Southerners fled, and “the boys would drop them in their tracks” as they bolted for safety. Furlong counted “from 25 to 30 [Confederates] killed and wounded on the field, most of whom were killed,” and Co. D “took 39 prisoners and sent them in to the General” Russell.
Furlong reported capturing “a Captain and … a 1st Lieut. We killed their 2d Lieut. We took about double the men we went in with, and killed and wounded as many, which I think is doing pretty well for 24 men.”
Russell praised Furlong for the “highly daring and gallant manner” raid in which Co. D “broke through the skirmish line” and “surrounded” and “captured 33 enlisted men, a captain, and a lieutenant—an entire company.”
“The beauty of it is not a man on our side received the slightest injury,” wrote Furlong, his news echoed by Russell in his official report. “Some of the boys I believe had their packs or clothes shot through and I lost my pipe, which I believe are the only casualties.”
After Co. D escorted its prisoners into the 6th Maine’s lines, Russell “called me and thanked me earnestly for doing so well,” Furlong said. “I told him the credit was all due to the members of my Company, and of course I may well feel proud of it.”
Sources: Brilliant Exploits of Down-east Boys, Portland Daily Press, Saturday, August 1, 1863; Reuel W. Furlong Soldier’s File, Maine State Archives; Brig. Gen. David A. Russell, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Vol. 27, Part 1, No. 228, p. 674
If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble. —————————————————————————————————————–
Available now: Passing Through the Fire: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the Civil War, released by Savas Beatie.
This new book chronicles the swift transition of Joshua L. Chamberlain from college professor and family man to regimental and brigade commander and follows him into combat at Shepherdstown, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and the Petersburg and Appomattox campaigns.
Drawing on Chamberlain’s extensive memoirs and writings and multiple period sources, historian Brian F. Swartz follows Chamberlain across Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia while examining the determined warrior who let nothing prevent him from helping save the United States.
Order your autographed copy by contacting me at email@example.com.
Passing Through the Fire is also available at savasbeatie.com or amazon.com.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.