Six Family Members Killed in the Same Battle
Greatest Mortality of Any Union Family in the Entire War
June 29, 1862. For three months, Union General George B. McClellan had pushed the Confederates up the Virginia Peninsula, eventually forcing them to defend Richmond, their capital. Some had predicted an imminent Union victory, but the situation took a dramatic turn as General Robert E. Lee’s beleaguered army went on the offensive. In a series of battles called Seven Days, which started with the battle of Mechanicsville on June 26, Lee slowly pushed the Union forces back down the Virginia Peninsula.
On the stifling afternoon of June 29, the soldiers of Company E, 5th Vermont found themselves near a Virginia railroad siding called Savage’s Station. Known as the Equinox Guards, these soldiers and the McClellan’s entire army had been constantly on the move for four days retreating toward the safety of Union gunboats on the James River. For a month, McClellan’s advancing army had used Savage’s Station as a supply depot. As the Union army retreated, it destroyed its supplies. The Equinox Guards stopped briefly at the burning depot; Confederate artillery and skirmishers added to the chaos. They continued their withdrawal, but after a few miles, they heard musketry and cannonade and were ordered to do an about face to oppose the Confederate forces that were trying to cut off the retreat of the Union trains.
Arriving back to Savage Station, the soldiers quickly lined up and charged the enemy with bayonets. The enemy broke and ran, but the Union victory was short lived because the Confederate batteries then opened up on the Vermonters with grape and canister, decimating their ranks. One officer recalled, “Almost every man threw down his head and turned away like a man struck in the face with a sudden storm of hail. . . . Our men seemed swept away.” (1)
Of the 87 men who had joined the army together nine months earlier in Manchester, Vermont, 59 went into battle that day. When nightfall brought a halt to the fighting, all but seven were dead or wounded. Amongst the casualties were seven members of the Cummings family — four brothers, a cousin, and a brother-in-law killed, and another brother who was wounded, made it home, but is believed to have died of his wounds years later.
Horace Clayton, the Cummings brother-in-law, died on the Savage Station battlefield. William Cummings died three days later in a Union hospital. His brothers Hiram and Silas were wounded, taken prisoner, and died a week later in the Union’s abandoned battlefield hospital. Their brother Edmund was captured and died in a Richmond prison hospital on July 2. (He had only joined the Equinox Guards two weeks earlier.) Their cousin, William H. Cummings, was wounded, taken prisoner, and confined to a Richmond prison. He was paroled but died on August 2 in a Union hospital after amputation surgery. Although shot through the knee at Savage’s Station, Henry, the oldest of the family, was the only member of the Cummings clan to escape the Peninsula, but he was crippled, and died years later from his wounds. It it was the greatest mortality suffered by any Union family in the entire war. (2)
Sandwiched between the larger battles at Gaines’s Mill and Malvern Hill, the Battle of Savage’s Station remains a relatively obscure engagement in the Civil War. While the Battle of Savage’s Station was a successful — albeit relatively obscure — holding action in the Union’s well-executed tactical retreat, the Seven Days Battles were a great morale-lifting victory for the Confederates. A tour of Virginia’s battlefields or a review of Civil War literature will provide scant details of the engagement at Savage’s Station, but to walk on Memorial Day through the cemeteries of Bennington County with their many GAR flags beside marble headstones is to be reminded of the sacrifices made by the Equinox Guards of Manchester.
– Submitted by Brian Knight, author of No Braver Deeds: The Story of the Equinox Guards, Dorset, Vermont
1.) Manchester Journal. Mark Skinner Library, Manchester, Vermont. June 1864.
2.) Association of the Survivors of Company E Ledger. Manchester Historical Society, Manchester, Vermont.