George Tebbetts  Killed In Action 

— the Battle of White Oak Swamp

George Tebbetts, George Gay, and George Lord shared more than first names.  Friends, they lived together as lodgers on Main Street at the homes of Edwin and John S. Bennett, John’s wife Sarah and their teenage daughters May & Lizzie.

John Bennett was a wealthy merchant in Town.  He and his brother Edwin formed a partnership in 1850.  The business increased the first six years, from less than $1,000 to $7,000 and subsequently to over $50,000 per annum.  They sold hardware, tinware, groceries, corn, meal, lumber, coal, cements, paints and oil, ice, etc.  They employed forty-four men, and by 1872, the business had an annual capital of over $100,000.  At different times before and after the Civil War,  J.S.Bennett served as selectman, health officer, and overseer of the poor farm.  J.S.Bennett’s store was located at corner of Main and Exeter Street, across from the GAR Monument.

George Tebbetts, a New Hampshire native, was a bright, up and coming clerk, and was listed in the 1860 Newmarket census as having a personal estate valued at $1,000  — a considerable amount for a 19 year old in 1860.   His mother, Eliza is listed as “a Lady”.   

The following year, when the Civil War broke out, all three Georges enlisted.  George Lord, an accomplished clerk enlisted in the 3rd NH Infantry; however his skills with a balancing sheet brought him to the attention of the NH Adjutant General who had him moved to the State Adjutant General’s Office for the remainder of his service [ See Lord’s separate Bio].

Both George Tibbetts and George Gay  left Newmarket together.  They enlisted as Privates with Company K, Fifth New Hampshire Regiment, and mustered in at Concord on Oct. 12th, 1861.  Both men both had their first encounter with the enemy was on March , 1862 at Rappahannock Station, VA.   Men of the Fifth got no more opportunity then to fire a few parting shots at the withdrawing Rebel forces and suffered no casualties. This would be the first and only time in its history that the regiment sustained no losses in combat and it’s ironic that they would become known as the “Bloodless Fifth”.

After their next battle at Yorktown, VA between April 25 and May 4, 1862,   George Gay was promoted to Sergeant.  They then participated in 4 more battles together:  Fair Oaks, Peach Orchard,  and  Savage’s Station, Va. between June 1st and the 29th, 1862.    All  these battles were a gearing up for the siege of Richmond.

Tebbetts’ Death at the Battle of White Oak Swamp

But it was during their fourth battle — in the scorching heat on  June 30th, 1862 at Battle of White Oak Swamp, VA (played out on the New Market Road towards Richmond)  that Sergeant George Gay was wounded [see separate BIO on George Gay] , and his good friend Private George Tebbetts was Killed.  Estimates for this one battle list as many as 100 Union casualties, with the highest losses in the 5th New Hampshire, which had 5 men killed and 9 wounded.

(photo: illustration, Battle of White Oak Swamp)

It was the constant Confederate barrage of artillery fire, railroad iron, twenty and six pound shot that could decimate many a Federal line.  The dreaded six pound shot,  a little larger than one’s fist, would screech through the air, strike the ground and bounce several times ripping arms and limbs off several men inflicting severe and mortal wounds, even on its last bounce.  It was one of these shells that took the life of George Tebbetts.

                                           (photo: Company clerk’s portable field desk)

 Private Tebetts did not have to be in the fight at all.  “Because his fine penmanship and sharp mind had earned him the job of company clerk, George Tebbetts had been given the option the night before of going ahead with the regimental wagon train.  But he wanted to carry a rifle with his comrades.  Now some of those same comrades gathered his bloody body in a blanket and carried him away.  He died later that day and was buried on the field.”  (1)

“After the battle of White Oaks, on the retreat, the march at night—the scene between 12 & 2 o’clock that night. At the church in the woods, the hospital show at night, the wounded brought in—previous, the silent stealthy march through the woods, at times stumbling over the bodies of dead men in the road, (there had been terrible fighting there that day, only closing at dark)—we retreating… the artillery horses feet muffled… orders that men should tread light & only speak in whispers”    These quickly scribbled notes became published as:    

“Then between midnight & 1 oclock we halted to rest a couple of hours at an opening in the woods—in this opening was a pretty good sized old church used impromptu for a hospital for the wounded of the battles of the day thereabout—with these it was filled, all varieties horrible beyond description—the darkness dimly lit with candles, lamps torches, moving about, but plenty of darkness & half darkness,—the crowds of wounded, bloody & pale, the surgeons operating—the yards outside also filled—they lay on the ground, some on blankets, some on stray planks, —the despairing screams & curses of some out of their senses, the murky darkness, the gleaming of the torches, the smoke from them too, the doctors operating, the scent of chloroform, the glisten of the steel instruments as the flash of lamps fell upon them.”   — Walt Whitman (2)


Published: July 7, 1862,  A correspondent of the Philadelphia Inquirer gives these interesting particulars of the battle of White Oak Swamp:

Having crossed the bridge over “White Oak” Swamp, it was blown up, thus checking the advance of the enemy. On Monday morning the enemy began the attack on our rear, having rebuilt the bridge. They came on in immense force, following the road we had come…

About 2 o’clock the enemy was discovered advancing along all these roads in immense force, the clouds of dust along the line of approach being distinctly visible.  At this time the firing was terrific, coming from every quarter of the compass, the effort of the enemy evidently being to surround us, and either cut us to pieces or drive us into the river.  All this was the result of their delusion with regard to our movement; they persisting in believing it was a retreat, while, in fact, it was a deliberate and successful strategic movement.

The rebels fought with desperation, hoping to detach our divisions and crush them in detail.  Gen. McClellan was everywhere through the fight, directing reinforcements to be sent wherever the front seemed weakest.  Gen. McCall, with the Pennsylvania Reserves, was stationed in the rear of the several points held by the commanders named, and within supporting distance of them all.

At 4 o’clock in the afternoon dispatches were received at headquarters that the enemy were being successfully repulsed at all points, with the exception of Gen. Kearney’s, who reported that the enemy were too strong for him, and were forcing him from his position.

(photo: smoldering ruins at the Battle of White Oak Swamp)

Word was immediately sent to Gen. McCall to advance to his relief, which his men did on the double-quick, notwithstanding their previous fatigue and exhaustion. They were soon engaged in the thickest of the fight, which grew hotter, as every moment brought fresh troops from Richmond to replace those whom our brave Reserves were leveling with terrible rapidity.

The tide of battle ebbed and flowed over the plain for nearly an hour with uncertain result.  At this time Gen. McCall and his staff galloped toward the front to incite his brave troops to stronger exertions, when he was seen to fall from his horse, mortally wounded in the breast.

His staff gathered around him, and begged to be allowed to bear his body to a place of quiet and safety. “No,” said he, “let me die on the field.” and in the momentary confusion which the fall of their beloved leader made, his division was slowly driven back.  Almost at the same time, Capt. H.J. Biddle, Aid to Gen. McCall, was mortally wounded.

Still the contest raged more madly, the efforts of his men to reach him being almost frantic.  In this desperate charge the loss of life on both sides exceeded anything that had occurred since the contest commenced.  The dead lay in piles as high as tents.  Among the slain were Lieuts. J.H. Kuhn and W.M. Watmough.  Gen. Meade was severely wounded in the abdomen, and Gen. Reynolds was taken prisoner.  It is since ascertained that he is unhurt in Richmond.

At this juncture word was dispatched to Gen. Sumner that assistance was required by Gen. Kearney, and Sumner’s men immediately advanced to the critical position on the double quick, with their bayonets fixed at the charge.  As they came up, our tired troops fell back, and the avalanche of bristling steel was upon the rebels, who fairly reeled with the shock as our men shook off their pierced bodies like clods from their keen lances. This broke the rebel advance, and they fell back into confusion and retreated.

At this time the rebels had brought up a battery between the river and New-Market road, with the design of shelling our position.  The gunboats Galena and Aroostook, which had been lying quiet, but keen spectators of the battle, unable to fire for fear of injuring our men, were at length signaled from a station on shore as to the direction in which they might send their fearful missiles.

This they did with unerring aim, and the effect was prodigious.  The retreat of the rebels increased to a run, and the run enlarged to a skedaddle of the most approved stampede, and our brave but exhausted troops arranged themselves for the night as best they could after the trying scenes through which they had passed.



(1)  My Brave Boys, to War With Colonel Cross and the Fighting Fifth, by Mike Pride and Mark Travis,  University Press of New England, Hanover, NH  2001.  Pg 103 

(2)  A notebook entry that served as a source for the poem “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and a Road Unknown.” This entry is an account of the battle of White Oak Swamp of June 30, 1862.   The events were told to Walt Whitman by Private Milton Roberts (Maine), a soldier who Whitman apparently visited in a hospital. Digital images of the manuscript itself are available at the Library of Congress, American Memory site, and the transcription comes from Notebooks and Unpublished Manuscripts, vol 2, 651-52.