Tough, hard-fighting Col. Edward Cross wore a red bandanna on his head when he led the men of the Fifth New Hampshire Regiment into battle. He did it so his men could spot him more easily – but he also made a better target. He was wounded at the Battle of Fair Oaks, the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of Fredericksburg.
On July 2, 1863, he wore a black bandanna rather than a red one before another battle. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock saw him and shouted, “Col. Cross, this day will bring you a star!”
“No General,” Cross said. “This is my last battle.”
Somehow, he knew. He was mortally wounded that day at the Battle of Gettysburg and died in a field hospital the next day.
Edward Cross was born April 22, 1832 in the northern New Hampshire town of Lancaster. As a boy he dreamt of a military career, but started out in journalism. At 15 he began working as a printer for the Coos Democrat. Later he moved to Cincinnati to work for the Cincinnati Times. In 1858 he moved to the Arizona Territory, mined silver and started its first newspaper. He also scouted for the U.S. Army in skirmishes with the Apache Indians and fought in the Mexican Civil War.
When the Civil War broke out, he received a commission to head the Fifth New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry.
Thomas Livermore, who served with Cross, described in his memoir the day the governor presented the Fifth with its colors. Cross told the men many would die defending them. Livermore remembered the speech “because it proved so true, and was in the manly tone of a soldier who knew whereof he spoke.”
Livermore also recalled, “He taught us to aim in battle, and above all things he ignored and made us ignore the idea of retreating. Besides this he clothed and fed us well, taught us to build good quarters, and camped us on good ground.”
The unit would earn the distinction of losing more men in battle than any other Union regiment. The regiment also earned a reputation of never retreating, even under heavy fire, under Cross’s command.
Battle of Fair Oaks
Gen. Oliver O. Howard commented on the regiment’s willingness to fight. “As usual, the Fifth is always first,” he said before the Battle of Fair Oaks.
Also known as the Battle of Seven Pines, it ended the Army of the Potomac’s Peninsula Campaign. Both sides declared victory in the battle, but Gen. George McClellan took his army back north afterward.
Edward Cross, a fierce and impulsive officer, nearly lost his life at Fair Oaks. His actions during that battle reveal a consummate fighting man.
On the morning of June 1, 1862, he ordered the New Hampshire Fifth to form ranks and clean out a nest of rebels in a wood. He marched ahead of the regiment with the color guard. Then he placed himself behind the riflemen and swore at them to keep firing. Cross ‘raged like a lion’ urging his men to advance.
As he started to order the men to clear the woods, a minie ball struck him in the thigh. He ‘went down like a pine tree.’ Bleeding heavily, he propped himself up against a tree. He got hit again, this time in the temple with buckshot. His face covered with blood, he urged his men to charge the enemy, shouting, “Charge ‘em like hells boys, show ‘em you’re damn Yankees! Sorry to say I can’t go with you!”
The regiment sent the Confederates on the run, but took heavy casualties. His men — he called them his brave boys — carried Cross on a stretcher to the rear of the action. He then went home to Lancaster to recover.
Edward Cross Hears Groans
Cross also received wounds at the Battle of Antietam. As at Fair Oaks, his thoughts turned to death before the battle of Gettysburg.
The old newspaperman had a way with words, as he shows in his journal entry on the evening of May 31, 1863, the first day of fighting.
It was now after nine o’clock — very dark, and nothing could be heard but the groans of the wounded & smothered words of command, as we moved into position. The field was covered with wounded men. Some begged for water, some that their wounds might be dressed, and some for blankets as the night air of the neighboring swamps chilled their wounded bodies. As I rode along one poor fellow said — “Don’t tread on me, sir — I am badly wounded and very cold!” Another — “Stranger, for God’s sake give me a little water — I’m a Mississippian, shot through both legs” Another — “Gentlemen, for Heaven’s sake help us to the hospital — we are freezing here” And so it was, from all sides— enough to move the most hardened heart to sympathy. We halted.
Costly Faults and Mistakes
Cross’s biographer, Robert Grandchamp, recounted his flaws in a telephone interview with Cross’s old newspaper, the Coos County Democrat, in 2013. Grandchamp described him as “a short-tempered alcoholic who favored prostitutes and railed against immigrants, especially those who were Catholic, abolitionists, blacks and others with whom he disagreed.”
He also spoke his mind and, as a Democrat, that did not endear him to Republicans in power. His outspokenness probably cost him a promotion to general.
Grandchamp wrote Cross made a fatal mistake at Gettysburg that cost many losses of life, including his own. He had, for the first time, command of a brigade, which he ordered into the open Wheatfield. He chose a bad position to lead a charge to Stony Hill to gain the high ground. Cross also chose to lead the charge with the Fifth New Hampshire, leaving the other regiments to get picked off in the open instead of pushing forward with the Fifth. And he failed to tell his second-in-command of his plans to charge.
A Confederate sniper hiding behind a boulder fired at Cross 40 yards away. A minie ball hit him in the navel, tore through his intestines and exited his back.
Taken to a field hospital, Edward Cross suffered in extreme pain for six hours before he died shortly after midnight on July 3, 1863.
The Army shipped his body to his home in Lancaster, where he now lies buried in Wilder Cemetery.
With thanks to Colonel Edward E. Cross, New Hampshire Fighting Fifth: A Civil War Biography By Robert Grandchamp and the University of New Hampshire Special Collections. Also, to Days and Events by Thomas Livermore, an oft-cited volume by Cross researchers and My Brave Boys: To War With Colonel Cross and the Fighting Fifth by Mike Pride and Mark Travis.