EXCERPT: McGowan’s/Scales’ Sharpshooter Battalions vs. Sixth Corps, December 31, 1864 (Blackwood Benson)

   

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Editor’s Note: The following fictional account, taken from pages 400-406 of A Friend with the Countersign by Confederate Sharpshooter Blackwood K. Benson, describes the “seine-hauling” affair of December 31, 1864, in which the sharpshooter battalions of Scales’ and McGowan’s Brigades, Wilcox’s Division, Third Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, made a quick dash on the Union lines of First Division, Sixth Corps, Army of the Potomac, in order to capture clothing to help make it through the winter.  Dunlop led the sharpshooter battalion of McGowan’s Brigade while John Young was in charge of Scales’ sharpshooters.  In this work of fiction, Benson created a character named Jones Berwick, a Union scout who pretends to be a sharpshooter in McGowan’s Sharpshooter Battalion.  The reason it often sounds realistic is that Benson really WAS a sharpshooter in McGowan’s Sharpshooter Battalion.  I generally do not include works of fiction on this site, but I thought the account was interesting, and written by a man who was certainly present during the action as a Confederate sharpshooter.

A Fictional Union Scout Tries to Foil a Confederate “Seine-Hauling” on the Picket Line:

December 31, 1864

The summer went away. If I should tell all I saw, and all I did in my feeble way, this work would take me too long. I saw Burnside’s mine explode. I saw Hampton’s men drive 2500 head of beeves away from Grant’s rear and into the Confederate lines. I saw the battle of Reams’s Station — and stood once more with McGowan’s sharp-shooters while they picked off almost every horse of our batteries, and afterward captured the guns. I saw our men take Fort Harrison, and I saw much more.

On the night of December 30th I was on the picket-line of the Sixth corps, where the Ninth New York artillery — a regiment so called yet, but serving as infantry — occupied the pits. I was dressed as I usually dressed while scouting — in the uniform of a Confederate private — and carried an Enfield. The ground over which I had to go was almost bare, the trees having been felled and used for fuel by the armies, which at this point, just east of the Weldon railroad, were perhaps a mile apart. Here and there, in some hollow, were a few bushes, and the smaller twigs of the felled trees lay about everywhere between the stumps, affording me cover in my silent advance toward the enemy’s lines.

The night was exceedingly cold. This ground had been fought over more than once; there were old abandoned lines of rifle-pits running across the land, and the earth had been cut up by artillery wheels and by horses’ hoofs, and the rain had filled the ruts and the hoof-prints, and now a thin sheet of ice was spread over the little pools scattered everywhere. The moon had gone down before nine o’clock; the stars were out in all their glory, Aldebaran low in the west, Orion higher, then great Sirius — and Spica in the southeast, back between Forts Sedgwick and Hays—known by Yankees and Rebels as Hell and Damnation.

General Meade was at the bedside of his dying son in Philadelphia; General Parke was in command of the army. The character of my service had long since been extended; I was now the head of a body of scouts, and had not recently done such work as General Parke required. The circumstances, however, justified him in sending me forward alone: a strong expedition had been prepared by General Grant against Fort Fisher, in North Carolina, and it was very desirable to know whether Lee’s army would remain quiet.

I crept along — not going directly toward the Confederates, but gradually approaching at a great angle. The ice crunched under my feet, making me start every minute in expectation of a challenge, but I was yet some hundreds of yards from the vedettes, who were doubtless engaged in marking time to prevent their freezing. It was a sad thing — this Army of Northern Virginia in the winter trenches of Petersburg; half-fed on mouldy meal, clothing in tatters, shoes — if they had any — tied to their feet with rags; hopeless of the end, they yet stood in their ranks and died for their faith. I have never been able to know how these men could stand against our army so long; they were stanch men; we all are now proud of them. It is no wonder that some of them deserted.

A long hollow was before me, stretching east and west between the lines. I had been told that the Confederate skirmishers were just on our side of the hollow, and I supposed, of course, that their vedettes were at least a hundred yards in front of their pits, so as I approached the hollow I became exceedingly careful, crawling from one stump to another, lying behind them and listening. I had no intention on this night of getting into the lines; all I wanted was to get near enough to hear great movements.

At last, lying behind a stump, I saw, some fifty yards in front of me, a man standing stiff. I remained motionless for a full minute; then I moved on to my left about thirty yards, and paused again behind another stump. Now I looked for the man again, and was surprised to see him moving forward, — and not alone, but followed by two others. In an instant I knew what was meant — these men had decided to abandon a hopeless struggle against fate; they were coming over.

The vedette’s post having thus been deserted, I decided at once to go forward to the picket-line. I could see dim spots of light above the pits in which the pickets had their fires. I crept along from stump to stump, and at length succeeded in getting between two of the pits, but not without being seen.

“Where’d you come from all at once?” asked a man at the pit on my right. He was standing now, having risen from a sitting posture before his fire, where, in blankets, were stretched the forms of three others.

“From the front,” said I; “let me warm my hands a little, and I’ll tell you all about it. What brigade is this?”

“Scales’s.”(1)

“Where’s McGowan’s?”

“On our right.”

“Well, I don’t want to raise any false alarm, but you’d better wake up your men. Your vedettes have gone to the Yankees.”

“The hell you say!” He began to shake the sleepers in pit.

“Yes; it’s a fact. Where are McGowan’s sharp-shooters?”

“I don’t know where they are now, but you’ll hear something from ’em before day, I reckon.”

“Where are your sharp-shooters?”

“Way down on the right.”

“Is Major Young down there?”

“Yes. Wait here a minute. Say, git up here, Stevens; go call Sergeant Hall.”

Sergeant Hall came. I reported that some of his vedettes had deserted.

“How do you know ?” he asked.

“I saw ’em,” said I. “I was out in front and saw ’em.”

“What were you doing out in front?”

“Oh, well,” said I, “you don’t reckon a man would be out there for fun, do you? You’d better be ‘tendin’ to your own business now, or you’ll have the Yanks down on you in no time,” and I left him.

I walked to the right for a short time, but soon diverged, going to the rear, toward the main Confederate lines. It was now about three o’clock, I judged, and I should have time to look inside the lines, and get back before daylight. I had gone perhaps five hundred yards when I heard the marching of troops, and stopped, in order to hear better. The sounds continued to come — the sounds of a small body of men moving near me — not the indistinct murmur of a division far away. Now I could hear a voice, but no movement, and I knew that a halt had been called and that orders were being given in low tones. I walked toward the voice, wondering why it seemed to sound familiar.

I approached a short line of men, standing with their backs to me. I could see the Confederate intrenchments just beyond these men. Why had they come out in front of their works? I must try to learn. I crept up close and lay flat behind the ranks.

“Now, men, remember what I’ve told you; there must not be a shot fired until you hear Scales’s battalion charge; then go in with a rush. Lieutenant Hasell’s company will lead until we pass our pickets; then the battalion will halt and wait for the word.”

I needed no more to convince me that a serious attempt was to be made upon our lines, by at least two battalions of trained skirmishers. The purpose of this night attack I could not yet know; could it be that a heavy infantry force was to follow? I must find out.

In two minutes I stood on the intrenchments; there, all was still; dimly I could make out along the line, irregular rows of such huts as the men had been able to construct — huts hardly worth the name, little better than the open winter weather. Here, behind the works, was no sign of a movement — no preparation for a march. And now I cared comparatively little concerning the attack of the battalions; this attack could mean nothing more than a surprise of the picket-lines, in order, probably, to secure prisoners and thereby get information for General Lee; but, at the same time, my main duty was over and done; I had seen that in this part of the lines there was no great movement going on; not having anything more important to do, I would get back as quickly as possible, that I might warn those New York people, and, through them, the whole of our skirmish-line.

So I hurried back; I would march out with the battalion through the picket-line, and then drop out in the dark and get around them, for I knew that they would steal up close before charging. I reached the place where I had left the sharpshooters, and heard just at my right the sound of their marching; in a moment I was following. We went through the picket-line — there halted, and the order was given, not by an officer but from man to man, to deploy; I was in the darkness behind the men, and had scarcely been able to hear the order as it passed down the line.

Now, knowing that I had no time to lose, as these sixty men would make a line of three hundred yards, I set off at as fast a gait as prudence would allow, going toward the right flank of the skirmishers, whose advance was extremely slow.

In the still night there was not a sound, except of my own making. Between me and the sky I could catch dim outlines — forms of men slowly stealing on, and on, toward their enemy sleeping; and I hurried too greatly, for I fell into a ditch and was long in getting out, so that when at last I was on the flank of the skirmishers they were near the brow of the hill, and I heard a challenge directed at me, and others at my left directed at the battalion, and then a shot far to my left where Young’s battalion of Scales’s was leading the assault; and then, as I rushed forward risking the aim of the sentinel, fire spouted from sixty rifles, and the rebel cry rang out in the dark morning as Dunlop’s line, half wheeling to the right, swept upon the rifle-pits of the Ninth New York artillery.

I had reached the line too late; the men were standing in their pits, looking stupid and frightened. One of them, seeing my gray uniform, said to me, “We give up.” I started to run; my foot tripped and I fell.

One moment more and the pit was filled by half a dozen men in gray, each shouting at the top of his voice, and each seizing a prisoner; in a second others came on, and began picking up the blankets, knapsacks, and everything else lying about, and laughing in high glee.

“Let me go!” I cried to the man holding me. “Don’t you see your mistake?”

“Nary mistake, my boy! I saw you ahead of us. Hadn’t be’n for you, we’d ha’ caught a heap more. Come along. You can’t fool me!”

I struggled to get away.

“Here!” he shouted; “Wade! come help me manage this fellow, or I’ll have to kill him!”

But I had him so that he could not strike; I continued to struggle and desperation lent me strength. I broke away, but for an instant only; now two men had me and held me securely.

The Federal prisoners were standing at the fire. More were brought up, and a strong guard placed over them, while the battalion was cleaning out the rifle-pits for half a mile on our left. My captors still held me. The firing had ceased; there was nothing to fire at, and I knew that these fellows, reckless as they were — for it now developed that the attack had been devised for no other purpose than getting spoil(2) — would nevertheless be compelled to withdraw at once; day was at hand. How bitterly I now regretted my unavailing struggles. If I had only kept quiet, I could yet slip away, but now the attention of all was upon me, and I must endure my bitter fate — a fate that had always been before me in possibility, yet which, after so long a time, I knew I had never fully admitted.

 

At sunrise the battalion was back in the intrenchments. The prisoners — almost as many as a company — marched under guard in the rear, and I, although in gray, in the midst of them.(3) Yet as I marched along under the gaze of McGowan’s brigade, I tried to collect whatever mental resources were left me; I pulled my hat over my brows, and lowered my head, and bent over to lessen my height, hoping yet that I might be regarded as one of many prisoners of war. But the closing day of the year was not my day; the battalion and the captives marched through crowds, gathering not for the purpose of gazing at the unfortunate, for Federal prisoners were a common sight to these soldiers of many campaigns, but to see the sharp-shooters in whose ranks all had friends.

“By grannies, yonder’s Jones!” shouted a man, — Stokes of Company H.

At once I was surrounded. Some of the men shook my hand. Others stood aloof. All gazed upon me as men look upon the miserable.1

***

(1) Babcock to Gen. S[eth]. Williams, Dec. 31, 1864: “Deserters from the enemy came in last evening . . . (from) Scales’s brigade, Wilcox’s division.” [Ed.]

(2) Major Dunlop, Lee’s Sharp-shooters, p. 228, says, “We secured all the supplies necessary to our comfort for the winter.” [Ed.]

(3) From Report of General Wright, Dec. 31, 1864. “The enemy made an attack upon my picket-line at about five o’clock and succeeded in killing two men and wounding three. Thirty-seven are reported missing.” [Ed.]

***

Source:

  1. Benson, Blackwood K. A Friend with the Countersign (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, Publishers: 1907), pp. 400406

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