150 Years Ago Today: Scales and McGowan’s Sharpshooters vs. Sixth Corps: December 31, 1864

   

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December 31, 1864: A Seine-Hauling for Supplies

On the last day of 1864, 150 years ago today, two Confederate sharpshooter battalions decided to do something about their lack of clothing and other camp materials in the midst of winter.  The sharpshooter battalions of Scales’ Brigade and McGowan’s Brigade, both of Wilcox’s Division, Third Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, made “a request…asking permission of the major general to make a requisition on their blue coated neighbors in front for such articles of camp equipment as might be necessary to render them comfortable during the winter…”1  This request was speedily approved, and the two sharpshooter battalions made ready to attack the Union Sixth Corps’ skirmish line east of the Weldon Railroad early on the morning of December 31, 1864.

WilliamSDunlopMcGowansSSThe resulting attack was another classic seine-hauling expedition.  I described in some detail the idea behind seine-hauling in a short post about the October 30, 1864 skirmish line fight near Union Fort Davis. In this case, around 4 a. m. on the morning of December 31, 1864, the two sharpshooter battalions led by Captain William S. Dunlop (McGowan’s Brigade) and Captain John Young, Scales’ Brigade) would each form a single file line, covered out front by 16 handpicked men to protect the advance, penetrate the Union picket line, advance east and west, and bag a large number of Union prisoners.  William Dunlop describes the scene:

“Accordingly, about 4 o’clock the following morning, some two hours before daybreak, the two battalions met at the point designated— which was between the lines, some distance east of the Weldon railroad—and formed at right angles with the line to be attacked, about twenty paces apart, back to back. Eight men of superior courage and activity were selected from each battalion and formed at intervals of five paces across the forward flanks of the two battalions, facing the enemy. R. M. Plexico, Silas Perry, R. J. Fields and Press Watson were four of those selected from my [Dunlop’s] battalion; the names of the others I am unable to recall. At the command the sixteen men, with their center well advanced, moved forward slowly upon the rifle pits directly before them, and which had been designated as the point of attack. The two battalions followed closely, Young taking intervals by the right flank and Dunlop by the left, as the movement progressed. Silently and stealthily, as a tiger would skirt a jungle, this double transverse line with spike head in front, slipped along through the darkness upon the unsuspecting enemy.”2

An unforeseen obstacle would cause the Confederate sharpshooters trouble, however.  A “treacherous ditch lay directly across our path about a hundred yards in front of the Federal rifle pits, into which every man fell as his turn came; but each recovering, moved on in his place.”3  Every man recovered but one. Private Carter of Dunlop’s Battalion saw his gun accidentally fire when he fell in the ditch, alerting the Federals that something was up on this pitch dark night. Dunlop continues:

“When the front had nearly reached the point where the plunge should be made, a man in the rear of my line tumbled into the ditch and accidentally discharged his gun. (The plan was to capture the entire line without firing a gun.) This aroused the enemy, and they poured a harmless volley from the length of their line into the bleak darkness in front.”4

This wasn’t the only warning the Union pickets had, however.  Unbeknownst to the Confederates, one of their own deserters from the night before had warned his Union captors of the imminent attack.  First Division, Sixth Corps commander Frank Wheaton wrote the following in his report of the affair to Army of the Potomac HQ:

“It was much darker than usual at the hour of the attack, and, of course, the strength of the enemy’s force could only be approximately estimated. Last night a deserter came through the picket-line and informed Captain Thurber, Second Rhode Island Volunteers, division officer of the day, that an attack was contemplated by the rebel pickets. He heard his captain speak of it to another officer shortly before he deserted to our lines. The division officer of the day promptly made use of this information and warned his line, which was prepared for the attack. The utter darkness made it impossible to distinguish anything, and some confusion ensued.”5

As the now alert Federals realized a Confederate attack was actually forthcoming, “some confusion” did indeed ensue.  The Confederates quickly moved about half of their columns through the Union picket line, at which point Dunlop’s men turned left and Young’s men turned right, carrying the Federal rifle pits for some way before heading back to their own lines (see accompanying diagram).

18641231MapMcGowanScalesSSvs6thCorps

In the confusion and darkness, one of the sixteen picked men in front of the column, a Sergeant Plexico of Dunlop’s Battalion, demonstrated what Dunlop calls “the personal courage of this daring command:”

“When Sergt. Plexico scrambled out of the ditch, into which all had fallen, and rubbed the mud and water from his eyes, he discovered that he had lost his bearings, as well as his connection with the spike head, but made for a rifle pit—which he supposed to be the right one—some distance to the left of the point on which his comrades were bearing, and charged it single handed and alone, capturing a corporal and four other prisoners, whom he marched off to the rear. Of course the concussion produced at the instant of encounter paralyzed the corporal and his men for the time, otherwise Plexico would have failed.”6

For the Southerners looking for clothing and other supplies, the raid was ultimately successful in spite of the advance warning given the Federals by a deserter.  They suffered only one casualty, the unfortunate Private Carter having received a wound in his back when his gun prematurely discharged in the ditch outside the Federal picket posts.  The Union forces weren’t so lucky. Sixth Corps commander Horatio G. Wright reported two men killed, three wounded, and thirty-seven missing.  Dunlop wildly overestimated the number of Union captured at 300 men.  Still, it had been a good night, all things considered:

“We secured all the supplies necessary to our comfort for the winter and returned to camp about sunrise, a happy command, resumed our duties at the front; and continued to alternate with details from the brigade until sometime about the middle of January, before the order for our retirement was carried into effect.”7

Detective Jonathan C. Babcock of the Union Bureau of Information interviewed prisoners about this affair and fairly accurately reported back to Army of the Potomac commander George Meade:

“All that can be learned of the affair last evening is that a part of McGowan’s brigade, about a regiment or less, relieved Young’s battalion of sharpshooters, of Scales’ brigade, and the latter made a dash upon our picket-line early this a. m.; no other reason is given for the attack than it was expected a sufficient number of overcoats, shoes, and blankets would be captured to pay for the undertaking; of these articles they were sadly in need; some of them were barefooted.”8

Babcock only missed the fact that Dunlop’s Battalion of McGowan’s Brigade was also involved, but he had definitely divined the attack’s main goal.

At the end of the day, the Confederates had again bested their Union counterparts on the skirmish line due to the training and discipline of their sharpshooter battalions.  The Union army was slow to catch up.  They generally sent regular detachments of ordinary infantry regiments to man the picket lines, having no brigade level sharpshooter battalions like the Rebels.  By the end of the Siege of Petersburg, however, at least one division level sharpshooter battalion had been formed on the Northern side.  Ultimately, though, this skirmish line advantage mattered little in the grand scheme of things.  The nearly 40 miles of line to defend and increasing desertion rates meant Lee’s army was very nearly at the breaking point.  How long they could last as 1864 turned into 1865 was a matter of earnest speculation by men in the trenches on both sides…

Further Reading:

Notes:

  1. Dunlop, William S. Lee’s Sharpshooters: Or, The Forefront of Battle. A Story of Southern Valor that Never Has Been Told (Little Rock, AR: Tunnah & Pittard, Printers: 1899), p. 224
  2. Dunlop, William S. Lee’s Sharpshooters: Or, The Forefront of Battle. A Story of Southern Valor that Never Has Been Told (Little Rock, AR: Tunnah & Pittard, Printers: 1899), pp. 225226
  3. Dunlop, William S. Lee’s Sharpshooters: Or, The Forefront of Battle. A Story of Southern Valor that Never Has Been Told (Little Rock, AR: Tunnah & Pittard, Printers: 1899), p. 226
  4. Dunlop, William S. Lee’s Sharpshooters: Or, The Forefront of Battle. A Story of Southern Valor that Never Has Been Told (Little Rock, AR: Tunnah & Pittard, Printers: 1899), p. 226
  5. OR XLII, P3, pages 11111112: Frank Wheaton to Maj. C. A. Whittier, AAAG Sixth Corps.  December 31, 1864.
  6. Dunlop, William S. Lee’s Sharpshooters: Or, The Forefront of Battle. A Story of Southern Valor that Never Has Been Told (Little Rock, AR: Tunnah & Pittard, Printers: 1899), pp. 227228
  7. Dunlop, William S. Lee’s Sharpshooters: Or, The Forefront of Battle. A Story of Southern Valor that Never Has Been Told (Little Rock, AR: Tunnah & Pittard, Printers: 1899), p. 228
  8. OR XLII, P3, pages 11061107: Babcock to Seth Williams.  December 31, 1864.

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