NP: March 19, 1901 Winnsboro (SC) News and Herald: In The Trenches of Petersburg, June-August 1864

   

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Editor’s Note: This article was provided by and transcribed by K. S. McPhail (New Kent County History and Thread the Rude Eye).

IN THE TRENCHES OF PETERSBURG.

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Mr. Editor: As I have been repeatedly requested by several old veterans and their sons to write a sketch of Hagood’s brigade or the soldier’s life in the trenches at Petersburg, I have consented to comply with their request in my humble and feeble way, hoping if you choose to publish it your many readers will excuse mistakes and short comings. Some detailed accounts of the part borne by one brigade in that terrible siege is indicative of the service of others, and while the narrative must necessarily be largely personal to the command to which I belonged. The record of their devotion is that of all who there followed the sword of Lee.

Hagood’s brigade consisted of the 11th South Carolina, Colonel Gault; 21st South Carolina, Colonel Barnes; (I think) 25th South Carolina, Colonel Simonton, (known as the Eutaws;) 27th South Carolina, Colonel Gaillard; and the 7th Battalion, (known as Rion’s Swamp Angles.) This battalion had eight companies at one time; each company being 100 men strong. Hagood’s brigade left the coast of South Carolina about May the 1st, 1864, with 4,600 strong, as fine a command as well equipped and officered as ever marched to battle.

The adorned regiments of the brigade arrived In the city of Petersburg on the night of the 5th [SOPO Ed.: May 5, 1864] and pushed out on the R. & P. railroad, four miles from the city of Petersburg, where there was heavy fighting go on all day, Gen. Butler having landed a force of 30,000 at Drewery’s Bluff [SOPO ED.: aka Drewry’s or Drury’s], running up and cutting the railroad at Port Watthall (sic, Walthall). Owing to a broken engine the 7th Battalion did not arrive in the city until 11 o’clock on the 6th. We were moved rapidly by rail up the road within one-half mile of the fighting. There we jumped off the cars and double-quicked to the field just in time to join in the victory and see the Yankees disappearing through the woods under cover of their gunboats. We lay on the battlefield all that night. The next day we fell back to Swift Creek. There we formed a line of battle and remained for several days awaiting his advance. They came up about the 10th, attacked our lines, and for about 45 minutes there was as hard and bloody a battle for the time as was fought in that campaign. The 11th was in the hottest of the fight and suffered heavily. The Battalion was about 400 yards across the creek in the rear, held as reserves. We were ordered to attack them on their right. In making this move we had to wade Swift Creek nearly shoulder deep, holding our guns and accoutrements above our heads to keep them dry. We crossed in a hurry and all right. We hurried on within a few yards of them, but were concealed by the woods. When on the eve of charging them, we were ordered back across the creek in good order. We were not engaged but were exposed to their fire. We lost one man from Co. H., Sergeant John Robinson; he fell just at my left a few feet off. He was carried back to the rear and died that night; he was a good man and a gallant soldier. After the fight the enemy fell back to and occupied the works near Drewery’s Bluff. We followed them up and entrenched our brigade just in their front. Here we had heavy skirmishing day and night up till the 16th. When the final blow came on the morning of the 16th about 6 o’clock amidst a heavy fog, our entire lines made a desperate assault on their works which were stubbornly held for nearly two hours and when they gave way, leaving a battery of several guns and the field covered with their dead. Here Hagood’s men covered themselves in glory. Never did men stand up facing death more nobly than the troops engaged in the battle of Drewery’s Bluff on the 16th of May, 1864. Our loss was great, but that of the enemy was much greater. The next day Butler withdrew his troops and joined Grant on the north side of the James river. The loss of the 7th Battalion was the greatest in this fight of its history up to this date. The total I do not now remember, but I do remember Co. H., commanded by the gallant Capt. J. H. Brooks, of Edgefield, lost 19 killed straight out, and 40 wounded. He himself was wounded in three places, but never did leave the field till all was over. He had his dead men carried to one place and buried in one grave. Co. B., (Rion’s old company.) lost, 9 killed, and 20 odd wounded. J. E Harrison, Jacob Poteet, Allen Trapp, Alex Buzzard, Isaac Perry, Lee Bagley were among the dead. Color Bearer Barnes Robertson, a youth of just 13, fell while leading the Battalion with his colors flying in the breeze. Jeff Davis was on the field that day at and witnessed a great part of the fight. He said that evening to General Beauregard while commenting on the troops that were engaged that day , pointing at the 7th Battalion said, there is as fine a regiment as there was in the Confederate service. This fight wound up the campaign on the South side of the James for several weeks.

Well, I must halt, I have strayed far from the subject. I sat down to write the soldiers life in the trenches, though there could be volumes written on this subject, but for fear of worrying your readers I must come to the point.

After the disastrous repulse at Cold Harbor in June, Grant lingered for a few days on that front of Richmond and then determined to transfer his operations to the south side of the James, making Petersburg his immediate objective. At this time Hoke’s division, of which Hagood’s brigade was a part, was ordered to the defense of Petersburg. At noon on the 15th [SOPO Ed.: June 15, 1864] Smith’s corps of the Federal army was before the eastern defense of Petersburg. Hagood’s brigade reached the city at dark, while hurriedly being marched through the city. The whole town was in an uproar from excitement as we passed through; the streets were thronged with frightened women and children. As we moved on some one called out, “What brigade is that?” Col. Rion, at the head of the Battalion, answered, “Hagood’s South Carolina brigade.” Down they went on their knees, crying, “Thank God, we are I safe now; Hagood’s brigade has saved us twice before!

On the 18th, while quietly awaiting for orders to charge the heavy works of the enemy, Col. Nelson, of the 7th, was standing by Hagood’s side on the right of the line when Hoke’s aid (sic, aide) brought the order to advance. The men who had been rolled off to follow his lead were intently watching him, and when he was directed to go, without speaking a word, he drew his handkerchief from his breast and raised it aloft. The men sprang over the parapet with a yell and rushed upon the enemy across the intervening space, he moving upon the right of the line. When they were driven back and had laid down amid the oats, keeping their fire and awaiting the coming of the supporters, he moved erect along the whole length of his line. Just as he reached the left, he fell. It was learned that he was killed. Thus fell a patriot and gallant soldier.1 Major Rion was in command of the brigade skirmishers on that fatal day and he did his work nobly. He was wounded in the arm early in the day, but would not leave the field until night. Our loss in officers and men that day was very heavy. I can’t take the space to name them. Col. Rion assumed command of the Battalion the next morning. After this bloody battle Grant sat down and laid siege to the city. The Confederates fell back and occupied the works known (illegible)hes. Now, for actual life in the trenches.

The ordinary details from the troops for guard and picket and fatigue duty were very heavy. All the men were required to sit in line of battle upon the bayonet, guns in hand and officers at their post for the half hour after dark. From this time till an hour before day-light one-half of the men not on other duty were kept awake at a time in the same position while the other half were allowed to get what sleep they could. In the bottom of the trench their arms and accoutrements were laid aside but near at hand, and disturbed by the frequent passage of inspecting officers or fatigue parties blundering along in the dark over their prostrate forms. From an hour before day until after good daylight all were aroused and stood to arms fully equipped and prepared to repel assault. Again during the day only one-half were allowed to lay off their equipments at a time, and none were permitted day or night to leave their assigned places in the trench without special permission. The company officers remained at all times with their men in the trench; the field officers had their respective pit- some six to ten feet in rear of the general trench, and were permitted to use them except when the men were standing to arms. The men in the trenches served as sharpshooters by regular detail. The constant use of the shoulders in shooting produced bruises and soreness so that they accustomed themselves to resting the rifle on the parapet and firing it as a pistol. The accuracy of their fire was frequently spoken of by letter writers to the northern papers, and our men, as at Wagner, became very fond of it. It was a relief to the passive endurance which made up so large a part of their duty. Such severe service continued day in and day out for so long a time was trying to the last degree upon men already, jaded by an actual campaign. For some time during July not a field officer was present for duty and four out of five regiments of the brigade were commanded by lieutenants. To preserve anything like organization and efficiency, Gen Hagood was compelled to consolidate companies temporarily and to assign to duty as commissioned officers non-commissioned officers and even privates. In doing this he selected men who had hitherto been mentioned for good conduct in battle. Not a day passed without more or less casualties, and from the fact that the wounds were generally in the head or upper part of the person, and from the enfeebled state of the general health of the men, they were mostly fatal. Diseases of a low nervous type carried the men to the field infirmity and at one time there were five hundred cases in Hagood’s alone. The regimental surgeons were there; the company surgeons were more or less sheltered as near as possible to the trenches. Litter-bearers brought the wounded to them, and after temporary treatment they were dispatched in ambulances to the infirmary. The various post hospitals in Petersburg and Richmond received the severe cases.

The foregoing narrative has given the out-line of the military events and surroundings–the naked skeleton of the history; but it is difficult to convey to one who has not had a similar experience an idea of the actual reality of the labor and suffering of the men for those long hot summer months held without relief the trenches of Petersburg. Seldom were men ever called to endure as much as was required of the troops who occupied the trenches of Petersburg during the months of June, July and August. It was endurance without relief, sleeplessness without excitement; inactivity without rest; constant apprehension, requiring ceaseless watching. The nervous system was continually strained till the spirits became depressed almost beyond endurance. Day after day, as soon as the mists which over sprung the country gave way to the dawn and until sunlight spread her welcome mantle over the earth, the sharp shooting was incessant, the constant rattle of small arms, and the spiteful hissing of bullets never ceased and was only drowned by the daily bombardment from the heavy guns. No place along the line could be considered safe; the most sheltered were penetrated by glancing bullets and many severe wounds were received in this way. The trenches themselves were filthy, and though policing was rigidly enforced, it was impossible to keep down the constant accumulation. Vermin abounded and diseases of various kinds showed themselves. The digestive organs became impaired by the rations and the manner in which they were cooked; diarrhea and dysentery were universal, and the legs and the feet of the men swelled until they could not wear their shoes and the filth of their persons from the scarcity of water was almost unbearable. But all of this they endured and stood all their suffering with unflinching constancy and never yielded till disease drove them to the hospital. On the 30th of July at daylight Grant sprung a mine under the salient on the Baxter road held by Elliott’s South Carolina brigade. The breach was immediately assailed and occupied but the enemy were unable to get beyond the crater where he was held at bay until the arrival of reinforcements expelled him and our original lines were re-established. This was perhaps the most prominent event of the siege but it is not within the scope of this sketch to go into its details, Hagood’s brigade being in no way connected with it.

The fighting at the crater was desperate, the Confederates sustaining 1200 casualties and inflicting a loss of over 6,000 to the enemy of which 1,000 were prisoners. Such was the life of the soldier in the trenches. The following verses appeared in a Petersburg paper during the siege. The verses may lack smoothness but those who were there will recognize the realism of the picture:

Dirty and haggard,
Almost a blackguard,
They bore him away from the terrible fray;
From the clash and the rattle
In the front rank of battle,
Almost dead, shot through the head.
They reached his gory ambulance bed,
The ambulance jolts,

But the driver bolt-,
And away he flies,
Drowning the cries
Of the poor private;
Glad to arrive at
The hospital door where to be sure,
The surgeon he thinks can effect a quick cure.

So worn and pale,
With plaintive wail,
All alone he dies,
But nobody cries;
Bear away the clay
To the dead-house away,
Who cares who ever shed tears
Over ragged and dirty soldiers’ biers.

A box of pine,
Say three feet by nine,
They placed him in,
Away from the din
Of battle and strife,
Then hurried for life,
Under the stones to bury the bones
Of the poor soldier whom nobody
mourns.

In his home far away,
A letter some day,
Perhaps may tell
How the poor soldier fell;
Then tears, ah, how deep
The loved one will weep,
When they hear that the bier
Of him they so loved awoke not a tear.

Hagood’s brigade served sixty-five days in the trenches of Petersburg entering them with 2,3000 (sic, 2,300)  men and officers when withdrawn on the 20th of August to take part in the Weldon road fight the next day he had but 59 officers and 681 men present for duty. Well do I remember the morning when the battalion filed out of the trenches of seeing Col. Rion with Mrs. Rion and Dr. Hanahan standing on the parapet, Col. Rion being in the city at the hospital, his arm not yet healed and his wife was there with him nursing him. He hearing of the movement of the brigade came over to see his battalion leave the trenches and give them words of cheer and comfort. It was with some difficulty that Mrs. Rion and Dr. Hanahan kept him from following us. Col. Rion held great esteem for his beloved battalion and the men had equally the same for him. Little did he think the next time he should see the battalion in a few days, there would not be over 20 men in it for duty. There in terrible battle of the 21st of August the writer received his discharge and never saw that gallant band again as a battalion.

To our dead:

Nor shall their glory be forgot
While time her record keeps,
Or honor guards the hallow spot
What valor proudly sleeps.

J[onathan]. H. N[eil].

Co. B (Lyle’s Rifles) 7th Battalion Hagood Brigade.

White Oak, S. C., March 12, 1901.2

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Sources:

  1. SOPO Editor’s Note: The author of this article, Jonathan Neil, seems to have been mistaken here in his recollections.  Other sources have Nelson falling on June 24, in the skirmish at Hare’s Hill, where Hagood’s Brigade did make an unsupported charge.  These reports have Nelson falling in that charge, not on June 18.  The facts fit the June 24, 1864 fight, so I lean towards Neil having his dates slightly mixed up here.  More research is needed.  See the 7th SC Battalion page for more discussion of this topic and other sources.
  2. “In the Trenches of Petersburg.” Winnsboro (SC) News and Herald. March 19, 1901, p. 1 col. 1-4

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