CLARK NC: 11th North Carolina at the Siege of Petersburg
Editor’s Note: The following excerpt comes from Walter Clark’s five volume Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-’65, published in 1901. The reference work provides mini regimental histories written mostly by men representing each unit, with gaps filled in by editor Clark. These histories often provide a surprising amount of detail on the Siege of Petersburg.
SPOTTSYLVANIA TO PETERSBURG.
Continuing his policy of turning our flank and interposing himself between us and Richmond, in which policy he was continually foiled by finding General Lee in front of him at every move, General Grant transferred his army to the North Anna, and then to the Chickahominy, whence, despairing of reaching Richmond by the north side, he crossed the James, intending to take Petersburg. In the course of these movements, lasting from 20th May to 14th June, many engagements of minor, and some of great importance, took place on the line of the North Anna, Pamunkey and Totapotamoie [sic, Totopotomoy] Rivers and around Cold Harbor and the Chickahominy. Our brigade [including the 11th North Carolina] took part in a number of them, marching and countermarching and doing some very hard fighting, but the details we find ourselves unable to record in their order satisfactorily. In one of these fights General Kirkland was wounded and did not again rejoin the brigade. Colonel William MacRae, of the Fifteenth North Carolina, was promoted June 27th and assigned to the command of our brigade, in which command he continued until the surrender at Appomattox. He was a strict disciplinarian, as was Pettigrew, and which General Kirkland was not, and he rapidly brought the brigade to a high degree of efficiency. General Kirkland was subsequently assigned to a brigade in Hoke’s Division.
General Grant commenced transferring his army across the James [on the] 14th June  and, in conjunction with the troops already on the south side, attempted to surprise and capture Petersburg before Lee’s forces could get there, and he very nearly succeeded. But after some pretty stubborn fighting he was again foiled, and both armies proceeded to intrench themselves in a line reaching from the James to the Appomattox and around Petersburg nearly to the Weldon Railroad, and what was practically a siege of the city began, to last until its fall in April, 1865. In some places these lines ultimately came so close together that no pickets could be thrown out, and picket duty was performed by sharp-shooters in the trenches, who made it hazardous for any one on either side to expose any part of his person. Mortar shelling was also added to the ordinary artillery fire, rendering bomb-proofs a necessity, and they were accordingly built all along our line. In spite of this dangerous proximity and the well-nigh ceaseless firing kept up during the night, our men learned to sleep as soundly and as peacefully in these trenches as they were accustomed to do in camp. One can get used to anything.
After we got into the defenses of Petersburg we continued there to the end, except one hurried march to the north of the James (July 27th), when Grant sent Hancock’s Corps and a large body of cavalry to destroy the railroads north of Richmond. General Lee supposing this to be an attempt upon Richmond itself, started a good many troops northward from Petersburg, our brigade among the number. General Grant quickly took advantage of this depletion to spring a mine (July 30th), which he had prepared under a salient in our lines in front of Petersburg, and to follow this with an assaulting column, which was to break through in the confusion and capture the city. In this he would probably have succeeded but for the bungling way in which the assault was managed. As it was, the mine proved a slaughter-pen for the assailants. Some indecisive fighting was done on the north side, and then, when Grant’s real object was uncovered and frustrated, the troops of both armies returned to Petersburg.
Except this assault, no other was seriously attempted against the intrenched lines immediately around Petersburg until the end, and the active operations of the ensuing nine months consisted of repeated efforts on Grant’s part to extend his line to the left and get possession of the railroads, and on Lee’s part to prevent it and to punish him for attempting it. Inch by inch Grant did gain ground until he planted himself across the Weldon Railroad, which he also several times cut south of us, chiefly by cavalry raids. In these operations, Hill’s Corps being on the right of our line, MacRae’s Brigade was frequently called to take a part, alternating these field operations with service in the trenches, so that we were almost continuously under fire. We will mention only the principal actions, as far as we can remember them, in which the Eleventh was engaged.
Warren’s (Fifth Corps) took possession of the Weldon Railroad on the 18th of August , and attempts to dislodge him brought on a number of sanguinary engagements with A. P. Hill’s Corps, in one of which (19th) Hill captured two thousand and seven hundred prisoners. Our brigade was not in this battle. A combined attack on Warren’s fortifications on the railroad was made on the morning of the 21st by our brigade and General Ransom’s, with a force of artillery, making a demonstration down the railroad in his front, while the real attack was to be made by a larger force under General Mahone on his left flank. It did not succeed. We lay between our batteries (thirty pieces) and theirs during the artillery duel which opened the ball, and came in for some pretty severe shelling. We then charged, driving in their pickets and advanced line, and lay down under cover of a ravine quite close up to their works, awaiting the signal of Mahone’s success to rush in. Mahone’s attack failed, and we lay low till night enabled us to withdraw under cover of darkness. We lost some men killed and a number wounded, and if Warren had known how few we were in his front, and had sent out an adequate force, he might have captured the most of these two brigades, isolated as we were.
On the afternoon of the 25th [of August 1864] our brigade and Cooke’s, with Lane’s, attacked Hancock’s Corps well intrenched at Reams’ Station, a previous charge by other troops having been repulsed. We carried their works handsomely, capturing two thousand prisoners and nine pieces of artillery. Hancock retired during the night and we returned to Petersburg. Our loss was considerable, including Lieutenant-Colonel [Francis W.] Bird, killed, after which, to the close of the war, the regiment had but one field officer. The ranking captains entitled to the positions of Lieutenant-Colonel and Major were prisoners at Johnson’s Island. This law of succession by seniority, customary and perhaps the best under ordinary circumstances, worked very great injury to many regiments situated as ours was. As has been mentioned, the Eleventh most of the time after Gettysburg had but one field officer, and from September, 30, 1864, to the fall of Petersburg, during which time Colonel [William J.] Martin was off duty from a desperate wound, it had none at all. That it maintained its efficiency under such adverse circumstances, speaks volumes for the morale of its men and for the training which it had in the earlier part of the war.
On 30th September a movement was made by the Fifth and Ninth Corps (Warren’s and Parke’s), of two divisions each, to turn our right and incidentally to prevent troops being sent from our army to the north side of the James, where Grant was projecting important operations. This was met by a counter movement of Heth’s Division to the right, and in the afternoon he attacked Parke near the Pegram house and forced him back a considerable distance until night put a stop to the fighting. During the course of this advance a considerable body of troops appeared on our right and bore down on our flank, occupied by MacRae’s Brigade. The situation was critical. There was no time to ask for orders, and without orders Colonel [William J.] Martin at once caused his own regiment [11th North Carolina] and the one next to it, the Fifty-second [North Carolina], probably, occupying the extreme right of our line, which was already being thrown into disorder, to change front to the right and charge the Federal flanking party. They were completely routed and four hundred prisoners captured, more prisoners than we had men in the two regiments. We then returned to the brigade, and Colonel Martin was in the act, about dark, of reforming the line, when he was struck with a shell which carried away a large slice of his left thigh. He was with difficulty carried off the field in a blanket, and neither he nor the surgeons of the field hospital expected that he would recover; but he did after so long a time, and rejoined the regiment the night before the lines were broken at Petersburg, the wound still not completely healed. In consequence of this protracted absence he has no personal knowledge of the operations in which the regiment was engaged from October 1, 1864, to April 2, 1865.
On the 1st and 2d of October the movement above referred to, of the enemy against our right, was kept up, and the brigade was more or less seriously engaged over several miles of territory outside our lines. As the result of the movement the Federal intrenchments were considerably extended on their left.
On 27th October  another movement to the left, with the Southside Railroad as the objective point, was made by the Army of the Potomac, with the whole or the most of the Second, Fifth and Ninth Corps. The Fifth and Ninth found our works in their front so strong that they did not seriously attempt to carry them; but Hancock, to the left of the Fifth and Ninth, attacked our right impetuously, yet without success. He was then in turn attacked by Hill, and a hotly contested but indecisive battle was fought in the open field at Burgess’ Mill. In the night the Federals returned to their original lines and we afterwards returned to ours. From then until the close of the year the Eleventh [North Carolina] was continuously on duty and daily (and nightly, too) under fire, but in no important engagement.
Both armies remained quiet during January, 1865, but with February Grant resumed the anaconda process of enveloping Petersburg, preparatory to swallowing it and Lee’s army. On 5th February the Second and Fifth Corps, with a division of cavalry, moved out to Hatcher’s Run, and in the afternoon parts of the Sixth and Ninth Corps were ordered up to re-inforce them. This movement was resisted by Hill’s Corps and parts of Longstreet’s, Heth’s Division attacking Humphrey’s (Second Corps), and subsequently the whole corps participating. Nothing was accomplished. Fighting was resumed on the 6th and 7th, and Hill gained some advantage in the afternoon of the 6th by defeating, with heavy loss, Warren’s Fifth Corps. But they brought up fresh troops, and our victory was a barren one, the Federals finally holding Hatcher’s Run.
Another lull now followed until 25th March, when General Lee, with Gordon’s Division, made an assault on Fort Steadman [sic, Stedman] (Hare’s Hill), on the Federal right, and carried it handsomely, with capture of prisoners and guns. But our army was now so attenuated that we could not hold any ground we gained or follow up any victory, while the Federals could pour in fresh troops to retrieve their disasters; so the fort was soon retaken, and Grant made a counter demonstration along his lines. There was some severe fighting on our right, in which MacRae’s Brigade was engaged. Nothing was accomplished on either side.
Meanwhille Grant had been preparing his army for a final coup de main, withdrawing troops from the north side of the James and from the intrenehments on the right of his line at Petersburg, concentrating them in the rear of his left near Hatcher’s Run. His programme was to bear down on our right with crushing force and, in case Lee re-inforced his right with troops from the trenches at Petersburg, to assault the weakened lines at any practicable point and carry them. The plan was a complete success. Lee did carry every available soldier to the right, and some heavy fighting, with varying fortune, was done there, beginning March 29th and culminating in the battle of Five Forks, April 1st, in which last battle our troops (Pickett’s Division and our cavalry corps under Fitz Lee) were disastrously defeated at the hands of Sheridan’s Cavalry and Warren’s Fifth Corps of Infantry. On the morning of April 2d, at 4 o’clock, our attenuated lines near Petersburg were assaulted by Generals Wright and Parke (Sixth and Ninth Corps), previously massed in front of their works, and so near to ours that they could reach them in a few steps, and almost before their approach was known. Wright’s Corps carried the works in his front, which would have been impregnable if defended by any adequate force, but which in fact were occupied by a mere skirmish line. The Eleventh [North Carolina], and the Twenty-sixth North Carolina were among the troops in trenches (the rest of the brigade having gone to the right), and the men were placed five or six feet apart. Breaking through the line at the point of assault, the Federals swung around to the left and swept down the trenches, turning our own artillery against us as it was captured. At the same time General Parke, with the Ninth Corps, carried the first line of our works in his front nearer to Petersburg, but here encountered an inner line of fortifications which he failed to carry, though he afterwards did so when reinforced by other troops. Our lines being thus cut in two, and the troops on Hatcher’s Run cut off from those at Petersburg, General Lee evacuated Petersburg on the night of April 2-3, 1865] and undertook to re-assemble his army on the Danville Railroad.
It was not to be. Grant flanked him and dogged his rear during all the dreary retreat, ending with the surrender, April 9th, of the remnant of Lee’s army at Appomattox Court House. During this retreat MacRae’s Brigade was often called upon for service, which it rendered with alacrity if not with hopefulness.
On 8th April the brigade formed the rear-guard of the army. Formed in a triangle across the road, the men six feet apart, the rear angle resting on the road. From this position it was relieved by Mahone’s men and taken at doublequick, with the remainder of Heth’s Division, to protect the artillery stalled in the mud and menaced by a large force of cavalry. The division witnessed a cavalry charge that seemed to be bloody and terrific, but the retreat of the Federals disclosed the fact that although the two bodies of cavalry had violently assaulted each other with sword and pistol, the only man killed on the field was a Confederate lieutenant, whose head was shot off by our own guns.
On the night of 7th April, in a consultation of the officers of the Eleventh Regiment, Captain [Edward R.] Outlaw [one of the writers of this article], of Company C, was advised to take charge of the flag and see that it was not lost. It was removed from the staff, the silk cover replaced, and during the 8th of April it was not unfurled and no one knew but that the flag was on the staff. When General Lee rode to the front and through the lines to meet General Grant, every one knew that the hour of surrender had come. The officers present with the regiment at once retired to a secluded thicket, and raking up a pile of twigs and leaves, committed the flag to the flames. Before burning it, Captains Outlaw, and James]. M. Young tore out pieces of each color. Sincere tears have often been shed around funeral pyres, but never more bitter and sorrowful tears bedewed any ashes than were shed over their dead flag. It had been given by the Legislature of North Carolina to the Bethel Regiment, and then committed to the keeping of the Eleventh. It had waved over it in triumph on many a bloody field. It had never been dishonored and they could not bear to see it the trophy of an enemy.
Heth’s Division surrendered a total of one thousand five hundred and seventy-two officers and men and our brigade a total of four hundred and forty-two. The exact number of the Eleventh [North Carolina] at the surrender is not recorded. It was doubtless less than one hundred. Whatever it was, Colonel Martin had the melancholy satisfaction of signing their paroles, and the gallant regiment ceased to exist. Different parties took different routes to their desolate homes, and we bade each other a sad, in many cases a tearful, farewell.
Davidson College, N. C. W[illiam]. J. MARTIN,
Quitsna, N. C. E[dward]. R. Outlaw.1
- Clark, Walter. Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-’65, Volume 1 (Nash Brothers: 1901), pp. 596-604 ↩
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