CLARK NC: 13th 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.
SOPO Editor’s Note: The author of the first portion of this account, Rowland Williams, writes with an astonishing level of cloudiness and confusion the likes of which I’ve not yet encountered. He rarely uses dates, and when he DOES use dates, they’re often incorrect or off by a few days. As a result, I’ve personally read this account no less than ten times, trying to match up the author’s account with the actions of the Siege of Petersburg. I *think* I’ve correctly identified most of the actions Williams is writing about, but even now I’m not positive. If you can help shed more light, please use the Contact button at the top of this page.
Next morning we found that Grant had pushed on. We side-tracked him on, and on to Cold Harbor. I think the Thirteenth [North Carolina] got into position in that engagement not more than one-half mile from the place we had fought McClellan’s troops in 1862. We succeeded in holding our position well, notwithstanding we were exposed to a hurricane of cannon, shots and shells. The race for the goal continued hot between Grant and General Lee. Grant’s aim, as every one knows, was to make the touch-down at Richmond, but we tackled him and he went to Petersburg, I think, about the 19th of July [sic, June 15-1864]. During this time I did not get time to change raiment but one time. The Thirteenth [North Carolina] was placed in the fortifications south of Petersburg, to the right of the [Jerusalem Plank?] road, for a few days after the troops had recuperated.
General Lee laid off a new line of defense farther from the city than General Beauregard’s line was. Then for a siege of hard work again. We soon had a strong line of defense and the troops were distributed from near Burgess’ Mill, on the extreme right, thence south of Petersburg, across the Appomattox River and on near Dunlap’s Station, through to Drewry’s Bluff. We were kept on the south side of Petersburg and occupied the works south of Sycamore street, in sight of the city, exactly where the mine was sprung. We staid there and did picket duty in our front and were under a continual fire all the time for some four weeks. General Scales complained to General Lee that his troops ought to be relieved. Howard’s South Carolina was sent to relieve Scales. The Thirteenth was then sent north of Petersburg to do picket work along the west bank of the river. In about twelve days from this time we left the works which were later on blown up. On the Sunday following we were sent back south down the railroad some three miles and attacked the enemy and skirmished all day. Yancy Cummings, of my company, was killed and several others wounded.1
August 19th  [sic, probably August 24, 1864] we marched by a circuitous route all night and the next day [August 25, 1864], about twelve o’clock we struck the enemy at Reams’ Station, on the Petersburg & Weldon Railroad. He was strongly fortified along the railroad bed, with a redoubt at the depot, about one hundred and fifty yards on the Weldon end of the road. When we came in sight on the west side of the railroad, it was about nine hundred yards through an open sedge field. Scales’ Brigade was formed and ordered forward. The right of the brigade was protected by some woods. The Thirteenth [North Carolina] Regiment’s position being in the open, it was ordered that a good, strong skirmish line be sent forward to hold the enemy while the main column could advance. The writer [Rowland S. Williams] was called out to make the advance. I asked to be allowed to take my company [Co. I], as there was no other officer with it, and besides that, I knew my men and they knew me. The detail for the brigade was ordered out. I was in command of the Thirteenth’s detail, my company. Lieutenant-Colonel [E.] Benton Withers was in command of the brigade detail. The skirmishers advanced under a heavy fire. We dashed through the old field, the last one hundred yards being through a flat land which had been cleared the winter before. The brush lay loose all over the ground, which made it very difficult to get through. I do not think we were more than five minutes getting within eighty-five yards of the works. We poured in lead and kept their heads down—kept the gunners from using their cannon. The right wing of the brigade met with such obstacles that they failed to come up in time to keep the enemy from enfilading the Thirteenth in the old field, so this charge failed to be a success. I was recalled with my company. [Division commander] General [Cadmus M.] Wilcox came along and ordered us in again. This time we rushed through the old field again for our first position and soon we were within forty yards of the works and about one hundred yards to the right of the burned depot. We made it so hot for them in the redoubt that the gunners left their guns. If the old Thirteenth had been up then we could have captured the four pieces very easily. I looked, and, as before, they were kept back by the enemy’s heavy guns above the depot. As the enemy ran out of the redoubt, W. D. Powers, a nice young man from Raleigh, one of my recruits, called to me, and said: “Look, is not that General Hancock?” I looked, and said: “Yes; drop him off.” He stepped out from behind a large oak which we were sheltering behind and raised his rifle. Just at that instant his gun dropped from his hand, and he said: “l am wounded.” The ball had nearly cut off his left thumb and went through his right shoulder. About this time we were signaled to fall back, to the regiment again.
[SOPO Editor’s Note: Williams is describing things out of order, perhaps due to a faulty memory. The paragraphs above discuss the August 25, 1864 Battle of Ream’s Station, while the paragraphs below discuss what seems to be the August 21, 1864 fighting at Globe Tavern. Hopefully this comment prevents readers from becoming too confused. I still have work to do to sort this out.]
It was August the 21st , and I felt that I would melt. After a short rest we were sent forward through the woods immediately in front of the burned depot, where another strong redoubt was built. As we advanced our skirmish line we met a strong skirmish line in the woods which the enemy had advanced to meet us. We charged them, Captain [John D.] Young’s battalion of sharp-shooters [picked men from Scales’ Brigade] being on our right. We all charged at the same time and got near enough to reconnoiter their position. Lieutenant-Colonel Withers, who was still in command of the brigade detail, hurried back to report, Young’s sharp-shooters were compelled to withdraw southward, which left a gap in the skirmish line. The enemy took advantage of this, rushed a heavy skirmish line through the gap and swung around behind the Thirteenth’s detail. It was with considerable difficulty that I got out with my company. We made a left flank move and returned safe without the loss of a single man. When I reached my command Colonel [Joseph H.] Hyman said that he made sure that my whole company were prisoners. General Wilcox came riding up to us in the pine thicket and told General Scales that he must take his brigade in column instead of in line and go down this old road, which ran in rather a left-oblique than a direct course. It was after sundown and a very angry thunder-cloud behind us. We went down the old road to within about eighty paces, where the old Thirteenth, which was in front (or at the head of the column) when Colonel Hyman gave the command “Battalion, right half-wheel into line; double-quick!” swung around and hit the enemy’s works. The enemy was so surprised that he scarcely made any resistance. It was the work of but a few moments. The Sixteenth struck the redoubt on our left and captured the cannon; the Thirteenth captured three brass pieces in its front, and we took the line from the depot as far as we had troops. It was said at that time we took thirteen cannon and sixteen hundred prisoners. We fell back to the works that night near Petersburg through the rain and brought all safely in. We staid there in the works, I think, until September.
General Wilcox got permission [when?] to take his division down the railroad some two and a half miles, with a view of turning the enemy’s flank. The writer was again sent out with a heavy skirmish line, with orders from General Scales to deploy my men and advance as rapidly as possible, that he was going to march his brigade in column down the road until I ran into the enemy. We were then on the left of the railroad and advancing east. I obeyed orders and pushed my skirmishers through the thicket and brush about a mile and a half. Below there I saw the head of the column in sight behind us. I pushed on down and it seemed all the time to get lower and lower. Finally I found some meadow land with a straight ditch. I jumped into it and kept down it, as it was leading in the direction I wanted to go. I hoped to find water, for it was very warm and I was very thirsty. I ran on a Yankee down there on his knees and elbows in the ditch. I made him get up and tried to make him tell me where his troops were, but not a word could I get from him. It was not long that I needed him to tell me, for my skirmish line ran into them beyond the meadow land on the brow of a ridge. They opened fire on my little band from their works before we knew they were there. We poured it into them and crept up to within ninety yards, where we waited and continued to annoy them all we could, looking every minute for the brigade. Finally night came, and no column yet. I slipped along my line to the extreme left, which rested on the country road that led from Petersburg, and looked for our troops to come down. I heard a horse coming down from towards Petersburg in a lope. I did not know whether it was friend or foe, but I waited for him to advance within ten paces, when I halted him. He seemed very much excited, as he could not see who I was; neither could I tell who he was, but I had the drop on him. I called for him to advance and surrender, for I was sure that he was a Yankee. He came up to me, and I asked him in a low tone of voice what command he was of. He said Scales’ Brigade, North Carolina Troops. He still thought that I was a Yankee. He came nearer to me, and I asked him what he was doing down there. He said General Scales sent him to withdraw a skirmish line that he sent down that day. I then told him I was the man he was looking for. He told me that he must hurry back, and told me to keep on up the road until I struck the railroad and then I would be all right, but added that the enemy were very near the road in two places where the road curved in towards their works. I pushed on; not a word was spoken. I placed my men in single file and told them to trail arms and to keep in touch of each other and we would come out or be found trying. We arrived at Petersburg trenches about one o’clock at night, hungry, tired and mad. We found that the enemy on the south side saw Wilcox’s Division moving around and had sent troops from the works on the south side to cut him off. Scales’ Brigade, the Thirteenth, and all, in fact, had to turn and fight their way back to Petersburg or be captured. Had it not been for Rodes’ Division in the works at Petersburg, which advanced in the rear of the Union troops that attacked Wilcox, I doubt very much whether the whole of them had not been captured. Then it was plain how it was that no relief came to me seven miles down in the pine woods. This is the last engagement the Thirteenth was in during the year 1864, except now and then a picket skirmish. The Thirteenth was quartered behind the works on a steep hillside in the coldest place I ever saw. Wood was some thousand yards in front of our line, south of the works, and the men had to carry all the wood they burned, except what they could borrow from the artillerymen—at night—just above us. They hauled theirs, and the boys thought it no harm to borrow from their neighbors.
During the month of March, 1865, the enemy extended his line to our right in the direction of Burgess’ Mill. I was on picket that day [probably March 29, 1865]. All day, from about 12 M[eridian, aka Noon]., I heard heavy firing on my right. When I returned I found that the Thirteenth had been fighting, with the rest of the brigade, all the day previous and had driven the enemy off. Within a few days, I think it was about the first of April [probably the evening of March 30, 1865], I was again in front on picket. I was relieved at dark and returned to the line, where I found the regiment ready to march. Wilcox’s Division marched out to Burgess’ Mill, crossed the creek and took position, at least the Thirteenth did, on the ridge beyond the mill, which ran parallel with the creek [definitely on March 31, 1865]. There was a splendid line of fortifications, with good, strong redoubts for the cannon. Down south of them ran a small branch, between the main line and which was a line of rifle-pits on a parallel line with the work. These pits had been occupied by cavalry previous to this. Colonel [Joseph H.] Hyman called the writer, who before this had been promoted to Captain of Company I, to take his company and advance across the branch, go on up the hill two hundred yards to the edge of the pine woods and there halt and send out videttes. I went forward as ordered and sent the videttes. They went but a short distance before they turned and came running to me and reported the woods alive with the Blues. I had heard them telling their men to keep dressed. We about-faced and double-quicked back down to the branch. As we were nearing the rifle-pits the enemy had emerged from the woods and opened fire on us. By the time we got to the pits the lead was coming in showers. The pits were on a hill-side and were filled with water—it was amusing to hear the men jumping into those pits of water like frogs. The Thirteenth was advanced to the pits to re-inforce us. Men were baling out water with their hands and tin plates and anything they could. I was standing by the side of a pit when one of the men said: “I wish you would come in.” I told him I would step and get an old shovel I saw up the hill. Before I could get it and return one bullet was sent through my hat, another through the blankets around my neck and one hit my shoe. We flirted out the water with the shovel and got down to business. One skirmisher had a position at the edge of the woods behind a large stump, where he could put a bullet into my pit whenever he saw a hat above it. I took the sergeant’s rifle, rested it over the bank of the pit, then took off my hat and slipped it up to my right. He raised up to his knees to shoot at the hat, thinking it was a man’s head. I turned loose on him and he fell over, and I am sure he could have been heard yelling half a mile. It proved to be rather a costly shot, for several of the regiment jumped up and cheered and the whole Union line sent in a volley. James Bartlett, of Company B, and Bob Graham, of Company D, were killed; Robert Sergent, of Company D, and others were wounded. We were withdrawn soon after to the main line.
About 2 o’clock P. M. the skirmish line was withdrawn from the rifle-pits to the works. Down the hill the enemy came, with colors flying, but not a gun was fired at him until he crossed the branch, the second line emerging from the woods. As the first line cleared the branch and started to the works, Colonel [Joseph H.] Hyman gave orders to commence firing. The boys poured in lead and the front line threw down their guns and came running in with their hands up. We ceased firing on them, but the second line behind them fired and kept firing until the prisoners were over the works. I did not know whether they were trying to kill their men for surrendering or whether they thought they could pick off some of us who were in view of them. The remainder of the day and the next everything was quiet, but the second morning after [April 2, 1865], or during the night before [April 1, 1865], the shelling began all along the line. From the mill as far back as could be seen or heard the bombs were being passed from each line, all kinds from a six-pounder to the largest. Mortar-shells were bursting in every direction and the flashes were so fast that it kept the skies lighted up as bright as an aurora borealis. Indeed, it made one feel that judgment-day was at hand, and so it was with many a poor soul. Early next morning [April 2, 1865] we could hear the keen cracking of muskets away over in the direction of Petersburg. Nearer and nearer it came—a storm of thunder and lightning by shells and a hail-storm of rifle bullets. Finally the blue clouds of Union soldiers burst through the woods, shooting and charging. Lee’s lines were turned!2
I am not able to say in what direction we traveled for quite a while, but we struck the Lynchburg and Petersburg canal, followed up it quite a while and continued on in the direction of Amelia Court House. We were resting near the railroad and waiting, for some cause, when a courier brought word that the Yankee cavalry had captured our entire train of wagons. Wilcox’s Division was run three miles across a creek. A short distance beyond we found in a long lane team after team, one after another, with the wagons on fire and the contents burning up; horses pawing, stamping and neighing in the most pitiful manner—some jammed so close to other wagons that their manes and tails were singed off and looked like rats; ordnance burning and cracking and provisions in the wagons burning up. As we ran by one wagon loaded with bacon hams one of my company stuck his bayonet into a ham that was flaming and ran on till it went out. After trimming the charr off, he gave me a slice, which I thought the best meat I ever ate—and it was the last meat I had until three days after the surrender.
From the time our trains were destroyed there was no hope for the army of Lee—no rest for the men night or day. The Thirteenth [North Carolina] was bringing up the rear. As we came through Farmville, Va., the mountain-like hills north and west of the town seemed to be lined with artillery. The enemy had pressed forward on all roads and was ready to impede Lee’s retreat. It rained bomb-shells through the street. The men of the town could be seen, as we rushed through, in ditches, under bridges and anywhere to hide from the shot and shells from the enemy’s cannon from the heights above. We rushed through the town, crossed a bridge that spanned a small stream on the south side and pushed up a long and tiresome hill which curved slightly to the right. As we reached the top of the hill, in a level old sedge field, we found General R. E. Lee dismounted and forming a line of battle to charge a body of Federal cavalry which was formed on our right. Scales’ Brigade, with the Thirteenth in front that day, was quickly formed and, dashing forward, drove the cavalry off. This was the 7th day of April and the last time I saw General Lee until we were passing at a double-quick down a hill toward a creek a mile or more from Appomattox Court House. General Lee was standing under an apple-tree, looking beyond the creek, where a battle was raging. As I remember, it was General Gordon, of Georgia, who was attacking the enemy, who during the previous night had formed a cordon all around us. As above stated, Wilcox’s Division was rushed down the hill, and Scales’ Brigade and the Thirteenth were about the center of the column. As we went down the hill we met some four or five brass cannon and a number of prisoners that had been taken by our troops in the first charge that morning. We cheered them as they passed us under guard. At the creek we saw a fine-looking U. S. officer with an escort of Confederate officers and a small white flag. As they passed Colonel Hyman one of them asked: “Can you tell me where we can find General Lee?” The answer was that he was standing under an apple-tree as we came down. They dashed on in the direction stated. We ran through a creek and were beginning to meet some whistling bullets, when all of a sudden the firing ceased. Then a few shots were heard again. Some one in the battle line in front yelled out and said: “I say cease firing; the next man that fires a shot I will have him killed.” One of the Thirteenth said: “There now, I bet that Lee has surrendered.” Colonel Joe Hyman turned around and said: “If you say that again I will shoot you.” We stood there a few minutes and were about-faced, marched back across the creek and stacked arms in a field on the road near the apple-tree. As we marched back up the hill we met General Lee and some of his staff and the U. S. officer, who, we learned, was’General Custer. This was Sunday morning, April 9, 1865. It was about 1 or 2 o’clock when it was read out all through the army that Lee had surrendered.
The next thing was, what were men to do for rations? But Fitz Hugh Lee, not knowing what was going on at the Court’ House, had fallen on the Federal wagons and had given them the same treatment that ours had met three days previous; so we got -no rations and had to starve on till Wednesday. The Thirteenth marched over to the Court House, stacked arms in the presence of our victors, returned to the same camp, there received our paroles, bade farewell to many of our comrades that marched in different directions from ours and broke camp for our respective homes. I took Company I, the company that four years before, lacking thirteen days, I had joined as a private under Captain Thomas Settle at New Bethel Cross Roads in Rockingham county, N. C. I arrived at Danville Saturday evening about 2 o’clock, and found that late that evening a freight train would go up towards Reidsville, so I rested and waited. When the train got ready to pull out I ordered my men (seventeen only) to crawl on top. We spread out blankets and slept till we reached Reidsville at 12 o’clock p. M. There we were waked up and got off. I dismissed old Company I at the depot and they all pulled out in their own way for their homes. The writer arrived at home about 2 p. M., April 16th, Easter Sunday.
The foregoing sketch has been written entirely from memory, but the most of it was so indelibly imprinted on my mind that I feel that were I permitted to live a thousand years that the horrible scenes of the many battles in which the Thirteenth participated could never be eliminated from my mind. In conclusion, permit me to say that if I have written a single error it is of my mind and not of my heart. I now bid you all adieu.
R[owland]. S. Williams.3
ADDITIONAL SKETCH THIRTEENTH REGIMENT.
By T[aylor]. L. Rawley.
The regiment was engaged in all the skirmishes and battles from Spottsylvania Court House to Petersburg, crossing the James River at Drewry’s Bluff on a pontoon-bridge, going into Petersburg on the train under fire of the enemy’s batteries on the day General Grant got inside the corporate limits [June 18, 1864?]. The regiment occupied its position in line defending the city until August 31st [sic, August 25, 1864], when it went down to Reams’ Station on the Petersburg & Weldon Railroad, where the enemy had cut the road and intrenched themselves. It was engaged in that sharp and decisive battle in which we captured more than two thousand prisoners and a battery of artillery, completely routing the enemy.
This regiment continued on duty around Petersburg during the winter until Grant’s lines were extended far to the south. On March 31st  the regiment was carried to Hatcher’s Run, about eight miles from the city on the Boydton plank-road, where it aided in holding the enemy in check.
On that memorable Sunday morning, April 2d , the enemy succeeded in breaking General Lee’s lines between this point and Petersburg, necessitating the falling back of the regiment to avoid capture. It was here that that gallant and brave officer, Lieutenant-Colonel E. B[enton]. Withers, in running the gauntlet, came so near being captured. Being halted by a blue-jacket with a musket at a distance of about fifty paces, with the command, “Stop, you d—– rebel!” he replied, “Kiss my foot, you old rascal!” and but for a failure of the musket to fire one of the best men in the land might have “fallen asleep.” The regiment had a sharp engagement with the enemy about noon of this day, losing several good men, but checking this advance. It was for several days under almost continuous fire in covering General Lee’s retreat.
On Sunday morning, April 9th, about 9 o’clock, as the regiment was forming line of battle in plain view of the enemy, the command passed down the line, “Cease firing!” and for the first time in four years was such a command ever heard or heeded with an enemy in sight.
On Wednesday, April 12th, at 2 o’clock P. M., in the historic village of Appomattox Court House, Va., in front of a Federal brigade standing at present arms, the Thirteenth Regiment North Carolina Troops stacked its full quota of muskets, thus helping to make up a greater total from North Carolina than from the remainder of General Lee’s army.
T[aylor]. L. Rawley.4
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The article’s author, Rowland S. Williams, writes with amazing fuzziness in this paragraph. He leaves out dates entirely, and his descriptions of fighting are so vague as to be almost worthless. I believe the last part of this paragraph probably refers to the August 21, 1864 fighting at the Battle of Globe Tavern, but I’m not 100% sure. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Grant’s Ninth Offensive against Petersburg kicked off on March 29, 1865. Grant sent Fifth Corps and Sheridan’s cavalry west of Hatcher’s Run to further stretch the Confederate defenses. After Sheridan turned Lee’s Right at Five Forks on April 1, 1865, the Union Sixth Corps and others delivered the coup de grace closer to Petersburg on April 2 at the Third Battle of Petersburg. It seems like the author is discussing the March 31, 1865 Battle of White Oak Road early in this recollection, and the April 2, 1865 Third Battle of Petersburg in the second half. ↩
- Clark, Walter. Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-’65, Volume 1 (Nash Brothers: 1901), pp. 678-687 ↩
- Clark, Walter. Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-’65, Volume 1 (Nash Brothers: 1901), pp. 702-703 ↩
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