Rebel Units and their Commanders at the Battle of Hatcher’s Run: February 5-7, 1865

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SOPO Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of five guest posts by Dr. Nigel Lambert, a semi-retired British biochemist with a lifelong interest in the American Civil War.  Nigel has worked closely with Bryce Suderow over the first half of 2021 thoroughly researching the Confederate Order of Battle at the Battle of Hatcher’s Run, February 5-7, 1865.  Read on and you will soon see why this is such a difficult task.  I want to thank Dr. Lambert for his generous decision to publish this series of articles here at the Siege of Petersburg Online.  This article is the copyrighted work of Nigel Lambert and may not be reproduced without his express written consent. All rights reserved.

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Rebel Units and their Commanders at the Battle of Hatcher’s Run: February 5-7th 1865

By Dr Nigel Lambert, May 2021

Introduction

Context to the battle

With the arrival of 1865, the war entered its fifth calendar year and the Rebels’ hope of a separate nation was all but crushed. Since June 1864, the main Rebel army had been besieged around Petersburg, desperately trying to preserve their nearby capital of Richmond. The larger and better resourced Federal army had for months been probing and menacing the Rebel defenses. Despite suffering appalling casualties, the Federals were slowly but surely cutting off the lines of communication and supply to Petersburg; essential for the Rebels to prolong the war. The cold, harsh, winter months brought little

Part of the Federal trenches slowly encircling Petersburg

Newspaper drawing depicting the battle of Hatcher’s Run

respite for either army in their deadly duel. On February 5th 1865, a large Federal cavalry raid, supported by significant numbers of infantry, was launched to sever yet another Rebel supply artery on their western flank. And so, began the three-day battle of Hatcher’s Run. As February 8th dawned, the battle was history. Over 34,000 Federal soldiers and 14,000 Rebel soldiers had fought each other across frozen, swampy, woodlands. The Federals had suffered another 1,539 casualties; the Rebels at least

1,000. The precious Rebel supply route had been saved, but the Federal line had extended a further three miles west; the noose was tightening around Petersburg. Both armies lived to fight another day; but within two months of further carnage, the Rebel capital had fallen and the war was effectively over, as the main Rebel army surrendered at Appomattox1.

This then was the battle of Hatcher’s Run, a relatively small battle towards the end of the Civil War. In the vast and still rapidly expanding literature covering all aspects of the war, this battle seems to have been largely neglected. As of May 2021, there is no book dedicated to the battle. A Gettysburg or Chancellorsville it most certainly was not, but given the numbers of combatants and casualties, it was every bit as large as many well described battles in the Shenandoah Valley, or the battles of Cedar Mountain or Monocacy. Hatcher’s Run usually gets subsumed into broader accounts of the Petersburg Campaign. In the famed four-volume Battles & Leaders text, this deadly three-day fight is consigned to part of a footnote2. What is surprising (and I explore this more in the following articles) is that despite the bitter and intense fighting that occurred on those three February days, even some of the combatants didn’t give the battle any prominence. The Rebel Second Corps under Gen John Gordon were heavily involved in the fighting, but in Gordon’s memoirs there is NO mention of the battle at all3. The 5th North Carolina regiment saw much action in the battle; indeed, its regimental commander was temporarily in charge of a brigade and yet the regiment’s pages in Clark’s five-volume account of North Carolinian regiments in the civil war, make no reference to Hatcher’s Run. Indeed, the regimental account states that they were elsewhere during the 1864 / 65 winter4.

Gen. George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac

Gen. John Gordon, commander of the Rebel Second Corps

To paraphrase Freeman Cleaves in his famous biography of General Meade (the on-field Federal Commander-in-Chief at Hatcher’s Run): “This Battle of Hatcher’s Run finds no conspicuous place in the chronicles of the war ….”5

In contrast, I would support the recent view of the esteemed historians Bearss & Suderow6, who conclude that: “Hatcher’s Run is one of the most fascinating battles of the Petersburg Campaign because there are several important aspects about it, we are unable to fully grasp and understand. There are fewer accounts for this battle than for any other major battles in the Petersburg Campaign”. I believe that the battle features many interesting incidents and characters worthy of our attention. Of the 1,523 Medals of Honor awarded during the entire Civil War, 11 were for actions in this “inconspicuous” battle7. Furthermore, the Hatcher’s Run battlefield was sufficiently well known that it was used as a training ground for American soldiers in both World Wars8.

Dramatis Personae

To understand any battle, one needs to know who was actually present. Although the Federal Order of Battle for Hatcher’s Run is fairly well documented and appears both coherent and consistent across most narratives, reciprocal information for those present in gray, seems less established, with some notable areas of uncertainty.  My following three articles explore which Rebel units and commanders actually took part in the Hatcher’s Run fight, and hopefully help to clarify some of the contradictions in the existing literature.

[SOPO EDITOR’S Note: These article links will work once they go live over the next three Mondays.]

Article 1 – describes the two participating divisions of the Rebel Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia

Article 2 – describes the two participating divisions of the Rebel Third Corps, Army of Northern Virginia

Article 3 – describes the one participating Rebel cavalry division.

By January 1865, the Rebel situation was desperate; fighting units were heavily depleted, many officers had been / were being killed or incapacitated, desertion was rife and supplies compromised. The scale of churn within unit commanders could make it difficult to know who was in command on any given day. Understandably, record keeping was not a priority at the time and what records were taken had a high chance of being destroyed as the infrastructure of the Confederacy collapsed within two months of the Hatcher’s Run battle. The paucity of recorded information regarding those fighting in gray is a salient factor surrounding the struggles to define the Rebel Order of Battle at Hatcher’s Run.

Conventions for labelling units

How the Rebel units were named can sow seeds of confusion. The Federal Army used a simple numerical system, for example: the 4th Brigade of the 3rd Division of the V Corps. The commanders of these units changed over time, but the structural nomenclature remained constant. By contrast, Rebel units were named after commanders, for example: Early’s Division, Mahone’s Division, Pegram’s Brigade. A formal convention was adopted at the time, such that an official division name only changed when a new Major-General took command and similarly, a formal brigade name only changed when a new Brigadier-General took command of the brigade. However, in the latter stages of the war, Rebel officers were being killed or incapacitated faster than replacements could be promoted, hence, it was not uncommon, for someone else to be commanding a “named” unit. For example, at the start of February 1865, John Pegram was commanding “Early’s” Division and John Hoffman was in command of “Pegram’s” Brigade. Soon after the Hatcher’s Run battle for example, one can find clumsily labelled units like: Early’s (Pegram’s) Division commanded by Brig-Gen. Walker, and Walker’s (Stonewall) Brigade commanded by Lt-Col Kasey9. Within the Official Records of the War (O.R.) and for civil war era chroniclers mainly writing for a military audience, it was natural to write about say, Early’s Division at Hatcher’s Run, even though Gen. Early was not present in person; there would normally be a specific qualifier to state who was in command. However, in more modern accounts, aimed for a wider audience, this formal nomenclature is not rigidly employed. One does not see the label “Early’s Division” mentioned in modern accounts of Hatcher’s Run or on battle-maps. If addressed at all, the formal nomenclature is consigned to an “Order of Battle” section. From a modern-day perspective, if one reads an account that repeatedly refers to “Pegram’s Division” and on associated maps there is an icon labelled “Pegram”, the clear assumption is that Pegram was commanding and present in person, unless explicitly told otherwise.

A clear, uncontested, example illustrates the difficulty and how this might trip-up readers. The famed Louisiana Brigade fought at Hatcher’s Run. Its commander was Brig.-Gen. Zebulon York and it was formally referred to as “York’s Brigade”. Soldiers (both blue and gray) writing reports or diaries (for future generations to read) would refer to “York’s Brigade”, “York’s Louisianans,” etc. This is how the brigade is labelled in the O.R. Reading such eye-witness accounts today, one may well conclude that Gen. York was in the fight at Hatcher’s Run. In reality, Gen. York was not present at the battle. He never fully recovered from a wound received in September 1864 and never led the brigade again; instead, brigade command was given to Col. William Peck in December 1864. It was Peck who led the brigade at Hatcher’s Run less than two months later10. However, because he was not a Brig-General, the brigade was still called York’s Brigade. Modern acclaimed accounts of the battle freely discuss Peck’s Brigade. This

issue is especially pertinent for battle-maps, which serve as condensed visual-aids for the reader. No modern battle-map of Hatcher’s Run has a Rebel brigade icon labelled “York”; they are all labelled “Peck”; although by formal definition it was York’s Brigade.

Gen. Zebulon York, former commander of the Louisiana Brigade

Post-war photo of Gen. William Peck. As a Colonel, he led the Louisiana Brigade at Hatcher’s Run.

For most readers of modern, renowned text-books, or for those visiting the actual battlefield reading site-boards, it would seem rather incongruous to have York’s name attached to a brigade icon on a map when he was nowhere near the battle. Now imagine if the story surrounding Brig-Gen York’s absence was not widely known and York’s name did commonly appear in most modern texts and maps, readers could easily assume that York was in command in person at the battle and how this perception could echo down the generations. In truth, several Rebel commanders whose names defined particular units, were absent (for various reasons) at the battle of Hatcher’s Run. Some of these absences (like York’s) are known to historians and explanations are explicitly provided. However, as the following articles reveal, some absences are less well known and have created uncertainties as to who actually was commanding particular units at the battle.

In my articles, I use the formal convention to name the Rebel units, but I clearly highlight and discuss who was actually in command at the battle. The regimental composition of each Rebel brigade at Hatcher’s Run is with a few exceptions consistent across narratives and less contentious. I have taken the information on Hawks’ “The Civil War in the East” database (see below) as the foundation for my regimental structure and their commanders. This vast public-access resource is based upon the O.R. and in particular the end-of-month Inspection Reports found within. At this late stage of the war, some of the Rebel regiments only comprised a few dozen men; with

so much illness and absence during a harsh winter, it could be ad hoc as to who was formally in command on any given day. Therefore, assigning an accurate command structure is a challenge. Although my focus is those three fateful February days at Hatcher’s Run, I do where appropriate, describe events prior to and just following this time-window, to develop a particular issue or to provide relevant context.

Sources explored

The American Civil war is one of the most written about historical topics, hence there is no shortage of possible sources, however, as stated above, information regarding the battle of Hatcher’s Run is rather diffuse. Each of my articles comes with detailed notes. For brevity the most common references I use, are presented in the “notes” as “bold” abbreviations. Below is a selection of the resources I employed.

 

Books on the Petersburg Campaign

There are many texts covering the Petersburg Campaign as a whole, some have a chapter / section covering the battle of Hatcher’s Run and many include battle-maps. Here is selection of some of the most cited books:

Bearss – Ed Bearss & Bryce Suderow (2020) “The Petersburg Campaign, Vol 2: The Western Front Battles, September 1864 – April 1865”, Chap 3, p 165-240. These 75 pages probably represent the longest and most detailed account of the battle. Bearss is a legendary civil war historian, who sadly passed away in the year this book was published. Unsurprisingly, this account is richly sourced with detailed maps and engagingly written.

Trudeau – Noah Trudeau (1991) “The Last Citadel: Petersburg, Virginia June 1864 -April 1865”. Chapter 14 contains a section p312-322 covering the battle, albeit in far less detail than Bearss. What Trudeau does include however, is an “Organization of Forces” section at the back of the text. This is split into two time periods: June15th 1864 – December 2nd 1864 and of especial relevance to my articles: December 3rd 1864 – April 3rd 1865. He lists the names of unit commanders from Army to brigade level. This is a frequently cited book from a well-respected historian.

John Horn (1993) “The Petersburg Campaign” in which chapter 10 “The Battle of Hatcher’s Run” p199 – 207, provides a relatively brief account of the action. Coincidentally, on the back cover are positive endorsements from Ed Bearss and Noah Trudeau. At the end of this book too is an “Order of Battle” section which lists the names of commanders from Army to brigade level. The names of the regiments in each brigade are also included. However, this information is only given for the start (June 1864) and end (April 1865) of the Petersburg campaign, so is of limited use to my articles.

John Maass (2015) “The Petersburg and Appomattox Campaigns 1864-65” in which there is a brief section on the battle p40-42.

Earl Hess (2009) “In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications & Confederate Defeat”, p228-233 provides a standard account of the battle.

A. Wilson Greene (2008) “The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion”, p99-106 provide a solid account of the battle and is frequently cited.

Perry Jamieson (2015) “Spring 1865: The Closing Campaigns of the Civil War”, p84-90 provides a good account of the battle with an informative map.

The first three books in particular, are well researched and provide copious details of the resources used. The O.R. are unsurprisingly a major staple of the information presented. All three are written by leading civil war authors and consequently their words / maps and ideas have been frequently cited by others creating an echo-chamber of “facts”. Trudeau makes a telling statement right at the end of his acknowledgements section (p484) when he writes “…… it was …. ultimately my call when it came down to deciding which of two (or more!) conflicting sources to believe. For all the choices made – and there were many – I bear full responsibility” This often-unspoken reality is a burden that all historical researchers bare.

Primary Source Official Reports

Officially titled, “The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies”, the O.R. are compiled in 127 volumes and were published between 1881 and 1901. As a primary source this is the most complete and impartial documentation of the war. However, the accounts were not edited for accuracy and due to space limitations, sometimes only excerpts of reports were included. A further 100 volume “Supplement to the O.R.”, was published between 1994 – 1999 by Broadfoot Publishing Company under the editorship of Janet Hewett. Noah Trudeau (see above) and Art Bergeron (see below) were contributing editors to the venture.

National Archives and Records Administration, (NARA) 1973, American Civil War. These end-of-month “Inspection Reports and Related Records Received by the Inspection Branch in the Confederate Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office”. They take the form of photographs of microfilm rolls of the original documents – National Archives and Records Administration. They provide a one-day snap-shot of who was present and absent in each Rebel regiment and an appraisal of resources and fighting capabilities. Many have faded over time and are hard to read. Summaries of some of these Inspection Reports (including those for the end of January 1865; a week before the battle of Hatcher’s Run) are found within the O.R.

Brigade / Regimental Accounts

There are many texts based upon the military units that fought at Hatcher’s Run. Within the whole civil war experience of a given outfit, the events of Feb 5-7th usually get scant coverage; it was not Gettysburg after all. The odd page or paragraph, the chance anecdote is usually what one finds. I do refer to several such texts, particularly where they shine a light on the whereabouts of particular commanders. What can be surprising are accounts of units that fought at Hatcher’s Run but the action is not covered at all.

Sherrill – Lee Sherrill (2014) “The 21st North Carolina Infantry”. Chapter 45 p412-417 provides a rare detailed account of the battle from a regimental perspective. With National Park collaborations and access to rare family papers, this is an excellent text.

Wooddell – David Wooddell (2015) “Hoffman’s Army: The 31st Virginia Infantry”. The book provides rare details on specific officers and p425-427 includes a basic account of the battle with a map. Col Hoffman and the 31st Va regiment are central actors in the Hatcher’s Run story.

Clark – Walter Clark ed. (1901) Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War, 1861-1865” 5 vols. This is a vast collection of first-hand accounts from most NC regiments about their war experiences. Clark himself was a Lt-Col. of the 70th NC infantry. Despite the large number of “Tar Heel” regiments fighting at Hatcher’s Run, this source intriguingly provides little information on the actual battle.

Samuel Bates (1869) “History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5”. As for Clark above, this is a five-volume anthology of Pennsylvanian regiments during the civil war. Many of these regiments saw action at Hatcher’s Run and there are some interesting accounts of the battle from a Federal perspective.

Valgene L. Dunham (2015) in “Gregory’s New York Brigade: Blue-Collar Reserves in Dusty Blue Jackets”. Chap 6. “Hatcher’s Run II (Dabney’s Mills)” p80-91. This provides an overview of the battle from a Federal perspective and includes a battle-map.

Waters and Edmonds (2013) “A Small but Spartan Band: The Florida Brigade in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia” p173-75. This narrative includes a battle-map and provides a solid account of the complexities surrounding the command of this unit around the time of the battle.

George W. Nichols (1889) “A soldier’s story of his regiment (61st Georgia) and incidentally of the Lawton-Gordon-Evans brigade, Army Northern Virginia” p37, 210-13. This is a very useful account of the battle and key officers in the battle.

Terry Jones (2002) “Lee’s Tigers, The Louisiana Infantry in the Army of Northern Virginia” p220-22. A useful account of the complex organization of this unit at Hatcher’s Run.

Earl Hess (2002) “Lee’s Tar Heels” p281-87, provides an illuminating account of the many regiments from North Carolina who fought at Hatcher’s Run.

W. Thomas Venner (2015) “The 11th North Carolina Infantry in the Civil War: A History and Roster” p195-200. This provides a rare account of the command structure of Gen. MacRae’s Brigade at Hatcher’s Run.

 

Memoirs / Diaries / Biographies

Kyd Douglas – Henry Kyd Douglas (1940) “I Rode with Stonewall”. A highly acclaimed first-hand account from a Rebel combatant. Although Hatcher’s Run is only briefly covered, it nonetheless provides some vital observations.

Valgene Dunham (2013) in “Allegany to Appomattox: The Life and Letters of Private William Whitlock of the 188th New York Volunteers”. An interesting account of someone who was actually killed at Hatcher’s Run.

Robert Grier Stephens ed. (1992), “Clement Anselm Evans, Intrepid Warrior: Clement Anselm Evans, Confederate General from Georgia; Life, Letters, and Diaries of the War Years”. Despite being a central character at the battle these memoirs add very little to our understanding of the fight.

Gen John B. Gordon’s “Reminiscences of the Civil War (2015 ed.)” Chap 26, p245-259. Despite being a Rebel Corp commander at the battle, these memoirs fail to mention the event at all. I add this citation as a reminder that what is unsaid can also provide insights.

Moxley Sorrel (1905) “Recollections of a Confederate Staff Officer. Published posthumously, this is a critically acclaimed and readable memoir, however, it records little information into events of the battle (p284-85).

Newspapers and magazines

Newspapers at the time reported on the battle of Hatcher’s Run, albeit with an understandably Northern or Southern audience in mind. There have been and continue to be magazines published that are dedicated to exploring the Civil War, although surprisingly few features this particular battle.

Bergeron – Art Bergeron (2003) “Three-day Tussle at Hatcher’s Run”, American Civil War Magazine, March, p30-37. This is a rare example of a magazine article dedicated

to the battle, it’s a well-rounded account with detailed maps from a senior historian at the Pamplin Historical Park, Petersburg. This is an expanded version of a magazine article the author wrote in 1998 for Civil War magazine.

 

Internet sources

In our digital age, with Wikipedia, e-libraries, countless civil war period blogs and historical society sites, information is just a click away. All the websites I refer to in these articles were accessed between February 2021 and May 2021. Two sites that I used extensively deserve special mention:

Hawks – Steve Hawks’ “Civil War in the East” (www.civilwarintheeast.com) is an immense database of all Union and Rebel units with commanders down to the regimental level, that fought in the Eastern Theatre. The commands are organized on a monthly basis and the database is easy to navigate. The site also includes pen-pictures of many of the regiments and key officers. It is a true labor of love. The monthly database is mostly populated from the end-of-month Inspection Reports (see above) in the O.R. and the data supplied by Ray Sibley (1996) in “The Confederate Order of Battle, Vol 1”. Significant changes in command structures that took place between end-of-month Inspection Reports are sometimes (but not always) described. This can lead to significant misunderstandings. For example, for “February 1865”, the database has Gen. Joseph Davis commanding Heth’s Division; it is likely that he commanded the division at some point during the month, but not for all of the month, and importantly for these articles, it was Gen. Heth who was in command during the Hatcher’s Run battle of Feb 5-7th 1865.

In my articles I use the Hawks data provided for “January 1865” as a starting point for my regimental command structure. This was usually based on information for the end of January and hence only a week before the battle of Hatcher’s Run. I have then cross-referenced this data with other sources to produce a final command structure. Although I have only deeply interrogated the data pertaining to a few months from this massive data-set, I did find several inconsistencies and typographical errors, so that additional editing of the database may be helpful.

Schulte – Brett Schulte’s “The Siege of Petersburg Online” (www.beyondthecrater.com) is both an extensive and rigorous, online resource for the entire Petersburg Campaign. From a Hatcher’s Run perspective, it includes: a lengthy description of the battle, complete with detailed maps; a comprehensive reference / resource list, and a Union Order of Battle. In addition, each regiment involved in the campaign has its own webpage, which provides information on commanders and combat strength. This information is thoroughly referenced and is largely taken from the O.R. and Ray Sibley

(1996) “The Confederate Order of Battle, Vol 1”. On the whole, this website provides more finely grained information than the Hawks database.

 

With all the above tools at hand, in the following three articles I set out to explore the Rebel units and their commanders who fought at the battle of Hatcher’s Run.

 

Nigel Lambert’s Hatcher’s Run Series:

 

Notes

  1. Trudeau, Bearss, A. Wilson Greene (2008) “The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion”.
  2. R. Johnson & C. Buel (eds) (1956 ed) “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War vol 4” p578.
  3. Gen. John B. Gordon (2015 ed) “Reminiscences of the Civil War”, Chap. 26, p245-259.
  4. Clark, vol 1, p289-90.
  5. F. Cleaves (1980) “Meade of Gettysburg”, p306.
  6. Bearss, p239-40.
  7. The Civil War Index of the Medal of Honor Recipients for the United States Army. Civil War (A – L Index) of the Medal of Honor Recipients for the United States Army
  8. Edward Alexander (2020), “World War II Amphibious Training on the Hatcher’s Run Battlefields”, Emerging Civil War; World War II Amphibious Training on the Hatcher’s Run Battlefields | Emerging Civil War.
  9. William Wyrick (2008) “Lee’s Last Offensive”, Blue & Gray Magazine, vol 25 (1) p15.
  10. Terry Jones (2002) “Lee’s Tigers, The Louisiana Infantry in the Army of Northern Virginia” p220-22.

 

Acknowledgements

The photographs used herein and in my subsequent articles are all classed as “free to share and use” via Microsoft Bing.

In creating these articles, I would like to acknowledge the assistance of several individuals: Mr. Brett Schulte and Mr. Bryce Suderow for their encyclopedic knowledge

of the period, their personal support and for revealing important resources. Among the many individuals at Historical Societies and Civil War websites who have given their time on my behalf I would like to highlight Mr. Alfred Young and Ms. Cheri Todd Molter who provided crucial information for the cavalry article. Finally, I thank my wife Prof. Nathalie Juge for her forensic editing skills and my colleague Dr. Reg Wilson, whose Civil War rifle triggered my fascination with the battle of Hatcher’s Run.

 

About the Author

Photo of Dr. Nigel Lambert at Petersburg National Battlefield

Visiting Petersburg National Park (Oct 2015)

Dr Nigel Lambert is British and lives near Norwich, England. Semi-retired, Nigel is a biochemist by profession, although from the turn of this century he has been involved in health research from a social perspective. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, he has been privileged to visit many of the wonderful battlefields on several occasions. A recent chance encounter with a civil war rifle ignited his interest in the battle of Hatcher’s Run. Surprised by the sparse and conflicting literature on the battle, he decided to employ his scientific knowhow to create this series of articles exploring the Rebel Order of Battle for Hatcher’s Run.

 

 

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

rcocean July 19, 2021 at 9:32 am

What a great article. Thank you Dr. Lambert

Nigel Lambert August 2, 2021 at 9:27 am

Thank you rcocean, glad that you liked it and hope you enjoy the rest of the series.
As Brett explains, the articles are live documents and I will be amending them periodically as new information comes to light or someone spots some glaring error. I can already own up to one embarrassing omission and that is missing off Chris Calkin’s 2003 article: History and Tour Guide of Five Forks, Hatcher’s Run and Namozine Church; from the main sources. That will certainly be added to the next iteration.

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