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EXCERPT: McGowan’s/Scales’ Sharpshooter Battalions vs. Sixth Corps, December 31, 1864 (Lee’s Sharpshooters)

Editor’s Note: The following excerpt, taken from pages 224-228 of Lee’s Sharpshooters: Or, The Forefront of Battle. A Story of Southern Valor that Never Has Been Told by former sharpshooter battalion leader William S. Dunlop, describes the “seine-hauling” affair of December 31, 1864, in which the sharpshooter battalions of Scales’ and McGowan’s Brigades, Wilcox’s Division, Third Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, made a quick dash on the Union lines of First Division, Sixth Corps, Army of the Potomac, in order to capture clothing to help make it through the winter.  Dunlop led the sharpshooter battalion of McGowan’s Brigade while John Young was in charge of Scales’ sharpshooters.  Read on to see the plan, its execution, and its final result.

The Sharpshooters of McGowan and Scales Conduct a “Seine-Hauling” on the Sixth Corps:

December 31, 1864

On the 28th day of December, when the eventful campaign of 1864 with its sanguinary record had evidently closed, and the two great armies which confronted each other before the beleaguered cities of Petersburg and Richmond had settled down into the repose of winter, [division commander] Gen. [Cadmus] Wilcox, by the advise and with the consent of the brigade commanders, published an order to the four battalions of sharpshooters of the light division, containing [inter alia] this proposition: “That whenever they should place the rifle pits on the picket line in first class condition, and report the fact to division headquarters, the sharpshooters might retire from the front and go into winter quarters until the campaign of 1865 should open.” The conditions of the order were met by noon of the 30th, and the fact reported. The report was accompanied with a request on the part of the two battalions of McGowan and Scales, 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; which report was received as satisfactory, and the request granted upon terms. Hence, in the evening twilight of that cold and murky December day, the commandants of the two battalions named, sallied forth without attendants, and were soon lost to sight in the thickening darkness and dense skirt of woods lying between the lines. The enemy’s outposts and picket lines were closely scrutinized and the point where the sortie should be made definitely determined. The two officers now returned to their respective commands and issued the necessary orders and instructions. 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. 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. 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. At the same instant the battalions charged and drove their spike head squarely through the Federal lines, capturing half a dozen rifle pits with their occupants. When the battalions had moved half their length through the gap, the right battalion faced to the right, the left battalion to the left, and throwing forward their wings so as to form a sack, swept the lines for nearly a mile on either side, capturing a large number of prisoners with all the supplies needed. The wounding of private Carter in the back by the accidental discharge of the gun referred to, was the only casualty reported on our side, whereas the enemy lost not less than three hundred, in killed, wounded and captured. The success of the expedition was promptly reported to division headquarters, and approved, with generous commendations by Gen. Wilcox.

An incident occurred at the moment of encounter, which illustrates 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.

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.1


  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), pp. 224228
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