Editor’s Note: Base transcription is from the CD-ROM version of The Confederate Veteran at Eastern Digital. Minor corrections were made by Brett Schulte.
Retaking Railroad at Reams Station.1
On August 25, 1864, it was found that the Federals—Hancock’s command— had torn up the track of the Weldon railroad for about three miles, covering Reams Station, some ten or twelve miles south of Petersburg. Of course the railway must be recovered, and at once, as it was the base of supplies to the army. The strong force to recover it was made up from several divisions, [Henry] Heth’s and Anderson’s2 furnishing the greater part of the infantry. The cavalry engaged was directly under Hampton’s control, the artillery was in force too. Lieut. Gen. A. P. Hill was on the field in person, and, although there was no general engagement, it was formidable, and the results were of great importance. Only the day before we had quite a weary skirmish with some of those same troops, and our command (Mahone’s old brigade) was much fagged, but orders came to move again from our camping ground west of Petersburg and on the right flank of the army. The troops comprised five brigades under Mahone for that day’s work, I think, and the old brigade was placed in rear in the line as a possible reserve. These five brigades were massed in a skirt of timber that offered some protection from the artillery of the enemy, and it was beyond range of musketry. Directly in front of it was an open field of about one half mile in stretch, and at that distance was a portion of the broken railway then held by infantry and artillery of the enemy. The road through the field was below the level by a grading of three or four feet, the embankment so thrown up as to offer splendid protection to the infantry, and not too high to obstruct the line of artillery fire, the guns being in position about one hundred yards or more on a natural rise of the land beyond the railway, east. Nine guns of the enemy were planted on that rising line, with infantry in the cut as far as we could see to our left, not so far on the right, but overlapping our front.
Orders given were that we should charge by brigades across that level field, and that the second should follow the first. It was fearful work. As soon as a brigade stepped out from the timber it was open to the deadly range of the artillery, shell, shot, and canister, though on the start, and before, of our brigades our guns were pouring forth all the damage they could to silence those of the enemy over the heads of our line. True, our artillery was obliged to fire very carefully as our infantry neared the battle line. The first brigade did not reach the entrenched enemy, but under the sweeping grape and canister, added to the steady rifle range, they broke and fell back in confusion. The next brigade was ordered forward as soon as the field was a little clearer, and a like fate befell. The third brigade was ordered promptly forward, and the boys stepped out boldly, but just as within reach of the contested line, and from where they doubtless shook the enemy, even behind the embankment that sheltered them, they too gave way, and under a withering fire sought the rear. There now was but a single brigade in our front. I remember it was a Carolina brigade (Scales’s, I think), with that, and Lane’s, of North Carolina, we had gone into battle often, and loved them as trusted comrades. I walked to the front to take a look out, and as I returned to my own line I remarked in a confident tone to the Carolinians: “Now, boys, your turn has come, and I am sure you will not fail.” Some one among them laughed and replied: “I tell you, Colonel, if the ‘tar heels’ get as close as those fellows did just now, we will stick, I believe.”
In a few moments they moved out. I watched them closely and anxiously, and they did stick. From almost the first step in the open field their men began to fall, some wounded sadly and some to rise no more, but there was no faltering. The gaps were closed as the grape ripped through the line, when a battle flag went down with the gallant bearer, another man seized it, and on, on, threw its folds to the winds. I need not say that as soon as they struck the embankment Mahone’s old brigade, with a yell that rang through that timber, rushed at a double quick to their support. They were solid in place, had given the enemy the start on retreat when we reached the broken railway, and the artillery on the eastern side had been abandoned.
The night had come on now, and with it black clouds of heavy wind and flooding rain. The battle was for the time closed. The nine field pieces were ours, and about fifteen hundred prisoners. The Carolinians were soon withdrawn, and our brigade was left to hold the place during the night. I do not remember how many small arms were gathered from the field and line during the night a great number, for wagons could be heard at intervals through the night, as that valuable plunder was gathered in. Just before night some of the men of my regiment had espied several very plethoric knapsacks on the caissons of the abandoned guns in our front, and asked permission to go after them. I refused, of course, for the fire of the enemy was still kept up at intervals. Again and again two men returned to me for permission to recover those tempting knapsacks, and finally I told them to wait until it was darker, but they replied that some other fellows would see them and get them before it was dark. So finally I consented, if they were willing to risk their lives for such trash.
Those two men rushed off at once one of them is alive now, I know and, stooping low, made for the caissons. In the knapsacks there was a general assortment of “trash.” In one of them was found about half a dozen new watches, a variety of photographs of handsome women in fantastic robes, stationery of all qualities and sizes, pencils, knives, pens, ink, etc.
Night had fully fallen now. I walked up and down the line of my command in anxious outlook, for we had been ordered to hold the recovered line until relieved, and the enemy were but a short distance away. I heard a low, yet painful, moan from our front and beyond our line as we then lay on our arms. I sent one of the men to find the moaning man, and report. He soon returned and reported that just beyond the railroad there lay a Federal officer very severely wounded and helpless. So I called to two of the ambulance corps and gave them the order to take with them a stretcher and bring in the wounded man. They soon brought within our lines an officer in fine uniform, handsome sword, sash, spurs, etc., a young major of infantry, who held a command in the fight and had been wounded more than once, but the mortal wound was from a ragged Minie ball that had torn its way directly through his body. Even then, though conscious, he suffered only occasional pangs of pain, for the death clamp had gathered on his brow, and life was ebbing rapidly away. He was too weak to talk much, and I asked no unnecessary questions. He said, however, that, if possible, he would like to be sent to the rear, to some hospital where he would not die utterly alone. I spoke kindly as I felt, assuring him that his wishes should be attended at once. The men were ordered to take him on their stretcher as carefully as they could to the hospital I pointed out, the lights from which could be seen through the trees. The men started away to the hospital as ordered, but returned in an incredibly short time, stating that he died before they had gone two hundred yards, and, finding that he was dead, they had hurried to the hospital, and left the body there. A few days after I saw in our camp the sword, boots, and spurs of that dead man. It was all very sad.