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.
Life Among Bullets—In The Rifle Pits.1
BY W[illiam]. A. DAY, SHERRILL’S FORD, N. C.
BATTLE OF THE YELLOW HOUSE.
We remained in the trenches sharpshooting, shelling and carrying our dead to Blandford Cemetery until the 19th of August, when we were relieved and sent out on the Weldon Railroad to a place we called the “Yellow House” (the Federals called it the “Globe Tavern”), where General Grant was making another flank movement on our right. This was something we didn’t like. We were perfectly willing to stay in the trenches and fight every day—we were used to that—but to be relieved by troops camped back out of reach of shells and sent out to fight what we considered their battle went strongly against the grain.
We arrived on the grounds on the 19th of August, 1864, and all the troops were formed in line of battle half a mile from the enemy’s front. A heavy picket force was immediately sent out. I was among the pickets sent from Company I, 49th [North Carolina] Regiment. We went out through a large cornfield and formed our picket line at the edge of a swamp. An occasional shot was fired from the other side, but did no harm. We dug our rifle pits with our bayonets large enough to hold four men. Three of us and a corporal were in one pit. Night coming on, we huddled together and kept a close watch in front. An hour or two before day next morning I became so sleepy that it was impossible to hold my eyes open. I begged the corporal to let me sleep just one minute, but he said: “No, there will be no sleeping in this rifle pit to-night.” I slept a few minutes in spite of the corporal’s gun punching and shaking, waking up bright. In a short time another went under and slept a few minutes, then another, until the three of us had our short naps; then the corporal went down. We forgot his trying to keep us awake, and we let him sleep. After his short nap we were all in good shape. I went back to the cornfield and pulled three large roasting ears and ate them raw. They tasted sweet as sugar.
About sunrise the line of battle moved down and formed on the picket line. Lieut. Col. J[ames]. T. Davis was in command of the 49th [North Carolina] Regiment, and he explained to us the order of battle. General Mahone had gone around the enemy’s flank and rear with six brigades, and when we heard his artillery open it would be the signal for our advance. About eight o’clock the artillery opened. We moved forward in line of battle through the swamp and came to a level pine wood, where we halted and reformed our lines. A narrow road ran through the pines out toward the enemy’s line. A Federal sharpshooter fired down the road and killed one of our men. This so alarmed a comrade standing by his side that he cried out: “O Lord, I can’t go in there !” With a terrible oath his captain sprang to his side, thrust a cocked revolver in his face, and said if he did not move forward at the command he would shoot him dead in his tracks. The poor fellow moved on, crying and praying.
We moved steadily through the pines and came to an open field about a hundred and fifty yards wide. On the farther side was a line of breastworks full of Federal soldiers standing up looking at us. The command to charge was given. We threw our guns to a trail and, with our well-known yell, made a dash for their works. Still they stood and looked at us. We knew what it meant; they had the “white-of-the-eye” order, which meant, “Don’t fire a shot until you can see the white in their eyes.” Thus they stood until we were within twenty-five or thirty yards, then threw their guns across the works, and just as they stooped to fire we dropped as one man, and the whole volley went over our heads. None were killed and very few wounded. As we fell as one man, we arose as one man, and before they could reload we were in the works among them. They did not stand for the bayonet. Some surrendered and others broke for their rear, where they had another line crowded with artillery behind a pine field, whose trees had all been felled with the tops toward us. They must have had openings somewhere for their men to pass through, as they soon disappeared. We followed them from the first line in another charge. A Federal soldier with a heavy knapsack on his back was running in front of me. Before I could catch him he dropped his knapsack and let out another link. In passing I picked it up.
We soon became so entangled in the fallen trees that we could make no headway whatever. John Landen [John R. London, listed as “Ensign” of the 49th], the color bearer of the 49th [North Carolina], was up in the tree tops with the flag in one hand and fighting his way through the limbs with the other. The enemy opened on our left with all their artillery, double-shotted with grape and canister, giving us an enfilading fire which mangled our men terribly. Seeing that we would all be uselessly slaughtered in that death trap, Colonel Davis shouted to us to fail back to the other line; but in that din of shouts, crashing tree tops, and bursting shells only about half the regiment heard the order and fell back, while the other half were still trying to get through the pines. Adjt. J. H. Sherrill [James H. Sherrill?], of the 49th, ran back found Landen [London?] with the flag, and, collecting the men as best he could in the storm of grapeshot, brought them back to the line. To make bad matters worse, we had a battery of artillery in a field half a mile off on our right which, mistaking our retreat for a charge of the enemy, opened all their guns on us, killing and wounding a number of our own men who had escaped death in the battle.
I always had a fear of being shot in the back, and in that falling back race I threw my big knapsack over on my back, thinking it would help some; but I went through without a scratch. The firing soon ceased.
I opened my knapsack to see what was in it, and, among other things, I found a large packet of letters. I began to read them, but soon learned what they were. It was beneath the dignity of a Southern soldier to read letters a loving wife had sent to her soldier husband, so I destroyed them.
The Federals were driven back from the railroad at that place, and some of our troops remained to take part in the hard-fought battle at Reams’s Station a few days afterwards. We lay in the captured works all evening, and at night picks and shovels were sent in, and we were set to work strengthening the works. We worked till midnight, then fell in line and marched back to Petersburg and took up our old trade of sharpshooting, shelling, and dodging mortar shells in the trenches. From the Norfolk Railroad to the river pickets were kept out only at night, as the works were in plain view of each other all the way, the pickets going out at dark and coming in at daylight next morning. It had become so dangerous for the pickets to cross over, numbers of them having been shot, that we had to dig tunnels under the works for them to pass through. From the Norfolk Railroad to the river was the most dangerous place in the whole line of works. At one time Joseph Fisher, of Company I, and some one from Company G were out together and started in at daylight. Just as they started a 64-pounder came over. They made a break for the tunnel and, both jumping in together, became wedged. The shell fell in on them and burst, literally tearing them to shreds.
We kept the trenches mended up and clear of mud all the summer and fall months, but as winter came on we began to suffer. Our uniforms were wearing out, and our rations had been cut down to almost nothing. The men began to desert, crossing the works at the dam on dark nights and sometimes from the picket line. The enemy sent over circulars promising every man who would desert free transportation to any part of the North they wished to go, never to draft them in their armies, or they would give them work if they wished at good wages far in the rear, where they would be out of all danger, and if they brought their guns along they would pay them the government price for them. After that we had to keep close watch on our guns. One fellow went over one night with as many stolen guns as he could carry.
After the weather got so cold that we could no longer do without fire a few sticks of cord wood and about a bushel of coal were issued to a company to last twenty-four hours. We had to burn it in our bombproofs, and it smoked us as black as negroes. When the cold rains came we could not keep the mud out of the trenches, and our so-called bombproofs leaked muddy water on us. General Lee came through every few days, wading sometimes almost to his boot tops, but he never said a word about the mud. He knew we couldn’t keep it out. Almost every cold, rainy night the Federals opened up their mortars and kept us pushing about through the mud nearly all night. This was more than some of the boys could stand. According to the circulars they read, over there they would be out of danger, out of the war, their fighting days over; over here they had nothing to look forward to but starvation, battles, wounds, and death. Their patriotism vanished, their Southland was forgotten; they left us, and we had no way to stop them. Most of them returned after the war and took sides with the negroes, scalawags, and carpet baggers in the Reconstruction days, which will never be for gotten by those who lived through them.
In the dead of the winter a permanent detail was made for fatigue duty about the trenches. I was on that detail, and our duties were to work nearly all the time. We dug our bombproofs in a hill behind the lines, but did not get to stay in them very much, I suppose our boss, whose rank was captain, had a soul, but it was a very small one. One cold, dark, rainy night in December he sent me out in front to count the joints in the chevaux-de-frise, so they could be doubled. I went through the picket line at our company and passed down the line between the pickets and the chevaux-de-frise, counting the joints, which were about every twelve feet as near as I could guess; I couldn’t see them. Thinking of danger only from the enemy, whose bullets were striking the chevaux-de-frise occasionally, I was suddenly startled by the command: “Halt ! Come here, d—n you. I will show you whether you go to the Yankees or not.” This gave me a good scare. I went to the rifle pit as quickly as I could and found three men down in the mud, with a little light not much larger than a glow worm stuck in the bank. I called for the officer commanding the pickets. He was in the next rifle pit and came scrambling over. I told him my business and asked him if he would send a man with me, as I was afraid to go by myself. His answer was: “No; go on and do as you are ordered. I will pass the word down the line for the pickets not to molest you.”
I felt my way on down the line and fell in an old rifle pit full of ice water up to my shoulders. I scratched out, with the cold water pouring in streams from me, went back to the detail, reported the number of joints, and asked the captain to excuse me for the night, as I was freezing to death. He refused and ordered me to go to work. Had I dared, I would have told him where to go. I helped carry out one section and then found I could stand it no longer, so I slipped off to our bombproof, where the boys had a nice lot of wood borrowed from the artillerymen up on the railroad when they were asleep, built a roaring fire, hung up my clothes to dry, and went to sleep and slept till the boys came in next morning. They never reported me, and that was the last of it. I soon got tired of this business and went back to the company, and Pink Collins and I were added to the corps of sharpshooters.
On Christmas, 1864, the people of Richmond and Petersburg were going to give the soldiers in the trenches a Christmas dinner with cabbage, beans, chicken, beef loaf, bread, and a lot of other good things, enough to give every man a square meal. How glad we were when we heard that the rations were in Petersburg; but, alas, they had to start at the top and come down through all the departments, and when they reached us it hardly paid to throw the tobacco out of our mouths for what we got. It was told that the bombproofers in the rear had all the rations they could eat for a week.
A lot of roughs were loafing and hiding about the citv, stealing everything they could lay hands on, especially watching out for boxes of rations from our home people. Some of these roughs had been soldiers. One of them stole a trunk from Colonel [Leroy M.] McAffee [sic, McAfee], of the 49th, containing a new uniform and was caught with the goods. The Colonel took him up the canal above the city, bucked him down, and gave him six hundred lashes. The doctors worked with him all night to save his life. Some of the crowd stole an overcoat from me. The weather was very wet and cold all winter. The citizens told us it was the worst winter they had had for years. We were in a bad plight, half frozen, half starved, and deserters were leaving us every night.
Before the battle of Fredericksburg we were encamped near Orange Courthouse. One day a detail of ten men under a lieutenant was sent out to a crossroads a few miles from town on picket. I was sent from our company. We were to stay out until ordered in. One day I had filled my canteen at the spring and was starting back when I heard a little noise. Looking back, I saw an old lady coming out of the spring house. She was so old and wrinkled that she looked black. She asked me if I belonged “up there,” meaning the picket post. On telling her I did she asked: “Do you get anything to eat?” “A little bit,” said I. “Well,” she said “I’ll be d—n if I would stand it; I would run away. Give me your canteen; Ill fill it with buttermilk.” If the old ladv could have seen us in the trenches, what would she have said?
February came in with a heavy sleet which froze some of the pickets to death, and they were carried to Blandford Cemetery. I was in the Mortar Hell one very cold night standing on the banquette to keep out of the mud. Looking through the porthole, I saw one of the Yanks crawl out of their works and begin chopping on a little sapling. He would chop a few licks and stop, then a few more and stop. I had a notion to tell him to chop on; I wouldn’t shoot him. At last his little tree fell with a crash, then he rolled over and over down into the works. In a short time he crawled out again and pulled his little tree into the works and soon had a bright light in there.
We were war weary. When the peace commission passed through the lines to meet President Lincoln in Hampton Roads, we fondly hoped, the Federals as well as ourselves, that they would come to some terms to end the war. But the conference accomplished nothing, and both sides then knew that it was fight, fight to the bitter end. Our rations were about gone and our uniforms worn out, but we had plenty of ammunition, and our guns were kept as bright as silver; so we chose to fight on.
About the middle of March we were relieved by General Gordon’s troops. We had been in the trenches nine long months, except the few days we were out fighting on the line, and we would rather have remained in there to defend them to the last, which we knew would be soon; but we were relieved. When the Georgians came in, they. asked a great many questions about the trenches, and it would take a big book to hold all the lies told them. We moved out and bivouacked a mile from the city. What a glorious place ! We could lie down on dry ground and sleep all night, no mortars or Minies to bother us. On the next day we marched out to Mahone’s old winter quarters, good log huts, where we could keep dry when it rained. We piled up leaves, and what good beds they made! We were drilled like raw recruits, but when it rained we were in the dry. We enjoyed this easy life until March 24, when we were sent back to the trenches to aid in General Gordon’s celebrated attack on Fort Steadman [sic, Stedman], which was the last general attack made on the enemy by General Lee’s army. Fort Steadman [sic, Stedman] was a strong work built on the enemy’s main line where Mr. Hare’s White house stood before they burned it down. Another fort on the river bank, called Fort Haskell, had an enfilading fire up the line and annoyed us greatly during the siege. Three more forts crowned the rear hills and with their line of breastworks made it a death trap where the assault was made.
We lay in the city until the next morning, then followed Lieut. Thomas R. Roulhac, of the 49th, and Lieut. W[ood]. W. Fleming, of the 6th North Carolina Regiment, both eighteen-year-old boys, across the field, each at the head of one hundred men, half of Fleming’s men with axes, the others with guns, Roulhac’s all with unloaded guns. They moved in front, and we followed, the other troops along the line moving across their ground in the same manner. We caught the enemy asleep, captured Fort Steadman [sic, Stedman] and the works for some distance on each side, but could not hold them tong. The guns from the forts plowed the ground, and the Federals charged in countless numbers in front. We held on until they were on the works, when they drove us out, killing and capturing the men by the hundreds. Lieutenant Colonel [James T.] Davis, of the 49th, was among the killed. At last the order came to fall back. The few of us that were left started back in that terrible retreat across the field under the fire of every gun that could be brought to bear on us. The few who reached the works fell over inside and lay there panting for breath. After all were in we asked for a truce to bury our dead, which was granted. We buried our dead and carried off our wounded, then marched back to a hill near the iron bridge and lay there till dark. Our army in that battle had lost three thousand men who could never be replaced, and the lines were still just as they were that morning.
We marched back through Petersburg for the last time the old regiment not much larger than a company. Our hearts were sad. We knew the end was near, the end of our hopes, perhaps our lives. We were at the last ditch. A few more battles would drive us to the wall.
We marched that night to Hatcher’s Run and during the week had several skirmishes with the enemy at different places. President Davis visited the lines and ordered a gill of whisky issued to every man. I was out on the firing line with the sharpshooters when the whisky was brought in. One of my comrades drew my gill and, I suppose from fear that would drink too much, drank it himself.
At Chamberlain Run the deafening shouts and murderous roar of the carbines of our cavalrymen told us that the tide of battle was moving swiftly to the left. Our sharpshooters were formed and moved rapidly through an old field of pines and cedars with the intention of getting a fire in the flanks of the enemy. Passing through the pines, we came to a large open field, on the farther side of which was a fence and beyond that a piece of woodland. We were deployed at five paces apart. We had a beautiful line. When about halfway across the field, a heavy line of the enemy rose up behind the fence and fired a full volley. The air looked almost blue with bullets. I looked down our line. Not a man staggered or fell; it was a clear miss. After their fire they broke back through the woods. They were dismounted cavalrymen. We rushed on, but when we reached the fence they were out of sight in the woods. When we reached the road and open field on the other side of the woods, the cavalry came up at full gallop, halted, and reformed their lines. We were then ordered back to our command. We moved about from one place to another. Sheridan’s Cavalry charged us. We hurled them back. General Lee, on his well-known horse, Traveler, rode out to our front line, the last time a great many of us ever saw him.
One dark, foggy night we lay in a piece of woods, and the next morning we found a body of troops lying near us. General Ransom rode out and asked what troops they were. The answer was, “Sheridan’s.” We had lain close together that night, neither side aware of the other. Ransom rode back and ordered us to fall in quietly. We marched up the White Oak road toward Five Forks, and Sheridan’s Cavalry charged us. We drove them back and formed line of battle at Five Forks, General Pickett in command. We hastily threw up breastworks of logs and dirt. The sharpshooters were ordered out. We deployed, moved out, and formed our line in the woods two hundred yards in front of the main line, Lieutenant [Giles]Bowers, of the 49th, in command [of the battalion of sharpshooters]. From my position I could see a field over on our left and cavalrymen galloping across to our right. Soon the Federal skirmish line appeared among the trees in our front: We opened the battle by firing on them. They replied with their repeating carbines, both sides behind trees. My tree was too small to hide me. One bullet went through my empty haversack, another cut my coat on the shoulder, and several others struck the tree, knocking bark in my face. I swapped for a larger tree. We kept up a lively picket battle for some time, and then, as if by mutual consent, both sides ceased firing and lay behind the trees watching each other. In order to meet Grant’s flank movement, General Lee had to take all the troops out of the line on the left of Five Forks, thus leaving about a mile undefended. The Federals, quickly taking advantage of this, moved General Warren’s corps, twelve thousand men, through the gap and gained our rear, leaving Sheridan with, it was said, fifteen thousand men in our front. We had but six thousand men all told.
While we were watching each other on the picket line a heavy peal of musketry rang out in our rear, and a shower of bullets flew over our heads. Pink Collins—brave old Pink, the only time I ever saw him scared—said: “Lord God, our own men are opening on us.” I told him that firing was too distant for our line; I believed it was the enemy in our rear. The firing gradually grew hotter, and we began our picket fight again, when Bowers ran in and ordered us back to the main line. Reaching that, we found the 24th North Carolina Regiment standing in line firing square back in the rear, and the 49th standing in line with their guns cocked facing the rear. The pickets we had been fighting now came up heavily reinforced and began throwing in their bullets, and about that time the enemy in the rear came in sight through the woods. They had no lines; the woods were full of them. A regiment of Virginians was sent in to reenforce the 49th. They rushed in and formed with us, but they came too late; they were destroyed with us. The enemy came on, shouting: “Don’t shoot, boys; don’t shoot. It will only be a needless waste of life, and we’ll overpower you anyway.” But we could not stand idle and let them run over us. Our old flag was shot to pieces, nothing but a bunch of rags tied to a stick, but we stood by it like a wall of iron. The 49th was fighting its last battle. We poured the hot Minies into them as long as we had time to load our guns, but we could not stop them. They surrounded and crushed us. The end had come.
The old 49th North Carolina Regiment that Ransom trained and Fleming and Davis had led no longer had an organization, but they could not see the end; they were all in their graves. The regiment had fought its last battle; it was “off duty forever.”
The battle of Five Forks was over. General Pickett had six thousand men; five thousand were lost, the other thousand scattered everywhere. The officers were sent to Johnson’s Island, the privates to Point Lookout. We marched through the Federal army to City Point. Until then we did not know what we had been fighting. All the way through were camps; some of the commands had not even received marching orders. Not a house marked the way, nothing but blackened chimneys. It was a country of army graveyards, graves everywhere, which showed that we had played havoc with them in the siege.
After we were captured and started back we met several lines of battle going in. The battle was over, but they didn’t know it. They had their lines well dressed and marched as if on parade, their mounted officers riding up and down the line. Whenever a man tried to flank out, they knocked him about ten feet with their swords and made him get back in the line. Away back in the rear we struck the brave men. We knew they were brave, for we had them in our army. O how they wanted to fight! They could scarcely keep off of us with their bare fists. This raised the guard who had helped capture us, and the language they used on these brave men I am sure they never learned in Sunday school.
Point Lookout next, with its negro guards, spoonful of raw meal, pint cup half full of water with one bean in it, sometimes a small bit of raw fish that a hungry dog wouldn’t eat. I wish I could say a good word for Major Brady, but I can’t without lying. Paroled and sent home, our first work was to prepare to make a living; our next was to rid the country of the Northern carpetbaggers, Southern scalawags and negroes, and lay the foundation of our dear Southland as it is to-day.
- Day, William. A. “Life Among Bullets—In The Rifle Pits.” Confederate Veteran, Volume 29, Number 6, p. 216-219 ↩