[SOPO Editor’s Note: Bryce Suderow brought this article on Gracie’s Alabama Brigade at the Second Battle of Petersburg, June 17-18, 1864, to my attention via the Alabama in the Civil War message board.]
From the earliest historic times, the month of June has been distinguished as the period of the year in which memorable events have occurred. Any chronological dictionary will show that it has been the “month of battles,” and the 17th and 18th days of this month, have repeatedly been marked by actions that have decided the fate of empires and changed the whole current of civilization.
To those who were present at Petersburg, on the 17th or 18th day of June, 1864, these days will ever be memorable, and veterans of a hundred battle-fields will speak of them and tell the tale of their horrors, as the old pensioners of the Hotel des Invalides tell of Quatre Bras and Waterloo. The events of Confederate history are passing away; and even our own people are either forgetting or becoming indifferent in regard to the brave deeds of “The Boys in Gray.” One can hardly realize that only six years ago we were battling against superior numbers for Southern freedom; and when we look around for our old comrades, and find none of the old familiar faces, it seems that the half-clad ranks, dressed in ragged gray cloth, the stern and resolute features, the well kept and glittering arms, the wild yell with which they flung themselves upon the enemy, were not realities, but only the creations of the imagination. Divisions, brigades, regiments, companies, are all gone; but their deeds, though apparently forgotten, will live on; for they are, indeed, what the old Greek called ktema en aiei—a possession forever to their countrymen.
Let me give a brief account of the 17th and 18th of June, 1864, before Petersburg. In many of the details I may not be strictly correct, for I only speak of what I myself saw. The flank movements commenced on the Rapidan had brought Gen. Lee to Richmond, and Grant fronting him, with his left flank resting on James River. Beauregard, with one division, was holding Petersburg, and a small force was operating between that place and Richmond and holding in check the army under Butler. On the 14th of June Grant began crossing the James at City Point, and by the next day had crossed three corps and was ready for his assault on Petersburg. He succeeded in taking the outer works near the Appomattox, and on the morning of the 17th took the batteries and a part of the line further to the left and not far from the Spring Garden Place.— Gen. Beauregard, with his small force, made a gallant resistance, and held the enemy at bay.— [Brig.] Gen. [Archibald] Garcie, with three regiments, was guarding the railroad near Swift Creek, and between Richmond and Petersburg. About 2 o’clock p.m., he was ordered to abandon his position and join Beauregard. The men moved rapidly to the railroad. The first train carried the 59th [Alabama], and the second the 41st [Alabama] and 43d Alabama regiments. I went on horseback, and arrived at Spring Garden just as the train with the last two regiments stopped there. The battle was raging furiously. It was nearly dark. The 59th had gone into the battle, and, overpowered by numbers, was falling back. A brigade on their left had given way, and the works occupied by them were in possession of the enemy. Gen. Gracie’s two regiments were the only troops between Grant’s army and Petersburg. The 41st was sent up the Jerusalem Road to prevent a flank movement in that direction.— The 43d jumped from the train, and with shot and shell falling thick around them, rapidly formed, and marched at a double-quick through the yard of the Spring Garden Place. Beyond this was an oat field about one hundred yards wide, then came a thick skirt of woods about the same width, and on the further side of this the line of breastworks from which our men had been driven and which were now partially occupied by the enemy. Arriving at the edge of the woods, the 43d was formed in line of battle; the 59th rallied and joined them; and with a wild yell, they charged the enemy. The works were retaken. The artillery was recaptured, and the enemy driven back at every point. The cannonading was terrific. The air was filled with mortar shell, and the shot from the different description of field-pieces were crashing and bursting among the trees. The caissons belonging to the battery which we had captured, caught fire and exploded with a noise that silenced the roar of the battle, and their contents were sent flying through the ranks of friend and foe. The troops which had been engaged all day and had been forced back, rallied, and the line was reestablished. But the battle was not ended. The enemy again attempted to carry our works by assault, but met with a signal repulse. Here I witnessed what has never, so far as I know, ever been published. When the Yankees were repulsed, instead of retreating, the two first lines of the attacking column laid down. They were in easy range of our rifles and hundreds of them must have been killed. We could hear their officers ordering them to get up and move forward. When orders, threats, and commands failed, the Federal officers caused the troops in the rear and a battery of artillery to fire into their own men, and thus to try to drive them on the Confederate lines.— Hundreds of them came, but only to throw down their arms and surrender. I make this statement not from information, but from my own personal knowledge. With this assault the battle ended for the night. It was about 11 o’clock.
Gen. Beauregard determined to fall back to the ridge between the Spring Garden Place, and the Jerusalem Road, and at 2 o’clock [on the morning of June 18, 1864], having already sent the wounded and prisoners to the rear, we silently left the works, we had so bravely defended, and formed a line on the ridge, which was held by us until the surrender.
Many persons are under the impression that the troops at Petersburg had only to defend fortifications, which had been previously built. This is a mistake. When on the morning of the 18th, we took our position, it was in an open field. Our men, with few entrenching tools, and working principally with their bayonets, dug the first trench along what afterwards became the famous fortifications of Petersburg.
With the dawn [of June 18] the battle began again. The enemy occupied our abandoned works, and threw out a heavy column of skirmishers. Between them and our skirmishers, a fierce battle raged from the Spring Garden road as far away toward the Appomat[t]ox as we could see. Just at sunrise, the Federal infantry were deployed from the woods in the rear of Spring Garden in the open oat field. It was a terribly magnificent scene. On one side were the Confederates crouching down behind their temporary breast-works, which, in many places were not over two feet high—they were in single rank, one man to the yard. They were worn out by fatigue; they had eaten nothing for nearly 24 hours; but they were resolved to fight to the last. On the other side was the long line of Federals; their ranks were full; their dark blue uniforms reflected back the glitter from their polished arms. They came steadily on, driving back our skirmishers, and apparently confident that by mere weight of numbers they would crush the handful of men who opposed them. Every one was silent. The commands of the Federal officers could be distinctly heard. Then our artillery opened upon them. It was well posted and splendidly handled. The Federal line was literally mowed down; and the Confederates gave a wild cheer as they saw the enemy flying back again to the woods. The same movement was attempted over again as rapidly as the broken ranks could be rallied, and always with the same result. There was a battery immediately on our right. It consisted of four rifle pieces and two twelve pound Napoleon guns. These guns were fired almost continually from sunrise till late in the evening. I do not believe any other single battery ever did such execution. Every shot seemed to hit the mark. I saw a shell from one of the Napoleons hit the ground and explode right under a mounted officer—man and horse went up into the air together. Another shell struck the head of a Federal column just as it passed Spring Garden. It looked like the whole column was destroyed. I do not know who commanded this battery, but he certainly understood his business.
About 3 o’clock, p. m., the Federals, in 3 lines of battle, attempted to carry the works on our left, where they were defended by Elliott’s South Carolina brigade. They came steadily on till within easy range; then Elliott’s men rose and poured into them a well directed volley. They fell like wheat before a reaper. The survivors threw down their arms, and men and officers ran promiscuously for the protection of the woods.— Shortly after this I was ordered to carry a message to Gen. [Robert F.] Hoke, then on the left of the line.— Riding rapidly down the Jerusalem road, I met the head of Longstreet’s corps near the old Blan[d]ford church. General Lee was coming to our aid at last. The enemy discovered that we had been reinforced, and the battle of the 17th and 18th of June ended.
We had defended Petersburg with not more than four thousand men against three army corps. We had taken more prisoners than were ever captured by the same number of men. Gen. Grant admits he lost in this attack 8,000 men in killed, wounded, and prisoners. We had fought superior numbers for two whole days, and during this time had not one hour’s rest, and had had nothing whatever to eat Is it any thing wonderful, then, that our tired and exhausted men threw themselves on the ground, and reckless of danger, were quickly sound asleep?
The prisoners were a strange set. Nearly every nation and tongue was represented. Indians, from the far west, French, Spaniards, Irish, and Germen [sic, German] were mingled together. Two of the prisoners attracted my attention. They were of dark olive complexion, had high cheek bones, and shining black hair. They were Malays, and looked like the piratical race to which they belonged. I wonder if they ever got back to the palm groves of the eastern Archipelago?
The battle ended. General Grant never again made a direct assault on our lines. The siege [sic, siege] of Petersburg began, and when the city was finally taken, it surrendered to overwhelming numbers; and the Federal General may attribute his dearly purchased victory to the literal wearing out of the Confederates, and not to his own skill as an officer, or to the bravery of his troops. To those of us who survive, the 17th and 18th of June will ever be days memorable beyond all others; and to my old comrades I write this scrap of Confederate history.
The war has ended; but upon us there rests a responsibility as great, if not greater than when hand to hand we defended the lines of Petersburg. The future of the South will be decided by us. The coming contest will not be with rifle or cannon, but the peaceful struggle for political supremacy. Let him who dares, waver in his faith; but let no Confederate soldier disgrace his past life by faltering in his allegiance to the land of his birth, or forget for one moment that he belongs to that race which must rule this continent, and which can accept no compromise with inferiors.
- “Memorable Days.” The Plantation (Atlanta, GA). July 2, 1870, p. 374 col. 1-3 ↩