Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Brett Schulte.
Gen. Clingman’s Report of the Battles in Front of Petersburg on the 16th, 17th and 18th of June.
HD. QRS. CLINGMAN’S BRIGADE,
IN THE TRENCHES, JULY 14, 1864.
MAJOR:—In compliance with the order of the Major General commanding [Robert Hoke] to make a report of the action of this brigade in the days of the 16th, 17th, and 18th of June last , I have the honor to present the following statement:
On the 16th [of June, 1864] at daylight, I left the entrenchments on the line at Bermuda Hundreds, my position being on the extreme left near James river. My pickets in accordance with the orders of Maj. Gen. [Bushrod] Johnson, were left with directions to retain their positions until 6 o’clock, a. m. As however the pickets on the right of the line retired before 4 o’clock, and thus allowed the enemy to gain possession of our main line a number of my pickets were captured, while many of those that escaped did so by refusing to surrender and running through the woods to the rear under a heavy fire of the enemy.
My brigade took the cars at the junction and arrived in Petersburg about 6 o’clock a. m., and was ordered by Maj. Gen. [Robert] Hoke to move towards the enemy who occupied the lines to the east of the city. The position assigned to my brigade was the right of Maj. Gen. Hoke’s division, but a portion of Gen. [Henry A.] Wise’s brigade on my left separated us from the rest of the division, while another portion of that brigade was stationed on my right.
My men during the day threw up such a line of defence as they could execute with their bayonets and a few working tools.—In the front the ground descended for a hundred and fifty yards to a branch, and then rose in a slope for several hundred yards to the enemy’s line, which was on much higher ground than ours. There were a few trees and bushes on it, but they did not obstruct the view entirely for five or six hundred yards in our front. In the evening about 5 o’clock our pickets were driven in and the enemy appeared in line of battle chiefly in front of my centre and left, while on my right the bushes were so thick that they could not be seen, if in force there.
My men reserved their fire by my direction until the enemy were about three hundred yards distant, when a well directed volley was given them, and in a few minutes their line was completely broken to pieces, the men scattering in different directions. Their color bearer, however, followed by four men at irregular intervals of eight or ten yards, ran forward down the hill until he was concealed in the ravine in my front. The enemy, until it became dark, made several similar attempts at a charge, but as soon as their line of battle came in range to receive our fire it invariably broke after one or two volleys. It was obvious that they did not fight with the spirit they did at Cold Harbor. I attribute this to the severe losses they had encountered there on the first and third of June, which had broken their spirits and demoralized them. The losses of the enemy could only be a matter of conjecture, but as the fire of our men was very deliberate it must have been considerable. The losses of my brigade were slight on that day.
On the following day, the 17th [of June, 1864], the troops of Wise’s brigade stationed immediately on my left were removed to my right, and the space previously occupied by them was filled in part by the extension of my brigade to the left, but chiefly by Gen. [James G.] Martin’s brigade extending its right so as to join my left. My right was also a little advanced to close the interval between it and Gen. Wise’s brigade. The 61st [North Carolina] regiment, commanded by Col. Jas. D. Radcliffe, formed my right, next to it was the 31st [North Carolina], commanded by Lt. Col. [Charles W.] Knight, then the 8th [North Carolina], commanded by Maj. [Rufus A.] Barrier, while on my left was the 51st [North Carolina], commanded by Col. H[ector]. McKethan. During the day one or two feeble attempts were made on us by the enemy, which were easily repulsed. About 6 ½ o’clock p. m., however, it was manifest that the enemy intended a serious attack. Our skirmishers were driven in and they showed themselves in line of battle at a distance in my front, but their first attack was made to my right. Soon after the skirmishers got back to the line and the musketry fire began to be heavy, being towards the right of my line on which I apprehended the first attack, I saw with the greatest astonishment the troops of Wise’s brigade suddenly leave their trenches and run for the rear. The action had barely commenced, and there was, as yet, no enemy near their immediate front. Capt. Preston, of the 34th Virginia regiment of Wise’s brigade, made an effort to rally them, but just as a few had returned to the trenches, the enemy appeared advancing in their front. I saw a flag and what appeared to be a regiment coming across the field nearly a hundred yards distant, and those who had returned to the trenches fled precipitately to the rear. It is due to Capt. Preston that it should be stated that with his company and some portions, as I was informed, of two others, he united himself to Lieut. Col. [William S.] Devane’s command, a part of the 61st [North Carolina] regiment of my brigade, and acted courageously and well throughout the entire fight. Seeing that it was of the utmost importance, not merely that I should hold my own position but also if possible, prevent the enemy’s passing to the rear towards the city of Petersburg, I sent my only staff officer present, Lieut. Puryear, to request Gen. Martin to send one of his regiments up to my right. As there was a considerable space of the trenches vacant to my right short of the point to which the enemy were advancing, for they hesitated for a time about moving into our trenches, I ordered Col. Radcliffe to move up the trenches by his right flank and also to throw out in rear of his right some companies as skirmishers, to occupy the line of woods, and check, or at least give notice of, any movement of the enemy to his rear. I then went along my line and instructed my regiments to move to the right, following the 61st [North Carolina], so as to keep the trench sufficiently guarded. I also saw the Colonel of the nearest regiment of Gen. Martin’s brigade and requested him to move to the right to close up the interval to be created thus on my left. On my returning up towards the right of my line I was surprised to find that the movement to the right had not been made by the 61st regiment, and was met by an officer who told me that Col. Radcliffe said he could not move to the right because he was pressed by a heavy force in front. What added to my disappointment was the fact, that I saw the enemy made use of the time thus afforded and had not only occupied the trenches abandoned by Wise’s brigade, but had also crossed them and I could see a considerable force about a hundred yards in the rear of the trench. I saw in a moment that if I then carried the right of my line up the trench, the enemy might fire into the rear of my men and that unless soon driven away they would by extending their line be in our rear and render it impossible for us to hold our trenches. I went forward a few steps and found Col. Radcliffe in the trench at the rear of his regiment, and after condemning his failure to obey my previous order, directed him to move at once by the right flank, but to [file?] his regiment to the rear in a line perpendicular to the trench and then move up against the enemy. I told him that the rest of the brigade had orders to move after him to the right. I told him further that the enemy must be driven back and that not a moment was to be lost, and repeated the order. He promised to obey it, and I turned down the line again to have the other regiments to move up promptly. As the enemy were then in force in front of my centre and right, I directed each regiment as it should move to the right to halt every ten paces and after fronting to fire a volley so as to prevent any approach of the enemy. Some time elapsed while these dispositions were being made, and no movement took place on my right. I returned up the line and while I was looking for Col. Radcliffe I met Lieut. Col. Devane of the 61st, and on my expressing to him my regret that my repeated orders to Col. Radcliffe had not yet been executed, he declared his readiness to execute any order that I might give him. I told him there was no time to be lost and that he must at once take three or four companies of his regiment and move to the right, occupy the line of woods, hold the enemy in check, and throw skirmishers to the rear of our right, to give us due notice if the enemy should pass to our rear, &c. He promptly went to execute the order and a moment after I directed Capt. Ramsey who commanded the left company of the 61st regiment to leave the trenches and move up to the right to join Lieut. Col. Devane. I then went back to my left wing and having learned that Gen. Martin could not lend me a regiment I ordered Col. McKethan to file out of the trenches to the right and form a line of battle perpendicular to the trench and then move up in the rear of the brigade to the right. Just as he had gotten about one half of his regiment out of the trench it was stated that a heavy force was coming against our front at that part of the line. I thereupon told him there was no time to be lost and that he must move up to the right with the portion of his regiment then formed and leave the other half for the present to hold the trench. He thereupon moved rapidly forward and as he passed up I notified the troops in the trench up to the right that he was moving along their rear. This I considered necessary because it was almost dark and as it had more than once been stated by stragglers from Wise’s brigade that the enemy had passed in large force to our rear, I was apprehensive that this detachment might be mistaken for the enemy.
Col. McKethan passed to the right, and with the aid of Col. Devane’s detachment drove the enemy back across the trenches. He then moved into the trench on the right of our previous line. The troops under his command passed up the trenches to the upper traverse and drove the enemy out of it on their right. Col. McKethan being wounded in the face was obliged to retire, leaving Captain Lippett in command of the detachment. The enemy having thus been driven back beyond our line of works, were exposed to the oblique fire of my whole brigade and were driven back again some distance.
They immediately returned, however, in force and at intervals of a few minutes made repeated attempts to reach our works. In front of my centre there was some timber, and it being dark, their position could only be known by the flashing of their guns, generally, but occasionally they came near enough to be visible. In front of my right, however, there was an open field and the light of the moon was sufficient to render their line of battle plainly visible. Instead of approaching our work directly, they, after coming in each instance below the crest of the hill in front, moved obliquely then towards us, their line of battle making an acute angle with our works on our left. In this way, they were exposed to the fire of my right wing in their front and at the same time to the oblique fire of our entire line, and were thus immediately cut to pieces.
I think they came up, perhaps, a dozen times in succession, but the fire against them was so deliberate and well aimed that they never stood their ground for more than a few minutes. At no time did they approach my right wing nearer than twenty yards. When they were not in view there my command delivered their fire directly to the front.
Having been appraised by Maj. Gen. Hoke that he had no reinforcements to send me, and it being night, I saw that the enemy would judge of my strength by the amount of fire we exhibited, I caused fresh supplies of ammunition to be brought up from time to time and allowed the men to fire rapidly. At intervals of ten or fifteen minutes I caused the rolling fire to cease for an instant, and then ordered the brigade to fire volleys together and shout aloud so as to induce the enemy to suppose that we were receiving reinforcements from time to time. In this way we kept them back from our works on the right. They might have passed, however, out of the range of our fire beyond the hill, for there was perhaps a mile of interval there between my right, and our next troops, but they seemed to have been unwilling to attempt it as long as they would be obliged to leave an obstinate force in their rear, and hence their persistent efforts to drive my brigade from its position. They finally ceased to advance, and before 10 o’clock I was able to send a report to Maj. Gen. Hoke that the trenches on my right were clear of the enemy. Very soon after this a detachment of troops came up the line of my intrenchments on the left, and the officer in command of them said that they were a party of the 34th Va. Regiment of Wise’s Brigade which had been rallied in the rear, and reported to me for orders. I directed them to move to my right, and occupy a portion of the vacant trench there. They failed to do so however, and in spite of reiterated orders to move forward remained in the trench so as to crowd portions of my brigade very much. About 10 ½ o’clock the 24th N. C. regiment of Gen. Ransom’s brigade commanded by Major [Thaddeus] Love came up likewise and reported to me, and on being ordered to occupy the vacant trench on my right, they moved rapidly forward and took possession of the works there. Not long after this I heard volleys of musketry and shouts and was soon informed that other regiments of Gen. Ransom’s brigade had taken possession of the trenches and that the whole line was gain held by us. This occurred about 11 o’clock and soon afterwards the firing ceased all along the line. The loss of my brigade was not very heavy and was chiefly incurred by those troops which I caused to move around to the right. The works, though hastily made, served to protect very effectually the men who were fighting in the trenches. It is due to my brigade that it should be stated that it was several times reported to us that the enemy had passed in heavy force tom our rear and I was for some time in expectation of being obliged to face the men about and charge an enemy in the rear.
My whole force present did not exceed a thousand muskets while it seems certain that two corps of the enemy were engaged against us. It was a contest therefore in which a single small brigade on account of the troops on its right giving way, was exposed alone to an attack on its front, right flank and rear by a force more than twenty times its strength. Under these circumstances it maintained the contest five hours and had finally repulsed the enemy before any reinforcements reached it. As we left that position before day break the loss of the enemy was not ascertained, but from what I saw as well as from the subsequent statements of the enemy they must have lost heavily. Had they been possessed of more determination and pluck, they could have passed through a large interval on our right on towards Petersburg, but though they fought much better than they had done on the previous evening encouraged probably by their success against the troops on my right, yet they failed to turn to account the opportunity afforded them.
At daybreak on the morning of the 18th my brigade with the division, retired to a line in the rear in obedience to orders. During the day though there was some skirmishing, there was no serious attack made by the enemy. On our right about fifteen of their regiments in succession advanced through a field down to the railroad or near it. They were fired on and at the distance of not less than twelve hundred yards some of the regiments were broken and all of them seemed to suffer to some extent.
During the day that excellent officer Lt. Col. Devane of the 61st regiment was severely though I trust not mortally wounded. In these three days our casualties were as follows:
Eight Regiment—killed, men 4; wounded, men 13; aggregate 17.
Thirty-first—killed, men 1; wounded 9; missing 2; aggregate 12.
Fifty-first—killed men 9; wounded, officers 2, men 35; missing, officers 2, men 24; aggregate 72.
Sixty-first—killed, men 9; wounded, officers 2, men 30; missing, officers 1, men 20; aggregate 62.
I take pleasure in saying that with a few exceptions the conduct of both officers and men was in the highest degree praiseworthy. During the long and arduous struggle of the 17th, this was especially true, and I doubt if any troops have ever under more trying circumstances exhibited a higher degree of courage and determination than was manifested by those under my command. They on that occasion showed that a body of resolute and brave men though exposed in front, flank and rear to the attack of twenty times their own numbers, could nevertheless win a victory.
I am, very respectfully, yours &c.,
T[HOMAS]. L. CLINGMAN, Brig. Gen.
Maj. J. A. Cooper, A. A. General.1
- “Gen. Clingman’s Report of the Battles in Front of Petersburg on the 16th, 17th and 18th of June.” Our Living and Our Dead (New Bern, NC). March 18, 1874, p. 2 col. 2-5 ↩