Editor’s Note: The first article in this series was first published at Mississippians in the Confederate Army by “championhilz”. The author, Private Frank H. Foote of the 48th Mississippi, was a prolific author of reminiscences of his time in Harris’ Mississippi Brigade in the postwar years. After a quick inquiry, it turns out “championhilz” is Jeff Giambrone, he works at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and he was more than happy to help me gain access to not only the original version of the first article, but the entire set. I thank him greatly for his kind assistance. I’m happy to present this history of Harris’ Mississippi Brigade in its entirety here at The Siege of Petersburg Online.
FOR THE CLARION:
The Death Grapple at Petersburg!
Last Days of Harris’ Mississippi Brigade.
[SOPO Editor’s Note: The early portion of this article talks of the author’s observations of the Confederate front lines following the famous July 30, 1864 Battle of the Crater.]
I ventured into the northern limit of the city of Petersburg, then being torn and racked to pieces by the enemy’s shells. The streets were deserted and presented a desolate appearance. Heaps of debris cumbered the passage, and shells were constantly striking around or exploding high in the heavens. Due inquiry put me into the safest route to reach the lines near Appomattox river, and I soon got inside the lines there. Showed my pass to prevent too much talking, and looked around to see the sights. In the redoubt I was in, lay piled up great heaps of hand grenades ready for work. The opposing lines here were so close as to render these doubtful weapons of some avail; at intervals they would be thrown over the lines into that of the enemy, where “perhaps they exploded and perhaps they did not.” It takes knack to throw them just right. I tried them once, but it did not burst. Short-cut fuse shells lay abundantly near; these they would light with port fires, and roll them over the works in case of an attack. Loaded rifles leaned against the bank, while over-charged cannon stood gaping for death’s repast. The embrasures of the redoubt were filled with sand bags to stop rifle balls, while the cannon was pulled a just little to one side to prevent a cannon shot, from the enemy which might enter the embrasure, from disabling the piece. Curiosity getting the better of prudence, I popped my head up to see the other side. Bullets by the bucketful attested as to the watchfulness of the enemy; and then a cannon shot came crashing against the redoubt and tore off some of the wicker work. I realized that if I wanted to survive the war I had better let love of the curious alone. Muttered curses and hints that “greenies” had better stay in the infantry followed me as I sneaked up the lines on my way “home.”
Crossing a hollow, I came across the passage of the fight [at the Battle of the Crater]. The ground was yet dotted with the slain, nearly all blacks, swollen by the hot sun to an enormous size, and rotted with corruption. Most of the whites of both armies had been “planted,” as we called the rude burial generally accorded to soldiers. Judging from what we saw, many of the negroes had sought our rear; but no quarter had been shown. Some lay as far back as our original line of battle, showing probably that the first line of our troops had passed them, and they fled to the rear, where a quiet stab of a bayonet finished the work. Death had overtaken them in groups as well as singly in off-way places, and the orders were obeyed to a letter to “lose them.” What the bullet failed to do the triple edge of the bayonet accomplished, and many a corpse bore that little triangular mark which is so fatal when given. One poor fellow lay weltering in his gore; while swarms of flies hovered and buzzed around him, filling him with their larvae. With twitchings and convulsive efforts he was tearing at his wound, and moaning piteously. Our promptings of humanity were strong enough to give him some water, which rallied him a little. Some one asked him “where he was hurt?” pointing to his breast he said, “rite hyar in de hart; de reb he stuck me dar.” Several hours had elapsed since he was stuck in “de hart;” and I was glad to see signs of dissolution approaching which would end his career as a soldier. Another mortally wounded negro was seen by some that had lived at my home in Mississippi. His master was Gen. B[enjamin]. G. Humphreys, afterwards Governor of Mississippi. He inquired feelingly for “Marse Ben,” while his wails of agony were sad to hear. They felt an interest in him, for scenes of home came into their thoughts; and from a happy but humble cabin, he had fled his master’s protection and care, and fell cruelly upon a defeated field of battle. The chances of war are terrible at the best; and what chance a negro soldier had for honor or profit will never be known. Buffetted about by all; made subservient to every wish or thought; lacking every quality that made a soldier; he could not succeed, and the facts of history to-day are adverse to the claim that “colored soldiers fought nobly.” At this battle he was sent in to take the storm of missiles that would certainly concentrate on the first onslaught; and when they did go in they were held their [sic] by the fire of both friend and foe until almost the last one was killed. Incited by their officers they came crying “no quarter” and cruelly bayonetted the unfortunate wounded found in their path, and met the very fate they accorded to their victims.
It may not be out of place, right here to speak of the Southern idea to-day of those white men who led negro soldiers. “No words of scorn can express their feelings; no amount of contact can bridge the social chasm; and they stand utterly repudiated and ostracized, where it is known.” When the idea of creating the negro into a soldier was broached to the army of Northern Virginia, it was derided and denounced, utterly and totally rejected. Nothing could or would persuade that body of men to accept him as a co-patriot or a factor in the field. They knew his stability, if he had any, too well for any guarantee for fitness; and they would see the Confederacy tumble to pieces, before they would make it a success by his efforts.
To return. The battle-field presented the usual aspect, except the corpses were black. The usual fulness of “death’s repast” was there terribly shown. The crater, a huge rent in the ground, was then being filled in, gangs were coming and going, bringing in bodies which were tossed over into the hole; other gangs were shoveling dirt; while over all, as a cloud, swarmed myriads of flies; and a terrible stench was permeating the air, and rendering the scene one of additional horror to any we had ever seen, and showed the effects of wrath wreaked out to a bloody satisfaction.
Sickened by these sights, and surfeited by these stern realities of war’s vindictiveness, we wended our way towards camp, passing many festering bodies of men whom the detail party had not given any attention to. Passing up the lines crouching low to keep out of the range of sharpshooters, we passed through the lines of Gen. [Archibald] Gracie’s Alabamians. It was a treat to see them. How well they were fixed up—tents, camp kettles, spiders, etc.; while their clean clothes showed full well that they had not seen a great deal of hard service. The Federal marksmen were daily picking them off; and I believe Gen. Gracie was himself killed here by a shell 1 . The crack of the rifle was admonishing them, as it did us, of the uncertainty of a soldier’s life. Many would fall, not as they would wish, in the whirl and tumult of a glorious charge, but by the sly aim of a concealed foe. There was no glory in such a death; no paper told of deeds of daring; the simple fact alone was sent home “killed in the trenches.” When camp was reached we felt as if home was indeed reached, so varying and harried had been the scenes witnessed by us in a tour of about five miles, which it took to accomplish with some degree of safety, when the scene of action lay distant only one-half mile.
Life again resumed in monotonous turn, varied in August by a movement towards Richmond. The brigade took part in the action at Deep Bottom or Fussell’s Mill, August 18th, and suffered a light loss. They returned to camp, and on the 21st of August were sent down the Weldon Railroad, and participated in the battle fought there on that date. The command was badly cut up, and lost about two hundred and fifty or sixty men. The flag of the 16th [Mississippi] regiment was saved from capture by the color bearer, B. F. Chisolm, securing it on his person just prior to his capture, which he saw was unavoidable. This flag escaped the sharp eyes of the guards in prison; and was restored to the command in October upon exchange of the color bearer.
One dark, rainy night in September, the brigade was put under arms in a quiet way.2 The 48th [Mississippi] regiment was detached, and with only rifles and cartridge-boxes marched down towards the Weldon railroad; they then bore to the left; crossed the breastworks, and took position in an old field in advance of the regular picket line. We were told that a surprise of the picket line of the enemy would take place; and we were to sweep quietly up the line until opposite our division; if we captured the line by surprise, we were to run in with the Federal pickets, seize their works, and hold them until the brigade would come up. Noiselessly we pushed to the front. The rain fell in streams. The blackness of night could almost be felt. Slowly towards the lines of the enemy we moved; not a shot had so far disturbed the march. One shot from the enemy, a random one, was fired and one of the regiment fell with a shattered leg. Suppressing his cries we hurried forward. Orders were then given to lay down and crawl on all-fours till the outlines of the sentinels were to be seen, and then rush forward and not fire a shot. Just as we commenced crawling forward, another shot came and did fatal work. Still we were not discovered, and before the pickets knew it we were amongst them, grabbing this one and that; and several times one another. It was so dark that we could see nothing, and we lost valuable time in consequence. Myself and companion sprang over the posts, he clearing them, and I fell into the pit which had been used as a sink. The rain had filled it full, and I was up to my waist in the filth. Some one else pumped in beside me, and with a “phew! phew! what is this?” I exclaimed in language plain but inelegant. We both crawled out, disgusted at our fortune. We were given a wide birth, and finally sent to the rear, where we became the laughing-stock of the regiment for some time. Suffice it to say that the surprise was incomplete. We lost more than we gained; one of my company noticed a “fat knapsack” lying on the ground; picking it up he was accosted in a rough voice to “luff dat sack alone,” peeping cautiously into the speakers face he saw he was a negro. Directly I heard some one say “stop that! don’t kill him;” but a dull rasping noise, blood-curdling in its sound, told that the man was using his bayonet on the negro soldier or servant or whatever he was. The knapsack was brought off, but was of such a rank smell, peculiar to Africans, that its contents were given to a negro servant of ours.
One evening a detail were unloading wood at Headquarters. A piece of artillery in our front opened on us; they fired at us three shots, and not a single one came near us; they all dropped shot and came bounding along on the ground. We never could understand why the ball failed to reach us, and have but one a, some joking Federals might have tried to hit us with a mortar gun laying flat to the ground instead of its natural position. Any piece of artillery could have torn us to pieces. It was very singular to us, and the experiment may have satisfied the Federals. We were content.
On the 27th of October we fought at Burgees’ [sic, Burgess’] Mill at the bridge by the mill; and sustained a heavy loss. We retired the next day, and went into camp at our position. Later on we were withdrawn from the lines, and sent out on the Boydtown [sic, Boydton] Plank road near Fort Gregg, where we wintered. Our ranks needed rest; and it could best be afforded in the woods and away from the incessant crack of the rifle, and the crash of bombs. We made ourselves comfortable in a short while.
Christmas with its joys to some, and sorrows to many, rolled around. This was the fourth Christmas from loved ones. When we set out for the war with light hearts, we never dreamed that a Christmas would be spent away from home. It was to be a pleasure trip we thought; we will see something of the world; aye, we did too, but not the way our youthful dreams had pictured it. This Christmas of the dark, dreary days of 1864, is fraught with the memory of probably the most gigantic undertaking of the kind ever thought of. The good citizens of Richmond and Petersburg would give Lee’s army a Christmas dinner. Contributions were freely given, though the people were as poor as we of the army, almost; provisions were extraordinarily high, even in coin. Fabulous prices were paid; but the project was carried through. Army wagons were utilized to bring the “goodies” to camp; and we patiently awaited. The third day rolled around; and we were drawn up in line to receive our share of turkeys, geese, ducks, mutton, etc. naturally expected from what had been seen and heard. When our turn came, one goose, some mutton, and about forty loaves of bread, fell to our lot. The problem to solve was how to dispose of the goose and little bit of mutton. The goose was voted to the officers of the Field and Staff. The mutton to the line officers—by the way very few of them left—and the bread was sliced up and divided among the rank and file. The bread was eaten and relished with jokes. A hearty “here’s to you” attested the humor of the matter. A too lavish hand at the outset had fed abundantly the beginning of the issuance, and thus it did not hold out.
This demonstration of gratitude from these good citizens, cost over seven thousand dollars. The intention was good; this was appreciated by all; and to our whilom ffiends [friends?] across the way, we could only wish “Peace on earth, good will to all.”
The winter was not unusually severe, and we got along well enough at the beginning. Later on, rations “got thin,” and then hard times set in. The daily allowance was ¼ pound of meat, pork, or bacon, or one pound beef, one pint flour or meal; sugar or coffee we did not draw. The meat most frequently issued was what was known [as] Nassau bacon. It seemed to have been bacon once, and then cured in salt brine like pork. If held up by the end it would nearly double its length; poor half-starved rebs like us could hardly stomach it, it was so foul, and utterly destitute of grease. All the boilings or frys failed to extract one ounce of grease from it. It had no sustenance; and would not flavor the inevitable dish of cush the soldier’s friend and stand-by. Its one redeeming feature was its elasticity. You could chew it a long time before you made up your mind to swallow it. Another ration ocasionaly issued afforded merriment; this was condensed beef, put up in ten pound cans; it came through the blockade. A heaping tablespoonful was a day’s ration. It was palatable and strengthening, and would make a good meal by adding water and flour. Corn meal rations got away with us especially when three day’s rations of it were drawn; when cooked it made such a tremendous pone that it was difficult to put it away in knapsacks and haversacks. The greatest difficulty was in keeping it sound, as it soon mildewed and soured. The knowing ones baked their bread thin, and without salt; and thus it kept very well, and was easily handled as it packed well. Frequently only a portion of the corn meal would be cooked at once, the balance would be stowed away and either used or mixed with water and salt as a gruel and drank. This afforded a cooling and palatable drink, being both food and water. After camp was pitched then mush would be made, you could often hear some of the “tallest cussing,” when a fierce flame would suddenly scorch the matter; but it had to be used. In one campaign we baked our pones in corn shucks, or green leaves, and it was delicious. When we could raid a corn and pumpkin field, we were as happy as if gathering the spoils of a battle-field. Roast pumpkin was a treat, and was ingeniously cooked by roasting whole. A small hole in the side gave access to remove the seed; and we either put in five dollars worth of sugar, one pound, or sorghum molasses. The pumpkin was suspended on a frame by the stem, and then slowly turned until done to perfection. Old corn-fields were thoroughly ransacked for odd beans that fell from the pods. On a rainy day we could sometimes gather several messes; and we were envied by those who were less ingenious in devising ways to “fill up.” Wood rats were caught and eaten; but that was “buncombe,” just to say they had eaten rats. (That is my view of it anyhow.) We erected ovens at the wagon-yard, and soon had light bread; one pint of flour made a loaf, that was plenty for one day, and left something over. Thus, in a week, about one loaf would be gained which was a blessing. The great draw back in light-bread rations, was the bulk of it; it was too large for the haver-sacks, so, what could be done for it? When three days’ rations were ordered for a march, we drew one in bread, and two in flour, i.e., if you were sharp enough to get around the commissary. I have seen men marching with a loaf of bread on his bayonet, or his rifle, this one was consumed first. To throw away a loaf of bread because it was sour or unwieldy, would have ranked with “treason, arson, or murder.” We were fortunate if a beef head and heels could be secured from the commissariat. They would be boiled down to a mass of jelly; and when done the bones and debris skillfully strained by an improvised net or sieve contrived for the purpose; the matter was allowed to cool, and then taken as a cake from the vessel, and afforded a nutritious mess. In those days every atom of food was utilized, and “stretched until it broke,” as the hungry ones would say.” In the summer poke weed furnished the greens and caused the mouth to water for the traditional bacon and greens of the home fireside. Wild fruits never reached perfection, half-ripe it seemed was better than none. Persimmons were plentiful in Virginia, and helped the cause mightily. We recall the anecdote of Gen. Ed. Johnson, he who lost the salient at Spottsylvania, who espied a soldier apparently eating half-ripe persimmons, “my friend,” said the general, “don’t you know that those persimmons are not ripe, why do you eat them?” “General,” he drawled out, “I am eating these blasted things to draw my belly up to suit the rashuns I draw.” “Sold,” exclaimed the general, as he rode on, followed by a chuckle from his staff. The general assured me since the war that this was actually a fact.
[TO BE CONTINUED.]3
Harris’ Mississippi Brigade Series from the 1884 The Clarion (Jackson, MS):
- NP: September 10, 1884 The Clarion (Jackson, MS): The Death Grapple at Petersburg: Last Days of Harris’ Mississippi Brigade, Part 1
- NP: September 17, 1884 The Clarion (Jackson, MS): The Death Grapple at Petersburg: Last Days of Harris’ Mississippi Brigade, Part 2
- NP: September 24, 1884 The Clarion (Jackson, MS): The Death Grapple at Petersburg: Last Days of Harris’ Mississippi Brigade, Part 3
- NP: October 1, 1884 The Clarion (Jackson, MS): The Death Grapple at Petersburg: Last Days of Harris’ Mississippi Brigade, Part 4
- NP: October 8, 1884 The Clarion (Jackson, MS): The Surrender-Homeward Bound!: Last Days of Harris’ Mississippi Brigade, Part 5
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Brigadier General Archibald Gracie III was killed on December 2, 1864 at what became known as Gracie’s Salient, opposite Fort Stedman in the opposing Union lines, by a Union artillery shell. Interestingly, Gracie’s son survived the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: I am unsure which skirmish the following paragraph refers to. If you can pinpoint the date, please use the Contact button at the top of the page to let me know. ↩
- “The Death Grapple at Petersburg! Last Days of Harris’ Mississippi Brigade.” The Clarion (Jackson, MS). September 17, 1884, p. 1 col. 4-6 ↩