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NP: July 25, 1897 Charleston (SC) News and Courier: The Slaughter at Petersburg, June 18, 1864

Editor’s Note: This article was provided by and transcribed by K. S. McPhail (New Kent County History and Thread the Rude Eye)



It Was At Petersburg in 1864 and Not in 1863.


There was no Fighting Around Petersburg in 1863–Some Interesting Personal Reminiscences of the Fatal Day, and those which immediately Preceded and Succeeded it, by Judge Wm M. Thomas, then an Officer of Rion’s Battalion [SOPO Editor’s Note: The 7th South Carolina Battalion] in Hagood’s Brigade–Rion’s Strict Deiscipline the Cause of the Terrible Slaughter of the Federal Troops on that Glorious Occasion.

To the Editor of the Sunday News: In your issue of Sunday the 18th July Mr. Marcus B. Alley, of the Maine Artillery during the late war between the States, gives a history of the Federal attack upon the lines at Petersburg on June 18, 1864. He writes it as 1863, but that was a mistake. There was no fighting around Petersburg in 1863, and all with whom I have conversed agree that 1864 is correct. Otherwise his description from the Federal standpoint is in accord with my recollection.


As this was a bloody and remarkable battle, and no account of it has been written for several years you will I hope allow me to give the Confederate version of the battle. Even the Federal official reports have been strangely reticent concerning the operations of the 18th of June, 1864, and of the two days preceding that day. General Grant, in his report says that he ordered General G.W. Smith to advance and for three days finding no progress had been made he went himself to the front. This is all he says: General B.F. Butler who had been bottled up, as Grant said, across the Appomattox, a stone’s throw from a part of this battlefield, and who crossed it to see Grant, retaliated the bottling up assertion by alleging that ”Grant was drunk” on this occasion.

Some time ago a new element to me, was introduced into our Confederate version, and I wrote to General Hagood the accompanying version, so as to recall his attention to the facts. In reply he wrote me he was glad to get it; that no report of the same had ever before reached him. Colonel Rion who usually made these reports was wounded on the 19th of June, and was subsequently for some weeks in the hospital, so that no official report from him could have been made. It will thus be seen that from both sides the official accounts of the battle have been meagre, and that a Confederate statement should supplement the Federal account of Mr. Alley.


The Confederate lines attacked at that time were held by Hagood’s South Carolina Brigade, and were those to the north of Petersburg, commencing at the Appomattox river on the west, and extending eastwardly across the Charles City dirt road and railroad north of and alongside of Hare’s Race Course to the salient on the lines held by Colquitt’s brigade. Hagood’s, Colquitt’s and Clingman’s brigades comprised Hoke’s division. Clingman’s brigade did not come up until the 19th. The extreme west of the line was held by a Virginia battery on the banks of the Appomattox, and from there to the Charles City dirt road were the 11th, 21st, 27th, and 25th regiments. Between the dirt road and railroad was a fort, and to the east of the railroad was another fort. These forts were held by the 7th battalion under Major James H. Rion. Colonel Nelson was absent, and did not return until the 19th. He was killed five days afterwards, on nearly the same field. From Rion’s forts to Colquitt’s salient there was a short gap. The forts were somewhat nearer to the Federal lines than the salient, but when on the 19th the forts were abandoned and new lines established south of Hare’s Race Course, in the old canal, then the gap was closed and Colquitt’s salient became nearer the Federal lines. Beyond Colquitt’s salient to the east the lines ran to the salient, variously called Pegram’s (who occupied it on the 18th of June), Elliott’s (who there fought the mine fight in August) and Gracie’s (who held it after the mine fight). None of these, however were engaged on the 18th of June.


The attack of the Federals commenced on the 15th. From the Virginia battery, on the banks of the Appomattox, to the Colquitt salient, the Confederate lines were there held by General Wise’s Virginia brigade and the Virginia reserves. The Federals came across the James river and advanced on Petersburg by the Charles City roads. They swept across Wise’s lines, leaving no Confederate position occupied except that of the Virginia battery at the Appomattox. From that point to Colquitt’s salient, the Confederate lines remained undefended until late in the evening and during the night, when they were re-occupied by the arrival of reinforcements of Hagood’s brigade.


Hagood’s brigade had been on the north side of the James river, confronting Grant’s army, from before the battle of Cold Harbor, on the 3d of June, along down the Chickahominy, Malvern Hill, and Haws’s Shop; and on the morning of the 16th were on the north bank of the James river, near the pontoon bridge at Drewry’s Bluff. We were hurriedly marched across the bridge to the south side of the James, and on to the Petersburg and Richmond railroad, near Chester Courthouse. It was a cool morning, and as I was marching near Major Rion, there came to my nose the most fragrant scent a weary soldier ever inhaled.

“What is that?” I asked.

“Hush,” said Orderly-Sergeant Malone, of D, the front company, “Major Rion has opened his brandy flask.” Rion always carried a flask filled with French brandy for an emergency, and wearied with the fatiguing campaign and march, he had taken a morning dram. I believe the smell did me as much good as the dram did for him.

We came to the railroad about sixteen miles or so from Petersburg, and halted along the track. The 7th, under Colonel Rion, was in front and nearest to Petersburg. Towards evening, Major Ed. Willis, of the Quartermaster’s department, came along from Richmond with an engine, tender, and two cars. He called for two companies of volunteers from the brigade to go to Petersburg. Colonel Rion stepped out and said: “The whole battalion will go.” He directed me to put the eight companies, comprising some 500 men, on the train. It was close packing, standing and sitting, inside and outside, on engine, tender and cars. I was on top taking in the scenery and the pine smoke from the engine. I was a dirty white man before we started, but by the time we arrived in Petersburg I was black.

Right across Pocahontas Bridge and up the Main street we marched, my blackness illuming and leading the way. It was just after Wise’s brigade had given way. They were running back, some hatless, some shoeless, and nearly all without guns. The women of Petersburg were out on the sidewalks carrying their household goods from place to place.

“What brigade is that?” they asked.

“Hagood’s brigade,” I proudly answered.

“We are safe now,” said they, as they went down on their knees on the pavements. Hagood’s brigade had saved them twice recently before in May, at the battles of Walthall Junction, and of Swift Creek. Their gratitude was an inspiration to every man in the regiment.


Out we marched on the Charles City road, until we came just south of Hare’s Race Course. There we were marched into a depression among the hills, where General Hoke had his headquarters, and were rationed. About dusk we were marched to the north of the race course, and into an open field nearly aligned on Colquitt’s salient, and we commenced immediately to throw up breastworks with bayonets, swords, tin plates, etc. Three times during the night we were drawn up in line of battle to charge, and the order was countermanded. At last, towards morning, our pickets were put out in front, and we went to sleep on our arms.

Just at daybreak the adjutant was directed to relieve the pickets, and draw them in nearer if necessary. We knew the enemy were facing us across the field. When the Adjutant came to the picket line in the gray of the morning, there could be seen Federal pickets approaching two of Wise’s abandoned forts in our front, as if to take possession of them. The forts were as near to us as they were to the Federals. The old picket combined with the relief and made a dash for the forts; they got there before the Federals, and the Federals lost several men. The Federals fled. I reported to Major Rion who sent me to General Hoke. He ordered Major Rion to advance his whole battalion into the forts, and to hold them if he could.

By the time I rejoined the regiment Major Rion had his line of battle ready, and we moved away from Colquitt’s left across the gap to the forts. The Federals began to comprehend the situation. They commenced shelling us and sending forward their infantry to attack the forts. This was kept up all that day.


Early in the day General Hagood came to us, and made his headquarters on the left of the left fort, next to the dirt road. Across the road, along a marshy slope, were the 25th and other regiments of his brigade, extending down to the Appomattox river.

Between our dirt road and the 25th regiment was a deep drain, and it became necessary to bridge this drain in order that there might be access along our lines. General Hagood’s staff was scattered, and I can recall none who were with him except Lieutenant Dwight Stoney, a glorious little soldier then, and now in the Charleston express office. The General made use of me, and among other things, he intimated he wanted that bridge built. I informed him our battalion pioneer corps, under Lieutenant Hill, of Company C, was back at Hares’s Race Course. He directed me take Dwight Stoney’s pretty marsh tacky, with a good switch, ride fast as I crossed the railroad where it converged to the dirt road, and bring up the pioneers. The Federals were sending their shells down the railroad as down a sluice. But the pony carried me safely, and I soon had the pioneers at the front. When I reported with them Lieutenant Hill was temporarily absent, and General Hagood turned the pioneers over to me to build the bridge. A veteran soldier can do almost anything, and soon I raised a cloud of dust which drew afresh the shelling of the Federals.


About this time some of Captain Dave Walton’s company came in from the front, and said one of Wise’s abandoned cannon and limber chest were at the foot of the hill in front, about sixty yards away. The General gave me leave to stop raising the dust, and to take the pioneers and recover the gun. We brought it back into the road, alongside of the left fort, wheeled it round, and got it ready for the next charge of the Federals. The General said when we put it in position, that we had no artillerists to manage it I told him “some of Rion’s old company B, were among the pioneers and were drilled in artillery practice.” All right go ahead. This was the only gun used that day or the next, so far as I know, on our lines, and it did good service, as Mr. Alley testifies.


About the time General Hagood came to us and was endeavoring to establish the line down to the river, Captain Ward Hopkin’s, Captain Walters’, and perhaps some other companies, were marched to the front and towards the river, across the open field. I was standing on the parapet of the fort watching them. The Federals trained their guns upon them, and I saw these brave soldiers killed. Among with them were Lieutenant Allemong and Sergeant Beckman. I knew them all well. Ward Hopkins was a classmate with me in the South Carolina College, and no more knightly spirit ever served the Confederacy. Beckman and I had gone to the same Sunday-school and church in our boyhood.


During the night of the 17th the ammunition gave out, and it was brought up in an army wagon I had to distribute it to the regiments on our left I started with a detail, carried out my orders, and was returning to headquarters, when I missed my bridge and brought up in the swamp. As bad luck would have it, the Federals made an attack at that time. Then I was in the swamp and water, with the Federals in front of me, and the 25th regiment in rear of me. There was no alternative except to obey the old Confederate injunction, “to grab a root.” I managed to get between two tussocks, and under water as much as I could. The balls passed over me from both sides, so I was unhurt, but I felt very uncomfortable all night in my wet and muddy clothing.


The next morning was the 18th June. Then Mr. Alley says, Lincoln’s pets, 1,950 strong, the Maine battery charged us, and went back with 250 I can realize that this was so, for, except at Cold Harbor, I never saw such slaughter.


At early daylight the Federals commenced shelling us. It was then, as it is now, my habit to take hot coffee as soon after daylight as practicable. Of course I had to make it myself. That morning I made a double portion, for Major Rion and myself I knew he needed it. He brought his tin cup to me, and then went off across the esplanade of the fort, and called to me to bring him his coffee. To do so I would have to expose myself to the shells of the Federals, which were flying around us. I did it. The Major said: “I wanted to see if you could do it without spilling a drop I believe you did it.”


The Major gave the right fort to my charge but such a charge! “Take your place in the fort, when the line crosses the railroad, and extend my orders. Remember, I hold you responsible at the mouth of my pistol, if a shot is fired from that fort before my order to fire.” I was dazed: for it is almost impossible to restrain men from firing when under fire, and while being charged, and I knew the Major was a strict disciplinarian and would do as he said. So I asked him: “How can I help it.” “Go to Captain Jones (I. L., of Liberty Hill), and say to him what I said to you, and that I say you can only relieve yourself of responsibility from my pistol by your opening fire on him upon the first premature shot he permits to come from that fort.” I so did; crossing the railroad among the shells to see Captain Jones. That discipline was the secret of that slaughter.

The battle was continuously fought under the strictest tactics of the manual of arms. The Major would stand in the open, so he could see our breastworks, and the balance of us would be “grabbing a root, close up to the breastworks.” The enemy would come by brigades, two companies deep, and march steadily across the open field towards us, while the air over our heads was seething with shells and minie-balls. At my post, behind the breastwork, near the railroad, I would peep up to see how near the Federals were. Captain Jones, on the other side of the railroad, was doing the same thing. Closer and closer would the Federals come, and I would think to myself, “Will he never say fire.” At length they came within ten or fifteen yards as Mr. Alley says, and the Major straightened himself, “Rear rank, ready! Aim, fire!” Then, “Front rank, ready! Aim, fire!” I extended the orders to Captain Jones, and 250 Enfield rifles of each rank spoke at each command with one voice. The air was thick in front of us with the smoke; but when we ceased firing, and the air cleared, we could see the retreating and scattered Federals, and the dead they had left in our front.


In one of these charges while the shells were flying, I peeped up to see the approaching Federals. Just in front of me there suddenly appeared something like a black buzzing bee. It was a shell. I knew what it was, and down I ducked behind the breastwork. The shell burst in the breastwork, right in front of me, and covered me with dirt all to my protruding legs I was pulled out, and my head bandaged where a piece of the shell had struck me. It was my duty to report the casualties. I did not report myself. “How is this?” asked Major Rion. I told it was slight, and I did not want my wife to be unnecessarily alarmed. “Wounds, sir, are honorable to a soldier and his command. A wound is any blood letting. Don’t let this occur again.” I told him “I hoped it would not.”


But all things must come to an end. General Hoke had been preparing an interior line for us, while we were fighting the forts South of Hare’s Race Course was the old Colonial Canal, leading from near Colquitt’s salient down to the Appomattox, and it made splendid breastworks. On the morning of the 19th the interior line was ready. At daylight Major Rion directed me to make a detail of skirmishers for him. When I reported with the detail he directed me to take the rest of the battalion back to the canal and report to General Hagood. This I did, looking back at Major Rion to see what he was going to do with his skirmishers. They were all lying flat and within ten or fifteen yards of the breastworks. The Federals saw us withdraw, and came on to the forts with a great rejoicing. The Major let them crowd the breastworks, and then poured in a volley from his skirmishers. Both sides retreated.

I had reported to General Hagood in the road, and he directed me to take his horse and recall Major Rion. The campaign had made him bony, yet I mounted, but did not get twenty yards before he fell with me. The shells were flying, and they thought I was killed, but I got on my feet, turned the horse’s head back to the General, and cried out, “If he had no objections, I would take the balance of my journey afoot,” and so I did.

The Major brought in his skirmishers, and exchanged them for the first company of the Washington Light Infantry, and went back to the front. The Federals must have thought he had a brigade, he ran the infantry about in such a way.  We could hear him, “Charge, men, charge!” “Down!” The infantry behaved well, and the Major was so well pleased that he sent to me for the second company of the Light Infantry.

General Hagood gave me a verbal order on the commanding officer for them, and I carried then out to Rion. He had been wounded in the right forearm at Drury’s Bluff, and he always carried a tournequet and bandages ready in his haversack. Just after midday he was wounded in the left forearm, and brought in his skirmishers. I applied the tournequet for him, and bandaged his arm, and he went to the hospital.


Before going he had the prescience to establish our picket pits; he directed they should be kept at a good distance from our main line, so that the main line might not be annoyed by shooting from close quarters. This was wise. When we first entered the canal our regiments were mixed up, but soon Colonel Nelson came in, and our battalion was aligned from the road eastwardly, and the other regiments extended to Colquitt’s salient in the same direction; to the west of the road was Clingman’s North Carolina Brigade. They did not keep the Federals off as far as we did, and the consequence was Clingman suffered from the near approach of the Federals. They got so close they could talk together, swap tobacco, newspapers, etc. The men became so friendly that an order was issued on our side to stop it, and to commence firing. I recall how a Tarheel got on the breastworks and cried out, “Hide out, you Feds, we have orders to commence firing, and we are going to begin.”

The difference in the picket lines in front of us and those in front of Clingman made a complete trap for several Federal officers. The officer of the day and officers in charge of the Federal picket line used to start, after nightfall, to visit their picket pits, commencing at the Appomattox river, and going eastwardly. Along Clingman’s line it was plain sailing, but when they came to the road and crossed over in our front, they came on the same projection to the rear of the Confederate pickets; and all the Confederates had to do was to draw a bead on them and make them stand and deliver.


Captain W.C .Clyburn, of Co. G, was at that time acting as major, and inasmuch as we had recovered the cannon on the 17th he was put in charge of it when it was brought back to the canal. It was right in the road, and the Federal prisoners, when brought in, would be brought before Captain Clyburn. He is now, and was then, one of the politest men in the world. He would receive these Federal officers with the utmost courtesy, but he would always insist on the spoils of war. Captain Clyburn had plenty of greenbacks and good clothing so long as this trap lasted. He lived well, too. He once asked me to dinner with him. “Take this seat, up against this tree; you can see to the front, and you are in no danger, I can assure you. None of the Federal balls ever come lower than this mark, said he, showing me a spot on the tree about three inches above my head. About a day or two afterwards Captain Clyburn showed me where a Federal ball had struck the tree fully six inches below, just where my head had been.


Four years after this battle I revisited this field. When I went into the army for good my wife had made me a pretty woolen shirt, and put in it my set of amethist and pearl studs, so that if I was killed as she said, whoever found my body would see I was a gentleman and give me decent burial. A few days after I had been among the tadpoles, as above related, I went to the rear towards the Appomattox, to bathe and wash my clothing. I found I thought a safe place and deposited my studs on a stump taking my shirt with me into the water. While busy in my laundry the Federals made an attack, and their balls fell so thick around me that I retreated, taking my clothing, regardless of my studs. My remembrance is that Captain Martin, of General Hagood’s staff, was wounded in the same vicinity that day. So when I went North for my health in 1868, and passed through Petersburg, I stopped over to see the old battlefield and find my studs. I found the stump, but the studs were gone.


The old forts were reversed. Instead of facing North they faced South. Some negro women and a man were hoeing corn on the site of the left fort. I asked them “if that was a Yankee or Rebel fort?” “The Yankee fort,” was the answer. I was miffed. I said: “I was here in the fight, and just where the women are hoeing three men were killed by one shell, and we buried them right there.” Down went the hoes and away went the women just as the Federals had done years before.

Wm M. Thomas

No 22 Broad street, July 23, 18971

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  1. “The Slaughter at Petersburg.” Charleston (SC) News and Courier. July 25, 1897, p. 9 col. 1-4
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