Editor’s Note: This article was provided by and transcribed by K. S. McPhail (New Kent County History and Thread the Rude Eye).
ONE MAN CAPTURES SIX HUNDRED
DARING FEAT OF J. B. LYLES OF GEN. BRATTON’S STAFF.
Gen. Bratton, in Telling the Story, Describes the Deed “the Most Conspicuous Feat of Valor and Skill, that Came Within my Knowledge Personally During the War of Secession.”
The Sunday News.
I have just come into possession of a copy of an account written by Brig. Gen. John Bratton, of what he characterizes as the most conspicuous feat of personal valor and skill that came within his knowledge.
Gen Bratton’s conspicuously active and gallant military service to the Confederacy, from Sumter to Appomattox, and from private to brigadier general, and his high reputation throughout South Carolina for patriotism and accuracy in statement, give peculiar interest and value to the paper.
The hero of the incident related is Captain Joseph Banks Lyles, now residing in Caddo, Indian Territory. He was born in 1829 near Winnsboro, S. C., graduated A. B. from South Carolina college in 1856, and has devoted his whole life to education, except during his four years’ service to the Confederacy; having been principal and proprietor of the Limestone, S. C., Male academy prior to, and subsequent to, the war of secession; in 1870 he removed to the west and conducted large schools successively at Paris, Texas, and Caddo, Indian Territory. He served on the staff of General Micah Jenkins and of General Bratton, was captain of Company C, 5th South Carolina volunteer infantry. He was nine times wounded with balls, shell and sabre, once having his skull broken. The rifle with which he effected the capture of the six hundred Yankees I have seen– a seven shot repeating Spencer carbine, with which the Federal cavalry was armed. I thought the publication of this enclosed account by General Bratton would be interesting to the general public and preserve a valuable historical document.
D. H. Means.
White Oak, S. C., March 29, 1896.–The most conspicuous feat of valor and skill (personal,) that came within my knowledge during the war of Secession was achieved by an officer of my brigade on the 27th of October 1864. In the severe and constant fighting of that campaign my staff, as well as line, suffered, and it was necessary to fill the places of the wounded officers of the line.
To meet such demand Captain J. Banks Lyle, of the 5th South Carolina regiment, was then, and had been for some time, rendering efficient service on the brigade staff. On the morning of the above date the enemy were in heavy force on the north side of the James and assailed our works with more or less vigor at various points, extending their attacks to and beyond the Charles City wood. In the afternoon his cavalry assaulted our works on the Williamsburg road, held by our cavalry, and were driven off. Field’s division of infantry was promptly moved to the Williamsburg road in anticipation of the assault by infantry, which followed, pushing our cavalry farther to the left, my brigade, under its senior, Col. Walker1, occupying the line across the road and were in position to meet and repulse it. In their retreat quite a number of them took refuge in a wash or gully, which ran through a depression in the field some 300 or 400 yards in front of our line, nearly half way to the enemy’s line. Captain Lyles saw they were whipped and would surrender if called on to do so. He so reported, and asked permission to advance the skirmish line and take them in. His request was refused, but convinced, as he was, that they would escape, simply because they were not invited to surrender before night came to cover their retreat, he determined to attempt their capture. He went to the skirmish line and tried to get them to volunteer, and failing in that, (all were willing to go if ordered,) he started alone, but had not advanced many paces before two men, (I am sorry that I cannot give their names,) called out: “Hold on, Captain, you shan’t go by yourself!” and moved out with him. They had gone but a short distance when he concluded not to subject his brave little force to the danger of possible error of his judgment, but to use their aid without risk to them. He had observed an officer trying to arouse the collapsed spirit of his men in the gully, and, halting his volunteers on the crest overlooking the position, ordered them to open fire on the officer and put a stop to his harangue, while he advanced alone over the open field in full view of Field’s division on our side, and the whole force of the enemy on the other side. He was recognized by his own brigade, but those of the other brigades, misapprehending his conduct, fired on him at long range so heavily that the dust stirred by the bullets falling around him almost concealed him from view. This continued until word could be passed along the line stopping it. This, of course, served to attract the attention of all to him as he approached the gully in which the enemy were, and in full view of friend and foe, accomplished the capture and made them file out without arms and move on to our lines. There was great enthusiasm and excitement on our side. Men all along the line of the division mounted the works with exclamations of admiration and inquiry: “Who is he?” etc. The enemy did not seem to understand it at first, and took no part until they saw the prisoners filing into our works, when they opened a battery on the scene, which contributed to the general excitement, but was especially effective in hurrying the movement of the prisoners into our works. The number of officers and men captured was about six hundred, with three stands of colors and swords by the armful. This is the substance of a report made to me on my return to the brigade a few days after the incident occurred. And on which I based and forwarded a recommendation for his promotion. Maj. General Fields (sic, Field), who witnessed the close of this stirring scene, not only endorsed, but warmly urged it on the ground of “benefit to the service,” in his entire division, adding what he himself saw of the remarkable feat. But our army was being worn away and reduced in numbers daily. There were no vacancies, all of our positions were held by officers of courage and experience, and our condition was not favorable to giving rank for any feat of valor, not even for one so conspicuous and extraordinary as this. The recommendation for promotion was for this reason, perhaps, shelved. This, though the most wonderful, was by no means the first of Captain Lyles’ feats of danger. They, together with his personal disregard for danger, had made him in the brigade a reputation for general recklessness, but his recklessness was entirely personal–no officer was more careful for his men, in looking to their comfort or shielding them from unnecessary risk. So far as they were concerned he exercised re.al prudence, but it was the prudence of which only a brave man is capable: He was highly endowed with what are called “battle instincts,” and relying implicitly on his intuitions of the conditions of the enemy, acted on them whenever he had authority to do so. Hence his successes in apparently rash and reckless enterprises.
His intelligent courage and peculiar adaptability to fighting attracted my attention and influenced my selection of him for service on the staff. I will only add that in that service he more than filled the measure of my expectations.
I have intentionally made this plain and simple statement, avoiding effort at embellishment, or even expression of my opinion and admiration, but it is necessary to a just appreciation of this crowning feat of a career of heroism to call attention to the time and place and circumstances of its achievement. Our army had been forced behind its works around Richmond and Petersburg, and its operations for months confined to their defence, which taxed to the utmost its courage and fortitude. With constant diminishing resources we were reduced to a steady, dogged defence. To the common eye there was literally no field for enterprise of valor and skill for our army, or any position of it, or any individual in it, and had not been for months when this startling and astounding feat was performed in the open light of day, in the open field and in full view of opposing lines. I put this statement in writing, though as an act of justice it is too tardy to be of benefit to my old, worthy and estimable comrade, but I shall give myself the satisfaction of sending it to his daughter that she and all who come after may know of what stuff they are made. And it may be that it may furnish material for a skillful hand to guild with true metal of heroism a page of our history.
(Letter from Brig. Gen. Jno. Bratton to daughter of Capt. J. B. Lyles.)
White Oak, S. C., March 29, 1896.
Dear Miss Fanny: You must not measure my appreciation of your interesting letter by my want of promptness in acknowledging it. The delay arose from my desire for leisure to enjoy the writing of such a letter. My time has been occupied with matters of a distressing and worrying nature.
You will perceive that the statement enclosed is dated the 19th inst. It was barely started when I was interrupted and did not resume it until today. Fearing indefinite procrastination and trusting that it would be pleasing in the sight of God, I have made a Sunday job of it.
I cannot tell how gratifying is such a letter from the daughter of my valued old comrade, who has been away so far and so long that I did not know that he had a daughter. It not only gave me great pleasure of itself by its spirit and tone, but a pleasant task to perform, which has been delayed solely by my wish for the leisure to do it as well as I can and to fully enjoy the doing of it. Your dear father is a little mixed in the facts. I was wounded, almost a week after the Battery Harrison affair and go back a few days after the Williamsburg road incident, while it was fresh, and my statement is the summary of reports from various sources, from Gen. Fields (sic, Field) down to the privates who witnessed it. He was on the eve of leaving for home, having secured a leave of absence to get married. The only trophy that was delivered to me was a little cavalry carbine. This he brought to me the evening before he left and informed me that he had not turned it over to the government, as was our rule with captured property, told me why he had not done so. When about half way through with the capture a Federal officer, some distance up the line, was indignantly rating his men for surrendering to one man and urging them to kill or capture him. It was the crisis of the undertaking (for he was in their power if they could only be brought to realize it) and must be met promptly. Throwing down his trophies and picking up the carbine which had been lost in the retreat of cavalry, he advanced promptly and directly on the officer, presenting the carbine and threatening to blow his brains out if he did not surrender. He yielded; the capture was completed without further trouble. Fortunately the carbine was not loaded, but neither your father nor the Yankee knew it. He slung the carbine on his shoulder and held it till I came.
His duties precluded the idea of his using it in the public service. He had no excuse for appropriating it, and brought it to me with the above statement. I received it and having no wedding present for his bride, told him that I would relieve him of all responsibility for it, but concluded to rob the government myself and begged him to present it to his bride for me as my wedding present.
He was so bashful and blushing at the mention of his bride that I doubted if he comprehended fully the nature of the transaction and carried my message straight. But he retained the carbine and my appropriation of it for him is the only recognition of his conduct that he ever received except general increase of admiration for his daring by his comrades. The colors and other trophies I never saw, but an inquiry learned that they have been turned in by a Georgia brigade (Anderson’s) who got credit for them temporarily, but if my recommendation for promotion, endorsed by Gen. Fields (sic, Field), is among the war papers, three stands of colors are on record as captured by him. I cannot recall what troops were captured further than that they were a portion of those who had handled us so roughly about a month before at Battery Harrison, and now, Miss Fannie, allow me to thank you for knowing me along with that brave father of yours, who is now doubtless like the rest of us, now a gray bearded old man, but still in my vision of him in the full vigor of young manhood, ready to blush at my illusion to his sweetheart, and for your nice interesting letter, which put in motion a long train of reminiscences, so full of noble aspirations and glorious deeds, that the darkness which has followed cannot tarnish their brightness.
Give my love to your father and tell him I shall not be satisfied unless he gives you a hearty smacking kiss for me. With love and good wishes for you all, I am, whether we ever meet or not,
Your sincere friend,