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NP: January 16, 1910 Richmond Times-Dispatch: Life Along the Howlett Line

Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Jackie Martin.



But Confederates Found Time to Have Their Sport Between Explosions of Death-Bearing Shells.

After my returning from Johnson’s Island, and the usual thirty days’ furlough, I found my regiment, the Eighth Virginia, at Fort Harrison, and not many days after [on June 16, 1864] we were rushed across the [James] river to hold the [Howlett] line from which General Beauregard rushed to save Petersburg—that line which Grant said held Butler “as in a bottle, strongly corked.”1

We were hurrying along, when I saw a scout coming, stopping now and then, and looking back.  Generals Anderson and Pickett rode up, and I was directed to deploy the regiment, a wing on either side of the road, leaving the road open, and advancing.  The Yankees had fired the woods, to give direction to their artillery, I imagine, when General Pickett ordered us to lie down.  A battery on the left soon opened on us, but did little damage, except took the arm off a negro boy.  Another shell deflected by the limb of a tree, took the knapsack from the shoulders of a man in Company C, Fox by name.  Hitherto I had been skeptical about explosive musket balls but, a tree near me was struck time and again.  I knew the Yankees had them.

We changed direction to the left, formed line, advanced, and were soon in our breastworks.  General Terry, next on our right, I think, had to fight for his place the next morning.

Defend Long Line.

We proceeded to arrange ourselves moving up and down the line, and stretching to cover the whole line.  The men had to stoop pretty low in passing the embrasures.  One long fellow, I recall, could not get quite low enough and got scratched in the top of his head.  Another fine young fellow, of another regiment, was killed by a sharpshooter from the roof of a church—it seemed to be.  I am sure we got that fellow later, though, for we had some good artillerists with us.  We wanted water badly.  I found a water witch, but his bench fork would not dip on our side, but took him over the breastworks, but I tunneled under, and it proved very satisfactory.  The enemy had our rifle pits, and we wanted them, so we took them, but had one man so badly wounded in the leg that he could not get back.  He wanted water and Lieutenant John James took it to him.  We thought it was “good-bye Johnny,” but to our surprise, the Yankees greeted him with cheers, not bullets.

Trading With the Enemy.

In a short time they got on pretty good terms, and established the usual commercial relations, including newspapers and tobacco.  Indeed it seems our men and the Yankees hunted together.  Two deer got in between the lines.  They got one, our boys the other.  Butler continued to send over his big shells, but they gave little annoyance.  I doubt whether our men about the Howlett House would have slept so soundly if the enemy had ceased firing.

But all of Butler’s shells did not explode.  I recall that one of our young surgeons thought that an emptied shell would make a good ashpan for his pipe.  So he poured out every grain, and sure enough, off she went, the first time he emptied his ashes into it.  We were thankful that our horses, tethered near by, escaped the flying pieces.  If I were to relate every instance of similar folly in my knowledge it would lengthen this paper unduly.  I will content myself with one such.

When we were at Centreville, after First Manassas, a neighbor of mine, hearing that General J. E. Johnston wanted a fine horse, took down a splendid animal for his inspection.  But the general, who was a fine judge of horses, discovered a blemish and declined the purchase.  My friend, wishing to take home a memento of the field, and to show what the Yankees threw at our boys, tied up a shell in his handkerchief and started on his return.  Near home he met our village doctor, a level-headed man who protested, saying it was very imprudent to take the shell to his house.  The doctor’s logic prevailed on my friend, who promptly untied the handkerchief and dropped the shell.  He reached home that evening with the bridle on one hand, the saddle on his shoulder and left the horse just where he dropped the shell.

Making ‘Simmon Beer.

I was up one day at Chester, while we were on the Howlett line, to look after my sick in hospital.  Entering the surgeon’s tent, I said to him:  “Mac, why don’t you put up a barrel of persimmon beer; the trees are breaking down with fruit.

“What’s persimmon beer?”  said he.

“Why, a capital drink—much better than this vile stuff they call whiskey,” I replied.

“Very well, we’ll make some,” he replied.

I was up again in a few days and found Blair Burwell there.  Glorious Old Watts, Ned Montague and others.  There was the barrel, already set up.  I turned the spigot and there came out as poor stuff as I ever tasted.

“Mac,” I said, “you did not carry out my instructions.”

“Yes, I did to the letter,” he replied.

“I put in the bottom some sassafras twigs, then a little hay—we had no clean straw—and broke up the persimmon ‘pones’ the baker made.  I then poured in one-half gallon of molasses, filled her up with tepid water, and said ‘ there she is.’”

“What about the yeast?”

“Yeast, you said nothing about yeast.”

“Yes, I did.  Boy take this half-pint cup to the baker and ask him to fill it with yeast.”

“The boy brought it, and I was just pouring it in when Burwell seized my arm, and said, ‘You will ruin it; a spoonful is a plenty.’”

“Let him alone,” cried Watts, “he lives near Prince William, and what he don’t know about persimmons ain’t worth knowing.”

The next time we tried the beer it was splendid.                                                                     N[oland]. B[erkeley, Captain of Co. D and later Major, 8th Virginia].2,3

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  1. SOPO Editor’s Note: The author, who I have determined to be Captain William Noland Berkeley, is here discussing the action on the Howlett Line on Bermuda Hundred on June 16, 1864.  P. G. T. Beauregard pulled all of his men defending the Howlett Line except skirmishers to meet the Union threat at Petersburg during the Second Battle of Petersburg.  Lee was forced to rush Pickett’s Division south of the James to replace Beauregard.  The timid Union advance had reached the Confederate Howlett Line, but they were promptly driven out and bottled back up late on June 16, 1864.
  2. The author of this article signed it “N. B.” We learn he was part of the 8th Virginia, and that he had been held at Johnson’s Island, Ohio as a prisoner of war. Johnson’s Island typically held Confederate officers, and the author also discusses visiting “his sick” in the hospital, so it seems safe to assume he was a commissioned officer. Now we just need to look at Fold3.com to figure out the potential list of men who might fit this description. Looking through Fold3.com’s compiled service records, the ONLY man in the entire 8th Virginia who fits this description is Captain William Noland Berkeley, so he is therefore the author of this article.
  3.  “Butler, Bottled Up, Made Life Warm on the Howlett Line.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. January 16, 1910 p. 3, col. 3-4
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