(BTC Editor’s Note: The first portion of this article discusses the role of the Army of Northern Virginia’s sharpshooters in the fights of the 1864 Overland Campaign, from the Wilderness, to Spotsylvania Court House, and on to Cold Harbor. I’ve chosen to include this portion of the narrative for the sake of completeness.)
A CAMPAIGN WITH SHARPSHOOTERS.1
BY CAPTAIN JOHN D. YOUNG.
Long before the close of the campaign of 1863, in the late war between the States, the Army of Northern Virginia, as well as its historic antagonist, the Army of the Potomac, had completely inaugurated the system of fighting from behind earthworks. So universal had become this method of defense that intrenching tools formed part of the soldier’s regular equipment as much as he did his arms of offense, and the spade and mattock were ranked almost equal in importance with the sabre and rifle. The use of trenches by the Confederate army was dictated by a consideration higher than the mere effort of the individual to protect his own life. It was, on public grounds, a matter of dire necessity; its numbers, reduced by disease and death in hospital and field, were far from being recuperated by the conscription, sweeping as it was, of 1864. It was apparent to all that every life must be husbanded, and that every advantage of position must be taken, both as to nature and the addition of art, to render the weaker side able to cope with its adversaries. Thus it came to pass that whenever a line was formed or a position occupied where there was any likelihood of attack, trenches were dug at once and earthworks thrown up, which were elaborated and extended as the approach of the enemy increased the chances of an action. These preparations extended even to the picket-line. The remains of this vast system of defense are to be seen at this day, and will long be regarded as notable monuments of that long and desperate strife, whose other sequels, we hope and believe, are now being gradually effaced by the pitying touch of time and the
wise counsels of later statesmanship. The chain of earthworks around Petersburg was fifty miles in extent; being an effort, which proved futile in its ultimate issue, to make the inanimate soil, however “sacred,” supply the absence of flesh and blood. In the campaign of 1864 the necessity of still further utilizing the limited forces of the army loomed up as of prime consideration. It was also noticed that a great part of the fighting fell on the pickets; that these troops were time and again pushed in on the main body, and that, as a general thing, being unable to resist the slightest exhibition of force in their front, they roused the line when driven in, and caused the greatest trouble and annoyance.
Up to this time picket and outpost duty of all kinds was performed by details drawn haphazard from the various companies of the regiments constituting a brigade; a single regiment or even company being rarely sent as a body on this kind of service. These promiscuous details were usually placed under officers with whom they were as utterly unacquainted as each man was with his right and left file. As a natural consequence, the details failed to act in the presence of the enemy as a compact, confident body; for if there is any one thing more than any other that is well calculated to destroy the efficiency of a soldier, it is the suspicion that his comrades are going to give way. It is equally a confessed fact that, when satisfied of the courage and fidelity of one another, men who will fight at all will fight till overcome by hostile numbers. This was the state of things that presented itself to the leaders of the army in 1864. In the sharp economy of war, the use of works was a fixed fact and acknowledged advantage. Some improvement must now be made in the character of the troops who did the outpost duty. To remedy the inefficiency of the “details,” and form a picket line that on sudden occasions might do the work of a line of battle; in short, by discipline and association, to render a small body of troops equal in strength and effectiveness to twice or even thrice their number—this was the problem, the solution of which was of no small labor to General Lee.
To accomplish such results no plan of organization presented itself in the formation of either army. The only thing known among military men that would in any degree approach the formation indicated, was the embodiment of a regiment for each division, after the manner of the Zouave regiments of the French service. There, as is known, to each division of the army is attached a corps, who act, as Kinglake aptly puts it, as “the spike-head of the division,” being used either to push in, or else to ward off attack.
There was, however, a serious difficulty in the way of constantly employing a regiment on this kind of duty; for, while one regiment, taken as a whole, were always safe to be relied on for line fighting, it was well-nigh impossible to find such an organization in any division as combined all the qualities found necessary for single and determined picket fighting. Besides, at this time, it was considered a duty, not only extra dangerous, but otherwise specially onerous and distasteful; and regimental commanders were inclined to stand on their rights of only acting in their regular routine on the brigade roster. Therefore, it was decided, after long deliberation, to adhere to the old plan of details, but to introduce such improvements as would remedy the most obvious defects, especially that of having raw men and officers on every occasion that presented itself. To accomplish these ends an order was issued from division headquarters for the formation of battalions, or corps of sharpshooters for each brigade. This order organized a body of troops that gained no little renown in the service. How often they stood before the fierce advance of the enemy, the unwritten history of the Army of Northern Virginia will attest; while their unmarked graves that fringe the lines from the Wilderness to Petersburg, and the thinned ranks they paraded on the last muster at Appomattox Court-House, will prove that in heroic devotion to duty they were second to none in an army that challenged the admiration of the world.
The organization and operation of the corps of sharpshooters of the Army of Northern Virginia will possess, if not for the general public, at least for the intelligent military student, the interest that naturally attaches to every movement new in the details of the service—a service the necessities of which developed many expedients before unknown in the annals and science of war. There were incidents connected with its manner of independent and advanced operations which cannot fail, from their unique and striking character, to possess a common interest for all. It was the fortune of the sharpshooters to experience all the romance and glamour of war; and to these was added enough of danger to make the service exciting and exhilarating. Placed between the lines of two great armies, they saw at least the beginnings of all movements, and had the first intimations of that pleasurable feeling—the gaudia certaminis—which battle ever brings to the heart of the true soldier. Their time was not spent in weary waiting for the order to advance; nor were they, except in rare instances, subjected to the trying ordeal of remaining quiet under fire, with no power to return the compliment. From the earliest opening of battle to its tragic
close, the ears of the sharpshooters were made familiar with the peculiar music of the rifle, and their whole mind was exercised in the problem of affording as much annoyance as possible to the enemy. A battalion was composed of one commandant, eight commissioned officers, ten non-commissioned officers, one hundred and sixty privates, four scouts, and two buglers, specially selected, and drafted from each brigade. These were divided into four companies, equally officered. As it was a matter of the utmost importance that men should be chosen of tried courage and steadiness, who were good marksmen, and possessed of the requisite self-confidence, great care and caution were exercised in the drafts. Company commanders were ordered to present none for duty with the sharpshooters who did not come up to the standard; while the commandant of each battalion, assisted by his lieutenants, personally superintended the examination of all recruits offered for this branch of the service. The company officers in the corps were equally set apart for their military reputations with respect to zeal, intelligence, and personal gallantry. As soon as the requisite number of men was obtained, a separate camp was established, and in every respect the command was placed on an independent footing—reporting, as in case of a regiment, directly to brigade headquarters. Thus closely associated together, rank and file soon learned to know and to rely upon each other. Still further to increase this confidence, the companies were subdivided into groups of fours, something like the comrades de battaille of the French army. These groups messed and slept together, and were never separated in action, save by its casualties of disability and death. The further strengthening of this body of troops was hoped to be accomplished by thorough drill.
In order to assimilate the men and make them fully acquainted with the special character and details of the duties to which they were assigned, and above all to impart that sense of self-reliance so necessary for outpost fighting, a new system of drill and exercise was adopted. This scheme was presented in the form of a brochure, translated from the French by General C. M. Wilcox, and comprised the skirmish drill, the bayonet exercise, and practical instruction in estimating distances. In a short time men, eager to learn and easily handled, not only became proficient in their drill and excellent shots, but from frequent practice could correctly measure with a glance the distance intervening between themselves and the objects at which they aimed. The drill was conducted by signals on the bugle, as the line when deployed was too extended to be reached by the voice, or,
when silence was requisite, by the wave of the sword of the officer in command. The sharpshooters were armed with the improved Enfield rifle; the scouts with rifles of Whitworth make, with telescopic sights. In order to preserve the elan of the corps, and to make the service sought after, it was ordered that this body should be exempt from all regimental or camp duty, and from all picket duty except in the face of the enemy. They were also assigned to the right of the column— the front in advance, the rear in retreat. This freedom from the irksome and distasteful duties of the camp, which were always especially detested by the average Confederate soldier—unaccustomed as he was to do any menial service for himself—made a place in the ranks of the sharpshooters an honor much to be desired. There was, in the very joyous nature of the service, something that had a great charm for the soldier, to which, to descend from sentiment to business, may be added the very general ambition at that time prevalent, and by no means confined to the line, to be among the first to handle the plunder of the enemy’s camps. It was in this manner, as briefly above related, that the opening campaign of 1864 found every brigade of the Army of Northern Virginia provided with a body of picked troops to guard its front or clear the way for its advance. It was truly a “spike-head” of Toledo steel, which was not suffered to rust from disuse in the days that so quickly followed. It was kept bright and sharp by constant employment in the series of actions that lasted throughout that eventful year, beginning with the great battle of the Wilderness.
Though the sharpshooters were not employed in this engagement with any exclusive or even special reference to the method and distinctive purposes of their formation, it was the first action in which they fought as a separate organization, and as such deserves our notice; especially as some of its incidents, well worthy of record and remembrance, have never been honored by historic notice. Almost as soon as the leading divisions had engaged the enemy, the sharpshooters were detached and sent to the left of the plank road, to protect the flank of the troops ordered to Heth’s support, and to fill a gap between Ewell and the troops on the right of the road. Moving forward, they passed long lines of artillery going into bivouac, well-knowing from the nature of the country that their services would not be needed; while riding about in a restless and eager manner, Colonel William Johnson Pegram was to be seen, asking through many a courier, dispatched one after another, if he could not get in a battery, or at least a section, and highly disquieted that his pieces should be silent at such a time. He forcibly recalled, in
some respects, the figure of Lord Cardigan, at Balaklava, chewing his moustache, and cursing the luck of “Scarlett and the heavies.” Colonel Pegram was invited to go in with us, and would probably have accepted—for battle had a powerful fascination for the calm, spectacled, studious, devout boy-colonel—but that he had been peremptorily ordered to remain with his guns and await developments. The sharpshooters moving in, found that the left of the road was clear; and Ewell, swinging laterally, soon filled up the gap which they had held, leaving them free to rejoin their command, which was actively engaged on the right-hand side of the road. The battalion moved less by sight than by faith in obeying this order; following the supposed line of the brigade’s advance, and principally guided by the fire from the front, which grew in intensity and effect. Too much has been written in regard to the scenes of war, and too many living men actually witnessed these horrors and were part of the same, to render necessary any description of the advance through wounded men falling to the rear, through mounted men moving in haste and excitement, and through straggling parties who never failed to have urgent business somewhere in the rear, as soon as the business of these bloody days became critical. One little thing may be noted; the road was literally strewed with packs of playing-cards, thrown away by superstitious soldiers as they went into the fiery focus. It was a noticeable fact among the Confederate soldiers, that many who were regular gamblers, who would play “poker” or anything else all night if permitted, and who would carefully deposit the cards in their haversacks when the game was over, were very careful to throw them away as soon as firing began; after which they would load their guns and be ready to go in coolly. One figure that the command passed on its way forward will receive in time a more prominent and picturesque position than has yet been given it in the constellation of Confederate commanders—the calm, courteous, unselfish, gallant, patriotic A. P. Hill. Surrounded by his staff, this beloved general, whose custom it ever was to feel in person the pulse of battle, and who always stationed himself just behind his men in action, sat, a stately presence, anxiously awaiting the issue of events and sending up troops to support General Heth, who was sorely pressed.
“Face the fire and go in where it is hottest!” were the brief words in which the lieutenant general assigned the sharpshooters to their place in the battle. They were obeyed with a will; and the battalion soon found itself on the left of Lane’s Brigade, where it fought on its own account till night put an end to the bloody contest.
Not till then did the battalion find its proper brigade, and resume its specific duties on the outpost petween (BTC Ed. Note: Spelled petween in the original) the armies. A picket line in front was at once established, and the long watches of the night were spent in anxious conjecture of the issue of the enemy’s fight, and the chances of its renewal on the morrow. No fires nor lights of any kind were allowed; and only the watery and feeble glimpses of the moon, then past her quarter, exposed the grim aspects of the bloody field, defining the outlines of silent and lifeless bodies, marking also the broken debris of battle and the patches of blood-soaked ground. Here the sharpshooters passed the first of many like nights —on the fringe of two mighty hosts, the deep stillness, unbroken except by the stray shots of pickets and the tramp of troops moving in their front. Several prisoners were picked up by the scouts, from whom the information was extracted that the enemy was in front, in strong force, and would advance at daylight. This intelligence was communicated to headquarters, while the sharpshooters, throwing up a temporary work of logs, camly (BTC Ed. Note: calmly) awaited the appearance of morning, and with it, that of the enemy.
Nor were they disappointed; for at the first gray light there were movements in front which showed very clearly that something serious was on foot. In the direction of Ewell, to the right, the scattering fire of the night previous could be heard rapidly assuming the volume of a regular fusilade, which gathered force as it worked up to the left, increasing the activity of the enemy in the immediate front. Just as day fairly opened the memorable combat of May 5th began. Coming forward in loose order, the line of the enemy moved down upon us without the skirmishers either firing or cheering. The courage and discipline of the sharpshooters were never more severely tried than on this occasion; nor did they omit to respond to the high expectations of their superiors, receiving the enemy’s charge with great steadiness, and continuing the unequal combat till both flanks were turned. The command, still unbroken, retired to the main line before the desperate odds it had engaged, having held the enemy in check over ten minutes, which proved a delay of most timely and providential interposition, as the following facts, which has never before transpired in connection with the battle, will attest; for the confident expectation with which the sharpshooters withdrew—of re-forming on the main line and putting a stop there at once to the enemy’s forward movement—was doomed to be a terrible disappointment, and a state of things was developed which might easily have led to the utmost disaster. By some unaccountable neglect the divisions of Generals Heth and Wilcox, which
had engaged the enemy on the evening before, still remained on the front line; some brigades having bivouacked where they found themselves when the fight was over, while others had gone into camp parked by regiments, and not even the pretense of a line of battle had been formed. One brigade rested with its naked flank perpendicular to the enemy’s line. All this was done, or neglected, within a few hundred yards of the foe. No works had been thrown up, and when the Federal force broke the lines, there was no expectation of battle or danger. The men hastily aroused, thought of nothing but safety in flight, and “sauve qui peut” was the order of the day. The conditions were reversed, but the stampede exactly recalled the day when Jackson turned Hooker’s right at Chancellorsville, and sent his Eleventh Corps with great speed to the rear. This time, however, we were not the pursuers, but the pursued. The enemy made good use of his opportunity, and as the panic-stricken Confederates fled in great confusion before his advance, it was apparent that all organized fighing (BTC Ed. Note: sic) by Heth and Wilcox was at an end for that time.
The day seemed irretrievably lost, and so it would have been except for the arrival of other troops. Moving rapidly through the entwining trees and matted undergrowth, in all haste to find the rear, we caught the gleam of bayonets in front of our disordered and plunging mass, and soon saw the dauntless mien and heard the steady tread of Longstreet’s Corps, marching up to the relief, under the composed direction of “Old Pete” himself. Like Dessaix at Marengo, he arrived just in time “to win a victory.” While some of the broken troops of Heth and Wilcox joined in the advance with Longstreet’s column, others straggled back to the point at which they were first engaged the night before. The sharpshooters moved across the road, near by certain batteries of Poague’s artillery, which had been planted on a slight plateau on the left of the road, and was at this time crowded with troops. General Hill and General Lee both occupied this position; the latter appearing intensely disgusted at the turn which affairs had taken. The ridiculous procedure of the ambulance corps, the teamsters, and the camp-followers generally, was singularly well calculated to aggravate this irritated feeling; for these people, supposing the day to have been lost, sought the rear with keen ardor, leaving the road so blockaded with sporadic plunder, and wagons turned upside-down, as to render difficult the movement of the supports. The “old man” was in no good humor, and had a business look about the eyes as he ordered the guns to be loaded with canister, and trained down the road. For five hundred yards in front
of the plateau, the road ran perfectly smooth and straight, and was now filled with Federal troops, moving in column, but in no regular order; for all conformity had been sacrificed in the charge, and, beside, a great number of soldiers had converged into and advanced up the road, to escape the tangled undergrowth of the Wilderness. On the line came, firing and shouting, so closely following our own fugitives as to be mingled with them, and thus cause the cruel necessity of firing through the last of our own people to check the pursuit! A few rounds of canister did the work; and by this time fresh troops had come. Thus not only was a defeat, that seemed to be impending, averted, but a substantial victory was gained, though at a great sacrifice. For Longstreet, in himself a tower of strength, upon whose sturdy valor and fidelity General Lee leaned not less confidently, and not less worthily, than on Stonewall Jackson’s, was taken from the field grievously wounded; while Jenkins, of South Carolina, and many other brave officers, had sealed in blood their devotion to the cause which their swords and their souls upheld. The Wilderness was a field well adapted, by the very nature of the country, to the operations of the sharpshooters; but so fierce had been the engagement that no opportunity was afforded them for the display either of maneuvres or marksmanship. The Wilderness battle has fitly been compared to the struggles of two giants, not unequally matched, who fruitlessly, yet frightfully, writhe and twist in each other’s embrace until they are forcibly wrenched asunder.
The movement from the Wilderness to Spottsylvania Court-House was exceedingly arduous to the sharpshooters, who were compelled to march to the left flank of the column, deployed as if in regular line. At last the Court-House was reached; but it failed to afford the expected rest. Almost immediately the command was thrown forward, and began what appeared to be an endless picket fight. One day was the reflection of another, though the elements of exposure and excitement prevented their succession from becoming monotonous. At three o’clock, before light, the command would be moved out of the camp inside the main lines, and sent forward to relieve the regimental details who did guard duty at night. Arrived on the picket line, while darkness yet reigned, the men were placed in the rifle-pits, and, arranging themselves as comfortably as circumstances permitted, proceeded to make what their rations afforded in the way of breakfast. This was generally light, except when contributions had been levied from some contraband source, or the camp of the enemy had been put into requisition. Even during this daylight repast, the more adventurous would stop, at times, to
take a shot at the gentlemen in front, while all had occasion to look about very sharply to keep their own brains from being knocked out. The rage after plunder was often fatal to some of our very best men. Some incidents of this passion are worth relating. A sergeant, named Warren, during the day killed a man a short distance in front of his pit, and at night, just before the command was relieved, moved quickly forward and possessed himself of the dead man’s effects. It proved to be a rich haul, and next morning the men were wild for an attack, beholding in each hostile form the bearer of property, of which they burned to possess themselves. All day long they were taking what I may call pot-shots at the enemy’s videttes, and in keeping away their friends, who might have otherwise removed the spoils. The impatience of the sportsmen was too great that night to wait till it was fully dark; they stole off in the gray dusk of the evening, and some of them—among whom was Sergeant Warren—returned no more. We passed, next morning, their bloated corpses, on the very spot where their operations had been so rashly begun. After this occurrence, stringent orders were issued against the practice of going outside of and beyond the lines. In this manner the command spent its days; sometimes on the outposts, sometimes in the rear; but always prepared to move at an instant’s warning. It so happened that we were not on picket service on the 12th of May, a day long to be remembered as the bloodiest of all the horrible fights that raged along the lines, and only equaled in mortality, in proportion to the numbers engaged, by Cold Harbor, of the same year. The sharpshooters, however, saw and acted an important part of this stubborn engagement. Our position having been changed the night of the 11th to a road in rear of the works, we were startled the morning of the battle by the sudden apparition of a mounted officer, who dashed forward and shouted—without speaking to the general in command— “Right shoulder shift, arms! File left! Double quick, march!” “This way!” and away the sharpshooters went after him, not stopping to ask for his authority, or otherwise to “reason why.” As the command hurried through the woods, the ears of the men were saluted with the familiar roll of musketry, and the occasional thunder of a big gun. As we debouched from the woods into the open, we came upon that fatal angle—the error, it is said, of General M. L. Smith, engineer-in-chief of the army—which gave so much trouble, and lost so many men, and which has passed into history as Johnson’s salient. This angle had been early recognized as the weak point of our line, and was so much feared that the artillery which
The enemy in front of this salient was commanded by General Hancock, to whose skill and gallantry was intrusted an assault on our lines at that point. In the dusky light he came up with a rush; and just as our artillery, which was moving in battery at the same moment, galloped up, and unlimbered for action, it was captured. Only one piece or two was fired. The infantry of Johnson’s Division were overpowered almost as speedily; but the supports came up promptly, and a hand-to-hand conflict ensued, during which the two forces were rarely as far apart as a dozen yards. At times, as if by mutual consent, there would be a cessation of the fire; but it would soon break out at some other point of the line, and, sweeping down, include the wasted antagonists in its folds. In the rear of each line were the supports, who were either to relieve the first line, or send in plenty of ammunition. There was no lack of ammunition that day.
The training of the sharpshooters in actual war was completed by these actions, and the efforts of their officers were conceded to be successful beyond the most sanguine expectations. These battalions had already established the best reputation among friend and foe for endurance and stubborn fighting. The knowledge that the sharpshooters held the picket lines enabled many a head to repose in peace of nights, undisturbed by visions of sudden attack, and the midnight call to arms. The battalion was now the very lightest of light troops in every particular of impedimenta. They carried absolutely nothing, save their arms and haversacks. The last were of but little use. The sharpshooters found it much less burdensome to make a raid for supplies on the line of the enemy than to carry knapsacks. When rations were ordered to be prepared for three days, they were generally cooked and eaten at the same time; not a difficult thing to do in the Confederate service, where the ration was scientifically calculated to the least that a man could live on. Sometimes blankets and fly-tents were carried, but only when there was to be a long march, and no immediate prospect of a fight. In the face of the enemy these daring corps usually threw away everything but their arms, and relied for provision on the chance of war. Their losses were heavy, but were easily filled by details of the best material of the line. The prestige of the sharpshooters were well kept up, and was the just subject of pride alike to their officers and at army headquarters. And so, when Grant changed his base, moving south, while Lee followed, describing the interior line, the
(BTC Editor’s Note: The article at this point turns to Grant’s crossing of the James River and the Siege of Petersburg.)
After General Grant’s failure to break our front at Cold Harbor, he suddenly decamped, bag and baggage, for the south side of James river, masking his movement by covering his front with strong bodies of cavalry, supported by detached infantry. These covering troops were encountered at Riddle’s shop, half way between Cold Harbor and the river, in such heavy force as to induce General Lee to suspend the movement then in progress of transferring Hill’s Corps across the James. In leaving Cold Harbor, the sharpshooters were left on the picket line, and were not ordered to follow until ten A. M. Another delay resulted from the rifling of a bee-tree; and, before reaching Riddle’s shop, the dropping fire notified the rear guard that the armies were at it again. At this point General Lee and his staff rode by rapidly to the front, hurrying as they did so the forward movement of the battalion. When we arrived on the ground we found that details from the brigade were already engaged with dismounted cavalry in front, with but poor success; while the advance of the whole corps was suspended till the force in front could be developed.
We were at once put in, and the three battalions detailed from Wilcox’s Division were ordered to support us. As we had to move across an open field, the officer commanding the details flatly refused to go; and the commandant in charge, rightly judging that it was better to proceed alone than to depend on troops who would hang back, promptly decided to do without these supports, and ordered them back to the line, where they went with great cheerfulness. The word was then passed that both General Lee and General Hill would view the advance, and at the command ” Forward!” a charge was made that swept the enemy from the field, disclosed his designs, and resulted in hurrying Hill’s Corps forward to Petersburg, where its presence was greatly needed. When Petersburg was reached, the command was placed well on the right of the line, and the duties that developed upon the sharpshooters were, in consequence, very light. The men became fat and lazy on the accumulated captures of previous campaigns, and nothing more serious was attempted while the days dreamily glided by than an occasional “blockade” escapade into the city. This halcyon period was rudely disturbed by the combat of the 22d of June, on the line of the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad. This affair, brilliant in all respects to the Confederate cause, has been noticed so slightly heretofore that the
details of the movement may well be given here, as its results in prisoners and guns, and, above all, in the fresh life imparted to the drooping spirits of the men, were of a magnitude not easy to be overstated. For a proper appreciation of the character of this action, some description is necessary of Major General William Mahone, the leader and moving spirit of the occasion. Mahone was a singular illustration of the fact that the Confederate service, while well calculated to develop the natural native aptitudes of its generals, did not afford all of them full scope for the exercise of the genius thus educed, but kept within narrow limits many high spirits which felt themselves capable of larger responsibilities, or wider fields than the cramped resources of the South admitted of their undertaking. He was a man of high personal courage and magnetic presence. A stern disciplinarian, he was greatly respected by his men, who, in the hour of battle, never fought so well as when under his immediate command. His frequent selection for the conduct of most delicate and difficult movements proved the high esteem in which he was held by General Lee. He was an officer in whom, it may be said, were blended the strategic qualities of Soult, and the ardent gallantry of Vandamme. Closely watching his front at all times, he never failed to strike the enemy whenever an opportunity offered, and his blows were always felt.
When General Grant, with the intention of more closely enveloping Petersburg, applied his old maneuvre of extending his left, he moved forward the Second and Sixth Army Corps for the purpose of seizing the Weldon Railroad. The movement was begun by the Second Corps, which marched to the Federal left and took position west of the Jerusalem plank road, their right connecting with the Fifth Corps. This movement at once drew out a strong force of Confederates to confront it, and a slight skirmish was the result. This happened on the 21st of June. That same night the Sixth (Federal) Corps moved up in rear of the Second Corps, and on a line parallel with it. It thus happened that when General Birney, commanding the Second Corps, swung forward his left more closely to envelop the Confederate works, a gap was created between the Second and Sixth, which widened as the turning movement progressed. General Mahone promptly noticed the bad formation of this part of the fine, and himself suggested to General Lee the feasibility of attacking the left flank of Birney, then thrown well forward in the air. The march of Mahone’s Division to the front was concealed from the enemy by the nature of the ground over which it passed to get into position. Nor, indeed, was his departure from the works
observed; for, ‘with great circumspection, even in details, he ordered the men to leave them one by one, dropping to the rear as if for any other purpose than that of going out to fight. The places of the absentees were gradually filled by an extension of the lines. In order to follow up the movement, the division of General Wilcox was dispatched to the right of Mahone, and was expected to render him support by moving to the front and connecting with his (Mahone’s) right, and by afterward conforming with the latter’s movements. The plan was a good one, and its results might have been very momentous. Mahone, moving cautiously to the front, holding his troops well in hand, furiously assaulted the left of Birney in flank and rear, carrying the line and capturing whole regiments and batteries. Penetrating further in the gap with one of his brigades, he struck the right of the Sixth Corps, and here rested, after vainly waiting for the expected support, which never came. After securing his guns and prisoners, Mahone returned to his works.
We will now follow the division of General Wilcox. These troops, moving well to the right, took position at some distance from the Weldon road. When the sharpshooters were sent forward they soon developed a strong skirmish line of the enemy, which was speedily broken; and an advance still further disclosed an open field with no enemy in front except a skirmish line and the ordinary reserve. Evidently the left of the Sixth Corps was near at hand. Two brigades of the division were moved into position, and the inevitable intrenchments soon began to appear; but beyond a sharp picket fire in front there was no fighting. All the evening we heard the firing to our left, and as it increased in volume an officer of the division staff was sent out to the picket line and informed the officer in charge that the division would withdraw at once from its position; that it must do its best to hold the line with both its flanks unprotected, and, if forced back, was to make a run for it. The sharpshooters kept up a steady fight, and were glad to perceive that there was no disposition on the part of the enemy to advance; on the contrary, they seemed rather nervous lest we should do so. At nightfall, however, unwonted signs of activity among them were to be observed. Fresh troops were moved into line; the rattle of accoutrements and canteens could be heard, and the officers’ words of command all indicated preparations for an early advance. The word was passed down our line to give them one volley and then retire. When it was well dark, on the Federals came at a charge. Greatly to our relief we could hear the officers shouting out, “Hold your fire for the line of battle!” This was just the thing we wanted. We gave them one volley and broke for the rear like quarter-horses.
There was a line of cavalry pickets in our rear; but these were alarmed at the shouting of the enemy and at once decamped, nor did they draw rein until they reached their camp. The fact that the sharpshooters got away without losing a man in the race, proved that they, on occasion, could show a clean pair of heels. Late that night it was learned that Wilcox arrived on the ground in rear of Mahone too late to be of any service. The ground had been reached by a retrograde movement. This ended this brilliant affair, which, successful as it was, was greatly marred in execution by the manner in which General Mahone was supported. If the division of Wilcox had been moved to the front, the Confederates would have completely turned and enveloped the left flank of the Sixth Corps; and these troops caught between two fires must have suffered great losses. It is a significant fact, with regard to the various movements conducted by General Mahone, which reflected such lustre on himself and on the Confederate arms, that at no time was he placed under the command of any division commander. So great was the confidence reposed by General Lee in his skill and energy, that in all cases he reported to the corps commander or directly to the general-in-chief.
Almost immediately following the movement on Reams’ Station, in which the sharpshooters bore their full part, and bore it well, was the battle of the Crater, an action fought entirely by Mahone, from which he gained enduring fame. Here, also, the sharpshooters covered themselves with glory, being always in the van and doing full service there. Their commandant, Captain Broadbent, a man of gigantic strength and stature, especially distinguished himself by his reckless daring. Like the brave Major Ridge, who led the stormers at Ciudad Rodrigo, Broadbent was the first in the works and fell at the foot of the Crater wall, pierced, it was said, with no less than eleven bayonet wounds. After Mahone drove the enemy from the captured mine and retook the pieces, when the line was re-established, a Napoleon gun belonging to Pegram’s Battery (which being just over the mine was blown up by its explosion), was found to be outside of the line, at some distance in front of them. It was then almost death to show a head along the line, and the great question was how to get that gun in. Finally some adventurous spirits, being inspired by the promise of a furlough, crept at night to the front, fixed a strong rope around the muzzle, and so dragged it in in triumph. In this action the artillery was specially well served, officers encouraging the men, both by their presence and example. One battery to the south of the mine was handled with a degree of gallantry which challenged all honor. It was here that Lieutenant
Colonel Frank Huger, of South Carolina, a young officer of great promise and of high personal courage, with his own hands worked one of the guns throughout the fight. The sharpshooters in this battle sustained heavy losses, having not only skirmished with the enemy during the entire evening, but also participating in the attack with the main line. The extent of the enemy’s losses is known; and the battle itself lives, alone of Confederate victories, on the canvas of John E. Elder, of Richmond, whose picture is notable for the absence from it of every recognizable figure of those who bore part in the heroic labors and perils of the bloody day. After this battle the army had a long rest, unbroken except by an occasional fusilade over some wretched deserter.
At this time desertions from the Confederate army had become matters of such common occurrence that it was determined to put a stop to the evil by a summary execution of the law. When men had been taken for this offense, there was held what was called a corps court-martial; when they were found guilty they were remanded to their respective commands, that the sentence might be carried out. The sentence was executed with all the formalities suitable to such occasions, and the scene was well calculated to strike terror to the hearts of those who contemplated the commission of this gravest of all military offenses. The brigade charged with the duty of executing the sentence was drawn up without arms, forming three sides of a hollow square. The condemned man, with the firing party, was marched around the inside of the square, the band in front playing a dirge—usually the “Dead March in Saul.” These parades were the most disgusting and disagreeable duty encountered during the whole war. One can never forget the looks of the poor fellows moving slowly around to their death. Some were erect and composed; others so nearly dead from terrror (BTC Editor’s Note: sic) at the approach of death as to be reduced almost to a state of coma. After moving around the circle of the troops, the condemned man was fastened to a stake and shot, and the brigades, filing slowly by the corpse, were dismissed to their quarters. There were, I am glad to say, no deserters from the sharpshooters, as was natural; for they were the elite of the army.
When the heavy winter days were ended and spring found us prepared to continue the unequal contest, General Lee, weary of waiting, his depleted command being somewhat strengthened by its long rest, determined to assume the initiative. Accordingly, on the 25th of March, a movement was made on our left (Fort Stedman), which proved a failure. That very evening Grant delivered his
riposte in the shape of a sharp thrust on our right at “Battery 45.” Our pickets—only details were on duty—were driven in, and forced back almost under the works. The next day General Lee made a personal inspection of this portion of the lines, in company with Lieutenant General Hill and his division commanders. The picket line, as it remained, was undoubtedly faulty in the last degree, and General Lee, vexed with the burden of so many and such heavy responsibilities, seemed by no means disposed to tax his mind further with the assumption of details of this description. Turning sharply to General Hill, he exclaimed: “Here are your troops and yonder is the enemy. If you can’t establish your picket line, I can’t do it for you.” And with these words he rode away. General Hill that night ordered the sharpshooters of Wilcox to carry the crest in their front, and the next day found us strongly intrenched on a line commanding all the country before it. In moving to our right to meet the continued advances of the enemy in that direction, each day saw our works stripped of men, and each day found us fighting. The sharpshooters were in greater demand than ever before. It was a common thing for a general officer to request their assistance in the establishment of his picket lines. One instance of the kind is worthy of record. Three days before the enemy broke through the lines around Petersburg, they pushed up their skirmish line almost to our works, in front of General Cook, near Hatcher’s run, with the view of masking their larger movements. Friday evening, a battalion of sharpshooters of Wilcox’s Division received orders to report to General Cook for duty. On reaching the quarters of that officer, they were informed that the command was told off for “nervous duty” in front of his line. We were placed in position with them by Captain Stephen W. Jones, a famous officer of sharpshooters in command of Cook’s Corps. That night the battalion moved on the enemy, and with but slight loss captured their rifle-pits and reestablished the picket line. The next day occurred the great break up and the death of A. P. Hill.
It was under most singular circumstances that Lieutenant General A. P. Hill, an officer whose name will ever be inseparably connected with the glory of the Army of Northern Virginia, met his death. When the Federal commander for the last time applied his favorite tactics, and extended his left flank to envelop our right, General Hill’s Corps was massed at and beyond Hatcher’s run, though a portion of his command held the works from “Battery 45” to the extreme right. His headquarters were still established near Petersburg. On Saturday evening he left the front at Hatcher’s run, there being no indication at that point of a forward
hostile movement. This the writer knows, as having obtained permission from General Hill himself to return to Petersburg, and having ridden up the lines in company with him and his staff. Next morning before dawn the enemy carried several points of his line by reason of its extension, and the attenuation of its defense. Moving across the country, the victorious Federals re-established their pickets in the direction of the river. General Hill, apprised of this state of things at his headquarters, at once dispatched such of his staff as were with him to report the facts to General Lee, and to see what could be done toward repairing the disaster. Accompanied by a few couriers, he rode immediately afterward toward Hatcher’s run, with the view of rejoining the main body of his command. He was repeatedly urged not to attempt the undertaking; but his sole and laconic reply was, “I must get to my corps.”
As the General and his party proceeded upon their way they found the country filled with detached bodies of Federal infantry, straggling and plundering. The first lot of these stragglers which was come across, uncertain of their strength, and perhaps awed by the appearance of a general officer—a sentiment natural to disciplined soldiery—quietly surrendered, and were sent to Petersburg in charge of three couriers. Accompanied only by Sergeant Tucker, General Hill continued on his way till, on reaching a point some four miles from Petersburg, on the plank road, they saw before them two Federal infantrymen. These men, seeing the mounted Confederates, took cover behind a tree. Hill, without hesitation, called to Tucker to ride them down; and, pushing forward in advance, received their fire with fatal effect. Thus perished, in the prime of life, a gallant officer, who had engaged in more pitched battles than he numbered years; who organized and fought with eminent success and daring the famous Light Division, and who handled the Third Corps of the army with the same vigilance, efficiency, and fidelity which distinguished him in lower commands, and which so singularly recalled his image to the dying eyes both of Lee and Jackson. In tone, in character, and in military force, he was strikingly like Bessieres; and his death may also be compared with that of the commander of the Old Guard, who lost his life in an insignificant skirmish on the eve of the great battle of Lutzcn. His death was peculiarly unfortunate at this time; but even his magnetic presence—and no man’s was more so—could hardly have redeemed the fortunes of the day. In fact, the army was so broken as almost to have lost its military attitude.
With the beginning of the retreat began also the most arduous labors of the sharpshooters. To this body was assigned the duty of
protecting the rear of the wearied and worn battalions of Lee that now moved slowly up the line of the Southside Railroad, contesting the way inch by inch with the determined pursuer. At Farmville a decided stand was made, and here the rear guard was joined by Fitz Lee and his cavalry. The fighting on the retreat, except in rare instances, did not reach the dignity of pitched battles; but one action that took place near Farmville deserves the record it has so far received from no pen or tongue. When the army reached this point, the conduct of operations in the rear was intrusted to Major General Fitz Lee, of cavalry fame; an officer who, after the death of Stuart, ranked first in the army for energy, elan, and all other qualities that make the ideal beau sabruer. With a small column of infantry, and such of his own command as he was yet able to hold together, Fitz Lee stoutly guarded the rear of the retreating army. As the main column passed the bridge in rear of Farmville, Fitz Lee in person held the town, gradually diminishing his front, which was closely pressed by the enemy, till there remained with him but a handful of brave men. Seated on horseback, near the bridge, he calmly watched the preparations for firing it, and directed the movements of the last groups that filed across. There he sat, a grand figure, in his own person the last remnant of the Army of Northern Virginia; and, like Marshal Ney at the bridge Kowno, he fired the last shot, and was the last to cross. As the final man was seen to be over, and when the bridge itself was in flames, the soldiers supposing him to be a vidette, shouted to him to ride across. Lee turned slowly toward them, ordering them to hurry across, and, adding, “I am Fitz Lee,” plunged into the river below the bridge. He gained the opposite bank in safety, but not without difficulty and danger, and the quick fire of the horse artillery from the other side soon gave assurance of his presence among the guns.
Hemmed in on all sides at Appomattox, General Robert E. Lee’s only hope was to cut his way through, and, by the abandonment of his guns and baggage, to force his path to the mountains. Having formed this resolution, Gordon was promptly dispatched forward, while the left flank was protected by moving in the four battalions of Wilcox’s sharpshooters. Two of these were engaged, and two more were moving into action. But a period to the fighting of the sharpshooters and of all the rest of that “incomparable infantry” was now close at hand. When Custer rode through the Confederate lines, an officer of General Lee’s staff was at once sent to recall the sharpshooters, and the sound of their bugles to ” Cease firing!” in a few minutes silenced forever the guns of the Army of Northern Virginia.
- Young, John D. “A Campaign with Sharpshooters.” The Annals of the War Written by Leading Participants North and South. Ed. Alexander Kelly McClure. Philadelphia: The Times Publishing Company, 1879. pp. 267-285: First appeared in the Philadelphia Weekly Times in its annals of the war series in the late 1870s. ↩