Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Jackie Martin.
SPEAKER KEIFER IN THE WAR.
To the Editor NATIONAL TRIBUNE:
I received my first copy of your valuable and interesting paper April 29, and my eye first rested on the article headed “An Incident of General Keifer’s War Record.” I have a different version of the event, and it may be of interest to some of your readers.
The morning of the 6th of April, 1865, Major-General H. G. Wright received orders to report, with his command, to Major-General Phil. Sheridan. It appeared that Sheridan had selected the Sixth Corps for this special day’s duty.
We closely followed the retreating confederates until they had crossed “Sailor’s Creek,” where they threw up hasty and light rifle-pits just in the edge of a wood; this left “Sailor’s Creek” in a little valley like, which separated us from the enemy. The hill on either side was about equal, but on both sides of the creek it was very marshy, wet, and muddy. The corps was marching on this day with the Third division in front, consisting of only two brigades, one of which was General Keifer’s. As General Wright came up with the head of his corps he met General Sheridan, who immediately gave him orders to push his command over the creek and engage the enemy. General Wright quietly remarked: “Had we not better wait until the corps comes up?” Sheridan, knowing his own plans best, replied, “Shove over what you have got, and the rest as they come up.” Wright immediately placed his artillery in position on the brow of the hill opposite the enemy, and opened his guns, at the same time giving orders to the Third division (only two brigades) to cross over and dislodge the enemy. The order was quickly obeyed, but the enemy in their rifle-pits were too much for them, and many were driven back. During this time Sheridan had sent his cavalry around in the enemy’s rear, knowing that when the whole of the corps came up there would be hot and short work. And so it proved. The corps passed over and dislodged and drove the enemy before them. There was a sudden lull immediately after the fight, and General Keifer—who resembled much, at that time, a confederate officer, he having worn, it was said, in that fight a short gray jacket—advanced to the edge of the wood, where he was recognized, and, as report had it, was forced to retire hastily. He was much angered, knowing that the fight was over. He immediately called upon a captured confederate to advance alone into the woods, and to tell them he would give them just five minutes to march out and surrender, or he would open his artillery upon them. The captured prisoner was loth to comply with the order, but General Keifer’s “mad was up,” and he went. In a few moments after he had reached the wood a column of men was seen filing out in fair order, which proved to be the naval brigade, which a week before composed the crew and officers that manned the rebel gunboats on the James River. They had never been in a fight, and were only followers of the confederate army, and had not been made acquainted with the surrender. But they did not all file out and surrender, for that evening, about 9 o’clock, as I was endeavoring to find the corps headquarters, I came upon a citizen-clerk of the quartermaster’s department, who hailed me and quietly informed me that he had in his charge, or had picked up, six confederate officers; that they acted as if lost, and he wanted me to relieve him. I conducted these officers to Captain Russell, the provost-marshal of First division. They proved to be quite young men—midshipmen, perhaps, of the confederate naval brigade. That night we had four or five general officers at our headquarters to supper, Lieutenant-General Ewell being the ranking officer. I remember well that when General Wright went to call Ewell to supper he found him in tears. Wright immediately said: “Tut, tut, Ewell, come and have something to eat.” Ewell replied: “I would give my life to save the rest of my command.” This is the story as told that night all over the Sixth Corps. I might add that Ewell came near losing his life while looking for an officer of equal rank to surrender to. I will add for the information of those who do not know that the remains of Major-General John Sedgwick lie buried in this quiet New England town.
W. D. G.,
Formerly Clerk for Provost Marshal,
Sixth Corps Headquarters.
CORNWALL, CONN., JULY 5.1
- “W. D. G.” “Speaker Keifer In The War.” National Tribune 22 July 1882. 8:1-2. ↩