CLARK NC: 1st North Carolina Cavalry at the Siege of Petersburg
Editor’s Note: The following excerpt comes from Walter Clark’s five volume Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-’65, published in 1901. The reference work provides mini regimental histories written mostly by men representing each unit, with gaps filled in by editor Clark. These histories often provide a surprising amount of detail on the Siege of Petersburg.
When General Grant once started to cross the James River it was no time to fight battles other than those forced upon him. The object was rather to gain position and see who could command the river crossings and best secure any heights overlooking the two beleaguered cities.
On the 7th of June the plan of his movements was fairly developed, and the Confederate cavalry was ordered to harass him accordingly. My brigade (embracing the First, Second, Third and Fifth North Carolina Cavalry) was detached and hastened to the lower fords of the Chickahominy. On the 13th we had followed the main Federal column to Wilcox’s Landing and by the 18th we too had also hastened round by Richmond and taken position two miles south of Petersburg. During these rapid movements we had had several severe skirmishes with the enemy, especially at Malvern Hill, Nantz’ Shop, Herring Creek, Crenshaw’s and The Rocks, the First Cavalry often leading.
On the 21st of June, while guarding the Petersburg & Weldon Railroad at the Davis farm, just below Petersburg, my pickets notified me of the approach of a large Yankee force of infantry, manifestly with the view of seizing and holding the railroad at that point. We were wholly without support, but the thick undergrowth and other surroundings favored a vigorous resistance in a dismounted fight. I selected a high point for my horse artillery under McGregor, and as far as possible screened it from the enemy’s view. I also kept the Fifth Cavalry (Sixty-third North Carolina Regiment) mounted, in reserve to support McGregor and otherwise act as emergency might require, I then dismounted the First, Second and Third Cavalry, and formed two heavy skirmish lines, well concealed in thick undergrowth in front of the railroad, with instructions for the first line not to fire until the Federals were in less than one hundred yards of them, and then after a single volley to slowly retire on the second line, where the real fight was to be made. At this juncture also the full battery of four guns was to open. The plan worked well and proved a complete success. The Federals were not only driven back, but in the panic that followed the Third Cavalry, led by Colonel John A. Baker and my Aid, Lieutenant F. C. Foard, rushed upon the Federal ranks and captured many prisoners; but in the confusion which ensued both Baker and Foard were also in turn captured. The Yankee force in front of us turned out to be Barlow’s Division of infantry, four thousand strong, and were driven back with a loss of forty dead on the field and twenty prisoners, including a Lieutenant-Colonel and two Captains taken. My own loss was twenty-seven killed, wounded and missing.
I am thus particular with the details of this little action because a question was afterwards raised as to the good faith and fidelity of Colonel John A. Baker, of the Third, in so advancing his lines and thus exposing himself and command to the risk of capture. As a matter of fact, Colonel Baker was never regularly exchanged as a prisoner of war, nor did he ever return to his regiment, and he was afterwards openly accused of having taken the oath of allegiance, while in prison, to the United States Government; but I do not think any one, at the time of the fight, dreamed of treachery, and he was highly complimented by all for the spirit and skill with which he led his men in the short advance he made. As it was, too, our main loss fell on his regiment.
At the same time that this action was going on General Grant was arranging for the famous Kautz and Wilson raid, and that night the raiders, several thousand strong, moved on our right flank, with every kind of machinery, for the purpose of tearing up and destroying the Southside and Richmond & Danville Railroads as far south as Staunton River bridge. Early on the 22d General William H. F. Lee put his picket line in charge of Chambliss’ Brigade and one of my regiments (the Third), and with my other three (First, Second and Fifth) and Dearing’s small brigade he started in pursuit of the raiders.
We first struck them at Reams’ Station, ten miles south of Petersburg, on the Petersburg & Weldon Railroad, where they had destroyed the depot, and then made straight across the country by Dinwiddie Court House for the Southside road, on towards Burkeville. That night the work of destruction went ceaselessly forward; for twenty miles the entire track was taken up, the cross-ties made up into great piles and the iron laid across them so as to insure complete destruction by fire. In the same way the work was started the next day on the Richmond and Danville lines. In the meantime scouting parties were sent all over the country to gather up horses, to carry off supplies, and to arrest leading citizens. In this way the whole country was overrrun, many buildings set on fire and the track of the invaders made one complete scene of desolation. We had several fights in the pursuit without any decided results, until about noon of the 23d, when General Lee managed, by a forced march, to get in between their two columns. This occurred at a place known as Black’s and White’s. It was Dearing’s day to be in front, but his force was not equal to the work in hand. He was just in the act of being driven off and all of our artillery (two batteries) exposed to capture, when the First North Carolina Cavalry, under Major [William H. H.] Cowles, was dismounted and hurled against the advancing foe. This saved our guns but did not check the enemy’s progress. Just at this juncture, however, a detachment of the Second Cavalry, under Major W[illiam]. P. Roberts, managed to get in the Federal rear and right across the railroad track. And now for several hours the battle raged. Whole trees and saplings were cut down with shells and minie-balls, until night ended the conflict. That night the enemy abandoned the field and struck straight across the country for the Staunton River bridge on the Richmond & Danville line. In this action Colonel C[linton]. M. Andrews [of the 2nd North Carolina] was mortally wounded and about half a dozen other officers were killed or wounded; and so completely were the men and animals exhausted, that on the next day a short rest was taken. It was also decided that the two brigades should now separate. Dearing was to move on the enemy’s left flank, while my three regiments were to follow the enemy’s line of march directly to the Staunton River bridge. This was the most important structure on General Robert E. Lee’s whole line of communication for supplying his army. It had only temporary defenses, and was guarded by a small force of Junior and Senior Reserves, with a few disabled soldiers, led by some gallant Confederate officers who chanced to be present. But so admirable was the spirit of the men in this great emergency that they successfully resisted several preliminary attacks until the Barringer Brigade came up, when a vigorous assault upon the Federal rear as well as their front forced them to retire and seek safety by a night march down the Staunton River via Boydton and Lawrenceville.
My command had started out on this expedition with some twelve hundred effective mounted men, but so terrible had been the marching and so intense the heat, and so incessant the fighting, that we now found ourselves reduced to less than three hundred men and animals equal to the task of further pursuit. In this emergency a small detail was made from the Ninth Regiment (First [North Carolina] Cav.), under Captain N[oah]. P. Foard, Company F, of that regiment, to follow the track of the enemy, while the rest of the brigade made a forced march on their left flank, with a view of driving them into the trap so well planned by Hampton and Fitz Lee at Sappony Church and Monk’s Neck. Here the rout was complete, including the loss of all their artillery, several hundred horses and fifteen hundred prisoners.
The utter destruction of this great raiding party now gave my brigade a much-needed rest. This enabled me, for the first time, to turn my attention to the vital work of organization, drill and discipline—a work always essential to cavalry success. In the First Cavalry especially did the old spirit show itself of making every man feel a self-reliance equal to every emergency. More than half of this regiment were armed and equipped from the enemy. One company (F) boasted that its entire outfit had been taken from the foe.
At last, on the 28th of July, we were hastened to the north bank of the James to meet a threatened move of the enemy on Richmond. We had a sharp engagement at Fuzzle’s [sic, Fussell’s] Mill, when the Yankee cavalry suddenly withdrew and re-appeared in force below Petersburg. We, too, soon followed, when on the 14th of August the whole division was again ordered north of Richmond, where we found the enemy within six miles of the city.
A series of engagements now followed, especially at Fisher’s Farm, White Oak Swamp and White’s Tavern. In the fight at White Oak Swamp General Chambliss lost his life in a vain attempt to rally his men from a panic into which they had fallen. General W. H. F. Lee in person rallied the Virginians and formed a new line, with the First and Second Cavalry in front, which swept all before them. During these actions the brigade suffered severely, especially in officers. Captains Bryan and Cooper, of the Second Cavalry, and Lieutenant Morrow, of the First, were killed on the field— all officers of rare merit. On our return to the south side of the James we found that the enemy had gained possession of the Petersburg & Weldon Railroad, and on the 21st of August, General Mahone, with a large force of infantry and cavalry, had been ordered to dislodge him. My position was on the extreme right, along the Poplar Spring road. All four regiments were actually engaged and swept everything before them. But, much to our surprise, the attack by the infantry somehow failed of success, and we too, were forced to retire with a loss of sixty-eight killed, wounded and missing.
On the 25th of August occurred the great combined action of cavalry, infantry and artillery at Reams’ Station. On this occasion, General William H. F. Lee being ill and absent, the command of the division devolved on myself, while that of the brigade fell to Colonel W. H. Cheek, of the Ninth North Carolina [i.e. the First North Carolina Cavalry]. General Hampton commanded the mounted forces, and it was arranged that while the cavalry attacked the enemy in his front along the railroad, A. P. Hill, with his infantry, was to assail his intrenched works in the flank and rear. Never was success more complete. We regained the railroad, captured twenty-three hundred prisoners and took immense quantities of small arms and intrenching tools, with untold numbers of cannon and other munitions of war. Nearly all the forces engaged on the part of the infantry in this great battle were from North Carolina, and General R. E. Lee wrote Governor Z. B. Vance a special letter complimentary to the troops of the State, in which he also made special reference to the conspicuous part taken in the action by the cavalry brigade of General Barringer.
Thus in ten days our division had crossed and recrossed the James River; had marched to Stony Creek and then back to Reams’ Station, making nearly one hundred miles night and day marching, and in the meantime fighting eight severe actions.
Next followed an action at McDowell’s farm on the 27th [sic, 29th]1 of September , capturing a major and twenty other prisoners, but with severe loss to us in the death of the brave Captain Turner and other meritorious officers.
At Jones’ farm [on September 30, 1864] there was a joint fight on the part of our infantry and cavalry, in which several hundred prisoners were taken, most of them by Beale’s Brigade. During October cavalry operations were exceedingly active. We fought with varied success at Boisseau’s farm, Gravelly Run and Hargrove’s house; but the most important of all was the battle at Wilson’s farm on the 27th of October, when Grant seized the Boydton plank-road, and we repeated the operations at Reams’ Station and with like success. In all these actions the Ninth Regiment took a leading part, and in the last fight it and the Sixty-third (Fifth Cav.) Regiment were conspicuously prominent, in fact, so complete was our victory that during the night Grant abandoned his position and fell back to his former lines. In this action my brigade lost seventy killed and wounded, chiefly from the Ninth Regiment.
In November came off Hampton’s famous cattle raid. This was one of the most striking cavalry achievements of the war, and deserves a passing notice. The cavalry held General Lee’s right flank, extending in long, attenuated lines from Petersburg along the Petersburg & Weldon Railroad beyond Stony Creek. For this raid the whole line was virtually stripped of its protection, and the troops under General Hampton moved by circuitous routes to the enemy’s position at City Point. There the hostile guards and picket lines were forced at the point of the sabre, and a herd of cattle, numbering two thousand four hundred and eighty-six head, safely driven out and conducted back to our camp. Of course the exposure to our lines was very great, but the plans for deceiving the enemy and keeping up appearances were well carried out by the dashing P. M. B. Young, of Georgia, who, by means of camp-fires, bands playing and artillery discharges kept up a constant show of force. Meantime Rosser, with his Virginians, struck directly for the Federal camps, while William H. F. Lee was ordered to make sure our lines of retreat, and in this work it fell to my brigade to do some pretty hard fighting at Belcher’s Mill and other well-guarded points; but so admirably was the whole scheme carried out that scarcely a man or animal was lost. The distance marched embraced a circuit of not less than thirty miles, and yet in neither night nor day marching did a single mishap befall us.
On the 8th of December was repeated another of the ceaseless attempts of the Federals to seize the Petersburg & Weldon Railroad, this time by General Warren at the village of Belfield. Here the Junior and Senior Reserves of North Carolina and Virginia made an admirable defense of the bridge until the infantry and cavalry came up, when the enemy was forced to retire. The main pursuit was made by my brigade, and especially the Ninth Regiment, two squadrons of which, under Captain Dewey, making a splendid mounted charge.
The losses of the brigade were summed up for the campaign just closed as follows: Killed, ninety-nine; wounded, three hundred and seventy-eight; missing and captured, one hundred and twenty-seven; total, six hundred and four. Distributed thus: First Cavalry, one hundred and thirty-eight; Second, one hundred and five; Third, one hundred and fifty-three; Fifth, two hundred and eight. The enemy’s loss in killed and wounded was estimated at eight hundred, with prisoners taken by us at fifteen hundred.
The brigade now went into winter-quarters near Belfield, where we erected cantonments, and where we enjoyed a fair degree of rest and recreation, disturbed, however, by long marches for picket duty and occasionally some severe fighting. The winter was a hard one; forage and other supplies were in very limited quantities and sometimes wholly insufficient, often exposing the men to sore trials and temptations in securing necessaries for man and beast. Despite all these drawbacks, the brigade gradually grew in strength and numbers, while as a matter of fact most of the cavalry commands in Virginia were greatly reduced in both efficiency and numbers. The Virginians were beset by constant temptations to seek their homes and the social attractions surrounding them. On the other hand, the mounted men from South Carolina, Georgia and other more distant States found it exceedingly difficult to keep up their “mounts,” and were also hard to get back themselves when once allowed to go to their far off homes. In this connection it will be recalled that in the winter of 1864-’65, when Sherman threatened South Carolina, Hampton, with his entire command, was ordered south to meet the Federal cavalry under Kilpatrick. And yet, so reduced was the main body of his force that the Legislature of South Carolina had to appropriate a million of dollars in gold to remount them. North Carolina on the other hand, occupied a happy medium between these extremes, and under an admirable system of “horse details” and the thorough discipline of her brigades most of her regiments were well kept up. This counted in several different ways; we came to be relied upon, not only for the ordinary picket duty, but in close quarters and hot contests the superior officers almost invariably looked to the North Carolina commands for the hard fighting.
Under all these disadvantages opened the campaign of 1865, and when, on the 29th of March, Sheridan started on his grand flank movement it was seen and felt by all that his heaviest blows would have to be met by the North Carolinians, then guarding General E. E. Lee’s extreme right. My own four regiments then averaged about four hundred effective men each, with the prospect of large additions on the way with new mounts, but events soon crowded upon us so rapidly that these were of little avail. Sheridan’s force was not less than ten thousand mounted men, largely centered around Dinwiddie Court House, well supported by infantry near at hand. W. H. F. Lee had under him my brigade and the two small brigades of Roberts and Beale, numbering all told not exceeding three thousand men, with which to meet Sheridan and his host. Major-General Fitzhugh Lee was then in command of all the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia, and was at Five Forks, several miles northwest of Dinwiddie Court House, virtually placing Sheridan exactly between himself and Major-General W. H. F. Lee at Stony Creek, nineteen miles off. Worse still, rain had fallen in torrents and the streams were all overflowing. This forced us to make a long detour in order to unite the two cavalry commands of W. H. F. Lee and Fitz Lee. But on the 31st of March we had overcome all difficulties and had successfully reached the White Oak road near Five Forks. Here a small stream known as Chamberlain Run separated us from Sheridan at Dinwiddie Court House.
At this time I had with me only three regiments, the Ninth, Nineteenth and Sixty-third (First, Second and Fifth Cav.), the Forty-first (Third Cav.) being in charge of my wagon trains. On approaching Chamberlain Run it was found that the Federal cavalry had crossed it and was advancing to attack us. I was ordered by W. H. F. Lee to dismount my command and meet this advance. The Fifth Cavalry was in front, supported by the First and Second, with Beale’s Brigade in reserve and McGregor’s Battery in position. In this order we not only speedily checked the enemy, but soon drove him in panic and rout, forcing him across the stream, over waist deep, all in the wildest haste and confusion. Just at this moment General W. H. F. Lee ordered one of his regiments from Beale’s Brigade to make a mounted charge; through some mistake of the order only one squadron of the regiment made the charge, and this was repulsed with frightful loss. This enabled the enemy to rally, and he in turn finally forced my regiments back. In this short conflict my loss was twenty officers killed and over one hundred men killed and wounded. Among the killed were Colonel [James H.] McNeill and Lieutenant-Colonel [Elias F.] Shaw, of the Sixty-third (Fifth Cav.) Regiment, and among the wounded, Colonel Gaines, commanding the Nineteenth (Second Cav.), and Major [Marcus D. L.] McLeod, of the Ninth (First Cav.).
Both sides now began to fortify the lines up and down Chamberlain Run, awaiting the inevitable conflict rapidly gathering around us. At last, about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Gen. W. H. F. Lee received a written order from Gen. Fitz Lee to drive the Federals from our front, in aid of some general movement then about to take place. This was my day to be in front, and of course it naturally fell to my command to attempt the work indicated; but in view of the fact that one of my regiments (Third Cavalry) was still absent, and because of the further fact that my other three regiments had all suffered so severely in the morning, I asked General William H. F. Lee to request (1st) the withdrawal of the order, and (2d) if this were not possible, to require one of his other brigades to lead in the movement. General W. H. F. Lee wrote to Fitz Lee, urging the withdrawal as indicated, but was told that military necessity required its performance. General W. H. F. Lee also kindly considered my request to substitute one of his other brigades instead of my own for the attack, but pleaded their reduced strength as a reason why he should not risk a change. I then asked him for any suggestions as to the best mode of attack, as in any event there would be great doubt of success and the loss might be very heavy. He declined making any suggestions on this point and left all to myself. I then gave him my opinion of what I thought the only hope of success. The Run was still very full, covering the bottoms for seventy-five yards on either side of the channel, with only one crossing for mounted troops, and the banks everywhere obstructed by logs, brush and other impediments. My plan was to put the First Cavalry in on the left, dismounted in line, and thus attack and draw the fire of the enemy, and then, at the proper moment, to make a charge in column across the ford against the enemy’s main works, the troops making this charge to be closely supported by my remaining regiment, mounted or dismounted, as circumstances might require. General Lee cordially assented to this plan of attack, with promise of active support from his other brigades, if necessary. The Second Cavalry was selected to make the charge in column and the Fifth was to remain dismounted, with bridle in hand, until the critical moment should arrive, to determine the part it should take. Every effort was made to shield all these preliminary arrangements, and then suddenly, everything being ready, Colonel William H. Cheek, of the First, formed his line and boldly entered the stream. This (as expected) seemed to really disconcert the enemy, and they at once concentrated a very rapid fire upon Cheek and his men. When about half way over, and the enemy’s fire was fully directed to that point, I ordered the Second Cavalry, under Major [John P.] Lockhart, to make his charge in a close column by sections of eight, with instructions, on crossing the stream, to deploy both to the right and left, as circumstances might require. The Fifth was also instructed to follow, partly mounted and partly dismounted, and adopt the same line of movement. Beale in the meantime being stationed by General Lee so as to help either wing, as the emergency might require. The whole plan succeeded to perfection. Lockhart drove the enemy from his works opposite the ford, while Cheek swept the lines to his left, and [Captain John R.] Erwin, of the Sixty-third [5th North Carolina Cavalry] Regiment, carried the right. In ten minutes the whole Yankee line was in flight and the Confederates in full pursuit. This was kept up for some distance and with great slaughter, until night closed upon us and a halt was ordered within some two miles of Dinwiddie Court House.
About 3 o’clock next morning we received orders to retire to our former position north of Chamberlain Run, where we remained to await the result of the great battle of Five Forks, then about opening.
My losses in this last attack and assault amounted to ten officers and nearly one hundred men killed and wounded. Among the killed were Captains Coleman and Dewey and Lieutenants Armfield, Blair and Powell, of the Ninth; Lieutenant Hathaway, of the Nineteenth, and Captain Harris and Lieutenant Lindsay of the Sixty-third, and two others. Among the wounded were Lieutenant-Colonel Cowles and Captains Anthony, Iredell, Johnston and Smith, with Lieutenants Mast and Steele, of the Ninth; Lieutenants Jordan and Turner, of the Nineteenth; Lieutenants Nott, Sockwell and Wharton, of the Sixty-third—all severely. I had only two field officers left in the three regiments—Colonel Cheek and Major Lockhart. The former had his hat struck and horse killed; Lockhart escaped unhurt, to get a ball the next day, which he still bears.
Despite these terrible losses and the havoc of death among them, when the men rushed upon the enemy’s works cheer after cheer rent the air, and the victorious troopers of the First North Carolina Cavalry Brigade still cherished hope that General R. E. Lee would win in the final mighty struggle then at hand; but next day saw another sight. In the disastrous defeat at Five Forks on the 1st of April the last hopes of the Confederacy went down in darkness and despair. It is believed that this cavalry triumph at Chamberlain Run on the 31st of March, 1865, was the last marked victory won by our arms. Next day Sheridan assaulted our works at Five Forks and drove all before him. My brigade was still on the White Oak road, on our extreme right, and as his victorious legions swept our immediate right the Ninth and Sixty-third Regiments did some of their old time fighting. The Ninth was on picket some two miles distant, but under proper orders the whole command took up its line of march for the rendezvous at Pott’s a few miles off on the Southside Railroad, where also the next day Lieutenant-Colonel Roger Moore, of the Forty-first [3rd North Carolina Cavalry], appeared with his command and the remnant of our trains.
Next day, April 1st [sic, April 2nd], at 12 M[eridian, i.e. Noon]., we heard of the fall of Petersburg, and got orders to join in the retreat. That night we camped near Namozine Church, twenty-five miles above Petersburg, covering the extreme rear on that line. Early on the morning of April 3d we took position at Namozine Church to await the advance of the Federal cavalry in its victorious rush with overwhelming numbers. With less than eight hundred men in the line, I had to receive the shock of over eight thousand; but even this difference could have been met with some hope of successful resistance had not a further order come to “fight to the last.” Among other dispositions, I was directed to dismount one regiment, the Sixty-third [Fifth North Carolina Cavalry], under Captain Jno. R. Erwin (acting Major), and conceal it in some out-buildings and along an old fence row, with a view to a possible surprise. But all in vain: in less than thirty minutes my mounted lines were overwhelmed with numbers and the Sixty-third exposed to certain capture. Orders for this regiment to retire had all miscarried or been unheeded, when I myself, as a last resort, dashed across the field with two of my staff to guide them in person through a heavy wood I still saw unoccupied by the enemy. This saved the dismounted men, though their horses were lost; but subsequently, in my efforts to rejoin the division, I was deceived by a squad of Sheridan’s scouts in Confederate uniforms and was myself captured. The command now devolved upon Colonel W. H. Cheek, of the Ninth; but two days afterwards he also fell into the enemy’s hands.
So far as I could learn, from this on to the surrender at Appomattox on the 9th of April, the fighting was merely a round of hand-to-hand combats, or in small special details in conjunction sometimes with other commands. All this tended to disintegration and independent action. Probably not over one hundred took the paroles tendered at Appomattox, though I have never yet met one of the “old First” who did not get the benefit of General Grant’s generous terms and carry home with him a good cavalry horse with which to start his “battle for a crop” in the memorable year of 1865.
In this limited sketch no attempt has been made to note the frequent changes in regimental commanders constantly occurring from promotion, death and other causes, but it is proper to add here that the four doing the largest service in the campaign of 1864 and 1865 were Colonel W. H. Cheek, of the First Cavalry; Colonel W. P. Roberts, of the Second; Lieutenant-Colonel Roger Moore, of the Third, and Colonel James H. McNeill, of the Fifth. They were all wonderfully efficient officers—ever skillful and brave, and in every emergency equal to the occasion.
- SOPO Editor’s Note: I originally had pegged the date as September 27, because this date appears in Sifakis’ Confederate Compendium. However, more and more, I believe this paragraph describes fighting between McDowell’s Farm and Wyatt’s Farm on September 29, 1864, part of the build up to the larger Battle of Peebles Farm on September 30-October 2, 1864. More research is needed, but I believe Sifakis was misled by these accounts in Clark’s books. As of now, I do NOT believe a fight took place on September 25 or 27 at McDowell’s Farm. ↩
- Clark, Walter. Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-’65, Volume 1 (Nash Brothers: 1901), pp. 430-443 ↩