CLARK NC: 2nd 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.
The regiment [2nd North Carolina Cavalry, aka 19th North Carolina] did its full duty at the Davis farm in June [June 21, 1864], and it lost some men, too, but at Black’s and White’s, on the Southside Railroad a few days after [June 23, 1864], it eclipsed its record. At this place I [Major William P. Roberts] had command of the regiment, because of the sickness of Colonel C[linton]. M. Andrews, who insisted that I should lead it into action. However, later in the day, Andrews attempted to rejoin the head of his regiment, but in the attempt, was wounded in the thigh and died from the effects of amputation.
This was one of the most satisfactory engagements that I witnessed during the war, and the old Second sustained its reputation quite manfully. It was ordered to the front early in the action, in advance of any other regiment of the division, and although pressed hard until darkness closed the scene, it held its own against great odds, and even after dark many prisoners were captured by it. Upon this occasion it was the great right bower of the gallant Ninth North Carolina (First Cavalry) commanded and led by that thrice gallant and dashing soldier, Lieutenant-Colonel W. H. H. Cowles, and its vigorous attack upon the enemy’s flank made sure the saving of our guns which were in great danger of capture. There was stubborn fighting and much individual gallantry shown by some of my men during the day, and I remember that Sergeant Nicholas Harrell, of Company C, a perfectly reliable man, informed me at the close of the engagement, that during the day he had placed hors de combat no less than six of the enemy. The brigade commander did not witness the action of this regiment, nor did I receive an order from him during the day, but he got possessed with an idea somehow, or other, that the Ninth alone was entitled to all praise, and published an order to that effect so soon as the brigade returned to camp. I declined to have the order read to my men on dress parade, and there was friction between the brigade commander and myself, but I carried my point in the end. I did not object to his congratulating the Ninth upon its splendid behavior, but I did object to his partiality.
After the death of Colonel C. M. Andrews, I was commissioned Colonel of the regiment about the 1st of August , I think, and soon after followed the [Second] battle of Reams Station, brought on by a movement of the Federals to capture and hold the Weldon and Petersburg Railroad, on 25 August . The bearing of the Nineteenth there furnished an inspiration to the whole cavalry command, but the division commander in his report only refers to the division generally. The fact is, the great brunt of the battle, so far as the cavalry participated, was borne by the Nineteenth North Carolina [i.e. 2nd North Carolina Cavalry] and the Tenth Virginia [Cavalry], and these two regiments, unsupported, carried the last of the entrenchments held by the enemy. It was just at dark, I remember, and I never witnessed a more splendid charge. Our losses were small, but our captures were great, and the old Second Cavalry did splendid work. The command captured twice as many prisoners as it had men engaged, and the next morning’s Richmond papers gave full credit to its splendid and heroic service.
That superb soldier and our chief, General Wade Hampton, congratulated me upon the field and subsequently in his official report upon the battle, referred especially to the conspicuous gallantry of my regiment.
At McDowell’s farm, on 25 [sic, 29]1 September , the Nineteenth [2nd NC Cavalry] took the lead, and captured one officer, a Major, I think, and some prisoners. My loss in men was light, but it was here that the brave Captain J[ames]. N. Turner, of Company B, was killed, and his death was a great personal bereavement to me. He and I had served as Second Lieutenants together, and our relations were very cordial and warm, but there was unpleasantness between him and his captain, and he asked to be transferred to the Engineer Corps, which was done. After I became Colonel of the regiment, he asked me to have him sent back to it, and I remember how happy he was when he returned. He would come to my quarters every night and talk over the war memories of the past. He was commissioned Captain of his old Company B, but, poor fellow, his happiness was short-lived. A few days thereafter he was shot through the head near me, in this McDowell farm fight, his sword in one hand and his hat in the other, cheering on his men. Poor, dear Turner, there was no better man or more splendid soldier.
In all the marching and countermarching from the South to the North side of James river, the Nineteenth [2nd NC Cavalry] was always in place and participated in every engagement at Jones’ farm [September 30, 1864], Gravelly Run [October ??, 1864], Hargroves [October ??, 1864], Boisseau’s farm [October ??, 1864] and other places.
In one of these engagements, near the White Oak Swamp [August 16, 1864], on the north side of the James river, and where the gallant General J[ohn]. R. Chambliss, of Virginia, lost his life, the regiment had a close call. The division of General W. H. F. Lee was hurried to the front in columns of fours, the Nineteenth [2nd NC Cavalry] being the last of the division. Suddenly I saw the regiments to my front bear to the right, and immediately thereafter came an order from General Lee, borne by Major John Lee, of his staff, for the Nineteenth to hurry to the front. The command “trot,” “gallop,” was given, and in a short while I reported to the Major-General. My orders were to relieve the regiment to my front, the Ninth Virginia [Cavalry], I think it was, and he further said to me: “Roberts, you know what to do, but the line must be held.”
The entire division was soon withdrawn by some miscarriage of orders, as I afterwards learned, and it was not very long before the enemy advanced in great numbers upon my little command, but it stood up against this onslaught as only brave men can. At one time the regiment was practically surrounded, and its annihilation seemed complete, but in the very nick of time up dashed the Ninth North Carolina [1st NC Cavalry], led by the gallant Colonel W[illiam]. H. Cheek, who finally responded to my wishes and put his regiment where I suggested it should be put, and by his action I was enabled to extricate my men. But our loss was enormous; more than thirty officers and men killed in a few minutes. Captain L[ewis]. R. Cowper, of Company C, and Captain George P. Bryan, of Company G, were among the killed. They were both brave officers and splendid soldiers, and their loss was a sad blow to the regiment. Captain Cowper and I had left home together—had been non-commissioned officers together, and he was my personal friend; always jolly and in splendid humor, and ever begging me to take care of myself if I wished to live; but always insisting that no Yankee bullet had ever been molded to carry off “Old Cowp,” as he called himself, to the “undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns.” They were both brave and gallant men, and died like soldiers with their faces to the foe.
At Wilson’s farm, on the Boydton plank road, on 27 October, 1864, the Nineteenth Regiment [2nd NC Cavalry] was again conspicuous for gallantry, and bore its full share of the fight, as it had done at Reams, McDowell’s Farm, White Oak Swamp, and other places.
In the great cattle raid in September, 1864, the Nineteenth (Second Cavalry) was a part of the command of General Hampton commanding the expedition, and after the herd of cattle, 2,700, had been captured and driven from the corral, I received orders from him in person to bring up the rear. The regiment remained in the vicinity of where the cattle were captured for nearly an hour after the entire command had been withdrawn, and I at once, busied myself in making the necessary disposition of the regiment to protect our rear. Very soon the Federal cavalry began to press me and there were a number of mounted charges given and received during the day, but I was hardly pressed and was glad when night came to end the pursuit. The day’s work was a hard one ; none more so that I remember, but I managed to keep my command so well in hand that I lost only one or two men, I think, before reaching Belcher’s mills.
The Nineteenth [2nd NC Cavalry] was at Bellfield on 8 December when the Federals under General Warren attempted once more to secure the Weldon and Petersburg Railroad, and when the rear of Warren’s Corps was struck, a squadron of the Nineteenth commanded by Captain A[lexander]. F. Harrell, made a splendid charge and captured some prisoners.
Soon thereafter the regiment went into winter quarters near Bellfield, where it was fairly comfortable during the winter, being called out occasionally. During this interval of partial rest I addressed myself to discipline, and there was drill and dismounted dress parade every day; but the men were wearing out, or rather the regiment was, from its great work during the previous campaigns, and not much head-way was made in filling up our greatly depleted ranks. Yet the men were cheerful and apparently happy, and most of them enjoyed the winter in their comfortable quarters near Bellfield.
On 21 February, 1865, I received my commission as a Brigadier-General, and was assigned to the command of Dearing’s Brigade, he having been transferred to the brigade of General Rosser.
The bearing of both officers and men for the most part while I commanded the Nineteenth was all I could wish, and there was much individual gallantry displayed by both, but time has blunted my memory and I regret that I cannot recall the names of all whom I would be glad to mention in this sketch, written from memory, after the passage of more than thirty years.
Let me say that in the beginning the regiment did not have the same thorough military training that the First Cavalry (Ninth North Carolina) had, as well as other regiments commanded by old army officers. Its first commander, though a splendid and courteous gentleman, and a brave man, was made Colonel for political reasons, and this made a great difference. It went to meet the enemy, too, poorly armed and equipped. But I am glad to bear testimony to the fact that in the campaigns from 1863 to 1865, it was equipped almost entirely by captures from the enemy, including bridles and saddles, carbines, pistols, swords, canteens, blankets, and every article necessary to a thorough equipment of a trooper.
I believe that the regiment was equal to the best in either the brigade, division or corps, and it never failed to respond with cheerfulness to any command of mine. There was an enthusiastic response to every order of attack — but few laggards — and the bearing of the regiment on every occasion elicited praise from those high in authority. I remember once that that courteous gentleman and splendid soldier, General W. H. F. Lee, the division commander, said to me: “Roberts, I think my division equal, if not superior, to any division in the army, but let me tell you that I think I am growing a little partial to your regiment, because I feel more secure and my sleep is less disturbed when the gallant ‘Two Horse’ is in my front.”
These were his exact words, and it was the most splendid compliment ever paid the regiment. I felt especially complimented when I remembered that there were in the division the gallant Ninth North Carolina [First NC cavalry], the brave Ninth Virginia [Cavalry], and other regiments of equal merit, all North Carolinians and Virginians.
After my promotion to Brigadier-General that gallant soldier, Captain James L. Gaines, Assistant Adjutant General of the brigade, was commissioned Colonel, and he rode at its head during all the trying times around Five Forks until he fell dangerously wounded, losing an arm at Chamberlain’s Run, on 31 March . Under his leadership the regiment added if possible another star to its already perfect wreath. After Gaines was wounded the regiment was commanded by Captain J[ohn]. P. Lockhart, a gallant officer, formerly of my old squadron, Company K. Lockhart, I am told,’ led it through all the engagements following Chamberlain’s Run, and under his command the regiment lost none of its prestige for gallantry and devotion to duty.
I distinctly remember that after the battle of Chamberlain’s Run, I passed the regiment on the road, and its great loss both in splendid officers and gallant men made such an impression upon me that I wept like a child. Its losses had been so many that I scarcely recognized it. Under Lockhart, it kept up its organization until the capture and dispersal of General Barringer’s Brigade, 3 April. Then what was left of it, with some scattering remnants of the other regiments of the brigade, reported to me by orders from General Lee, and became a part of my brigade until the surrender at Appomattox.
My brigade was made up of the Fifty-ninth North Carolina (Fourth Cavalry), the Sixteenth North Carolina battalion of Cavalry, the Eighth Regiment of Georgia Cavalry, a part of the last named regiment being on detached service.
The Staff Officers assigned to me were as follows:
Captain Theodore S. Garnett, of Virginia, Assistant Adjutant-General.
Captain Wm. C. Coughenour, of North Carolina, Inspector-General.
Lieutenant Jas. E. Webb, of Alabama, Ordnance Officer.
Lieutenant W. P. Holcombe, of Virginia, Aide-de-Camp.
When I assumed command of the brigade it was greatly wanting in organization and discipline, but its material was equal to any brigade in both officers and men, and it behaved with exceptional gallantry from the time our lines were broken at Petersburg until we finally surrendered at Appomattox; especially at Namozine Creek, on 3 April, a part of it stood as firmly as the immortal 300 at Thermopylae, their bearing and splendid courage stemming the tide of a great stampede and saving a part of our cavalry from an ignominious flight. In fact, the little brigade did more than its share from the White Oak road to Appomattox, and on the morning of the surrender it was ordered to the front on the right of our lines. It faithfully and bravely responded to the last call, and with the remnant of the Nineteenth North Carolina, took the last guns captured by the Army of Northern Virginia, and I am sure they fired the last shots as well.
Immediately after the capture of the guns — four Napoleons — the brigade was withdrawn from the field by order of General Fitzhugh Lee, commanding the cavalry, disbanded and directed by him to return to their homes if they could, and I remember that he said that the army had surrendered.
I remember further that I saw a white flag borne down the lines, and I am sure that after that there was no more firing from either cannon or small arms.
I desire to add that I had an efficient and faithful staff. Lieutenant Holcomb was disabled on the White Oak road near Petersburg about the time our lines were broken. The gallant Lieutenant Webb, ever watchful and faithful, remained with his ordnance train to the last, and Captain Coughenour, whose courage was ever conspicuous, was dangerously wounded near me not far from Jetersville, Va., and while delivering to me a message. My Assistant Adjutant-General, Captain Theodore S. Garnett was ever by my side, brave to a fault, faithful and loyal, and he was with me to the last; and although a mere boy, his wise counsel and steady nerve rendered me valuable service always.
W[ILLIAM]. P. ROBERTS.
VICTORIA, B. C,
31 March, 1897.2
- 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 Spetember 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 2 (Nash Brothers: 1901), pp. 102-109 ↩