CLARK NC: 33rd North Carolina 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.
June 13th  at Riddle’s shop, we remained in line of battle for a considerable time, but were not seriously engaged. 22 June , at Well’s farm [aka the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road], three miles southeast of Petersburg, the regiment helped to drive back the enemy, who was endeavoring to get possession of the Weldon Railroad. 23 June, while relieving Mahone, the brigade was exposed to a merciless fire of musketry and artillery. It was at close range, and very severe, but our men were so seasoned and disciplined that they never flinched.
Between the 1st and middle of July  the regiment moved to the north side of the James, and on 28 July  took part in the action at Gravelly Hill [aka Gravel Hill or First Battle of Deep Bottom]. In this engagement (Gravelly Hill) Adjutant Spier Whitaker particularly distinguished himself. He was complimented in general orders for his gallant and officer-like conduct on the field of battle. Lieutenant Whitaker was a valuable officer—clear-headed, cool and courageous. At the battle of Fussell’s Mill [aka Second Battle of Deep Bottom], on the Darbytown road, 16 to 18 August , the brigade was conspicuous for its steadiness and its courage. Commanded by Colonel [William M.] Barber [aka Barbour], of the Thirty-seventh [North Carolina], the brigade captured from a determined enemy the intrenchments on the Darbytown road, from which other troops had been routed, in the presence of General Lee.
At Reams Station, 25 August , Lane’s Brigade achieved a signal success. About 2 p. m. a Georgia Brigade and Scales’ [North Carolina Brigade] attacked Hancock fiercely, but they were driven back in disorder. About 5 o’clock, Cooke, Lane (General Conner), and MacRae went to the front to make a second attack. The brigade moved forward promptly over fallen trees, brushwood and other obstructions, with a ringing rebel yell, and the Federal line was ours. The enemy fled in the greatest confusion. An attempt to recapture the works resulted in utter failure. The railroad was saved. General Lane, in his history of the Twenty-eighth North Carolina Regiment, says “General Lee, in speaking of this fight to General Lane, said that the three North Carolina brigades, Lane’s, Cooke’s and MacRae’s, which made the second assault, after the failure of the first by other troops, had by their gallantry not only placed North Carolina, but the whole Confederacy, under a debt of gratitude, which could never be repaid.” What praise could be higher? General Lee wrote to Governor Vance: “They (Lane, McRae and Cooke) advanced through a thick abatis of felled trees under a heavy fire of musketry and artillery, and carried the enemy’s works with a steady courage that elicited the warm commendation of the corps and division commanders, and the admiration of the army.”
At Jones’ farm [aka the Battle of Peebles Farm], 30 September , the brigade (General Lane in command), was on the right of the road, and the Thirty-third [North Carolina] was on the right of the brigade. The enemy tried to flank us on our right. Colonel [Robert V.] Cowan ordered the men to lie down at the bottom of a hill, and when the enemy got opposite our colors, the Thirty-third rushed to the top of the hill and poured so heavy a fire into the enemy that he quickly fled, leaving his dead and wounded behind him.
Colonel William M. Barber [aka Barbour], of the Thirty-seventh [North Carolina], was killed 30 September. He was an officer of unusual merit and promise.
Next day, 1 October , the Thirty-third [North Carolina] was in the fight at the Pegram House, and helped to drive the enemy from his incomplete works, and held them until dark. It then returned to the works near the Jones House, where in a short time it went into winter quarters.
December 8th  the brigade was sent to drive off the cavalry force1 which was endeavoring to destroy the Petersburg & Weldon Railroad, but on reaching Jarratt’s Station, we found the enemy had retreated. The weather was exceedingly cold, and the sufferings of the men were intense. The brigade was ordered to support the attack on Fort Steadman [sic, Stedman] [on March 25, 1865], and it performed its part nobly in helping to repel the determined assault made on the main line of the Confederate works near our winter quarters.2 General Lee ordered General Lane to attack the enemy, who had taken position on [McIlwaine’s] hill near the Jones House. General Lane dislodged him [on the morning of March 27, 1865] by the efficient aid of his [Lane’s Brigade] sharpshooters, commanded by Major [Thomas J.] Wooten, of the Eighteenth [North Carolina]. Major Wooten was one of the best officers in the service. The sharpshooters were supported by the brigade. The winter in the trenches at Petersburg—1864-’65—was a most trying one in many respects. The chaff was winnowed from the wheat.
On the night of 1 April  the brigade was shelled continuously until daybreak the next morning [April 2, 1865]. The regiments in the works from right to left were in the following order:
Twenty-eighth [North Carolina], Thirty-seventh [North Carolina], Eighteenth [North Carolina], Thirty-third [North Carolina]. The Seventh [North Carolina] was on detached duty.3 The men were placed from six to ten paces apart—a mere skirmish line. Against this weak force Grant hurled his crushing masses, at daybreak the next morning. We fought desperately, but our thin line was pushed back by sheer force of numbers until it was broken in pieces. We then retreated behind our winter quarters and continued the contest, each man for himself. A part of the regiment fell back to the plank road under Colonel [Robert V.] Cowan and a part to Battery Gregg, under General Lane. Battery Gregg was fiercely attacked and fell after a most heroic resistance. Color Sergeant [James W.] Atkinson, of the Thirty-third [North Carolina], after the Federals had mounted the parapet, and were yelling furiously, left the fort, and made for the rear, waving his flag defiantly at the astonished enemy. The Federals fired at him repeatedly, but he escaped unhurt. It was a daring deed that will live in history. Our men cheered him long and loudly, even after he had reached the Confederate works. In this fight General A. P. Hill was killed. He was a cool, gallant, sagacious officer. Under his leadership the Light Division won an undying fame. Here, too, fell Captain John D. Fain, of Company C. Colonel Cowan, Captain Fain and myself were standing in a group, watching the movements of the enemy. Presently we heard that unmistakable thud, and Captain Fain fell heavily forward, mortally wounded. He begged us to take him off the field, but it was impossible to do so at that time. In five minutes he was dead. I never knew a purer man. He was the soul of honor—so gentle, so manly, so heroic that no one could help loving him. We held the inner line of works until night, when Petersburg was evacuated, and we began our last retreat.
April 3 we crossed the Appomattox at Goode’s bridge, and on the 5th had some brisk skirmishing with the enemy near Amelia Court House. Near Farmville, while crossing the river, the enemy opened fire upon us with his artillery, and we lost a few men. We had nothing to eat. It was impossible to procure any food, and the enemy was keeping closely upon us. We marched grimly, resolutely on, not dreaming the end was so near.
April 9 we were ordered to occupy a position on the left of the road, near Appomattox Court House, and on the fighting line. While we were moving to this position at a double quick we were suddenly halted and a Federal officer came from the front and rode down our line. Pie smiled, as he rode quickly on, but it was the wickedest smile I ever saw on any man’s countenance. The report quickly spread that General Lee had surrendered. We could not believe it and the officers vehemently denied it. General Lane, however, assured us the report was true, and we bowed to the inevitable. Lieutenant Mclntyre, of the Thirty-third, said to me: “Major, let’s not surrender. Let’s cut our way through.” Presently he whispered: “Won’t you have a drink of quinine whiskey ?” Lieutenant Mclntyre was a brave and useful officer. That night we lay down on the ground and shed bitter tears, feeling that we had no home and no country.
The next morning an order came from General Lane, directing Colonel Cowan to make a formal surrender of the Thirty-third Regiment. Colonel Cowan and I were sitting under a large oak tree. Colonel Cowan read the order, jumped up, his eyes flashing fire, and said: “I won’t surrender.” Then, turning to me, he said : “Major Weston, take charge of the regiment.” He mounted his horse and rode off to the rear. I never saw him again. Colonel Cowan was a brave and most efficient officer. Like General Hoke, he was a born soldier. After Colonel Cowan left I took charge of the regiment. We marched across the creek, stacked arms in rear of the regiment which preceded us, and returned to our bivouac.
[SOPO Editor’s Note: A list of men who surrendered at Appomattox has been omitted.]
A word as to the morals of our command. The Thirty-third Regiment was not especially noted for its piety, though its soldiers were among the best men on earth. They had no religion “to speak of,” as Bishop Griswold used to say, but they were very regular in their attendance upon divine services, and no men could be more respectful, more attentive or more reverent. Our chaplain, Rev. Thomas J. Eatman, was a godly man, and his influence for good was largely felt, and most gratefully acknowledged.
The writer begs leave to make his best acknowledgments to General James H. Lane for invaluable aid in the preparation of this sketch. General Lane was a most capable officer—hard working, painstaking, accurate and thorough. He neglected no duty. He was always in the right place at the right time, ready “to do or to die.” His men loved him and trusted him. They had the utmost confidence in his judgment and skill. He had in a remarkable degree the genius of common sense, and his superiority as a brigade commander was shown on many a hard-fought field. May Heaven’s best blessings rest upon him.
I am also indebted for much useful information to Adjutant Spier Whitaker, of Raleigh; Captain Joseph C. Mills, of Burke; Colonel J. T. Johnson, of Catawba; General Robert F. Hoke, of Raleigh; Dr. Richard B. Baker, of Catawba; Mrs. L. O’B. Branch, of Raleigh; Major James H. Foote, of Wilkes ; Miss Ann Saunders, of Raleigh; Dr. J. F. Shaffner, of Forsyth ; Sergeant J. P. Little, of Catawba; Major William M. Robbins, of Iredell; Captain Jas. A. Summers, of Tennessee, formerly of Iredell; Lieutenant John W. Happoldt—an excellent soldier—of Burke; Lieutenant Columbus L. Turner, of Iredell; Captain J. T. Walton, of Gaston, and Mrs. Robert H. Jones, of Raleigh.
Our Surgeons, Doctors J. F. Shaffner and John A. Vigal, were the kindest and best of men. They were ideal Surgeons—capable, honest, firm, sympathetic, self-sacrificing, courageous and unremitting in their attentions to the sick and wounded, oftentimes exposing themselves to imminent peril in the discharge of their official duties. By such unflinching heroism and devotion to duty they won the undying gratitude of the entire command. Dr. Richard B. Baker was an able, conscientious surgeon, the equal in every respect of Drs. Shafner and Vigal, but after the battle of New Bern he was transferred to another command.
Amid the gloom of our defeat we found that among the Federal soldiers there were some big-hearted men. An officer of the Thirty-third said to a Federal Commissary: “Give me some bread for my men, for they have had nothing to eat for three days.” “I can’t do it,” said the commissary, “but walk about the tent carelessly and fill your haversack with crackers and loaf sugar, and your canteen with whiskey, and I won’t see you.” The officer did it.
I shall always have a soft place in my heart for the memory of General Grant. He treated us with great kindness and consideration, and did much, very much, to blunt the sting of defeat. It is his best, his greatest, monument. The Southern soldiers were the equals, in every possible respect, of any soldiers that ever fought for God or man. The world must bow before such men. We failed only because it was impossible to succeed.
“It is not in mortals to command success.
We did more, we deserved it.”
James A. Weston.
Hickory, N. C,
9 April, 1901.4
- SOPO Editor’s Note: It was much more than just cavalry on this raid. Warren took his entire Fifth Corps, a division of Second Corps, and a division of Cavalry on the Stony Creek Raid. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The 33rd North Carolina had to move quickly back to the right on the Boydton Plank Road line after serving as a reserve at the Battle of Fort Stedman in the Confederate center. Why? Grant and Lee, realizing the Confederates had probably stripped their lines for the Fort Stedman attack, decided to probe aggressively all along those lines looking for a breaking point. The resulting actions are known collectively as the “Battle Along the Skirmish Lines” on March 25, 1865. I need to do more research to determine which, if any, named fight in the Official Records the 33rd North Carolina may have taken part in. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The 7th North Carolina left the Siege of Petersburg on February 26, 1864, bound for High Point, North Carolina: “On the night of the 26th of February, 1865, the Seventh Major Harris commanding, left the defenses of Petersburg, and went by rail to High Point, N. C., for the purpose of arresting and returning absentees from the army, its field of operations being Randolph, Moore and Chatham counties.” ↩
- Clark, Walter. Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-’65, Volume 2 (Nash Brothers: 1901), pp. 574-580 ↩