CLARK NC: 44th 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.
On the 12th [of May 1864] the regiment was assigned its position directly in front of Spottsylvania Court House, and was in support of a strong force of Confederate artillery. Repeatedly during the day it was charged by the Federal columns, their advance always being heralded and covered by a heavy artillery fire. Every assault was repulsed with great loss to the assailants, whose advance was greeted by loud cheers from the Forty-fourth Regiment, many of the men leaping on the earthworks and fighting without cover. The loss during this engagement was comparatively slight. The Major commanding the regiment was again wounded and sent to a hospital in Richmond, and was not able to rejoin his regiment until a few days before the battle at Reams Station.
The regiment participated in all the engagements in which its brigade took part from Spottsylvania Court House to Petersburg, constantly skirmishing and fighting as Grant continued his march on Lee’s flank. On 3 June, 1864, it was heavily engaged with the enemy near Gaines’ Mill [at the Battle of Cold Harbor]. In this fight General W. W. Kirkland, commanding the brigade, was wounded. Pursuing its march, and almost daily skirmishing, the regiment reached Petersburg on 24 June, 1864, and commenced the desultory and dreary work of duty in the trenches. During the latter part of July, 1864, the regiment left Petersburg for Stoney Creek, and whilst on the march Colonel William MacRae, of the Fifteenth North Carolina Regiment, joined the brigade and assumed command under orders. This gallant officer was promoted to the rank of Brigadier-General in November, 1864, and from that time never left the brigade, of which the Forty-fourth was a part, until the last day at Appomattox. From Stoney Creek the regiment returned to Petersburg.
The regiment bore its part with conspicuous good conduct in the brilliant engagement at Reams Station on 25 August, 1864.
Upon the investment of Petersburg the possession of the Weldon road became of manifest importance, as it was Lee’s main line of communication with the South, whence he drew his men and supplies. On 18 August, 1864, General G. K. Warren, with the Fifth Corps of Grant’s army, and Kautz’s Division of cavalry, occupied the line of the Weldon road at a point six miles from Petersburg. An attempt was made to dislodge them from this position on the 21st, but the effort failed.1 Emboldened by Warren’s success, Hancock was ordered from Deep Bottom to Reams Station, ten miles from Petersburg [south on the Weldon Railroad]. He arrived there on the 22d [of August 1864] and promptly commenced the destruction of the railroad track. His infantry force consisted of Gibbons’ and Miles’ Divisions, and in the afternoon of the 25th [of August 1864], he was reinforced by the division of Orlando B. Wil[l]cox [of the Ninth Corps, AotP], which, however, arrived too late to be of any substantial service to him. Gregg’s division of cavalry, with an additional brigade commanded by Spear, was with him. He had abundant artillery, consisting in part of the Tenth Massachusetts battery, Battery B First Rhode Island, McNight’s Twelfth New York Battery, and Woerner’s Third New Jersey Battery. On the 22d [of August 1864] Gregg was assailed by Wade Hampton with one of his cavalry divisions, and a sharp contest ensued. General Hampton, from the battlefield of the 22d, sent a note to General R. E. Lee, suggesting an immediate attack with infantry. That great commander, realizing that a favorable opportunity was offered to strike Hancock a heavy blow, directed Lieutenant-General A. P. Hill to advance against him as promptly as possible. General Hill left his camp near Petersburg on the night of the 24th [of August 1864], and marching south, halted near Armstrong’s Mill, about eight miles from Petersburg. On the morning of the 25th he advanced to Monk’s Neck Bridge, three miles from Reams Station, and awaited advices from Hampton. The Confederate force actually present at Reams Station, consisted of Cooke’s and MacRae’s Brigades of Heth’s Division, Lane’s, Scales’ and McGowan’s Brigades of Wilcox’s Division, Anderson’s brigade of Longstreet’s Corps, two brigades of Mahone’s Division, Butler’s and W. H. F. Lee’s Divisions of cavalry, and a portion of Pegram’s Battalion of artillery.
Being the central regiment of the brigade, MacRae’s line of battle was formed on it as was customary. Just previous to the assault upon General Hancock’s command, the regiment was posted in the edge of a pine thicket, about three hundred yards from the breastworks held by the Federal troops. When the order was given to advance, the men threw themselves forward at a double-quick in a line as straight and unbroken as they presented when on parade, and without firing a gun, mounted the entrenchments and precipitated themselves amongst the Federal infantry on the other side, who seemed to be dazed by the vehemence of the attack, and made a very feeble resistance after their ranks were reached. A battery of artillery, captured by the regiment, was turned upon the retreating columns of the enemy. It was manned by sharpshooters of the Forty-fourth, who had been trained in artillery practice. Captain Oldham, of Company K, sighted one of the guns repeatedly, and when he saw the effect of his accurate aim upon the disarmed masses in front, was so jubilant that General MacRae with his usual quiet humor remarked: “Oldham thinks he is at a ball in Petersburg.”
The Federal loss in this battle was between six and seven hundred killed and wounded, and 2,150 prisoners, 3,100 stand of small arms, twelve stand of colors, nine guns and caissons. The Confederate loss was small, and fell principally upon Lane’s Brigade; it did not exceed five hundred in killed and wounded. The casualties in the Forty-fourth [North Carolina] Regiment were trifling, as well as in other regiments of the brigade, for Hancock’s men in our front fired wildly and above the mark, being badly demoralized by the fire of the Confederate artillery, under cover of which MacRae’s men advanced to the assault.
James Forrest [aka Forrast], who carried the colors of the regiment, became famous for his chivalrous devotion to the flag, and his gallantry on every field.
On the night of 25 August, 1864, the regiment returned with MacRae’s Brigade to its position on the line of entrenchments at Petersburg, held by General Lee’s right, and continued to perform the routine of duties incident to such a life until 27 October, 1864.
The enemy having forced back our cavalry, and penetrated to a point on our right known as Burgess’ Mill, on 27 October, 1864, General MacRae was ordered to attack with the understanding that he should be promptly reinforced by one or more brigades. Reconnoitering the enemy’s position, he pointed out at once the weak part of their line to several officers who were with him, and ordered his brigade to the assault. It bore down everything in its front, capturing a battery of artillery, and dividing the corps which it had assailed. The Federal commander, seeing that MacRae was not supported, closed in upon his flanks and attacked with great vigor. Undismayed by the large force which surrounded him, and unwilling to surrender the prize of victory already within his grasp, MacRae formed a portion of his command obliquely to his main line of battle, driving back the foe at every point, whilst the deafening shouts and obstinate fighting of his brigade showed their entire confidence in their commander, although every man of them knew their situation to be critical, and their loss had already been great. Awaiting reinforcements, which long since ought to have been with him, he held his vantage ground at all hazards, and against enormous odds. No help came whilst his men toiled, bled and died. Approaching night told him that the safety of his brigade demanded that he return to his original position. Facing his men about, they cut their way through a new line of battle which had partially formed in their rear. In this encounter the Forty-fourth North Carolina bore a brilliant part; it drove the Federal line, everywhere in its front, steadily to the rear. Lieutenant R[obert]. W. Stedman, of Company A, with less than fifty men, charged and captured a battery of artillery which was supported by a considerable force of infantry. This battery was disabled and left, as it was impossible to bring it off the field when the regiment was ordered to return to the position it occupied at the commencement of the fight. The affair at Burgess’ Mill was marred by the misunderstanding of his orders by an officer of high rank, by which he failed to reinforce General MacRae, as instructed, causing a heavy loss to his brigade.
From Burgess’ Mill the regiment again returned to its old position in the entrenchments at Petersburg. On 2 April, 1865, the Confederate lines having been pierced and broken through, the regiment, under orders, commenced its retreat towards Amelia Court House, which place it reached on 4 April . Its line of march was marked by constant and bloody engagements with the Federal troops, who followed in close pursuit, but who were entirely unable to produce the slightest demoralization or panic. At Southerland’s [sic, Sutherland’s] Station [on April 2 1865] the fight was severe. On the night of the 5th [of April, 1865] it left Amelia Court House and reached Appomattox on the morning of the 9th [of April, 1865], where, together with the bleeding remnants of the army of Northern Virginia, it stacked its arms and its career was ended.
The esprit de corps of the regiment was of the very highest order. Neither disease, famine, nor scenes of horror well calculated to freeze the hearts of the bravest, ever conquered its iron spirit. The small remnant who survived the trials of the retreat from Petersburg, and who left a trail of blood along their weary march from its abandoned trenches to Appomattox Court House, were as eager and ready for the fray on that last memorable day, as when, with full ranks and abundant support, they drove the Federal troops before them in headlong flight on other fields. This spirit especially manifested itself in the love of the regiment for its flag, which was guarded by all its members with chivalrous devotion, and which was never lost or captured on any field. The first flag was carried from the commencement of its campaign until about 1 January, 1865, when a new one was presented in its stead, for the reason that so much of the old flag had been shot away that it could not be distinctly seen by other regiments during brigade drills, and as the Forty-fourth was always made the central regiment, upon which the others of the brigade dressed in line of battle, as well as on parade, a new flag had become a necessity.
The new battle flag was carried by Color-Sergeant George Barbee, of Company G, until the night of 1 April, 1865, when crossing the Appomattox, he wrapped a stone in it and dropped it in the river, saying to his comrades about him:
”No enemy can ever have a flag of the Forty-fourth North Carolina Regiment.” The wonderful power which the high order of esprit de corps exerted for good amongst the officers and men, is illustrated by an incident which is worthy to be recorded amidst the feats of heroes.
A private by the name of Tilman, in the regiment, had on several occasions attracted General MacRae’s favorable attention and, at his request, was attached to the color-guard. Tilman’s name was also honorably mentioned in the orders of the day from brigade headquarters.
Soon thereafter, in front of Petersburg, the regiment became severely engaged with the enemy and suffered heavy loss. The flag several times fell, as its bearers were shot down in quick succession. Tilman seized it and again carried it to the front. It was but an instant and he, too, fell. As one of his comrades stooped to raise the flag again, the dying soldier touched him, and in tones made weak by the approach of death, said: “Tell the General I died with the flag.” The tender memories and happy associations connected with his boyhood’s home faded from his vision as he rejoiced in the consciousness that he had proved himself worthy of the trust which had been confided to him.
The old battle flag of the regiment tattered and torn by ball and shell, its staff riddled, and its folds in shreds, was presented to Mrs. Delia Worth Bingham, wife of Captain Robert Bingham, Company G, by the Major commanding [Charles M. Stedman], as a mark of respect and esteem in behalf of officers and men to a woman who had won their affectionate regard, and whose husband had ever followed it with fidelity and fortitude upon every field where it waved. Captain Bingham, whose home is in Asheville, N. C, still has it in his possession.
Its folds shall become mouldy with the lapse of years. The time will come when the Civil War shall only be remembered as a shadow of days long passed, but the memories of the great deeds of the sons of Carolina who followed that flag, and who sleep in unknown graves upon the fields of Northern Virginia, shall survive unshaken amidst the ruins of time.
Greensboro, N. C,
April 9, 1901.2
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The efforts of Warren to take and hold the Weldon Railroad, and the efforts of the Confederates to forcibly remove him, are known as the Battle of Globe Tavern, August 18-21, 1864. ↩
- Clark, Walter. Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-’65, Volume 3 (Nash Brothers: 1901), pp. 29-34 ↩