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.
This particular entry is from Volume 5, which contained reminiscences of specific battles, and is the only entry on Petersburg in the entire volume.
25 AUGUST. 1864.
By MAJOR CHAS. M. STEDMAN, Forty-Fourth Regiment, N[orth]. C[arolina]. T[roops].
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. Emboldened by Warren’s success, Hancock was ordered from Deep Bottom to Reams Station, ten miles from Petersburg. He arrived there on the 22d, and promptly commenced the destruction of the railroad track. His infantry force consisted of Gibbon’s and Miles’ Divisions, and in the afternoon of the 25th, he was reinforced by the division of Orlando B. Wil[l]cox, 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 and abundant artillery.
On the 22d Gregg was assailed by Wade Hampton with one of his cavalry divisions, and a sharp contest ensued. General Hampton from the battle field of the 22d, sent a note to General R. E. Lee, suggesting an immediate attack with infantry; that great commander realizing that a great 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, 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. General Hampton, commanding cavalry, marched at daylight on the morning of the 25th, and drove the Federal cavalry before him at all points. Both of his divisions united at Malone’s Crossing, about two and a half miles from Reams Station, having moved against the enemy by different routes. Here Hampton was attacked by a portion of Hancock’s infantry, when he dismounted his entire force and a spirited fight was in progress when the columns of A. P. Hill appeared in sight, with the purpose of attacking Hancock’s force from the front. Hancock’s infantry, who were expecting an attack from Hill, had entrenched themselves strongly on the west side of the railroad and a short distance from it. Hill ordered the first assault about 2 o’clock in the afternoon. The assaulting column consisted of Anderson’s Georgia Brigade and Scales’ North Carolina Brigade. These two brigades, after a severe conflict in which both fought well, were repulsed. The second assault was made about 5 o’clock in the afternoon by the three North Carolina Brigades of Lane, Cooke and MacRae, from left to right, in the order named. These troops had become famous throughout the entire army for their fighting qualities. How could it be otherwise with such brigade commanders? On this day General Conner, of South Carolina, was commanding Lane’s Brigade, as General Lane had been severely wounded at Cold Harbor.
In front of Lane and Cooke the enemy had felled trees, sharpening the limbs and making it very difficult to get through them. MacRae had an open field between him and the enemy’s breastworks, and for this reason, as the other two brigades would be necessarily retarded by the abatis, which was exceedingly formidable where Lane’s men had to pass, they were ordered to advance somewhat sooner tha[n] MacRae’s men. MacRae’s line of battle was in the edge of a pine thicket about three hundred yards from the breastworks to be assaulted. Walking along the line MacRae told the men that he knew they would go over the works, and that he wished them to do so without firing a gun. “All right, General, we will go there,” was the answer which came from all. The men were in high spirits, jesting and laughing, and ready to move on an instant’s notice. In the meanwhile Lane’s and Cooke’s Brigades advancing were received by a heavy fire of both musketry and artillery. As the fire became more violent, especially in front of Lane, MacRae, prompted by that great and magnanimous spirit which ever characterized him, and realizing that the crisis of the conflict was at hand, said to Captain Louis G. Young, his Adjutant-General, “I shall wait no longer for orders. Lane is drawing the entire fire of the enemy; give the order to advance at once.” Hitherto his brigade had received but slight attention from the enemy, the greater portion of their fire having been directed against Lane’s and Cooke’s Brigades. But warned of the danger which threatened them, by the loud cheers from MacRae’s Brigade, as it emerged from its covering of pines and advanced to the assault, they opened a tremendous fire of small arms, with a converging fire of artillery along MacRae’s whole front. It was all in vain. MacRae’s men in a line almost as straight and unbroken as they presented when on parade, without firing a gun, threw themselves forward at a double-quick, and mounting the entrenchments, precipitated themselves among the enemy’s infantry on the other side, who seemed to be dazed by the vehemence of the attack, and made a very feeble resistance after their works were reached. Lane’s and Cooke’s men, stimulated by the shouts of MacRae’s Brigade on their right, redoubled their exertions and advancing with great rapidity through the fallen timber, were close under the works when MacRae struck them. In fact, portions of the three brigades crossed the embankment together, and the glory of the victory belongs equally to them all. Nor were our cavalry idle spectators of the fight. As soon as it was evident to General Hampton that Hill’s infantry had commenced the second assault with the three North Carolina Brigades, he ordered his entire force, which had been dismounted, to attack the enemy in flank and rear. This was done most gallantly and successfully. General Rufus Barringer, of North Carolina, commanded W. H. F. Lee’s Division with marked skill and gallantry, whilst Colonel W. H. Cheek, of Warren county, led Barringer’s Brigade with his accustomed dash. The cavalry vied with the infantry in their headlong assault upon the enemy’s lines. The Nineteenth North Carolina (2 Cav.) under General W. P. Roberts, of Gates County, carried the first line of rifle-pits on the right, and the cavalry all swept over the main line. Their works stormed in front, their lines carried in flank and rear, the enemy’s infantry gave way at all points and abandoned the field in confusion and without any appearance of order. In truth, the Federal infantry did not show the determination which had generally marked the conduct of Hancock’s Corps. Not so with the Federal artillery. It was fought to the last with unflinching courage. Some minutes before the second assault was made, General MacRae had ordered Lieutenant W. E. Kyle, with the sharpshooters, to concentrate his fire upon the Federal batteries. Many men and horses rapidly fell under the deadly fire of these intrepid marksmen. Yet still the artillerists who were left, stood by their guns. When MacRae’s Brigade crossed the embankment, a battery which was on his right front as lie advanced, wheeled to a right angle with its original position, and opened a fire of grape and canister at close quarters, enfilading the Confederate lines; General MacRae immediately ordered this battery to be taken. Although entirely abandoned by its infantry support, it continued a rapid fire upon the attacking column until the guns were reached. Some of the gunners even then refused to surrender and were taken by sheer physical force. They were animated in their gallant conduct by the example of their commanding officer. On horse back, he was a conspicuous target, and his voice could be distinctly heard encouraging his men. Struck with admiration by his bravery, every effort was made by General MacRae, Captain W. P. Oldham, Captain Robert Bingham, and one or two others who were among the first to reach the guns, to save the life of this manly opponent. Unfortunately he was struck by a ball which came from the extreme flank, as all firing had ceased in front of him and he fell from his horse mortally wounded, not more lamented by his own men than by those who combatted him. This battery, when captured, was at once turned upon the retreating columns of the enemy. It was manned by a few of MacRae’s sharpshooters, all of whom were trained in artillery practice. They were aided by Captain Oldham, Lieutenant Kyle and others, not now remembered. Captain Oldham sighted one of the guns repeatedly, and when he saw the effect of his accurate aim upon the disordered masses in front, was so jubilant that General MaeRae, with his usual quiet humor, remarked, ”Oldham thinks he is at a ball in Petersburg.”
After the capture of the breastworks, General McGowan’s Brigade was sent in on the right. That generous hearted old hero declined to make any official report of the conduct of his brigade, giving as a reason therefor, that he “supposed he was only sent in to help the North Carolinians in the pursuit, and gather up the spoils of war which had been captured by them.” His unselfish example was well worthy of imitation. Mahone’s old brigade subsequently advanced over the same field, but the hard fighting was over.
The Federal loss in this battle was between six hundred and seven hundred killed and wounded, two thousand one hundred and fifty prisoners, three thousand one hundred stand of small arms, twelve stand of colors, nine guns and caissons. Among the prisoners captured was General Walker, of Hancock’s staff, who surrendered to Lieutenant Kyle. Kyle here, as elsewhere, was in the very front of the assaulting column.
The Confederate loss was small, and fell principally upon Lane’s Brigade. In the second and final assault it was about five hundred in killed and wounded. The result of this brilliant engagement was hailed with great rejoicing throughout the South, and shed a declining lustre upon the Confederate battle flag, upon which the sun of victory was about to go down forever. General R. E. Lee publicly and repeatedly stated that not only North Carolina, but the whole Confederacy, owed a debt of gratitude to Lane’s, Cooke’s and MacRae’s Brigades which could never be repaid. He also wrote to Governor Vance expressing his high appreciation of their services. From his letter I make this extract:
“HEADQUARTERS ARMY NORTHERN VIRGINIA,
“August 29, 1864.
“His Excellency Z. B. Vance,
Governor of North Carolina, Raleigh:
“I have frequently been called upon to mention the services of North Carolina soldiers in this army, but their gallantry and conduct were never more deserving of admiration than in the engagement at Reams Station on the 25th ultimo.
“The brigades of Generals Cooke, MacRae and Lane, the last under the temporary command of General Conner, 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 their corps and division commanders, and the admiration of the army.
“On the same occasion the brigade of General Barringer bore a conspicuous part in the operations of the cavalry, which were no less distinguished for boldness and efficiency than those of the infantry.
“If the men who remain in North Carolina share the spirit of those they have sent to the field, as I doubt not they do, her defence may securely be trusted to their hands.
“I am, with great respect,
“Your obedient servant,
R. E. Lee,
The regiments from North Carolina engaged in this battle again illustrated those high qualities which will perpetuate the name and fame of the Confederate soldier in the years to come. Unshaken by the fall of Vicksburg and the disaster at Gettysburg, undismayed amidst the general gloom which was settling upon the fortunes of the South, they exhibited the same enthusiasm and valor which had marked their conduct upon every field where they stood for the honor, glory and renown of their State.
Greensboro, N. C..
25 August, 1901.1
- Clark, Walter. Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-’65, Volume 5 (Nash Brothers: 1901), pp. 206-212 ↩