SHS Papers: Volume 19: A Remarkable Victory. Wilson’s Defeat at the Staunton River Bridge in 1864 by Dabney H. Maury et al

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in Southern Historical Society Papers

SOPO Editor’s Note: Due to the unfortunate political climate of the early 2020s, I want to clearly state here that critics of the Southern Historical Society Papers accuse the writers of these articles of perpetuating the Lost Cause. In addition, these articles were written decades after the war and may suffer from some issues with accuracy.  All that said, these articles provide a look at the Siege of Petersburg from the Confederate perspective.  This perspective is largely absent from the Official Records due to the hasty retreat from Richmond and the burning of many important documents during the Appomattox Campaign. I believe it is important to provide this perspective on this site.

[From the Richmond Times, September 27, 1891.]

A REMARKABLE VICTORY.1

———-

Wilson’s Defeat at the Staunton River Bridge in 1864.

———-

A Battle Which Saved Lee’s Army—Two Hundred and Fifty Hastily Organized Confederates Whip Twenty-five Hundred Federals—Valuable Contributions.

———-

Wilson’s defeat at the Staunton-river bridge, June 24 [sic, 25], 1864, was the most remarkable result of the fervent patriotism which pervaded all classes and ages and sexes of Virginians during our long and severe trials that the history of that war gives us.2

This most interesting narrative of it was given me ten years or more ago by that able and excellent Virginia gentleman, Colonel Tom Flournoy, then residing in Danville. Several times he told me he would write it for record in the Southern Historical Society. Unfortunately for history, he, in the struggle for maintenance which had then fallen upon us all, died before he could execute his purpose.

WILSON’S ADVANCE.

His story was that about the 21st or 22d of June, 1864, he was at his home in Halifax county, Va., when about midnight he was aroused by the barking of his dogs and by one of his negro men, who told him a strange man had come to the “quarters” asking for a fresh horse to enable him to carry an important dispatch. The Colonel saw the courier and learned that a heavy column of Federal cavalry under command of General [James H.] Wilson3 was moving along the Richmond and Danville railroad, breaking it up; that they would soon reach the Staunton bridge, then guarded by a company of Confederate infantry under command of Captain Farinholt, who was sending out couriers to invoke the aid of all men capable of bearing arms. Colonel Flournoy went at once to the county town and sent out couriers with orders signed by General Lee, for all men and boys and Confederate soldiers on furlough to repair at once to the defence of this important point. Prompt response was made by all whom the summons reached, and by June 24th near five hundred men, armed with shot-guns and “pea” rifles were on the spot.

A MOTLEY ARRAY.

Some were aged men, too old for field service, some were boys, too young, and a few were Confederate veterans on furlough because of wounds or sickness.

Of this last class were Colonel Flournoy and Colonel [Henry] Eaton Coleman [of the 12th North Carolina].

Colonel Flournoy got together a small party of horsemen and pushed forward to reconnoitre the enemy and report his progress. Colonel Coleman assumed the command of the forces at the bridge and prepared its defences. He was a clever engineer and a veteran of several years’ active service.

He moved two hundred and fifty men across to the end of the bridge nearest the enemy. The river bank was steep and high. This he cut down to about four feet, throwing all the earth as removed down the bank, and showing no fresh earth in front. His command were ordered to crouch down carefully concealed until the enemy should arrive at point blank. Then at the world they would rise, take good aim and fire.

The rest of the command was held in reserve, under Colonel Flournoy, on the right bank of the river, where field-works had long ago been constructed upon the bluff some twenty feet above the bridge. This work was armed with four six-pounders, which were worked upon the advancing enemy under command of Captain Marshall.

TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY AGAINST TWO THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED.

During the morning of the 24th [sic, 25th] Wilson arrived upon the ridge, about one mile from the bridge. He fixed his headquarters in the lawn of Mr. McPhail’s house, whence he could view the field of battle and all its approaches, and convinced that he would encounter stout resistance he made his preparations accordingly.

About 4 P. M. he moved two thousand five hundred dismounted riflemen under a brigade commander to make the attack. The line advanced over this plain, which sweeps from the base of the ridge to the river bank. No shot was fired, except from the cannon, as it approached in fine array, until within about fifty yards of the bridge, and every eye of the assailants was fixed upon the field-works and men beyond the river, when at Coleman’s command the force under the bank arose, and as one man poured in their unexpected fire. The centre of the Federal line was torn out–scarce a man of it escaped wounds or death–and the whole force soon fell back to the hills to reorganize its attack, and again advanced to be repulsed as before. By this time night was falling and General Wilson was convinced that he had to encounter greater resistance than he could overcome without great loss of time and men. This conviction was strengthened by Mrs. McPhail, who told him that the force before him had been greatly increased since his approach had become known; that she had heard frequent arrivals of the trains from Danville and the cheers when they reached the bridge with reinforcements from Danville and Charlotte, and that he would probably find ten thousand men to beat in the morning.

A SIGNAL VICTORY.

The first light of the 25th [sic, 26th] showed Wilson’s trains and army retiring from the field in retreat upon Grant’s lines, but he was intercepted by General Rooney Lee, who captured all of his wagon train and two thousand prisoners, Wilson, with his remaining force, barely escaping into his own lines.

He left upon the field in his fight at the bridge over sixty dead, who were buried where they fell; and his wounded must have been many more than the usual proportion to the dead, for most of them were from buckshot from double-barrelled guns, every discharge of which wounded and disabled many men.

The Confederate loss was two killed and six or seven wounded. The killed were the Rev. Mr. Burke, of the Episcopal Church, and Dr. Sutphin, a prominent physician of Halifax county. Colonel Coleman was severely wounded.

A REMARKABLE VICTORY.

Never in the history of modern war has such a force achieved such a victory–a victory remarkable for the disparity in numbers, armament and personnel as for the magnitude of its result and the skill with which it was guided.4

Two hundred and fifty men, too old, and boys too young for war, accomplished it, under the command of a wounded officer, who discarded all precedents of bridge defence in placing his force with the bridge behind it, and in using the bank of the river as his parapet.5

The result was undoubtedly the salvation of the Army of Northern Virginia.6

General Wilson led six [sic, five] thousand veterans, thoroughly armed and equipped, and was one of the ablest and most daring of the Federal commanders.

His object in this movement was to cut off Lee’s supplies and compel him to retreat.7

It was Wilson who next year led the last invasion up Alabama and broke up the effective resistance of the field forces in that State.8

DABNEY H. MAURY.9

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ANOTHER ACCOUNT OF THE FIGHT.

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The following letter gives another account of this remarkable battle:

RANDOLPH, CHARLOTTE COUNTY, Va., Aug. 24, 1891.

General D[ABNEY]. H. MAURY:

My Dear General: * * * My brother, then under eighteen years of age was engaged in the battle. He assures me that there were in the fort not more than between four a five hundred men and boys–men over forty-five from the surrounding counties, and a few army men and officers on furlough; that of this number not more than two hundred and fifty, under command of Coleman, were engaged in the fight in repelling the Federal assault upon the bridge; that only two Confederates were killed, viz: The Rev. Mr. Burke, an Episcopal minister in the neighborhood, and Dr. Sutphin, a prominent physician of Halifax county–and only several severe wounded. I have not heard their dead estimated at less than sixty. Many, if not all of their dead, were buried where they fell upon the river flats. Subsequent freshets have exhumed and scattered their bones over the land.10

*             *             *             *             *             *             *

AN INCIDENT.

I will close my letter with an incident just related to me by my brother, which may throw some light upon the matter. In the spring or summer of 1865, while General [Henry] Benham with his engineer corps was engaged in rebuilding Staunton-river bridge, he had a visit from a Colonel Fitzhugh, who commanded the assaulting force, the object of his visit being an inspection of the scene of battle. My brother being on courteous relations with the General was sent for to be questioned by Colonel Fitzhugh in regard to the strength of the Confederate garrison. When he replied that the force engaged in repelling the attack amounted to not more than two hundred and fifty men, Colonel Fitzhugh sprang up and vehemently exclaimed, “It is false.” As my brother moved to leave the tent, the General exacted of Colonel Fitzhugh an apology for the affront offered to his invited guest–which was accorded. My brother then assured Colonel Fitzhugh that a personal inspection of the works on the Charlotte side of the river would satisfy him that they were insufficient to accommodate many more than two hundred and fifty men. Upon reaching the works and inspecting them for a minute Colonel Fitzhugh exclaimed, “By God,” and turned back in unconcealed disgust. He had stated to General Benham in my brother’s presence that the attacking force, commanded by himself, numbered two thousand five hundred men. I believe it is conceded that General Wilson’s whole force amounted to six [sic, five] thousand men. The battle was fought on my father’s plantation, General Wilson and his staff occupying the front yard of his house, a mile distant from the bridge. My father and brother had enlisted for military service. My mother, alone, remained in charge of the house, and is credited with having exerted more important influence on the fortunes of the battle than any other single individual. She sincerely believed the garrison at the fort was ten thousand strong and being rapidly increased by reinforcements. She was closely plied with questions, and her answers severely tested by General Wilson.

By the intelligence and evident sincerity of her statements she succeeded in imparting her convictions to the General, which found ample confirmation in the repulse he had met and the frequent rattling of an empty train of cars which she had referred to as bringing in reinforcements.

*             *             *             *              *            *

Regretting my inability, &c., &c., I am, yours very truly,

(Signed)

JOHN B. McPHAIL,
Late a Major Confederate Army.

Major Robert L. Ragland, East Boston; Captain John Lewis, Milton, N. C.; Captain William B. Bruce, Staunton, Va.; and Captain John H. Powell, commanded a company of boys in the battle.

———-

[Times, October 11, 1891]

ACCOUNT OF CAPTAIN J[OHN]. W. LEWIS.

My attention has been called to the account of that glorious battle of 24th [sic, 25th] June, 1864, at Staunton bridge. I am glad that General D. H. Maury and Major John B. McPhail have given so interesting an account of it. But you will see that both accounts only refer to the fight on the lower or eastern side of the bridge. We had six pieces of artillery, four on the lower side of the bridge, commanded by Captain Marshall and Lieutenant Bob Ragland. The two on the upper or western side of the bridge Major [Benjamin F.] Farinholt, who commanded the guard stationed there, gave to me, I being captain of artillery. The two guns were stationed one hundred yards above the bridge. When I took command of these guns and examined the ammunition I found that we had only solid shot and canister.

THE UPPER SIDE OF THE BRIDGE.

We at once covered the works with green bushes. General Wilson threw his troops on both sides of the railroad. The description of the fight given by both General Maury and Major McPhail was that on the lower side of the bridge. The troops on the upper side were permitted to march within one hundred and fifty yards of the bridge. When we opened on them with canister they were thrown into great confusion at once, and in twenty minutes we had them all in the ditch about one hundred yards from the bridge. We never permitted them to form again. Every time they attempted it we gave them a canister. In that ditch we kept them until darkness enabled them to retreat. They left their dead on the field, which were buried on the bank of the river in a long trench. Their wounded they carried off. Some died in the depot and were burned in that building the next morning when they left in a hurry, as General W. H. F. Lee was only six hours behind them. Not one shot was fired by infantry at these troops on the western or upper side of Staunton-river bridge. Alexander Bruce and the other boys who were with me on that glorious day will bear me out as to the truth of what I have written.

A PRETTY FIGHT.

It was the prettiest fight I ever saw. We did not have one man hurt, though several of us had holes through our clothing. At the bridge, beside Mr. Burke and Dr. Sutphin, Jack Carter, who was a farmer and lived near Mount Carmel, was killed by a shell. I have written my account of this fight as I was it. All that has been said about that gallant old friend, Colonel T. S. Flournoy, I heartily indorse, as well as the gallantry of Colonel Henry E. Coleman and those with him on the lower side of the bridge.

THE HALIFAX BOYS.

But I do think that the Halifax boys are entitled to the credit of whipping a regiment of General Wilson’s best troops with two guns. I may at some future time give my recollections of this battle if it is thought it will help some future historian to give a true account of this splendid fight which saved General Lee’s army from immediate retreat, as the burning of this bridge would have cut off his supplies.

Captain J[OHN]. W. LEWIS,
Late Captain Artillery, C. S. A.

 

Original Article:

Vol19Pages51to57RemarkableVictoryStauntonRiverBridgeMauryEtAl

 

Source/Notes:

  1. Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 19, Pages 51-57
  2. SOPO Editor’s Note: This is hyperbole at its finest, but there is no shortage of this sort of language in these postwar reminiscences. Ignoring the hyperbole going forward, this article covers various accounts of the June 25, 1864 Battle of Staunton River Bridge, fought during the Wilson-Kautz Raid of late June 1864.
  3. SOPO Editor’s Note: Wilson was in command of own cavalry division (3/Cav/AotP) as well as the sole cavalry division of the Army of the James under August V. Kautz. The total force numbered around 5,000 officers and men PFD.
  4. SOPO Editor’s Note: This is sheer hyperbole.  There were numerous instances of longer odd in the Civil War alone, much less all of “modern war.” Sabine Pass is but one such well-known example. The ad hoc Confederate force contained over 900 men, but Rooney Lee’s Confederate cavalry divisions was pushing on Wilson’s raiders from behind during the battle of the 25th, a fact not even mentioned here.
  5. SOPO Editor’s Note: As I said in the previous note, the Confederates in Wilson’s front under Colonel Benjamin F. Farinholt numbered over 900 officers and men PFD.
  6. SOPO Editor’s Note: Losing the bridge would have been a serious blow, no doubt, but to say it would have placed the ANV beyond salvation is also exaggeration.
  7. SOPO Editor’s Note: Wilson’s object was to do as much damage to the Southside, Weldon and Richmond & Danville railroads as possible.  I do not believe Grant, Meade and the rest of the Union brain trust expected Lee to retreat from Richmond and Petersburg as a result of this raid.
  8. SOPO Editor’s Note: This was the Spring 1865 campaign which culminated in the capture of Mobile, Alabama. See Paul Brueske, The Last Siege: The Mobile Campaign, Alabama 1865. Interestingly, Dabney Maury, the author of this section of the piece, commanded the defenses of Mobile against Wilson in 1865.
  9. SOPO Editor’s Note: Maury helped found the Southern Historical Society in 1869. Per Encyclopedia Virginia, Maury also acted as moderator for the various debates which broke out in the pages of the Papers of the Society.
  10. SOPO Editor’s Note: As stated earlier, there were nearly 1,000 Confederates in Farinholt’s force defending the bridge.  If we are going to say only the 250 ,en across the bridge were in the battle, then a fair account would also mention that half of Wilson’s men were busy  fighting off the cavalry division of Rooney Lee to their rear at the same time this fight was going on.

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