Fighting That War Close by Us.1
One Who Was There Tells About the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff‑‑Many Errors Corrected
Herewith is an article of Captain John W. Sumpter, of Christiansburg, who is well known in Virginia as a railroad man, and as formerly connected with the Railroad Commissioner’s office in Richmond.
The war records, Vol. 36, part 2, contain the reports of the heavy battle of Drewry’s Bluff, and show that he is right in his declaration that it was fought on May 16th, 1864. On pages 200–201 of the volume above referred to General Beauregard’s circular order of battle for the 16th of May is quoted in his report of the engagement, and on page 205 appears the list of causualties in Ransom’s, Hokes’, and Colquitt’s Divisions. Ransom’s Division, commanded by Major General Robert Ransom, was composed of Barton’s Brigade, under Col. D. B. Fry; Graves’ Brigade, under Brigadier-General Gracie; Kemper’s Brigade, under Col. William R. Terry, of the Twenty-fourth Virginia Infantry; Hoke’s old Brigade under Lieutenant-Colonel (after-wards Brigadier-General) Lewis, and a battalion of artillery, under Lieutenant-Colonel Lightfoot.
The casualties in all of these commands appear, except in Kemper’s Brigade.
On the next day, May 17th, 1864, Kemper’s Brigade was transferred to Hoke’s Division in exchange. Bushrod Johnson’s Brigade, and Kemper’s Brigade, under the new arrangement marched through Richmond displaying the colors it had captured the day before. It appears that Brigadier-General Heckman and some four hundred of his men were captured, but not his brigade as a whole. There is no report in the war report from the commander of Kemper’s Brigade (Col. W. R. Terry). Its immediate transfer and movement to the north of the James, is the probable cause of this deficiency, and we discover no statement of its casualties.
The battle of May 16th, 1864, at Drewry’s Bluff was the culminating and well designed execution of Beauregard’s well conceived plan that bottled up Butler the blusterer. The plan was so well made that but for the failure of General Whiting with his division to execute Beauregard’s idea, Butler would not only have been bottled as he was, but much more seriously damaged, perhaps destroyed. There seems to be the difference of opinion on this point.
General Beauregard says of General Ransom and his division, in the battle of the 16th May:
“Ransom moved at 4:45 A. M., being somewhat delayed by a dense fog which lasted several hours after dawn, and occasioned some embarassment. * * * He was soon engaged, carrying at 6 A. M., with some loss, the enemy’s line of breastworks in his front, his troops moving splendidly to the assault, and capturing five stand of colors and some 500 prisoners. The brigades most heavily engaged were Gracie’s and Kemper’s opposed to the enemy’s right, the former turning his flank.” (See War Records, Vol. 36, Part 2, p. 201).
Major-General Robert Ransom says in his report:
“The conduct of the troops throughout was unquestionable, but the brigades of General Gracie and Colonel Terry (Kemper’s), deserves special notice; also the regiment of Colonel Lewis, which he so gallantly led at double-quick against the enemy. It has been impossible to get reports from subordinates, and I wish this meagre outline may answer for immediate requirements.” (Vol. 36, Part 2, War Records, p. 213).
General Ranson adds on a postscript that “on taking the breastworks, five stand of colors, one brigadier-general and about 400 prisoners were captured.”
As the official reports of the battle at Drewry’s Bluff, of May 16, 1864, do not state what particular part was taken by the brigades of Ransom’s Division, other than a few references of the major-general commanding, the differences between Gracie’s men and those of Colonel Terry cannot be settled by these re-
ports. Captain Sumpter’s account is from a soldier of worthy service, and from a man whose testimony is known by all who knew him to be reliable. There are doubtless officers and men still living who were participants in the action of Kemper’s brigade at Drewry’s Bluff, and one of them, Colonel Maury, of the twenty-fourth Virginia, is now living in Richmond, where he is well known. A statement from him would be welcomed.
John W. Daniel.
Who Captured Heckman’s Brjgade?
Editor of the Times-Dispatch:
Sir.—In reading the December, 1904, copy of the Confederate Veteran, a few days ago, I came across an article signed by Comrade Stansel, of Gracie’s Alabama Brigade, in which he takes issue with Sergeant Marion Seay, of Company E, Eleventh Virginia Infantry, as to whom belongs the honor of capturing Heckman’s Brigade, in the Drewry’s Bluff fight of May 16, 1864. Let me say that both Sergeant Seay and Comrade Stansel are mistaken as to dates. The battle of Drewry’s Bluff was fought on the 16th of May, 1864, and not on either the 15th or 17th.
Our brigade, that of Kemper, under Colonel (afterwards Brigadier-General), William R. Terry, of the Twenty-fourth Infantry, had been in front of Newbern, N. C., and afterwards, under General Hoke, assisting in the capture of Plymouth and Little Washington, in preparation to take Newbern, but on account of our ironclad gunboat (The Trent), having run aground at Kingston, the attempt on Newbern was abandoned, and we were ordered to return to Virginia as soon as possible. We got back to our lines, in rear of Manchester and Drewry’s Bluff, on the morning of the 7th or 8th of May, and took position in the first line of entrenchments, under command of General Bragg. On the night of the 14th of May, General Beauregard came over from Petersburg, by way of Chesterfield Courthouse, and took command, and on the 15th, extra ammunition was issued and everything made ready for the advance the next day, the 16th
of May. We started to our assigned position about 2 o’clock on the morning of the 16th, and marched to where the Richmond and Petersburg River Road crossed a creek (Falling, I believe), which we crossed, and formed line of battle on the right of the road, near the crest of the hill, and lay down. We had been there but a very short time when the Eleventh and Twenty-fourth Virginia Infantry were ordered to the front to relieve Gracie’s Brigade, who were being badly cut up. In going forward we met a number of Gracie’s men coming out, and they seemed to have been badly worsted. One of them, an officer, said: “Hurry up, boys, they are tearing us all to pieces.” We went forward until we got to the edge of the woods, where we opened ranks to let Gracie’s men pass, and as soon as our front was clear of the Alabamians we went to work to give the Yanks the best we had. On account of the very heavy fog and smoke we could not see ten feet in front of us. Mr. Butler’s boys made it hot for us for about an hour. They were about ten or fifteen feet above us and knew the ground so well that they had a great advantage, for we did not know the land and were wasting lead in the ground, thinking we were on a level.
Colonel Terry, finding that their line was weak on their right, ordered the First and Seventh forward. We charged them, doubled them up, and came sweeping up the line. As we were only about thirty steps from the enemy’s line, we could plainly hear the enemy yelling out to “stop shooting, that they were friends,” but they soon found that the boys in gray had them, and right then and there Buck Terry’s boys captured Heckman’s Brigade.
Colonel Maury was in command of the Twenty-fourth Virginia in that fight, and he and the gallant Richmond boys of the old First Virginia, I think, will corroborate my statement. I do not know what became of the Alabamians, but suppose they were somewhere on the line doing their duty and fighting as Alabamians know how and always did. But they did not capture Heckman’s Brigade. Terry’s Brigade did that—the First, Seventh, Eleventh and Twenty-fourth Virginia—and on the 17th marched through Richmond with all four of the regimental colors of Heckman’s Brigade drooping beneath our glorious Southern Cross.
I very much regret the necessity of having to write this article, but I think it the duty of every one, especially the old soldiers, to correct all errors in statements that might prevent a true history of the part taken by the Southern soldiers being written. I believe we all tried to do our duty, and earned honor and glory enough by acts actually performed, without claiming honors that were earned by others.
J. U. Sumpter, Company G, Eleventh Virginia Infantry.
Christiansburg, Va., June 30, 1904.
- Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 37, Pages 179-183 ↩