The Sharpshooters of Mahone's Brigade
Southern Historical Society Papers. Vol. XXII. Richmond, Va., January-December. 1894.
Some Accounts of this Gallant Organization.
A Paper Read by Captain John E. Laughton, Jr., Before Pickett Camp, Confederate Veterans, Richmond, Va.
There are few men better known in Richmond than Captain John E. Laughton, Jr. He served throughout the war and was a member of the sharpshooters of Mahone's Brigade. Captain Laughton is an enthusiastic member of Pickett Camp, and takes an interest in everything that tends to interest or ease the old soldier.
At the meeting held last Monday night, April 14th, he read the following highly interesting reminiscences of his service:
Commander and Comrades of George E. Pickett Camp:
Probably the most effective troops in the late civil war, for the number of men engaged, were the sharpshooters. The value of this branch of the service became so apparent that companies and battalions were organized in most of the brigades of infantry, and possibly in the cavalry. I believe the first regularly organized battalion of this character in the Army of Northern Virginia was the one attached to the Virginia Brigade commanded by General William Mahone, and it is of service in this command that this paper will treat.
BATTALION OF SELECTED MEN.
Whilst in winter quarters at Madison Run Station, on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, near Gordonsville, Va., in the winter of 1864, General Mahone conceived the idea of forming a battalion of selected men from the brigade, who should be required to do all advanced duty during the campaign, and, after consultation with a few of the line officers in whom he had confidence, he issued an order to his regimental commander to organize, in each of their respective regiments, a company consisting of two commissioned officers, two sergeants, two corporals, thirty privates and two men for ambulance corps duty. The officers and men were to be detailed from their regular companies for this permanent organization, and to be selected with a view of their special fitness for such service, the qualifications being that the men should be veterans of established reputation for faithful and reliable dependence while in action; capable of enduring the extra hardships expected to be entailed, and also a proper use of the rifle; the officers to be of experience and ability, and having the implicit confidence of their men.
The battalion was thus formed by special companies of equal numbers from the Sixth, Twelfth, Sixteenth, Forty-first and Sixty-first Virginia Regiments, composing the brigade. It was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel E. M. Field, of the Twelfth Regiment, and First Lieutenant John E. Laughton, Jr., of the same regiment, was assigned as its adjutant in addition to his company duties.
The organization thus completed consisted of five companies, with eleven officers and 180 enlisted men, and served as a separate corps during the remainder of the war, being subject to the same regulations as the regiments of the brigade, except that they drew their rations and commutation from their original companies.
The battalion was armed with long-range, small-bore Enfield rifles, and used a long English-made cartridge. We never used any ammunition made by the Confederate Government. There were, besides, two globe-sighted rifles for use on special occasions, which were valuable additions to our armament. I have frequently fired these with entirely satisfactory results.
During our occupancy of winter quarters, previous to the Mine Run engagement in May, 1864, our time was spent in perfecting ourselves in the
SKIRMISH DRILL BY SIGNALS,
and in rifle-target practice at different ranges--from fifty yards to 1,000 yards--and so proficient did the men become in estimating distances that, although the chain was used to confirm their calculations, its use was finally discontinued as being unnecessary. Every day these practices were kept up under strict discipline, and systematic regulation and improvement in markmanship noted, and such men as failed to make satisfactory progress were returned to their companies and others substituted, so also, when the casualties of battle decimated the ranks, other details were made from the regiment in which the loss occurred, thereby keeping up the full maximum of strength. Thus, when the campaign of 1864 opened, this body of 180 officers and men, selected for special duty and because of eminent qualifications for such service, appeared thoroughly trained and fully equipped, and their subsequent record proved that they were absolutely invincible in every engagement in their history, never having been driven from their lines in any single engagement. The battle of Mine Run was the beginning of the
In this engagement the sharpshooters were deployed as skirmishers, and advancing rapidly drove the advanced enemy more than two miles to their heavy lines of reserves, and while our own line of battle was kept fully up in support there was no occasion to ask their assistance in this movement, for we did not need it. We captured at this time a large quantity of camp and other stores.
It is no part of my purpose to attempt a history of this organization in this paper, for I have not the data to enumerate the many engagements in which they participated, nor can I now recall the names of the gallant and peerless men who composed its rank and file, and made it almost the equal of any regimental organization in its army corps, but its great proficiency served as an incentive to the formation of similar bodies in nearly all of the other commands.
The duty expected of the sharpshooters was to establish and occupy the skirmish line, while the enemy was in front, and to serve on the picket line in all day duty--being relieved at night by one of the regiments of the brigade--and to serve as rear guard when on retreat. Its officers were also required to serve as scouts when the opportunity was presented.
A CONTINUOUS BATTLE.
From Mine Run, Nov., 1863, to Appomattox Courthouse, April 9, 1865, the sharpshooters were on the front line almost every day, with the exception of one day in each week, which was allowed them for cleaning their arms and ammunition, and washing their scanty supply of clothing. This was virtually a continuous battle for eleven months, for picket firing was indulged in and kept up the greater part of the time. In these daily engagements we met with losses of killed and wounded (none were ever captured), and besides, though not expected to take part in a regular line of battle with the other troops, did, nevertheless, bear an important part in most of the terrific conflicts through which the brigade passed. A few of these only will be referred to.
COLONEL FIELD'S TESTIMONY.
Lieutenant-Colonel E. M. Field, in a published statement in regard to the Battle of the Wilderness, says:
"I was present at the Battle of the Wilderness in command of the battalion of sharpshooters, composed of five companies of 170 picked men of Mahone's Brigade. Soon after reaching the Wilderness, on the 6th of May, 1864, we moved to the right and south of the plank road, the sharpshooters being deployed as skirmishers about 150 yards in advance of the brigade. General Mahone then informed me that General Longstreet had sent two brigades to attack the flank of the enemy, while his own brigade would attack in front, and that as soon as cheering was heard on the flank, to move the sharpshooters forward slowly, and co-operate with this movement. Soon the familiar rebel yell came from the right flank, and I moved the line of skirmishers forward as rapidly as the thick undergrowth would allow, until we came to what seemed to be the site of an old pond, on the opposite side of which was the enemies' line of battle, the order being given to charge. The advance was rapidly made, the brigade following close behind and firing over us--and through our open line--completely routing the enemy, who left many dead and wounded in our hands, among the latter General Wadsworth.
"I was left in charge of the sharpshooters who remained in front of the line during the night. The woods were on fire, and the cries of the wounded made the night hideous. The wounding of General Longstreet placed General Mahone in command of the division, Colonel D. A. Weisiger, of the Twelfth Regiment, in command of the brigade, and necessitated my return to command the Twelfth Regiment, of which I was Lieutenant Colonel. I must say that it was with great reluctance that I gave up the command of the sharpshooters, the finest body of men I had ever seen, for they were the picked men of Mahone's Brigade."
Judge J. M. Bernard, of Petersburg, Va., in a recent published statement, says: "I was a member of the corps of sharpshooters of Mahone's Brigade at the Battle of the Wilderness, and remember well that we passed through marsh, swamp and burning woods."
GOOD WORK OF SHARPSHOOTERS.
It will therefore be seen from the statements of these witnesses that the sharpshooters not only brought on the engagement and drove the enemy, but did so notwithstanding the fire from their own troops in the rear, and the swamp, marsh and burning woods in front.
The corps was on daily duty as scouts and flank pickets on the line of march, and at Spotsylvania Courthouse were deployed on an extended line from the extreme right of our division--a position they held while the brigade was moved to the left in support of other troops where they engaged in this hard-fought battle. They subsequently were sent to the extreme left, and across the river Po to meet a flanking column of the enemy, whose intention it was to turn our left flank. General Early, who conducted this movement, pushed the sharpshooters rapidly forward, following with his line of battle, broke through the marching column, capturing a great many prisoners, and routing the remainder.
At Jericho's Ford, on the North Anna river, near Verdon station, in Hanover county, the corps of sharpshooters accomplished
ONE OF THEIR BEST EFFORTS.
The enemy had commenced crossing the ford before the head of our column, which was the leading division, had reached the locality. On hearing of this we were double-quicked nearly two miles, and immediately deployed, facing the left, the brigade continuing the direct march. We advanced, firing as we did so, taking advantage of such protection from the trees as we could until we reached a point where a line could be established. Soon the skirmishers of Saunders' Alabama Brigade, of our division, were sent to connect with our right. Before the last got fairly in their places we were attacked by the returning Yankee sharpshooters, supported by a heavy line of battle. The few moments of rest we had had were used in piling up the rails of an old fence in front of the sections of three men each. (I may say here that the men in these posts of three each always fired by file, one gun always being loaded.) Such was the coolness of the men and the accuracy of their aim that this line was repulsed with great loss to them. A second and a third charge were made, with stronger lines each time, but they had
UNDERESTIMATED THE CHARACTER OF THE MEN
before them, and were in turn cut down and driven back, some having been killed within thirty feet of our posts. Thus for two hours the two battalions, of less than 300 men, kept at bay their several massed lines until darkness put a stop to the fight. During this time our troops were throwing up a line of entrenchments about half a mile in rear, and seemed satisfied to leave us to act as a "reception committee." The dense woods and undergrowth prevented the use of artillery. The corps was relieved about 9 o'clock P. M., but returned at daybreak the next morning and advanced to the river, 600 yards, passing over the dead and badly wounded who had been left there during the night by their retreating troops. We returned and buried more of their dead than we had men engaged.
The piles of rails afforded us very little protection, and we lost many of our men in killed and wounded.
At Cold Harbor some of the battalion acted with a "forlorn-hope" attacking party, which charged up to and over their breastworks to ascertain if they were occupied or not, while they met with only a few scattering shots from some cavalry, they did not know when they started that any of them would ever return alive. Too much credit cannot be given them for their daring, as the information obtained was of great value at the moment.
WHAT MR. BERNARD SAYS.
These, with all subsequent engagements in front of Petersburg, Va., found the corps in its daily position on the picket line.
At the battle of the Crater the corps was nearly annihilated, as will be seen by the subjoined statement furnished by me in September, 1890, for a description of that battle as published by Mr. George S. Bernard in his book of "War Talk of Confederate Veterans":
"At the Battle of the Crater, I commanded Company C of the brigade sharpshooters, which company was on the extreme right of the battalion. A portion of the works to be attacked by the Virginia Brigade was taken and held, and the portion of the Georgia Brigade was expected to take was not recaptured by them, even after a second attack.
"I was desperately wounded in three places when within thirty feet of the breastworks, and at the first volley from a concentrated fire of several lines massed for a forward movement. The fire was not only from a direct front, but was also an enfilading fire, which came from those of the enemy in the crater, this being to our right. The proportion of wounded and killed in the sharpshooters was exceedingly large, probably without a parallel. The battalion went into the fight with 104 men and officers, and of these ninety-four men and officers were killed and wounded; of the nine officers present eight were shot through the breast."
THEIR PRESENCE ACCIDENTAL.
The presence of the sharpshooters in this engagement was accidental, as they had to move with the brigade at once, and before the hour of going on picket duty, they therefore took in the brigade line the place of the right wing of the Sixth Regiment, which had relieved them the night before.
The wounds received in this battle prevented my return to the army until February, 1865, and I have no personal knowledge of the service of the corps in the engagements at Ream's Station, Hatcher's Run and other minor affairs near Petersburg. The ranks having become so decimated, it was never restored to its original strength, nor were so many men needed, as the brigade was correspondingly reduced.
In March, 1865, the brigade was moved to Chester, on the Richmond and Petersburg railroad, and relieved some of the troops of Pickett's Division, where they remained until the evacuation of Richmond and Petersburg.
When the troops were withdrawn, about 9 o'clock at night, I was left in charge of the picket lines of the brigade front, with orders to hold them against any attack that might be made until 3 o'clock in the morning, and then, if not captured by the enemy, to rejoin the column then rapidly retreating towards Chesterfield Courthouse. The suspense and responsibility attending this midnight work during a continuous picket-firing at short range can never be fully appreciated by anyone not in a similar position. Yet I personally withdrew every picket and vidette, and rejoined the command about twelve hours afterwards, much to the surprised pleasure of my brigade commander, who said he feared he had seen me for the last time.
A LONG AND WEARY MARCH.
The long and weary march to Appomattox Courthouse is familiar to many, and known of by all--and was without any special incident to the corps until the 7th of April, 1865, where, within two miles of Farmville, we fought our last fight, and, I believe, with greater desperation than at any time previously. In this engagement the
GALLANT CAPTAIN HUNTER,
who had commanded the company from the Forty-first Regiment (I think) from the organization of the battalion, and who had never been hurt before, was instantly killed by a fragment of shell fired by one of our own batteries. It has been my object in this recital from memory to give only the generalities of the movements and conduct of the sharpshooters as a corps. A narration of the many instances of personal daring of individual members would almost necessitate a biographical sketch of each, hence, I have avoided any special references, but not because they do not each deserve it, for when the handful of the corps left Appomattox Courthouse to return to the places, once their homes, they represented all that was left of the 180 men who were always regarded as the flower of the brigade.
The Sharpshooters of Mahone's Old Brigade at The Crater
Southern Historical Society Papers. Vol. XXVIII. Richmond, Va., January-December. 1900.
[From the Richmond, Va., Dispatch, February 3, 1901.]
WELDON, N. C., January 30, 1901.
To the Editor of the Dispatch:
Referring to your editorial of the 29th with reference to the Battle of the Crater, etc., I would say the battalion of sharpshooters was made from a "detail" from all regiments of Mahone's (old) brigade---or D. A. Weisiger's brigade--and was as strong, numerically, as any regiment in the brigade.
The evening before the Battle of the Crater the Sixth Virginia Regiment relieved the sharpshooters, and the sharpshooters filled the gap at Wilcox Farm vacated by the Sixth Virginia Regiment. Next morning--or the day of the Battle of the Crater--we were rushed from Wilcox's Farm and took position in front of the Crater, in brigade reverse form--that is to say, the Twelfth Virginia Regiment took the ground nearest shore, and the brigade was filed in until the sharpshooters occupied the extreme right of the brigade--when, in natural order, the Twelfth Virginia should have gone head foremost, and should have been on the extreme right. As it was, the sharpshooters were on the extreme right of the Sixteenth Virginia Regiment. I was the sergeant-major, and was next to the sharpshooters. We had no order to charge that I ever heard; but, seeing a column of negro soldiers being pushed over the breast-works and lodged in a ditch, we, one and all, said that if we did not go now we would all fall later, and we started in zig-zag shape. Soon all minor officers said forward, and we rushed up to the Crater. We were not long enough to cover the whole ground, but the sharpshooters lodged half-way around the Crater, and the Sixteenth Virginia was next on their left. As sergeant-major of the Sixteenth Virginia Regiment, I counted and reported ninety-six men in line, and when the battle was over we had forty-eight men. Captain Wallace Broadbent, Company E, Sixteenth Virginia Regiment (Sussex Rifles), Mahone's old brigade, was commander of the battalion of sharpshooters. He was killed by twelve or fifteen bayonet wounds through his body at the Battle of the Crater, and a more loveable man never lived. Ten days before this battle Captain Broadbent asked the writer to resign his place as sergeant-major of the Sixteenth Virginia Regiment and become adjutant of his battalion. This was under consideration when he went into the Battle of the Crater. The Sixteenth Virginia Regiment captured eleven flags, and the writer took from the body of a dead Federal officer a very handsome sword and gave it to General Mahone. The General had come into the trenches, and seemed to be about the happiest man I ever saw, for all things were going his way splendid. Handsome Wallace Broadbent, of Sussex county, Va., was commander of General Mahone's battalion of sharpshooters, and was killed by bayonet wounds at the Battle of the Crater. I feel sure I am right, and hope some Sussex old boy will help me out.
I have never heard of the escape of any member of the sharpshooters unhurt before. It was common property that all of them were killed or wounded. It was a bad day to get off unhurt, or out sound and well, for human blood was half-shoe deep in the trenches.
Story from the Ranks
Confederate Veteran I, No. 3 (1893)
DR. H. W. MANSON, OF ROCKWALL, TEXAS, TELLS A THRILLING STORY.
It was the 2d day of April, 1865. I was acting Sergeant Major in Capt. Dale's Battalion of Sharpshooters, near Petersburg, Va. I had sat up nearly all the night before playing chess with a red-headed Captain of the First Tennessee. A little before day, firing was heard on the picket line, and the sharpshooters under Dale, Harris and Beaumont were ordered to the front. After going to the place where the picket line should have been, it was found that the enemy had broken it and that also, by a flank movement, they had broken the main line between our position on that line and Petersburg. There was nothing left for us to do but to make our way back to the breastworks and rejoin the brigade (Archer's) as quickly and as safely as possible. It was no very easy thing to do under the circumstances, as any body of men coming from the direction in which the soldiers thought the enemy were, would surely be fired on without stopping to ask any questions. But each minute was worth a million of dollars. If we remained a little longer the whole command would be surrounded and captured. Besides, our brigade needed our help. The writer was ordered to double-quick to the main line, take the chances of being shot by our own men, pass rapidly down on top of the breastworks, causing our men to hold their fire until Capt. Day could oblique his sharpshooters into the main line or he breastworks.
After a hard run and escaping a number of bullets sent to meet us by the men in the works, the line was gained, and the sharpshooters were safely over the works, with but few wounded. We were not a moment two soon. The enemy had broken through and was reaching out in the rear, but when they struck our part of the line the old brigade, with a yell and a charge, retook some of the works in a regular devils' picnic.
While engaged in this movement, a tall, angular Federal, standing on the works more exposed to the fire than anyone, brought his gun to bear on my face at a point blank range of less than forty steps. A dodge behind a corner of a rude log hut built for winter quarters saved my life, for at that moment the bark spattered in my face as the ball grazed the log. With a prayer for the soul of the bravest Yankee I ever saw my trusty Sharpe's rifle was aimed at the tall man's breast, and at the crack of the gun he fell from the earth-works.
About this time Capt. Arch Norris ordered me to rally the sharpshooters and try to check the column on our left. At the rally call a handfull of seven respondedseven men that would try anythingand they charged that column. Some were killed and others wounded. At the first volley I tumbled to the ground with a broken leg. I had hardly touched the ground when John Harlin, of Wilson county, Tenn., Jim Hearn, Coles, and another man, name forgotten, had me on a stretcher and were trying their best to get me to the rear. By this time the line was broken and the enemy had it all their own way.
They soon sent their bullets so thick around and into the litter-bearing party that the men were forced to leave me to my fate. Another minute found me in the hands of the advance skirmishers, and they proceeded to relieve me of my watch and money; but a big, red-faced, thick-set Major made his way to me, and, after a friendly grasp of the hand, he had my valuables returned and four of his men detailed to take me back to the field hospital, and by no means to leave me until I was safely in charge of a certain surgeon, a Mason and the Major's friend. On the way back Jesse Cage, of Nashville, was picked up, with his leg broken, and placed in the same ambulance. About 4 o'clock that evening, as the wounded men lay on a bed of straw in a large hospital tent, Cage was carried out under the trees and, as the tent flap was thrown back, I could see him under the influence of chloroform while the surgeons took his leg off. He was soon brought back to his straw bed, and with a shudder I heard the litter-bearers say, "Your time next." I was placed on the table, chloroform was administered and, when I awoke from slumber, my dancing days were over and I was a hopeless cripple for life.
Two days after the above I saw the man I had fired at on the breastworks walk into the tent, but, to my astonishment, he was shot in the back part of his jaw. Calling him to my bed, I found that he was the same man, and his wounds were explained by himself thus: "I shot at a feller at the corner of a cabin, and missed him, when he shot me in the breast here," pulling open his shirt, "the ball hitting in front on the collar-bone and knocking me off the works. Some of our own cowardly fellows shot me in the jaw after I got up." I explained that I was the "feller that drew a bead" on him, and explained that the want of force in the ball was due to the inferior cartridges used.
These two soldiers ended their war here. The one that walked waited on the one that couldn't walk, and they two who had shot at each other would have risked their lives each in the other's defense. I cannot now remember this brave man's name. He belonged to a Pennsylvania regiment. The acquaintance lasted only three days, but that was long enough for God to teach two erring mortals that brave men bore no malice, and, as they grasped each other's hand for a final separation, they each breathed a sigh of thankfulness that "I didn't kill you."
Reader, please pardon the apparent egotism. We can only write what came under our immediate observation. The death and wounding of great men, the victory and defeat of armies, have been and will be told by a thousand pens, but there are none to tell these little incidents except the actors themselves.
Fort Steadman's Fall.
Confederate Veteran XXII No. 10 (1914)
[In this paper the last aggressive move of the Confederacy is narrated by a leader of the "forlorn hope" - the charge of Capt. J. P. Carson's command. This article was published in the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph in 1882.]
There was a keen bite in the morning air, strongly suggestive of a Virginia winter, as I stepped from the train at Reynolds. The large number of idlers (for the train arrival is one daily event of a railroad town) were muffled to their ears in cloaks and overcoats. In response to my inquiry for Captain Carson a bystander turned and pointed to a figure approaching through the sunlight that fell unchecked beyond the cloud of engine smoke, which drifted back and made a chilly shade about me.
Looking in the direction indicated, I saw a man six feet in height, strongly built, and as erect as an Indian. His slightly florid face was square-cut in its lines, but relieved by a tawny mustache, and tawny, waving hair tinged with gray, brushed straight back, fell in view beneath his slouched hat. As I shook his hand a low, pleasant voice welcomed me and two bright, smiling eyes, steel-blue (or were they gray?), indorsed the kindness of his voice. Instinctively I felt the presence of a gentleman; yet I could scarcely disguise the intention of my somewhat protracted gaze, for before me stood as gallant a soldier as ever wore the gray, the hero of Fort Steadman.
Informed of my mission, he led the way through a pleasant little town to his own cottage, where, with his wife, a grandniece of Chief Justice Marshall of Virginia, and a happy family of children, he dwells secure in these piping times of peace. There was an air of thrift and prosperity about the house and a boast of prosperity in the well-kept premises and in the fields stretching away and losing themselves in the distance - a suggestion of success.
The good soldier was evidently a good farmer. In the glow of a ruddy fire of oak logs and with the flow of old war flames upon his face, he told me the true story of Fort Steadman and its capture on March 25, 1865a story never before faithfully reproduced in print. Nothing could exceed the simplicity and the modesty with which it was related by the chief actor. Many of these facts were drawn out by questions oft repeated, and not until the duty to his children, to his comrades, and to history were dwelt upon did I receive the full text as given here, every word of which, unless the writer is himself at fault, is true; every fact is capable of substantiation by living witnesses.
Captain Carson's Story
The spring of 1865 found Lee's army in a critical position. His line was curved above Petersburg, confronting Grant's for nearly twenty-five miles. My recollection of Grant's line is that the center rested on the James River. Every reenforcement he received would be thrown on his left, to face which it was necessary that Lee's line should be also extended. Our line was thus extended until it threatened to snap. I suppose the average strength of it was one man to every twelve feet; and as day by day death found its victims in the heavy fire directed upon us, it became weaker. Our line was protected by a long, deep ditch, with cross ditches in the rear, from the cannon and musket fire, but not from the mortar shells, which were thrown up and dropped with fatal precision directly among us. To avoid this we had to burrow underground. You remember that an effort was made to break our lines by mining. The great crater was the final result of this effort. The events I am about to describe occurred about half a mile to the left of the crater.
About the 18th of March General Gordon, whose sharpshooters I commanded, went to General Lee for consultation. They spoke of the hopeless task of seeking longer to hold the immense line over which our forces were extended. Both agreed that the situation was alarming. What General Lee's plans were I do not know, but Gordon was in favor of making one last desperate effort to break the line in front of him and in a sudden movement, with his troops massed, crush the left wing of Grant's army, thereby raising the siege. He thought that the destruction of the Federal army would inevitably follow and peace be obtained. Lee declared the scheme impracticable; that in no way could the Federal line be broken. Gordon, however, did not agree with him. He told the commander in chief that his sharpshooters could and would break it by the capture of Fort Steadman if he would give him permission to order the assault. After a long discussion, Lee yielded. There was nothing else to be done save to abandon Richmond, Petersburg, and, indeed, Virginia. Very quietly preparations for the assault were begun.
I was at that time captain of the sharpshooters, about one hundred in number. They came from every Southern State, were selected for their skill, and armed with the celebrated Whitworth rifle of the latest pattern, having range and accuracy at eighteen hundred yards. The men were tried and trusty. Their courage had been too often tested to admit of a doubt. General Gordon notified me of what had been decided upon, but enjoined the strictest secrecy. I was not even to tell my brother of the coming event, which was fixed then for the night a week distant. You can imagine that it was for me an anxious week. The assault was to be made upon Fort Steadman, situated about two hundred yards from our line upon an eminence. The Confederate works opposite were also upon an eminence. Between the two flowed a branch about ten feet wide, but only an inch or so deep. Between the branch and the fort ascending the hill were three lines of obstructions as perfect as human ingenuity with such material as was accessible could make them. The first was composed of skinned pine logs about eight inches thick. Holes had been bored into these, and sharpened spikes had been inserted. These logs, about twenty-five feet long, had been crossed and recrossed and fastened with wire. About forty steps farther back was the second line composed of tangled brush piled up, with the sharpened butts projecting toward us. The third and last line was composed of fence rails stuck into the ground with their sharpened ends also slanting toward us. These obstructions extended all along the Federal line. There were no weak spots in it.
These were the obstructions to be surmounted with eight rifled siege guns trained upon them and backed by nearly five hundred infantry in the fort. The fort itself was surrounded by a large moat four feet deep and half full of water. The dirt taken from this ditch had been piled up beyond with a perpendicular front, until from the bottom of the moat to the summit was about thirteen feet. A man could not unhindered in the daytime climb up the front of this fort. To cross these obstructions and scale these works was the task, as I have said, assigned to my sharpshooters.
On the afternoon of March 24 a courier rode up to the camp and ordered me to organize my corps and follow him to the point from which the attack was to be made. I immediately formed my men into line and made them a little speech. I told them that we were going to undertake a hazardous task, from which very likely few of us would return; that I had confidence in their courage and valor, which I had often seen tested; and that if any one desired to withdraw he was at liberty to do so. To this only two responded by falling out of the ranks. We then followed the courier, who led us by a circuitous route through the outskirts of Petersburg, and finally brought us up in front of Steadman about dark. There we awaited orders.
Arriving at this place, I noticed for the first time that my brother Bob, a boy of eighteen, was with my men. He did not belong to my command, but was serving as a courier for Gen. Phil Cook. Surprised at his appearance there, I asked what he desired. He replied that he had come to go with me wherever I went. I talked with him on the folly of such a course and implored him to give up the idea, but it was all in vain. I then reminded him that both of our brothers had been killed and that our old father at home would need him to lean upon in his old age; that I was going upon a perilous expedition with but little chance of returning alive. He declared that he too believed I would be killed, and for that reason he was going with me so as to be able to bring me out. What could I say then? Nothing. We spread our blankets there in the open air and lay down, he to sleep and I to lie awake and think. It was intensely dark. No gun broke the stillness of the night as we lay awaiting the last order. I could not sleep. I could not rid myself of tile thought that it was the boy beside me who would be killed. It seemed to rue that we lay there side by side for the last time.
At three o'clock General Gordon came. He issued strips of white cloth to the men, which were to be drawn down over the right shoulder to the left side, run around the body, and fastened. This was the mark by which we were to recognize each other in the dark. General Gordon then made the men a speech. He told them that if they succeeded their names would go down to posterity upon the roll of honor; he would see that, living or dead, the name of every man present should be honorably mentioned by the papers of his native State; that those who survived should go home on a thirty days' furlough with silver medals bearing his own and Lee's name (the men belonged to Gordon's Brigade). It was a stirring and impressive speech as we heard it standing there in the night with the awful task and eternity staring us in the face.
The command was to advance at the sound of the bugle. It came at last. In an instant we were over the works and heading for the fort with all the speed we could command. We had hoped to reach there undiscovered, but twenty-five yards had not been passed before the fort opened upon us. I do not even now understand it. We were not visible and made no noise, but they knew we were coming and our direction. By the flash of those guns two hundred yards ahead of us darkness disappeared. It was at quick succeeding intervals as light as day. We soon got beneath their line of fire at the foot of the hill. I don't think we had up to this time lost a man. We were still going on the run as hard as we could when we crossed the branch and started up the hill. How we got past the first line of obstructions I could never remember. I was very fleet of foot, but when I reached the line Bob was there ahead of me. I saw him for an instant in the flash of the cannon tearing down and dragging aside the wire and logs. He was very strong, and had broken the wire when I got up. We went through the gap together. How the others crossed I do not know. The next minute we struck the middle line of brush, climbing and rolling over it into the open ground beyond. There the wind from the cannon and flying shot was so strong that we could not keep our hats on, while the frightful roar of the guns drowned every other sound. We went the rest of the way with hats and guns in hand until we struck the last line of obstructions. The men seized the rails with the strength of desperation, dragging them out of the ground and rushing through the gap. The next instant we came into the fire of the smaller guns. Here we hurried forward at full speed. It was every man for himself. Not only were we exposed to the musketry fire, but we had risen to the line of fire from the artillery.
I do not know exactly how we got through it all, but in a minute more we were in the moat and in two feet of water. The fort had been struck just about the middle. Immediately the infantry ran out upon the works and began to fire straight down upon us. Lieutenant [John T.] Gay, [Fourth Georgia] of La Grange, [GA] fell at this moment mortally wounded, and would have drowned had we not lifted him back upon the bank, where he died. We were in the dark, while the men above were faintly outlined against the gray sky. I called to the men to shoot every Yankee who showed himself. They began firing at once, and in an instant almost the works were cleared. It was but thirteen feet up, and my men were sharpshooters. When the enemy found that it was death to show themselves, they thrust their guns over and discharged them downward. It was a critical moment; we could neither advance nor retreat. I heard simultaneous inquiries from along the line as to what must be done and one or two more suggestions to fall back. Just at this moment with the utmost coolness word was quietly passed along from right to left that a low place had been found. I heard the intelligence coming before the man next to me repeated it. Returning the command, "By the right flank, march," we filed along until the place was reached and then scrambled into the fort. Forming my line, I struck the forces within at right angles, and in a minute more they surrendered. The fort was commanded by General McLaughlin, and over five hundred men surrendered with him.
When a man surrenders he is demoralized. It was night as I have said, and very dark. These Yankees thought our whole army was attacking them and were anxious to get out of the way. Before I could give commands, they asked what they should do. I told them to form a double-quick back to our lines. This they did, and in a hurry too. We had killed a great many of them.
My orders had been executed. They led me no farther than Fort Steadman. Expecting Gordon's arrival at every moment, I determined on my own responsibility to advance. Forming my line, we advanced about three-quarters of a mile. Still there came no sound from the rear. For some reason Gordon had been delayed. Just before daylight, as we stood awaiting developments, an officer coming from the Federal side dashed up. He was magnificently mounted and reined up almost against me. "Hello, boys; how's things a-going?" he exclaimed with an accent which told me where he belonged. I told him they were going pretty well and invited him to alight. Two of my men trained their guns on him, and, thoroughly satisfied as to his capture, he dismounted and gave up his horse with the injunction to take good care of him. The prisoner was a colonel, but I forget his name [Major Henry L. Swords].
I then deployed my men in skirmish along the crest of the hill back to the fort. I met General Gordon, who had crossed where we did. He received my report, commended my movement, and ordered me back to my command. There I stayed until daybreak. Then arose a tremendous commotion over among the Federals. I could hear the popping of the whips, the shouting of drivers, the whistle of engines, and the rumble of artillery and wagons. It was evident that a general movement was taking place. The Confederate movement had failed. It was too late then to attack. Pickett's Division, the largest in Gordon's Corps, had not come up, as ordered. The Confederate force was too weak to accomplish the intended assault. General Gordon told me after the war, while visiting me here, that Pickett's Division was fifteen miles off and was to have come up by railroad, but the rail service was faulty and did not bring it up.
About eight o'clock I saw the Federals coming. The whole field was blue with them. I think the columns must have been twenty deep. With our Whitworth rifles we began to pick off a few prominent individuals; but we could not kill a whole army, and presently we had to retire, which we did, contesting every foot of ground.
At ten o'clock we struck Gordon's line stretched out for three miles along the Federal works. I would not let my men merge into this line. They stood out in front like marble statues, enjoying the honors they had so hardly won. In the meantime the Federal artillery and sharpshooters were pushing forward, and it began to grow warm. I was still mounted upon my horse - was the only mounted person on the field - and became a conspicuous mark. I finally dismounted when Capt. F. T. Sneed, of Montezuma, Ga., was wounded and helped place him on the horse, which, though shot through the nose, not only lived to carry Sneed out but to serve me after peace had been declared. The fire then became terrific. It seemed that nothing could live in it, and it was at this moment that one of my men asked me if I knew where Bob was. For the first time since I saw him at the first line of obstructions I remembered that he had gone into the fight with me. The soldier said after a few moments that he believed Bob had been killed in front of the fort. Overwhelmed with fear of the terrible truth, I hurried to the spot. As I approached I saw a form lying about twenty feet from the moat and recognized my overcoat. We had exchanged the night before. But not until I had turned him over did I know that it was my brother. He had been shot through the heart.
I called up one of the men, determined to carry the body to our lines. We started across an open space, and they fired upon us. Neither of us was struck, but the body we bore was shot through four times. As I entered our lines again, from which we had gone so hopefully in the early morning, I looked back on Fort Steadman. There in the sunlight floated again the Stars and Stripes. The last aggressive movement of the Confederacy had ended. Ten days later Richmond was evacuated.
How General Sedgwick Was Killed
Confederate Veteran XVI No. 7 (July 1908)
BY V. M. FLEMING, FREDERICKSBURG, VA.
Thinking you would like an interesting incident connected with the life of an old Confederate veteran who passed away April 5, 1908, in his eighty-fourth year, I give you the following:
Thomas Burgess, the subject of this little notice, was born in Spartanburg County, S. C.; and died at Jonesville, S. C., some fifteen miles below the town of Spartanburg. He belonged to Company H, 15th Regiment South Carolina Volunteers, Anderson's Division, Longstreet's Corps.
At the battle of Spottsylvania, May 9, 1864, Jenkins's Brigade was thrown on the right of General Lee's line and left of Spottsylvania C. H. to watch the enemy approaching in heavy force. This body of Federal troops was commanded by Gen. John Sedgwick, one of the finest corps commanders in General Grant's army. Jenkins's Brigade was massed in a body of timber with open field in front. Beyond this open space and some four hundred yards in front was a very heavy pine thicket in which Sedgwick's Corps was concealed.
A number of Confederate pickets were thrown out in front of their lines to determine the exact locality of the Federal force, with positive instructions not to fire, so as to conceal the whereabouts of Jenkins's command, but to watch the movement of the Federal forces. Thomas Burgess, of the 15th South Carolina Regiment, was one of these pickets. While on duty and concealed in front of the Confederate line they discovered several Federal officers who rode out in front of their lines reconnoitering and selecting positions for the artillery. The opportunity being inviting, Burgess, contrary to orders, fired at one of these officers, who proved to be General Sedgwick. The shot was fatal, and Sedgwick was carried back into the Federal lines. I think he was killed instantly. Burgess was the only picket who fired, and the fact was incontestably settled that he killed Sedgwick; there can be no question about this.
Burgess never recurred to the circumstance in after life; and when the matter was mentioned in his presence, he always changed the topic of conversation or retired. Somehow he was sensitive on the subject, and could never divorce the thought from his mind that the occurrence was something akin to murder. A less sensitive nature would never have viewed the matter from his angle of observation. During his last night on earth, though, a week ago, his mind wandered back to the scenes of that campaign-the "Bloody Angle," Spottsylvania, and the tragic death of Sedgwick.
I was at Jonesville, S. C., a few days after his death, and was informed that he would wake up in his passing hours and relate the whole occurrence. This is a statement of facts and an addition to history.
How General Sedgwick Was Kiilled
Confederate Veteran XXVI No. 3 (May 1918)
[From article by Berry Benson, of North Augusta, S. C., in the Edgefield Chronicle.]
On the morning of the 9th of May, 1864, near Spotsylvania, Va., three days after the battle of the Wilderness and three days before the battle of the Bloody Angle, Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, commanding the 6th Corps of Grant's army, was killed by a single shot from a Confederate sharpshooter over half a mile distant. History thus records, but history does not record who fired the fatal shot, nor is it generally known; but we of the battalion of sharpshooters of McGowan's South Carolina Brigade, of which I was first sergeant, knew.
The arms of the Confederate infantry were of two kinds, the Enfield rifle, the regulation British army rifle, imported from England by running the blockade, and the Springfield rifle, the regulation United States army rifle, captured by us in battle. These two guns, both muzzle-loading, were of the same caliber, and the cartridges of one fitted the other. There was some difference in the make-up of the cartridges, and we of the sharpshooters preferred the English cartridge.
Along with the Enfields from England came also a small supply of Whitworth rifles, a long, heavy gun of small bore, made for sharpshooting at long range. This gun carried a small telescope on the top of the barrel through which to sight; the hind sight (within the telescope) was a cross of two fine metal threads. In the distribution of these Whitworth rifles to Lee's army two fell to our brigade. One, a walnut stock, was given to Ben Powell and one, an oak stock, to a young fellow of Edgefield District, S. C., named Cheatham. Both these men were excellent shots, and they now became independent sharpshooters, to go where they pleased and carry on war at their own sweet will.
I do not remember that I ever fired either of these rifles; but my younger brother, Blackwood, a corporal in the sharpshooters with me, sometimes fired Powell's. Once in the trenches at Petersburg Powell let him shoot it. The enemy's camp was over a mile distant. My brother raised the gun at its highest elevation and fired at random. It was too far and enemy objects were too obscure to note any effect; but some little time afterwards we got hold of a New York paper (the pickets traded tobacco and coffee with one another and swapped papers), and in this paper was news from the camps that "on that day two men were killed at a well by a shot that came from an unknown place, no report being heard.
As to the other gun (Cheatham's), there is a story. When we were about to surrender at Appomattox, I went to my brigadier, General McGowan, and told him that I had been in prison once, and I was not going again ; that I would escape through the enemy's lines if I could and march to Johnston's army in North Carolina. He asked me to wait till we were sure it would be surrender. I did, and then my brother and I crept through the enemy's lines (at times on our hands and knees in the running ditches, hidden by the blackberry vines) and marched with our guns to Johnston's army, where we joined the 7th South Carolina. But before leaving Appomattox to begin this adventure my brother asked Cheatham to let him take his Whitworth and for him to surrender my brother's Enfield in its place. Cheatham con<116>sented, with the proviso that if my brother got safely home with the gun he would let him have it back. To this my brother agreed, and he finally got home with the gun.
Powell had a liking to be with us, the main body of sharpshooters, a good deal, and sometimes I took him with me on a scout. He was with me the night I went into the enemy's camp and stole the colonel's mare, but I did not let him go into the camp with me; I made him wait for me outside.
Not infrequently Powell would have a duel with a Yankee sharpshooter, Powell usually getting the best of it. But one morning he came to us with a bullet hole through his hat. A Yankee sharpshooter had done it.
"Well, Ben," we asked, "did you get him?"
"No, I didn't," said Ben very frankly. "He kept picking closer and closer to me; and when he put the bullet through my hat, I quit."
On the 9th of May Ben came in about noon and said: "Sergeant, I got a big Yankee officer this morning." "How do you know it was an officer?" I asked.
"O, I could tell by the way they behaved. They were all mounted. It was something over half a mile, and I could see them well through the telescope. I could tell by the way they acted which was the head man, so I raised my sights and took the chance, and, sir, he tumbled right off his horse. The others dismounted and carried him away. I could see it all well through the glass."
"O, Ben," I said, "you shot some cavalryman, and you think it was an officer."
"No, sir, he was an officer, and a big one too. I could tell." That night the enemy's pickets called over to ours: "Johnny, one of your sharpshooters killed General Sedgwick to-day." So we knew that Ben did what he said.
Not long ago I was working quietly at a set of books, checking up the accounts, when the telephone rang. I answered, and a voice said: "This is Frank Barrett, at the Cotton Exchange. There is a man here inquiring for you and very anxious to see you."
"All right," I said, "send him around."
Presently there came in a man with a pleasant, smiling face and long, white silky hair that fell to his shoulders. "Do you know me?" he asked.
Taking a good look at him, I said: "Your face is some-what familiar; but I don't exactly place you."
"I'm Ben Powell."
"O Ben!" and up I jumped, and we wrung each other's hands and nearly cried. And that night under my roof we "swapped lies" until nearly midnight. Ben now wants to go to France with me.
[To this statement O[scar] F. Cheatham, now of Albany, Ga., adds his testimony that there is no doubt of General Sedgwick's having been killed with one of these Whitworth rifles. He also mentions having let young Blackwood Benson take his rifle on condition that he would return it if he got home with it; and it was returned to him about a year after the war, but was afterwards destroyed in a fire which burned his store.]
The Killing of General Sedgwick
Confederate Veteran XXVI No. 5 (July 1918)
Thomas A. Prideaux, of Ebensburg, Pa., tells the story of the killing of General Sedgwick :
"In the VETERAN for March, page 115, the account of `How General Sedgwick Was Killed' is an error, and I will be glad for you to publish a correct account of it. I was within sixty feet of General Sedgwick when he was killed in the Spotsylvania battle, in May, 1864, and if the officer whom the article refers to as being killed was on horseback it was not General Sedgwick, as he was not on horseback when killed. The General was sitting at the bottom of a large tree with his back against its trunk, the limbs and boughs of the tree coming within five or six feet of the ground. A few minutes before he was killed General Morris had been shot in the leg, supposedly by a Confederate sharpshooter. When General Morris was shot, Adjutant General McMahon said to General Sedgwick that he had better get away from where he was sitting, as the Confederates had a range on him, and it was dangerous to stay there. General Sedgwick replied that those chaps over there could not hit an elephant over here; but very soon after this a bullet struck him under one eye, and he died immediately. I was ordered to take his body in one of the ambulance wagons to the landing (I forget the name of it) to be sent home."
[Prideaux was a lieutenant in the 138th Pennsylvania]