Thursday, December 31, 2015

He Had Won for Himself an Honorable Name: The Untimely Death of John Chambliss

Part six in a series.

The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign witnessed many dark days for the Army of Northern Virginia, but one that has received scant attention is August 16, 1864. On that day, Lee’s army lost two brigadier generals. This post will briefly examine the life of Brig. Gen. John R. Chambliss, Jr. and the impact his death had upon events north of the James in 1864.

John R. Chambliss, Jr. was a native of Greensville County, Virginia. He was the son of John R. Chambliss, Sr., a lawyer who would later serve in the First Confederate Congress and would tragically outlive his son by 11 years. The future Confederate general went to West Point and soon became close friends with future Union cavalier David McM. Gregg. He graduated 31st in the Class of 1853, which also included John Bell Hood, Phil Sheridan, and James B. McPherson among others. He resigned after teaching at the cavalry school at Carlisle and was a civilian until he joined the local militia in 1858. When war broke out he was an aide-de-camp to Henry A. Wise and colonel of the 41st Virginia Infantry before transferring to the 13th Virginia Cavalry.
Brig. Gen. John Chambliss

Chambliss conducted himself well in many of the eastern theater’s better known cavalry actions, including important roles at Beverly Ford and East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg. He was promoted to brigade command in December of 1863 after meritorious service at Morton’s Ford and Brandy Station during the Bristoe Campaign. He commanded a brigade of Virginians and Tarheels under Maj. Gen. “Rooney” Lee, a command he had briefly held once before following Lee’s wounding at the June 1863 battle at Brandy Station.

Chambliss’s last ride would take place during the Second Battle of Deep Bottom, fought August 14-20, 1864. Part of Grant’s Fourth Offensive, this Union foray north of the James River involved Hancock’s II Corps again crossing at the Deep Bottom bridgehead, along with Maj. Gen. David B. Birney’s X Corps from the Army of the James and a division of cavalry.

On this third day of the campaign, August 16, 1864 (usually referred to as “The Battle of Fussell’s Mill”) the heaviest fighting of the campaign occurred. While a two-pronged infantry assault was launched against the main Confederate line, Nelson Miles’s infantry brigade and cavalry under Chambliss’s old pard David Gregg launched a diversion down the Charles City Road that would set the two old friends on a collision course.
Courtesy: Richmond Battlefields Association
Chambliss’s brigade, on picket duty, was pushed back towards White’s Tavern by this Union attack. David Gregg’s brother, J. Irvin Gregg, was wounded in this initial contact and said to the troopers who charged past him, “Tell the boys to avenge this!”

Avenge it they did.

Chambliss rode with his staff towards the fighting and soon came under fire from elements of the 5th New Hampshire Infantry and 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry. The New York Herald later related, “The rebel general endeavored to rally his troopers, but without avail; for when the head of our charging column was close upon the rear of the flying fugitives he was seen almost alone upon the field where his men had deserted him.”

When the Pennsylvanians called out for Chambliss to surrender, the general spurred his horse to the rear and was promptly fired upon by the Federals. The general was immediately hit in the neck and chest and dropped dead from the saddle. Curious Yankees surrounded the corpse and began cutting of mementos from his uniform until Davis Gregg arrived on the scene. “The general was a small man, neatly dressed having on a fine, white linen shirt with coat, hat and pants to match,” recalled a member of the 5th New Hampshire.

Gregg had the body of his old friend searched. A copy of the New Testament was found with the inscription, “If I am killed in this struggle, will some kind friend deliver this book to my dear wife? J.R.C., Jr., June 8, 1864.”

Also found on his person was a detailed map of the fortifications around Richmond. This map would prove extremely valuable when Grant and Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler were planning the Fifth Offensive that would result in the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. Butler had photographic copies of the map distributed to his subordinates when they prepared their assaults on New Market Heights and Fort Harrison.
The Chambliss Map
Federal solders placed Chambliss’s body in a wooden coffin and buried him near a place known locally as the Potteries, marking his grave with a wooden headboard. Confederate troops found the grave the next day and had the general’s remains shipped home for burial in the family cemetery.

Robert E. Lee was grieved to learn of the loss of yet another one of his talented young subordinates, writing that “the loss sustained by the cavalry in the fall of General Chambliss will be felt throughout the army, in which, by his courage, energy and skill, he had won for himself an honorable name.”

As we will see in my next post, Chambliss was not the only talented young brigadier to fall during the Second Deep Bottom Campaign.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Valor in Blue and Gray: Timothy O’Connor and Adam Ballenger at First Deep Bottom

Part five in a series.

In my last post we finished off the First Battle of Deep Bottom by examining the final day of major fighting, July 28, 1864. This day saw intense combat that pitted Confederate infantry under Brig. Gen. James Conner against Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. David McM. Gregg at the Darby Farm.
During that fight, two individuals stood out for heroism above and beyond the call of duty – Federal cavalry trooper Timothy O’Connor and Confederate sergeant Adam Ballenger.

Timothy O’Connor and the Fight for the Lower Field

As we have seen, the fighting at the Darby Farm kicked off when men led by Gen. James Conner from Lane’s Brigade (under Col. Robert V. Cowan), McGowan’s Brigade (under Lt. Col. J.F. Hunt) and Kershaw’s Brigade (under Col. John W. Henagan) left their earthworks at Fussell’s Mill at 10:00 a.m. on the morning of July 28, 1864. Their mission was to turn Hancock’s right and push him back to Curle’s Neck on the James River, where he could be defeated in detail. Unfortunately for the Rebels, there was no reconnaissance conducted to scout the Federal positions. Thus, Conner’s men set forth unaware of a mounted threat moving their way in the form of Union cavalry troopers under Brig. Gen. David Gregg and the always inept Brig. Gen. August V. Kautz.

When Conner’s battle line hit a prominent thumb of trees, it split in half with the 1st and 14th South Carolina of Hunt’s Brigade going with Cowan to the right and the remainder of the brigade splitting off to the left with Henagan. With Conner’s battle group sliced in half by the thumb of trees, two separate fights quickly developed, which I call the fights for the lower and upper field.
In the lower field, the attacking Confederates were met with stubborn resistance from Federal cavalry which had the decided advantage of repeating carbines. After stalling in the face of superior firepower, the attacking Confederates soon began to give way.

The 18th North Carolina had just begun to retreat when the Regular Brigade of the U.S. Cavalry counterattacked. Lt. Col. John McGill, commanding the 18th, reported that “my Regiment had to fall back under a most galling fire, and I fear that several of my men who are now missing were either wounded or killed as several were to start to fall back and have not been seen since.” Among those he feared missing was Cpl. David M. Barefoot of Company H, who “received the colors and bore them at the front until I ordered the Regiment to retreat.” As it turned out, Barefoot had the worst of an encounter with a young trooper in the 1st U.S. Cavalry named Timothy O’Connor.

O’Connor was originally from County Kerry, Ireland, but settled in Chicago once he came to the United States. When war broke out he initially enlisted in the 23rd Illinois before joining the 1st U.S. Cavalry. By the time of First Deep Bottom, O’Connor was a high private who found himself in the vanguard of the Federal counterattack. Before long, he was looking poor Cpl. Barefoot in the eye and wrestling the regimental colors out of his hands. For this daring action, O’Connor was awarded the Medal of Honor. His citation notes that he was awarded the medal “for extraordinary heroism on 28 July 1864, while serving with Company E, 1st U.S. Cavalry, in action at Malvern, Virginia, for capture of flag of the 18th North Carolina Infantry.”
O'Connor's Memorial at Arlington.

O’Connor was discharged from the army in December of 1865 and returned to Chicago. He died on March 26, 1915, at the age of 72. There is a memorial headstone at Arlington National Cemetery with an incorrect death date, but research indicates that his remains are in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Chicago – which also happens to be the final resting place of Al Capone. However, I was recently contacted by a distant family member who says O’Connor went back to County Kerry after the war and his mortal remains are in an unmarked grave in the land of his birth. This family member further stated that they are attempting to relocate his Medal of Honor.

Adam Ballenger and the Upper Field

While O’Connor and his compatriots were getting the best of the situation in the Lower Field, his compatriots in the other sector of the battlefield were not so lucky initially.

The sheer force of the Confederate attack here caused several regiments of horse soldiers to fall back to better ground. This withdrawal left several 3-inch Ordnance Rifles of Lt. William Dennison’s horse artillery vulnerable. For 22 year old Sgt. Adam W. Ballenger of Company C, 13th South Carolina the alluring site of an exposed enemy gun was too much. The impetuous youngster ran out ahead of the column to take on Dennison’s battery almost singlehandedly.

Ballenger ran up to one cannon that had had several horses killed and jumped on it, causing the driver to run off. Incredibly, Ballenger then “jumped off the piece, cut loose the traces and unfastened the off-horse, which he mounted.” He enlisted help in hauling off the piece, encouraging several men to grab the prolonge and begin leading the prize back to the rear.

Ballenger later in life.
Col. Hunt saw all of his transpire and credited the short-lived Confederate success to Ballenger, stating, “I consider our success due in a great measure to the conduct of Sergt. Ballenger.” After the battle, Gen. McGowan summoned Ballenger to his headquarters and promoted him from sergeant to 2nd Lt. on the spot. Ballenger returned to South Carolina after the war and lived until December of 1912. He is buried at Inman Baptist Church Cemetery in Spartanburg County, South Carolina.

While the Confederate Medal of Honor was not created until 1977, Adam Ballenger’s heroism would eventually win him the award in the 1990’s. According to the website of the South Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, “the Medal of Honor service was held at Sgt. Ballenger’s grave site on September 30, 1995 at the Inman Baptist Church in Inman, SC. Over 200 people attended the service. Over one hundred of them were descendants of Sgt. Ballenger.”

The exploits of these two young heroes reveal that there is still much to be gleaned from examining the clashes north of the James River in 1864.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Collision at the Darby Farm: July 28, 1864

Part four in a series.

In my last post we examined the first large-scale fighting of the First Battle of Deep Bottom – the clash at Tilghman’s Gate on July 27, 1864. When we left Hancock and Sheridan, they were hesitant to follow up the gains they had won when they pushed the Confederates out of their line along the New Market Road. Hancock spent the rest of the morning of the 27th reorienting his corps from facing north to facing west. The cavalry began to push up the Long Bridge Road, encamping near the Darby Farm.

The Darby House
As word of the day’s events trickled back to Lee’s headquarters, it was readily apparent that Kershaw needed to be heavily reinforced. Lee thus decided to send Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s Third Corps division over to help Ewell and Kershaw’s beleaguered forces. Lee looked to First Corps chieftain Lt. Gen. Richard H. Anderson to take overall control of the operation, ordering him to “examine the enemy’s position, endeavor to ascertain his strength, and if practicable drive him away and destroy his bridges.”

When Anderson arrived at Chaffin’s Bluff, he reported that “it was decided to attack the enemy’s right at as early hour as was possible the following morning.” Thus, both sides settled down for the evening planning to go on the offensive the next day.

On the morning of the 28th, Anderson ordered a battle group of four brigades – Lane’s Brigade (under Colonel Robert V. Cowan), McGowan’s Brigade (under Lieutenant Colonel J.F. Hunt), Kershaw’s Brigade (under Colonel John Williford Henagan) and Wofford’s Brigade – to attack. Leading these four brigades into action was Brig. Gen. James Conner. Anderson’s objective in this assault was to turn Hancock’s right and push him back to Curle’s Neck, where he could be defeated in detail.

After leaving the safety of the Confederate earthworks at Fussell’s Mill, Conner’s battle group had to traverse nearly two hundred yards of dense woods before they would enter a cornfield that was split almost completely in twain by a finger of woods jutting out from the opposite tree line. Conner would be put to the test to see if he could keep his three brigades in good order as they advanced through such treacherous terrain.

Map by Steve Stanley
Conner’s boys stepped off at 10:00 a.m. and halfway through the woods part of Hunt’s command and Henagan’s full brigade encountered the forked county road. Despite an outcry from their officers, the men began to pour into the road, causing Hunt’s Brigade to break up. With Conner’s battle group sliced in half by the finger of trees mentioned earlier, two separate fights were about to develop.
The first of these fights developed among the fragment consisting of Cowan and Hunt’s men that had inadvertently maneuvered itself into the field west of the finger of trees. Hunt’s men emerged in the cornfield of the Darby Farm, where Sheridan’s troopers had camped on the evening of the 27th, and discovered that they were facing off against the Union cavalry all by themselves.

Unperturbed, they pushed toward the Federals, loading and firing as they went. In the meantime, Cowan encountered not only a swamp that slowed him down, but also Federal skirmishers. After pushing the pesky horse soldiers back, Cowan’s men pushed out of the woods into the open clearing, where Hunt’s men were already engaged. Seeing that Hunt was out in front all by himself, Cowan passed down the order for his men to advance at the double quick.

Meanwhile, Col. Thomas C. Devin was ordered to file down to Merritt’s left, putting him squarely in position to deal with Cowan’s oncoming troops. When Cowan’s men were within 200 yards of the Darby Farm, the Yankees opened fire into their flank and rear, causing a panic. One Tarheel noted that Col. Cowan “don sum of his big Swaring” and ordered the men to fall back. The same soldier who noted this heated use of profanity engaged in some of his own when he summed up the fight as follows: “we had our asses whip[ped] off us if the truth was knone.”

There was plenty of whipping to be had in the upper field as well. Just as Conner’s attack force was emerging from its works, Federal cavalry was advancing up the Long Bridge Road. This was the vanguard of Gregg’s Division, which had been tasked with spearheading the long-awaited turning movement of Sheridan’s cavalry. Gregg’s force arrived just as the cracks from Merritt’s skirmishers began to fill the air with the sound of carbine fire.

The remainder of Hunt’s and all of Henagan’s Brigades, numbering around 1,700 men, emerged from the woods and quickly closed the distance between themselves and their blue coated counterparts. Gregg was fortunate to have the assistance of two cannon under Lt. William N. Dennison’s battery of the 2nd U.S. Artillery. As the Confederates advanced, Dennison’s pieces “knocked gaps through their exposed columns, which were almost instantly filled by closing up.”

But the Rebels on this part of the field put up a more stubborn fight and they surged forward, driving the Federals back. The horse artillery kept firing but was forced to retire after one gun was captured by an enterprising young South Carolinian. The loss of Dennison’s gun enabled the Yankee cavalrymen to withdraw without serious loss.

While Hunt and Henagan’s men were ecstatic over their hard-won victory over the Yankee artillery and cavalry, their revelry was cut short by the realization that their comrades in the lower field had not been as successful. One startled soldier was heard to exclaim, “My God, men look yonder. You may all be fools enough to stay here but I’ll not.” With the remainder of Gregg’s Division nearby and Kautz’s troopers beginning to arrive, the Confederates were forced to retreat.

Map by Steve Stanley
In the end, Conner had taken severe casualties with not much to show for it. In all, it is estimated that the Confederates suffered 377 casualties in this attack, while the Federals suffered approximately 200. This would be the last large scale combat of the First Deep Bottom Campaign.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Center of Military History, Here I Come

Greetings, and Happy Thanksgiving everyone -- I hope you all have a chance to relax, gorge yourself on some turkey, and do some light reading over the next few days (may I suggest catching up on my Operations North of the James series? I'd certainly be thankful if you do!)

In any case, while I usually keep personal stuff off of this page, I have an announcement that directly applies to the mission of Freedom by the Sword and will certainly open up more opportunities for some unique posts!

Next Monday I will start a new job with the U.S. Army Center of Military History as part of a team working on the future National Museum of the U.S. Army.

Renderings of future National Museum of the US Army
Needless to say, I'm very excited and honored to play a small role in the creation of what looks to be a world-class museum!

And while we're on the subject of the Center, I would be remiss to not congratulate Dr. Richard W. Stewart on his retirement as Chief Historian. Dr. Stewart took the time out of his busy schedule to meet with little old me and give me some career advice back in 2014, which says a lot about the type of person he is. Here's to a productive and enjoyable retirement!

Keep your eyes peeled for more on the First Battle of Deep Bottom later this week.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The First Battle of Deep Bottom: July 27, 1864

The First Battle of Deep Bottom– also occasionally called the Battle of Darbytown, Strawberry Plains, Tilghman’s Gate, New Market Road ,Gravel Hill, and even Malvern Hill (the latter causing a great deal of confusion) – was part of Grant’s Third Offensive of the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, which culminated in the infamous mine attack known as the Crater. It lasted from July 27-29, 1864.

In addition to what would become the Battle of the Crater, Grant also sent a force to the north side of the James River via the Deep Bottom bridgehead. Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps, along with two divisions of Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s cavalry and one division of Brig. Gen. August Kautz’s Army of the James cavalry was tasked with crossing the James River at Deep Bottom and menacing the Confederate capital.

The cavalry’s mission was to ride hard and fast to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad as far north as the South Anna River, then turn back towards Richmond and attempt to capture the city in a joint effort with Hancock’s infantry. If everything went according to plan, Richmond would fall and Grant could call off the mine attack.

Thus, over the night of July 26-27, the II Corps marched from Petersburg, crossed the James River, and advanced east of the Deep Bottom bridgehead. Hancock wasted little time in attempting to locate the enemy and begin the grand offensive that would open the way for Sheridan to commence his raid. In the pre-dawn darkness of July 27th the II Corps spread out into an open area called Strawberry Plains.

Map by Steve Stanely
Just north of the Union expeditionary force at a place called Tilghman’s Gate were three of Maj. Gen. Joseph Kershaw’s Confederate brigades, temporarily under the command of Brig. Gen. Benjamin Grubb Humphreys. In the middle of this line of infantry were four 20 lb. Parrott Rifles of Capt. Archibald Graham’s 1st Rockbridge Artillery battery. In supporting distance were the 7th South Carolina Cavalry, 24th Virginia Cavalry, and the Hampton Legion, all under the command of the “Bald Eagle,” Brig. Gen. Martin Gary.

Tilghman’s Gate stood right in Hancock’s path, and the corps commander wasted little time in sending out a skirmish line to take the position. The assault would be supported by field artillery under the command of Maj. John G. Hazard and the gunboat USS Mendota, which was anchored at Deep Bottom.

On the skirmish line, a see-saw battle developed, with troops under Regis de Trobriand pushing forward and then falling back under an intense volume of Confederate fire. The Yankees were eventually able to mount a concerted effort and angle their attack towards the middle of the line, where Graham’s Parrott Rifles continued to blast away.

When Humphreys’s men observed the bluecoats zeroing in on Graham’s guns, they immediately moved forward to meet them. Humphreys had also seen the threat and called for the artillery horses in case the cannon needed to be withdrawn in a hurry. He was met with bad news – the horses had been sent to the rear. Within minutes more bad news arrived – a courier from Gary’s brigade informed him that he was flanked. Desperate, Humphreys sent the courier back to Gary with orders to come to his support and attack immediately.

The situation was rapidly deteriorating.

In order to fire more effectively, Graham’s Battery moved its guns into the New Market Road and pointed them towards the advancing Federals, now only fifty yards away. Once in the road, the battery could only bring two guns to bear on the Yankee menaces, but the experienced gunners fired several rounds of canister that caused the Union skirmishers to balk.

Seeing the plight of Graham’s guns, Humphreys attempted to shift his right wing to come to their assistance, but in doing so he created a fifty-yard gap in the Confederate line. This was almost directly across from where De Trobriand’s skirmish line continued its halting advance.

At this point, future Commanding General of the U.S. Army Nelson A. Miles rode up to the front of the skirmish line and cried out, “Men, let a general lead you.” The men surged forward, and the Rebel infantry soon gave way. In the fog of battle, the word to retreat did not filter down to the gunners of Graham’s Battery, who were left to fight on their own. Once they realized the tenuous position they were in, Graham’s artillerists fled for the rear. The Federals were ecstatic when they captured all four of Graham’s Parrott rifles, along with their caissons and ammunition chests.
"The Bald Eagle" - Gen. Martin Gary

They did not have much time to celebrate, however, because Gary’s brigade arrived on the scene in response to Humphreys’s earlier order to come to his assistance. Gary did not waste any time making a reconnaissance – he threw caution to the wind and attacked.

The Bald Eagle was able to buy Humphreys’s retreating soldiers enough time to get to safety and begin to form a new line, but he was quickly swallowed up by the oncoming Federals. The 24th Virginia Cavalry was the first to break and as the rest of the brigade looked for a path to safety Gary rode up and ordered the 7th South Carolina Cavalry to charge down the road and retake the line. No one took this order seriously and one Gary’s aides recalled how he “took out his pistols and threatened to shoot us if we did not move on. He ranted and fumed, but the men were dogged and remained firm.” Within minutes, the graycoats were in full retreat.

Thus ended the fighting at Tilghman’s Gate.

Back at the Deep Bottom bridgehead, Sheridan and Hancock received updates about the progress of the attack. One of Grant’s aides was visiting with the two celebrity generals and was astonished that they both “seemed to think…the thing was a failure.”

The rest of the day was frittered away with maneuvering, while the Confederate high command planned an attack that would drive the hated enemy away from Deep Bottom once and for all.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Establishing the Deep Bottom Bridgehead

Part two in a series.

In my previous post I outlined the important series of actions fought north of the James River during the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign from July – October 1864. This post will explore the means by which Federal forces participated in these battles – the Deep Bottom bridgehead. The name “Deep Bottom” refers to an area on the James River 11 miles southeast of Richmond located at a horseshoe-shaped bend in the river known as Jones’ Neck. This area remained relatively quiet throughout the war, but all of that changed once the first series of Union assaults on the Petersburg defenses failed.

Determined to avoid a prolonged siege, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant boarded a ship with Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler of the Army of the James on June 20, 1864 to seek out a location to open up simultaneous operations against Richmond.

Grant determined that Deep Bottom was the most suitable location. Since it was convenient to the Bermuda Hundred Peninsula, where Butler’s army was currently operating, Deep Bottom was the perfect place to “divide the attention of the enemy’s troops, and to confuse them as to whether to expect an attack upon Richmond or Petersburg,” according to Grant’s aide Horace Porter.

Grant ordered Butler to send a brigade of 2,000 men “to seize, hold, and fortify” Deep Bottom and have the army’s engineers construct a pontoon bridge. Brig. Gen. Robert S. Foster of the X Corps was chosen to lead this small expedition. At 5:00 p.m. on June 20th, Foster’s command marched three miles through intense heat and dust to Jones’ Neck, where the pontoons were assembled and waiting.

The expedition was fraught with danger: Confederate pickets were only three hundred yards away and, once on the north side of the river, the wooded bluffs would have to be scaled and a perimeter established before any work could commence.

Fosters headquarters at Deep Bottom. LOC
Still, by 11:00 p.m., all of Foster’s men were on the far side of the river and by the early morning hours of June 21st the bridgehead was in place and expanding. At 1:15 a.m., Foster proudly reported back to headquarters, “I have established my picket-line without resistance. My intrenching and slashing parties are at work.”

Word of the Yankee incursion came to Lee’s headquarters early on the morning of June 21st from his eldest son, Brig. Gen. George Washington Custis Lee. When the size of the force was determined, Richard S. Ewell, newly appointed commander of the Department of Richmond, appealed to Old Marse Robert for “an increase of force on this side of the river.”

Lee dispatched Henry Heth’s Third Corps division to the north side of the James on June 22nd to assuage Ewell’s fears. The front would remain static for over a month while the two main armies focused on Petersburg.

But Robert E. Lee was none too pleased about the irksome presence of the Yankee troops, telling Ewell, “I do not like the continuance of the enemy on the north side of the James River and the maintenance of the pontoon bridge at Deep Bottom.” On July 23, 1864 Lee reached a breaking point and decided to send Maj. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw’s entire division across the river to destroy the pesky bridgehead once and for all.

Giving up that many troops from the Petersburg front was extremely stressful for Lee, and the harried commander wrote to his son on the 24th to unload his secret worries:
I sent yesterday Genl. Kershaw’s division to Chaffin’s, which I can ill spare & which I fear I shall be obliged soon to recall…I directed Genl Kershaw to take command of the brigades under Conner, examine the enemy’s position at Deep Bottom, & see what could be done. I have not heard from him yet…Where are we to get sufficient troops to oppose Grant?
Kershaw wasted no time taking up the offensive. On July 26th his men launched an attack against Foster’s troops, shouting “Go home you red devils!” to a regiment still brave enough to wear Zouave uniforms at this point in the war. The attack successfully dislodged Foster’s men from their advanced positions, but they clung tenaciously to the Deep Bottom bridgehead.

As the evening fighting tapered off, the Confederates were blissfully ignorant of the fact that over 25,000 Union soldiers were marching their way at that very moment.

The stage was set for the First Battle of Deep Bottom.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Operations North of the James River: June - October 1864

Part One in a Series.

What if I was to tell you that a series of desperate battles was fought on the footsteps of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia? 

You’d most likely think that I was referring to the Seven Days Battles of 1862, right?


Skip forward two years past the famed debut of Robert E. Lee as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and you will encounter a complex series of battles and skirmishes fought within an hour’s march of the very nerve center of the Confederate nation.

These lesser known battles saw, among other things:
  • Approximately 15,000 combined casualties
  • Four general officers killed or mortally wounded
  • The first twelve Medals of Honor issued to African American infantrymen in U.S. history
  • Old Marse Robert’s final offensive actions before the last three weeks of the war in Virginia

But Richmond was a hard road to travel, as the song went, and even though the Union war machine would hurl entire armies at the city’s gates in 1864, the despised bastion would not fall until that fateful April day in 1865.
Henry Hardenbergh wins the MOH at 2nd Deep Bottom. 

This series of battles would be fought east of Richmond and north of the James River and would center around the road networks and fortifications that ringed the eastern approaches to the city. The names associated with these battles remain largely forgotten – places like Tilghman’s Gate, Gravel Hill, Strawberry Plains, and Fussell’s Mill. Thanks to the efforts of a growing group of Civil War scholars, other names like Deep Bottom, Fort Harrison, New Market Heights, and Darbytown Road are becoming more familiar.

While the names of many of these battles are confused and used interchangeably in the official records, the litany of major actions north of the James breaks down as follows:
  • The First Battle of Deep Bottom: July 26-29, 1864
  • The Second Battle of Deep Bottom: August 14-20, 1864
  • The Battle of Chaffin’s Farm: September 29-30, 1864
  • The First Battle of Darbytown Road: October 7, 1864
  • The Second Battle of Darbytown Road: October 13, 1864
  • The Second Battle of Fair Oaks: October 27-28, 1864
In an upcoming series of posts, I plan to extract a few noteworthy samplings from each of the abovementioned clashes rather than attempt a detailed explanation of each individual fight. We will begin with the events that led to the establishment of the Deep Bottom bridgehead in late June of 1864 and then spend some time with the first battle that bore its name in late July. We will survey each of the two major days of fighting and then look at some of the more notable instances of heroism, including Sgt. Adam Ballenger, who singlehandedly captured a Federal cannon and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant for doing so.

For the Second Battle of Deep Bottom we will look at a dark day for the officer corps of the Army of Northern Virginia: August 16, 1864. That day would see the deaths of two generals – John R. Chambliss, Jr., a brigade commander in J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry, and the flamboyant Victor Jean Baptiste Girardey who had made a name for himself at the Battle of the Crater. We will also examine the Battle of Fussell’s Mill, which saw the heaviest sustained fighting of the Second Deep Bottom Campaign.

We will then shift our gaze to the experience of two white Union officers who led African American soldiers during the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. Lt. John McMurray of the 6th USCT left a gripping account his regiment’s fateful charge against New Market Heights Lt. John Viers of the 5th USCT dodged death at the Battle of New Market Heights on the morning of September 29, 1864 only to be captured later in the day during the horrific assault on Fort Gilmer. As we will see, white USCT officers did not always have the easiest time when they fell into the hands of the Rebel army.

Next we will look at the First Battle of Darbytown Road and the death of another Confederate general, John Gregg. This Alabamian went from serving in the Provisional Confederate Congress to fighting in the Western Theater where, through a strange series of events, he found himself placed in command of one of the most famed fighting units of the entire war – Hood’s Texas Brigade.

The concluding post will pick up the story of the U.S. Colored Troops in late October 1864, when a controversy broke out over the use of black prisoners to construct new Confederate fortifications and the massacre of black troops who had surrendered during the fighting on October 27th.

Along the way I will stop to give character portraits of both individuals and units that saw action in this forgotten sector.

As we will see, there is much fresh and exciting material to unpack from the fighting on this overlooked front of the American Civil War.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Return to Deep Bottom

Greetings! My apologies for falling off the face of the planet for a while, but my previous post elicited such deranged hatred from some of the self-appointed gatekeepers of ACW blogging that I thought it best to lay low for a while.

Mike Andrus describing the collapse of Girardey's line.
In any case, I had the pleasure of helping lead a tour of the Fussell’s Mill battlefield for the Richmond Battlefields Association over the weekend, which has drawn my attention back to where it hasn’t been for these few quiet months – the north side of the James River.

I had the great honor of teaming up with Mike Andrus (the man who first showed me the ropes of giving a good battlefield tour over 15 years ago) to take a hardy band of enthusiasts over ground that was recently preserved by the RBA. (And if you’re not a member of the RBA, please consider supporting them – for a small organization, they have scored some incredible preservation successes over the last decade.)

This ground was central to the August 16, 1864 battle at Fussell’s Mill, which saw the heaviest fighting of the Second Deep Bottom Campaign.

The new acquisition helps preserve a portion of Confederate general Victor Girardey’s line and most likely includes the location of where Girardey was killed attempting to rally his retreating troops. The tour also visited the monument to Col. William C. Oates of Little Round Top fame, who received his 7th wound of the war leading the 48th Alabama into battle. 

Col. William C. Oates
In any case, it was wonderful to be back home, and with that in mind I thought I would officially announce that I plan on resurrecting a series that I began on the Emerging Civil War blog earlier in the year that will take an in-depth look at the forgotten actions that took place North of the James from late June to late October of 1864. I will repost some of the old ECW posts I wrote and supplement them with new information and some recent finds, so stay tuned!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Ain’t I a Human? – Dehumanization, Then & Now

In my previous post, I lamented the troubling legacies of the American Civil War that have been cropping up in recent headlines. In the intervening weeks since I wrote that post, a new scandal has broken into the headlines – a story which contains several parallels to the dehumanizing practice of slavery in the antebellum South and which originates from the same ideological cesspool…and yet no one in the Civil War community has uttered a word about it that I am aware of.

To Be Sold

The painting shown below was the subject of a recent exhibition at the Library of Virginia.

Slaves Waiting for Sale by Eyre Crowe (1861)
Entitled “Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia” the work depicts a slave auction on the eve of the American Civil War. It shows nine enslaved men and women – including three children – pensively awaiting the moment they will be put on an auction block for sale.

The viewer’s stomach churns in revulsion at the thought of this moment – that these people were dressed up only for exhibition, hoping that the fancy clothing might fetch a better price…that the children clutched tightly by their mothers might be sold to a different bidder, wrenching the family apart for years to come…maybe even forever.

Much of the injustice associated with buying and selling human beings is captured in this paining, and historians have done a fine job over the past half century to bring this tragic era of human history to light and to show that slavery was in no wise a benign institution – it was violence perpetrated against the human soul.


What cries out as so very wrong about the practice of slavery is, in part, its degradation and dehumanization of our fellow human beings. In his magisterial The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, David Brion Davis defines dehumanization as, “the eradication not of human identity but of those elements of humanity that evoke respect and empathy and convey a sense of dignity” (p.17).

Consider, then, the recent scandal concerning allegations that abortion provider Planned Parenthood has been harvesting body parts taken from aborted babies and selling them to medical research companies for profit. There has been quite a smoke screen attempting to cover the craven nature of what the recent undercover videos that exposed this illicit trade truly shows.

But I challenge you to reflect upon this snippet taken from one of the latest videos, in which Dr. Savita Ginde and her staff are picking through the severed pieces of a child. At one point a medical assistant cracks the child’s skull while Dr. Ginde laughs and says, “It’s a baby.” Shortly thereafter another assistant yells “It’s a boy!” when examining the eviscerated baby’s lower body.

This is the dehumanization of slavery on steroids. The aforementioned footage and mounds of other evidence (and plain common sense) shows that the abortion pushers at Planned Parenthood agree that they are killing what is clearly identifiable as human (otherwise they wouldn’t be able to profit from selling the body parts.) They simply strip the unborn child of any dignity or sense of worth – “life unworthy of life” as an ideological bedfellow of theirs would have put it – and rake in the profits, just like the slavers of old.

Calling All Historians

So where is the outcry from my colleagues?

As Prof. Jacquelyn Hall of UNC Chapel Hill said, “As a matter of civic duty and professional survival historians must unapologetically embrace opportunities to put the past in open dialogue with the pressing needs of the present.” 

Over the weekend Kevin Levin rightly praised John Hennessey for “fully embrac[ing] his responsibility to push park visitors to think about the tough questions related to how we think about and how we remember our Civil War. In a follow-up, Levin wrote “It’s an opportune moment for public historians, who focus on the Civil War Era and the history of race relations. Folks who have never thought about the American Civil War are giving it a good deal of thought.” 

And yet when it comes to this horrific scandal, mum’s the word.

It staggers me to see the amount of ink spilled over the controversy surrounding the Confederate battle flag and the unbridled zeal to take down monuments dedicated to those who fought to establish a slaveholding republic…with nary a word devoted to an indefensible practice that rivals the great human rights crises of the past.

In 1839, Theodore Dwight Weld wrote that the slaveholder did “not contemplate slaves as human beings, consequently [he] does not treat them as such; and with indifference sees them suffer privations and writhe under blows which, if inflicted upon whites, would fill him with horror and indignation.”

Today, many in our society are unmoved at the prospect of unborn children “suffering privations” and writhing in the womb as they are sliced to bits and sold at market to the highest bidder. Weld’s contemporaries relied upon Phrenology and other pseudoscience to justify their depredations just as Planned Parenthood hides behind junk science and deception to carry out its illegal trade.

The magnitude of this scandal exceeds traditional pro-choice/pro-life squabbles – it cuts right to the core and forces us to search our souls for an answer to the question of what makes us human.

Do we have intrinsic worth, or is some life more worthy of protection than other life – and how do we arbitrate between the two in the latter case?

If there is no absolute value to be placed on every human life, then there’s no logical reason why you can’t slaughter a child in utero and harvest its organs to finance your Lamborghini. 

And there’s no reason why you can’t own another person as well.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

We’ve Got a Long Way to Go: The Confederate Battle Flag, George Takei’s “Uncivil” Rant, & the Legacy of Race in America

Well, if ever anyone needed ammunition to bolster their arguments that the haunting legacies of slavery and the Civil War still impact our nation today, the past few weeks have provided an abundance of troubling evidence.

I, for one, was very troubled over the initial debate over the public display of the Confederate battle flag in the wake of the horrific hate crime in Charleston. To me, it seemed like the “rush to the colors” was not only misguided, but completely wrongheaded – when the bodies of the victims had not been properly memorialized or even buried some acted as if the main takeaway that Americans should be concerned with was whether or not future generations would learn the “real” history of the Confederacy.

Never mind the nine innocent victims who had been slaughtered and the hateful ideology that motivated the Confederate flag-waving killer.

Equally troubling were the recent remarks made by actor George Takei following the recent Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage.
Oh my, indeed.

Takei, who has been a champion for gay rights and marriage equality for many years, was not content to celebrate this historic ruling. Instead, he launched into a diatribe against Justice Clarence Thomas’s dissenting opinion that was laced with racist imagery that should have no place in any civil discussion.

What Thomas said that got Takei so fired up was, in part:
Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate…Human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved…The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.
Reacting to that, Takei said of Justice Thomas:
He is a clown in blackface sitting on the Supreme Court. He gets me that angry. He doesn't belong there. And for him to say, slaves have dignity. I mean, doesn't he know that slaves were in chains? That they were whipped on the back. If he saw the movie 12 Years a Slave, you know, they were raped. And he says they had dignity as slaves…I mean, this man does not belong on the Supreme Court. He is an embarrassment. He is a disgrace to America.  
Takei’s reference to blackface harkens back to a disgusting theatrical tradition that propagated racist images and attitudes. Minstrel shows that employed blackface portrayed African Americans as inferior caricatures and blackface clowns were a popular means of reinforcing the “otherness” of black Americans.

Takei has since taken to Facebook to apologize for using this blatantly racist imagery (which he called "uncivil") and suggested that he “referred to [Justice Thomas] as a ‘clown in blackface’ to suggest that he had abdicated and abandoned his heritage.” It is interesting to note that most follow-up comments on his Facebook apology support what he originally said and claimed he had nothing to apologize for.

What Takei did not walk back in his apology were his remarks about slaves not having dignity. One can only give him the benefit of the doubt and hope that he was unartfully stating that slavery stripped dignity from human beings. If humans do not have inherent dignity, then there is no moral law against enslaving them in the first place.

But this, of course, is clearly not what Justice Thomas was suggesting. His line of reasoning was the main underpinning of the abolition movement while Takei alluded to the language and customs used by the defenders of the Slavocracy.

Takei’s language is just as offensive as the proud display of the Confederate flag after the Charleston shooting. While I don’t think that he or the defenders of the Confederate flag are virulent racists, I do think that both display a disturbing lack of understanding and appreciation for the real history of slavery, race, and the legacy of the American Civil War.

We’ve got a long way to go. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Unknown Loyal Dead

Just around the corner from Mrs. Lee’s famed rose garden at Arlington house lays a nearly-forgotten monument that was the first Tomb of Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Erected in 1866, this massive crypt houses the remains of 2,111 Union war dead that were removed from hastily dug mass graves on the battlefields stretching from Manassas to the Rappahannock River.
Tomb of the Civil War Unknowns.

On Decoration Day of 1871, Frederick Douglass was invited to come and consecrate this memorial.

His words, given below in their entirety, offer a valuable glimpse into how postwar Northerners viewed their Civil War.
Friends and Fellow Citizens: 
Tarry here for a moment. My words shall be few and simple. The solemn rites of this hour and place call for no lengthened speech. There is, in the very air of this resting-ground of the unknown dead a silent, subtle and all-pervading eloquence, far more touching, impressive, and thrilling than living lips have ever uttered. Into the measureless depths of every loyal soul it is now whispering lessons of all that is precious, priceless, holiest, and most enduring in human existence. 
Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors. The offering we bring to-day is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable. 
Those unknown heroes whose whitened bones have been piously gathered here, and whose green graves we now strew with sweet and beautiful flowers, choice emblems alike of pure hearts and brave spirits, reached, in their glorious career that last highest point of nobleness beyond which human power cannot go. They died for their country.
No loftier tribute can be paid to the most illustrious of all the benefactors of mankind than we pay to these unrecognized soldiers when we write above their graves this shining epitaph.
When the dark and vengeful spirit of slavery, always ambitious, preferring to rule in hell than to serve in heaven, fired the Southern heart and stirred all the malign elements of discord, when our great Republic, the hope of freedom and self-government throughout the world, had reached the point of supreme peril, when the Union of these states was torn and rent asunder at the center, and the armies of a gigantic rebellion came forth with broad blades and bloody hands to destroy the very foundations of American society, the unknown braves who flung themselves into the yawning chasm, where cannon roared and bullets whistled, fought and fell. They died for their country.
Frederick Douglass, ca. 1870.
We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice. 
I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my “right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,” if I forget the difference between the parties to hat terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict. 
If we ought to forget a war which has filled our land with widows and orphans; which has made stumps of men of the very flower of our youth; which has sent them on the journey of life armless, legless, maimed and mutilated; which has piled up a debt heavier than a mountain of gold, swept uncounted thousands of men into bloody graves and planted agony at a million hearthstones — I say, if this war is to be forgotten, I ask, in the name of all things sacred, what shall men remember? 
The essence and significance of our devotions here to-day are not to be found in the fact that the men whose remains fill these graves were brave in battle. If we met simply to show our sense of bravery, we should find enough on both sides to kindle admiration. In the raging storm of fire and blood, in the fierce torrent of shot and shell, of sword and bayonet, whether on foot or on horse, unflinching courage marked the rebel not less than the loyal soldier. 
But we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic. We must never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest beneath this sod flung themselves between the nation and the nation’s destroyers. If today we have a country not boiling in an agony of blood, like France, if now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage, if the American name is no longer a by-word and a hissing to a mocking earth, if the star-spangled banner floats only over free American citizens in every quarter of the land, and our country has before it a long and glorious career of justice, liberty, and civilization, we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

May 12, 1864: Death of a Legend

The following is an eyewitness account of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s death on May 12, 1864. Stuart’s adjutant, Maj. Henry McClellan, wrote to Flora Stuart to explain the circumstances of how he was wounded and the manner of his death. Flora had arrived at the home Dr. Charles Brewer on May 12th to find that Stuart had been dead for several hours and was greatly grieved to know that she had just missed a last chance to say goodbye to her beloved husband.
While yet in the ambulance Dr. Fontaine and Lieutenant Hullihen turned the general over on his side, in order that an examination of the wound might be made While this was in progress he spoke to Hullihen, addressing him by the pet name which he usually employed: -- 
“Honey-bun, how do I look in the face?” 
“General,” replied Hullihen, “you are looking right well. You will be all right.” 
“Well,” said he, “I don’t know how this will turn out; but if it is God’s will that I shall die I am ready.” 
In order to avoid the enemy, who how held full possession of the Brook turnpike, it was necessary for the ambulance to make a wide detour to reach Richmond, and it was some time after dark when the general arrived at the residence of his brother-in-law, Dr. Charles Brewer. The long ride gave him great suffering. On the morning of the 12th, after delivering General Fitz Lee’s message to General Bragg, I repaired to the bedside of my dying chief. He was calm and composed, in the full possession of his mind. Our conversation was, however, interrupted by paroxysms of suffering. He directed me to make the proper disposal of his official papers and to send his personal effects to his wife. He then said: --- 
“I wish you to take one of my horses and Venable the other. Which is the heavier rider?”
I replied that I thought Venable was. 
“Then,” said he, “let Venable have the gray horse, and you take the bay.” 
Soon he spoke again: “You will find in my hat a small Confederate flag, which a lady of Columbia, South Carolina, sent me, with the request that I wear it upon my horse in a battle and return to her. Send it to her.” 
I was at a loss how to interpret these instructions; for I had never seen any such decoration upon his hat. But upon examining it the flag was found within its lining, stained with the sweat of his brow; and among his papers I found the letter which had conveyed the request. 
Again he said: “My spurs which I have always word in battle I promised to give to Mrs. Lilly Lee, of Shepherdstown, Virginia. My sword I leave to my son.” 
While I sat by his side the sound of cannon outside the city was heard. He turned to me eagerly and inquired what it meant. I explained that Gracy’s brigade and other troops had moved out against the enemy’s rear on the Brook turnpike and that Fitz Lee would endeavor to oppose their advance at Meadow Bridge. He turned his eyes upward, and exclaimed earnestly, “God grant that they may be successful.” Then he turned his head
aside, he said with a sigh, --- 
“But I must be prepared for another world.” 
The thought of duty was always uppermost in his mind; and after listening to the distant cannonading for a few moments, he said: “Major, Fitz Lee may need you.” I understood his meaning, and pressed his hand in a last farewell. 
As I left his chamber President Davis entered. Taking the general’s hand, he asked: “General, how do you feel?” 
He replied: “Easy, but willing to die, if God and my country think I have fulfilled my destiny and done my duty.” 
The Reverend Mr. Peterkin visited him, and prayed with him. He requested Mr. Peterkin to sing “Rock of Ages,” and joined in the singing of the hymn. 
During the afternoon he asked Dr. Brewer whether it were not possible for him to survive the night. The doctor frankly told him that death was close at hand. He then said: 
“I am resigned if it be God’s will; but I would like to see my wife. But God’s will be done.” 
Again he said to Dr. Brewer: “I am going fast now; I am resigned. God’s will be done.” 
And thus he passed away.


Monday, May 11, 2015

“Bully for Gordon!” – Fighting at Ground Squirrel Church, May 11, 1864

While many people are familiar with the Battle of Yellow Tavern and the resultant mortal wounding of famed Confederate cavalry chieftain J.E.B. Stuart, the hotly contested fighting that centered around Goodall’s Tavern and Ground Squirrel Church in Hanover County on the same day has received scant attention. This rear guard action pitted Brig. Gen. James B. Gordon’s Tarheel Brigade against some of the finest horse soldiers in the Army of the Potomac.
Less famous than his cousin John B. Gordon,
James Gordon was an excellent cavalry officer.

As Phil Sheridan’s troopers rode steadily towards Richmond on May 10th, they reached the Ground Squirrel Bridge on the South Anna River, 18 miles below Beaver Dam Station, around 4:00 p.m. After crossing his entire force, Sheridan ordered the bridge burned and posted the 1st Maine Cavalry along the south bank of the river while the rest of the troopers cooked supper and bedded down for the night.

Meanwhile Stuart, who had been in hot pursuit with around 4,500 men since May 9th, decided to roll the dice and split his force – Gordon’s brigade was tasked with following Sheridan and harassing his rear guard while two of Fitzhugh Lee’s brigades under Brig. Gen. Williams C. Wickham and Brig. Gen. Lunsford L. Lomax would hurry east to Hanover Junction on the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad and then descend the Telegraph Road to interdict the main Federal body along Mountain Road.

Shortly after sunrise on the 11th, Sheridan assembled his men and moved out, leaving Gen. David. McM. Gregg to picket the South Anna. Gregg was confident that he was untouchable because the bridge had been burned and he thought the river to be unfordable – thus when, Gordon’s troopers arrived on the scene he was unperturbed.
Map by Hal Jespersen

Gordon, however, knew that the safety of the Confederate capital could be at stake and had no time to worry about finding a safe spot to cross the river. The general simply picked a spot, yelled “Forward!” and plunged into the water, not knowing the depth. His men unhesitatingly followed. 

Once across, the steep bank caused great difficulty and according to a trooper in the 5th North Carolina Cavalry, “men were hurt trying to take their horses up that almost impossible bank.” Paul Means of the 5th realistically stated, “some were seriously hurt, but we were out there expecting to get hurt.”  

As soon as the Carolinians crossed the South Anna they ran into Gregg’s pickets. The 1st Maine Cavalry – purported to be the best cavalry unit in the entire army – was under orders to hold the crossing along with the 10th New York Cavalry while the rest of the column moved on.

After a few volleys from Gordon’s troopers, the Yankees broke for the rear, where they stampeded members of the 10th New York. N.D. Preston of that unit said “it was one of those unaccountable panics which sometimes seize bodies of men without cause.” One trooper who was desperate to get to safety grabbed the tail of a passing horse and allowed himself to be dragged to safety.

The Federals fell back to nearby Goodall’s Tavern, which was quickly turned into a formidable defensive position. The tavern and all of the outbuildings had sharpshooters in the windows ready to pick off Gordon’s men should they continue to advance.

The position appeared daunting, but Gordon decided to test the defenses and put the 1st North Carolina Cavalry in line and sent them up the Mountain Road, with the 5th North Carolina in support.

After an initial attempt to take the position, one Tarheel confessed, “We…could not dislodge them. The fight between the dismounted sharp-shooters lasted several hours.” Gordon quickly changed tactics, sending a mounted squadron of the 5th NC under Col. William H. Cheek around the right to flank the Federals, while he personally led the 1st NC in a frontal assault. The combat was brutal –“hand-to hand, saber to saber, in deadly close conflict,” said a trooper in the 5th NC – and the Federals were again pushed out of their position.

During this chaotic melee the Carolinians claimed that the bugler of the 1st North Carolina ripped the bugle out of the hands of the bugler for the 1st Maine and made the rest of his bugle calls on the captured trophy. Gregg, surveying the situation, exclaimed, “My God! Is the 1st Maine coming back?”

Ground Squirrel Church. Courtesy: Sandy Satterwhite
For a second time that day, the Federals fell back to a new position at Ground Squirrel Church, where they now had the luxury of artillery support.

A member of the 5th North Carolina later recalled:
One side or the other gives way quickly as did Sheridan's splendid soldiers before these two North Carolina regiments in those glorious charges and counter-charges at Ground Squirrel Church. We kept up the fight on their rear, pressing them hard continuously.
Gordon now threw everything he had into the fight, committing his reserves. These fresh troopers charged onto the field and drove away a mounted force of Yankee troopers who proved to be the last of the Federals, who were now heading south to catch up with the main body.

By the time the battle was over, the clash at Yellow Tavern had already begun. Gordon sent a courier to inform Stuart of the victory he had won, causing the general to bellow, “Bully for Gordon!” Reality settled back in with Stuart’s next words – “I wish he was here.”

Indeed, the fact that so many hard-fighting cavaliers were absent from the Yellow Tavern battlefield contributed to the shattering defeat suffered there. And as we all know, Stuart would fall mortally wounded, dying in Richmond on May 12th.

That same day Gen. Gordon was also mortally wounded at fighting along the Brook Pike outside of Richmond.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Virginia Time Travel Appearance

Look ma, I'm famous!

I recently sat down with the good folks at Virginia Time Travel to discuss a variety of subjects, to include Freedman’s Village, the Battle of New Market Heights, and this very blog.

If you’ve got a cool thirty minutes to kill, why not take a gander?

(NOTE: At one point in the interview I tripped over my tongue and said that two Federal Corps crossed the James at Deep Bottom – I was actually trying to refer to the Second Corps, which was the one and only infantry corps on Hancock’s first expedition north of the James.)

Monday, April 20, 2015

A Heartrending Letter from Freedman’s Village

Every once in a while in my research I find something that transcends the usual dry recitation of facts and events – something that leaps off of the page and eradicates the 150 year barrier that separates me from the people and events I am investigating.

A recent find that falls into that category is a letter housed in the collection of the Library of Georgia from a woman named Ann Butler who lived in Arlington’s Freedman’s Village.

Freedman's Village. Courtesy: LOC
The letter is unique in several respects. First of all, most of the primary source documents pertaining to the newly freed African Americans residing in Freedman’s Village were written by whites who worked in the village – teachers, administrators, soldiers, and missionaries. Any firsthand account from one of the actual residents is a rare find.

Second, the letter is written to her husband William, who was serving as a soldier in the 2nd United States Colored Infantry. The 2nd USCT was a unit recruited straight out of Arlington, which means we have a situation where a family comes into Freedman’s Village and the wife and children stay in the village to work and learn while the husband enlists in the U.S. Colored Troops. Again, this is a rare scenario to find any primary documents for.

Finally, as we will see, there is a surprise ending.

And now for the text of the letter itself – the following is a transcription of the original, which was written on January 30, 1865:
Jan 30 1865
Arlington Va
Freedmens Village
My dear Husband, 
I have waited and longed and longed and waited for a letter from you but seems all in vain why don’t you write to me and let me some thing from you. Not since October last have I heard one word from you is any thing the matter with you do write and let me know to relieve my anxious mind the children are all anxious to see you and hear from you William is living not very far from me he is waiting on an officer at Fort Woodbury and Matthew is waiting on an officer at fort smith near about 2 or 3 miles off, but I see him very often which is a great comfort to me as I cannot see you but I hope the time is not far off when I shall once more both see you and be separated no more until death which is unresistable while we see each other let us pray that harm may not overtake I feel it my especial duty and greatest comfort to pray for you at all times you must pray for me and the children Mary is living in Washington. She and all the rest send their best love to you their dear absent father. Now William when you receive this make no delay in writing but hast to answer this at once and tell me every[thing] concerning yourself and your where abouts. The smaller children go to school in the village every day they want to see how much they can learn by the time their Father come with spoils from the war. I will say no more not but will trust in the Lord for the safe keeping of us both and our little flock.
I remain as ever your devoted wife,
C. Ann Butler
Direct your letters as before Freedmens Village
Care Capt Larrs
Arlington Va

The immediacy of Butler’s living situation and obvious concern over her beloved husband leaps off of the page, and makes what follows next truly heartrending.

At the bottom of the letter is a note written in a different hand that reads in part:
This letter was taken out of a knapsack found close by a dead body on the Battlefield of the Natural Bridge near St Marks Fla March 6th 1865 … It is believed the Butler above named was killed at that fight.
One can only imagine the grief experienced by Ann and her children when that news was delivered to her.

Thankfully, this story has a happy ending!

I recently looked at William Butler’s service record and, as it turns out, he was captured at the Battle of Natural Bridge – which explains why his knapsack was left on the field of battle.

William Butler's Parole. Courtesy: NARA
The end of the war brought about William’s release as a P.O.W. on April 28, 1865 and he was discharged from the army on May 20th at Annapolis, Maryland.

It must have been a joyful occasion when William, Ann, and their small children were reunited.