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.