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The battle of Williamsburg.

Narrative of Colonel Bratton, Sixth South Carolina regiment.

[The following paper was originally prepared for General E. P. Alexander,. who kindly turned it over to us along with other-valuable Mss.]

Farmington, April 20, 1868.
Dear Sir — At your request, I submit the following account of the operations of my regiment at Williamsburg, May 5th, 1862.

The disposition of the brigade on the morning of that day was as follows: Jenkins' regiment (Palmetto sharpshooters) occupied Fort Magruder, and the Fourth and Fifth regiments the smaller works on either flank of the fort. My own regiment was posted on the edge of the pine grove in rear and to the left of the fort. A detachment of it (two companies) were sent to occupy the last redoubt but one on the line of redoubts to the left of Fort Magruder.

Feeling some responsibility resting on myself as to this flank, I reported the extreme left redoubt as unoccupied and suggested that I post at least a picket there, but was told that it was in charge of somebody else (cavalry perhaps). I gave myself no more concern about it until it was occupied by Hancock's troops, which occupation was announced to me by a cannon ball from the enemy's gun, which passed through my line and buried itself in the embankment of Fort Magruder. My regiment had been withdrawn by General Anderson from its first position and was lying behind “ the fort. I reported this dispatch from the enemy (cannon ball), and was ordered by Colonel Jenkins to my “original position to repel the attack of the enemy.” ” On arriving at my original position, I saw the line of the enemy (four flags and a battery of six guns) advancing on a redoubt immediately in rear of the one occupied by my two companies. The fort on the extreme left, also, was full of troops huzzaing and waving United States colors.

No time was to be lost, for if they occupied the redoubt in rear my two companies were inevitably lost; so without orders I left my position at once and advanced on the redoubt towards which. the enemy were moving. They were nearer to it than we were, but were advancing cautiously; were receiving a minnie occasionally from my companies in the neighboring work, and were evidently a little suspicious and afraid to believe that things were really as: they appeared. [300]

All this was to be seen at a glance, and I moved promptly and directly on the redoubt across the open field. My movement had the effect that I expected it to have — they halted, unlimbered their guns and serenaded us with shot and shell throughout our advance, and on our reaching the work their infantry opened on us as we entered it. They then retired their line to the crest of the hill and formed on both flanks of the work that they had taken. I extended a line of skirmishers from the redoubt occupied by my troops to some distance into the woods, and remained in this position watching and expecting them for some three hours, for I thought that they would surely discover my real strength in a short time and move down on me. I advised Colonel Jenkins of my movement and position, and expressed my confidence in being able to hold the two redoubts, but suggested that more troops be sent into the woods on my left. He sent a detachment of the Fourth regiment to reinforce me, and with it I extended my line of skirmishers still further into the woods on my left. The enemy, however, did not advance on me; but late in the evening our friends did — Early's brigade charged my works from the left and rear. Nobody, either officer or scout, had come to the front to reconnoitre, and they did not even know where the enemy were. They charged me (two regiments of them) across the line of the enemy, one regiment against each of the works that my troops occupied. I did not know that they were near until they emerged from the wood on the charge, and seeing their mistake I rushed out to stop them and change their direction before they were exposed to the fire of the enemy; but they would not heed, and on they went until they reached my redoubts, when they for the first time learned where the enemy were. Two of Early's regiments were stopped in the wood and proper direction given to them (the Twenty-fourth Virginia and Hoke's North Carolina regiment). The two that charged my works were the Fifth North Carolina and a Virginia regiment commanded by a Lieutenant-Colonel Early--a brother, I was told, of the General. The Fifth North Carolina charged across the entire front of the enemy to the redoubt occupied by my two companies, and on finding it already ours, with scarce a halt, changed direction and advanced most handsomely against the enemy (my two companies joining them in the charge) to within, I think, at least fifty yards of the enemy's line, when they encountered a small fence, partly torn down by the enemy, and unfortunately [301] halted and commenced firing. The Twenty-fourth Virginia had meanwhile emerged from the wood on the left, nearer to the enemy than my redoubt on which Early's regiment charged, and was moving in fine style upon them. Early's regiment never recovered from the confusion into which they were thrown by the taking of my works. They were formed, however, and started forward, but went obliquely to the left to the wood, and I saw no more of them. I met General Early near this redoubt, himself and horse both wounded, and told him that I had checked the enemy, and been there watching him for three or four hours, and asked him to give me a place in the charge. He said, “Certainly, go.” I told him that some of my men were in that fort. He said, “Take them and go toward the enemy.” I took my men out of the fort and, moved them all forward into the gap left by the oblique movement of Early's regiment into the woods. We advanced to within a hundred yards of the enemy, when we were ordered by General D. H. Hill to move by the left flank into the wood. The Fifth North Carolina, on our right, as I said above, unfortunately stopped and commenced firing; I say unfortunately, because from the confused tangling of their muskets I shall ever believe that the enemy were actually broken (their fire, too, almost ceased), and it only required the continued advance of the Fifth North Carolina to complete their route. As it was, the crest of the hill protected the enemy from their fire, and they had time to recover from their panic, and return to the crest, and open fire, which they did, concentrating their overwhelming volleys on the Fifth North Carolina, and almost demolishing it. The Twenty-fourth Virginia on my left was not in time to engage them simultaneously with the Fifth North Carolina, and also met the concentrated fire of nearly the whole of the enemy's line, but being nearer to cover, did not suffer so terribly in retiring, but were completely used up, thus leaving my regiment advancing alone to share the same fate.

At this juncture, D. H. Hill, who was on the field, and not far from me, ordered me to move by the flank in the woods. I moved into the woods, and found a regiment that had not been in action drawn up, and was told that it was Hoke's regiment, North Carolina. I formed on it, and in a short time it was moved in retreats. I found D. H. Hill, and asked him if the orders were to retreat — that the regiment on which I had formed had moved back. He said that he had given no such orders, but that I had better move [302] with that regiment. We, following this regiment, withdrew from the field, and rejoining my brigade, took the position I had originally occupied in the morning. I have never, on any field during the war, seen more splendid gallantry exhibited than on that field of Williamsburg, but that splendid gallantry was thrown away and wasted by bad management, when it would have been entirely effective if properly directed. This was, I will add, the first and last time that I ever asked for a place in a charge — a pardonable folly, I hope, at that stage of the war.

The balance of Anderson's brigade was in Fort Magruder and the works about. They were more or less warmly engaged all day. About 9 or 10 o'clock A. M., General Anderson himself was put in command of troops on the right of Fort Magruder in the woods, where I am told that the severest fighting was done.

Very respectfully yours,

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J. A. Early (7)
J. F. Jenkins (3)
D. H. Hill (3)
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John H. Hoke (2)
John Bratton (2)
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