The battle of Williamsburg--reply to Colonel Bratton.
Colonel Bratton, Sixth South Carolina regiment,” of the operations of his regiment at Williamsburg, May 5th, 1862. This “paper” seems to have been written in 1868, and was “originally prepared for General E. P. Alexander.” The “paper” does not confine itself to a “narrative of the operations” of that regiment, but goes on to describe the action of General J. A. Early's brigade, on the left of our line, in an encounter it had with a brigade of General W. S. Hancock, in the evening of that day, and the author allows himself to criticise the conduct of the officer then in command of the Fifth North Carolina regiment, which made part of Early's brigade, and which bore, I think I may say, a conspicuous part in that encounter — and to express the opinion that but for “bad management” (which, in the connection it bears, has reference to the officer in immediate command) the attack would have been effective. The language of Colonel Bratton is: “I have never, on any field during the war, seen more splendid gallantry 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.” The compliment is a fit one to the Fifth North Carolina regiment. No troops could have behaved more courageously, and certainly none suffered more disastrously. A casualty list of two hundred and ninety killed and wounded, out of a total of four hundred and ten, rank and file; of ten commissioned officers killed and ten wounded of twenty-four who entered the fight, bespeaks a mortal combat and the steadiness of those engaged. The exalted enconium which its distinguished adversary passed upon it when he said, “The State of North Carolina should write immortal on the banner of its Fifth regiment,” was a tribute worthy to be rendered by a heroic enemy. A glowing testimony also to its “splendid gallantry” may be found in the columns of the New York Herald, published a few days after the battle.  I am quite aware that General Joseph E. Johnston has made a very summary disposition of that action and of the troops engaged in it in his “Narrative.” He says, at page 122: “Early's brigade advanced in two equal detachments, commanded one by Major-General Hill and the other by himself. They were separated in a thick wood, and General Early, in issuing from it, found a redoubt near and in front of him. He attempted an assault, in which he was severely wounded; after which his two regiments were quickly defeated, with a loss of near four hundred men.” I don't know where General Johnston obtained his information, but his Narrative is no more accurate than Colonel Bratton's. Early's brigade did not “advance in two detachments” ; it advanced in single line of battle, as hereafter described. If “one detachment was commanded by General Hill and the other by General Early,” then Hill commanded the two intermediate regiments and Early commanded the two regiments on the flanks, and his command was “separated” at the start. Why I say so is,. that the right and left regiments — the Fifth North Carolina and Twenty-fourth Virginia--were the two which participated in the fight; and the former got into it by advancing across the entire line of the two intermediate regiments — which were in the woods with General Hill--to the relief of the Twenty-fourth Virginia,. already engaged. If Early “attempted an assault” on a redoubt which, “in issuing, he found near and in front of him,” then he did attempt to take the redoubt where Colonel Bratton was, and Colonel Bratton's mistake is only in thus designating the regiment, for this regiment that Early was leading was the Twenty-fourth Virginia. As the Fifth North Carolina had not then come up, I don't know how this is. But of this I am sure, that neither General Early, nor Colonel Terry, nor Lieutenant-Colonel Hairston, have ever supposed that they had a fight with friendly troops and received their wounds from Confederates. But if General Johnston's statement is correct, this must have been the case, for no “attempt to assault” a redoubt was made either by the Twenty-fourth Virginia or Fifth North Carolina after they came together. So if General Early was “severely wounded” in assaulting the redoubt described by General Johnston, then Colonel Bratton is entitled to the credit of it. The Fifth North Carolina pursued the retreating enemy until tart of his forces, in some confusion, ran into a redoubt, and others, with less disorder, went behind it, and it then halted, and  its commanding officer applied to General Hill for the force which had entered on the attack — and which then made part of his brigade, and which was near by — to enable him to assault the redoubt; and that same officer earnestly protested against being required to retreat from an enemy who was then retreating from him. But the force was withheld and the order to retreat was given. Neither of these regiments were “quickly defeated,” or defeated at all. The Fifth North Carolina was scarcely harmed at all until the retreat began. The loss was desperate in a few moments after the retreat began; but at the time it was ordered to retreat, it had advanced to within seventy-five yards of the enemy's redoubt and not far from his battery, and it was holding its ground in security when the order to retreat came. It was not strong enough to attempt the assault on the redoubt alone; but as it had advanced under orders from both Generals Hill and Early, and as there was ample power close by to make quick work of the assault, the reinforcements were confidently expected, and the order to retreat most earnestly deplored. I have had reason to suppose that General Early would long since have corrected this error of General Johnston, and I wonder that he has not done so. But much allowance is to be made for the poor estimate formed of us by General Johnston. He was not on the field, and of course had no view of the transaction, and no report which reached him has ever given a correct account of it. Besides, the disaster suffered occurred after the troops were ordered to retreat, and General Johnston thinks a retreat ought to be conducted without loss — for-getting evidently that scarce any officer is as skilled in retreat as he is, for to be so would be at once to acquire the highest military quality and character. The most the friends of the brave troops who bore part in that action can say in reply to this slur upon them, will be to employ General Johnston's own words with reference to himself in another part of his book: “It is sometimes necessary to go to the enemy for the truth.” But to Colonel Bratton's narrative. The bad management of which he complains is that when the Fifth North Carolina came within fifty yards of the enemy's line, “it encountered a small fence, partly torn down by the enemy, and unfortunately halted and commenced firing” ; whereas he thinks if it had pushed on against the four regiments of Hancock--one in a redoubt and supported by a battery of six guns ( “four flags and a battery of six guns,” as he says)--the enemy's rout would have been completed. I  shall hereafter reply more particularly to this complaint, but at present will notice other portions of the narrative. After some explanations of his position with reference to certain redoubts to the left of our line on that day, Colonel Bratton says:
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 redoubt, 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 halted and commenced firing.Now it is utterly impossible that this statement can be accurate — nay, it would be difficult to find an equal amount of error in a like compass — and however well intended the narrative may have been, its inaccuracy renders it valueless as a historical paper. First. There was never a moment during the whole encounter when the Fifth North Carolina regiment was in position to “charge across the line of the enemy,” or to “charge across the entire front of the enemy to the redoubt occupied by ‘Colonel Bratton's’ two companies.” No moment of time occurred when any portion of the enemy was, or could have been, on the flank of that regiment. It was face to face with his line of battle long before it came within reach of his small guns, and it so remained until it retreated under the order of General Hill, and it several times turned and delivered fire and received that of the enemy while retiring. No such charge “across the entire front of the enemy” was made — no such “change of direction” as that described occurred; and no such demonstration  towards “the redoubt occupied by my (Colonel Bratton's) two companies,” was or could have been made. This regiment first appeared in the field at a distance of at least five hundred yards from the redoubt spoken of, to the south of it. towards Fort Magruder, and of course at a still further distance from the enemy's line. The field was an open one towards and. beyond the two redoubts held by Colonel Bratton's troops, and the view embraced its whole scope, including the extreme left redoubt or fort mentioned by Colonel Bratton as held by the enemy. Early's brigade officers had been informed by General Hill that there were two redoubts in that direction occupied by South Carolina troops. On emerging into the field the Fifth North Carolina regiment received a shot from a battery on the left beyond the two redoubts, and it promptly changed front to face that battery and to advance upon its supports. There being no indication of an enemy in its front before it changed direction, and the shot having indicated the position of the battery, the regiment was put in brisk motion upon its new direction; and supposing General Hill to be in the woods somewhere, where the centre of the brigade would be, I dispatched Major Sinclair to state to him the posture of affairs and to ascertain if that was the battery he desired the regiment to charge, and to urge upon him to expedite the advance of the regiments, which had not as yet appeared on the field — for at this time the Twenty-fourth Vriginia, being Early's left regiment, was already engaged with the enemy to our left-front. Its firing could be seen and heard, and showed plainly where the enemy was. General Hill's order to me was, yes, to assail that battery with the bayonet, and do it quickly. While still at some distance from the two redoubts and while advancing at double-quick, Captain Sam. Early, of General Early's staff, rode to me from General Early. He came from the nearest redoubt, where Colonel Bratton was, and informed me that the General had been wounded and was obliged to retire, and that he directed me to advance as rapidly as possible, as the command of the brigade had devolved upon me. When nearing the redoubts, as my line of march would bring me between them, I requested Lieutenant-Colonel Badham, who was on the right of the regiment, to push forward to the redoubt on the right and notify the officer in command, who I had heard was Colonel Coward, that we were friends, advancing to attack the enemy, and he did so. It would seem, therefore, to be perfectly clear that in so far as the Fifth North Carolina is concerned, Colonel Bratton could not have  “rushed out to stop them” as “they emerged from the woods on the charge,” or “to change their direction before they were exposed to the fire of the enemy.” They were in the right direction — their commanding officer being in communication with his two superior officers, both on the field, and being then actually engaged in obeying the orders of both of them. Again, Colonel Bratton says: “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.” Having shown that such a charge by the Fifth North Carolina was impossible, I proceed to show that the statement is not accurate, as to the Virginia regiment — and this is so for two reasons: First. There was no regiment in Early's brigade, or on that field, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Early. Second. There was no such officer as Lieutenant-Colonel Early. Nor is the statement more historic that the Twenty-fourth Virginia regiment was “stopped in the wood and proper direction given to it.” The Twenty-fourth Virginia, being on the left of the brigade and nearest to the enemy, was the first to come in contact with him. It was never “stopped in the wood” by anybody. It encountered the enemy's skirmishers to the west and rear of the redoubt, where Colonel Bratton was. It pushed these skirmishers out into the field, and had a brisk fight with the right of his line, to the left of the redoubt and beyond the front of it, while the Fifth North Carolina was getting up; and in this fight General Early, Colonel Terry, commanding the Twenty-fourth, and its Lieutenant-Colonel Hairston, were all wounded. What part Colonel Bratton's command bore in that fight of course I. do not know. I am sure, however, that no portion of it reported to or was seen by me when I took command of that regiment, as part of the brigade actually in the field, which I did as soon as I reached the redoubt, and while the Fifth North Carolina was pushing the enemy beyond the two redoubts. When Colonel Bratton further says: “The Twenty-fourth Virginia had meanwhile [that is, about the time the Fifth North Carolina reached the fence] 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 am involved in utter confusion, because the Twenty-fourth Virginia was the first to emerge from the woods. It opened the fight and continued in it to the close. No other of the four regiments of Early's brigade than the Fifth North Carolina and the Twenty-fourth Virginia did participate, and there was no Early's regiment to recover from confusion, nor any other regiment to take Colonel Bratton's works, than the Twenty-fourth Virginia. In the charge made by the Fifth North Carolina on the right, the Twenty-fourth Virginia bore part on the left. It moved upon them under my order, and at that time there certainly was no regiment “which formed and started forward, but went obliquely to the left to the wood.” General Early had been wounded and retired. I saw South Carolina soldiers in the redoubt, but supposed they were under orders to remain there. None of them joined the charge that I saw or heard of. So if any regiment of Early's brigade did take Colonel Bratton's works, it must have been the Twenty-fourth Virginia; and I have had frequent conversations with the officers of that regiment, and I make bold to say that if it encountered any Confederate troops, or took any work from friendly occupiers, they were wholly unaware of the fact. And if this taking of works did occur, it must have been when General Early was present with the Twenty-fourth Virginia; for when I reached the redoubt, simultaneously with the passage of the Fifth North Carolina between the two, I found the Twenty-fourth--which had already been engaged — in line, on the left of the redoubt, and prepared to advance with the Fifth North Carolina. Some of its men were about the redoubt. Colonel Bratton further says:
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.In the connection in which Colonel Bratton makes this statement  it is evident that he fixes it at the time the Fifth North Carolina regiment was charging the enemy's line — and about the time it reached the fence--for he continues: “The Fifth North Carolina, on our right, as I said above, unfortunately stopped and commenced firing,” &c. This statement to me is a bundle of inexplicabilities. 1. General Early was not at that time on the field. He had left before the North Carolina regiment had come parallel with the redoubt. 2. There could have been no gap “left by the oblique movement of Early's regiment into the wood,” because there was no Early's regiment, and neither of the other two regiments — the Thirty-eighth Virginia, Colonel Whittle, or the Twenty-third North Carolina, Colonel Hoke--had been on the field, but had both “been stopped in the woods,” and General Hill was with them. 3. It was I who ordered the advance of the Twenty-fourth Virginia to that charge on the left of the Fifth North Carolina, and if there was any gap between the two regiments filled by Colonel Bratton's troops, I never heard of it. I accredited the Fifth North Carolina and the Twenty-fourth Virginia with that charge in a letter to the Governor of North Carolina, written a few days after and which was extensively published, and also in my report as brigade commander to General Hill. I certainly made no mention of any South Carolina troops, for I was not aware of the presence of any; nor did I ever hear any complaint of the omission. The Colonel's further narrative is equally a mistake: “The Twenty-fourth Virginia on my left was not in time to engage them simultaneously with the Fifth North Carolina regiment, 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.” Now, how could it be possible that the Twenty-fourth Virginia “was not in time,” when it was already there, and had engaged the enemy, and had driven him, and had lost by wounds its Colonel and Lieutenant-Colonel before the Fifth North Carolina got. up, and when General Early had already been wounded while leading it? It would seem from this that Colonel Bratton's regiment was left to advance alone after the Twenty-fourth Virginia had retired, and was not ordered “by General D. H. Hill to move by the left flank into the wood” until after it was “used up.” Now the fact is the Twenty-fourth Virginia joined the Fifth 367  North Carolina in that charge. They were both under my command; they charged simultaneously — the Twenty-fourth against the right of the enemy's line posted in the woods, the Fifth North Carolina against the left and centre in the open field; and both retreated simultaneously, by my order, in obedience to an order from General Hill, sent through my Adjutant, and againt my recommendation. As to the unfortunate stoppage of the Fifth North Carolina regiment at the fence, and the firing, it will need a detailed statement of the affair to place it in its true light, and it is time that this was done in the interest of history. In order to a proper apprehension of the situation, the reader must imagine four regiments, constituting Early's brigade, in line of battle, facing east, in the following order, counting from its left: The Twenty-fourth Virginia, Colonel Terry; the Thirty-eighth Virginia, Colonel Whittle; the Twenty-third North Carolina, Colonel John H. Hoke--the Fifth North Carolina being on the right. Fronting the brigade was a strip of wood of about two hundred yards' width; beyond which was a level open field, in shape of a parallelogram, about half a mile wide, running north about a mile and a half to a fort or redoubt, the extreme left of a line of works to the left of Fort Magruder--this last named work being at the skirt of this field and to the southeast of Early's brigade when formed as above described. There were two redoubts between Fort Magruder and the extreme left fort above mentioned. One of these — the nearer to this left redoubt — was advanced out into the field towards the east. In this were the two companies of Colonel Bratton's regiment. The other was to the west and rear of this, on the western skirt of this parallelogram, which ran north and south. When the brigade was thus in line, General Hill made a short address to the command, informing it that a battery of the enemy was in the front beyond the woods, which was annoying Fort Magruder by a flank fire — and about Fort Magruder the main fighting was going on — and he desired the brigade to attack this battery and capture it, instructing the men to use the bayonet as the most efficacious mode of attack. The brigade was put in motion-thus in line of battle — through this strip of woods, and when near the opening the Twenty-fourth Virginia--with which General Early was-came upon the enemy, who had penetrated to the (our) left of the redoubt then occupied by Colonel Bratton and towards its rear. This regiment engaged the enemy promptly and drove him  beyond this redoubt; but it did not push the advantage, because the force in its front was too heavy, and its loss was already severe--General Early being among the first wounded, as also Colonel Terry and Lieutenant-Colonel Hairston. The regiment next to it, the Thirty-eighth Virginia, and that next to it, the Twenty-third North Carolina, were for some reason — which has never been given satisfactorily by General Hill or anyone-halted in the woods, quite near to the field, and were never brought upon the field. Colonel Whittle--who afterwards, I believe, perished in battle, and of whom I have no reproach to utter — did once make some explanation as to his regiment, but I confess I did not think it satisfactory. Why the Twenty-third was not advanced, no reason has ever been given to the public that I have ever heard. The Fifth North Carolina, being on the right, pushed forward to the field and found no battery or enemy in front; but immediately on emerging from the woods a shot from a battery on the left passed over it, and the fire of musketry showed a fight to be going on about where our left should come out of the woods, nearer to us than the battery from which the shot came, and near to a redoubt on the edge of a field. The regiment was immediately, by change of front, faced towards the battery and towards the musketry, and was put rapidly in motion; but finding that the regiment had been separated from the Twenty-third North Carolina, and that it had not come out, I dispached Major Sinclair to tell General Hill--who I supposed would be in the woods where the centre of the line might be — of this battery on our left and of the fight going on, and to inquire of him if that was the battery he desired us to assail. I also requested Major Sinclair to say to General Hill that we were in open ground and the work would be stiff, and to urge him to expedite the advance of the two regiments, for I had the idea, from reading Jomini and such like, that the more force we had in a fight the better chance we would have of success. Major Sinclair found General Hill, with the two regiments — the Twenty-third North Carolina and Thirty-eighth Virginia--in the woods on my left-front, not far from the field, and they remained there facing my flank as I advanced beyond them. General Hill sent me an order by Major Sinclair “to move on the battery rapidly and use only the bayonet.” The regiment was advancing at double-quick, and I soon met Captain Sam. Early, of General Early's staff, with orders to me from General Early to inform  me that he had been wounded, and urging me to advance rapidly, and that the command of the brigade had devolved on me. The command lost no time; and as we were approaching the two redoubts, with space to pass between them, inasmuch as General Hill had informed us that they were occupied by South Carolina troops, Lieutenant-Colonel Badham, on the right of the regiment, at my request, rode forward to communicate to the officer in charge who we were, and that he did so I am sure, for the men in that redoubt cheered the regiment lustily as we passed. About this time the enemy's line opened fire upon us, but almost at once became discomposed by our advance, and soon broke into retreat; and what seemed to be one regiment, immediately in our front, was thrown into confusion, which increased until it ran into the extreme left redoubt. While the regiment was passing the first redoubt, I left its line for a few moments to put myself in command of the Twenty-fourth Virginia. I rallied some of its men who were around the redoubt spoken of by Colonel Bratton as that in which he was, and finding the Twenty-fourth prepared,. I ordered its advance at the same time — a part of the enemy's line being in some woods in front of it, beyond a narrow field which opened at right angles with the parallelogram I have before spoken of. While all this was going on, I felt much concern because the two remaining regiments of the brigade put in no appearance. I saw that the enemy was disconcerted, and, if pressed with sufficient force, might be routed; but I saw also the hazard of advancing with so small a force against a superior enemy, with one regiment occupying a redoubt and supported by a formidable battery; for although the body of troops which ran into the redoubt was in confusion, and the others of what seemed to be from the flags three other regiments retreated to the rear of it, yet the battery had been retired en echelon with great precision, and there was no such manifest disorder as would justify storming the redoubt. So I hurried my Adjutant to General Hill, with substantially these instructions: “I am pushing the enemy rapidly. He is in confusion. Some of his troops have moved into a redoubt in seeming disorder. The battery is in full view and is under my fire. But he has a large force outside the works supporting, and I am too weak to go forward alone, and retreat is impossible without great loss. If he will throw out the two regiments to support me, I can capture the redoubt, and perhaps the battery. Tell him by all  means to support me, and not to order me to retreat.” At this time the Fifth North Carolina had reached the fence about seventy-five yards from the redoubt; and as the enemy had ceased firing, I ordered a halt under cover of the fence — the Twenty-fourth Virginia being at this time in front of the woods. My Adjutant found General Hill with the two regiments in the woods near the opening, and delivered my message; when General Hill said: “Boys, do you hear that? Let us go to Colonel McRae's relief.” But in a moment after he said: “No; go and tell him to draw off his men as he best can.” My Adjutant returned in a very few moments, but he was delayed a little in delivering to me the order, as his horse took fright and dashed for the enemy's line, and he had to spring off to escape being carried in. It is a singular fact that the horse did run full into the enemy's lines, and then back again into ours. All this occurred within a very short interval, and during it the enemy had wholly ceased firing. I heard the order given in the redoubt to cease firing, and the appearances indicated there might be a feint to draw me on; but this did not stop the advance. I felt satisfied that disabled as the Twenty-fourth Virginia was, and disproportioned in numbers as my whole force was, that it would not do to storm the redoubt, supported, as it was, by the battery and three outside regiments; but at the same time I had advanced into the dilemma under orders, and confidently expecting to be supported by the two regiments (especially as the enemy had constantly given back) which had embarked in the attack, and I was not willing to retreat without completing the effort to capture the battery. If I had known that two companies of Colonel Bratton's had joined the Fifth North Carolina in the charge, and that the remainder of his regiment was in the gap between the Fifth and Twenty-fourth, I don't know but I should have pushed forward to the redoubt; but neither I, nor any officer or soldier of my command, as far as I have ever heard, were aware of any such thing; and I ought to have known it, for I rode over the field while exchanging communications with General Hill unmolested, except by one single discharge of grapeshot from a piece of artillery. As I had foreseen, the retreat was the signal for slaughter. As Colonel Bratton says, the regiment was demolished--“the enemy concentrating their overwhelming volleys upon it, as it came off through the open field” ; and it is poor consolation now to find out that besides it and the Twenty-fourth Virginia, that the Sixth South Carolina was also “used up.”  There is no doubt the brigade of General Hancock was in our hands. Besides the two regiments of Early's brigade, which were not called on to do any work, and Calonel Bratton's regiment, in immediate presence of the disaster, General Hill had two brigades — Rodes' and Rains'--in easy reach, and Hancock was out of reach of support. He could easily have been taken in flank while the Fifth North Carolina was in his front. Napoleon, with the same opportunity, would have made short work of it. For myself I make no claim to military renown on the occasion referred to. I moved without discretion, under orders of superior officers — no suggestion made by me was acted on by General Hill--and both of those officers have long since exonerated me from all responsibility, and both of them were afterwards promoted. So I take for granted that the result which happened was contemplated for some wise purpose, and that I was only an instrument with which to consummate a military necessity, about which it was not requisite I should be informed. It is very certain that if a sacrifice was needed for the cause, the lot could not have fallen more appropriately than on the brave and faithful men and officers of the Fifth North Carolina regiment who fell upon that field.