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Battle of Drewry's Bluff. [from the Richmond times, October 25, 1891.]

How Butler's right flank was broken that memorable Day—The ‘old First’ to the Front—Details of the engagement never before Published—Past-commander Charles T. Loehr's (Sergeant Company D, First Virginia Infantry) Address before George E. Pickett Camp, Confederate Veterans, on October 15, 1891.

Drewry's Bluff is a name familiar to all of us, but of the battle which was fought there on May 16, 1864, very little has been said—much less than of any battle of its magnitude and importance which [101] occurred throughout the war. No regular report from the Confederate side, except the brief statements of Beauregard, Ransom or Hoke, has ever reached the public, and these contain no details of how Butler's right wing was broken—the principal event in that bloody battle.

One reason for this silence on our side is due to the fact that our forces were gathered as they arrived and placed in temporary organization under officers assigned to them for the occasion; another reason is that all eyes were turned toward the fields of Spotsylvania, where the armies of Grant and Lee made music which drowned the thunder of cannons and rattle of musketry at Drewry's Bluff.

The forces engaged.

The Federal army assigned to the capture of Petersburg and Richmond, called the Army of the James, commanded by General Butler, composed of the Tenth and Eighteenth army corps, numbered, according to its own report, thirty-eight thousand seven hundred men and eighty-eight guns, besides a fleet of gunboats and monitors. The Confederate forces, commanded by General Beauregard, consisted of Gracie's, Kemper's, Hoke's and Barton's brigades, forming Ransom's division; Corse's, Clingman's, Bushrod Johnson's and Hagood's brigades, forming Hoke's division, and Colquitt's and Ransom's brigades under Colquitt.

Attached to this force were three battalions of artillery and three small regiments of cavalry, the whole or gross number being given as seventeen thousand and three hundred. This was the force at Drewry's Bluff engaged on the 16th of May. North of Petersburg, near Swift creek, General Whiting was in charge, having Wise's and Martin's brigades and Dearing's cavalry with him. This force, however, took no part in the battle. Their number is given as forty-six hundred. Taking the figures representing the aggregate or gross numbers, we have: Federals, thirty-eight thousand and seven hundred; Confederates, twenty-one thousand and nine hundred.

Details of the fight.

It is not my intention, nor am I able to give a true and correct account of the whole battle. I only desire to submit some details which I hope may throw some light on the question of ‘how Butler's right flank was broken’ that morning.

South of Drewry's Bluff, across Kingsland creek, thence over the [102] elevation where the Willis house stands, runs the old stage road; continuing in a southern direction, it crosses at right angles a small creek, with a pond on the west. This creek is bordered with pines and heavy underwood, while in front there are open fields. In these woods and partly parallel and south of the creek, at a point a short distance east of the road, was the enemy's right flank. This position, besides having the advantage of the forest as a cover, was further protected by good log-works, constructed by the enemy when they took possession of that line.

The enemy's right was held by Heckman's brigade, consisting of the Twenty-third, Twenty-fifth and Twenty-seventh Massachusetts regiments and the Ninth New Jersey. Their number, stated in the history of the Twenty-third Massachusetts regiment, page 174, on May 5, 1864, was as follows: ‘Heckman's Star brigade,’ composed of the Twenty-third, Twenty-fifth and Twenty-seventh Massachusetts and the Ninth New Jersey regiments, some twenty-seven hundred strong (men largely seasoned in battle and pretty thoroughly sifted of that element which, snuffing the battle afar off, keeps its dis-distance), went out into the fire of that battle-month, which was destined to reduce it to a mere handful of war-worn men.

The negro troops fought nobly.

Now, in accordance with the above, this brigade numbered some twenty-seven hundred men; say it had but twenty-seven hundred or twenty-two hundred in line at Drewry's Bluff, then it greatly outnumbered the attacking force. There was besides a body of negro cavalry, said to be the Second United States Colored cavalry, placed on the extreme right of this brigade. Of these gay riders we are credibly informed that they made tracks to the rear on the first fire, and greatly assisted in the confusion which happened to the unlucky ‘Star Brigade,’ and no doubt strengthened their belief in the story of the overwhelming rebel column which attacked them in flank and rear.

Disposition of the forces.

Our force, constituting the attacking column on our left, consisted of Gracie's brigade, supported by Kemper's brigade, and did not exceed two thousand men—say eleven hundred for Gracie's and nine hundred for Kemper's brigade (General W. R. Terry, the commander of Kemper's brigade, says this estimate is too high)—the [103] Third Virginia, of the latter brigade, having been left at Washington, N. C. Gracie's brigade consisted of the Forty-first, Forty-third, Fifty-ninth and Sixtieth Alabama regiments, and Kemper's of the First, Seventh, Eleventh and Twenty-fourth Virginia regiments.

The formation of the enemy's line was as follows: On the extreme right the negro cavalry; east of the stage road, eight companies of the Ninth New Jersey, two companies of the same regiment on the west of the road; west thereof the Twenty-seventh, Twenty-third and Twenty-fifth Mrssachusetts regiments; then Wistar's brigade and other troops of the Eighteenth army corps. Still further, near the Petersburg railroad, the Tenth army corps.

Our force, commencing on the left, were composed of the aforesaid brigades of Gracie and Kemper; west thereof, Barton's brigade, supported by Hoke—all constituting Ransom's division, while to our extreme left were some dismounted cavalry skirmishers stretching out in a thin line to the river.

To the west of Ransom was Hoke's division, with Hagood's, Bushrod Johnson's, Clingham's and Corse's brigades, Corse having the extreme right, near the railroad, while Colquitt with his brigade and Ransom's, was held in reserve.

The fight begins.

It was two o'clock in the morning of the 16th, and consequently still very dark, when we fell into line and marched out from the woods in front of Drewry's Bluff, which had sheltered us from the night. Crossing Kingsland creek, we formed in line of battle to the right of the road. Perhaps two hours were consumed in getting the line formed, loading and getting ready for the fray. Meanwhile a heavy fog came up, enveloping everything around us in a thick shroud, so heavy that we could not see ten steps ahead. About 4:30 o'clock everything was ready and General Gracie gave the command in a loud, ringing voice, ‘Skirmishers, forward, march! Second, the battalion of direction, battalions forward, guide right, march!’ Forward went the line, having the Forty-first on the left, then the Sixtieth, Fifty-nineth and Forty-third Alabama regiments in order named to the right.

While we could not see a thing, we could hear that the column in our front was in motion. Hardly ten minutes passed when General Terry, commanding Kemper's brigade, ordered his men to follow. Slowly and in perfect line of battle the brigade commenced its forward [104] movement, the Seventh having the left of the line, the First next on its right, then the Eleventh and Twenty-fourth, in order named, to the right.

Soon single shots were heard, telling that the skirmishers were at work. Faster and faster the shots rang out, and the bullets commenced whistling through the air, or rather the fog. Then the steady rattle of musketry announced where Gracie's men had struck the enemy's main line. A battery of four brass Napoleons, Martin's battery, commanded by Captain D. A. French, had been placed in position by Major Francis J. Boggs (formerly captain of Company H of the First Virginia) on the brow of the elevation about two hundred yards in front of the enemy's line and just to the right of our brigade. This battery now opened, sending its iron messengers over the heads of Gracie's men and crashing through the forest into the enemy's line.

Our brigade by this time had passed the elevation on which the Willis house stands, and came to a halt about fifty or sixty yards in rear of the Alabamians. The bullets intended for them made gaps in our ranks, and many of our men were stricken down. C. A. Wills, of Company I, fell here mortally wounded, shot through the body. While laying down he placed himself close against me, using me for his breastwork, when the fatal bullet came, passing just over me and through him. Hearing the sound I jumped up, thinking I was surely struck, but feeling nothing and seeing how it missed me I congratulated myself on my escape. W. W. Turner and Sergeant George E. Craig, of my company, were both wounded in the head. The latter went off with the blood streaming down his face, and, nearly reaching safety in the rear, was again wounded in the thigh, when, as he said, he forgot all about his wound in the head and ran till he got to the hospitital.

Lieutenant E. W. Martin, of Company H, was disabled, shot through the thigh, and others were injured.

The position at this time was as follows: The Seventh on the left of the Stage road, the First across it, the Eleventh and Twenty-fourth to the right of the road on the slope of the hill. Gracie's men had not succeeded in dislodging the enemy, their position being too strong for them. Only one regiment, the Forty-first, on the left of the first brigade, had driven the enemy from its front. They came in contact with the eight companies of the Ninth New Jersey, who, after a brief contest, vacated the position held by them on the east of the road, whereby the right flank of Heckman's brigade was left open and exposed. [105]

Mr. T. Griffin, a member of the Twenty-third Massachusetts, in a recent letter to me, writes that Colonel Stancel, of the Forty-first Alabama (which was the left of Gracie's brigade), wrote him that ‘they (the Forty-first) passed up the road and forced the enemy's right, capturing a portion of the Ninth New Jersey regiment.’

General Gracie, seeing that he could not make headway, now turned to General William R. Terry, commanding Kemper's, his supporting brigade, for assistance. General Terry, in a recent conversation with me, stated, as to what occurred, that General Gracie came up to him (probably after speaking to Colonel Maury), with the request: ‘General, let me have one of your regiments,’ stating that part of his line had given away. To which General Terry replied: ‘You can have two,’ thinking that the men might just as well be in action as to remain where they were then halted, exposed as they were. After a second's pause, General Terry added, ‘General Gracie, let your men lie down, and let me have the front.’ To which Gracie replied: ‘Very well; you are entitled to it.’

Mr. E. T. Witherby, of the Twenty-fifth Massachusetts, now of Shelby, Alabama, in a letter to me writes that, ‘in conversation with Lieutenant-Colonel Troy, of the Sixtieth Alabama, he was informed that while the Sixtieth was lying down east of the road some troops passed them and went into the road ahead, and these troops, he afterwards learned, were Kemper's men.’

The ‘old First’ Advances.

Colonel R. L. Maury, commanding the Twenty-fourth Virginia (who was severely wounded in that fight) says that General Gracie came to him, desiring his support, saying, as he understood it, that two of his regiments had given away, whereupon he (Colonel Maury) at once ordered his regiment to advance without even waiting for General Terry's orders. Then the Eleventh was sent forward on the left of the Twenty-fourth. Next our turn came, and the ‘Old First’ advanced down towards the creek. The right of the line coming in front of the swamp or pond and the left meeting with the tangled undergrowth in the creek, on the left of the road, the men crowded together in the road. Passing over the position vacated by the Ninth New Jersey, and following our colors, carried by the gallant John Q. Figg, we advanced down the road, meeting neither friend nor foe, while now on our left, now our rear, the battle din continued unabated. [106]

Having followed the road some two or three hundred yards, near where the Gregory house stands, we turned about and marched in a left oblique direction towards the firing. After passing through the woods we came out in an open space where we found more than a dozen boilers filled with delicious coffee steaming over the fires. It may be that our friends on the other side intended to give us a treat, but of this there is much doubt. Certainly we did not waste any time to think of this, but helped ourselves to a cup of the refreshing beverage.

Federals surprised.

The line of our regiment now had become somewhat irregular and scattering, covering a great deal of ground. Continuing our advance towards the enemy's rear, the right of our line struck a line of the Federals, who, on being ordered to surrender, dropped their guns without firing a shot. They appeared to be totally surprised. This was a force said to be two companies of the Ninth New Jersey, or it may have been a part of the Twenty seventh Massachusetts. Details were made to take charge of the prisoners; and further on another line was started, and more prisoners fell into our hands. Then the left of our regiment came in the rear of troops just about where the Twenty-fourth was attacking in front.

A fatal volley.

On being ordered to surrender they turned about, calling out: ‘What regiment is that?’ The answer, ‘The First Virginia,’ was answered by a volley so close that the powder flew in our faces, and nine of our best men were killed. They were Corporal W. A. Stoaber, Jerry Toomy and W. H. Crigger, of Company B; Samuel Gillespie, of Company C; Archie Govan, Company D; Corporal R. R. Walthall, Company G; Sergeant John W. Wynne and Corporal J. A. Via, of Company H, and A. Figner, of Company I.

Jerry Toomy, W. A. Stoaber, R. R. Walthall, John W. Wynne, J. A. Via, and A. Figner were of those who enlisted on the first bugle call and served with honor until they met a soldier's death. As Richmond soldier boys they should be remembered by the city for which they gave their lives.

A. Govan was a little conscript from Darbytown, near Richmond. He was a kind, innocent creature, particularly attached to me. Just [107] before he was killed, he remarked, slapping the roll of blankets he carried, ‘Don't you think this is a good breastwork?’ Alas, the ball found its way to poor Govan's heart despite his breastwork, and in our hearts ‘We sadly missed him.’

The bodies of Figner, Wynne, Walthall and Via were sent to Richmond, while Govan, Stoaber, Crigger, Toomy and Gillispie found a resting-place that evening in the corner of the field just to the right of where the Twenty-fourth charged.

No sooner had this fatal volley been fired when we returned the compliment, and charging among them, we captured those who did not get away. Then, over the enemy's works came the decimated regiments, the Eleventh and Twenty-fourth, which had made the fight in front of the works, losing nearly one-third of their men in that fearful struggle to take the works in front.

The loss as stated by the Richmond papers, giving names, was fifteen killed and ninety-four wounded in the Eleventh, and twenty-eight killed and one hundred and eight wounded in the Twenty-fourth Virginia.

Meanwhile the Seventh Virginia, our left regiment, had followed in our wake, but had made a more extended sweep towards the west in the enemy's rear, and many of the blue coats stirred up by us fell into their hands. Among them were General Heckman, Colonel Lee and many other officers. They also captured four battle-flags. These were, one of the Ninth New Jersey, one from the Twenty-third Massachusetts, and two from the Twenty-seventh Massachusetts-at least this is my recollection. They formed an important part in the parade through Richmond on the 20th of that month, when each of the regiments in Kemper's brigade carried one of those beautiful flags by the side of their tattered Confederate battle-colors.

General Heckman's capture.

The capture of General Heckman is described by David E. Johnston in his book, ‘Four Years a Soldier,’ as follows: ‘In our headlong rush we ran past General Heckman, standing in rear of his brigade. He wore a heavy overcoat, somewhat of the color of the overcoats worn by our own officers, and believing that some of Gracie's men had gone in ahead of us and that we had not seen them, some of our men, among them Harry Snidow, supposed that Heckman was an officer of Gracie's command, and said to him, “Colonel, is your regiment in front?” “ Yes,” he answered, “go ahead, you are driving them.” Harry passed on. Not so with Sergeant Blakey, [108] who inquired of the General what was the number of his regiment. This confused him, and he could not or did not answer, but said, “Go ahead, you are driving them.” Blakey said, “ You are my prisoner.” The General said, “Yes.” “Have you any side-arms?” inquired the sergeant. “Yes,” he answered; “but I am a general officer, and prefer surrendering them to a field officer.” “All right,” replied Blakey, and marched his prisoner up to Colonel Flowerree, to whom the General surrendered his sword and pistols and was hurried to the rear with some seven or eight hundred of his brigade.’

General Heckman has the following account of his capture written, by himself, which appeared in the Philadelphia Times. ‘As the left of their (Confederate) line passed me a sergeant approached and demanded my surrender. I bid him attend to his duty, telling him in reply that I was Major Anderson of General Hoke's staff. The sergeant apologized, and joined his command, but I was by no means out of my predicament, the fog being still very dense, and the firing having for the moment ceased. I had nothing to guide my actions by. Taking direction for the point at which the Confederates had disappeared in the fog, I soon found myself in part of a Georgia brigade, headed by Archie Gracie, formerly of Elizabeth, N. J., who at once recognized me. He said he was glad to see me; was proud to say that he had been fighting Jerseymen all day; that he had only a skirmish line left. On the way to the rear I had an animated discussion with his adjutant on the results of the war; and at 9 A. M. the next morning I was registered at the “Hotel de Libby.” ’

From this, his own statement, it appears the General truly was in a fog. He calls Gracie's brigade a Georgia brigade, and after walking into this brigade he was made a prisoner by General Gracie, who recognized him. He does not say who he surrendered his sword to.

The facts are just as stated by Sergeant-Major Johnston. I talked with Colonel C. C. Flowerree myself that morning, and know he received General Heckman's sword. Others of our regiment were present when he was turned over to Colonel Flowerree, who sent him under guard to the rear, where, no doubt, he met General Gracie, who then recognized him. The capture occurred just to the left, and in rear of our regiment, not far from where we came across the coffeepots.

Jeff. Vaughan taken in.

Among the men detailed to take the prisoners off, several got lost in the fog, and instead of going to our rear, which had been our front, they carried them into the enemy's line; thus N. F. Wheat, [109] Company D; A. Jeff. Vaughan, Company G, and T. R. Kelley, Company I, were captured. Of A. Jeff. Vaughan it is related that one of the Federals called his attention to his bringing them back to their men, when Jeff told him ‘to mind his own business.’ On getting to the enemy's line he was challenged with ‘Who comes there?’ and Jeff replied, ‘None of your business; I belong to the Old First. Who are you?’ He was requested to come in.

With the charge of the Seventh Virginia, the fight on this part of the field ceased, but toward the turnpike (the right of the line) the fighting became hotter and hotter, and lasted for several hours, until the enemy was driven from his position, and the wedge which interposed between Richmond and Petersburg was removed.

But to return to my sketch. We were halted on the line we had taken, where our sadly thinned ranks were reformed, partly in the enemy's log works and partly in a line which we hastily threw up on higher ground in rear of the captured line.

Volunteers were called for by Lieutenant-Colonel F. H. Langley, commanding the First Virginia, to see and report what was in our front, and I was one of them. Going to that part of the field over which we came while on our flanking move, we found several wounded Federals, whom we made as comfortable as we could. I talked to one of them who was shot through the body, and he pointed to another, who was shot through the thigh, and informed me that he was his son. They lay about fifteen feet apart, both badly wounded and helpless. We, however, did not see a single wounded or dead Confederate on that part of the field, which was the route over which the Federals were driven. While looking around I found a small United States guide flag, which served me as a handkerchief for many days thereafter, and one of the wounded (a sergeant) handed me his sword, which I retained until recently, when I presented it to Mr. H. A. White, of Leicester, Massachusetts, sergeant of Company H, Twenty-fifth Massachusetts. With the exception of some slight firing, which occurred soon after taking possession of the line, we were not disturbed in our new position, but remained quietly resting there all day.

Losses of the battle.

The losses of the battle, according to A. A. Humphrey's ‘In Virginia Campaigns of 1864 and 1865,’ are given as follows: Butler's army—killed, three hundred and ninety; wounded, seventeen hundred [110] and twenty-one; missing, thirteen hundred and ninety; total, thirty-five hundred and one. Beauregard's command-killed, three hundred and fifty-four; wounded, sixteen hundred and ten; missing, two hundred and twenty; total, twenty-one hundred and eighty-four. The loss in Heckman's ‘Star brigade’ is stated by them as killed, forty-two; wounded, one hundred and eighty-eight; missing, four hundred and fifty eight; total, six hundred and eighty-eight-while Kemper's brigade lost, according to the best information obtainable, forty-seven killed, two hundred wounded, and ten missing; total, two hundred and fifty-seven. Gracie's brigade lost perhaps less, not being as long under fire—say, two hundred and fifty.

Beauregard reported five pieces of artillery, five stands of colors, and fourteen hundred prisoners as the spoils of this battle.

Butler's right wing broken.

This sketch, as stated, is intended to throw some light on how Butler's right wing was broken that morning. From all that I personally saw, and all the facts I have been able to gather, the following appears to be the true story: Gracie's brigade, after having been relieved by that of Kemper, took no active part in the engagement. The Forty-first Alabama, which drove the Ninth New Jersey towards the Gregory house, whereby their flank was left exposed, was withdrawn, when the First and the Seventh passed over that part of the field and found neither enemy nor friend in its front. The First and Seventh Virginia regiments, which made the flank movement proper, were the only troops that attacked the enemy's rear. These two regiments did not number over four hundred men. The talk so much indulged in, of having been overpowered by superior numbers, is all nonsense. The fact is simply that our appearance in the rear demoralized them completely. The enemy could not tell if our force consisted of four hundred or four thousand—and that is about the whole story in a nut-shell.

N. B.—Since making the above address I have received Volume XXXVI, Part II, of the Official Records of the Rebellion, as it is called, which verifies my statements with but few exceptions. The loss of Gracie's brigade is given as thirty-four killed, two hundred and seventy-six wounded and four missing; total, three hundred and fourteen; but it is also stated that this report is incomplete, and in all probability includes the losses for the previous days. On page 207 we find the First Virginia as commanded by Major George F. [111] Norton, whereas Lieutenant-Colonel Frank H. Langley was in command. Captain William O. Fry is stated as commander of the Seventh Virginia, which should be changed to Colonel C. C. Flowerree. The Third Virginia is also included in the brigade, whereas this regiment was on detached service at Washington, N. C.

C. T. L.

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