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A desperate dash. [from the Richmond (Va.) dispatch, January 2, 1894.]

Capture and Reoccupation of the Howlett House in 1864.

The gallant achievement of Colonel Morrison1 and Captain Hudgin and their commands without any orders.

On the 16th day of June, 1864, when Grant's flank movement across the James river threatened Petersburg, and it was found necessary to send forces to defend that city, which was in imminent peril from an attack on the east, Confederate troops were withdrawn from General Butler's front, on the Bermuda Hundreds line, and hurried across the Appomattox to foil the Federal forces. The exigencies of the occasion were so urgent and unexpected, that no troops could be mustered immediately to replace those sent from the north of the Appomattox river to defend Petersburg, and for a short time the entire line of defence—reaching from Howlett's house, on the James river, to the Appomattox—was left exposed and defenceless. To fill this gap and reoccupy the deserted works, as above described, Pickett's Division, in General R. H. Anderson's Corps, was hastened to the south side of James river, and advanced down the turnpike towards Chester station and Petersburg, with orders to push back the enemy when found, so as to occupy and hold the line in Butler's front, if possible, without bringing on an engagement.

When Corse's Brigade, of Pickett's Division, had reached a point on the pike between Chester station and Bermuda Hundreds, and nearly opposite to the Howlett House, on James river, a halt was made, and an order given for a skirmish line to be thrown out on the east of the pike, and to advance almost at right angles with it towards the river. The Fifteenth Virginia Regiment, commanded by Colonel E. M. Morrison, was detailed for that service, but his regiment being a small one, at that time depleted from long and active service, Company F, of the Thirtieth Virginia Infantry, commanded by Captain [178] J. M. Hudgin (sharpshooters), was ordered to report to Colonel Morrison, who, though not actually present when the order was given to his regiment, rode up in time to assume command as it, with Company F on the left, was being deployed preparatory to an advance. The instructions given to Colonel Morrison were to move forward and locate the enemy, who were reported as coming in heavy forces from the Bermuda Hundreds line of fortifications towards the Richmond and Petersburg pike and railroad.

Prompt and cautious.

The orders given to Colonel Morrison and Captain Hudgin were to move cautiously but promptly in the direction of the enemy, veering towards the river flank, so as to prevent a surprise in that direction, and when the enemy were found to halt and report back to General Corse without engaging them, if it could be avoided.

This precaution was thought necessary, no doubt, because the enemy were known to be in heavy force at the Bermuda Hundreds, and a severe battle at that time and place might seriously interfere with the movements of Confederate troops that were hurrying to the defence of Petersburg along the pike and railroad.

The space between the pike and James river over which Morrison's men had to advance was broken surface, and heavily wooded most of the way.

To prevent surprise and disaster, therefore, it was thought best to move as quickly as possible (though slow at best), and at the same time to be very cautious and guarded. To locate the enemy, but not to attack them, was the object of this movement, and as soon as their position was definitely ascertained Colonel Morrison was to report back to General Corse in the rear.

Under these directions Colonel Morrison's little command was ordered to advance, and after he and Captain Hudgin had carefully instructed the officers and men what was the object of the movement, for each and all had to know and understand how important it was to be very vigilant and wily in the execution of the manoeuvre, the movement commenced. As well as I can remember now, the sun was between one and two hours high when the command started. At intervals it was so rolling and broken that the whole line was frequently retarded by tangled brush, undergrowth, and briars that [179] stood in the way, and particularly was this the case in the centre and on the left of the line as it neared the river.

Under such hindrances and embarrassments the little band of skirmishers moved forward to hunt the enemy, far in advance of the main army, that lay back towards the turnpike, awaiting information as to where the Federal forces were to be found.

The enemy in force.

Just before sunset, as the skirmish line approached the river and Howlett House line of entrenchments, that had been recently evacuated by General Beauregard's forces, the enemy were found in force. They had advanced some little distance over the Confederate works, and had located themselves a few hundred yards in front of them, and most of the troops had stacked arms, and many were in a reclining and careless position—not expecting an attack.

The Confederate reconnoissance had up to this time been so successfully executed that no discovery had been made by the Federals that the Confederates were upon them. When this was accomplished and a halt made, Colonel Morrison passed to the left of the line and interviewed Captain Hudgin, whose line rested on the river, to know if his left flank was safe from surprise. It was then near sunset. The main line of Corse's brigade was nearly if not quite a mile away in the rear. Before communication could be had with General Corse it would be dark, and the Federal forces could in all probability discover the Confederate position and attack it. Our force was weak and far from support. The other force was strong and close to breastworks.

While Colonel Morrison and Captain Hudgin were in conference as to what should be done, many of the officers and men importuned them to make an immediate attack. The sun was dropping behind the hills. It was too late to get support from the rear; besides, it would take a strong force a long time to move in line of battle through the woods over broken ground to the point of attack. There was no time for long deliberation. Any moment the Confederate position might be discovered and preparations made not only to repel an assault, but to completely overwhelm and gobble up the little ‘army of observation.’

A desperate dash.

Under all the circumstances it was thought best by Colonel Morrison [180] and Captain Hudgin to go forward and make a bold and aggressive movement before discovery was made of Morrison's position, and to take the chances of success despite existing orders. It was a desperate dash against desperate odds; it was a rush for victory against orders; it was a crash for country regardless of censure or consequences.

Quickly the word went down the line, ‘Prepare for fight.’ A moment more the rebel yell rang out on the evening air, followed by the rattling roll of musketry. Morrison, Hudgin, and the brave officers of the Fifteenth regiment led the charge, and for fifteen or twenty minutes the battle raged.

Thin woods and open fields lay between the assailants and the breastworks a distance of some 500 or 600 yards, so that if the Federals sheltered behind the fortifications in their rear almost certain destruction awaited the thin and slender line of Confederates that ventured to attack a full line of battle, though the former, it is true, were unprepared for attack.

As the men rushed forward to the assault it was indeed a moment of intense and awful anxiety.

Will the Federals flee behind their own breastworks about half a mile away, or will they rally behind tile Confederate works in their immediate rear and stay the skirmish-line as it advances? The latter seemed most reasonable and rational, because they had numbers and arms and position to secure success. Cool courage on the part of the Federals would have enabled them to kill and capture every man in Morrison's command.

There was no time for timid men to think. It was short, sharp and decisive work. The enemy was surprised and demoralized at such a desperate venture.

Fled in confusion.

They fired a volley as a parting shot, but they fled in confusion. The boys in gray rushed after them like demons and drove them over the works, across the fields, and back into the Butler fortifications at Bermuda Hundreds.

By twilight Morrison and Hudgin walked the heavy earthworks in apparent serenity, but with profoundly anxious hearts and apprehensions. They knew they had only a thin line of skirmishers to guard this important strategic position on the James. [181]

The men were posted at long intervals in the trenches, and a few pickets placed in front of and on top of the works to prevent surprise and disaster.

Men and officers saw and appreciated at a glance the great advantage gained by opportune movement, and they resolved instinctively to defend and hold the Howlett-House fortifications to the death, if necessary, until reinforcements came.

All kept guard that night because the force was too weak and scattered for any to sleep.

Word was sent back to General Corse that his ‘disobedient boys’ were in the Howlett-House entrenchments. He was slow to believe it, and only when he came in person with his command next morning could he realize what a clever swoop had been made by a handful of bold, dashing fellows of rebel proclivities.

General Corse didn't reprimand the boys at all for flagrant violation of orders. Perhaps he forgot to do so.

By the way, there were not many better men or braver officers in the Army of Northern Virginia than M. D. Corse, of Alexandria, and his soldiors admired and loved him with a sort of filial affection. They had several nick-names for him.

Important advantage.

Now, that achievement has never been properly noticed in print, in my judgment, so far as the men and officers engaged in it were concerned, because it secured without much bloodshed a most important advantage to Lee's army on the James. It established the Confederate line at Howlett's House were elaborate earthworks for infantry, artillery, and heavy siege-guns were erected for the defence of Richmond. It was one of the strongest positions on the river to guard against naval approaches, and it was afterwards constructed into a fort (Howlett House battery), with heavy guns to keep the enemy's iron-clads at bay.

I cannot recall all of the officers of the Fifteenth Regiment that took part in this adventure, but I do remember Major Hammett Clarke, Captains Allen M. Lyon, M. W. Hazlewood, J. M. Gunn, G. H. Charters, J. C. Govers, John Vannerson; Lieutenants A. L. Phillips, J. K. Fussell, A. L. Lumsden, E. M. Dunnavant, W. L. Smith, Peter Bowles, B. B. Bumpass, P. H. Hall, John Dansie,— [182] Parsley, and others, all of whom were from Richmond and its vicinity.

Secured the Key.

The next day the Confederate troops extended the line to the Appomattox river, but not without sharp fighting and some severe losses of men and officers. The lodgment at Howlett's, however, as heretofore described, had secured the key to the situation, and this enabled the Confederates to force back Butler into his entrenchment all along the line, where he was kept closely shut up until the lines were finally evacuated in 1865.

Failure on the part of the Fifteenth Regiment to drive back the enemy at Howlett's and hold that position, as it did, on the evening of the 16th of June, might have worked disastrous consequences to the Confederates the next day, for the position was a strong one, and well fortified. It was flanked by the river, with precipitous banks, and could be guarded by Federal gun-boats, so that it would have been well nigh impregnable if properly defended by brave and adequate forces. Butler could have placed these there in a few hours. McCabe's history and the orders issued by General Lee at the time will throw interesting light on this important transaction.

Beauregard's responsibility.

McCabe's History of Lee and His Campaigns, page 508, says ‘General Lee had ordered General Beauregard not to evacuate his line until Anderson's Corps, then moving from Richmond, should relieve him,’ but as the demand for troops at Petersburg was so urgent, and there was no prospect that Anderson would get up in time, General Beauregard assumed the responsibility of withdrawing his command into Petersburg. Butler then taking advantage of this withdrawal, occupied the Confederate works.

General Lee did not wish to bring on an engagement at this point, and sent word to Pickett to halt. These orders were transmitted to the troops, but were of no avail. Pickett's men dashed on in spite of the efforts of their officers to stop them, and in a fierce, impetuous charge, drove Butler back into his own works, and reestablished Beauregard's line.’

These achievements drew out two complimentary orders from General [183] Lee, of the 17th of June, 1864, that go very far to explain this transaction, and these orders reflect imperishable honor on the dash and gallantry of Pickett's Division. (See McCabe's History, pages 508 and 509.

A Howlett-House survivor.

1 ‘R. H.,’ in the dispatch of Jan. 14, 1894, whilst admitting that the account is ‘full and accurate in the main,’ claims that ‘Captain J. D. Waid of the Hanover Grays commanded the skirmish line “ on that occasion,” and not Colonel Morrison who was absent and did not take command until the following morning.’—Ed.

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