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General James A. Walker's account.

When I was in Richmond at the unveiling of the A. P. Hill statue in May last, while fighting my battles over with old comrades, the battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse came up, and the statements contained in this letter were made by me, and seemed to be news to the other gentlemen present, and I promised I would write them for publication as soon as I could find time to do so.

After much delay I have written what follows, giving the occurrences related as they appeared to the restricted vision of an eyewitness. There was doubtless much that occurred very near me that I did not see, but what I did see is indelibly written on my memory.

A little retrospection will not be amiss before speaking of that day's work. It will be remembered that the Army of Northern Virginia, having defeated McDowell, McClellan, Pope, Burnside and Hooker, met its first check at the hands of General Meade, a Virginian, at Gettysburg. The Federal Government then brought General Grant from the West, flushed with victory, to command the largest and best equipped army ever gathered on American soil. Its appointed task was to destroy the army of General Lee and capture [230] the Capital of the Confederate States. To accomplish this cherished object, the new commander was promised all the men, the means and the munitions of war he should ask for.

On the 4th of May, 1863, when General Grant crossed the Rapidan river, his whole force amounted to 141,000 men, while that of General Lee amounted to 64,000, the odds being over two and a-quarter to one.

Any other commander except Robert E. Lee would have felt it prudent to retire before such odds, and watch for opportunities to strike his antagonist at exposed points, and select and fortify a strong position near Richmond. But General Lee was as bold and daring as he was skillful and prudent, and he knew the men he commanded were equal to any task that mortals could accomplish, and that they relied on him with unquestioning faith. They believed that whatever General Lee did was the very best that could be done; and they believed that whatever he set before them to do they could and they would do.

General Lee knew that with such men, the veterans of three years experience, he could confidentially calculate on defeating an army of more than two and one-fourth to one.

As soon as he learned that his adversary had crossed the river he broke his camp around Orange Courthouse and advanced into the Wilderness, and on the 5th gave battle to the enemy as soon as he came up with him, and General Grant, instead of following a retreating foe, found himself compelled to halt, concentrate his vast army, and deliver battle before he had crossed the river thirty-six hours.

After two days hard fighting, General Grant was no nearer Richmond than when it began, and he gave up the task of driving General Lee before him, and of defeating him in a pitched battle.

The 7th of May was passed in comparative quiet, the Confederates confidently awaiting the expected attack, which never came.

The two armies then rested about seventy-five miles northwest of Richmond, with the Confederate right and the Federal left flank nearest to Richmond, which lay to the southwest.

It will be seen that by moving by his left flank General Grant could pass around General Lee's right and place his army between his adversary and the Confederate capital.

On the afternoon and night of the 7th, General Grant began his first flank movement, and withdrew from the front of his adversary, and [231] attempted, by a secret and quiet movement, to pass around General Lee's right flank under cover of darkness, and get between General Lee's army and Richmond. It will readily be seen that General Grant had a longer line to traverse to reach any point between his antagonist and Richmond than General Lee had to reach the same point. In military phrase, General Lee operated on the inner and shorter line, while Grant had the outer and longer line. But this advantage for the Confederate commander was counterbalanced by the fact that General Grant, by covering his movement with his cavalry and thin lines of infantry pressed close to the lines of his foes, and making the demonstrations as if an attack was imminent, could withdraw the great bulk of his army from the front, and get several hours the start before his real designs could be fathomed.

When General Grant, on the 7th day of May, began his flank movement his objective point was Spotsylvania Courthouse, which would place him in rear of Lee's right flank. General Lee on the night of the 7th discovered Grant's movement, and at once began to bring up his infantry by forced marches to support Stuart's cavalry, which was already in front of the marching columns of blue, making, as they always did, a gallant fight to delay them until the infantry came up. The division of General Anderson, of Hill's corps, reached the Courthouse on the morning of the 8th, and almost at the same moment the vanguard of the Federal army came upon the ground. The advance guards of the two armies at once grappled, and the Confederates drove back the enemy and seized upon the strategic points to hold them for the battle-ground.

While these advance guards were thus confronting each other at Spotsylvania Courthouse on the morning of the 8th, the remainder of the two armies, stretched back for ten miles, were hurrying up as fast as forced marches could bring them, and as division after division of the Federal army arrived it would swing round the left of their line as a pivot and form on the left of the troops already in line, while the Confederates would swing round the right flank and form on the right of their line.

Thus all that beautiful spring day the hostile armies were wheeling into line, and all day fierce combats and bloody skirmishes were going on between detachments and divisions as they struggled for coveted positions.

The artillery on either side as it came up would seize upon the [232] heights, and quickly unlimbering, would salute the new arrivals with the thunder of the guns and the screeching and bursting sounds of shot and shell. It was a grand game of war played by two gallant armies, led by the two great Generals with consummate skill and ability.

It was late in the afternoon of the 8th when Johnson's division, of Ewell's corps arrived on the field, and the enemy was pressing our men hotly and lapping over their right flank as we came up.

I then had the honor to command the Stonewall Brigade of Johnson's division, and when our corps commander, glorious old General Ewell, rode out to meet us, and commanded us to move up at double quick, the model men of that brave brigade, notwithstanding their forced march of sixteen or eighteen hours had nearly exhausted their physical strength, responded with a yell, and amid the bursting of the enemy's shell and the whistling of the deadly minie balls, dashed into line and checked the advance of the enemy. This brigade was the first of the division to get into line, and formed immediately on the right of that splendid North Carolinian, General Ramseur, who fell at Winchester the same year, and whose gallant Tar Heels were as true as steel, and shed lustre on the Confederate armies on many a battle field.

The other brigades of the division came up and formed in rapid succession under the enemy's fire in the following order: On the right of the Stonewall Brigade was the Louisiana brigade, commanded by General Harry Hays, than whom no braver, knightlier soldier ever drew sword. His command on the 5th had formed two brigades, but on that day General Stafford, one of the bravest and best men I ever knew, was killed at the head of his men, and his brigade had been consolidated with that of Hays. On the right of Hays came J. M. Jones' brigade, commanded by Colonel Witcher, their brave leader having also fallen in battle at the same time General Stafford was killed. On the right of the Louisianans came the brigade of George H. Steuart. The position thus taken by Johnson's division was such as the fortune of battle gave it. It was determined for us by the enemy, more than by our own choosing, and formed a sharp salient not far from the right of Jones' brigade. I have frequently heard the Confederate engineers censured for allowing this salient in the lines, but as I have shown already they had nothing to do with forming the line, and as I will show hereafter, it [233] had nothing to do with the disaster which happened to Johnson's division on the 12th.

Soon after the division was in line, night came on, and skirmishers were thrown out and quiet reigned, but it was the hush which precedes the tornado. Tired and worn out as the soldiers were there was no rest for them that night.

The greater part of the line of the division was along the outer edge (the edge next to the enemy) of a body of fine oak timber. As soon as night put an end to the combat, axes, picks and shovels were sent for, and along the whole line through the night the men worked like beavers, and the crash of falling trees, the ring of axes, and the sound of the spade and shovel were heard. Trees were felled and piled upon each other and a ditch dug behind them with the earth out of it thrown against the logs. The limbs and tops of the trees as cut off from the trunks were used to form abattis, by placing them in front of the breastworks with the sharpened points towards the enemy.

By daylight next morning a very formidable line of fortifications frowned upon the foe, and our troops rested quietly and confident of victory, should the enemy attack them. Between the morning of the 9th and the morning of the 12th, this line of breastworks was much strengthened, and became one of the very best lines of temporary field works I ever saw. It was apparently impregnable. Just behind the intrenched line of infantry, artillery was placed at the most eligible points, to sweep the approaching enemy with shot and shell and cannister.

A description of the ground in front of the Confederate troops at this point will serve to explain the situation more fully.

Just in front of Ramseur's position there was a cleared and open space for two or three hundred yards. Then came a dense forest of pine timber with the limbs hanging down to the ground, shutting off all view of the interior.

The enemy's skirmishers occupied the edge of the forest, nearest Ramseur's line, and kept up a spirited fire at short range, which compelled his men to keep close behind their breastworks. On Ramseur's right, in front of the Stonewall brigade, the pine forest was much less dense, and did not approach so near our line, while our skirmishers were pushed into the timber, and the enemy's skirmishers were kept at a safe distance. Opposite the right of the Stonewall brigade the timber which came so close to their front terminated [234] or gave out, and in front of the Louisiana brigade and Jones' brigade there was a broad plateau; an old field without timber or obstruction of any kind extending for six or eight hundred yards. Then the ground descended into a rather deep hollow or ravine covered with oak timber, which belt of timber extended much further beyond, and was filled with the enemy's troops. The skirmishers from Hays' and Jones' brigade were posted in this timbered ravine, one thousand yards in front of the breastworks.

All day on the 9th we were left in quiet, and on the 10th nothing excited suspicion until after the hour of noon, when the enemy's skirmishers in the edge of the pine forest in front of Ramseur became particularly active and spiteful, and muffled sounds began to issue from the unseen recesses of the wood, which were suspicious, and it was believed that the enemy was massing there for an attack. This was reduced to a certainty later in the afternoon, when in an instant a column of the enemy rushed out from among the pines and dashed swiftly across the intervening space between them and Ramseur. Ramseur's men were ready, and poured a deadly volley into them, but the blue lines did not falter, and before our men could reload they were on the works. Our men used the bayonets, but were driven back, and the blue coats, with three cheers and a tiger given in regular hip! hip! hurrah! style, moved on in pursuit. The two regiments on the left of the Stonewall Brigade had poured an oblique fire on foe as they advanced, and after the works were carried were drawn back and formed at right angles to the breastworks, from which position they delivered a murderous fire into the flank of the enemy after they crossed the line.

The triumph of the victors was of short duration, for soon Ramseur's retiring line was reinforced, and in turn the enemy was driven back pell mell at a double-quick, and as they recrossed our works and the open space to seek the friendly gloom of the pine forest they had a few moments before left in such gallant array, they were shot down until the ground was covered with their dead and wounded. Ramseur's lines were restored, and there were no further demonstrations on the 10th or 11th. The night of the 11th was damp and misty, with a dense fog resting on the ground.

During the night it was reported to General Lee that the enemy was again withdrawing from his front, and preparing to make another flank movement. To meet this the artillery was at once withdrawn [235] from the front and placed in readiness to march at early dawn. Only two guns of Carrington's Battery were left to support Johnson's division.

Before it became light enough to distinguish objects, the rapid firing of our skirmishers in the wooded ravine in front of the centre of Johnson's line gave notice that the enemy was advancing, and the heavy tramp of a large body of infantry and the sharp words of command could be distinctly heard. Very soon our skirmishers came falling back, firing as they came, and announced what we already knew, that a heavy column was advancing to the attack. Our men were all up and ready for them with their muskets cocked, peering through the gloom for the first glimpse of their foes. For several moments, which seemed very much longer to the anxious and expectant Confederates, no enemy came in sight; but the tramp of armed men drew nearer, and the commands of their officers sounded more distinctly.

The enemy, consisting of Hancock's corps, formed in columns of brigades, had emerged from the ravine and advanced about one-third of the way across the open plateau before they could be seen, or could themselves see our works on account of the fog. All at once the slowly-lifting fog showed them our heavily fortified position, some four or five hundred yards in their front. At this expected but unwelcome sight the advancing columns paused and wavered and hesitated, and seemed to refuse the task before them. Their mounted officers rode in front and urged them on, while many officers on foot and horseback shouted: ‘Forward! men, forward!’ and repeated the words again and again. Then the moment for the Confederate fire had come, and the men, rising to full height leveled their trusty muskets deliberately at the halting column, with a practiced aim which would have carried havoc into their ranks. But the searching damp had disarmed them, and instead of the leaping line of fire and the sharp crack of the muskets came the pop! pop! pop! of exploding caps as the hammer fell upon them. Their powder was damp, and with their muzzle-loading muskets there was no help for them. A few, very few, pieces fired clear; but fresh caps on most of them only produced another failure. A muzzle-loading musket with damp powder behind the ball is as useless to a soldier in an emergency like that as a walking-cane.

As the enemy received no fire from our lines they took heart and [236] again moved forward with rapid strides. On they came unopposed, and in few moments had torn our well-constructed abattis away and were over our works taking prisoners of our unarmed troops.

I saw officers ride up to the lines and step from their stirrups on to our breastworks without harm to themselves or to their horses.

This statement as to the failure of the muskets of our men to fire is true as to that portion of our line between the Stonewall Brigade and the salient, which was as far as my vision extended, but I have been informed by officers of Jones' Brigade that the right of that brigade had been more careful or more fortunate, and their muskets were in good order, and that the enemy was repulsed in front of that portion of our lines with great loss, and that they held their position until the enemy's troops, who had crossed to their left, had swung round in the rear and came up behind our lines.

I speak advisedly when I say that if the muskets of our men had been serviceable they would never had gotten within three hundred yards of our line. One well-directed volley, such as our men knew so well how to give, delivered at the moment the line wavered and halted, would have thrown them into confusion, and made their future movements too slow and dispirited to render success in such a charge possible. Such attacks must be made with dash, rapidity and united effort to ensure success.

I had peculiar opportunities for witnessing this assault, because the enemy on this occasion, as in their attack on Ramseur on the 10th, did not attack the Stonewall Brigade at all, but attacked immediately on their right, directly in front of Jones' Virginia and Hays' Louisiana Brigades, and with perfect safety and without a shot coming in any direction, I stood upon the breastworks in front of the right regiment of my brigade and witnessed it all.

As soon as the enemy began to cross our works the right regiment of my brigade, the Fourth Virginia, then commanded by the brave Colonel (afterwards General) William Terry, was formed at right angles to the works, so as to fire down the inside of our line. I was very soon wounded and left the battle-field, and what happened afterwards is only known to me as to others, as history relates it.

The dreadful carnage on both sides, in that salient which gave to it the name of the ‘Bloody Angle;’ the touching incident of the devotion of General Lee's soldiers to his person; when the old hero, in the midst of the heaviest fire, and when his troops were being pressed [237] back, rode to the front of one of his brigades just ready to go into the fight, and offered to lead it in the charge. How his brave boys refused to follow him, shouting with tears in their eyes: ‘General Lee to the rear! General Lee to the rear! We will go forward, but General Lee must go to the rear!’ Until some of the men firmly, but respectfully, laid their hands upon the bridle of his horse and turned his head to the rear. Then the old hero raised his hat in his peculiar dignified way, and rode slowly back, while the brigade went forward with more dash and courage than ever before, because they had commanded ‘Mars Bob,’ and he had obeyed their command.

It was in this bloody angle that an oak tree, as large around as a man's body, was cut down by minie balls alone, and its trunk can now be seen in the war office at Washington city.

I have spoken of this charge of Hancock's corps, because it has been ignorantly charged that our troops were taken by surprise.

There may have been some want of care on the part of the troops and their officers in not keeping their powder dry, and had it been a rainy night, they would have taken greater precautions, and the disaster would never have occurred.

As an illustration of the dangers and the casualties of the campaign of 1864, it is only necessary to take Johnson's division as a sample. That division had been recruited and reorganized during the preceding winter, and went into the campaign with a major-general, four brigadier-generals, and a full complement of field and company officers. Its rank and file was composed of about 6,000 men. On the 5th and 6th of May, two of its brigade commanders were killed, and about one-half of its field officers, and about one-third of the men were killed or wounded. After the 6th of May it was increased by the addition of Hays' brigade, about 800 strong. On the 12th two more of its brigade commanders were wounded, and the one remaining, with the division commander, was captured. Of the rank and file nearly all in line on that day were killed, wounded or captured. The whole remnant of the 6,000 was formed into one small brigade, and a colonel promoted to command it.

A fact not generally known, is that on the 12th of May, 1864, the famous Stonewall brigade, which had won renown on so many battlefields, ceased to exist as a separate organization, and the few remaining members, not above two hundred in all, with the other fragments [238] of Johnson's division, were incorporated into a single brigade, called Terry's brigade.

The official designation of Stonewall brigade was not given to that body of men until after the death of its General, Paxton, at Chancellorsville, in May, 1863. Prior to that it had been known either by its number, or the name of its commander.

When Stonewall Jackson was its commander in 1861, it was called the First Virginia brigade. After General Jackson was promoted to major-general in October, 1861, it was commanded by General Garnett, and was called Garnett's brigade. General Garnett, having incurred General Jackson's displeasure at Kernstown, was relieved of command, but afterwards fell at Gettysburg, leading his brigade in the charge of Pickett's division.

After Garnett, General Winder commanded the brigade for about four months, until he was killed at Slaughter's mountain. While he commanded it, it was called Winder's brigade. When the gallant Winder fell, General Jackson had Major Paxton, of his staff, promoted to the rank of brigadier-general, and assigned to the Command of Winder's brigade; and it was called Paxton's brigade until he was killed at Chancellorsville in May, 1863.

Then I was assigned to its command, and for a few weeks only it was known as Walker's brigade; when, by authority of the Secretary of War, it received the official designation of Stonewall brigade, by which it had been unofficially known in the army before, and which name it had received on the plains of Manassas on the 21st of July, 1861, when the brave Bee pointed to the First Virginia brigade, under command of General Jackson, and said to his brave men, retiring, before overwhelming odds: ‘There stands Jackson and his Virginians like a stone wall.’ The compliment was paid to the brigade for its gallant stand as much as to its commander.

On the 12th of May, 1864, in the Bloody Angle, the old brigade was annihilated, and its name faded from the rolls of the Army of Northern Virginia, but it will ever live on the rolls of fame, and history will record its deeds of glory.

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