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Brook Church fight, and something about the Fifth North Carolina cavalry.

Death of James B. Gordon.

He was the Murat of the army of Northern Virginia—The New artillery and its disastrous First experience under Fire—Attack on Kennon's Landing—Sacrifice of men and Horses— shelled with 100-Pounders.

The Brook turnpike above Richmond runs almost due north and south. The military road at Brook, or Emmanuel church, strikes it at right angles from the east, in which direction this road crosses the upper Chickahominy at Meadow bridge. In his midnight retreat of May 11th, from Yellow Tavern, General Sheridan took this military road at Brook Church to escape, intending to cross the Chickahominy and move to his right from there to the James. And this he did, but he assuredly had an awful time of it and a narrow escape at Brook church.

Early on the morning of the 12th, Colonel James B. Gordon was in his rear at Brook Church. Sheridan was met by our forces of cavalry and infantry at Meadow bridge, which we had destroyed, and the river there was otherwise unpassable. Sheridan says some fords were discovered by scouts, but if so, why on earth did he have such a desperate and deadly time repairing that bridge, as my references will show he did? Sheridan's rear occupied a strong position of his own selection on the military road, which he swept with canister constantly from several batteries. Gordon dismounted the First and Second cavalry, attacked him fiercely, and sent his aide, Lieutenant Kerr Craige, into Richmond for some artillery and to propose to the officer in charge of that portion of the city defences a combined attack on Sheridan's flanks. The Fifth was held in reserve in column, under fire, just off the right of the military road, going east. With our regiment, as we all knew, Gordon intended to charge those batteries up the military road after he got some supports from Richmond. And that charge, which he would [140] have led in person, would have been about the last of the Fifth North Carolina cavalry.

In a few minutes some artillery came. And oh! such artillery! It was the most beautiful in all its appearances that we ever beheld. The smoke of battle had never been about it. Gordon placed it to the slight oblique right and front of our regiment on the elevation of some old entrenchments. It fired once Immediately, one or more of Sheridan's guns were turned on it—canister for the first time in its history rattled around those beautiful guns and among its wheels, and every man about the battery flew into the ditches of those old entrenchments. Gordon was furious. He raved and begged. He called it ‘Band-Box Artillery,’ which would have occurred only to him, possibly, under such a fire. But those artillerists ‘held the trenches faithfully’ against Richmond's invaders. Some few of them couldn't even stand that, and came through the woods by us. We laughed at them, ridiculed them, and asked them to go back and man their guns. But they looked at us as if they thought we were surely crazy. Gordon became utterly disgusted and went back at a gallop right into the fire down that military road, and there he received the wound which ended his life and brilliant career six days later. The battle was raging furiously at Meadow bridge on Sheridan's front, and right flank. The command of the brigade now devolved on Colonel Andrews, of the Second, as ranking officer. The Fifth was dismounted to join in the attack on foot. Company F was in front of that column. The order was to cross the road, still swept by canister, and form on its left. Captain Erwin looked calmly around at us and said: ‘Come on boys.’ He led, and over the road the regiment went and formed in line of battle. We advanced fast to a horizontal, wide, board fence, which looked literally perforated with rifle balls, and after short firing on our part the enemy disappeared. Sheridan had broken over at Meadow bridge and escaped. Sheridan himself says on page 791, volume 67, War Records. ‘The enemy considered us completely cornered, but such was not the case.’ Well, of course, none of us knew for certain, but those of us who were there will never cease to believe that if he had not broken over at Meadow bridge that he and his men would have been given quarters in Richmond for the rest of the war.

He also says, page 801, of his raid: ‘The result was constant success and the almost total annihilation of the Rebel cavalry.’ [141] This shows, I regret to say, how unreliable his statements are, as he soon had full proof of by that same ‘Rebel cavalry.’

That the reader may see what a desperate state they were in at Meadow bridge, I refer to volume 67, pages 791, 813, 814, 819, and 835. He lost 625 men on his raid and 1,003 horses—volume 67, page 185, and volume 68, page 851. We had no force to follow Sheridan, and it was useless, as, after his passage of the Chickahominy, he could easily connect with Butler on the James, as he did, near Haxall's Landing on May 14th.

James B. Gordon killed.

Our great loss at Brook Church was the gallant and glorious James B. Gordon. The Fifth loved him as its commander during the Gettysburg campaign, and, as his entire brigade did, for his splendid courage and merit in all respects. He was the Murat of the Army of Northern Virginia, and had he lived he would have added increased lustre to our North Carolina cavalry. I want to identify him in closer relation in this way, and, therefore, I state that one of his sisters was the mother of Messrs. R. N. and James Gordon Hackett, of Wilkes. Wilkes, was rather famous for such cavalrymen—Colonel W. H. H. Cowles was born, and now lives there.

The attack on Kennon's Landing was the most useless sacrifice of time and men and horses made during the war. The brigade was camped May 23d near Hanover Junction, recuperating a little from the terrible ride and fighting of the Sheridan raid. Late that afternoon an order came to each captain of our regiment for a ‘detail of picked men for specially dangerous work.’ The Fifth regiment furnished about 225 men and officers, under command of Major Mc-Neill. There were surely not over 1,000 men on the expedition from our brigade. Wilson's wharf was a fortified post of great natural and artificial strentgth on the James river, far below City Point, and consequently fully in the enemy's lines. It was forty-seven miles in a straight line, by best military maps, from Hanover Junction. It consisted of a fort built in semi-circle form on a bluff of the river with each end resting on the James, with heavy parapets and a canal of water the entire front of the half circle. There was open ground for several hundred yards all around the fort covered with abattis and large fallen pine trees to impede assailants. If we could ever have taken it we never could have held it. The expedition was [142] under the immediate command of General Fitzhugh Lee, and originated with him, it was said at the time, to drive some negro soldiers off Virginia soil.

We left Hanover Junction about 6 P. M. on the 23d, and rode all night and much of the time at a gallop. Early on the morning of the 24th we were near the fort, but for some inexplicable reason the attack was delayed. A flag of truce was sent in to General Wild, commanding the post, demanding immediate surrender, and saying that, if not complied with, General Lee would not be responsible for the action of his men when the fort was taken. Wild answered: ‘We will try that.’ It was 11 o'clock before we began to get into position. In the mean time, the gunboats Dawn, Pequot, and the Atlanta (ironclad) were shelling us fiercely and the fort was filling with reinforcements. The enemy also had a small vessel named the Mayflower. Some of our force wounded the captain and pilot of this boat. I never heard of any injury that we inflicted on the ironclad. We had no artillery with us.

The shells were chiefly 100-pounders. We could see them plainly coming at and over us; great black masses, as big as nail-kegs, hurling in the air and making the earth tremble under us and the atmosphere jar and quake around us when they burst. They certainly were terrifying. And under their effect I compared the ‘details’ from the First and Fifth. The former was dismounted, each in column of fours near together under those awful missiles. As one came towards and burst over us, I saw those veterans of the First look up at it with horror and lean back slightly out of line. Just such a look and backward incline of their bodies as I imagine the immortal sentinel at Pompeii made, momentarily, when that dark, ashen death fixed him erect at his post for the admiration of future ages. Captain N. P. Foard saw their movement, and, under the bursting, crashing sound and mass, he said: ‘Steady, men; steady!’ Possibly before the words were uttered they were erect as statues. At the same second I glanced along the Fifth in the same line of my vision with the First, and every man sat in his saddle absolutely motionless. It was no discredit to the First, but the contrast was glorious for the Fifth.

We were soon put in line of battle around that fort, the Fifth on the extreme left, the enemy's right. We were to charge at the firing of a signal gun on our left. We lay there for an hour or more waiting that signal, eating strawberries in the fence corners and quietly talking of the scene in front of us; and all the while we could [143] plainly see platoon after platoon of reinforcements coming over the bluff into the fort on the decline next to us. The shells from the 100-pounders, 20-pounders, and 12-pounders were still bursting over us and other parts of the line. The Fifth and some others on our immediate right in the line were to make the charge, while those in front and on the left of the fort were to fire incessantly on the fort when the charge began. About 2:30 or 3 P. M. the signal gun fired and the Fifth arose with a mighty yell for that terrible charge. We mounted the high rail fence in our front and went straight and fast as the obstructions would permit for that fort—yelling and firing as we went and receiving fierce front and cross fires into our ranks from rifles and artillery in the fort and the gunboats. We were within thirty feet of the fort when we saw the utter hopelessness of the attack. The line halted a moment; the order to retreat was given, and we retired under that awful fire from the most useless and unwise attack and the most signal failure we were ever engaged in.

General Wild reports: ‘They massed troops on our extreme right concealed by wooded ravines, and made a determined charge, at the same time keeping up a steady attack all along our front and left flank. This charge approached our parapet, but failed under our severe cross fires.’ Vol. 68, p. 270. For naval reports, giving names of vessels engaged and calibre of guns, see ‘Official Records Union and Confederate Navies,’ series 1, vol. 10, pp. 87-91.

Out of the detail of ten or twelve men from Company F, W. S. Prather and Green L. Bingham were killed outright; Worth Mc-Donald and I were wounded. I was shot through the left shoulder within thirty feet of the fort, firing at the moment, I am sure, at the very man who shot me. Worth McDonald was wounded by one of those 100-pounders. It passed at least ten feet from him and paralyzed his right arm by concussion of the air. There was no visible flesh injury to the arm, but it fell useless to his side, quickly turned black its entire length, and he never recovered use of it during his lifetime. He got an honorable discharge for the war, and I got a furlough June 5th from Chimborazo hospital in Richmond, for three months, with great joy at the thought of going home.

Some Virginians charged immediately on the right of the Fifth. As we retreated we came to a long, wide lagoon in a ravine, back of where we began the charge. The water was three to four feet deep. In some way, unknown to me, I attracted the attention of one of those Virginians, a giant of a fellow. I knew he was a Virginian [144] by his regimental designation on his coat-sleeve. Of his own motion he kindly and tenderly offered to carry me over that water. I thankfully declined, and said to him: ‘I think that I can make it all right.’ He looked down at me and said: ‘Oh, boy, get on my shoulders.’ And suiting his action to his words, he stooped down in front of me. I put my arms around his neck, he put his right hand under my right knee, his left holding his own gun, and thus, like we used to play when children, he carried me over that water and almost to the top of the steep slope beyond. It has always hurt me that I never knew his name. He stands in memory for Virginia. And this is stated solely to show and commemorate the courageous, absolutely unselfish, generous kindness of the private soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia, in the face of danger to themselves, too, when showing it. There were millions of such acts that will never be known.

After he let me down, I walked a short distance, and, from loss of blood, lay down in some young corn. I heard some one tell Major McNeill of my condition. The Major came to me and asked me to ride out on his horse, which had just been brought to him after he had led our charge, and from which he dismounted. I refused; he insisted. I refused positively, and he sent a man on his horse for mine and stood by me until the horse came, put me on it, and sent the man with me to the surgeon, while he directed the men of the Fifth how to move out ready for the expected attack from our rear. And it was acts like this, of gentleness and love for all his men, which he was continually doing, that caused the men of the Fifth all to love him.

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