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Episode of ‘General Lee to the rear.’ [see also, Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XXI, pp. 228, et seq.]

Graphic accounts by Colonel J. Catlett Gibson and Dr. William W. Smith.

Account by Colonel J. Catlett Gibson.

On the evening of the 11th of May, we marched to assist in the repulse of a vigorous assault on the breastworks of our left wing, reaching the point of attack just before sunset; as we fronted to go into position, the dead body of a man was pointed out to us as that of a North Carolina surgeon, who had been killed while dressing a wound of one of his men. This was the first Confederate surgeon known by me to have been killed in line of battle, although I saw Dr. Alfred Slaughter, surgeon of the 13th Virginia Regiment, wounded in an attack we made on Sedgwick's corps, between Marye's Heights and Falmouth. We were marched from our left late in the night of the 11th and 12th, and slept on our arms that night the sleep of the just made peaceful, in a woods in a location then unknown to us, but subsequent information showed it to have been not far from the headquarters that were Lee's that morn, and near to the angle that was ‘bloody’ ere night. A little after dawn of the 12th, I was aroused from a deep sleep by Frank George, one of General Gordon's orderlies, and was told by him that the Yankees [201] had broken through our works and captured Johnson's division; and when I started to say something, he told me not to talk loud, the enemy were very close to us.

I immediately aroused up two or three men near me and told them to arouse the regiment, and tell the men to fall in as quickly and quietly as possible, without any rattling of canteens, as we were near the enemy. I told Frank George that I didn't see how there could have been any hard fighting near us that night, as I had heard no firing. He said he had heard it, and that General Lee had heard it, and that the Yankees had certainly broken through the centre of our line near General Lee's headquarters, and had captured the whole of General Edward Johnson's division, and that Lee had sent him to me to tell me to march my brigade as soon as possible to the captured works. I told him he had better give his orders to Colonel Hoffman, of the 31st Virginia, as he was the ranking colonel of the brigade. He said he had no time for such politeness, but gave me my orders as he received them. I asked him to take his orders down the line. He said he could not do it, as he had to hurry up another brigade, and that a staff officer was coming up the line to get the brigade under arms. I told him if he would send me a guide he could ‘git’ as soon as he chose. He replied that the staff officer would be my guide. The men fell in line about as soon as I could get mounted, and the staff officer came up a few minutes after, and guided us towards the right, and then towards the left, and after we had marched some two or three hundred yards and had come in sight of the line of unoccupied earthworks to our left, he pointed out a little farmhouse some ten or twelve hundred yards distant, and some four or five hundred yards, apparently, in rear of these works extended, as the headquarters of General Lee. He led us some hundred yards or more almost parallel to these unoccupied works, and then stopped, rather closer than the regulations required, as I thought, to a fine looking body of Confederates, dressed in nice, clean uniforms, that contrasted very strongly with the clothing of those of my brigade.

General Lee in front of Pegram's Brigade.

In the rear of these well-dressed troops I saw four mounted men among them; recognized General Robert E. Lee and Major-General John B. Gordon. General Lee rode towards my brigade, and as soon as I had fronted the men I turned towards him, saluting for my orders. He paid no attention to me, but wheeled his horse [202] to the right, passed through the vacancy between the brigades, took off his hat and rode ‘Traveler’ grandly to the front. He had scarcely got a dozen paces in front of our brigades when General Gordon and an officer on his left, whom I took to be his adjutant, trotted quickly after General Lee, and Gordon, as soon as he reached him, seized ‘Traveler’ by the right cheek of his bit, stopped him, and said to General Lee: ‘You must not expose yourself; your life is too valuable to the army and to the Confederacy for you to risk it so wantonly; we are Georgians, we are Virginians, we need no such encouragement.’ At this some of our soldiers called out, ‘No, No,’ Gordon continuing, said: ‘There is not a soldier in the Confederate army that would not glady lay down his life to save you from harm;’ but the men did not respond to this last proposition. While Gordon was speaking his adjutant rode around the heads of the horses of the two generals and facing his horse in a direction opposite that of General Lee's began to tug at ‘Traveler's’ bit or bridle rein. Looking through an aperture in our breastworks I saw a body of the enemy coming from our left, slowly, and cautiously approaching us.

‘Steady, front!’

I called out to General Lee to come back, the enemy were approaching, and that we could not fight while he was in our front. A number of our men, especially those of Company A, called out: ‘Come back, General Lee; we can't fight while you are in our front;’ and some members of Company A turned their right shoulders to General Lee and their backs to me, but I immediately brought these men into line by a ‘steady, front!’

Neither Lee nor ‘Traveler’ seemed inclined to take a single step backward. And Gordon continued his patriotic address and his adjutant continued tugging at ‘Traveler's’ bridle bit in a comical manner, but the noble presence of General Lee and the eloquent words and graceful bearing of General Gordon relieved this dramatic scene, which might soon have become a dreadful tragedy from every appearance of being a comedy.

‘Come back General Lee.’

On looking out again for the enemy I noticed that they had drawn very close to our earthworks. I called out to General Lee ‘To come back, and come quick; that the enemy were close upon us, and that my men could not fire on the enemy without shooting [203] him.’ A number of my men called out: ‘Come back, General Lee; we wont fight as long as you are before us; come back.’ The decided call of the men seemed to produce a greater impression on General Lee than the eloquence of Gordon, and my curt suggestions. As Traveler could not be easily turned around with a mounted officer on either side of him, facing in opposite directions, the adjutant let go Traveler's bridle, Gordon turned him around to the right, and proudly started to lead him back, and as he was doing so, I called out: ‘Three cheers for General Lee and “Old” Virginia,’ but forgot to add Gordon's name to the list which were given with a will. Before the two generals reached the intervening space between the brigades, Gordon let go his hold of Lee's bridle and dropped behind a short space, Lee as soon as he reached the line of the brigades, turned his horse to the right, close up to mire, and Gordon and his adjutant rode up to the line of the Georgia Brigade.

When General Gordon, amid repeated shouts of ‘Lee, Lee to the rear!’ had approached within eight or ten paces of our line, he found the interval between our two brigades blocked up. A mounted officer had stationed himself on the left of Gordon's brigade, General George Evans commanding. I had remained on the extreme right flank of Early's brigade, where I had placed myself when Lee rode to the front, and the intervening space had been crowded by men of Evans' brigade. Gordon let go his hold of Traveler's bridle, and reined up his horse to fall in behind Lee, and as he did so a member of the Warren Rifles ran forward, seized Lee's horse by the bridle reins, and amid redoubled shouts of ‘Lee, Lee, Lee to the rear! Lee to the rear!’ led him up to the crowd and guided him through the crowders, and I backed my horse to the left to give a freer passage to the riders, and they passed through in single file, and the field of coming carnage resounded with wild shouts of ‘Lee, Lee, Lee!’

[This man is identified by ‘R. D. Funkhouser’ in communication of the Times-Dispatch of Jan. 29, 1905, as Sergeant Wm. A. Compton, of Company D, 49th Virginia Regiment, ‘who is still living and an active business man in Front Royal, Va., to-day.’]

When the Warren Riflemen ran forward, thinks I, that is Sergeant Compton, of Captain Updyke's company; he has disobeyed my order of ‘steady, front!’ but he is a brave soldier and a good file officer, and I would not like to wound his pride. He has rendered [204] Lee all the homage in his power, and when I made way for Lee and his escort to the rear I was glad that a soldier of my regiment had guided Lee back to us and to safety and to sight of his headquarters, where he was much more needed and in much less danger than in front of our fighting line, which was some sixty yards distant from the firing line of the enemy when we started on the charge.

As Lee drew up to me I shoved my horse slightly in advance and turned his head a little in advance of ‘Traveler,’ to intercept if possible any further repetition of such recklessness; and I looked inquiringly at General Lee for some order or for some word, but got none. Just then I saw the heads of the enemy bobbing up in irregular order on the far side of our parapets, and saw the sun rising beautifully above the trees and lighting up the scene of approaching conflict with rich, mellow rays. I said to General Lee: ‘Shall we give them the bayonet, General?’

He answered: ‘Yes.’

Just then the enemy fired a scattering, ineffective volley into our ranks. I called out: ‘No time for fixing bayonets. Charge!’ The men gave the Confederate yell and rushed on the enemy, who fled precipitately. The brigade, instead of stopping in our earthworks, mounted them and pursued the fleeing enemy. About midway of the woods in front of our central line of works we met another body of the enemy, who showed fight. We hurled them back after a sharp little bout. In these woods I found Colonel John S. Hoffman, of the 31st Virginia, in a thicket of bushes, fingering the leaves at his feet, and asked him where he was hit. He said the bushes had knocked his spectacles off and he could not see. I told a man standing near him to find the Colonel's spectacles for him, and if he could not do so to lead the Colonel back to the rear, as he could not see a yard without his specks.

I heard some one call out: ‘They have killed Major Pilcher,’ and saw that some of my own men had fallen. Then I lost my head and became as reckless as any of my men. Rushing them through the woods and coming out myself on their extreme right flank close to a ditch of moderate dimensions, with whitish gray earth thrown out in front, marched across a small branch near the foot of the woods, and up to a bog or morass, which proved to be impassable to man. While we were being here delayed, the 52d Virginia, under Captain Watkins, and the 13th Virginia, under Colonel Terrill, rushed by us at half-speed, leaving the 31st, 58th and 49th Virginia regiments with me. These last avoided the obstacle [205] almost before the orders could be given by a give-way to the left, a left half-flank, a rapid wheel of the left to the right, and a slowdown on the right, and rushed after the enemy, who fled in detached squads like a mob. We did not come up with any of them until after we passed a narrow little ditch. On the far side of this ditch we found a Federal captain with a drawn sword in his hand, and behind him about a score of his men, with guns in both hands. As none of them attempted to use their arms, I demanded their surrender; but as they would not throw their arms down the men bayoneted a few of them, and I told the men to knock them down and take their arms away; but the cracking of skulls of unresisting me grated on my nerves, and I ordered the men to knock their hands away from their guns. I tried to make the captain understand what I meant by surrender, but he held his naked sword in both hands and answered in a language which I had never before heard spoken, sung or acted. It was neither English, French, German, Spanish nor Italian. My men coming up were about to knock him in the head, but I told them to knock his hands away front his sword. I sent the captain and his few surviving men to the rear under a guard of two of my men. This little episode over, I looked to the front and saw some of the enemy on the edge of a pine thicket of very irregular shape, on ground which rose from the ditch and at a distance which varied from 100 to 150 yards from it. We charged them, and they disappeared into the recesses of a thicket. My men were about to follow them when I recovered my senses and ordered a halt.

‘Cease firing.’

My men continued to fire rapidly for several minutes, but as the enemy did not respond, and all I could see by looking in the thicket was a deep hollow, I ordered ‘Cease firing.’ Seeing a body of Confederates close to my right flank, I rode up to the nearest files and asked what men they were, and who was in command. A sergeant answered that they were Gordon's men, Evans' Brigade, that only two regiments and a few files of a third were on that ground; that Evans was not there, and he did not know who commanded them. I told him that I would take the men of his little squad; that the only command I had to give was to keep in general alignment with my right flank, and not to waste his ammunition on the pine thicket; that if any of the enemy were in there they were in a deep hollow. I rode quickly back to my own regiment which had [206] again commenced firing on pine trees, as I thought, and I again stopped them.

Just then some half a dozen men on both sides of the colors of the 49th Virginia cried out that they had been shot from behind, that Colonel Terrell's men had shot them. I told them it was so, and ordered the color-bearer to lower his flag, rode around an acute angle of the pines and thought I saw through the smoke of battle the heads of two or three men of the 52d bobbing over their parapet, and enquired if any of the 31st had been shot; was told that none had been. I then went back and told the 49th that Terrell's men (13th Virginia) had not shot them, and could not have done so without first shooting through the 31st Regiment and the angle of the pines; that the enemy in the rear had seen our flags, although we could not see them, and fired on it. I ordered the men back to the little ditch and to gather the cartridge boxes of the dead and wounded as they went; and rode over the ridge in rear of the ditch and saw a body of the enemy who seemed to be firing in our direction, then rode back to Gordon's men, and seeing General Evans there with a staff officer, explained to him that I had given an order to some of his men in his absence, for which I hoped he would excuse me, and that I came to suggest that his men fall back as far as mine had done. He answered, all right, that only two of his regiments could squeeze through and that he had been in action with the other regiments on another part of the field. I rode back and thought it was time to look up Colonel Terrell; started to ride from the left flank of the 31st up the ditch, as it ran eastward over the hill; had gone only a few paces when the head of a man lying in the ditch bobbed up and said that Colonel Terrell had sent him there to warn me against coming over that hill, that the enemy swept it with a deadly fire; that he had a strong position which he could hold without my assistance, and that he was using two recaptured guns against the enemy. When I came back to my men I examined the ditch; it was about knee deep, with some six or eight inches of grayish white dirt thrown up on the outside, and was presumably a continuation of the ditch which I saw on my right as I came out of the woods, and connecting this with the fact that the enemy I saw in my rear were within the line of a similar stretch of white earth, running eastward and westward, I concluded from the confused and confusing situation in which I found our men, that we had projected a quadrilateral from our main line of works, silly planned and badly executed. The ditch in which my men tried to [207] stand was scarcely two feet wide, and the rear ranks sat down on the surface of the ground behind. I could well see how Johnson's Division could have been rushed, but could not see how they could have been surprised, nor why they did not finish the quadrilateral extension even if they had to work in the night time, nor could I understand that any of them were placed in the main works of our centre, nor that any of the enemy were in the possession of the last line when we charged them.

Ammunition running low—some University Youths take a hand.

Upon inquiry, I found that our ammunition was running low and I sent a man to the rear for more. While he was gone Everett Early, son of William Early, of Albemarle, who had come out as a lieutenant in Captain Wood's company, but who had been exchanged or detailed, on account of his extreme youth, to go to school at the University, came up to me with two University students and said they must have a pop at the enemy. I demurred and said I did not want any University student killed in my regiment, but he insisted, upon the ground that he had formerly been an officer in the regiment. As they were in more danger standing with me a little behind the ditch than in it, I waived my objections. Early picked up a dead man's gun, borrowed several cartridges and together with the men immediately about him fired several rounds at the enemy, then came running out, exclaiming gleefully: ‘I have been shot in the arm, and I would not take a thousand dollars for it. I have got all I wanted, come on boys,’ and was soon lost to sight. Immediately afterwards a member of Captain Horsley's company was found dead in the ditch without any apparent wound; his cartridges were taken from him and he was carried a few paces to the rear and gently laid to rest. About that time the man I sent out for ammunition returned and said he could not find or hear of any. I found our ammunition was nearly exhausted, ordered another man to go out and find John S. Gibson, ordnance officer of the 49th Virginia, and tell him that he must find an ordnance officer and bring us some ammunition very soon, as we were out.

An informal truce and Trading with the enemy.

I then ordered cease firing, and then two of the Federal soldiers in our front, who seemed to be on picket, stuck their bayonets through newspapers and waived them right and left. Some of my [208] men called out that they wanted to trade newspapers. I told them no; it meant a flag of truce. I sent an inquiry up and down the line for a newspaper or a sheet of white paper. None could be found. I heard a laugh in the line, and asking what was the fun, was told that a man said he had a ragged shirt tail, which I could have. I asked the man if he was willing to donate a piece of his shirt tail to the cause for the sake of peace. He said he would be very glad to do so. I told him shirts were very scarce, and he had better take my handkerchief, and handed it to him. He looked at it; saw it was very much soiled, and said he thought his shirt tail would make a much whiter flag of truce. At this there was a general laugh at my expense. A piece of the shirt tail was torn off, bayonet stuck through it, and it was waved aloft on the muzzle of a gun. The enemy saluted with their newspapers and truce was established, which was religiously kept in my front the whole of that day. The second man I sent out for ammunition soon returned; said he had seen Sergeant Gibson, and he had seen the captain of ordnance and they had sent for ammunition.

A Glimpse of General Ewell.

After waiting what I thought a long time, I sent out another man on the same errand, who returned, and said ammunition had been sent for and would soon arrive. I waited for it so very long that I grew anxious, and determined to hunt it up myself; rode to the rear and found that bullets were whistling over the quadrilateral, right and left. I inquired for General Early's headquarters, and was told that he seemed to be riding all over the field that day. [Editor's note: General Early commanded Hill's corps that day, and held both the right and left of Lee's line.] I then inquired for General Ewell's headquarters. Its general direction was pointed out to me; found it after considerable trouble, and saw that the enemy had found it before I had. Ewell was standing before a portable field table with writing material on it, and his staff a short distance in his front, and shells were falling fast and furious all around. General Ewell was wearing an artificial leg in the place of the natural one he lost near Sudley's Mills, and he had lately married a widow whom he was accustomed to introduce as ‘my wife, Mrs. Brown.’ He had become very nervous, and every time a shell exploded near him he would hop his good leg up and curse with the vehemence of an old trooper and the unction of a new church member. I told him of our great need of ammunition. He [209] said he had heard from me two or three times that day and had sent me ammunition, and it would get there before I could.

I briefly explained the situation to the general; told him that the enemy were in our front and rear; that their rear fire swept the ditch between me and Colonel Terrell and this ditch was too shallow to afford protection to any one not lying flat on the bottom of it; that Evans' had withdrawn his two regiments from our right, and that my right flank was entirely exposed

Running into the enemy.

He told General Long to go with me; ,view the situation and do whatever was necessary to protect our brigade. I guided General Long through the woods to about the spot where I first rode out of it. I pointed out the situation of our brigade. He said my right was thoroughly protected by our batteries, but I could not see any of our guns nor any of Gordon's men. I told him I would not be willing to guide him to our brigade. The trip would be too dangerous; that I supposed Ewell knew what enemy were in our rear, and would drive them back. I then galloped to my right. I suppose I rode in my excitement too far to the front, as I came squarely upon a body of the enemy. I waived my hat to them and gave a ‘whoop.’ They responded with cheers. I then turned my horse to the left and rode rapidly to the rear.

I had not gone far when a body of men fired on me and shot my horse, but he managed to bear me to my brigade before he fell and died. Almost immediately afterwards, Sergeant Gibson, with a squad of men, came up bearing a number of large wooden cartridge boxes of fixed ammunition. My share of this much needed ammunition was quickly distributed, and Colonel Terrell's share left. I started to walk to Terrell's command, but a voice from the ditch stopped me with about the same warning that I had received from Terrell, and the additional information that he was driving the enemy back with his two guns; had plenty of ammunition and when he needed my assistance he would call for it.

The balance of the ammunition was then distributed among my men. Some of my men caught a stray horse of unknown ownership, and saddled and bridled him for me. This horse I tied to the wheel of a gun-carriage immediately on my left flank, and the horse was killed before the day was over by the fire on our rear. A six-pounder cannon was standing naked on the line of the ditch, without limber or caison, and no ammunition could be found for serving [210] it. Twice during the evening a member from my regiment was sent to the rear for information, and reported each time that the enemy were advancing on our rear. I went out to see for myself; could not see that they were moving towards us, but found that they had gotten much closer than at first; saw that something was stopping them, and making gaps in their ranks; the second time that I looked towards them their ranks seemed to waiver, and to fade away.

‘The Sulphurous Canopy.’

By this time ‘the war-clouds rolling down’ had so enveloped the earth in ‘sulphurous canopy,’ that it was impossible to see objects any considerable distance. As we then had plenty of ammunition, and it was getting too dark to fight, I grew very brave, and told my men what we would do with the enemy if their heads became visible over the Blue Ridge in our rear. When it began to grow dark, which was before sundown, a guide led our brigade out of the quadrilateral, and rode out behind him, and he marched us to the left of our centre, and we went to sleep that night on an empty stomach, with the proud satisfaction that we had done a good day's work.

Very truly yours;

J. C. Gibson, Colonel 49th Virginia.

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