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Account of Dr. William W. Smith.

The story as related by Dr. William W. Smith, of Ashland, Va., then a private of the 49th Virginia Infantry, now president of the Randolph-Macon College system:

On the eighth and ninth our regiment, the 49th Virginia, was not in action, but was moved from point to point, and on the tenth we were in the third line, and though not called on to support the front, were under heavy shelling. On the afternoon of the eleventh we were marched vigorously to a new position on the rear of the left side of the salient, which was to be rechristened the next day as the ‘bloody angle.’ We stopped, worn and weary, in a plowed field, and in a few minutes this particular part of the regiment was fast asleep in a furrow, let come what might. About a half hour before day we were awakened, marched quietly to the front, and placed behind the front line of battle in the trenches. (I think Hayes's Louisiana brigade.) On the way we passed a place where the enemy [211] had broken through our lines and had been driven out by a counter charge. It is said to have been done in the fight on the tenth. The front of our line was was well sprinkled with the enemy's dead, and about a score were piled at one point in our trenches.

Waiting for the charge.

We were told to expect a charge from the dense pine woods just in front of us, possibly some hundred yards away. It was so thick that nothing in it could be seen, and we simply waited with guns cocked until it should deliver up its contents. Cartridges were torn and caps laid out (we had muzzle-loading Enfield rifles) that no time should be lost in reloading; we could not hope for more than two shots before it came to a question of cold steel, and few of our men had bayonets. Personally, the boy volunteer was better off for such work, for having been wounded in the hand in an earlier action, so as not to be able to load an Enfield, he had seized a breech-loading Sharp's carbine from the cavalry, and could count on four or five shorts before coming to close quarters.

We lay thus expectant until just dawn, when on our right, perhaps some five or six hundred yards away, we heard the Yankee ‘Hussa! hussa! hussa!’ and then a rattling fire of small arms, lasting but a quarter of an hour at most. ‘Why don't they come on? they gave it up easy,’ was our thought, when, to our surprise, we saw our men running from the trenches in the salient on our right. The enemy had taken the works! Our first emotion was surprise and amazement that our troops had lost so easily; there had been no fight.

Trouble ahead.

Our next was alarm at the situation; for veterans as we were we could see the seriousness of the disaster. It seemed that a whole corps, massed on a division front, had broken our line right in the centre, and were now pouring into the position that would enfilade both sides, and with small advance take our forces in the rear and compel the retreat of Lee's army, and that, too, at day break, with all day to complete the disaster and turn the retreat into a rout. The situation produced alarm but not fear. It was a great emergency to be promptly and heroically met. Our officers were not wanting. In a few minutes our brigade was thrown almost to right angles to the breastworks we had been set to defend, and marching to the right, made, with Gordon's Georgians, who were on our right, [212] the bar of an A across the angle. It was an hour of destiny. The thin line stood confronting the massing enemy in our trenches only some two hundred yards away; obscured they were, it is true, by the underbrush and in some cases by the contour of the land, but ready to push forward to the capture of the parked reserve artillery ammunition just behind us.

General R. E. Lee appears.

General Lee's headquarters were but a short distance away, and a few minutes would decide whether the grand Army of Northern Virginia, which had sent so many Federal generals to defeat, would fall before this first strong attack of General Grant. A moment later I noticed a quiet officer ride in front of our line. He was a large man on an iron gray horse, and had come up without retinue, even, I think, without a single staff officer or orderly. It was when he turned face towards us and with a silent gesture of extended arm pointed towards the enemy we recognized our idolized Lee. Already the bullets were zipping past, aimed chiefly at the struggling remnant of Johnson's division, that had been overwhelmed in the trenches. What if one should kill Lee? ‘Get in front of him, keep the bullets off,’ was the instinctive feeling of each man.

Lee to the rear.’

Just then from the right General J. B. Gordon came dashing down the line. At the sight of Lee he reined up his handsome bay so sharply as to throw him on his haunches. It was a picture never to be forgotten. ‘General Lee, this is no place for you. Go back, General; we will drive them back. These men are Virginians and they have never failed me; they will not fail me; will you boys?’ Then rose the oft-quoted shout: ‘General Lee to the rear! Lee to the rear!’ ‘Go back, General, we can't charge until you go back.’ ‘We will drive them back, General.’ Some one got hold of his bridle and back through the line of the 49th Regiment Lee was led. The whole scene was not fifty paces from where I stood, and stands out like a glorious picture to-day.

“Forward!” cried Gordon, and the line stepped off with the steady tread of a dress-parade. There was no shout, no rebel yell, but, as I looked down the line, I saw the stern faces and set teeth of men who have undertaken to do a desperate deed, and do not intend to fail.


Lees eyes upon them.

With the freedom of the volunteer, I said to those next me: ‘Pass it down the line, boys; General Lee is looking at us.’ ‘Aye, and depending upon us, too,’ and the silent line moved on with long, swift strides. In a few moments we marched down into the bottom, then rising, parted the undergrowth, and were upon them, packed thick as blackbirds in our trenches. A fearful volley wrought havoc and started those in advance to get back to their line. Those behind, seeing these returning, became alarmed. Without pausing to reload, we rushed upon them, so quickly, indeed, that we did not give them time to run. Many surrendered upon demand; some gave us the bayonet. With these we had a short, stern argument, using chifly our clubbed guns. My gun being too short for such use and quite handy to load, I gave my stubborn opponent, who refused to surrender, the leaden contents at short range, and passed on after finding that he was beyond the need of assistance from me. As we rushed on, hundreds threw up their hands and said: ‘I surrender,’ but we could not afford to send men back from the charging line with prisoners, and would say: ‘Throw down your guns and go the rear.’ Many did so; many obliqued to the left and finally escaped and joined their comrades, but we passed on, driving the ruck before us.

Presently I saw before our advancing line, to my left a fresh line of Yankees rise from the ground in perfect array. Our line, pressing through the underbrush and also through a swampy place, was disorganized, every man pressing forward for himself after the fleeing foe, and when it was confronted by this new force, my heart was in my mouth as I looked for their volley. But, strange to say, ours fired first, and it seemed to me that the enemy just laid down again, such tremendous slaughter was wrought. The force made no further fight and surrendered as we ran over them and finally established ourselves in the abattis, about two hundred yards in front of the enemy's trenches. This post we held until about 4 o'clock, being continually under fire, and firing ourselves until our ammunition was exhausted. My little gun became so foul that I could not press the breech lock into place. I had to stop in the midst of the battle and with my gun-screw take it to pieces and clean it. It was here that our loss was the heaviest. Late in the afternoon we could see the enemy forming a heavy line to retake the gap, and we were ordered to retire to the works we had recaptured. [214] This we did without interruption, but found that our charge had left about two hundred yards of the trenches, in the apex of the angle on the left, unassailed, and these were now filled with Yanks. So we held part and they part of the same line of breastworks, a very uncomfortable cotenantcy. Nine times that night, until nearly 10 o'clock, they tried to get the whole, but we would not let them have it. Many times into that half acre of blood did General Lee send regiment after regiment, made up of organized cooks, released men from the guard houses, or even men who had been wounded, but who could still shoot. But this, too, was in vain. The enemy held the angle. The concentrated fire in this inferno cut down two trees, each as large as a man's body. At last Lee gave up the murderous attempt and drew a new line connecting his wings, leaving out the angle. The battle had raged from 4 A. M. to 10 P. M.

William W. Smith, Company C, 49th Virginia Infantry, C. S. A.

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