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[335]

Major-General Johnson at Spotsylvania. From the times-dispatch, November 26, 1905.

The Confederate General who met bayonets of enemy with a cane.


Wonderful fighting then. Graphic story of the Spotsylvania fight told by Major Robert Hunter.


Major Robert W. Hunter is one of those soldiers of Virginia and the Confederacy to whose name may be written ‘from Manassas to Appomattox.’

In the first battle he was in the Second Virginia Infantry of the Stonewall Brigade, and in the closing scene at Appomattox was on the staff of Major-General John B. Gordon, of Georgia, who afterwards became the successor of Jackson, Ewell and Early as commander of the Second Corps.

He was in Jackson's and in Early's Valley campaigns alike, and in all the great battles in which the famous Second Corps participated. Did he write his reminiscences, as it is hoped he may, there is no man living who could relate more of the vivid scenes of the wondrous story of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Enclosed is an account taken from his lips of the Bloody Angle of Spotsylvania, on the 12th of May. It is a finality on the question which sometimes has been raised by the uninformed with respect to Major-General Edward Johnson. So far from being surprised, he was most diligent and active to prevent the catastrophe which resulted, and his report shows it; but I will not anticipate Major Hunter's story. He became adjutant-general of Johnson's division shortly after the battle of Gettysburg, where Major Benjamin Watkins Leigh, his predecessor, was killed. Gallantly did he serve throughout the war, and on that terrific day at Spotsylvania, which he graphically recounts, Major-General Edward Johnson (‘Old Alleghany,’ as the soldiers called him, on account of his sturdy fighting on Alleghany mountain), has never received the notice to which his long, arduous and great services and his notable feats of arms entitled him.

His adjutant-general, Major Hunter, who is as accomplished with [336] the pen, as with the sword, has done much to pluck from the wave of oblivion the names and deeds of some of our bravest and best. It is hoped that he will give to history an account of his chief which will do justice to one who was not only a fine commander of many exploits, but is also a modest gentleman.

Early's old division and Johnson's also were changed after the battles of the Wilderness, on the 5th and 6th of May. On the 8th of May, A. P. Hill being sick, Major-General Early was put in command of his corps.

General Stafford, of Louisiana, having been killed, the two Louisiana brigades of Hays and Stafford, both of which were small, were consolidated under General Harry T. Hays. He was wounded on May 10th, and they were now at Spotsylvania, under Colonel Zebulon York.

R. D. Johnson's North Carolina brigade had been assigned to Early's division, and on May 6th and on the 12th of May the two divisions of Early and Johnson were composed as follows:

(1) Early's old division, under Gordon, consisted of Pegram's Virginia brigade of five regiments, under Colonel J. S. Hoffman; Gordon's Georgia brigade of six regiments, under Colonel C. A. Evans, and the North Carolina brigade of four regiments, under Brigadier-General R. D. Johnson; in all, fifteen regiments.

(2) Major-General Edward Johnson's division consisted of Brigadier-General Geo. H. Steuart's brigade of two North Carolina and three Virginia regiments; John M. Jones' old brigade (general having been killed May 5th), under Colonel V. A. Witcher, which consisted of six Virginia regiments, and also of Brigadier-General Harry T. Hays' consolidated brigade of ten regiments, under Colonel York, and the old Stonewall brigade of five Virginia regiments, under Brigadier-General James A. Walker; in all, twenty-six regiments, many of which were remnants.



Major Hunter's story.

On the night of May 11th, 1864, Major-General Edward Johnson sent me back of his line of battle at Spotsylvania to Lieutenant-General Ewell to tell him he was sure that the enemy would attack his division next morning, the 12th; that they were massed in his front, and that there was every manifestation of intended assault; [337] also, that the position could not be held without the artillery, which had been moving off. I rode to General Ewell and gave him the message. General Ewell said that ‘General Lee had positive information that the enemy was moving to turn his right flank, and had been so informed by the most reliable scouts, and that it was necessary for the artillery to move accordingly.’ I rode back to General Johnson, who was at the McCool House. He was lying down in the house. I told him I could not impress General Ewell with his views, and that he had better go and see him in person.

General Johnson arose and said: ‘I will go at once,’ and mounting his horse, he and I rode to General Ewell, who was in another house not far off, lying down, and apparently very uneasy. He got up and told General Johnson that he had told me as to General Lee's information, but was soon convinced by General Johnson that the assault would be made. Colonel William Terry, of the Fourth Virginia Infantry, Stonewall brigade, who had charge of the front line, had told General Johnson of his observations, and had been so close to the enemy that he could hear their talk as they massed together. General Ewell then sent orders for the artillery to be returned to our front, close up, and General Johnson, on his return to the McCool House, instructed me to issue a circular of warning and direction.

Circular order of precaution.

I at once drew up a note for each brigade commander to sign and rode with it to each one of them in person, viz: to Brigadier General J. A. Walker, Brigadier General George H. Steuart, Col. V. A. Witcher, and Colonel Zebulon York. Each one did sign it in acknowedgement of receipt, and it enjoined the orders it contained. The circular stated that all the indications pointed to an assault on our lines at daylight; that the artillery had been ordered to return, and that every brigade should be provided with ample ammunition, and be prepared to repel the enemy. It wound up with expressing the admonition to the utmost diligence in being ready.

On the qui vive before daybreak.

Returning from this visit to the brigade commanders, I laid down on the floor of the McCool house, in the same room with General Johnson and our division staff—all of us in our clothes—ready to leap to horse at a moment's notice. In the dark, [338] just before dawn, couriers came in from the Stonewall Brigade and others, stating that the enemy were stirring. We rose, and mounted our horses, and before dawn General Johnson and his attendants were out on the lines. General Johnson, Major Kyd Douglas, Capt. V. Dabney, Major E. L. Moore and myself. The men were roused in the trenches, and before day the whole division was on the qui vive. The fog was so dense we could not see in any direction, but soon we could hear the commands of officers to the men, and the buzz and hum of moving troops. The pickets had been driven in, with occasional shots here and there, and there was instant expectation of a coming assault.

The first thing we saw was a mass of men—indistinctly visible through the fog—moving in front of our position. Our left was the Stonewall Brigade, under General J. A. Walker. Then came the Louisianians of Hays and Stafford's brigades under Colonel Zebulon York; then John M. Jones' old brigade under Colonel V. A. Witcher, and then the right under Brigadier General George H. Steuart. The massing men were in front of York and Witcher. General Johnson ordered me to tell Steuart to press on to his left close to Witcher, and then to hurry up the artillery. I ran on foot rapidly, called for General Steuart, and not finding him instantly, I myself gave the officers and troops directions to close to the left. It was then that I saw our artillery coming in position, and the fire broke out with a rush of the enemy upon our ranks. The artillery I met was the battery of Captain William P. Carter, brother of Colonel Thomas H. Carter, the battalion commander. Two guns of this battery fired before the enemy ran over them.

Fighting with his cane.

The storm had burst upon us. I could see General Johnson with his cane striking at the enemy as they leaped over ths works, and a sputtering fire swept up and down our line, many guns being damp. I found myself (as I had my sword out waiving to General George H. Stuart to crowd in toward the left) in the midst of foes, who were rushing around me, with confusion and a general melee in full blast. I also saw General Johnson with his cane striking in the crowd and warding bayonets. Having on a black rain overcoat, which had been picked up on a battlefield, I showed no official mark or uniform to distinguish who or what I was. [339]

A dozen Yankees could have caught me, for they were on all sides. I ran about amongst then until I came upon an artillery horse of Carter's battery, jumped on him, and sinking in my spurs, galloped to the rear, with bullets buzzing around me. As I galloped away in this fashion, the Yankees sent shots after me, but I escaped unhurt. Many of our men were now running back, and the line was breaking.

Lee riding to the front.

As I was thus getting away, and I had not gone but a few hundred yards to the rear, when the first man I met facing toward our lines was General R. E. Lee. He was mounted on Traveller, and with his hat off was endeavoring to halt the retreating men. I saw in a moment that General Lee did not know the extent of the trouble in front, and hailed him with the exclamation: ‘General, the line is broken at the angle in General Johnson's front.’ His countenanee instantly changed, and he said: ‘Ride with me to General Gordon’ (General Gordon was in charge of Early's division in reserve, General Early being in command of A. P. Hills, the Third Corps). I rode with General Lee about two hundred yards or more to our left rear, as we faced the enemy, and quickly came upon Pegrams's brigade (which was under Colonel J. S. Hoffman), and which had Gordon's old brigade, under Colonel C. A. Evans, on our left. We soon found General Gordon, who was forming his men, with a skirmish line in front, and the regiments were aligning behind them. General Lee met Gordon in front of Pegram's brigade, and then there was the scene of ‘Lee to the rear,’ which has been so often described, Gordon exhorting and the men clamoring for General Lee to go back. As Lee retired through Gordon's line Pegram's Virginia brigade, and both that brigade and Evan's also moved forward.

Major Hunter in command.

General Lee then said to me: ‘Major Hunter, collect together the men of Johnson's division and report to General Gordon.’ I immediately called for Johnson's men who were scattered about the valley, Captain Virginius Dabney, of General Johnson's Staff, assisting me. I saw Captain Harman, of the Second Virginia Infantry, and other officers, who actively exerted themselves to get the men [340] who had escaped capture to form in line. In half an hour we had succeeded in getting together some three or four hundred men, with officers here and there of various ranks. There were ten (10) Louisiana regiments (fragments), two (2) North Carolina and eight (8) Virginia regiments in Johnson's division, and the remnants of these, which had not been captured, were intermingled together when reformed. They made a pretty good regiment ready for battle. I took command of them and marched them forward to General Gordon's assistance, reporting to him for duty.

Robert W. Hunter, Major and Assistant Adjutant of Major-General Edward Johnson's Division.

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