The battle at Bethesda Church.One among the bloodiest Contests of the great war of the Sixties—The Color-bearer killed.
Graphic description of it by Lieutenant Colonel C. B. Christian.
The sharp combat at Bethesda Church, on the afternoon of May 30, 1864, was the beginning of the series of battles at Cold Harbor, which wound up by the decisive repulse of Grant on June 3rd. Our loss on that occasion, except in Pegram's brigade, was small, says General Early in his report, which is found in Vol. 51 Part 1, Serial 1, of the War Records, Serial Number 107. He was at that time commanding Ewell's corps. Colonel Edward Willis, of Georgia, and Colonel J. B. Terrill, of the Thirteenth Virginia, had both been named as Brigadier Generals, but were killed ere their commissions reached them. Willis was .a brilliant young officer of great promise and of distinguished service. A West Pointer by training, he had won a name which will live in the annals of the Army of Northern Virginia. Colonel J. B. Terrill was a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute; had long commanded the Thirteenth Virginia with great courage and skill, succeeding James A. Walker and A. P. Hill as colonel of a regiment which had no superior in the Confederate Army. His brother, General Terrill of the United States Army, was a West Pointer, and had been killed at Perryville, Ky. Colonel Christian's account of this combat gives us a picturesque glimpse of the charge of the Forty-ninth Virginia Regiment, which made its mark under Colonel (Governor) William Smith, at First Manassas, and sustained its reputation to the close of its career. Colonel Christian was a V. M. I. man and one of those sturdy fighting men who always had ‘his place in the picture by the blasting of the guns.’ His adventures from Bethesda Church to Morris Island, bring vividly before the mind the days that verily ‘tried men's souls.’  The army was so steadily fighting at the time of this action that reports were scant, and Colonel Christian is doing his State and his comrades worthy service in thus giving his memory of valiant deeds.
Editor of The Times Dispatch:Sir,—This was the bloodiest fight of our Civil War considering the number engaged on our side. The per cent. in killed and wounded was three times as great as that of the French at the battle of Waterloo. The loss of officers was full ninety per cent. of all engaged (mostly killed). It was there the dashing Colonel Edward Willis, of the Eighty-Second Georgia (in temporary command of our brigade), was killed. His staff officer the chivalrous young Lieutenant Randolph, of Richmond, also was killed; 'twas there the brave Colonel J. B. Terrill, of the Thirteenth Virginia, ended his useful career, as did, also, Major Watkins, the brave soldier of the Fifty-second. 'Twas there Colonel J. C. Gibson, like an old ‘war-horse,’ always scenting the battle in the breeze, came down from the hospital on one leg and got the other shattered to pieces. In fact, every field officer, and nearly every company officer, in the brigade, present in action, was either killed, or wounded. General Lee's lines were formed at right angle to the—— road leading down James River near second Cold Harbor. Then enemy on our front shifted their position and threw up earthworks lower down the road, and parallel to it. Orders came to Early's old brigade (the Fourth Virginia), composed of the Forty-ninth, Fifty-second, Fifty-eighth, Thirty-first, and Thirteenth Regiments, to march down the road and make a reconnoissance preliminary to second Cold Harbor battle. Our regiment, the Forty-ninth Virginia, having lost nine color-bearers in the battle from Wilderness to Richmond, I went down the line to select another, I came to a tall, lanky beardless boy, from the mountains of Amherst, with a ‘red cap’ on, so soon to die, but to die game. I said, ‘Orendorf, will you carry the colors?’ He replied, ‘Yes, Colonel, I will carry them. They killed my brother the other day; now damn them let them kill me too.’ He took  the flag, so soon to be his winding sheet, and the brigade was marched out and down the road, the Forty-ninth at its head, for some distance, and halted, General Ramseur ‘bossing the job.’ I then heard a single piece of artillery firing at intervals in a strip of woods on the left, and being at the head of the column I heard General Ramseur say to General Early: ‘General, let me take that gun out of the wet.’ General Early vigorously advised and protested against it. Ramseur insisting, General Early finally acquiesced in the move. The brigade was fronted to the left and the advance started. The gun immediately retired to the works as a decoy and no resistance was made to our advance then. Presently we came to a level, open field, one-half mile across, and could see on the opposite side at the edge of another strip of timber behind which artillery was massed—heavier than I had ever seen, unless it was at Malvern Hill, although I had been in every battle of the war, from First Manassas down, fought by the Army of Northern Virginia; and bayonets bristling as thick as the ‘leaves of Vallambrosa,’ supported by three distinct lines of battle, as will hereinafter appear. They had evidently taken the exact range to the edge of the woods. As soon as the brigade was well into the open fields the enemy opened with the heaviest and most murderous fire I had ever seen with grape, canister and musketry. Our veterans of a hundred fights knew at a glance that they were marching up to die, but like the old guard under Cambranne at Waterloo they preferred to die, rather than to waver. Our line melted away as if by magic—every brigade, staff and field officer was cut down, (mostly killed outright) in an incredibly short time. I brought our regiment, (the Forty-ninth Virginia), to a ‘right-shoulder shift arms’ to prevent firing and breaking ranks during the charge and pushed at a run through this maelstrom of death and carnage. The men who usually charged with the ‘rebel yell’ rushed on in silence. At each successive fire, great gaps were made in our ranks, but immediately closed up. We crossed that field of carnage and mounted the parapet of the enemy's works and poured a volley in their faces. They gave way, but two lines of battle, close in their rear, rose and each delivered a volley into our ranks, in rapid succession. Some of  our killed and wounded fell forward into the enemy's trenches —some backwards outside the parapet. Our line already decimated was now almost annhilated. The remnants of the regiment were formed and sheltered behind a fence (to shoot over) just outside of the parapet, and continued the unequal struggle, hoping for support that never came. But not so with the little red-cap color bearer. He stood erect within twenty feet of the muzzles of the enemy's guns and waved his flag defiantly in their faces. They must have hesitated to kill him in admiration of his bravery. Though finally a heavy gun was trailed on him not twenty yards distant. His little ‘red cap’ flew up ten feet, one arm went up one way, the other another-fragments of his flesh were dashed in our faces. They had ‘killed him, too.’ The Forty-ninth was the extreme right of our line. The enemy's line overlapped, outflanked and encompassed us. It seemed we were shot at from everywhere. Finally the brave old Captain Stratton from Nelson, said: ‘Colonel, in five minutes you won't have a man left, let them surrender!’ Seeing the futility of continuing the unequal struggle of three officers and eighteen men against twenty thousand of the enemy, I said: ‘Captain, that is so, let them surrender, but I'll be hanged if I will.’ Eugene Flippin, of Lowesville, (whose leg had just been torn off), lying close by, heard this and raised a so-called white flag, red with blood and black with powder, and the enemy ceased firing. The little remnant of the Forty-ninth Virginia Regiment stood up at an order arms, after which the writer started to run the gauntlet of death and cut his way out, if possible. I got about fifty yards and cleared the men when, as General Anderson, who commanded the Pennsylvania reserves we were fighting afterwards told me, three thousand shots were fired at me, all at once. One of the first struck me between my ear and head, but was turned out by a double gold cord around my hat, cutting off a small piece of my ear, and while falling I was shot through both shoulders, but fell in a deep water furrow, which saved me from being riddled. I had already been shot in the throat. Later they threw out a line of skirmishers these advanced to where I lay—a sandy-haired fellow leveled his gun at me and ordered me  up. I told him I was wounded and perhaps bleeding to death. He gazed at me an instant and soliloquized: ‘What a likely fellow! What a pity! What a pity!’ and moved on a few yards, when a shot from the woods fatally wounded him. He came staggering back, saying, ‘Johnny Reb, please kill me’—fell a few yards off crying out with pain—got up and staggered a few yards further—fell and all was hushed in death. The skirmish line then retired into the trenches until after dark, when they covered the ground and commenced removing the wounded. The enemy treated me with great consideration and kindness. I was the ranking living officer of the brigade they had to deal with. General Anderson (I think that was the officer's name), who commanded the Pennsylvania reserves, whom we fought, had me carried on a stretcher to his headquarters, administered whiskey to me with his own hands as I was cold and chilly-offered me something to eat—gave directions that I should have special medical attention and said that ‘I, and every man I had, should be well treated—that he had never seen men come up at a ‘right-shoulder shift arms’ and meet death like mine did before.’ He asked me specially about the ‘red cap’ ‘color bearer,’ whose taking off he saw. The next morning I was taken to a field hospital in the beautiful yard of Dr. Brockenbrough, the brother of my old friend, Judge John W. Brockenbrough, and his tiny little girl bravely came into the enemy's tent with the maimed and dying and fed with a spoon her fallen defender. (God bless her.) All of their ambulances being engaged hauling their own wounded to the ‘White House’ for shipment North, they fitted up a spring wagon drawn by four horses, by filling the body with pine tags, specially for me alone, and detailed one of my own men, slightly wounded, to wait on me. On my arrival at the wharf, while waiting, my three officers—Captain Stratton, Lieutenant Reid, and Lieutenant Anderson (under gurad), found me in the wagon. I made one of the ‘Sanitary Commission,’ constantly passing, dispensing every known delicacy to eat and to drink to their wounded, give them a drink of French brandy, and made the driver fill their haversacks from the barrel of privisions in the wagon. I never saw but one of them again. I was shipped hence to Lincoln Hospital, Washington, D. C.  While lying on my cot afterwards I could hear the boom of General Early's guns around the walls of the city, after having chased Hunter down the Valley from Lynchburg, and I heard the Yankees say, ‘I believe the rebels will get in in spite of us.’ After weary months in Washington, during which time I was shown many kindnesses and attentions from Southern sympathizers, I was carried to Fort Delaware prison. After a lapse of some time I was drawn in with the lot of six hundred officers to be carried to ‘Morris Island,’ to be placed under the fire of our own guns at Charleston. We were crowded in the dark hole of the vessel, only equal to the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta,’ and packed on shelves like goods in a store, without any light or air, except that driven down a shaft by wind-sails. On our arrival at our destination we were put in a ‘stockade pen,’ between ‘Fort Wagner and Fort Gregg,’ and guarded by a negro regiment. For forty-five days we sat upon the sands and witnessed the burning fuses from bombs, larger than nail kegs continuously fired night and day by our men at the forts. If they overshot the one or undershot the other they'd hit us. But that God that marks even the sparrow's fall, protected us. On the eve of our leaving for ‘Hilton Head,’ the negroes on guard fired into some of us. I saw three fall either killed or wounded; they were hurriedly moved out. I never learned their fate. On our arrival in ‘Port Royal Harbor’ we cast anchor eight miles out from shore. Three of our number got the cabin maid to steal them life preservers from the cabins and quietly slid overboard where sharks were as thick as minnows. Two were exhausted from thirst and lack of food and were captured on Pinkney Island; the third reached Charleston. The six hundred officers were now divided—three hundred were confined in Fort Pulaski and three hundred at Hilton Head. We had ‘jumped out of the frying pan into the fire.’ We were all put under what they call ‘retaliation,’ for forty-five days. They claimed that we starved their prisoners at Andersonville (not having much to feed them, as they had cut our lines and refusing to exchange), and with all their Christianity and philanthrophy they held it was right for them to starve us as a vicarious punishment for the sins of others. They gave us absolutely nothing at all to eat for forty-five days but a little  rotten cornmeal filled with black bugs, without salt or anyway, to cook it. Our comrades were dying by squads daily, the dead house was filled all the time with the corpses. Scores of cats would enter through holes and prey upon the dead. Some of us would put bags over the holes through which the cats entered, and some would go in with clubs, and soon we would have a full supply of cats. They were eaten ravenously by the starving officers, as Lieutenant Peary's men ate their comrades. At last we were ordered back to Fort Delaware. The remnant of the six hundred left that Yankee hell, where Southern braves cried for bread and fed on cats, gorged with the corpses of their dead comrades. We reached Fort Delaware a short time before the surrender. One morning I was aroused by a familiar ‘rebel yell’—looked out and saw the flags dropping at half mast and heard that Booth had killed Lincoln. Soon all privates and line officers were paroled, and sixty field officers were held in prison until August. In conclusion I will say that some years ago Captain James Bumgardner, of Staunton, who was an officer in the Fifty-second Virginia Regiment, next on the left of the Forty-ninth, told me that his regiment also had only three officers and eighteen men left. Thus and there at Bethesda Church well nigh perished one of the grandest corps of men the world has ever known-made up of the best young blood of Virginia, fighting for their ‘Lares and their Penates’—their exploits would brighten the fairest name upon the roll of Battle Abbey, and vie with the knightliest of any age. A brigade that had been led to victory by General Early and others on a hundred battlefields; that had swept everything before it like a tornado; a brigade under whose flag you had fought and bled; a brigade that had furnished to the Confederacy four or five generals: Early, William Smith, A. P. Hill, J. A. Walker and J. B. Terrell (whose commission was on its way to him when he fell), thus to be slaughtered. The absent wounded returned; the ranks were recruited by conscription, but this historic old Fourth Virginia Brigade died then and there at Bethesda Church. Your friend and comrade,