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Kirkland's Brigade, Hoke's Division, 1864-‘65. [from the Raleigh (N. C.) State, November 19, 1895.]

During the fall and winter of 1864, Longstreet's corps, composed of the divisions of Field, Kershaw, and Hoke, defended the lines on the north side of James river, confronted by General B. F. Butler's ‘Army of the James.’

Late in December Butler's army was sent on its expedition against Fort Fisher, N. C., and Hoke's Division was ordered to proceed to Wilmington to meet Butler. Kirkland's Brigade, the Seventeenth, Forty-second, and Sixty-sixth North Carolina troops, was moved first to Richmond. Having been recruited in winter quarters, the command made a fine appearance marching through the streets of the capital, with three brass bands and three drum and fife corps, its steady step and fine bearing eliciting cheers from the people. Officers and men felt the thrill which comes to the young soldier's heart from ‘the pomp and circumstance of war’ and the approving smiles of woman. The troops were very enthusiastic when told they were going to defend the soil of their native State.

As the railroad from Petersburg to Weldon was closed to us our only route was via Danville, Greensboro, and Raleigh. [166]

Leaving Richmond by the Richmond and Danville railroad, Kirkland's Brigade reached Wilmington, N. C., after a long and fatiguing ride on the cars in extremely cold weather, and Kirkland marched at once with the two regiments which arrived first, viz., the Seventeenth, under Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Sharpe, and Forty-second, under Colonel Brown, for Sugar Loaf, a point a few miles above Fort Fisher. Our horses and wagons had not come, so all of the mounted officers were on foot (as the Irishman would say). On the march at night we heard a loud explosion and saw a great light towards the ocean, which we thought was the bursting of a magazine on one of the Federal ships, and the men gave three cheers. But we afterwards learned it was the explosion of Butler's famous ‘Powder Boat,’ which he thought would scare the poor rebels away.

In the morning we halted at Sugar Loaf. The fleet had been bombarding Fort Fisher, but the enemy had not landed.

The Confederate forces under Bragg, outside of Fort Fisher, consisted of a small body of Senior Reserves, aged from forty-five to sixty, and some little cavalry. It was pitiful to see some of those gray-haired patriots dead in the woods, killed by shells from the fleet. Among those who carried a musket there was Mr. William Pettigrew, brother of the heroic General—now a venerable minister of the gospel.

Kirkland placed one company from the Forty-second, under Captain Koontz, in Battery Gatlin, a small fort on the sea-beach at the southern end of Masonboro Sound, and held the rest of his command on the road covered by the thick woods and dense undergrowth.

I had found a pony at an abandoned farm-house and mounted him, so as to convey orders, but he was new to the business and did not like my spurs. Kirkland ordered me to ride down to the beach to see if there were any signs of landing troops from the transports. I did so, and saw the ships extending as far as I could see down the beach, but no indication of landing. Returning, I reported this to the General, but in a few minutes a soldier came running up, almost breathless, and told us that the enemy had lowered his boats on the side opposite the shore, pulled rapidly to the land and captured Capt. Koontz and his company, but few escaping. We rode down through the woods and found a large force on the beach and more coming, while the woods around us were filled with shrieking shells. General Kirkland promptly ordered his small command forward to the edge of the woods which skirted the shore and deployed both regiments as skirmishers. By his direction I rode down the line and [167] told the men to keep up the fire upon the enemy and cheer as much as they could, but if they were hard pressed to fall back from pine to pine in the direction of Wilmington, and not let the enemy cut us off.

General Butler's forces, being thus very promptly checked, began at once to throw up breastworks on the sand shore. As they consisted of at least six times our number we could not have prevented their advance. But General Butler greatly exaggerated our force, and I have always believed that his examination of Captain Koontz had something to do with his false impression. As it was, these two regiments held his army at bay (or at ocean, perhaps I should say) the entire day, which was Christmas, 1864. By pushing our line close to his we escaped much injury from the ships' guns, their shells passing over our heads. We had the help of Sutherland's Battery of artillery and Lipscomb's South Carolina cavalry. During the night the troops began to come in from our division. But a reconnoissance the next morning showed that General Butler had taken advantage of the darkness, re-embarked his army, and abandoned his expedition.

The navy had bombarded Fort Fisher for two days, but inflicted slight loss. Kirkland's bold and spirited defense must have convinced Butler that we had a large force, as Koontz had told him that Longstreet was there with his three divisions-Hoke, Field, and Kershaw.

The fact is, that we did not have two thousand men of all arms to oppose him, and no infantry except the two regiments of Kirkland's Brigade. Why Butler was considered fit to be a general I don't know, unless his tyranny and oppression of non-combatants qualified him for ‘crushing out the rebellion.’

Soon after this battle, General Bragg, the department commander, ordered Hoke's Division to Wilmington, not expecting a renewal of the attack on Fort Fisher. We marched, with colors flying and bands playing, into the city, and were enthusiastically received by the people as their victorious defenders. General Bragg reviewed the division and made preparations for a new campaign—for the capture of Newbern, N. C. This was kept a secret, but it came to my knowledge. Our brigade had orders to prepare three days rations, and all got ready for a march—destination unknown. But during the very night previous to this intended movement we were suddenly ordered to move to the wharf and take boats down the river to Sugar Loaf, Kirkland's Brigade again in the advance, as the enemy had reappeared in front of Fort Fisher, the army this time being [168] commanded by an able Federal soldier, General Terry. When we reached Sugar Loaf we found that Terry had landed his forces without opposition, and we began skirmishing with them at once. But the enemy had intrenched his line from the ocean across the narrow peninsula to the Cape Fear river, between Sugar Loaf and Fort Fisher. We threw up a line in his front, Sugar Loaf being our base, but were enfiladed by the fire from the enemy's fleet.

Terry's command consisted of two divisions. One of our brigades (Hagood's South Carolina) was detached to the south side of the river to assist Fort Caswell. During the action Colquitt was sent too late to reinforce the garrison of Fort Fisher, leaving Hoke the two brigades of Kirkland and Clingman, with some artillery and Lipscomb's Cavalry regiment, which were confronted by Paine's Division of colored troops and Abbott's white brigade behind intrenchments and protected by the great Federal fleet to rake the intervening space with shot and shell, grape and canister, while Terry with the white forces stormed Fort Fisher. Bragg moved Hoke's two brigades forward to attack. We easily drove in the enemy's skirmish line, occupied their rifle-pits, and our skirmishers were making their main line keep their heads down behind the intrenchments. When we all expected the order to charge, a courier came to Hoke from Bragg, ordering him to withdraw to Sugar Loaf. My recollection is that we confidently expected to run over the troops in our front and drive them in confusion upon Terry's attacking column. But we obeyed orders and fell back to the line at Sugar Loaf, about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and there we laid down, shelled by the ships, and heard the musketry fire at Fisher until its brave garrison was overcome at 11 o'clock that night. The rockets from the fort said, ‘Come and help us,’ but we were not moved; and sad was the sight when the rockets from the ships and display of colored lights and blowing of whistles announced the surrender of the fort. I felt that all had not been done to save it.

General Bragg has been severely censured in the official reports of Whiting and Lamb, and by their friends, for not moving Hoke forward. He said he did not think that Hoke's small force could succeed with the fleet on their flank; and General Hoke since the war has told me that he concurred with Bragg. The impartial reader of history must decide. A Federal colonel, after the surrender at Greensboro, told me he thought if Hoke had advanced Terry would have been beaten. I believe our charge would have been successful, because the troops in front were blacks. [169]

In a few days Terry advanced, and we slowly fell back to Wilmington, Kirkland's Brigade fighting this time as the rear guard, skirmishing behind the pines. The retreat through the city was gloomy indeed, for we had many strong personal friends among its kind and hospitable people. Still forming the rear guard of the column, our brigade crossed North East river on a pontoon bridge very near the railroad bridge, which was burned. I was directed with two companies of the Seventeenth North Carolina to prevent the enemy from crossing by the railroad bridge, to cover the withdrawal of all our cavalry over the pontoon. At this point we had a spirited affair with the enemy from opposite sides of the river, but he was not allowed to cross until our forces were all safely over on our side, when we quietly rejoined our column on the march to Goldsboro. I remember Lieutenant Wilson G. Lamb, with one of the companies of the Seventeenth, as displaying coolness and conspicuous bravery. Indeed, the entire command at the burning bridge was efficient and brave. Our campaign in the barren turpentine peninsula was very uncomfortable. Food was scarce, and we all got smutted by lightwood fires.

In fighting Terry's troops we encountered the first enemy armed with repeating rifles, one of his regiments (I believe the Tenth Connecticut) having Spencer seven-shooters.

Soon after reaching Goldsboro we moved to Kinston, and General Bragg was reinforced by troops from Hood's army, now commanded by General D. H. Hill.

The enemy came out from Newbern under General Cox, and Bragg advanced to meet him at or near Wise's Fork. Hoke's Division was put in motion in the night, Kirkland's Brigade this time leading, and by a long detour through woods and swamps, completely turned the enemy's right and advanced upon his rear.

About noon on the 8th of March, 1865, Hoke formed his division in line for attack, Kirkland's Brigade on the right, and there was no sign that the enemy knew we were in the dense swamp or pocoson behind him. Hoke summoned all his brigadiers to the extreme right for consultation, and these, with their staff officers, made a party of about twenty mounted officers. The General concluded to extend his line still further to the right, and, thinking we were not discovered by the enemy, moved by the right flank-all these horsemen in front, with no skirmish line out, but followed by Colonel John N. Whitford's Battalion of Rangers. Suddenly, while the men were knee-deep in water, a Federal regiment rose up out of the [170] bushes and fired into the head of our column. They had discovered us just in time to throw this one regiment forward. Some of our cavalry in search of buttermilk, had strayed off and aroused the foe. But it was too late. This sudden check to Hoke and his generals was startling, and here the Major-General displayed his genius. He did not order his division ‘Forward into line!’ but raised his hat and shouted to those around him, ‘Make all the men cheer!’ Shout and cheer they did like a tornado among the pines and rushed with great spirit upon the enemy. Hoke thus prevented either his own troops or the enemy from seeing that he was for the moment himself surprised. But this unexpected fire in the rear completely demoralized the forces of General Cox at this point. They fled before us in confusion, leaving several hundred prisoners and a battery of light artillery in our hands, besides their camp and many small arms. Our line was reformed after the pursuit and the division resumed its position on the right of Bragg's army, highly elated at the success of the day. Kirkland's Brigade was in front in this assault.

The next day, March 9th, Bragg attempted a flank movement around the enemy's right—D. H. Hill's command in advance—but found intrenchments and resumed his former position. Again, on the 10th, he moved Hoke around by our right flank to attack the enemy in rear, Kirkland's Brigade in front. After much marching through the swamps and pocosons and dense pine forests, Hoke decided to attack. The enemy showed a very strong skirmish line, which stubbornly resisted Kirkland's battalion of sharp-shooters, commanded by Major Robinson, of the Sixty-sixth, who fought them bravely. On my reporting to Kirkland that Robinson could not drive back the enemy's skirmishers, General Hoke ordered Kirkland to support them with his entire brigade, and we formed line with the Forty-second on the right, Sixty-sixth centre, and Seventeenth on the left, and moved forward. I rode with the Seventeenth, and Major L. J. Johnson, inspector, with the Forty-second, Kirkland with Lieutenant Stoddard in rear of the centre. As we advanced to the front the guide, named Wooten, passed me going to the rear, and said, ‘Captain, your brigade has not gone far enough to the right, and Hoke is doing wrong to attack here.’ Hoke says he told Kirkland to feel the enemy, but not to attack breastworks. But the brigade made a charge through the woods, which were very thick, with great spirit, and drove the skirmishers before them. We encountered a brisk fire of musketry and artillery. As I heard a battery to our right and rear I changed the [171] direction of the Seventeenth, and told them if they would push on they would turn and capture that battery. They sprang forward with a cheer. I was riding on their extreme left, and remember Captain Daniel and Lieutenant Wilson G. Lamb waving their swords and urging on the men. All the field officers of the regiment were on foot except Colonel Nethercutt. As soon as our line emerged from the woods we ran up against a very strongly-intrenched line of the enemy, obstructed by trees they had cut down, and supported by artillery. They poured a hot fire into us and we made our men lie down. I told the Seventeenth, Lieutenant-Colonel Sharpe, to hold their position and I would go to General Kirkland and get reinforcements from our division. I then rode to Kirkland and told him we had struck a strong line of works. He replied, ‘Go back and hold our line, and I will go to Hoke for help.’ During this time the Forty-second had broken its lines and rapidly fallen back, leaving Major L. J. Johnson, our inspector, a prisoner. Colonel Nethercutt tried to force his regiment over the works, and I learned that he rode his horse right up among the obstructions. But the Sixty-sixth followed the Forty-second; then Colonel Sharpe withdrew the Seventeenth, which fell back in good order, shouting defiance to the foe and daring them to come out of those works. The enemy meantime threw out a regiment on our left, which was unprotected. So when I returned to the front, instead of finding friends, I rode into the advance skirmish line of the enemy, as the woods were very thick. Four of them halted me and inquired who I was. The shells and bullets were still falling fast around us, and my captors were dodging and did not make me dismount. I took advantage of this, and told them to put down their guns and go with me or we would all be killed. They foolishly did this and we started towards the rear, or away from danger, as we thought. Suddenly we came upon a Federal regiment in line of battle. My captors made signals not to shoot, and seemed delighted to find friends. I turned my mare and ran off in the opposite direction, both spurs in her flanks. A volley from their skirmishers passed me without harm, and I made excellent time through briers and thickets and over a very wide ditch, and most happily emerged into an open field directly in front of Colquitt's Georgia Brigade. They met me with cheers and laughter, seeing how I was running, and I rejoined my brigade, which had been rallied and reformed into line. Our troops were withdrawn by Hoke and fell back to Kinston. Lieutenant Stoddard was captured, with some men from the Sixty-sixth, and some of our [172] wounded also became prisoners. Our loss was quite heavy, but the spirit of the brigade was not broken.

I have heard that Hoke censured Kirkland for making the disastrous charge on the 10th, but did not hear of it at the time. If Wooten spoke the truth, Hoke should have heeded his advice and moved further to the right. Then we should have turned the enemy and had a complete victory. Kirkland did not know of the existence of the strong breastworks when he charged his men through the woods. I am sure I did not until we came within a very short distance of them. It may be true that Kirkland should have moved slowly until he ascertained the true situation and then reported it to Hoke. I have never seen Lieutenant Stoddard nor Major Johnson since. Our courier was also captured riding my black horse, which I had loaned him that day — a brave and dashing fellow, George Tonnoffski, now living in Raleigh.

Major Johnson was taken North, grew worse and worse with consumption, and died soon after his release, at his home near Woodville, Perquimans county, N. C. His conduct in that fight of the 10th was most daring and knightly. Mounted on a large gray, he was last seen with hat in hand trying to lead the Forty-second over the works. Johnson was a fine lawyer, Christian gentlemen, thorough soldier, and unselfish patriot.

The day was rather a disastrous one for our brigade staff. A few days before our gallant and noble ordnance officer, Lieutenant Theodore Hassell, was killed in an artillery duel between the two armies on the 6th or 7th. First Lieutenant George W. Grimes, of Company G, Seventeenth North Carolina troops, one of the best officers in our command, was severely wounded and captured, and still carries the bullet in his body, suffering great pain therefrom.

The enemy moved up from Newbern, Terry's command came up from Wilmington, and Sherman's great army was coming via Fayetteville. Bragg, with all the odds and ends, and Hoke's and Hill's commands, joined General Joseph E. Johnston at Smithfield, under whom the remnants of our Southern armies were being concentrated. Soon after this followed the great Battle of Bentonsville, in which General Johnston displayed his great ability and his soldiers unequaled valor, fortitude, and heroism. The history of this battle must always be interesting to the student of our war—showing how the Southerners fought when under the most adverse circumstances, and when the cause was almost entirely lost. General Johnston's Narrative, and an article published in the Century war papers by [173] General Wade Hampton, descriptive of this battle, will repay perusal. Kirkland's Brigade is especially mentioned with high praise.

The army bivouacked the night before the battle, March 18, 1865. without fires, on the wet ground, to prevent the enemy from learning the movement. The next morning Colquitt, Clingman, and Hagood were placed in the line under Bragg, with the brigade of North Carolina Junior Reserves on the extreme left and Kirkland's Brigade in reserve, a short distance behind the Juniors. Soon the battle began with the fierce onslaught under Hardee and D. H. Hill on the right, driving the enemy before them. But the Federals assailed our left with vigor, and General Johnston ordered Kirkland's Brigade to relieve the Juniors on the front line. Our entire division held its ground and repulsed the enemy, but unfortunately General Bragg became uneasy and called upon Johnston for help, and Mc-Law's command was withdrawn from Hardee's attacking column and sent to our assistance when not needed.

The next morning, while making a reconnoisance, I lost the faithfill sorrel mare that saved me on March 10th, shot by the enemy's pickets, and I had to ride an ‘old plug’ during the rest of the battle. This was one of the saddest incidents of my experience.

Major Hahr, an accomplished Swede, served as aid-de-camp to General Kirkland during this battle, and was cool and efficient under fire.

When Johnston found that Sherman's right wing was approaching in his rear he changed front to rear on his right wing to meet him. Kirkland's Brigade was directed to deploy and skirmish with the enemy, holding him in check while the army took its new line at right angle to the former. But an opening was left for us in the line of battle at the main road. We fought and slowly fell back until ordered to take our place in the line. Then we moved by the right flank quickly down the road. Coming to the line, the command was given by Kirkland, ‘Into line, faced to the rear!’ The enemy was pressing us closely, but this well-drilled brigade filed into the line, the Seventeenth on the right, and filled the gap—just in time to meet a vigorous charge from Sherman's troops. There were no breastworks, but our men laid down and repulsed the enemy, who left their dead in our front. The right, Company A, of the Seventeenth, commanded by Captain William Biggs, rested on the road, and I was near them, riding the old plug. Biggs made his men stand up in two ranks and wait for the word, and then fired ‘by ranks,’ giving his commands, ‘Rear rank, ready, aim, fire! Load!’ and then, ‘Front rank,’ etc. The volleys were very distinct amid the rattle of ‘firing by file’ all along the line. This [174] fire by rank was very effective, as piles of dead were left in front of this company.

William Biggs was a daring and intelligent officer, distinguished on many occasions. As a journalist after the war, he became a fearless champion of the rights of his people.

General Kirkland says that General Johnston, in a speech in Savannah, discussing the discipline in our armies, referred to Biggs' ‘fire by rank’ as the only exception to the irregular fusilade of fire by file which he heard during the war.

General Johnston paid a high compliment to the brigade while the fight was going on. Captain C. A. King, of Hardee's staff, rode up to headquarters with a report from the front, and General Johnston asked, ‘Who is responsible for this heavy firing?’ King replied, ‘The enemy are attacking Kirkland's Brigade.’ Whereupon General Johnston turned to General Hardee, and said, ‘I am glad of it. I would rather they attack Kirkland than any one else.’

On the same day the North Carolina Brigade of Junior Reserves on Kirkland's left and temporarily attached to his command—all boys under eighteen years old—fought heroically, with all the spirit and ardor of youth, and shouting with every volley. The conduct of these youths and their able commanders was greatly praised throughout the army.

Sherman failed to break the Confederate line, and Johnston, finding the immense host concentrated in his front, withdrew to Smithfield without being pursued, and Sherman turned towards Goldsboro for supplies and recuperation. Sherman in his report treats this as a drawn battle—equivalent to admitting a defeat, as his forces outnumbered Johnston's four to one.

Every State in the South and almost the entire North, was represented on the bloody field of Bentonsville. The gallant Kirkland and his surviving followers will always feel proud of the record they made there. With this engagement our conflicts in the field were ended. The retreat began which ended in Johnston's surrender, and the brigade was disbanded at Center Church, Randolph county, North Carolina.

May the blessings of Providence attend every survivor of this devoted band ‘unto his life's end!’

Charles G. Elliott, Late Captain and Assistant Adjutant-General. Norfolk, Va., November, 1895.

[175] [From the Richmond Dispatch, November 24. 1895 ]

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