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Battle of Sailor's Creek. [from the Richmond Dispatch, March 29, 1896.]

Recollections of one who participated in it. A part taken by Hunter's Brigade. A charge that was an inspiring sight. No fear of the Cavalry.

To the Editor of the Dispatch:
Responding to your call of the 15th instant, I will give my own recollections of the battle of Sailor's Creek, which was fought on the 6th of April, 1865, just three days before the surrender at Appomattox. I was at that time captain of Company F, 8th Virginia Infantry, Hunton's Brigade, Pickett's Division. In this account I shall speak of this division in general, and of Hunton's Brigade in particular.

It should be borne in mind that our brigade was not involved in the disaster that befell the rest of our division at Five Forks on the 1st day of April. We had been left behind when Pickett was ordered to support Fitz. Lee at Five Forks, and were engaged in the battle of Gravely Run on the 31st of March, fighting Warren's Corps, and keeping him from reinforcing Sheridan. That day Pickett and Fitz. Lee drove Sheridan back to Dinwiddie Courthouse. But the next day the tables were turned, and Sheridan, reinforced by two corps of infantry, assailed Pickett on all sides and drove him, with heavy loss and in great confusion, from the field. The result was that when we rejoined him that evening our brigade was, perhaps, the larger half of the division. We had more men present for duty than all the other brigades put together.

The turning of our right was followed immediately by an assault upon our thin lines in front of Petersburg, and the long struggle for the defence of Richmond was over. Many were the sad hearts when the retreat began, but it never occurred to some of us that the end of the war was near at hand. We believed in the righteousness and in the ultimate success of our cause, and we viewed the retreat from [84] Richmond and Petersburg, not as an irretrievable disaster, but only as a prolongation of the war. We were falling back to an interior line behind the Staunton or Dan, where Lee and Johnston could unite their forces and turn first upon one and then upon another of the pursuing armies. This plan would doubtless have been carried out but for the inexcusable failure of our government at Richmond to have supplies at Amelia Courthouse on our line of retreat, as ordered by General Lee. The delay caused by the necessity of gathering supplies from the surrounding country was fatal to Lee's plans. The enemy gained on us, headed us off from Burkeville, and forced us to take the road to Farmville and Lynchburg.

Forced the battle.

No fighting of any consequence occurred until the 6th of April, when Sheridan, by rapid marching on a parallel line, got ahead of our division, struck the road on which we were moving, captured a portion of our wagon train, and forced the battle of Sailor's Creek. We had been on the march most of the night, and our men were weary and hungry, having been subsisting for two days or more on parched corn. At the time the battle began we (our brigade) were resting on a hill, awaiting developments, as the enemy were pressing our rear guard. It was here that my brother John and Thompson Furr, of my company, who had gone foraging the night before, rejoined us, bringing with them a bucket of boiled eggs and some fried chicken and corn bread. They found an old darkie some distance from the road, who, in exchange for two good army blankets, gave them a good breakfast and also something for their comrades. It was timely relief, for we had not more than finished our breakfast when we were startled by the sound of pistol shots in our front. Looking up, we saw some ambulances and stragglers rushing down the opposite hill towards us, hotly pursued by Federal cavalry. The hill seemed to be covered with timber, and only a narrow valley lay between. Our men took in the situation at once, and sprang to their feet, eager for a tussle with Sheridan. I speak here of Hunton's Brigade, which was not in the battle of Five Forks. They felt that they were a match for the cavalry, and all along on the retreat they were hoping for a chance to wipe out the reproach of April 1st. The opportunity now presented itself, and without waiting for orders from General Hunton, who was in the rear, the head of the column (8th Virginia) started down the hill at a quickstep to meet the enemy, [85] and the enemy turned back to report. General Hunton soon rode up, and placing himself at the head of his brigade, led them down the hill, across a small stream, and up the opposite hill until we struck the woods. There we filed to the right, and formed in line of battle in the edge of the woods. Just in front of us was a narrow strip of cleared land covered with broom-sedge, and beyond that the woods began again and extended around to our right. Our left rested on the road on which we had been marching. We had scarcely gotten into position, with a line of skirmishers thrown out, before the cavalry appeared in heavy force in the woods opposite, and bore down upon us. They had gotten into the habit of riding over our infantry, and they evidently expected to ride over us. Our skirmishers emptied their muskets at them, and then dropped down into the thick broom sedge to reload, while our main line fired over their heads at the advancing cavalry. The fire was too hot for them, and very few emerged from the woods.

Ordered a charge.

Seeing this, General Hunton ordered a charge. It was an inspiring sight to see those nearly half-starved men move with quick step across that narrow field and into the woods beyond, and drive Sheridan's brag cavalry back untill they had forced them out of the woods, across another field, and out of the road which they had captured. Having recovered the road, our line of battle was formed in the road, with the fence-rails thrown down and piled up on the side next to the enemy. The road-cut itself furnished us on the right the very best protection. There we took our stand, and kept the enemy at bay, in spite of the most desperate attempts on their part to drive us away, or to force us to surrender. An open field was in our immediate front, leading down to a long stretch of woods beyond. Over this field the cavalry charged time and again, now on horseback, now on foot; but each time they advanced, they recoiled before the well directed musketry fire that greeted them. In one of these charges about a dozen of their men dashed around Corse's Brigade on our left, and came charging down in the rear of our line, shooting and yelling like demons. It was their last charge. All of them were killed, one being knocked from his horse by one of our ambulance corps, and his head crushed with a stretcher. Thus the battle went on for some hours, untill the enemy ceased their assaults in front and began to overlap and threaten our right. [86] To prevent this General Terry was ordered to take position with his brigade on Hunton's right. He soon reported that the enemy were gathering in great numbers in the woods to turn his flank, and that he could not hold his position. General Hunton, being called to support Terry, said he would send his old regiment around there, and that they would hold the position. This movement placed our regiment on the extreme right of our line, and under the immediate command of General Terry. Our position was in the edge of the woods, where the enemy were gathering, and with the open field just behind us. We had been there only a short time when General Pickett ordered a retreat. It was now about the middle of the afternoon, perhaps later. During all these hours in which we had been holding the cavalry at bay, the Federal infantry and artillery had been coming up, and were now posted on the hill to our left and rear, where we were resting that morning when the battle began.

Meant certain destruction.

To remain where we were, meant certain destruction or capture. Our only hope was in retreat. General Terry placed himself at the head of our regiment, and led us out into the open fields, towards a point a short distance off, where the woods which we had just left approached nearest to the woods out of which we had driven the cavalry that morning. If I am not mistaken, Steuart's Brigade moved out at the same time from the left of our division, but we could not see for the woods. Hunton and Corse forming the centre of our line, still held the road. It was expected that they would follow us at the right time. As we were marching we had woods to our right and woods to our left. Passing through the opening between them, we emerged into a large field and saw General Pickett and staff moving out of the woods to our right. Off to our left about a thousand yards distant, we saw a lot of cavalry gathered about some burning wagons. Just in front of us, some six or seven hundred yards off, was a large and dense woods, extending we knew not not how far, offering us the safest, if not the only refuge. Towards that inviting forest we hastened at quick step, but in good order. Presently we heard firing and cheering in our rear, and looking back, we saw the Federal cavalry charging down in rear of Hunton and Corse and cutting off their retreat. Our situation was extremely critical. A large body of victorious cavalry was but a short distance behind us, and would soon be after us. To our left [87] the same cavalry were gathering about the burning wagons, evidently preparing for a charge. But so long as we kept in good order and showed no signs of panic or flight, they did nothing but cheer and fire at long range. The question which was uppermost in every man's mind was, ‘Can we reach yonder woods before the cavalry head us off?’ I have always believed that the whole column could have done so, but for one circumstance. When we had gotten a little more than half way across the field, a servant brought General Terry his horse, which he mounted and rode off towards Pickett and staff, leaving our regiment and his own men under the command of their regimental officers. This had a demoralizing effect on Terry's men, who, seeing their general riding off, broke ranks and crowded more and more upon our regiment, which was in front under command of Major William N. Berkeley. This confusion in turn emboldened the cavalry to our left, for soon we heard the bugle sounding the charge, and saw them rushing towards the woods to head us off. Our men broke into a double quick, and then into a run. The head of our column reached the woods first, but before the hindmost could penetrate the forest, the cavalry were upon them.

Would have to surrender.

After going about a hundred yards into the woods Major Berkeley stopped, saying that he could go no farther and would have to surrender. He had been shot through the ankle at Gettysburg, and was never afterwards able to endure much marching. At the beginning of this day's battle he had sent his horse to the rear, and was not so fortunate as General Terry to get it back in time to make his escape. Not being able to make a good run his safety was in surrender. He released us all from his authority, saying that if we did not wish to surrender we could go. There was an immediate scattering of the head of the regiment, some going down a ravine, and others bearing to the right. How many tried to escape I do not know. Only some twenty-five or thirty of our regiment succeeded. Among these were Captain John Gray, Lieutenant John T. James, Sergeant Thompson Furr, and Private James Van Horn. Captain Gray and myself kept close together. I had held on to my big navy revolver, and we did not mean to surrender to any one or two pursuers. Our escape was very narrow. Captain Bichsler was captured when we were in full view of him, not over fifty yards off, according to his statement, and he always wondered why the same fellows did [88] not catch Gray and myself, for they went right on in our direction. Twice, as the bullets whistled by us, we stopped to surrender, thinking that the cavalry was upon us, but seeing that they were occupied with stragglers in our rear we pressed on deeper into the forest. It was our first and last run. We were running, not from Federal cavalry, but from Federal prisons, which we knew were more to be dreaded than battle with Sheridan's men. It was nearly sundown when we came in sight of Mahone's Division, drawn up on the ridge which leads to the High Bridge, near Farmville. As we and other stragglers from that day's engagement appeared in sight a body of Confederate cavalry moved out to meet us, and to protect us from further pursuit. Crossing Sailor's creek on a little bridge we ascended the hill beyond, where Lee and Mahone were waiting and watching, and soon were in the bosom of what was left of the Army of Northern Virginia.

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