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Tarheels' thin Gray line.

Colin Campbell's Highlanders Outdone by North Carolinians.

By Gen. Bradley T. Johnson.
With corrections and Additions by R. D. Stewart.

(An incident of the battle of Winchester, Va., that surpasses the 93d regiment's famous stand on the morning of Balaklava.—How General Robert D. Johnston repelled repeated charges of Yankee cavalry far outnumbering his attenuated brigade—as told by General Bradley T. Johnston.) [171]

At the battle of Balaklava occurred an incident which Kinglake has painted in words, and thus immortalized. The Highland brigade, the 42d, the Black Watch, the Cold Stream Guards, the Grenadiers, and the 93d, Sir Colin Campbell's old regiment, were in position which threw the 93d just along the crest of a slight rise of the ground.

The Russian artillery had become annoying, and the 93d lay down just behind the crest, where they were better sheltered and concealed. A division of Russian horse was moving to the left of Sir Colin's whole line, and its head of column nearly with the British, where at once four squadrons of Russians—four hundred men—swung quickly out of column and struck a gallop towards the English position. Instantly the Highlanders rose from the ground, and with their tall forms and towering black plumes looked like a line of giants. The Ninety-third was not in touch with either of the other battalions of the brigade, so they stood and took it, and when the Russians got within three hundred yards opened fire upon them and drove them back. They never repeated the charge. This scene has been celebrated in song and story as ‘Sir Colin Campbell's Thin Red Line.’ It was witnessed by the allied armies—English, French and Turkish—and simply astounded the Russians, for both sides saw it.

Excelled by Johnston's men.

But I, myself, with thousands of others, saw Johnston's North Carolina Brigade—First North Carolina Battalion Sharpshooters, 5th North Carolina, 12th North Carolina, 20th North Carolina, and 23d North Carolina regiments—do a thing on September 19, 1864, which far excelled in gallantry, in firmness, and in heroism this feat of the ‘Thin Red Line,’ and I have never seen a description of it in print, and I do not think it was referred to in the reports. I am sure Bob Johnston did not, for he was as modest as he was handsome and brave.

In September, 1864, Early's army was lying about Winchester. We had been through Maryland, and terrified Washington into fits, and had gotten safely back into Virginia, with thousands of horses, cattle, medical stores, and hundreds of wagon-loads of eatables of every kind. I had a cavalry brigade of wild southwestern Virginia horsemen, as brave and as undisciplined as the Virginia Rangers Colonel Washington surrendered at Fort Necessity, or Andrew Lewis fought Cornstalk with at Point Pleasant. I was bivouacked—we had no tents, about three miles north of Winchester, on the Valley 'pike, [172] and picketed from the Valley 'pike to the Berryville 'pike, running east from Winchester, General Robert D. Johnston, of North Carolina, had a brigade of 800 to 1,000 muskets on the Berryville 'pike, on the top of the ridge running across the road. My pickets were a mile in advance of his, in Ashe Hollow. Sheridan, with 45,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry, lay eight to fifteen miles beyond our picket lines, from Berryville and Ripon to Charlestown and Halltown, in Clarke and Jefferson counties, Va. Now, every morning the Yankee cavalry would rush my pickets in on Johnston's posts. He would stop them until I got up, and then I'd drive the Yankees back and re-establish my original picket posts. This done, I would send my command back to camp.

I had about 800 mounted men, and I'd ride up to Bob Johnston's headquarters, which was a wagon under a tree, one camp stool, and a frying pan sizzing with bacon, and a pot of rye coffee and sorghum. I'd get my breakfast. But after a week of this proceeding, it either became monotonous or my appetite showed no signs of weakening, I don't know which. One morning I dismounted after my usual morning call to boots and saddle, and swung myself very comfortably into Johnston's single and only camp stool. I smelled the bacon and sniffed the coffee and waited. In a few moments the cook handed me a chip for a plate and a tin cup of red-hot coffee—so hot you had to set the cup on the grass, and Bob spoke up.

Says he: ‘Bradley, you let those Yankees do you too bad. You have got so scared of them that you all run the very first dash they make at you.’

“Is that so, Robert?” said I. ‘That's a pity; but I don't know how to help it. I do the best I can. How many Yankee cavalry do you think you are good for?’

“Well,” said he, ‘I've got 800 muskets present for duty. By a week's time, as the boys get back from the hospital, I'll have 1,000. Well, with 1,000 muskets, I think I can take care of 5,000 Yanks on horseback.’

“All right,” said I, ‘wait and see. I hope you can.’

So I got my breakfast and went off, mightily tickled at the conceit of the Tarheel, for Sheridan's cavalry, with Custer, Torbett and Devens, were about as good soldiers as ever took horse or drew sabre. We had drilled them so that in three years we had taught them to ride. They were always drilling enough to fight, and they learned the use of the sabre from necessity. [173]

Well, things went on as usual. Every morning Sheridan would send a regiment out to feel Early, to drive in his pickets, so as to make sure where he was and to know where to find him, and every morning I'd ride over to the Berryville road, re-establish my lines, get my breakfast off Johnston, and back to sleep.

Sheridan's advance.

By daylight, the 19th of September, a scared cavalryman of my own command nearly rode over me, as I lay asleep on the grass, and reported that the Yankees were advancing with a heavy force of infantry, artillery and cavalry up the Berryville road. Early was up towards Stephenson's Depot, and Johnston and I were responsible for keeping Sheridan out of Winchester, and protecting the Confederate line of retreat, and of communication up the Valley. In two minutes my command was mounted. We always saddled up and fed an hour before dawn, and moving at a trot across the open fields to the Berryville road and to Johnston's assistance. There was not a fence nor a house, nor a bush, nor a tree, to obscure the view. Way off, more than two miles, we could see the crest of the hill, covered with a cloud of Yankee cavalry, and in front of them (500 yards in front), was a thin gray line moving off in retreat solidly, and with perfect coolness and self-possession. As soon as I got to realize what was going on I quickened our gait, and when within a mile broke into a gallop. The scene was as plain as day. A regiment of cavalry would deploy into line and their bugles would sound the charge and they would swoop down on the thin gray line of North Carolinians. The instant the Yankee bugle sounded, North Carolina would halt, face to the rear rank, wait until the horse got within one hundred yards, and then fire as deliberately and coolly as if firing volleys on parade drill. The cavalry would break and scamper back and North Carolina would ‘about face’ and continue her march in retreat as solemnly, stubbornly, and with as much discipline and dignity as if marching in review. But we got there just in time. Cavalry aids :he Tarheels. Certainly, half dozen charges had been made at the retreating thin gray line, and each and every time the charging squadrons had been driven back, when the enemy sent his line with a rush at the brigade of Tarheels, and one squadron overlapped the infantry line, and was just passing it when we got up. In another minute they would have been behind the line, sabering the men from the rear, while they were held by the fight in front. But [174] we struck a head-long strain and went through the Yankees by the flank of North Carolina and carried their adversaries back to the crest of the hill, back through the guns of their battery, clear back to their infantry lines. In a moment they rallied and were charging us in front and off both flanks, and back we went in a hurry, but the thin gray line of old North Carolina was safe. They had gotten back to the rest of the infantry, and formed lines at right angles to the 'pike, west of Winchester.

I rode up to Bob Johnston, very ‘piert,’ as we say in North Carolina, and said I: ‘Pretty close call that, Mr. Johnston. What do you think now of the Yankee cavalry's fighting qualities?’ And the rest of the day we enjoyed ourselves. We could see everything that was going on for miles around. The country was entirely open. The day was beautiful, clear and bright—September the 19th. They would form for a forward movement—three lines, one after another—march sedately along until they got within touch of our lines, then raise a hurrah, and rush in a charge; and in two minutes the field would be covered with running, flying Yankees. There were 40,000 infantry and 10,00 cavalry and 3,000 mounted gunmen. The thing began at daylight and kept up till dark, when, flanked and worn out, Early retreated to escape being surrounded.

This is the story of the Thin Gray Line of North Carolina and the cavalry charge—a feat of arms before which that of Sir Colin Campbell's Highlander's fades into insignificance.

Bradley T. Johnson, of Maryland, Brigadier-General Confederate States Army.

Baltimore, Md.
To the Editor of the Dispatch:
Some time ago there was published in the Winston-Salem Sentinel, and copied in the Dispatch, a very interesting article called ‘The Tarheels' Thin Gray Line,’ by General Bradley T. Johnson, describing an incident of the Valley campaign of 1864. The article, as published in the Sentinel and Dispatch, contained a serious typographical error. The sentence, ‘There were 45,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry and 3,000 mounted gunmen,’ should read, ‘There were 45,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry in an open field, against 8,000 infantry and 3,000 mounted gunmen.’

“The Tarheels' thin Gray line” was first published in the Baltimore News, some five or six years ago. [175]

Brigadier-General Robert D. Johnston is a native of North Carolina, but is now a resident of Birmingham, Ala. He was commissioned as second lieutenant, Beattie's Ford Rifles, North Carolina State troops, May 9, 1861, and in a year's time became colonel of the 23d North Carolina infantry. He was made a brigadier-general September 1, 1863. During the Valley campaign his brigade consisted of the following regiments: 5th North Carolina, 12th North Carolina. 20th North Carolina (colonel, Thomas F. Toon, afterwards brigadier-general), 23d North Carolina (colonel, Charles C. Blacknall), and the famous 1st North Carolina battalion sharpshooters (major, R. E. Wilson). Johnston's brigade, with Godwin's North Carolina brigade and Pegram's old Virginia brigade, under Colonel John T. Hoffian, formed Pegram's division. The Old North State is justly proud of General ‘Bob’ Johnston.

General Bradley T. Johnson is a Marylander, and entered the Confederate army as captain of Company A, 1st Maryland infantry, Colonel Arnold Elzey commanding. He succeeded George H. Steuart, another gallant Marylander, as colonel of the regiment in June, 1863. At Second Manassas, where he commanded the Second brigade of Jackson's division, his troops ran out of ammunition and fought with stones. In the early part of 1864 he was assigned to the command of the Maryland line, stationed at Hanover Junction to protect Lee's line of communication with Richmond. He rendered valuable service in repulsing the Dahlgren raid. On June 28, 1864, Colonel Johnson was made a brigadier and placed in command of the cavalry brigade of General William E. Jones, who had been killed at Piedmont, June 5, 1864. This brigade of ‘wild southwestern Virginia horsemen’ consisted of the 8th, 21st and 22d regiments, and the 34th and 36th battalions of Virginia cavalry. Johnson's brigade, with the brigades of Imboden McCausland and H. B. Davidson, formed Lomax's cavalry division—all Virginians, except the 1st Maryland cavalry, of Davidson's brigade. During the Appomattox campaign General Johnson commanded a division of Anderson's corps. He is now a resident of the State for which he fought in the dark days of 1861-‘65.

Another North Carolinian who fought and fell in the ‘Tarheels' thin gray line’ deserves special mention. The 23d North Carolina (General Robert Johnston's old regiment) was commanded by Colonel Charles Christopher Blacknall, of Granville county, N. C., a descendant of the Blacknalls of Wing, Buckinghamshire, who intermarried with the ‘noble and exclusive Norman family of Harcourt.’ [176] At the outbreak of the war, Colonel Blacknall organized the ‘Granville Riflemen’ (Company G), 23d North Carolina, and was elected captain of the company. He rose rapidly to the colonelcy of the regiment. On the 19th of September, 1864, the 23d occupied, as a picket, the extreme outpost of Johnston's North Carolina brigade, and upon it fell the full force of the Federal onslaught. While the handful of ‘Tarheels’ were slowly retreating before the enemy's cavalry, Colonel Blacknall was mortally wounded. He was removed to Winchester, and when the Confederates retired up the Valley that night, he fell into the enemy's hands. To quote from his biographer:

Dying in the home of a Washington, and on the site of Washington's ancient fort, built in the French and Indian war, his death was in keeping with his picturesque career.

Courage and command of faculty under fire distinguished Colonel Blacknall, even among Confederate officers, where the standard of manhood was as high as the world has seen. It is to be doubted if any officer of like rank in Lee's army had in greater measure the love and confidence of the private soldier. Handsome, eloquent, intellectual, gifted with singular charm of manner, and beloved by all men because his heart was as big as humanity, he has been termed by a comrade who knew him well in all the trying vicissitudes of a soldier's life, as the ideal Confederate officer, and by another, as one of the most chivalrous men he ever knew.

And to this we may add, in the words of the great English poet:

His life was gentle; and the elements so mix'd in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, “ This was a man.”

The story of the ‘Tarheels' thin gray line’ should be published in pamphlet form and placed in the hands of each and every North Carolina schoolboy.

R. D. Stewart. November 300th.

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