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Chapter 39: again in front of Richmond.

From the Wilderness I was taken to the Meadow Farm home of my friend Erasmus Taylor, and carefully nursed by his charming wife until put on board of a train for Lynchburg and taken to my good kinswoman, Mrs. Caroline Garland, who had lost her only son and child, General Samuel Garland, killed two years before at South Mountain. From her hospitable home, when strong enough for a ride in the fresh air, I was taken to the home of a cherished friend, Colonel John D. Alexander, at Campbell Court-House. But a raiding party rode through the village early one morning, which suggested a change, and I was taken to my kinsfolk, the Sibleys, at Augusta, Georgia, and after a time to other good friends, the Harts and Daniels, at and near Union Point, on the Georgia Railroad.

Before I was strong enough to sit more than a few minutes news came of the change of commanders in the Army of Georgia,--the superseding of General Joseph E. Johnston by assignment of General J. B. Hood, and I was asked to take command of the corps left vacant by assignment of General Hood. Answer was made that when able for duty I would be prepared to obey orders.

Later came sadder news from Virginia announcing the fall of our Cavalier J. E. B. Stuart. The most famous Chief-Quartermaster First Corps, Army of Northern Virginia. [573] American rider fell mortally wounded on the 18th of May, 1864, near Yellow Tavern, in a cavalry engagement with General Sheridan, just then budding into fame. Stuart, endowed by nature with the gifts that go to make a perfect cavalryman, improved and cultivated through years of active warfare, experience, and discipline, was the embodiment of all that goes to make up the ideal soldierly character,--the bold, dashing dragoon. His death was possibly a greater loss to the Confederate army even than that of the swift-moving General “StonewallJackson. Through all the vicissitudes of war he held his troopers beside him peerless in prowess and discipline. After his fall their decline came swifter than their upbuilding had been accomplished by his magic hand.

In society he was gay, bright, and genial, abstemious to a degree. In idle hours of week-days he was fond of his banjo-player, Sweeny, but he was devout withal, and to him the grandest, sweetest music was “Rock of ages.” To this day that sublime air never fails to bring before my mind's vision his noble figure. May his great spirit rest near “The Rock of ages” always! Amen!

About the 1st of October I was strong enough to ride horseback, and after a little practice, and having become weary of idle hours, took leave of wife and children, and travelled back to Richmond to find our great commander and his noble followers.

The general seemed worn by past labor, besides suffering at seasons from severe sciatica, while his work was accumulating and his troubles multiplying to proportions that should have employed half a dozen able men. The military staff of his Headquarters was made up of excellent, intelligent, active, zealous young men, more than anxious to anticipate his wants and to meet their official obligations, and it is a source of gratification to write that they were efficient, affectionate, admirable, and polite. But facts will not justify like commendation of the [574] purveying department. Complaints had been made early in the war and continued of our inefficient subsistence department at Richmond. The diminishing resources of the country called for exceptionally earnest, methodical, business faculties in these departments, especially that of subsistence, but, unfortunately, as our resources became more circumscribed, the officers, instead of putting forth stronger efforts in their business, seemed to lose the energy of their former service, and General Lee found himself called upon to feed as well as fight his army. Although anxious to assist in his severe trials, and relieve him of part of his work, I feared that he might think a cripple an additional incumbrance, and wrote the chief of staff,--

Randolph's House, Near Richmond, Va., October 18, 1864.
Colonel W. H. Taylor, Assistant Adjutant-General: Sir,--
I have not reported formally for duty, because I doubted the propriety of being assigned, in my crippled condition, to position now filled by officers of vigorous health. If I can be of service in any position, I prefer to go to duty. If there is nothing to which I can be assigned on this side of the Mississippi River, without displacing an efficient officer, I will cheerfully accept service in the Trans-Mississippi Department.

The doctors give me little reason to hope to recover the use of my arm even within a year; hence my desire to be assigned for duty, or to have an extended leave of absence.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant, J. Longstreet, Lieutenant-General.

An order came assigning me to command on the north side of James River and Drury's Bluff, and Pickett's division on the south side, along Bermuda Hundred front as far as Swift Creek. On the north side were the local defence troops under Lieutenant-General Ewell, and Hoke's and Field's divisions and Gary's brigade of one thousand cavalry. [575]

There had been severe fighting on that side a few days previous, in an attack of the Federals upon Fort Harrison of our line, which resulted in the capture of the fort; then a more desperate fight of the Confederates to recover it, which was not successful. The loss of Fort Harrison broke our line off a little near the river, and caused a new line to be taken from that point to our left, where it joined the line occupied in 1862, when General McClellan was against us. The line of the north side extended from Chapin's Bluff on the James River, by Fort Gilmer, across north of White Oak Swamp to the vicinity of the Chickahominy at New Bridge. Hoke's and Field's divisions occupied the line from Fort Gilmer, covering Charles City road on the left, and Gary's cavalry had a strong picket force on the Nine Miles road, with vedettes, to guard and patrol the west side of the swamp and the south side of the Chickahominy. The crossings of the swamp were heavily obstructed by fallen timber. The batteries at Chapin's and Drury's Bluffs were manned by officers of the navy and sailors, and other organized artillery and infantry, and the local defence contingent lined out towards Fort Gilner. My men had become experts in fortifying, so that parapets and dams along the front grew apace. Our officers during their experience in East Tennessee had become skilled as foragers, and soon began to find in nooks and corners of Northern Virginia food and forage which relieved General Lee of the trouble of supplying the men on the north side, and my troops were beginning to feel comfortable. But there were more serious embarrassments on the south side, and desertions were becoming more numerous from day to day.

Towards the latter part of October, General Grant conceived a plan by which he proposed to extend and advance his left, so as to get the Southside Railroad and connect this new point with his line of intrenchments. At the same time he thought to have General Butler on his [576] extreme right break through the lines on the north side into Richmond. For his left attack he ordered the Second Corps, under Hancock, to be supported by parts of the Fifth and Ninth Corps. General Lee had his Third Corps (A. P. Hill's), Heth's and Wilcox's divisions and Mahone's in reserve. Hancock's advance was met by Mahone's division, and the entire march of the different commands was arrested after a severe rencounter, in which Mahone got a number of prisoners and some pieces of artillery,--the latter not brought off, as the enemy held the bridge.

According to the reports of the Adjutant-General's Office the Federal losses were 1284. The Confederate losses were not accurately accounted for, but the Federal accounts claimed two hundred prisoners taken at one time, and other losses equal to their own.

I was informed of troops crossing the bridge to the north side on the 25th, and that the crossings continued at intervals till after the night of the 26th. The plan of operations contemplated that General Butler should have “twenty thousand men north of the James where Longstreet was now in command.” 1 These were parts of the Tenth and Eighteenth Corps, commanded by Generals Terry and Weitzel. General Terry was to make a fierce demonstration against our front along the Darby and Charles City roads with the Tenth, while General Weitzel was to march the Eighteenth across White Oak Swamp and get in the unoccupied lines on the Williamsburg road, or between that and Gary's cavalry on the Nine Miles road.

Early on the 27th, General Terry moved out with the Tenth Corps and made demonstration for formidable attack, putting his infantry in sharp practice along the outer edge of our abatis, and his artillery in practice near [577] the roads. Our sharp-shooters opened in reply from behind their breastworks and held a, lively rattle of musketry for quite a time. The delay in making more serious work told me that some other was the point of danger, which must mean the unoccupied lines beyond White Oak Swamp. Field was ordered to pull his division out of the works and march for the Williamsburg road, Hoke to cover the line of Field by extending and doubling his sharp-shooters.

When the head of General Field's column got to the Williamsburg road the enemy's skirmishers were deployed and half-way across the field approaching our line. Just behind the trenches was a growth of pines which concealed our troops until a line of sharp-shooters stepped into the works. Their fire surprised the enemy somewhat, as they had seen nothing but part of Gary's cavalry, and their skirmish line gave up the field for their heavy infantry.

The open in front of the breastworks was about six hundred yards wide and twelve hundred in length, extending from the York River Railroad on the north to a ditch draining towards the head of White Oak Swamp on the south. About midway of the field is a slight depression or swale of five or six feet depth.

Quickly following the repulse of the skirmish line, and just as Field had adjusted the infantry and artillery to their trenches, came the Eighteenth Corps bursting into the open and deploying on both sides of the road in solid ranks. They were at once in fair canister range, and soon under the terrific fire of a solid line of infantry,--infantry so experienced that they were not likely to throw as much as one bullet without well-directed aim. At the first fire they began to drop, and they fell more rapidly until they reached the swale, when the entire line dropped to the ground. They had just enough cover there for their bodies as they spread themselves closely to the [578] ground, but not enough to permit them to load or rise to deliver fire without exposing their persons to our fire. To attempt to retreat would have been as disastrous as to advance; so they were entrapped.

General Gary reported that the field of the Nine Miles road was clear, and was ordered to come in on the flank of the entrapped infantry and order surrender; but before he was there another report reached him of a formidable force advancing against his squadron on the Nine Miles road. He was sent on a gallop to meet this. Meanwhile, the troops hiding under the swell of ground found ways to drop off on their right under the railroad cut, and many others got away down the dry ditch on their left, until Captain Lyle, of the Fifth South Carolina Regiment, got a force out on the flank and secured the surrender of the remainder. He picked up about six hundred prisoners.

General Gary's guard on the Nine Miles road held an open work by a section of artillery and a squadron of cavalry. The advance against it was so well executed, and our cavalry so interested in the operations on the Williamsburg road, that the guard was taken by surprise and pushed away from its post by the first attack, losing its field-works and a piece of artillery. Gary soon made amends for the careless watch by dismounting his brigade and marching in line of battle at right angles to the line of the enemy, striking him in flank, recovering the lost cannon, and driving him back the way he came. Under cover of the night the Federals returned to their fortified lines, where they were as strong as were the lines held by the Confederates in their front.

The Confederates lost: Field's division, 45; Gary's cavalry, 8; artillery, 11; total, 64. Federal “losses, killed, wounded, and missing, 1103.” 2 [579]

General Grant sent orders to have the positions gained by his left held and intrenched, but they were abandoned because they were weak in the too extended line.

After the loss of Fort Harrison, General Lee became more anxious for his line on the north side, and rode out to witness the operations on that front, under the threatening of Butler's forces; and as our cavalry had made no report of the enemy crossing the swamp, he was not quite satisfied to have the troops moved over to the Williamsburg road, but did not order them retained. His idea was that the north side was the easier route of Grant's triumphal march into Richmond, and that sooner or later he would make his effort there in great force.

These were the closing scenes between the armies about Richmond and Petersburg for the year 1864. The defeat of General Early in the Valley of Virginia on the 19th of October concluded active work in that quarter. Most of Sheridan's infantry was sent back to the Army of the Potomac, and the greater part of Early's to the Army of Northern Virginia.

Kershaw's division of the First Corps had been left with General Early for his battle of the 19th of October. In his account of the battle, General Early alludes to its outcome and finality as a causeless panic started by the break of his left division under General Gordon, followed by Kershaw's and other troops. It is sufficient for this writing to say that the general called the rout “thorough and disgraceful, mortifying beyond measure: we had within our grasp a great and glorious victory, and lost it by the uncontrollable propensity of our men for plunder.” 3 Kershaw's division was restored to duty with the First Corps in November.

Late in December I was informed of a move of the [580] enemy's land and naval forces against Fort Fisher in Wilmington harbor. The information was despatched to General Lee at Petersburg, and brought a midnight order for me to send Hoke's division to Wilmington. Hoke was relieved and on the move before daylight. General Bragg was relieved of duty at Richmond and ordered to Wilmington.

General Butler was in command of the land forces and Admiral Porter of the navy. Between them, or under the direction of one or the other, was the steamer “Louisiana,” freighted with about two hundred and fifty tons of gunpowder intended to blow up Fort Fisher. But its only tangible effect was to relieve the commander of the land forces from further service in the field.

In Georgia, General Hood led his army off from the front of General Sherman at Atlanta, and marched west and north, and the latter took up his line of march south for Savannah on the 16th of November.

These moves brought Sherman's army into remote bearing upon our army at Richmond, and as a matter of course it began to receive more careful attention from General Lee. In order to better guard our position on the north side, I ordered, in addition to the timber obstructions over White Oak Swamp, the roads leading around towards our left to be broken up by subsoil ploughs, so as to make greater delay of any movements in that direction during the winter rains, and wrote to ask General Lee if he could not order the roads upon which General Grant would probably march against the Southside Railroad broken in the same way; also suggesting that the roads in Georgia upon which General Sherman was marching could be obstructed in this and other ways so as to delay and annoy his march, with the possibility that it might eventually be broken up.

The pickets along our lines were in more or less practice shooting at each other from their rifle-pits until I [581] ordered it stopped on the north end of the line, as an annoyance, and not a legitimate part of war to carry on the shooting of sentinels on guard duty. The example was soon followed by the army on our front, so that the men on the picket lines became friendly, and afterwards came to mutual agreements to give the other side notice, in case of battle, in time for the pickets to get to their pits before the batteries could open on them. Before the winter was half gone the pickets established quite a bartering trade, giving tobacco for sugar and coffee.

Our foraging parties of the north side were fortunate in collecting supplies, and at times were in condition to aid our comrades of the south side. But the officers found that they could only get a small portion of the produce by impressment or tax in kind. They were ordered to locate all supplies that they could not collect.

The chief of staff of the First Corps, Colonel Sorrel, was appointed brigadier-general, and relieved of his duties by Colonel Osman Latrobe.

The Army of Tennessee, under General Hood, pursuing its march northward late in November and early in December, came upon the Federal forces under General Schofield at Franklin, and General Thomas at Nashville, Tennessee, where desperate battles were fought, until Hood's army was reduced to skeleton commands and forced to retreat. And thus with Sherman's progressive movements in the extreme South, our own ill success in Virginia, and an apparent general strengthening of the Federal cause, the year 1864 drew to a close with little of happy omen for the Confederacy.

1 Military History of U. S. Grant. Badeau.

2 Virginia Campaigns, 1864-65, by General A. A. Humphreys, Army of the Potomac.

3 General Early's official account.

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