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Chapter 15:

  • Services of the North Carolina cavalry along the Rapidan
  • -- battle of Yellow tavern -- the Second Cold Harbor battle -- Early's Lynchburg and Maryland campaigns -- battles in the valley of Virginia -- activity of the Confederate cavalry.

When the spring campaign opened, the North Carolina cavalry brigade, commanded by Gen. James B. Gordon, was transferred from Hampton's to W. H. F. Lee's division, and, a little later, Colonel Baker's Third North Carolina cavalry took the place of the Fourth North Carolina in that brigade.

At the opening of Grant's campaign, the First North Carolina was on picket duty along the Rapidan, and Colonel Cheek and Major Cowles were of signal service in reporting hostile movements. This regiment captured over 400 prisoners in a short time. When Sheridan, with a force estimated at from 10,000 to 12,000 men, started on his Richmond raid, General Stuart had only three available brigades for detachment to meet this formidable cavalcade. Taking Wickham's and Lomax's brigades under his personal command, General Stuart sought, by forced marches, to interpose between Sheridan and Richmond. He left Gordon's North Carolina brigade to retire before Sheridan, and harass him as much as such a pitifully inadequate number could harass so great a force as Sheridan commanded. Gordon's unflinching horsemen were involved in almost daily skirmishes with the Federals, and daily lost men he could ill spare from his thinning ranks. Among these was the [250] vigilant and resourceful colonel of the First regiment, W. H. Cheek, who was wounded.

At Yellow tavern, on the 11th of May, Stuart in front of Sheridan attacked with his two brigades, while Gordon assailed the Federals in the rear. Stuart made a masterly fight, as the severe Federal losses show, but, in the action, both he and General Gordon fell mortally wounded. No loss since the incomparable Jackson's death was so hurtful to General Lee's strategic power as Stuart's fall.

General Gordon, trained under Stuart, and sharing his dash and reckless courage, was a model cavalry officer. Undaunted by difficulties and perils, equal to great physical hardships, undismayed by reverses, his men had implicit confidence in him, even as he had unwavering trust in his cavalry leader.

Following Yellow tavern, came Hampton's great fight at Trevilian station, and sharp combats at Todd's tavern, White house, Haws' shop, Hanover and Ashland. In these, General Barringer says the cavalry was more and more following Forrest's example, and fighting on foot. The saber was giving place to the more deadly short rifle. The First, Second and Fifth were all active and daring in their service in these trying days.

In June, Colonel Barringer was commissioned brigadier-general and assumed command of Gordon's brigade, and Lieutenant-Colonel Cowles became commander of the First regiment, as Colonel Cheek was away wounded.

When General Grant found that he could not successfully break through the Confederate lines at Spottsylvania, he again renewed what the soldiers called his ‘sidling’ movement toward Richmond. Again General Lee made a counter move, and took position around Cold Harbor. On the way to the new position some brisk fighting occurred.

At Jericho ford, Lane's North Carolinians and Mc-Gowan's South Carolinians became entangled in a riverside [251] fight with the Federal line posted on a crest. Lane sustained a loss of 11 killed and 79 wounded. This same brigade had sharp skirmishes at Starr's farm on Totopotomoy creek, and at Turkey ridge. In the latter, General Lane was wounded by a sharpshooter, and during his enforced absence, first Col. J. D. Barry and then General Conner commanded his brigade.

The next important battle was at Cold Harbor, where General Grant made two prolonged assaults upon the Confederate lines. In these, according to General Humphreys' figures, he lost 9,948.1 The Confederate losses are reported at 1,500, a figure that is perhaps too small, but as Lee's men fought behind intrenchments, their losses were comparatively light. General, McMahon, of the Federal army, utters the opinion of most military men when he says: ‘In the opinion of a majority of its survivors, the battle of Cold Harbor should never have been fought.’ He then adds:

It was the dreary, dismal, bloody, ineffective close of the lieutenantgen-eral's first campaign with the army of the Potomac, and corresponded in all its essential features with what had preceded it. Battles and Leaders.

General Lee's army was posted as follows: Hoke's division was on his right, near Cold Harbor. Then came Kershaw, Pickett and Field, of Longstreet's corps. Ewell's corps under Early, and Early's division under Ramseur, occupied the center, A. P. Hill holding the left. There were present in the army thus posted, so far as may be made out from the meager reports, the following North Carolina troops: Martin's, Clingman's, Daniel's (now commanded by Brig.-Gen. Bryan Grimes), Ramseur's (now under Brig.-Gen. W. R. Cox), Johnston's, Cooke's, Kirkland's (now under MacRae), Lane's, Scales', and Hoke's (under Lewis and later Godwin) brigades, and the remnants of the First and Third regiments subsequently [252] assigned to General Cox's brigade. Then operating on the flanks was Gordon's gallant brigade of cavalry, the First, Second and Fifth, commanded after Gordon's death by General Barringer. Of the batteries present, the records show only Flanner's, Ramsey's, and Williams', but Manly's also was there. The reports from the artillery all through the war are very unsatisfactory in detail, and those faithful men are rarely mentioned except for some unusually brilliant service such as that of Williams' battery in the Wilderness.

Forty-three regiments of infantry, three of cavalry and four batteries of artillery were then North Carolina's representatives in this disastrous repulse of Grant's army.

On the 1st of June, the Sixth corps and most of the Eighteenth corps were directed by General Grant to move directly against the Confederate right, held by General Hoke's and General Kershaw's divisions. General Hoke's division contained Martin's and Clingman's North Carolina brigades. The Federals made the assault with vigor and without reserves. This attack was everywhere repulsed except at Hoke's extreme left and Kershaw's right. Clingman held Hoke's left, and it has been stated that his brigade and that of Wofford's, of Kershaw's division, were both broken. General Clingman in a letter to the Richmond papers, dated June 5, 1864, denied the allegation. He says: ‘This attack was repeatedly and signally repulsed with great loss to the enemy on my entire front. Near our left where they came in columns their dead were much thicker than I have ever seen them on any battlefield. . . . There was, however, at the beginning of the engagement a brigade from another State than my own, stationed on our left. This brigade did give way, and while the contest was going on in our front, the enemy in large force occupied the ground on our left flank and rear. After we had repulsed the last attack in front, and the men were cheering along the line, the Eighth regiment, which formed my [253] left, was suddenly attacked on its left flank and rear. The woods there being thick and the smoke dense, the enemy had approached within a few yards and opened a heavy fire on the rear of the Eighth as well as its left. .. . It, by facing in two directions, attempted to hold its position, and thus lost about two-thirds of its numbers.’ He further states that the Sixty-first regiment came to the aid of the Eighth, and that his brigade, assisted by the Twenty-seventh Georgia, drove back the Federal flank attack, and still held its entire front of the works.

The part of the line captured on Clingman's left was held by the Federals and the Confederates intrenched behind it. The loss of the two attacking corps was 2,200 men.

That afternoon General Lee telegraphed to the secretary of war: ‘This afternoon the enemy attacked General Heth and were handsomely repulsed by Cooke's and Kirkland's brigades.’

On the afternoon of the 2d, the divisions of Gordon, Rodes and Heth were ordered to move down the front of the Confederate line in an effort to break the Federal flank. ‘This movement brought on sharp fighting,’ says Humphreys, ‘but did not accomplish what was designed.’ General Early reports that his men took several hundred prisoners. Early intrenched on his front, and thus the new lines were almost at right angles. Hill's corps and Breckinridge's men were moved to Hoke's right to meet the massing of Federal troops on that flank.

On the morning of the 3d, General Grant ordered an assault by his entire army. The Confederates nerved themselves for stern work all along the line. The Federals advanced in many lines. Captain Lawhorn says: ‘One line would fire and fall down, another step over and fall down, each line getting nearer us until they got within 60 or 75 yards of our lines, but finding themselves cut to pieces so badly they fell back.’ The account of [254] this assault as given by Federal officers taking part in it show the terribly destructive fire of the Southern muskets. General Humphreys says: ‘The assaulting was done by the Second, Sixth and Eighteenth corps. Promptly at the hour these corps advanced to the attack under heavy musketry and artillery fire, and carried the enemy's advanced rifle-pits. But then the fire became still hotter, and cross-fires of artillery swept through the ranks, from the right of Smith to the left of Hancock. Notwithstanding this destructive fire, the troops went forward close up to the main line of intrenchments, but not being able to carry them, quickly put themselves under cover.’

General McMahon says: ‘The time of actual advance was not over eight minutes. In that little period more men fell bleeding as they advanced than in any other like period of time throughout the war. A strange and terrible feature of this battle was that as the three gallant corps moved on, each was enfiladed while receiving the full force of the enemy's direct fire in front.’ The total number of Grant's killed and wounded, again using Humphreys' figures, was 5,600, and he adds, ‘It is probable, indeed, that the numbers were considerably larger.’

These great battles had brought to their graves many gallant spirits among the North Carolina troops. Generals Daniel and Gordon, Cols. J. H. Wood, C. L. Andrews, Edmund Brabble, C. C. Blacknall, C. M. Avery, W. M. Barbour, John G. Jones, A. D. Moore, W. H. A. Speer, J. R. Murchison, Majs. J. J. Iredell, J. A. Rogers, and perhaps other field officers whose name sought to be recorded, gave up their lives for the cause they loved. Deaths and consequent promotions brought, of course, changes in the brigade and regimental commands. General Ramseur became a major-general. Bryan Grimes, W. R. Cox, William MacRae, gallant soldiers, all received worthily-won commissions as brigadiergen-erals. [255]

The great ‘Overland campaign’ was ended, and Grant was still no nearer Richmond than McClellan had been in 1862. In a few days he moved his army toward Petersburg.

The object of crossing the James was to carry out the plan with which the army of the Potomac began the campaign, that is, to destroy the lines of supply to the Confederate depot, Richmond, on the south side of the James, as close to that city as practicable, after those on the north side had been rendered useless. Campaign of 1864 and 1865.

If Petersburg could be captured, but one railroad leading into the city of Richmond would be in Confederate hands.

Just after the disappearance of the Union army from Lee's front at Cold Harbor, General Hoke's division was sent back to Petersburg to assist General Beauregard in the defenses around that city. It arrived just in time to be of most signal service.

On the 13th of June, General Early, commanding Ewell's corps, was directed to take his command and move to the valley of Virginia, to meet Hunter. The North Carolina troops that followed Early up and down the valley, and shared in all the hardships of a campaign that had its full share of successes and reverses, were as follows: The Thirty-second, Fifty-third, Forty-third, Forty-fifth regiments and Second battalion, of Gen. Bryan Grimes' brigade; the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fourteenth and Twenty-third regiments and First battalion,of Gen. R. D. Johnston's brigade; the Sixth, Twenty-first, Fifty-fourth, and Fifty-seventh regiments, of Gen. A. C. Godwin's brigade (General Lewis', commanded, after his wounding, by Godwin). Gen. Robert Ransom was sent to command the cavalry in the valley. The Sixtieth North Carolina cavalry was in Wharton's command.

Early's corps was engaged in skirmishes at Lynchburg and Martinsburg, demonstrated against Harper's Ferry, [256] and on the 9th of June fought the battle of Monocacy. At Monocacy the Federals were commanded by Gen. Lew Wallace, since famous as the author of Ben Hur. General Rodes' division, including the brigades of Grimes and Cox, was posted on the right of Ramseur, who was in front of Wallace. McCausland, followed by Gordon's division, crossed the Monocacy and struck the Federal flank, and with the aid of artillery threw it in confusion and drove Wallace from his position. Ramseur then crossed, as did Rodes, and followed up the advantage. The brigades of Johnston and Lewis were in Ramseur's command. The Confederates captured between 600 and 700 prisoners, and lost about 700.

Early then marched to Rockville, and by the 11th was in sight of Fort Stevens, one of the works of the Washington defenses. Grimes' skirmishers were in front, and doubtless were nearer Washington than any other Confederate troops during the war. The defenses were too strong for Early's command to attack. The spires of the city were in plain view, and the presence of Confederate troops so near created quite a panic in the capital. After a consultation with his division commanders, General Early determined to spend the 12th in front of the city, and then to retire that night. During the afternoon a reconnoitering force from the city was driven back by Rodes' advance guard.

On the morning of the 17th, the Confederates recrossed the Shenandoah. On the 18th, the Federals, following Early's retirement, through Snicker's gap, made a dash at Parker's ford. On the 19th, Col. W. A. Owens was killed in a skirmish. Rodes' division, however, drove the Federal advance back. In this skirmish, Col. Joseph H. Wood, commanding the Fourth regiment, was killed. On the 20th, Ramseur's division, while moving, was assailed in flank by Averell, then advancing in line of battle. The division was thrown into much confusion and hastily fell back. Jackson's cavalry, however, made [257] a vigorous charge, and Ramseur rallied his men in time to prevent Averell from reaching Winchester. General Lewis was wounded in this affair. At the battle of Kernstown, it fell to Rodes' lot to follow the enemy's flight for some miles, but most of the North Carolinians had little fighting there.

The morning of the 19th of September found General Early's forces much divided. Rodes was at Stephenson's depot, Breckinridge and Gordon at Bunker Hill, and Ramseur at Winchester. Sheridan, now in command of the Federal Valley army, determined to take advantage of this dispersion, and bore down in full force on Ramseur, before it was fully light. Johnston's North Carolina brigade seems to have had an advanced position, and was the first to encounter Sheridan. Gen. Bradley Johnson gives this graphic picture of what followed: ‘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. Johnston and I were responsible for keeping Sheridan out of Winchester, and protecting the Confederate line of retreat and communication up the valley. In two minutes the command was mounted and moving at a trot across the open fields to the Berryville road to Johnston's assistance. There was not a fence nor a bush nor a tree to obscure the view. We could see the crest of a hill covered with a cloud of cavalry, and in front of them, 500 yards forward was a thin gray line moving off in retreat solidly and with perfect coolness and self-possession. A regiment of cavalry would deploy into line, and then their bugles would sound “the charge,” and they'd swoop down on the “thin gray line” of North Carolina. The instant the Yankee bugles sounded, North Carolina would halt, face by the rear rank, wait until the horse got within 100 yards, and then fire deliberately and coolly as if firing [258] volleys on brigade drill. The cavalry would break and scamper back, and North Carolina would “about face,” and continue her march in retreat as solemnly and with as much dignity as if marching in review.’ Johnston's brigade, on reaching the rest of the division, united with it in forming line at right angles to the pike west of Winchester. Then this division, numbering only 2,560 men, had, aided by Nelson's artillery and the cavalry, the disagreeable duty of fighting Sheridan's force, numbering, according to the official returns quoted by General Early, about 53,000 men, from daylight until 10 o'clock, when Rodes and Gordon arrived. Of course, Ramseur could not have held his position had the Federals been aware that his division was there alone. Rodes and Gordon came in on Ramseur's left, and were at once thrown on the flank of the attacking columns, and for awhile drove everything before them. In the charge, General Rodes, one of the most promising officers and accomplished soldiers in Lee's army, was killed, as was also Brigadier-General Godwin, an earnest and conscientious soldier. Late in the afternoon, however, the Federal cavalry in heavy force broke through Early's left flank and rear. This, with a second front attack, threw Early's army into confusion, and it retired to Fisher's Hill. Ramseur's division, which General Early says maintained its organization, covered the retreat. The total Federal loss was, according to official returns, 5,018. The Confederate killed and wounded are reported at 1,707.2 Among the wounded were Colonel Cobb and Colonel Thruston.

General Ramseur succeeded Rodes in command of his veteran division, and Pegram took charge of Early's old division that Ramseur had been commanding. General Breckinridge's command was sent to southwestern Virginia.

On withdrawing from Fisher's Hill, Cox's brigade handsomely [259] repulsed the portion of the Federal army that was pressing the rear. At Cedar creek, General Kershaw's command returned to General Early.

Sheridan having fallen back, Early moved forward again to Fisher's Hill. Then by a flank movement, Gordon, Pegram and Ramseur moved all night, and at dawn attacked Sheridan's left flank and rear on Cedar creek. Wharton and Kershaw, with all the artillery, made the front attack. At the opening of the battle, Sheridan was returning to his army after a trip to Washington. The Federal army was surprised and routed. But no organized pursuit was made. General Sheridan gives the following account of the condition of his army: ‘At Mill creek my escort fell behind, and we were going ahead at a regular pace when just as we made the crest of the rise beyond the stream, there burst upon our view the appalling spectacle of a panic-stricken army—hundreds of slightly-wounded men, throngs of others unhurt, but utterly demoralized, and wagons by the score, all pressing to the rear in hopeless confusion, telling only too plainly that a disaster had occurred at the front On accosting some of the fugitives, they assured me that the army was broken up, in full retreat, and that all was lost.’

Sheridan's return and the delay of Confederate pursuit gave the Federals opportunity to recover and reorganize. Learning that the Confederate force was not so strong as anticipated, Sheridan prepared for offensive work. About 3 o'clock, he set a new battle in order against Early. Ramseur's men were posted behind a rock fence. Grimes and Cox repelled all attacks on them, but the left of Early's line gave way in disorder. General Grimes says that up to that time no serious break occurred on the left, and that his men had been kept well in hand and fought successfully. The rout of the left, however, affected the right, and that also gave way. In rallying his men, and exposing himself daringly, General Ramseur [260] was mortally wounded. Gen. Bryan Grimes succeeded to the command of the division. Early lost all the captures he had made except 1,300 prisoners that were brought off the field. The Federal loss in this battle, including prisoners, was 5,665. There seems to be no report of Confederate losses. General Early states in his ‘Early in the Valley’ that his loss was 1,860 casualties, and 1,000 prisoners.

The death of General Ramseur removed a soldier who had risen rapidly and deservedly. A graduate of West Point, he had entered the army in charge of a battery that made itself an honored name. Then transferred to command the Forty-ninth regiment, he so impressed the Confederate commanders that promotion to command a brigade and then a division soon followed. General Early in his book on the. Valley campaign bears this tribute to his merits: ‘He was a most gallant and energetic officer, whom no disaster appalled, but his energy and courage seemed to gain new strength in the midst of confusion and disorder. He fell at his post fighting like a lion at bay, and his native State has reason to be proud of his memory.’

Shortly after this battle, the North Carolina troops were returned to General Lee, and took their part in the dreary service in the trenches around Petersburg.

During the movement of General Lee's army from Cold Harbor, and for a month thereafter, the cavalry was given little rest. On the 7th of June, Barringer's brigade, now composed of the First, Second, Third and Fifth regiments, was stationed along the fords of the Chickahominy, and was engaged in skirmishes at Malvern hill, Herring creek and the Rocks. When the Federals made an effort to destroy the Weldon railroad, just below Petersburg, Barringer's troopers had a hot fight. The First, Second and Third regiments were dismounted, and with McGregor's guns poured a volley into Barlow's division. This produced a momentary panic, and Colonel [261] Baker, of the Third regiment, rushed upon the Federals and captured many prisoners. The Federals, however, rallied, and in turn captured Colonel Baker.

The famous Kautz-Wilson raid for the destruction of the southward railroads was the occasion of severe cavalry activity and battles. At ‘Blacks and Whites,’ Gen. W. H. F. Lee managed to get between the two Federal columns on the 23d of June. General Dearing was in the lead. His brigade, a small one, included the Fourth and Sixth North Carolina cavalry. This brigade was about to be overpowered when Barringer's brigade galloped to its relief. Major Cowles dismounted the First regiment and sent that to the guns. Maj. W. P. Roberts, of the Second regiment, reached the Federal rear, and the battle was sharp for some hours. At nightfall the Federals retired. Col. C. M. Andrews, one of North Carolina's best cavalry officers, was killed.

At Staunton river bridge, guarded by Junior and Senior reserves and disabled soldiers, Kautz's attack was repulsed, Lee's cavalry attacking his rear Col. H. E. Coleman, of the Twelfth North Carolina regiment, rendered gallant service in assisting the raw troops in the repulse of the cavalry division at this bridge. He was at home wounded and volunteered his services. So freely did he expose himself, that he was again wounded, but did not then leave the field. This raiding party before it reached Meade lost all its artillery, wagon trains, and hundreds of prisoners. [262]

1 Campaign of 1864 and 1865.

2 Rebellion Records, XLIII, 557.

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