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The Seventeenth Virginia infantry at Flat Creek and Drewry's Bluff.

By Col. A. Herbert.

Rev. J. William Jones, D. D., Secretary Southern Historical Society:
In response to invitations given by you in the Southern Histo-Rical papers to officers and men of the late Southern Confederacy for incidents interesting in their character, but lost or submerged in weightier events of the late war, I feel encouraged to give a sketch of an engagement of my old command, the Seventeenth Virginia infantry, at Flat Creek bridge, Richmond and Danville railroad, with Kautz's cavalry on the 14th May, 1864, and events following. The time was fraught with events of great moment to the then struggling Confederacy. The great battle of the Wilderness commenced between Lee and Grant on the 6th May. Butler, with 20,000 men, had thrown himself between Petersburg and Richmond; Kautz, with a strong force of cavalry, had cut the Petersburg railroad in several places, and everywhere our small armies were confronted with the enemy in larger numbers, and every command and every Confederate soldier [290] was called to endure a strain upon nerve, heart and brain that in the long lapse of years can never be forgotten.

On the 5th May the Seventeenth Virginia regiment was under Hoke in front of Newbern, N. C., right resting on the Neuse River, forming a part of our line then investing that place. When our position was revealed, by the careless firing of a picket upon a passing fishing smack, we were treated to a vigorous shelling by the enemy's gunboats. This made a lasting impression upon our memories, as we had to lie down and take it without a return shot, and with the chance of being impaled by pines, whose tops every now and then, taken off by a ten-inch shell, dropped with a crash in our midst. General Hoke's polite request for a surrender not being complied with, he would have followed by an assault of the town in force, but for the vigorous opening of that memorable campaign by Grant and Butler, and he was reluctantly compelled to make a forced retrograde movement to Kingston, and from thence via Weldon for Petersburg and Richmond. The morning of the 10th found us on the cars with the Thirtieth Virginia, the rest of our brigade having preceded us. We were delayed by forest fires that burnt the ties and spread the rails in many places. We were again delayed between Weldon and Petersburg by burnt bridges and torn up track, the work of Kautz and his raiders, causing a march of nine miles at one point before reaching Petersburg. On our arrival, to our dismay we found that three regiments of our brigade, General Corse and staff, were near Richmond, and General Butler in between. To my military readers this forced orphanage of a whole regiment from its military head and family will be understood as being anything but pleasant. We wanted to fight under our own commanders and by the side of our old and tried comrades.

But to the old Seventeenth, who knew no home but the regimental camp (their homes being during the four years of the war in the enemy's lines), a few words of explanation was all that was necessary to take in the situation. Reporting to General Wise, then in command of Petersburg, we were ordered into camp across the Appomattox, for which point the men took up the line of march with that cheerful hope of the future, the ‘devil me care air’ and swinging step peculiar to the old ragged battalions of that period.

About 1 o'clock at night I was aroused from a sound sleep by a courier with a characteristic order from General Wise, on a slip of ragged paper, viz: ‘Hold your regiment in readiness to move at any moment, in any direction, at a double-quick.’ A soft rain was falling [291] upon our bivouac, and as we had no preparations to make, and the men were in that deep sleep so sweet to the soldier, I would not rouse them, but waited the order to move, which came just as day was breaking. Following the guidance of a staff officer, in delightful uncertainty of our destination, we found ourselves once more in town at the Southside depot, rapidly embarking upon flats and freight cars, for a destination as yet unknown. All aboard and off we started, the men clinging to sides and roofs of as rickety an old train of cars as ever excited the fear and ire of any command. Once on the way, our orders were read. We were to go to Burkeville junction, from there to the bridges on the Danville road. We then for the first time took in the situation—that it was to be a race between ourselves and Kautz, which should get there first. The thought flitting through our brain meanwhile that Kautz and his bold riders might turn up somewhere on the road, misplace a few rails, ditch our old train, and play wild havoc with us. Thanks to our lucky star this evil fortune did not await us. We reached Burkville and then Farmville, where some refugees from Alexandria, and the citizens who were in mortal terror of the raiders, filled our haversacks and wished us God speed! The men, after such a reinforcement of material and moral support, in turn promised to give a good account of themselves when they struck the enemy.

May 13th we arrived at Flat Creek Bridge early enough to go over the ground and make proper dispositions of the companies for the fight expected next morning.

The enemy the same evening made a demonstration at the upper and larger bridge, defended by detachments of the Eighth, Thirteenth, and Thirtieth Virginia regiments, with artillery. Finding it too strong to carry in front, they crossed at the junction of the two streams, some miles below, hoping to surprise and carry the smaller and unfortified bridge guarded by the Seventeenth Virginia, and then taking the larger bridge in rear of its works destroy both, and so cut the only communication between Richmond and our base of supplies at the South. In this lies the whole merit of our little but important fight, which found no place in reports to headquarters and was scarcely noticed by the press of the day, so deeply absorbed were all by the mighty struggle then going on for the capture of Richmond.

By night the companies were all posted, some below the bridge behind a stone wall, some so placed that their fire covered it and the approach on the opposite side, some up the stream and behind a barricade made at a country road bridge, above the railroad bridge—all [292] with orders to sleep on their arms. I gave Colonel Talcott (the then Chief Engineer and Superintendent of the railroad, who, though a non-combatant, was drawn to the spot by his deep interest in the safety of the bridges), a part of my blanket, and we soon fell asleep. Just before dawn a few dropping shots were heard, and the officers and men of the advanced picket came across the bridge, reporting the enemy close behind. The picket shots were all the orders necessary. The men looked to their guns, fixed their eyes upon the opposite bank of the creek, then passed fording, and awaited the appearance of the enemy. They had not long to wait. While a mounted company charged down upon the county road bridge a long line of dismounted men charged up to the end of the railroad bridge with combustible materials to set it on fire. The company at the barricade emptied the saddles of the first line of fours, and their officers could not get them to charge mounted again. The sight of the enemy making a dash for the railroad bridge brought out a well directed fire from the other companies, which drove the enemy from the approach back under cover of the wood. Evidently their reception was a surprise, and after reforming they came up again in gallant style, the officers shouting, ‘drive the d——d conscripts out of the way.’ and we could hear the reply, ‘If you think these are conscripts, come down a little closer yourselves.’ A rattling fire from both sides ended the second attempt and we hoped the affair was over. But not so. After another interval they brought up two or three mountain howitzers with which they shelled us, and under cover of this fire another plucky advance upon the bridge was made; but thanks to our well chosen position and the steadiness of the boys, they had to give ground before our fire, and so after many attempts they had to fall back. Two companies of the regiment crossed close in their rear, capturing thirteen prisoners, five of them badly wounded, besides a large number of (17) seventeen-shooters, pistols, &c. They lost nine killed, most of their wounded being carried off. Our loss was three killed and a few wounded. Result: Bridges saved and Richmond's southern communications kept open.

On May 15th we marched to Powhatan Station, and from there were ordered to Richmond by rail by a despatch from General Beauregard. We reached Richmond at daybreak on the ever memorable 16th May, in a fog that some of my old comrades remember as one that would have done credit to London. We changed trains after some delay, and the old regiment, in good heart and spirits from its late success, soon found itself steaming away for Drewry's Bluff to [293] be once more united to its old command. On arriving there the fog still hung pall-like over everything—objects could clearly be seen only a few feet in advance, adding much to the confusion. The road being filled with a motley crowd of cavalrymen, ambulances, wagons, infantry; men enquiring for their commands, all asking questions, but no one seemingly able to give the desired answer. We called a halt until I could find a courier or staff officer to show us our position in line, which was accomplished after much trouble. In the meanwhile, the men were making the usual complimentary and appropriate remarks about the Commissary Department, no rations being in sight, an aching void within, and so far nothing but cold fog to fill the vacuum. I promised that once in position the rations should soon follow. Under the guidance of the courier we started for our place in line. On arriving at the top of a hill, where the balls from the enemy's sharpshooters dropped in a most uncomfortable manner, we halted. The regiment was then formed in line of battle, and we moved forward in quick time for the position assigned us. Just then one of the most weird and singular sights caught my eye. On our left a long line of troops were moving into the works in line of battle, and as they moved up the hill the fog lifted and this long line of legs were to be seen moving in perfect unison, the fog obscuring the men from their waist-belts up, making a most phantom-like picture. My attention was soon called to our own surroundings; for as the mist rose in our front it brought us in view of the enemy's sharpshooters, and before reaching the trenches we lost several men. We had hardly settled in line and taken in the bearings of our new position, and given the men, in camp parlance, time to ‘look into their haversacks and grow fat,’ before orders were brought by a dismounted courier (as no man could have lived a minute mounted), to fall in, and be ready to charge the enemy's works when the signal was given. ‘Here's your rations, boys,’ the men called to each other. Fighting rations, they meant, which they thought were given without stint, and wanted to be a little sarcastic to the Colonel. But every man drew his waist belt a little tighter, drew down his hat closer over his eyes, looked once more to his accoutrements, and waited with bated breath the order to clear our works and charge the enemy. Just here let me add that the fire from the enemy's picket line by sharpshooters had been so severe that a hat elevated above the works would be perforated by bullets in a few moments, and the order to prepare to charge meant that some who mounted that parapet would look their last of earth from its summit. Want of stick upon the part of the enemy alone was the cause of our [294] loss not being much heavier. The order came quickly. At the command ‘Forward!’—rungout in loud tones all along the line—the regiment bounded forward as one man, with the old yell that rings in my ears as I now write, and starts my old blood in fresh surges through my veins.

As the ground in our front between us and the enemy was covered with felled timber, no alignment could be kept; there was one mad rush, and but few laggards. Our batteries opened with every gun, and with one desultory fire we carried the enemy's lines and captured over a hundred prisoners who did not know enough English to surrender.

The enemy's camps furnished the rations we failed to get in the morning, and the old regiment, with the loss of one field officer and thirty men killed and wounded, stood ready the next day to still farther tighten the cords around General Butler's lines in Bermuda Hundreds.

So ends my article, written with the hope of its meeting the eye of some old soldier of the Seventeenth, or comrades of other commands to whom it may give pleasure, and to whom the events narrated may bring up the stirring times of the past and cause their pulse to beat more quickly as the old scenes and the old comrades once more pass in review. To the survivors of my old regiment now widely scattered, in whose faces in the providence of God I may never look again, I would like to express how much their confidence, prompt obedience in many emergencies, and their friendship and sympathy, begotten of the time, have brightened many an hour when memory has brought up again those grand old days never to be forgotten.

Arthur Herbert, Colonel Commanding Seventeenth Virginia Infantry, Army of Northern Virginia.

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