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Report of the conduct of General George H. Steuart's brigade from the 5th to the 12th of May, 1864, inclusive.

by Colonel S. D. Thruston, of the Third North Carolina.

In the Southern Historical Papers for 1885, appears the ‘report’ of General R. S. Ewell of the campaign from the Rapidan to Spotsylvania, in May, 1864, in which only a casual mention is made of the part taken therein by the brigade of General George H. Steuart. This is readily accounted for from the fact that the commander, together with almost the entire brigade, was captured on the morning of May 12th, and no one was left to make the report of the conflicts of those eight eventful days.

Seeing for the first time General Ewell's report, the writer is constrained, even at this late day, to raise his voice in behalf of the noble and gallant men of the five regiments who acted so conspicuous a part and aided so materially in repelling the advance of the Federal army during the period covered by that report.

In writing this, it is hoped no one will think or feel for a moment it is intended to cast any blame or censure upon the grand patriot and soldier who penned the report; whose very life was sacrificed upon the altar of the country he loved so well, and whose memory is embalmed in the heart of every surviving member of the ‘Second corps.’ Oh, no; none of this! The only object is simply to put upon record, for history, those men and comrades who, at the time, had no one to do that duty for them.

The brigade, composed of the First and Third North Carolina, and the Tenth, Twenty-third and Thirty-seventh Virginia regiments of infantry, was, a short time after the battle of Chancellorsville, in May, 1863, placed under the command of General George H. Steuart, of the Maryland Line, and followed him in the Gettysburg campaign, through all the campaigns of 1863, and down to the 12th of May, 1864, in all of which it bore itself with a conspicuous gallantry, and [147] many times received the laudation of its division and brigade commanders.

On the morning of May the 4th, 1864, the brigade, being on picket along the Rapidan, discovered the columns of the Federal army in the distance moving to the right and apparently to the river below. The order soon came to be ready to move, and at midday it took up the line of march in the direction of ‘Locust Grove,’ a point on the ‘Old Stone Pike,’ running from Orange Courthouse to Fredericksburg. This point was reached and passed in the evening of the same day, and the brigade went into bivouac about two and a half miles beyond. The night was passed in quiet; the next morning (5th) about 10 1/2 o'clock, a few scattering shots being heard in front, the troops were called to arms and put in motion toward the firing.

In order to the better understanding of this report, it is necessary to give a short topographical history of the country in which the Army of Northern Virginia was about to grapple its enemy.

The ‘Old Stone Pike,’ running from Orange Courthouse to Fredericksburg, and having the general direction of southeast, passes what was formerly an old stage stand, known as ‘Locust Grove.’ After passing this point about two and one half miles east and south, it enters the battle-renowned ‘Wilderness.’ This Wilderness is a generally level barren, covered with a matted growth of scrub oak, stunted pine, sweetgum brush and dogwood. The surface of the earth is indented occasionally with low basins, through which the rainfall, washing from the higher margins, cuts long gullies and often deep and wide washouts.

About three miles south and east of ‘Locust Grove,’ a brave farmer, in days long gone, cleared a little field, of twenty or more acres, on and including one of these basins, through which the pike now runs. Time has driven the farmer to seek more productive soil, while the continued drain of water from the slope has washed a long and narrow gulley through the field; where it—the water—was obstructed by the pike, it has destroyed all vestige of a pike, and, at this day, a deep, wide and long washout stands in its stead.

Travellers in this Wilderness, like most country folk, adopted the cheaper plan of making a road around to repairing the pike, the consequence is, a road turns to the right about eight hundred yards north and west of the washout, and, obtaining a distance of two hundred yards from the pike at its greatest width, enters it again three hundred yards south and east. [148]

Along the eastern edge of this field the Sixth corps was posted in line of battle, while the remainder of the Army of the Potomac was passing to the right along the road from Germania Ford, immediately in rear of this line, posted to cover the movement. By this, it will be seen that Ewell's corps and the Sixth Federal corps were both in the Wilderness, and only separated by a few hundred yards. Those who remember the grand old commander will not doubt for a moment what such proximity meant.

Steuart's brigade was in column on the pike a very few minutes after the firing began, at 10 1/2 A. M., and marched promptly in the direction of the fire; a very short distance had been marched when the fire became severe, and some of Jones's men, known to be in the front, began passing to the rear.

Line of battle was immediately formed in the following order: The Third North Carolina to the right, the First North Carolina across, and the Virginia regiments to the left of the pike. Advancing in this order of battle, when about three hundred yards had been passed over, the right came in contact with Jones's and Battle's brigades, the former in great confusion, its gallant commander being killed, the men streaming to the rear, and carrying many men of Battle's left with them.

It was now 11 1/2 A. M. Battle having succeeded in rallying his men on Steuart's right, the line resumed the advance, and struck a stout line of Federal infantry in a thicket of pines, skirting the margin of the small opening—once a field. This line being assaulted, fled precipitately, all escaping except the One-hundred and Forty sixth New York—its commander, Colonel Jenkins, Elmira, New York, being killed—which surrendered in a body, and was sent to the rear, all except its color-guard and colors, which was too fleet to be overtaken.

The right of Steuart, debouching suddenly into this field — the left still in the brush—discovered two Howitzers, in the act of being taken off, which were quickly captured, together with the Lieutenant commanding the section. This section of a battery was on the near side of the deep and wide washout—as described—while, three hundred yards from the far side, was a strong line of the enemy that could not be moved. The attempt was twice made, but failed, and in the failure about fifty men of the two North Carolina regiments remained in the washout, and did good service later in the day as sharpshooters.

Several attempts were made to bring off the guns by hand—the [149] horses and limbers having gotten away—but the open ground and proximity of the enemy prevented, until night, when they were brought in by a detail from the Third North Carolina.

From the hour of the killing of General Jones and the discomfiture of his brigade, Steuart was cool and steady, advancing firmly and solidly through that tangled thicket, and, while serving as a rallying point for Battle's confused left, did not once falter, but looked to the front for the enemy. When entering the field the right of the brigade, the Third North Carolina was directly in front of three obstacles — the One-Hundred-and-Forty-Sixth New York, the two howitzers and the washout, which latter covered more than its front. The first and second were easily disposed of, not so the third. The New York regiment, being in line on its knees, rose at the first volley, and leaving its guns at ‘ground arms,’ passed through the brigade to the rear as prisoners of war. A few minutes after the two howitzers were captured, but the washout was never fairly cleared. While this was occurring, Battle's brigade closed to its right, connecting with the left of the line of battle on the opposite side of the traveled road, which manoeuvre created a long brigade distance between the flanks of the heretofore well-closed line of the two brigades. Steuart kept the direction of the pike until arrested by the close fire of the Sixth corps, heretofore mentioned.

About one-half hour was expended in attempting to force the enemy's position, but, failing in that, the brigade was withdrawn two hundred yards to the rear in the brush, where line of battle was formed, with Stafford on its left and Battle on its right. Later in the day the ‘Stonewall’ was put in Stafford's place, and that brigade moved farther to the left.

It was now after midday. No more fighting was done on this front, save a few picket shots, and a feeble attempt of the enemy, late in the afternoon, to recapture the two guns still standing on the edge of the washout. This was a signal failure, and the repulse was largely assisted by the men of the First and Third North Carolina, who were in the washout. After dark the two guns were brought in, and the men returned to their respective companies.

In the early morning of the 6th, Steuart's brigade was closed in to the left until its right rested on the pike, and Jones's brigade, now reorganized, was put in on its right and connected with Battle's left. The entire day was passed in quiet on this part of the line, only an occasional picket shot disturbing the repose of the men. Several [150] vigorous attempts were made to force the line to the left, and as vigorously repulsed.

The morning of the 7th revealed the enemy gone, and the day was spent by the men in congratulations, and by the writer in making a sketch of the field from the bivouac of the night of the 4th up to the line occupied by the Federals during the same period. Late in the evening of this day the brigade began closing or extending—cannot call it marching—to the right, which continued during the entire night, the men having no time for rest or sleep.

The morning of the 8th dawned bright and hot. The line of march was taken up and pushed with vigor, notwithstanding the heat, dust, parching thirst, and smoke and fire of burning woods. The nature of the march was sufficient to convince those heroes that their presence was required to meet the foe on some other field, and gallantly did they toil through the day. As the sun was hiding behind the western wood, the brigade was thrown in line to the support of Rodes, in front of Spotsylvania courthouse, but was not engaged. After dark it was marched and countermarched in search of a position, and at 10 P. M. was formed in line and ordered to throw up works in that salient which proved so disastrous on the 12th following.

By daylight of the 9th, in spite of the fatigue and loss of sleep on the night of the 7th, and the terrible march of the 8th, the entire brigade, with no tool, except the bayonet and tin-plate, was entrenched behind a good defensible rifle pit. This day was spent in strengthening the lines, scouting to the front, and that sleep so much needed.

The morning of the 10th found it closed to the right, connecting with the left of Hill's corps, and Jones's brigade occupying the works in the salient. The position now occupied was in rear of the left centre of the army, and so near as to require protection for the backs of the men when that part of the army was assaulted. These assaults were made fast and furious during the day, and the men of this line were, of necessity, compelled to erect works in front and rear at the same time. Late in the afternoon Doles's brigade was pressed back upon Steuart's rear, followed closely by the exultant enemy.

Orders to fall in, take arms, face by the rear rank and forward, were repeated in quick succession; the brigade responded with alacrity, and soon was moving steadily—though moving in line of battle by the rear rank—through a small strip of woods into a field, [151] in which stood a dwelling, and there meeting the enemy immediately attacked.

The work here was sharp and quick, resulting in the repulse of the Federals across and out of Doles's works, and their occupation by Steuart. It was, however, soon discovered that Steuart did not cover Doles's entire front to the left, and fifty or more of the enemy were having a happy time enfilading the lines left and right. Lieutenant Robert Lyon with ‘H’ company, Third North Carolina—the then left company—was formed across and perpendicularly to the line, and moving promptly down the left, drove them off. Before this could be accomplished the Third North Carolina, on the left, had suffered severely; many men were wounded, its sergeant-major killed, and colonel seriously wounded.

Thus matters stood at night-fall on the 10th, when the writer was carried to the hospital; he there learned the brigade was moved back during the night to its original position, remained inactive throughout the 11th, and was captured, together with its division and brigade commanders, in the early morning of the 12th.

General Edward Johnson, the division commander, in his report of this memorable morning, written on the 16th August following, virtually admits if the troops to the left of Steuart had held their ground with the same tenacity, the result would have been different, as the artillery could have gotten into position in the salient. He has this to say about Steuart: ‘The first assault was made on Steuart's front, which, after a fierce conflict, was repulsed; a second narrow but deep column then assaulted the salient; the artillery being absent, the troops were overpowered and gave away, when the enemy poured through our lines in immense numbers, taking possession to the right and left of the salient.’

Lieutenant-Colonel W. M. Parsley, commanding Third North Carolina that morning, and who was captured in his works, says: ‘Steuart faced by the rear rank and continued to fight inside the lines until a second column attacked him in front, when, finding himself between two fires at short range, he was compelled to surrender.’

Thus, on the 12th day of May, 1864, in front of Spotsylvania Courthouse, ceased to exist Steuart's brigade, composed of men who had followed various commanders from Manassas, in 1861, the Valley campaign with Jackson, down to Richmond and on through the several conflicts of ‘62, ‘63 and ‘64, not only without spot on their colors, and having the confidence of their leaders, but also complimented and honored for their endurance and heroism. [152]

From this day to the closing scene at Appomattox the two North Carolina regiments served with Ramseur's—later Cox's—brigade, of Rodes's division, and the three Virginia regiments were consolidated with the remnants of Jones's brigade, of Gordon's division. In these separate commands a warm feeling always existed between the men who had stood firmly by each other on so many hardly contested fields.

They followed the fortunes of war under Early in the Washington city and Valley campaigns. The last seen of them by the writer was on the field of Winchester September 19, 1864, where he, after-being baptized in the blood of the heroic and dauntless Rodes,1 was himself so fearfully wounded as to be unfit for field duty ever after.

In the absence of the division and brigade reports, due to the capture of Generals Johnson and Steuart, a few errors have, of necessity, appeared in the report of General Ewell. The report, after describing the death of General Jones, and the discomfiture of his brigade, says: ‘Daniel's brigade of Rodes's, and Gordon's of Early's were soon brought up and regained the lost ground, the latter capturing, by a dashing charge, several hundred prisoners.’ There was really little loss of ground. Battle was already up with Jones; and Steuart in time to assist in rallying Battle, when these two brigades advanced as heretofore described. Daniel and Gordon, both advancing on the traveled road, instead of the pike, found Doles's front, and there rendered that prompt assistance so much needed, which assistance was on Doles's, not Battle's, right. No troops were on either Steuart's right or left, except Battle and Stafford, and no prisoners were captured in that front except the One-Hundred-and-Forty-Sixth New York, already mentioned.

The writer well remembers how sorely pressed was Doles when Jones was broken, but never knew who was sent to his assistance, as he was three hundred yards to the left of Doles; but it is safe to infer that as Daniel and Gordon were not with Steuart, and yet being in the front, they must have been with Doles. The history of this part of the line in action is, that Battle rallied on Steuart's right, and when ‘formed on the ground first occupied’ they were the only troops that moved forward in that front, or, at least, that came up to that front. As to the two howitzers captured, they were claimed by [153] General Rodes for Battle, and he, ever tenacious of the rights of his men, only compromised by calling it a joint capture of Battle and Steuart. As before stated, when Battle emerged from the thicket, he closed to the right, which threw him, when on a line with the two guns, at least one hundred yards to the right of them, while Steuart, keeping the direction of the pike, came up in front, and after holding them all day, had them secured at night. It is also a fact known to the entire brigade, that Colonel Brown, First North Carolina, with his own hands pulled the lieutenant in charge of the guns from his horse, and held possession of the horse until required to turn him in. It was at this point Captain Cantwell, F company, Lieutenant Lyon, H company, and Adjutant T. C. James, all of the Third North Carolina, succeeded in turning the two guns upon the enemy, but were unable to fire, as they were empty and there was no ammunition, and in this act of duty James lost his right arm. From these facts Steuart ever claimed the guns as his capture.

The only ‘counter attack’ made by Steuart and Battle was that immediately following the death of the lamented Jones, with the results above indicated; this being ended, the troops lay quietly building breastworks all the afternoon on the line selected, and where they remained until moved by the right to Spotsylvania, May the 8th.

General Ewell, in his report, makes no mention whatever of Steuart's brigade on the evening of the 10th, in the recapture of Doles's works. The facts are as hereinbefore stated. Steuart, facing by the rear rank, left his works and advancing across to Doles's line took an active part in that engagement. The two North Carolina regiments had served in Doles's brigade from the ‘Seven Days battles around Richmond’ through the ‘Second Manassas’ and Maryland campaign to Fredericksburg, 13th December, 1862. The men quickly recognized their old comrades and felt much interest in assisting that gallant brigade.

This report is written from memory, aided by a diary and a sketch of the battlefield of the 5th of May, made on the 7th, and both preserved to this day. The sketch, a copy of which is sent herewith, was made without instruments, consequently the distances are estimated; the relative positions as they apply to Jones, Battle, Steuart, and Stafford are correct, and show them in the proper places, at the several hours named, with the estimated distances passed over. The positions of the other troops have been filled in from General Ewell's report. [154]

Few incidents of individual conduct have been mentioned aside from the general behavior of the troops in the several conflicts; being on the right nothing, but the generalities of the left could be seen, and many seen have been forgotten; for this reason mention is made of no personal incident in either of the three splendid Virginia regiments, they being continuously on the left.

Colonel Brown, First North Carolina, is living somewhere in Tennessee; Colonel Williams, Thirty-seventh Virginia, in or near Abingdon, Virginia; the colonels of the Tenth and Twenty-third Virginia have passed away. If either, or both, of those living, or any member of either of the regiments of Steuart's brigade happen to see this, it is earnestly solicited that any alterations, additions, or corrections, necessary to a truthful history, may be given publication, the writer's only object being to put the five regiments in their true light before their countrymen now living, and more particularly those to come after.

Believing some of my comrades will see this and recognize the motives which have dictated it, and hoping this feeble effort may meet with that appreciation its intent demands, this narrative is submitted, subject to the criticism of any and all the surviving true men actively engaged in battle on either or all of the days covered by it.

All of which is respectfully submitted,

S. D. Thruston, Colonel Third North Carolina Infantry, Steuart's Brigade.

1 General Rodes was bending from his saddle and giving instructions to Colonel Thruston when the fatal bullet pierced his brain. He fell, without a groan, in the arms of the colonel, saturating him with the warm life current.

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