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The Staunton river fight. [from the Richmond times, November 22, 1891.]

Colonel Farinholt replies to General Dabney Maury—Certain alleged Errors Corrected—Another account of that famous Engagement—To whom the honor of the victory is partly Due—Interesting details.

[The narrative to which Colonel Farinholt excepts appears in this volume, ante, pp. 51-57. The intent of General Maury is evident. It is just to to him to state that he earnestly endeavored to obtain all the facts attendant upon the ‘remarkable victory’ before publishing his account. The editor had several conversations with him during its preparation. General Maury states that he was anxious to hear from Colonel Farinholt, to whom he wrote, but received no reply from him.]

The following is an account of the battle at Staunton river bridge, prepared by Colonel B. L. Farinholt, in reply to the account of that memorable engagement from the pen of General Dabney H. Maury, and which was recently published in the Times.

Dear Sir: My attention has been called to a copy of The Times, of Richmond, Va., giving, over your signature, an account of the engagement between the Confederate and Federal forces which took place at Staunton River bridge, on the Richmond and Danville railroad, on the 25th of June, 1864 (you say the 24th), [202]

Believing you would not misrepresent the facts intentionally, and would not knowingly minimize the just deserts of one officer to aggrandize the fame and add to the laurels of another, and feeling sure that after the lapse of so many years you have either misconstrued the conversation you had with Colonel Stanhope Flournoy, or that your remembrance of his account is at this date imperfect, I write to inform you of the facts, and, in justice to myself, place in your hands a correct statement of this engagement.

How the fight began.

I had been in charge of the post at Staunton River bridge for about forty days prior to the engagement, preparing its defences and organizing and drilling the reserve forces. On the 22d of June, receiving a telegram from General Beauregard, at that time near Petersburg, that a large raiding party of the enemy was out making its way towards the Danville railroad, I at once sent out couriers in every direction calling upon the citizens and all local organizations and soldiers at home ‘on leave’ to come forward and assist in completing the defences of this, the largest and most important bridge on the railroad, well knowing that if it was given up and destroyed,. from there to Danville (as the Federal forces succeeded in doing at every depot from Burkeville to Staunton bridge) our wagon train would find it impossible to fill up the long gap until the railroad could be repaired or the rolling stock replaced, and that it would consequently be next to if not quite impossible for General Lee to hold his pesition in front of Richmond but a short time after such complete destruction of this road, then almost our only artery for supplies from the South.

As evidence of my correct view of the situation at the time I refer you to an order issued by General Lee almost immediately after this fight for the impressment and use of an extra large number of wagons, detailing all that could be spared from other portions of the army, under specially detached vigilant and expert quartermasters and commissaries, to cover this gap in the road from Staunton bridge to Burkeville until it could be repaired.

The defences on both sides of the river, already well under way, were rendered as complete as the limited time after receiving General Beauregard's order, up to the hour of the commencement of the fight, would permit, every position of which I directed and superintended myself, including the rifle-pits on the north and east sides of the Staunton river.


Colonel Coleman's position.

Your statement says Colonel Coleman assumed command of the forces at the bridge and prepared the defences; on the contrary, Colonel Coleman reported to me for service only a short time before the engagement actually began. I then had two hundred and fifty men in position on the north and east side of the river, having placed them and fully directed them what to do, both in regard to improving their defences, as well as to reserve fire upon the enemy's approch until they could aim with deadly precision and at a close range. This was all done before I had seen Colonel Coleman, and well do I remember the words of gallant old Mr. William Clarke, who remarked when I returned to the defences on the south side of the river that I seemed to be satisfied that we should hold the place against all odds, as I had by the disposition of our forces abandoned all idea of retreat and intended that it was to be victory, death or imprisonment, for, said he, ‘we are between the devil and the deep sea.’

After Colonel Coleman reported to me I placed him in command of two hundred men besides those already on the east side of the river, placing twenty of the two hundred behind heavy timber, crossed so as to leave loopholes for them to fire through, in the form of an A over that end of the bridge, and it was at this point the Rev. Mr. Burke was instantly killed by the explosion of a shell from the enemy's battery.

Colonel Coleman did his duty gallantly and efficiently, and in recognition of which I especially mentioned him in my report to General Lee of the engagement, causing him to give Colonel Coleman due consideration in his congratulatory order to my command.

It was I who sent the message to Colonel Flournoy and many other prominent men throughout that and other adjacent counties, urging them to assemble all men who could bear arms, even temporarily, to assist in this defence.

Colonel Flournoy and farmer Edmonds.

Colonel Flournoy, as did Hon. Paul Edmonds (then at home on leave, now member of Congress from that district), reported to me for any duty I might assign them to, and as each came mounted, and with a goodly number of followers likewise mounted, I sent one to the nearest ford above and the other to the nearest ford below the bridge, each some two miles away, to guard and prevent the enemy [204] crossing to attack us in the rear. While both of these gentlemen and their commands did most efficient service, neither of them were immediately present while the battle was being fought.

Your report of it, after giving Colonel Coleman the credit of preparing the defences on the north and east side of the river and commanding those forces, says the rest of the command was held in reserve under Colonel Flournoy on the right bank of the river. This work was armed with four six-pounders, which were worked upon the enemy under the command of Captain Marshall.

A gallant Virginian.

Colonel Flournoy was a gentleman sans peur et sans reproche, and as he, by special invitation, on two occasions (once at his own house and once at the house of his neighbor, Mr. Clarke), soon after this engagement met me and assisted in entertaining me as a compliment for ‘the most gallant defence,’ as he pleased to term it, ‘made of Staunton river bridge, his home and household goods,’ I cannot think for a moment Colonel Flournoy would have related to you that he was in command of the forces on either side of the river in this engagement, or that Colonel Coleman would have claimed for himself what your report of this fight does—viz.: that he assumed command, constructed the defences and arranged the plan of battle on the left bank of the river. Colonel Henry Eaton Coleman, I consider, was a man of high sense of honor and a chivalrous, gallant officer. He was my friend. After leaving your office in Washington he came to see me in Baltimore.

Knowing, as he did, my report to General Lee, and General Lee's complimentary reply to me and my command for the disposition of forces and the determination with which we made this fight, Colonel Coleman could not have been my friend and written the friendly letter he did, had he believed me to have claimed any honors due to him.

Colonel R. E. Withers, commandant at Danville at the time, knew all about the fight. He most efficiently aided me with all the men at his command when I telegraphed him the situation, and the Danville contingent constituted a great moral as well as material support, many of them being old soldiers.

I enclose a letter from Colonel Withers, written not long after the battle, but after he had time to know all the facts from the officers of his command, who were engaged under my immediate supervision. I also inclose General R. E. Lee's letter to my command, showing a due appreciation of the gravity of the situation and the invaluable [205] service rendered at the time by holding the position—the key to all our supplies—against such odds.

Your report says two hundred and fifty old men and boys made this fight against twenty-five hundred of the enemy. This is a mistake: we still have enough credit left, and it may be correctly termed a remarkable victory, when, as I find by reference to my report, we had nine hundred anh thirty-eight men—of these only one hundred and fitty veterans, the remainder being the gallant reserves and citizens from adjacent counties, who deserve all the encomiums you have bestowed upon them. In the management of these I was ably assisted by Captain T. T. Boswell, of Mecklenburg. The enemy had six thousand well-trained and splendidly-equipped troops, over three thousand of whom advanced to the charge repeatedly on our small force, being as often disastrously repelled.

Another mistake.

Your description is in error in stating that ‘General Wilson made his headquarters on McPhail's lawn, from whence he could view the field of battle and all of its approaches.’ Really, neither Staunton bridge nor but few of its approaches can be seen from McPhail's residence or lawn, which is (or was in 1864) obstructed from any extensive view by intervening woods.

I had the pleasure of knowing all of the family except Major Mc-Phail, who was absent with his command at the front.

And I designedly had the empty trains frequently run back and forth between our defences and Clover depot, while the enemy were approaching and deploying, our men being instructed to huzza on the arrival of every train, thus giving plausibility to the report of Mrs. McPhail to the Federal commander, and giving him apparently good reason to believe we were rapidly being reinforced.

I do not think, General, that any of us deserve very great credit for doing our duty in what we believe to be right by both instruction and inheritance, but none of us are willing when having done our duty to have our work ascribed to others, and our children deprived of such honor and credit as our contemporaries and posterity think but just to award us.

I am, most respectfully,

N. B.—I also append extracts from a letter from Captain W. T. Atkins, of Boydton, Va., who most efficiently aided as my adjutant in carrying out the details of the engagement, being himself frequently exposed to the severest fire of the enemy in doing so.


Report to General Lee.

headquarters army of Northern Virginia, 16th July, 1864.
Captain B. L. Farinholt, Commanding at Staunton River Bridge:
Captain. Your report of the repulse of the enemy by the forces under your command on Saturday, 25th ult., at Staunton River bridge has been received. Please express my thanks to the men and officers engaged for the gallantry and determination with which they repelled every assault of the enemy. I regret the painful wound of Colonel Coleman, of the Twelfth North Carolina, who exhibited such a noble example of patriotism and bravery in leaving home, though wounded, and taking an active part in the defence of the post.

Thanking you for the skill and conduct with which you have executed the charge committed to you, I am very respectfully four obedient servant,

R. E. Lee, General.

Colonel Withers' congratulations.

Commandant's office, Danville, June 27, 1864.
Captain Fairinholt, Commanding Staunton River Bridge:
Captain: I beg leave to offer you my congratulations on the very handsome and successful defence of your position against a largely superior force of the enemy.

The service you have rendered will be highly appreciated by the whole country.

I am glad to know that some of the companies from this place contributed so essentially to the result.

Please send me an accurate list of the causalities of the command as soon as you can, and a detailed account of the whole affair. Present to the officers and men of your command my high appreciation of the service rendered, and my confident belief that the next party of raiders will give them a ‘wide berth.’

I learn that you have captured a considerable number of repeating rifles, if so you can turn one over to me. I should be glad to get one.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

R. E. Withers, Colonel Commanding Post.


What Captain Atkins says.

My Dear Sir: Your letter, with a copy of the Richmond Times of the 27th of September, containing General Dabney H. Maury's account of the fight at Staunton river bridge in June, 1864, came duly to hand.

Of course it was unintentional, but nevertheless the account does you a great injustice in giving to others the credit of planning and directing what General Maury correctly terms ‘the most remarkable fight of the war.’

I was an active participant in the fight, and probably knew more about its details than any other person except yourself, and very cheerfully give you my recollection of its main features.

From the time I reached the bridge until I left, you were unquestionably in command of all the troops on both sides of the river, directing in person every movement, disposition of the troops and other details of the fight, every officer present looking to you for and obeying your orders.

Colonel H. E. Coleman did not reach the bridge until the morning of the 25th, when he reported to you for duty, and you assigned him to the immediate command of about one hundred and fifty men then placed at the foot of the bridge on the north side of the river.

General Maury also misunderstood Colonel Flournoy as to where he was stationed during the fight. The Colonel, with some mounted men he had raised, was guarding Cole's Ferry, two or three miles above the bridge, to prevent the Federal forces crossing there.

Yours truly,

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