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The battle of the Wilderness. The part taken by Mahone's brigade.

An address delivered by Comrade John R. Turner, before A. P. Hill Camp of Confederate Veterans of Petersburg, Virginia, on the evening of March 3d, 1892.

[The following address, it has been announced, will be republished by Hon. George S. Bernard, Petersburg, Virginia, in his valuable and interesting compilation ‘War-Talks of Confederate Veterans,’ which will comprehend the several addresses which have been delivered before A. P. Hill Camp of Confederate Veterans, ‘with addenda giving statements of participants, eye-witnesses and others, in respect to campaigns, battles, prison-life and other war experiences.’ Such individual and unbiassed testimony has a value not to be underestimated.—Ed.]


Having for years felt a desire to verify some of my impressions of the Battle of the Wilderness, in which, on the 6th of May, 1864, I participated as a member of the Petersburg Riflemen, Company E, Twelfth Virginia regiment, Mahone's brigade, and particularly wishing to verify my recollection as to the striking incident of Dr. Benjamin H. May, the gallant color-bearer of our regiment, [69] refusing to give up his colors to Colonel (later General) G. M. Sorrel, of Longstreet's staff, a few weeks ago I wrote to General Sorrel to make some inquiries of him as to his recollection of this incident, and promptly received from him a reply confirming my own impressions in many particulars and giving several additional particulars. His letter was so interesting that I determined at once to read it to the camp, but after reflection it occurred to me that I might get together the recollections of other participants in the action and read them all as interesting details of that part of this celebrated action in which our particular command figured so conspicuously.

With this purpose, I turned over my correspondence with General Sorrel to several members of our camp, who were present in this action as members of the Twelfth Virginia regiment, and requested each of them, after reading it, to furnish me his recollection of the incidents referred to, and also any other details or incidents of the engagement that they could recall. The several responses of the gentlemen of whom this request was made, together with the statements of other participants, will be furnished in the order in which they were given, and I feel satisfied that my correspondence with General Sorrel, supplemented by these statements, will interest you as they have interested me.

My letter to General Sorrel I mailed to Savannah, Georgia, and was as follows:

dear General—Being anxious to know if your recollection and mine accorded, as to certain movements made at the Battle of the Wilderness, May 6th, 1864, in which we both participated, I take the liberty of addressing you this communication, and hope (if not trespassing to much upon you time), you will do me the kindness to favor me with a reply.

You will remember Mahone's brigade, of Anderson's division, was quartered near Madison Run Station. We broke camp on the morning, I think, of the 4th, and bivouacked near Rapidan Station that night. In the early morning of the 6th we made a forced march to the battle-field, which we reached about ten o'clock.

Mahone's brigade was ordered very soon afterwards to the right in the Wilderness. After going some distance through the thicket, we encountered the enemy, apparently bivouacking, and little expecting [70] any attack from that direction. They fled pell-mell before us, leaving their light camp equipage scattered in every direction, making scarcely any resistance until they reached the Orange plank-road; when, having a natural fortification, strengthened hurriedly by them, they stoutly resisted us. Just at this point you dashed up to the front of my regiment, the Twelfth Virginia, and approached our color-bearer, Benjamin H. May (as gallant a soldier as ever carried a flag or shouldered a musket, and who was killed at Spotsylvania Courthouse the 12th of May), and asked him for his colors to lead the charge. He refused to give up his colors, but said: “We will follow you.” With great enthusiasm we followed you in the direction of the plank-road. The enemy broke and fled before us. I remember seeing you then dash with great speed up the road in the direction, I suppose, of General Longstreet, to inform him that the way was clear. Our color-bearer, in the excitement of the moment, failed to observe that the other regiments of the brigade had halted at the plank-road. We became detached and passed over the road forty or fifty yards before halting. Our colonel, Colonel D. A. Weisiger, observing that we were in advance of the brigade, ordered us to fall back on a line with the brigade. In doing so the other regiments, mistaking us for the enemy, fired into us, killing and wounding several of our men, and I always thought the same volley killed General Jenkins and wounded General Longstreet, this apparently putting an end to all operations for the day, as there seemed to be very little done afterwards during the day.

I had the pleasure of a short conversation with General Longstreet returning from Gettysburg, three years ago, and he told me that, while he knew he was wounded by his own men, he never knew exactly how it occurred. He said everything was working beautifully up to this point, and what seemed to be an opportunity for a brilliant victory was lost by this unfortunate circumstance.

I have so often thought of your bravery and gallant bearing as you led us through the woods up to the plank-road, I feel that I would like to know with certainty whether or not my recollections are correct as to the part you took in that charge.

Wishing you a long life, much happiness and great prosperity.

I am, very truly, your comrade,

To this letter General Sorrel replied as follows: [71]

New York, January 19th, 1892. (Lee's Birthday.)
John R. Turner, Esq., A. P. Hill Camp, C V., Petersburg, Va.:
dear Sir—Your letter of January 14th was forwarded to me from Savannah, and am very glad to hear from you. The events you describe are so long ago, that one's memory may be pardoned if slightly treacherous as to details, but I may say at once that your recital of the incident and the movement of Mahone's brigade at the Battle of the Wilderness conforms accurately to my own recollection of it, excepting, of course, the too partial and flattering view you take of my own personal service there. But I will give you briefly my own version of it, which really is nearly your own.

Longstreet's corps had to move at the earliest hour in the morning of the 6th of May, and, arriving at the battle-field, was just in time to be thrown across the plank-road and check the enemy whose attack had begun on A. P. Hill's corps. This of itself was a magnificent performance of the corps — to form line in the dense thicket after a hasty march, in the midst of troops suddenly attacked and retiring from the front in disorder. Being done during the enemy's attack, it displayed the steadiness characteristic of Longstreet's famous corps. This checked that attempt, and for a short time there was some quiet. It was then, too, you will recollect, that General Lee was about to lead the Texas brigade into action, so threatening was the situation. He was almost forcibly stopped by his officers and the entreaties of the soldiers.

This incident is given by Colonel Charles S. Venable, of General Lee's staff, as follows (in his address before the Association of the Army of Northern Virginia, October 31, 1873):

It was here that the incident of Lee's charge with Gregg's Texas brigade occurred. The Texans cheered lustily as their line of battle, coming up in splendid style, passed by Wilcox's disordered columns, and swept across our artillery pit and its adjacent breastwork. Much moved by the greeting of these brave men and their magnificent behavior, General Lee spurred his horse through an opening in the trenches and followed close on their line as it moved rapidly forward. The men did not perceive that he was going with them until they had advanced some distance in the charge; when they did, there came from the entire line, as it rushed on, the cry, “Go back, General Lee! Go back!” Some historians like to put this [72] in less homely words; but the brave Texans did not pick up their phrases. “We won't go unless you go back!” A sergeant seized his bridle rein. The gallant General Gregg (who laid down his life on the 9th of October, almost in General Lee's presence, in a desperate charge of his brigade on the enemy's lines, in the rear of Fort Harrison), turned his horse towards General Lee, remonstrating with him. Just then I called his attention to General Longstreet, whom he had been seeking, and who sat on his horse on a knoll to the right of the Texans, directing the attack of his divisions. He yielded with evident reluctance to the entreaties of his men, and rode up to Longstreet's position. With the first opportunity I informed General Longstreet of what had just happened, and he, with affectionate bluntness, urged General Lee to go further back. I need not say the Texans went forward in their charge and did well their duty. They were eight hundred strong, and lost half their number killed and wounded on that bloody day. The battle was soon restored and the enemy driven back to their position of the night before.

It was soon after this that General Longstreet said to me that, if I were to collect some troops over on the right, get them in good line and in touch with each other, and make a strong movement forward, swinging by the right, he felt sure a splendid success would follow. I proceeded to follow out these directions, with full authority to control the movement. There were three brigades in addition, perhaps, to other troops, that I succeeded in getting into good form and ready to move. These were Mahone's, Wofford's, and I believe the other was Anderson's. The movement soon began, at a given signal, our right swinging swiftly around, driving everything before it. The lines in front of us made some sharp resistance, but they were quickly overcome, and our troops— Mahone's brigade, notably distinguished in the affair—rushed forward through the dense undergrowth, carrying everything before them. It was then that the incident occurred of which you speak, about poor Ben. May. He was doing all that man could do with his colors, but seemed to be somewhat embarrased by the bushes, and I thought perhaps I might help him to get them forward, mounted as I was. As you say, he positively refused to let them leave his own hands, and I was filled with admiration of his splendid courage. I think it was on the 12th that poor May was shot, and I received from a member of the Twelfth Virginia an affectionate message that he sent me. His message was: ‘Tell Colonel Sorrel I couldn't part [73] with the colors; but we followed him.’ I have always remembered him as one of the bravest of Confederate soldiers. The Twelfth Virginia did splendid service that day, and the regiment and myself became great friends. Till the end of the war, whenever in marches or elsewhere, I met it, I was always honored with its friendly greetings. As our troops reached the plank-road, you will recollect that a volley was given to the enemy who were trying to rally on the opposite side. By this volley General Wadsworth and his horse (while trying to rally his men), were both killed, and his soldiers could make no stand against us. Our rapid movement through the woods had disordered our line, as you correctly describe it. Leaving them for a moment, while recovering good order, I hastened to General Longstreet with a view to bringing up supports to follow up our splendid success. I met the general near by, Jenkins brigade immediately behind him. He had heard the sound of our rifles, and, with the quick instinct of the general that he was, was following us up with a strong and powerful support to pursue his victory. I had scarcely taken more than a few steps with him when a sudden and unexpected fire, at first scattering, then heavier, broke out from our men. The general was shot down by my side, and at the same time, General Jenkins, one or two staff officers and several couriers. I have never known accurately who started this fire; there is yet some confusion about it, but it was fatal, and had the effect, by disabling the general, of putting a stop to the heavy blow he was about inflicting on the disordered enemy. Later in the day, you will remember, we made another attack rather more direct, with a strong force, on the enemy who had got behind some intrenchments; but we there sustained a repulse, and that about closed the principal features of the Battle of the Wilderness, on the 6th of May.

The importance of our flank attack, which I have described here so briefly, was not underestimated by the enemy in his subsequent reports. The official report of the battle by General Grant, or his immediate subordinate, describes the tremendous attack of these three brigades, which turned his own left flank and nearly brought about a wide-spread disaster to the Federal army. I cannot but think it would have so ended, had not General Longstreet, in the flush of his success, and with ardent, fresh troops in hand, been struck down in the very act of delivering this blow. a thousand Confederate throats, the men in the finest spirits as they pressed on—all of this always comes vividly back to me at the mention of the Wilderness. [74]

I have always thought that the mounted officer whom I saw and particularly noticed, his gallant bearing attracting my attention was Colonel Sorrel, and still so believe. I noticed this officer just as the line was ascending the slope north of the marshy flat. He was, I think, less than fifty yards to the left of our company.

The move through the woods in pursuit of the retreating Federals was highly exciting, the men seeming to have lost all sense of danger, although hostile bullets were doing some deadly work. The rapid charge soon brought our regiment to the southern edge of the Orange plank-road, arrived at which, we were so close upon the enemy that two—I think three—of us fired simultaneously at one retreating Federal on the north side of the plank-road, and not forty yards distant. As we fired, the Federal soldier fell. Leroy Edwards,1 who was at my side, and one of those who fired, exclaimed, “I hit him!” I am not sure that I also did not so exclaim— I know I thought I hit him and that it was under my fire he fell. In a few seconds we were at his side, and to our surprise he did not appear to be badly hurt. Leroy Edwards, as tenderhearted as he was courageous, first spoke to him, and offering to help, or helping him to get on his feet, said in the most sympathetic way, “I hope you are not hurt.” This striking incident, illustrating the feeling of a true and chivalrous soldier towards his fallen enemy, impressed me very much.

Just after this, our line—I mean the part of it composed of the Twelfth regiment—being in a flat about fifty yards north of the plank-road, and depressed about five or six feet below the level of the roadway, was reformed, and facing southward moved back towards the plank-road, ascending a gentle slope as we neared it, when suddenly we were startled by a sharp volley of musketry coming from a line of troops about forty or fifty yards south of the plank-road, the bullets from which volley fiercely whizzed over our heads. I well remember my own thoughts—The enemy are in our rear, and we are in a bad box. This flashed through my mind. Immediately the men fell upon their faces, and would doubtless have at once begun to return this fire, but several cried out, ‘You are firing into your friends.2’ “Show your colors!” “Show your colors!!” It immediately became apparent to us and to the men on the south side of the plank-road that a mistake had been made, and the firing ceased,

I am sketching this off to you hastily and entirely from memory, and while there may be some omissions, or inaccuracies as to detail, I think the account is not far wrong. With best wishes, I am yours very truly and sincerely,


In a subsequent letter, under date of January 24th, 1892, assenting to my reading our correspondence, General Sorrel, says:

Please give my heartfelt regards, remembrances and all good wishes to the brave veterans you are associated with. They were my comrades too, and I shall never forget them or the tremendous days that brought us together.

To Comrade George S. Bernard, a member of my company, I first turned over this correspondence with General Sorrel, and requested his recollections of the battle.

Here is his reply:

I have read with much pleasure your correspondence with General Sorrel, and am glad you propose to read it to the camp. It furnishes an interesting page of the unwritten history of the war. It connects our regiment and brigade with a most important move in the Battle of the Wilderness, and shows how, when this move seemed about to prove a great success, it was arrested by an unfortunate accident.

I did not witness the incident of the flag. Ben. May's refusal to let the colors go from his hands was highly characteristic of the man. A splendid fellow he was, as brave as a lion and as gentle as a woman, resembling in this particular his distinguished uncle, Captain Robert B. Pegram, of naval fame.

The general appearance of the woods, with its scrubby oaks and other trees, in which we encountered the enemy, the marshy flat and gentle slope on either side at the point we first struck them, the enemy at the top of the slope on the north side, an occasional blue coat and a Federal flag indistinctly visible for an instant through the foliage of the thick undergrowth, say, less than a hundred and fifty yards ahead of us, our men in line of battle just at the foot of the slope on the north side moving rapidly forward, some mounted officers riding along with the line encouraging the troops, one of these officers conspicuously leading, the men loading and firing as they moved forward, all yelling and cheering as they saw the enemy hastily retiring, the woods echoing with the rapid discharge of musketry, and the “rebel yell” vigorously sounded from more than 3 [76]

A part of our brigade, during the short space of hardly more than ten minutes that we were down the slope of the hill on the north side of the plank-road, had moved to their right, so as to occupy exactly the ground over which we had passed a short time before, and not knowing that we were across the road, and seeing us coming in line of battle from the direction of the enemy, naturally took us to be Federals, and greeted us with a shower of Confederate lead, most of which, fortunately, passed over our heads.

When these men saw their mistake, and knew that their fire had taken effect on some of our men, they were greatly distressed. “Boys, we are so sorry! We are so sorry!” Many of them earnestly said, “We did not know you were our friends.” No such protestations were of course necessary, but the manly fellows who had made the mistake seemed to think it necessary thus to assure us.

In my diary on the morning of the 7th of May I wrote an account of this action, from which I take the following extracts:

About ten o'clock our brigade went into action on the enemy's left flank, and Lieutenant Patterson4 was told by Dr. Pryor5 this morning that General Longstreet told him that the brigade behaved very well, and the Twelfth regiment most gallantly. We drove the enemy beautifully for a half mile or more through the woods, killing and wounding many of them. The casualties in the Twelfth were five killed—Wm. F. Pucci,6 Company A; D. McCracken, Company [77] B; John Mingea, Company B; W. A. Jelks, Company B; and R. B. Barnes, Company F; and forty-seven wounded, two of whom, it is thought, are mortally wounded—Ben. White, Company C, and William Delbridge, Company I. Among the wounded are Captain Stephen White, Company C; Sergeant George Morrison,7 Company A; and private John Lee, of Company E. There were unfortunately three cases of accidental wounding in the regiment. What were the casualties in the other regiments of the brigade I have not heard. Among those in the brigade, however, I hear of Captain R. Taylor, of General Mahone's staff, and of one of the General's couriers, Bernard,8 being wounded, and also Lieutenant-Colonel Minetree, of the Forty-First.

A most unfortunate affair occurred just as the Twelfth was returning from the advanced position to which they had charged the enemy. They were fired into by the Forty-First—and I hear also a part of the Sixty-First—regiment, who took us to be the enemy. This fire wounded, and perhaps killed, some of our men, but, what is most unfortunate, it wounded General Longstreet and killed General Jenkins, who were riding along the plank-road just at the time. Our division and Heth's are now in line of battle in reserve. From what I can gather, we gained not much by the fight of Thursday, except four pieces of artillery, and, I hear, three thousand prisoners. We lost heavily in wounded, judging from the large number we met on the road yesterday morning. In the fight of yesterday we had greatly the advantage, driving the enemy a half mile and killing large numbers of them.


Among the incidents of the fight I must mention the conspicuous gallantry of a member of our company, Jim Farley,9 now of the sharpshooters, who received two wounds, one in the shoulder and the other in the face, but continued to charge on with the regiment to the most advanced position. The gallantry of Lieutenant-Colonel Sorrel, of Longstreet's staff, was also very conspicuous. He led us into action on horseback, waving his hat and crying out: ‘Come on, Virginians!’

General Wadsworth, of the Yankee army, was found wounded (it is believed mortally) in that portion of the field over which the [78] left of our brigade charged, and is therefore supposed to have been wounded by our brigade.

About twelve months ago I made a copy of the account of this action given in my diary and sent it to Leroy Edwards. From his reply acknowledging its receipt I make the following extract:

The fight that day, the burning woods, our marchings and counter-marchings before and after the engagement, are well in my memory, and are accurately recorded in your diary. Our company was not one hundred yards from the spot where Longstreet was wounded and General Jenkins was killed; indeed, the same volley that disabled these generals likewise struck down two of the color-guard of the Twelfth regiment. I cannot forget the gallantry of May10 (our ensign) at that critical moment, when our men (Sixteenth Virginia?) were striking us down, nor do I forget gallant May's bearing when Sorrel (of Longstreet's staff) asked May to let him (Sorrel) carry the colors of the Twelfth, and May's indignant reply. This incident occurred before we reached the plank-road. May was knee-deep in a swamp, and Sorrel's horse was floundering in the mud. At this moment young Lee, of Company E, was wounded. We soon reached the plank road and hastily dislodged the enemy.

[Here follows a diagram, which we omit.]

This rough drawing presents my recollections of the swamp or marsh in which the May and Sorrel incident occurred (I. A.) and about the location of Lee when he was wounded. Our advance was then to the plank-road, where we found some hastily-constructed earthworks, breast-high, and where we met very little resistance. The organization of the regiment, and, indeed, the brigade, was then very imperfect. Soon after passing over the breastworks (k. k. k.) we were recalled to the plank-road. I remember John Patterson's voice in the call. As soon as we reached the plank-road on the advance, Sorrel galloped down the road to our left, and soon after our return to the road at k. k. k. May was waving the Twelfth flag and warning our friends (Sixteenth Virginia?) who were advancing to the plank-road. It was immediately after two of our color-guard were shot down, at M, that I heard of General Longstreet's wound. [79] I did not see him or General Jenkins, but locate the point at O, probably a hundred yards from M.

I turned over to Comrade Hugh R. Smith, who was the adjutant of our regiment, all of the foregoing correspondence, and received from him the following letter in reply:

dear Comrade—Your correspondence with General Sorrel, as well as the recollections of the Battle of the Wilderness given by Comrades Bernard and Edwards, I find very interesting reading. The accounts given of the battle about coincide with my own recollection of it.

My remembrance of the affair is that our brigade was advancing in line of battle, and the woods being on fire caused our regiment (the Twelfth Virginia) to swerve to the right, thereby becoming somewhat separated from the rest of the brigade, and we seemed to come into contact with the left flank of the enemy, who were holding the plank-road, and I thought at the time that we were sent there especially to dislodge them.

I distinctly remember the Sorrel May incident, and also recall the fact that, as we crossed the plank-road in pursuit of the Federals, I looked down the road—towards Orange Courthouse, I mean—and saw the fresh troops coming up, with General Longstreet at their head, Sorrel having gone to them to let them know that the road was clear.

We advanced beyond the plank-road to a ravine and then fell back to the road, and about this time the firing by our troops, from whom we had become separated, began, and looking in that direction I recognized Major Etheredge, of the Forty-First Virginia regi ment, that regiment having been on our immediate left in the beginning of the movement, and I immediately hastened over to him and informed him that they were firing into their friends, and the order to cease firing was immediately passed down the line, but not until Longstreet was wounded and Jenkins killed, as set forth in the other accounts.

General Anderson at once assumed the command of Longstreet's forces, but the wounding of the latter general put a stop to the forward movement that was being so successfully prosecuted.

Your friend,


In reply to a letter written to Comrade Putnam Stith, now in Florida, I received from him a communication sent me from Fort Meade, Florida, under date of February 9, 1892, in which he says:

I was present at the Wilderness fight, and remember that orders to “charge” were brought by General (then Lieutenant-Colonel) Sorrel, of Longstreet's staff. I remember that our part of the line was ordered to move forward by Sorrel in person. I think he attempted to take our colors out of the hands of Ben. May to carry them himself, but he did not know the stuff that Ben. was made of, one who could carry colors where any other man could. Of course Ben. refused to give up his colors and carried them as gallantly as we were led by Sorrel. The bearing of Sorrel was such as to attract my attention, and I think the attention of every man in the brigade. More conspicuous gallantry on the field I never saw.

I claim that we made a brigadier of him that day. His conduct on that field certainly entitled him to the distinction soon afterwards conferred on him by General Lee.

In making that charge we got far in advance of the balance of our command. A halt was ordered. Soon afterwards we were fired into by our own men, who, coming up, mistook us for the enemy. I think that was the time when Longstreet was shot. Hugh Smith saved us serious damage by waiving his handkerchief on the point of his sword. I have always thought that, had it not been that Longstreet was shot then by his own men, we would have put the Federals across the river that night and changed the whole of Grant's flank movement, which terminated in the seige of Petersburg.

I don't remember that we saw Sorrel after that day, until the evening we marched into Petersburg from across James river. On the march to Petersburg we met people going out of town. Some of them knew that the Federals were at the water-works. Others knew that they were even in town and by that time had full possession. By these accounts we were worked up to a high pitch of excitement. We finally crossed Pocahontas bridge and marched through town, greeting our friends on every side. I, and I reckon most of the command, fully expected to charge the Federals on the heights. In going up Sycamore street, when we reached Marshall, we saw Sorrel riding up Marshall and close to us. He was recognized at once. I believe every man took off his hat simultaneously and cheered, calling out, “Lead us, Sorrel! Lead us as you [81] did in the Wilderness!” He removed his hat and bowed very low, remarking that nothing would please him more than to lead those men in another charge, but that no fighting was to be done that evening, as we were only going out a short distance to form a line and rest.

I have met the general since the war and talked with him about this incident, which he remembered perfectly, and if I am not very much mistaken, he remarked that it was a proud day for him.

Now, John, I am not a good hand at either writing or talking, but, if I have succeeded in giving you any pleasure by this simple narrative, I am amply repaid for the time and labor it has cost me.

A letter to Mr. William C. Smith, of Nashville, Tennessee, of Company B, Twelfth Virginia regiment, requesting his recollection of the engagement, brought me a reply under date of February 26th, 1892, from which I take the following extracts:

I cannot recall much of the route along which we passed except that we moved in a northeasterly direction, somewhat; nor can I recall the place at which we bivouacked on the night of the 4th. On the night of the 5th, however, we bivouacked near a place called Vidiersville. In the meantime, reports reached us that fighting was going on in that part of Orange county known as the Wilderness, and from the early start taken on the morning of the 6th and the rapidity of the march, it became evident that the Wilderness was our destination.

After reaching the plank-road, which was about 9 o'clock A. M., we were hurried along to the scene of action. By 10 o'clock or a little after, on the 6th, we were on the ground, but we had no sooner arrived than we filed to the right from the plank-road, moving quite rapidly in a direction apparently at right angles to it, and after going some distance, about a third of a mile I suppose, we formed line o battle very quickly, and at once commenced a forward movement on the enemy. We had not proceeded very far, however, in line of battle, when Colonel Sorrel (afterwards brigadier-general), General Longstreet's assistant adjutant-general, appeared on the scene, and placing himself in front of the right wing of the Twelfth Virginia regiment, with his hat in one hand, and grasping the reins of his horse with the other, he exclaimed, “Follow me, Virginians! Let me lead you!” [82]

The gallantry of this officer on that occasion is as vivid to me now as if it had been but yesterday. I do not remember to have seen during the whole period of the war a finer exhibition of prowess than I witnessed that day in Colonel Sorrel, in the Battle of the Wilderness. During the charge of Mahone's brigade on the 6th, and just a few minutes before it reached the plank-road, the writer received a slight, but very painful wound on the ankle of his right foot, which disabled him for two or three days, and hence cannot speak from personal observation as to what occurred during the remainder of the fight. Soon after reaching the field infirmary, however, which I found about three-fourths of a mile to the rear from where I was wounded, I was informed by a member of my company, who had been brought from the front wounded, that the left of the Twelfth Virginia regiment had become detached from the regiment of the brigade on its left (I think it was the Forty-First Virginia) during the charge, and the Twelfth Virginia was far in advance of the brigade when it was discovered, and that in returning to resume its proper position, the Forty-First Virginia, supposing it to be a part of the enemy, had fired into the Twelfth Virginia, killing and wounding quite a number of its members.

I can recall the name of but one only who was killed by this unfortunate mistake, and that was John Mingea, who was a member of my company. A more gallant and faithful soldier, or a more perfect gentleman, was not known in the ranks of the Twelfth Virginia regiment. He was a resident of this city (Nashville, Tennessee), at the commencement of the war, and in company with the writer left this city April 29th, 1861, for the purpose of enlisting in a company in his native State. Together we returned to Petersburg in 1861, and together we went to Norfolk and enlisted May 10th, 1861. He was my personal friend, and in camp one of my constant companions It is not strange, therefore, that his death, and the circumstances attending it, should be so readily recalled while writing my recollections of the Battle of the Wilderness. My recollection is there was very little fighting, if any, after 2 o'clock P. M. of the 6th, on that part of the line in which Mahone's brigade had been engaged before 12 o'clock. I was at the infirmary, not over three-quarters of a mile distant from where I was wounded, and where the brigade had its hottest fire, lying in a tent bathing my foot, which had become very much swollen, and I remember distinctly there was very little firing during the afternoon after 2 o'clock on the right of the plank-road. [83]

Early the next morning, the 7th, I was informed by Dr. Claiborne that he had orders to move, and that some time during the day we would leave, as the army was moving. Being unable to walk, and being unwilling to be left behind, I sent word to Hugh, my brother, the adjutant of the Twelfth Virginia, to send me his horse, that I wanted to keep up with the army. He complied with my request, and I went along with the brigade to Spotsylvania Courthouse, where I rejoined my company, though my wound was still very painful, and took a part in that engagement.

There was one feature of the Battle of the Wilderness that impressed me very much, and that was the meagre use of artillery. The nature of the country thereabouts and the thick undergrowth throughout that section may account for this, no doubt, although the loss of men, especially on the Federal side, was very great. Quite a number of Federals were brought to our infirmary, among them General Wadsworth, who was mortally wounded.

Comrade Joseph E. Rockwell, sergeant Company A, of the Twelfth Virginia regiment, having had the foregoing correspondence submitted to him, sent me a reply, in which he says:

Our movements forward were made with all possible haste, but owing to entangled undergrowth in some places, and the marshy nature of others, our line of battle was not well preserved, as in our impetuosity to get forward many of our extreme right became separated from our main forces in the charge.

The enemy were in retreat, and we had the pleasure of seeing their backs for a considerable distance, except at intervals, when the smoke from the burning woods would conceal them from view, as the woods by accident or design had been fired by the enemy, and many of their dead and wounded comrades lying about the fired wood; but we had no time to help them then.

Pressing on for a few yards further, for some reason we came to a halt, that is, our part of the command, which I am under the impression was in advance of our colors. Here the retreating enemy came upon their reserves, and we had it quite hot, until many of our comrades were shot down. I was fortunate enough to catch a friendly ball myself, and as no surgeon would take the responsibility of cutting for it, I have carried it from that time to the present with special affection and as a cherished memento of that sanguinary battle. My thoughts then very naturally reverted to our brigade [84] surgeon, Dr. James W. Claiborne, whom I found at his infirmary, about a mile to the rear, and principally occupied in attending the enemy, of which he had a large number, many of them desperately wounded, and among them was General Wadsworth, of New York, who was brought to our infirmary with a minie wound in the forehead, and was placed alone in an officer's tent, which had been put in position for his especial benefit. He died, however, in a few minutes after being placed on his back in this tent.

Permit me in closing to mention the name of Private Dillon, of Company A, Twelfth Virginia regiment, “a low private in the rear rank,” when out of action. His conspicuous modesty gave place to conspicuous gallantry while in the field, and his peculiarity being that of crying while fighting, he was crying in earnest and fighting hard when I left the field.

To Comrade E. M. Feild, lieutenant-colonel of the Twelfth Virginia regiment at the Battle of the Wilderness, and subsequently its colonel, I next submitted the foregoing correspondence, and here is his reply:

I was present at the Battle of the Wilderness, in command of about one hundred and seventy of the picked men of Mahone's brigade, who had but a short time before been organized by General Mahone into a battalion of sharpshooters, composed of five companies. Soon after the brigade reached the Wilderness, on the morning of the 6th of May, we moved out to the right and south of the plank road and so extended our line of battle that was then formed in the woods facing east. I then advanced the battalion of sharpshooters as skirmishers about one hundred and fifty yards in front of the brigade.

I do not know exactly how long we had been there, when General Mahone, riding up, informed me that an attack was about to be made on the flank and front of the enemy's lines on the south side of the plank-road; that General Longstreet had sent two brigades through an old railroad cut to attack the enemy on his (the enemy's) left flank, and that with his (Mahone's) brigade he would attack in front. He directed me to move forward slowly and gently with my sharpshooters until I heard the cheers of the flanking brigade, when I was to advance quickly to the front and attack.

Ordering the men forward, we moved very slowly to the front for some distance, when, hearing a tremendous “ rebel yell” on our right, we pushed forward as rapidly as the thick undergrowth would [85] allow, but did not go very far, when, coming to a slight opening about forty yards wide and seventy long, which looked as if it were the site of an old pond, I saw the enemy's line of battle on the opposite or eastern side of this opening, moving to their right in column of fours at a double quick. Seeing this, I gave the order to the sharpshooters to commence firing, which order was repeated in a loud tone by all of the commissioned and non commissioned officers of the battalion, which I saw attracted the attention of the enemy. I saw four men just at this time step out of line and prepare to fire, and thinking it the part of a good skirmisher to seek protection when possible, and seeing a dead tree about the size of my body about three feet from me, I stepped quickly behind it, but not in time to escape a bullet which passed through my clothes, grazing my spine slightly, giving me great pain at the time and causing paralysis of my lower limbs that evening, so that I could scarcely use them. I came near leaving the field, thinking that I had been shot through, but was obliged to smile after finding the extent of my injury, and thought how I, who had been selected to command the picked men of Mahone's brigade, would have been laughed at had I left the field for so slight an injury. A sergeant of the Sixty-First regiment, just as I was struck, fell at my feet, shot through the brain.

The enemy's line at this place was somewhat broken by our fire, but a much larger number than composed my force of sharpshooters halted and returned our fire. While this was going on I could hear our brigade behind us advancing, and judging from the sound made by the canteens of the men striking against the bushes that the brigade was in easy supporting distance of us, I gave the order to the sharpshooters to charge, which order being repeated by all the officers of my command, was, I thought, mistaken by the brigade for an order for them to charge, as they immediately came forward very rapidly.

I had gotten nearly across the opening, above referred to, when our brigade reached it, and as the men in our rear opened fire on the enemy before us without regard of the sharpshooters being in their front, I quickly withdrew to the rear with my men, and in that position went forward with the brigade until we reached the plank-road. Before we moved forward, and whilst we were about this opening, I was particularly struck by the coolness and gallantry of General Mahone. Our brigade had about reached the point at which we [86] first saw the enemy, as above described, and a considerable number of the enemy being gathered in knots at short range (about seventy-five yards distant) on our left flank and firing into it, this caused the left of the Sixth Virginia regiment to double back until it had gotten to be twenty-five or thirty ranks deep. At this time General Mahone dashed up on his horse and in a clear shrill voice, which could be heard above the rattle of the muskets, asked, “What regiment is this in this confusion?” Being answered that it was the Sixth Virginia, he exclaimed, “The Sixth Virginia regiment of my brigade — that splendidly drilled regiment — in this condition?” It is needless to tell that the men were in their places as quickly as possible, and promptly moved forward.

The brigade having swung around to the left, we soon had the entire force of the enemy on the south of the plank-road routed, leaving in our hands a large number of dead and wounded, among the latter General Wadsworth, whom I remember seeing lying on the ground as we passed along. I reached the plank-road with the Sixth regiment, where we halted and commenced to re-form on the south side of the road. I saw coming down the plank-road from the west General Longstreet and staff, followed at some little distance by a column of men, which extended as far as I could see, and was moving at a double quick. General Longstreet, when about one hundred yards to our left, left the plank-road with his staff and others, moving diagonally into the woods on the north of the road in our front. He had with him a large and beautiful headquarter flag (which was something new in the army). I was now on the extreme left of the brigade, ordering the sharpshooters to assemble on the left, when I heard someone say, “ Look out, boys, they are coming back! There they come! There they come!” General Mahone was at this time to my right, saying to the men, all of whom as well as General Mahone, thought those in the immediate front were the enemy advancing, “Steady, men, steady! Get in your places! Get in your places!” Suddenly one or two of the regiments to my right opened fire. This firing soon ceased, as the men found out they were firing upon their friends, but not until they had killed General Jenkins, mortally wounded Ben. White,11 of the Twelfth Virginia, and wounded General Longstreet and others severely.

So much time elapsed after the wounding of Longstreet and before General Anderson assumed command, the enemy had time [87] to re-form their ranks, and we being largely outnumbered, it became necessary for us to fall back to about the position occupied by our line before making the attack. When I was sitting on a log that evening, General Mahone came up, and taking a seat by me, said, “Colonel Feild, it was very unfortunate for our cause that Longstreet was wounded. Had this not occurred, we would have driven Grant across the river before night in spite of all he could have done. We had two miles of his left thoroughly routed, and this part of the line driven back on the other troops would have demoralized his whole army.”

I had almost forgotten to say I was surprised when 1 learned that the Twelfth Virginia had crossed the plank-road, and that it was on this regiment that a portion of the brigade fired. When the firing was going on I thought that the Twelfth was in its position on the right of the brigade.

We had no further fighting that evening. I was left in charge of the sharpshooters in front of the brigade during the night, which I consider one of the most unpleasant of my life. The woods were on fire, and the cries of the wounded made the night hideous. General Anderson being assigned to the command of Longstreet's corps, General Mahone was placed in command of his division, and Colonel D. A. Weisiger, of the Twelfth regiment, assumed command of Mahone's brigade. This left my regiment, the Twelfth, of which I was lieutenant colonel, without a field officer. I, thinking it but right that I should return to it, so stated to General Mahone, who agreed with me, and I accordingly took command of the regiment the next morning. I must state, however, that it was great reluctance that I gave up the command of the sharpshooters, the finest body of men that I had ever seen, the picked men of Mahone's brigade.

In order that there may be a better understanding of the plan of that part of the great battle in which our brigade and regiment took part, as narrated in the foregoing letters and statements, I have deemed it best to conclude this address by making some extracts from the official records to be found in Volume XXXVI, part 1, series I of ‘The War of the Rebellion,’ and from Swinton's ‘Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac.’

General Longstreet, in his report (Rebellion Record, Volume XXXVI, part I, page 1054), says: [88]

About 10 o'clock Major-General M. L. Smith and the others sent out to examine the enemy's position reported that the left of the enemy's line extended but a short distance beyond the plank-road. Special directions were given to Lieutenant Colonel Sorrel to conduct the brigades of Generals Mahone, G. T. Anderson, and Wofford beyond the enemy's left, and to attack him on his left and rear (I have since heard that the brigade of General Davis formed a part of this flanking force), the flank movement to be followed by a general advance, Anderson's brigade on the right and Wofford's on the left, Mahone being in the centre. They moved by the flank until the unfinished railroad from Gordonsville to Fredericksburg was reached. Forming on this railroad, facing to the north, they advanced in the direction of the plank-road till they encountered the enemy in flank and rear, who was then engaging the brigades of Gregg, Benning, and Law in front. The movement was a complete surprise and a perfect success. It was executed with rare zeal and intelligence. The enemy made but a short stand, and fell back in utter rout, with heavy loss, to a position about three-quarters of a mile from my front attack.

I immediately made arrangements to follow up the success gained, and ordered an advance of all my troops for that purpose. While riding at the head of my column, moving by the flank down the plank-road, I became opposite the brigades which had made the flank movement, and which were drawn up parallel to the plank-road and about sixty yards therefrom, when a portion of them fired a volley, which resulted in the death of General Jenkins and the wounding of myself. I immediately notified the commanding general of my being obliged to quit the field, and the command devolved on Major-General Field.

To the members of my staff I am under great obligations for their valuable services. They conducted themselves with their usual distinguished gallantry. Much of the success of the movement on the enemy's flank is due to the very skillful manner in which the move was conducted by Lieutenant Colonel Sorrel.

General Joseph B. Kershaw, in his report (Rebellion Record, Volume XXXVI, part 1, page 1061), says:

The lines being rectified, and Field's division and Wofford's brigade, of my own, having arrived, upon the suggestion of Brigadier-General Wofford a movement was organized, under the orders of the [89] lieutenant-general commanding, to attack the enemy in flank from the line of the Orange railroad, on our right, with the brigades of General Anderson of Field's division, and Brigadier-General Wofford's, of my own, supported by Mahone's brigade, while we continued to hold the enemy in front, who was at intervals bearing down upon our lines, but always without any success. This movement, concealed from view by the dense woods, was eminently successful, and the enemy was routed and driven pell-mell as far as the Brock road, and pursued by General Wofford to some distance across the plank-road, where he halted within a few hundred yards of the Germanna road. Returning with General Wofford up the plank-road, and learning the condition of things in front, we met the lieutenant-general commanding coming to the front almost within musket-range of the Brock road. Exchanging hasty congratulations upon the success of the morning, the lieutenant-general rapidly planned and directed an attack to be made by Brigadier-General Jenkins and myself upon the position of the enemy upon the Brock road before he could recover from his disaster. The order to me was to break their line and push all to the right of the road toward Fredericksburg. Jenkins' brigade was put in motion by a flank in the plank-road, my division in the woods to the right. I rode with General Jenkins at the head of his command, arranging with him the details of our combined attack. We had not advanced as far as the position still held by Wofford's brigade, when two or three shots were fired on the left of the road, and some stragglers came running in from that direction, and immediately a volley was poured into the head of our column from the woods on our right, occupied by Mahone's brigade. By this volley General Longstreet was prostrated by a fearful wound; Brigadier General Jenkins, Captain Alfred E. Doby, my aidde-camp, and Orderly Marcus Baum were instantly killed.

As an instance of the promptness and ready presence of mind of our troops, I will mention that the leading files of Jenkins' brigade on this occasion instantly faced the firing and were about to return it; but when I dashed my horse into their ranks, crying, “They are friends!” they as instantaneously realized the position of things and fell on their faces where they stood. This fatal casualty arrested the projected movement. The commanding general soon came in person to the front and ordered me to take position with my right resting on the Orange railroad. Though an advance was made later in the day, my troops became no more engaged, except General Wofford, [90] who moved against the enemy in the afternoon on the left o the plank-road, and met with some success in that quarter and suffered some loss.

General William Mahone, in his report (Rebellion Record, Part 1, page 1090), says:

The next day (May 6th) we were with our troops on the plank-road, and where the fight was already earnestly progressing at an early hour. We were at once assigned a position in support of a part of the line of Lieutenant-General Longstreet's front, but very soon after we were ordered to join and co-operate with Anderson's and Wofford's brigades, of that corps, in an attack upon the enemy's flank. As the senior brigadier, I was, by Lieutenant-General Longstreet, charged with the immediate direction of this movement. Wofford and Anderson were already in motion, and in a few minutes the line of attack had been formed, and the three brigades, in imposing order and with a step that meant to conquer, were now rapidly descending upon the enemy's left. The movement was a success—complete as it was brilliant. The enemy were swept from our front on the plank-road, where his advantages of position had already been felt by our line, and from which the necessity for his dislodgment had become a matter of much interest. Besides this valuable result, the plank-road had been gained and the enemy's lines bent back in much disorder; the way was opened for greater fruits. His long lines of dead and wounded which lay in the wake of our swoop furnished evidence that he was not allowed time to change front, as well as the execution of our fire. Among his wounded, Brigadier-General Wadsworth, commanding a division, fell into our hands.

Lieutenant-Colonel G. M. Sorrel, of General Longstreet's staff, who was with me in conducting this movement, and Captain Robertson Taylor,12 Assistant Adjutant-General of Mahone's brigade, who was wounded in the fight, specially deserve my earnest commendation for efficiency and conspicuous gallantry on this occasion.

The casualties of the brigade were as follows: Officers, one killed and three wounded; men, nineteen killed, one hundred and twenty-three wounded, seven missing; total, twenty killed, one hundred and twenty-six wounded, seven missing.

The historian Swinton, in his work above mentioned, at page 433, says: [91]

The contest that signalized Longstreet's arrival on Hancock's front, and restored the integrity of the shattered Confederate right, now died away; and for some hours—up to nearly noon—there was a lull. During this time Longstreet's troops continued to arrive, and when at length his line had acquired breadth and weight by the incoming force, it was advanced, and Hancock's troops, which had first halted, now began to feel a heavy pressure. The attack first fell on the left of the advanced line, held by the brigade of Frank. This force Longstreet's troops fairly overran, and brushing it away, they struck the left of Mott's division, which was in turn swept back in confusion; and though Hancock endeavored, by swinging back his left, and forming line along the plank-road, to secure the advanced position still held by his right, it was found impossible to do so, and he had to content himself with rallying and re-forming the troops on the original line, along the Brock road, from which they had advanced in the morning. Wadsworth, on the right of Hancock, opposed the most heroic efforts to the onset of the enemy; but after several ineffectual charges, his troops broke into the retreat, and while striving to rally them, that patriotic and high-souled gentleman and brave soldier received a bullet in his head, and died within the enemy's lines the following day.

But in the very fury and tempest of the Confederate onset the advance was of a sudden stayed by a cause at the moment unknown. This afterwards proved to have been the fall of the head of this attack.

Longstreet had made his dispositions for a decisive blow; for while advancing one force in front, he sent another to move around Hancock's left, and lay hold of the Brock road. At the time the Union troops were giving ground, and the Confederates were pushing on, that officer, with his staff, rode forward in front of the column, when suddenly confronting a portion of his own flanking force, the cavalcade was mistaken for a party of Union horsemen, and received a volley, under which Longstreet fell, severely wounded.

In a foot note to the last paragraph Mr. Swinton says:

General Longstreet stated to the writer that he saw they were his own men, but in vain shouted to them to cease firing. He also expressed, with great emphasis, his opinion of the decisive blow he would have inflicted had he not been wounded. “I thought,” said he, “that we had another Bull Run on you, for I had made my dispositions to seize the Brock road.” But on my pointing out that [92] Hancock's left had not advanced, but remained on the original line, covering that road, he admitted that that altered the complexion of affairs.

Before concluding this address it is due to General Mahone, and to the officers and men of his brigade, by whose fire General Longstreet was struck down at the critical moment of the Battle of the Wilderness, as has been narrated in the foregoing accounts of the engagement, to say that no blame attaches to him or to them for the unfortunate accident, which no ordinary forethought, it seems, could well have avoided, but which must rather be considered one of those mysterious interpositions by the Almighty in the affairs of men deemed necessary to shape for His own purposes the course of human events. The brigade-men and officers-won laurels in this action; and it has afforded me much pleasure to contribute what has been read this evening towards the history of its famous career, and in so doing to record specially the splendid conduct of the gallant Sorrel and no less gallant May, the ensign of the Twelfth Virginia.

1 Leroy S. Edwards, of Richmond, Virginia.

2 [Gap in the source text that was scanned.]

3 The text is confused in the original source.

4 Captain John R. Patterson, of Petersburg.

5 Rev. Dr. Theodorick Pryor.

6 Mr. W. W. Tayleure gives the following pathetic incident as to young Pucci:

Just a few days before the spring campaign opened with this battle, there was quite a religious revival going on in the camps, and many were induced to join the church. Young Pucci had written home to his mother asking her advice upon the subject. A letter was received by me for him, and one to me also, asking me to advise him to do so. On the morning of the 6th of May, when we were ordered to pack up and march, I tried to find young Pucci, and in calling for him over the camp I at last found him, all ready for the march, but with others he was kneeling on all fours, with his face in his hands, praying I did not disturb him, and soon we were on the march. Shortly afterwards we were engaged with the enemy, and through fire and smoke we pushed our way, while the enemy fled, leaving their dying and dead to the ravages of the flames. Almost the first news I received was the death of young Pucci, shot through the head while pursuing the retreating Federals.

7 George J. Morrison, of Petersburg.

8 George S. Bernard, Petersburg, Virginia.

9 James A. Farley, killed at the Crater, July 30, 1864.

10 Mr. W. W. Tayleure, of Brooklyn, New York, who was first sergeant of the Petersburg Riflemen, writes: ‘Ben. May stood upon a stump with his lithe graceful form, a smile upon his face, waving our battle-flag until it was recognized. It was a beautiful and grand sight; one for an artist.’

11 Benjamin B. White, Petersburg, Virginia.

12 Of Baltimore, Maryland

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