Forty Men Fought Grant’s Army
By W. Marion Seay, Lynchburg, Va
Much has been written of the big battles of the sixties; but many small desperate engagements with important results have been overlooked by the historians or mentioned simply as a “skirmish with pickets” or a “brush with the cavalry.” Of such character was the affair of which I write. Although it had no great effect on the general results of the war, it saved a large part of a brigade and held [Lt.] General [Ulysses S.] Grant’s entire army in check for about half a day. Only about forty men and five commissioned officers were engaged, all of whom were made prisoners save one, who escaped. They were parts of two companies—C and E of the 11th Virginia Infantry—with one or two odd men from other companies of the same regiment. Capt. T. A. Horton, the only member of his company (B), was the senior commissioned officer present, and assumed command; the other officers present were Capt. William H. Morgan, Company C, Lieuts. George P. Norvell and James W. Wray, Company E, and Lieut. Peter B. Akers, Company A. Of these, all except Captain Horton and Lieutenant Akers are yet living.
In early May, 1864, [Brig. Gen. James] Kemper’s Brigade of [Maj. Gen. George E.] Pickett’s Division, which had been operating temporarily in Eastern North Carolina, was ordered back to Virginia. Grant’s large army was marching on to Richmond from the North, and [Maj. Gen.] Ben Butler’s army and gunboats were coming up the James River and were within a few miles of Richmond and Petersburg, and all troops that could be spared from less important points were ordered to Richmond. Kemper’s Brigade, commanded by [Brig.] Gen. William R. Terry (General Kemper being off duty on account of wounds received as Gettysburg), was detrained at Petersburg and marched to Chester, midway between Petersburg and Richmond, where they skirmished for a day or so with the enemy. On May 16 this brigade fought Butler at Drury’ Bluff, capturing [Brig.] General [Charles A.] Heckman and his Massachusetts brigade, after which they were ordered to Richmond, arriving there on the afternoon of the 20th of May. They stacked arms on Broad Street to await cars on the R., F. & P. Railroad to carry them to meet Grant’s invading army.
The first train available consisted of a few box cars, which were quickly filled with the first men who scrambled aboard, a few from each company and regiment, probably four to five hundred or less in the entire brigade. The ranking officer was Major [George F.] Norton, of the 1st Virginia Infantry. The train soon pulled out in the direction of Hanover Junction, its destination unknown perhaps to any officer on board. The rest of the brigade were left on Broad Street. The train was stopped at Milford Station (Bowling Green), about halfway between Richmond and Alexandria, and our Falstaffian army was detrained. After sending a few skirmishers or pickets across the North Anna River, the small force bivouacked on the south bank; and after our strenuous ordeal for several weeks, we gladly dropped on the ground and were soon fast asleep, hardly caring what the morning might bring forth, we were so thoroughly exhausted.
In the twilight of the following morning we were awakened by the firing of the pickets and call to arms, and we were soon in line and were double-quicked to the bridge crossing the North Anna River. Captain Horton took command. Upon a hill across the river the Yankee cavalry were plainly visible. They were probably a half mile away beyond the railroad station. Our orders from Major Norton were to “charge the hill, take, and hold it at all hazards,” which we thought was an easy task, as from our experience the infantry had but little fear of mounted cavalry. Our advance was slow until we reached the railroad station, where the ascent of the hill began. On the platform of this station we saw several of our men from Company A, who had been wounded when the pickets were driven in. Among them was Capt. R. M. Mitchell, shot in the face, and we then thought mortally wounded. He was living in Atlanta not long since. These wounded men inflamed our little squad to greater determination. Forward went our little band up the hill, emitting the old “Rebel yell.” We were soon in the midst of a hail of bullets, but not one fell out of ranks; and when we reached the top, the Yanks were skedaddling for the tall timber and touching only the high places on the ground. We had obeyed the first order, had charged the enemy and taken the hill, and now we were to “hold it at all hazards.”
With a breathing spell we looked around and located our position. Every inch of this ground is vivid to me still; and were I an artist, I could make a sketch which would fully describe our position. To the southeast of us was the bridge across the river over which we had come; the railroad station (Milford) was between us and the bridge. In our immediate front our friends, the enemy—how many of them we had no idea—were dodging about behind trees in the wood that commenced about thirty or forty feet from us. We supposed there might be a regiment or possible a brigade, but what did forty or fifty infantrymen care for even a brigade of mounted cavalrymen?
On the top of the hill there had been an ice house, but the pit luckily remained. From this pit extending toward the river was a gully three to four feet in depth and parallel with the enemy’s line of battle. We utilized it as a breastwork. How providential that it was there! Otherwise we would probably have been annihilated quickly! Ensconsing ourselves in this ditch, we felt very comfortable and as if we could whip all the cavalry in the Federal army. In a very short time the enemy advanced in great numbers, but not as cavalry; they had dismounted, and were armed with modern repeating rifles as against our single-shot muzzle-loaders. The open field was about the distance our guns could be effective. The enemy stopped in the skirt of timber and opened fire against us in our natural breastworks. We could see the effect of our shots when the fight began, as they would fall or drop their guns and skedaddle to the rear. They kept up an incessant fire, having ammunition to spare; while we simply waited for targets among them, and we made nearly every shot count. It was exciting to the highest degree. We occasionally had a man struck, but our casualties were few, none being killed and but few wounded. The Yanks evidently did not realize our small numbers, and must have thought there were several times as many as we were. At any time during the fight had they charged many would have been killed; but we would have been compelled to give way, and I doubt if they would have lost as many men as they did.
This fighting had been kept up for a considerable time, probably two or three hours, when someone exclaimed: “Where is the bridge?” It caused every one to look around in that direction, when lo! the bridge was not to be seen. Our troops had destroyed it and withdrawn. It then dawned upon us that we had been sacrificed to save the troops across the river. Good generalship, I suppose, but “tough on the frogs.” This diversion only caused an instant’s hesitation in the firing. The enemy was being constantly reinforced, and their firing became more rapid, while our little army replied in kind. On our right we saw (but out of range of our guns) a line of men start from the woods in single file at first and quite a distance apart and looking in our rear. Then we saw the same movement taking place on our left. In a short while this force quickened their march, closing up to the front, and soon they had a double column reaching to the river, forming a horseshoe, and we were “it.”
Then Captain Horton said: “Boys, you see our position. There is no escape; we will probably all be killed; but we will make them pay a big price for our lives. Be careful with your cartridges and make every shot count. If they charge us, it will soon all be over.” One of the other officers (probably Lieutenant Wray) said: “Captain, while we may yet kill many more of them, the results are plainly visible. We can probably charge them through their right wing in our rear, cutting our way out, and possibly some of us escape.” Captain Horton replied: “It is not a question of what we might do, but our orders; these were to ‘charge, take, and hold this position.’ We have taken it and will hold it as long as possible; it will give the brigade that much more time to save themselves.” No more was said, and both officers turned to the work in hand.
The enemy were getting bolder or were being reinforced in such numbers that there were not trees enough to hide them, and there was now a solid mass of them in front of us, and no occasion for us to throw away a shot unless we aimed too high, as they were evidently doing. The only way to account for our small list of casualties is that we were saved by the gulley—our “breastwork.” We took deliberate aim and made every shot count; while the enemy fired from the hip, as was customary with cavalry, and consequently most of their shots went over our heads. When we were captured and marched to their rear, the woods in our front had many dead and wounded men. I am sure I saw many more dead and wounded than we had engaged all during the engagement.
We had had nothing to eat that morning. Yet as for myself, I really enjoyed it, though not from any great love of fighting, as I did not boast of physical courage; but we were in for it to keep and hold our own, and in the excitement of the rapid work I believe the words “enjoyed it” express the feeling of every man engaged at that time.
However, there had to be an end, and its beginning came when some one said: “This is my last cartridge.” Others examined their boxes, and one said, “I have only one more;” another, “I have only two;” and so on. None of us had over forty rounds to begin with. Captain Horton said: “Then, boys, we had as well end it. The balance of the brigade are probably safe by this time. Have any of you a white handkerchief?” White handkerchiefs were scarce, but some one said: “I have a towel, but it is not very white.” The towel was produced and fastened to a ramrod while we were still keeping up the fire. I was loading, with a ball halfway down the barrel of my little Enfield sergeant’s rifle, which had become foul from overuse, and both ball and rammer had stuck, so that I could not move it down or draw the rammer. “Cease firing” came the command; but by that time I had the gun to my shoulder and pulled the trigger. The flag of truce went up and I went down against the rear bank of the breastworks. In a moment I was up with (I thought) a shattered shoulder. I had fired my last shot for the cause I loved. I threw my gun over in the pit of the old ice house. The Yanks were standing over us with the muzzles of their guns pointed within three feet of us. They seemed as we looked into them from that distance to have a bore about the caliber of an ordinary camp kettle, and right there what little courage I possessed left me and I became good and scared. One poor Yank immediately in front seemed to leap about two feet from the ground and fell over our heads and down into the ditch, never knowing what struck him. He was shot in the head by some one in our rear. One of their men said we had shot him after we had surrendered, and I thought sure we would now be butchered, but their officer interfered and we were spared.
We were marched out to the field headquarters of [Brig.] General [A. T. A.] Torbett [Torbert], commanding General Grant’s advance guard, where we learned for the first time what we had been “up against.” In place of a little cavalry foraging party—as we thought we had come across the bridge to drive off the hill—we were fighting a large advance force of Grant’s entire army.
After surrendering we were well treated by our captors. The officers and men in the field, sure-enough soldiers, were exceedingly kind—quite in contrast with those we met later. The Sunday soldiers who came out of their bombproofs at Washington crowded the wharf to see what they had not seen before—i.e., a live Rebel—and hurl their insults and epithets at us. Nor did we fare better when later we were carried to Point Lookout, Md., and turned over to Major [Allen G.] Brady and Captain Barnes and their “coon” brigade of guards, who had us in their keeping for the next ten months. We were paroled at Harrison Landing, Va., in March, 1865, about two weeks before the surrender of General Lee at Appomattox, and sent home living skeletons.
I wish to dwell a moment on the treatment we received from our immediate captors, officers and men. I especially have a pleasant remembrance of a Captain [F. W.] Hess [3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry], who, I think, was on General Torbett’s staff, and was exceedingly kind and pleasant, dividing and distributing rations, tobacco, etc., among us. It must have been near midday. I should like to know if Captain Hess is still living. If he is, he may remember the incidents here related. I should like to hear of or from any old Yank who was engaged in this skirmish.