History of the Ninth Virginia Cavalry, in the War Between the States/Chapter 12
Removal from Centre Cross to Orange—In Grant's Deserted Camps—On the Wilderness Battle-Field–Marching to Meet an Unarmed Regiment—At Spottsylvania Courthouse—Fight at the Gayle House—Watching the Left of Grant's Army—Fighting Near Guinea's Station—In a Tight Place on the Telegraph Road—A Well-Aimed Cannon Shot—On the North Anna—A Slave's Fidelity—Battle of Hawes' Shop—In the Rear of Warren's Corps—Federal Outrages—A Quartermaster With a Gold Chain
We were greatly recruited, and our horses in good order when the campaign of 1864 commenced in the last days of March. The regiment numbered for duty about six hundred, though nearly one hundred besides were on detached service, employed as couriers, scouts, and on other special details. From Essex we marched to the vicinity of Fredericksburg, and our camp was pitched on the battle-field near Hamilton's Crossing. Our duty was to maintain a line of pickets for some distance along the Rapidan, until near the close of April, when, having marched through Orange Courthouse, our camp was pitched a short distance beyond, at the Madison House, in the forks of the Rapidan and Robinson rivers.
As General Grant commenced his advance we recrossed the Rapidan, and, moving back down the river, bivouacked near Morton's Ford. Here we remained inactive during the two-days' battles on the turnpike and plank-road connecting Orange Courthouse and Fredericksburg. The present writer having obtained a permit to absent himself from camp, rode down on the evening of the second day, and witnessed from our lines the last charge of the enemy made on that bloody Wilderness field. It was speedily repulsed.
On the 8th day of May our brigade having crossed the Rapidan about nightfall, moved by Stevensburg, and, passing through the deserted camps of Grant's great army, still replete with large stores of army material and numerous tents unstruck, reached Ely's Ford by daylight. Some stragglers were caught, and a charge very handsomely made by the Thirteenth Regiment resulted in the capture of some prisoners. Our march was now directed towards the Rapidan, and, crossing that river, we took the road leading up its southern bank, and then bearing to the left, reached the Plank road near the old Wilderness Tavern. Near this were two Federal field hospitals, filled with wounded men, and among them some Confederates. These pleaded earnestly to be taken along, and as many as our ambulances could bear were taken. The road-sides near the hospitals were thickly strewn with cast-off arms in piles. Some poor fellows who had died under the amputation of their limbs still lay stretched on the surgeons' tables.
Our line of march led over the ground where the writer had witnessed the Yankee charge. The open land as far as we could see was thickly dotted with the dead, who lay as they had fallen under a burning sun, many of them with their faces to the sky, and quite black from incipient decay.
One of our squadrons, under Captain Robinson, which was on detail duty when we left camp the evening before, had followed us, and upon reaching the plank road, discovered a Federal regiment close behind them. We were ordered out, but found they were not for fight, and, agreeing that they should not be molested in removing the hospitals, we rejoined the brigade, and marched towards Spottsylvania Courthouse.
On the following day our brigade was formed for action several times on the march, but very few of us got in sight of any enemy. Passing our reserve ordnance trains near the site of the Old Courthouse, and then a line of earthworks occupied by infantry, we bivouacked on the road leading from Massaponax Church to Spottsylvania Courthouse. We remained here watching the enemy's left flank during the heavy fighting in front of the Courthouse, and to the left. On the next day a squadron was sent under Major Waller across the Ni, and the remainder of the regiment was ordered to advance. We moved across a field that bordered the road, and into the woods on the opposite side. The men were now dismounted and formed in line of battle. Going forward and emerging from the woods, we discovered a force of infantry two hundred and fifty yards in front, well posted about the Gayle dwelling-house, and behind its enclosures. Directed to charge them, we moved through the field under a rapid fire from the enemy, which was vigorously kept up until we got within perhaps thirty yards of them. Our men then, rushing forward, yelling and firing, drove the enemy from the garden palings and fences into and behind the dwelling. We were in the act of tearing some panels of palings, when we were ordered to retire quickly. Turning our backs on the enemy, our line marched in order to the woods. Just before reaching them a heavy line of Federal infantry appeared and fired two volleys, instantly killing two privates—Lee B. Martin and R. C. Pemberton, of Company H, who fell close beside the writer. Several others were mortally wounded. In the woods we received a shower of shells. Later, we resumed our position on the road.
We again advanced in the afternoon, formed on the right of two brigades of infantry, as their support. Wright's Georgia brigade was on our left, moving on the line of our advance in the morning. The position of the enemy had been much strengthened by forming breastworks of the fences. The brigade of Georgians, after advancing thirty or forty yards from the woods in the open field, halted and returned the enemy's fire, waiting, as we were afterwards told, for the brigade on their left. They then with yells sprung tiger-like upon the foe, a few of our men, regardless of orders, joining the skirmishers. The charge was beautifully made and completely successful. The loss on our side we estimated to be scarcely one-tenth of that of the enemy. A good many prisoners were taken. A detail was sent and the bodies of Martin and Pemberton, which lay as they had fallen in the morning, were removed.
The next day we were ordered to picket every road from the Ni to the Rappahannock river. Orders received directly from General Robert E. Lee made it manifest that anxiety was felt about the movements of the enemy on our right flank. A penciled order under his own hand, given the author, showed a familiarity with the topography of the country, extending not only to by-roads, but even to paths, that was matter of great surprise. Our brigade moved to Stanard's Mill on the Po, where we joined it, after leaving one squadron on picket. Two skirmishes occurred about this time with the enemy's cavalry, the Ninth Regiment taking part in the first, just above Guinea's Station, and other troops with two of our squadrons, engaging in the second. No serious casualties occurred with us.
On the night of the 20th of May, General Grant commenced his flank movement around the right of our army. The squadron composed of Companies C and K, under Captain Robinson, was on picket on the north side of the Richmond and Fredericksburg railroad. Lieutenant Law. Washington, with a detail of twelve or fifteen men at Hamilton's Crossing, was cut off, and escaped by crossing over the Rappahannock to the Northern Neck. Robinson and Lieutenant Beale, with the main body of the squadron, were on the road to Bowling Green, a little below Guinea's Station. Along this road Grant's advance column moved. Pressed by the enemy's cavalry, Robinson was forced before daylight to cross the river at a bridge two miles below Guinea's. Lieutenant John T. Stewart held the bridge above and near Guinea's, and handsomely repulsed a charge made upon it about daylight. When light came, from our position on the hills overlooking the river, Guinea's, and the country, beyond dense columns of bluecoats could be seen passing down the road leading to Bowling Green. Dispatches were signalled by us every fifteen minutes to General R. E. Lee. He was not satisfied as yet that Grant's whole army was moving.
Observing an interval between the different corps of the Federal troops, as they marched, and availing ourselves of the advantage it offered, Lieutenant Ball was ordered about ten o'clock to cross the river with a small detachment, and to scour the road, collecting all the information he could. This was executed with the spirited gallantry which always characterized that officer. His first capture was two fine cows belonging to a Federal major-general; next some mules well laden with hard-tack; then a courier with a dispatch, which assured us definitely of the character of the movement. Ball was pursued ere long by the cavalry in advance of the next corps, and made good his passage across the bridge near Guinea's, his pursuers recoiling suddenly and retreating rapidly, under the fire of Stewart's rifles.
The enemy seemed to be annoyed by our proximity, and showed a purpose of forcing a passage at the bridge. Our companies at hand were now all dismounted save one, and Major Waller was directed to march them down and hold the bridge, and to post videttes well up and down the wooded sides of the river. Late in the afternoon this force at the bridge was suddenly assailed by volleys on both flanks and in front. Detachments of the enemy's infantry or cavalry dismounted had crossed the river adroitly both above and below, and our videttes had failed to report, or their warning was misunderstood. One or two of our men were killed and six or eight captured, and Captain Stith Bolling was badly wounded. The whole force ran, scattering through the fields, but bringing off our killed and wounded. Ball, with his company, every man mounted, took position on the brow of the hill, concealing all but the front set-of-fours, and, with sabres drawn, were held ready to charge. Another company, galloping to the right and left along the slope, formed a line of skirmishers at the foot of the hills.
Several companies of Union Zouaves in red breeches had now formed on the right or lower side of the road; a battalion of infantry were on the opposite side, and a body of cavalry occupied the road in the centre. They seemed reluctant to advance. Finally, a line of dismounted cavalry, deployed as skirmishers, advanced. Our squadrons were now well-nigh mounted, and the peril of capture to our dismounted men under Waller had passed. We fell back slowly, keeping up a desultory fire as the enemy advanced. This fire was kept up by the pickets through the night.
At sunrise on the 22d we joined the brigade on the Telegraph road, our skirmishers three hundred yards in our rear, still exchanging shots with the enemy. Numerous small parties of infantry were moving down this road, following after their several commands. As many as we could direct were advised to bear to the right.
Here Robinson's squadron that had been skirmishing heavily all the previous day, and was cut off by the enemy's advance on this side of the river, after a circuitous and difficult march all night, joined us in safety.
Generals W. H. F. Lee and Chambliss were now both with us in person, and the brigade, with two pieces of artillery, under Captain Breatherd, moved upon country roads for some miles to the right, and, then changing direction, bore towards the Telegraph road. We were moving in this direction about noon through woods, when rapid firing as of muskets in front, told of the presence of the enemy. Our artillery, ambulances, and regiments were crowded in a small open piece of ground hedged in on every side by woods. The space was too limited for evolutions. The Tenth Regiment in front dismounted and charged into the woods, which skirted the Telegraph road. As the squadrons of the Ninth were formed in close order, the men of the Tenth were pressed back, fighting. Two of our squadrons were hastily dismounted and thrown forward to the right. The rest, with drawn sabres, were held ready to charge. Our guns now opened fire, and more rapid discharges we never heard. The Thirteenth Regiment was ordered to move out by the road we had come, followed by the caissons, ambulances, and one gun. We were ordered to bring up the rear with our mounted squadrons. Captain John Lee, of the division staff, was conducting the movement. After going perhaps four hundred yards we were perplexed and uncertain as to the road we were to take, and halted while Lee went back for instructions. He did not ride two hundred yards, however, before he found his passage barred by a line of the enemy, which, moving obliquely from the Telegraph road above us, was almost in rear of the men of our own regiment and the Tenth, whom we had left fighting. Turning instantly down a road to our left which led to a private dwelling, we passed at a double-quick gait across a wooded bottom, and, ascending a hill beyond, emerged upon an open, high table-land overlooking the road.
The firing had now ceased, and we gave up our comrades behind us as captured, deeming their escape almost impossible. They began, however, very soon to come out from the thick wooded cover into the bottom which we had crossed, bringing off safely the gun that had just done us such good service.
We had struck a corps of Grant's army near the head of the column, and could now see them moving forward, regiment following regiment. One column, as flankers, was on the side of the road next to us, marching in close order, about a mile distant, and offering a fair target. Our gun was again unlimbered, aimed, and fired, and a shell was thrown within a yard or two of the flank of a regiment, and exploded just as it struck the ground. A wide gap was made in the column, and a good many of the enemy ran in confusion. A second shell from our gun fell way beyond the road. We moved on and entered a body of timber, where our road deflected to the right. We were quite out of range when the Federal artillery opened on the woods, and their shells fell fast and furious, but harmless, behind us.
We crossed the North Anna in the afternoon and bivouacked for the night beside the track of the Central railroad. On the next day we made a short march back over the North Anna, and recrossed it again in the afternoon to take part in a fight with some infantry near Noell's Turnout. The battle was over when we arrived, though we were under the artillery fire for a while.
We moved next morning over New Found creek and camped near by it. We remained here two days picketing on the North Anna, and were subjected to a severe cannonade on the last night.
It was while we were making our brief stay in this camp that the author met with a striking illustration of the fidelity of a colored servant, who came with a two-horse wagon from Westmoreland county, beyond the Rappahannock. He was the family carriage-driver, and had been sent by Mrs. Beale with a birthday present of pastries, cakes, bacon, eggs, etc., to her husband and sons. She expected them to be found in Spottsylvania, and that the wagon would reach them by the 22d instant. When the faithful servant, Edward Lee, had crossed the river at Layton's with his wagon he found the whole Union army between him and the objects of his journey. Nothing daunted, however, he moved on and succeeded in eluding every picket, and out-generalling every scouting party, and brought his horses, wagon, and supplies safely through, though often in extreme danger. On his return he flanked the Federal army, going almost to Fredericksburg, and reached home without an accident.
We marched next through Ashland and to a wooded road leading to Old Church, on which we camped. Large bodies of our infantry were passing through the night and until a late hour next morning. After a march again of some miles the heavy rattle of small arms reached our ears from the direction of Hawes' Shop, and to that point our course was directed. On reaching there we were posted to protect the flank of the men engaged. It was a severe battle between dismounted cavalry on each side, the Yankee infantry finally coming to support their line. On their approach our men retreated leisurely. We were treated to a volley from the infantry at short range, but without receiving serious injury.
Returning, we bivouacked at Atlee's Station, and moved next day to Fair Oaks. Here we remained for two days watching a large force of Grant's infantry about Hanover Courthouse, who threatened to move up the road from Cash Corner towards our position. On the evening of the second day two of our squadrons were thrown forward on that road. A skirmish was had for some time with the rear guard of the enemy, and on reaching Cash Corner a dash was made at a small body of cavalry, who fled towards Hanover Courthouse. A larger body on that road was also put to flight. We were informed by some prisoners that General Warren's headquarters had been temporarily in the house at Cash Corner.
The barbarous outrages of the command whose tracks we had followed, though on a smaller scale, equalled the worst acts of Sheridan in the Valley. At several houses occupied by women and small, helpless children nothing in the way of food was left, save poultry not yet feathered. And in one of these humble homes our men extinguished the fire that had been kindled for its destruction, as if to conceal under its ashes the ruthless vandalism which had broken and torn up every article of household and kitchen furniture. It appeared that these outrages had not been committed by irresponsible stragglers and vagabond camp-followers, but under the eyes of commanding officers.
The children thus left to starve shared the scant supply in our haversacks, and next morning our rations of bacon were turned over to their destitute mothers.
Near the close of our pursuit a party of the enemy, approaching on a by-road, presently entered the main road, along which their corps was moving. They did so just as a few of our most adventurous boys, who were on foot, stealing shots at the rear of the enemy as opportunity offered, had passed the intersection of the roads. This adventurous group, looking back and seeing the party in blue on horses, concluded they were a heavy force of the enemy's cavalry. "Without standing on the order of their going," like startled quail, they took cover. Their comrades, however, who were a little farther back with their led-horses, discovering that the company were only a quartermaster and his guard, charged them, demanding, and receiving, their surrender.
The quartermaster's outfit of wagon and horses was new and complete. All that was needed to cheer nature's flagging energies and make up the comfort of the physical man this bomb-proof soldier had. He had that, too, which was ornamental. A massive chain, which looked like gold, if it was not, attracted our troopers' eyes: and with evidences so fresh of a malignity which would rob helpless infancy of its last crumbs of bread, our needy cavaliers felt no rebuke of conscience in making the delivery of the watch and chain, one of the conditions of surrender. These were taken to brigade headquarters, and our general commanding ordered their restoration to the prisoner.