History of the Ninth Virginia Cavalry, in the War Between the States/Chapter 13

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Under Minie Balls and Shells Near Hanover Courthouse—At Gaines' Mill—Forcing the Enemy's Picket Line—A Night Surprise—Nance's Shop—Gallantry of Major Clemens—On Stony Creek—Heading off Wilson's Raiders—Engagement at Sappony Church—A Sudden Encounter—A Rapid Gallop on the Heels of Colonel Spear—Sharpshooting at Malvern Hill—Fight at White Oak Swamp, in Charles City—Death of Captain Oliver—Brigadier-General Chambliss Slain.

On the morning following our march in the rear of Warren's corps we moved towards Hanover Courthouse. Near night a spirited fight commenced, most of the other regiments dismounting and going in on foot. We were ordered in on our horses. In passing over an open country to our position on the line of battle, the shells screamed and the minie balls whistled, but passed harmlessly over our heads. The combatants were very near each other, but darkness was covering the field. We were ordered to hold the ground while the other troops were withdrawn. This was done, and when the night was well on the regiment retired on the road to Ashland, halting to sleep only an hour or two on the road, and were in the saddle again at four o'clock A. M. We marched to the farm of General W. C. Wickham, and there were placed in line of battle, but no fight occurring, we returned to Ashland. Here a sharp skirmish occurred, and several squadrons of the Ninth Regiment were detailed, and separated, acting under the direct orders of Generals W. H. F. Lee and Chambliss. In the afternoon one squadron, mounted, was warmly engaged under Lieutenant Christian in the road. A portion of the regiment, also, dismounted, were put forward in a body of woods, where they encountered the enemy entrenched in a ditch, and a severe engagement followed at close quarters. Lieutenant John Harwood, of Company K, was killed, and Lieutenant McGauley, of the same company, captured. Private John Neale, of Company C, was killed, and R. B. Spilman severely wounded. Color-Bearer Williams, of Company D, was mortally wounded, and several others were badly wounded. Near night a charge was made with the Colonel and Captain Swann leading. It was checked by barricades across the road and resulted only in the capture of a few prisoners, and one or two of the enemy being killed.

About daybreak on the following morning we bivouacked near Ryall's Mill, and then moved to camp near Meadow Bridge on the Chickahominy. From this point we marched next to Bottom's Bridge. Grant was now passing his army to the south of the James. We were moved close up to the blood-stained trenches at Cold Harbor, and went into camp on the now classic and famous Gaines' farm.

The body of our cavalry, now commanded by General Wade Hampton, the gallant and lamented Stuart having fallen at Yellow Tavern while we were on the lines at Spottsylvania Courthouse, had marched to Trevillian's Station, in Louisa, to check a raid by Sheridan. We remained here quietly for several days. At length General Chambliss received an order from General R. E. Lee to force the enemy's line of pickets, which were so posted that our scouts couldn't enter to find out what force occupied Old Church and its vicinity. General Chambliss ordered our regiment to perform this duty, and accompanied us in person.

We marched until we were within sight of the enemy's pickets. Three squadrons were now held in reserve; and Captain Robinson, with Companies C and K, was ordered to charge the picket, which was mounted, and Lieutenant Ball, with D and E, to follow to guard the roads on their flanks. This charge was splendidly made, and the Yankees were quickly flying upon every road. Their reserve camp was carried with a yell, and many of the enemy fled precipitately to the woods. Robinson halted only at the line of breastworks, close upon Old Church. One of our men, in the impetuosity of his course, dashed over into the works, and did not return. This line of works was held by negro troops, many of whom abandoning them fled back to Old Church. The cavalry of the enemy who had taken this road, dismounted, and sheltering themselves behind the works, opened a feeble fire.

As our men returned they were threatened seriously by the enemy, who had rallied and reappeared on the diverging roads. With great tact and skill on the part of Lieutenants Ball and Beale, they were, however, held in check, until our squadrons were safely withdrawn.

Despite the impediment of numerous strands of telegraph wire drawn across the road at several points, this dash was so rapid and successful that between seventy-five and a hundred of the enemy were captured, killed, and seriously wounded. We had two men wounded, and, as we afterwards learned, Private Sullivan, of Company D, who was carried into the enemy's works, was shot in the wrist, so that he could not readily control his horse. Some of our best horses were wounded; but a good many fine ones, with equipments, were secured.

We were left on outpost duty that night, and the enemy attempted to surprise us, and were very near succeeding. Our squadrons were extended over a long line. The regimental headquarters were immediately in rear of the line of breastworks at Cold Harbor, which our infantry had held when opposing Grant's recent bloody assaults. Close by was the intersection of two roads. On one of these, two miles distant, some dismounted cavalry pickets were posted, and about midnight the lieutenant in charge sent in word that the enemy in force was moving on this road. Lieutenant Thomas Christian and about sixty men were called out and posted in the breastwork. When this had been done two Texans who chanced to be present said they had been on guard at this point the night previous, and that this same lieutenant had sent in a similar report, and it had proved to be a false alarm. A party of mounted men were now sent to ascertain the truth, and soon returned reporting no enemy. Our force was then sent back to quarters. We had not fallen asleep, however, before an occasional rifle-shot was heard on the road from which our scouts had returned. The reports sounded nearer and nearer. We thought we could distinguish the sharp cracks of the enemy's carbines. Springing from our blankets we again took position in the breastworks. The men had orders to hold their lire until the enemy were within thirty paces. Two comrades of our Texan friends came within sight about dawn and close behind them a squadron of Yankee horse. We saw the two men in the road attempt to run, and the enemy dashing after them. One of the men stumbled and fell within a hundred yards of us, and the two within our line exclaimed: "Don't let them take him!" " Don't let them take him!" Our whole force rose and fired, and the squadron at once retreated, much to the intense relief of the man who had fallen. They came forward again, taking shelter behind the trees, and firing, but soon fell back. A courier had been dispatched to General Chambliss, and he came down with the brigade, General W. H. F. Lee accompanying him. Six of the enemy were left dead, or dying, in our front, two were buried a mile or two below, and citizens reported that they bore off some wounded in ambulances.

The next day we met the enemy near an old saw-mill in the vicinity of Nance's Shop, and had a spirited engagement, which was growing very interesting, when we were ordered back. One private was killed and several were wounded–E. F. Cox, of Company C, fatally so. Lieutenant Pollard was wounded in the ankle joint slightly, as was thought at the time, but the injury caused the loss of his leg.

Major Waller had been assigned at Ashland to the temporary command of another regiment, and Captain Swann was now our acting major.

Not far from the field to-day we met the divisions of Hampton and Fitz. Lee returning after the heavy battle at Trevillian's. We bivouacked in the neighborhood of Nance's Shop.

Early next day (June 24th) the movement of troops indicated a fight on hand. The Ninth was sent to the extreme right to watch that flank. About noon we were recalled and ordered to the left to report to General M. C. Butler. General Chambliss, with the Thirteenth Regiment, was absent, and the author commanded the Ninth and Tenth regiments until he arrived. The position assigned us was immediately to the left of Butler's brigade, with directions to advance and assault a line of barricade in the woods held by the enemy, as soon as our line could be formed. After advancing about two hundred yards, driving the enemy's skirmishers before us, we were met by a very severe fire from a log breastwork in the woods, which curved considerably to the left. With a yell our line rushed forward to engage this unseen foe at close quarters. Such was the suddenness of our assault that the enemy seemed taken by surprise, and ran in confusion, not, however, without pouring a volley at us as we approached, and turning and firing as they retreated. The cool and brave Lieutenant Cecil Baker fell dead at the breastwork from a random bullet, which diverted from its course, as was supposed, by a limb, and, ranging downward, passed through his heart. A number of the enemy retreating from the barricade, fell under our fire. The pursuit was rapid through the woods, until our right emerged from the cover into an open field. Our line of march being oblique to the edge of the woods and the formidable line of the enemy beyond, Company B became the first exposed to this second fire, and began to break and retreat. They were speedily halted and reformed. It was seen that the left and centre of our line would nearly reach the enemy's position before clearing the woods, whereupon the companies on the right were ordered to form in rear of the centre. When this was done the order was given to charge, just as General Chambliss rode up on the left.

The men of the Tenth Regiment, supported by Colonel Robins, of the Twenty-fourth, on their left, had reached the barricade in their front, and as young J. Lucius Davis, the son of the chivalrous Colonel of the first-named regiment, leaped upon it, cheering his comrades, he received a bullet through the body, and fell back lifeless. The works were carried, and the enemy's right turned. Our own direction was now somewhat changed, and, moving on a line nearly parallel with that of the enemy retreating before the Tenth Regiment, and somewhat in their rear, they found they must change front or be attacked in the rear. We soon found they were massing on their right to check us until their centre could be withdrawn. They had selected the crest of a gentle slope, and along the edge of a body of woods had formed a barricade, made hastily of logs, rails and earth. Our approach was chiefly through an open field, with about three companies of the Ninth on the right moving through woods on the farther side of the road. Five companies, and the whole force of the Tenth Regiment, had a plain several hundred yards wide to cross. The march of these troops under a murderous fire could not have been excelled. With excellent alignment and orderly movement two hundred yards were passed at a double-quick. The barricade was well filled with the enemy, and their fire grew rapid, but as the first guns of our men on the right were heard, a yell was raised along the entire line, and, dashing at the works, they were speedily abandoned. The enemy's column defiling across the front of our right wing, got volley after volley as they retired, and presently broke and ran. Their rout was complete. With a mounted regiment at hand at this conjuncture, it seemed as if more than half of the whole Federal force might have been captured.

Conspicuous upon this bloody field was Major Clemens, commanding the Tenth Regiment. At every stage of the fight his manly form might be seen, and his clear, ringing notes heard, now leading, now just in rear of his men, as they needed encouragement or restraint.

Some of the men having fainted from the excessive heat and exhaustion, after running a mile in pursuit, the regiment was halted, and the men, with the led-horses, ordered up. We had suffered severely. Comparatively few of the commissioned officers were present. Of these, Lieutenant Love was painfully wounded. Company C lost five valuable men, who had become veterans, having been among the earliest to volunteer. They were Sergeant S. C. Hardwick, Corporal George B. Carroll, and Privates Henry Porter, B. B. Brown, and William Reamy. Other companies suffered as heavily.

The loss of the enemy must have been heavy for the numbers engaged. Two colonels were captured and one killed. At one point, near the last barricade, fifteen of their men were seen dead or nearly so. In general orders full recognition and praise were given the brigade for their part of the day's work.

Our next move was to the south side of James river, and beyond the Appomattox, which we crossed at Petersburg. Our march was continued to Stony Creek Station, on the Weldon railroad. Here we learned that General Wilson, commanding a heavy cavalry force, was making a raid in the direction of the Danville railroad, and that our co-brigade, with General W. H. F. Lee, was pursuing them. Having halted near the depot to feed, we moved out on the road leading South. The Ninth was in rear, following the Tenth and Thirteenth regiments. On reaching Sappony Church, we could see one regiment on the right and the other on the left of the road half a mile in front, engaged, dismounted, with the enemy, and driving them back. We were directed by our General to push forward, mounted, and we moved down the road at a trot in column of fours. Companies D and E in front, supported by G and H, were thrown forward. Two companies—C and K—were sent to watch and hold a road one mile to our right.

As Lieutenant Ball advanced against a line of dismounted men who occupied a body of woods about two hundred yards in front of him a heavy fire of rifles from the right was concentrated upon his squadron. He was now ordered to form a line on the right of the road, and to charge into the small body of pines from which this fire came. The charge was promptly and beautifully made, the squadron dashing into the pines and up to a barricade too high to leap, behind which, and partly concealed by a young growth of pines, the enemy was in force. The flashes of rifles (it was now growing dark) revealed the fact that the enemy's line ran far to our left. The dismounted men of the Tenth and Thirteenth regiments were withdrawn. Ball was reforming his men under fire on the knoll from which he had made the charge, when he was ordered farther back. About twenty men retiring wounded, or with wounded horses, gave the appearance, as they filed past, of our having sustained a considerable loss. Private D. P. Slocum, of Company D, was mortally injured.

The enemy now advanced, showing in line a number of men quite double that of our own, and seemingly determined to force a passage at Sappony. The location here was admirable for defence. The meeting-house stood upon a narrow tongue or strip of land flanked on either side by a small stream, and the intervening ground not over five hundred yards wade, and passable by cavalry only at one or two points. It was past twilight when we reached the church-yard, and were ordered to dismount and occupy the road and ground to the left, between the two regiments already in line. Seizing upon rails, boards, the stalks of green corn, any and everything we could get hold of, the best barricade we could make was hastily thrown up. The Yankees were within two hundred and fifty yards of us, and a vigorous charge at this time would, by sheer weight of numbers, have carried our position, for we had no support in reach. Fortunately, they halted to form a barricade and to bring up their artillery.

In the dark their guns opened with shot and shell, riddling the church-building in our rear, but ranging too high to hurt us. Their line then advanced. Reserving our fire until they came up quite near and then opening a volley, they broke under it and retreated. This was repeated with the same result. Holcombe's Legion of three hundred men now joined us, and the Ninth and Tenth regiments, by giving way to the left, yielded to them our place in the centre. During the night, at intervals varying from fifteen minutes to an hour, there were heavy volleys of rifles exchanged; and about four o'clock artillery in our rear began with a welcome roar to respond to the Federal guns.

We had known for some time that Hampton was approaching with reinforcements. At dawn Holcombe's Legion advanced, and suffered severely from the fire from the wooded cover to which our squadron had charged on the previous evening. This injury was received from the enemy's rearguard, however. Wilson was leaving; had left, indeed. We now advancing, passed over the field of the fighting, and our surprise was great to find so few dead upon it, and these close up to our lines. Furious as the fight had seemed, and terrible in sound as it truly was, our four squadrons having used, as reported by the ordnance sergeant, thirty-one thousand rounds of ammunition, it was barren of casualties among our men.

The pursuit of the enemy was rapid, but in a mistaken direction. A few prisoners were captured by us. A non-commissioned officer among them, hearing the author's surprise expressed at the few killed, pointed to the extreme left of their line and said that if he would ride thither his surprise would cease.

We returned by noon to Stony Creek, and after halting only long enough to feed, moved out on the Halifax road. Butler's brigade was in front, followed by the Ninth and Tenth regiments, with the artillery, and the Thirteenth a little behind as rear-guard. The whole command had crossed the bridge over the Rowanty, near Perkins' house, save Colonel Phillips in rear. When approaching Perkins' Phillips discovered a column of the enemy coming down a by-road to his front and left. Concluding that the force was too strong for him, he moved to the woods on his right. The enemy proceeding to the bridge, were there met by a party of the Ninth and Tenth regiments, who demanded their surrender. The demand was promptly granted. We were a few hundred yards over a hill beyond, moving in front of two guns, when we heard a volley behind. Just as the Tenth Regiment charged a body in front, a column of the enemy dashed down into our line from an obscure road in the woods on our left. They entered the road just as one of our guns was passing, and within a few feet of General Hampton and his staff. The General, facing about on one side of the road, commanded: "Unlimber that gun." Our regiment was instantly faced about, and made ready to charge. Calls were made to the enemy to halt and surrender; and the rattling of falling arms told that they were prisoners. They were the leading squadron of Colonel Spears' Pennsylvania Regiment. A motley gang of fugitive slaves had swelled his numbers, and many cannoneers whose guns had been captured, were riding the artillery horses.

Their leader, in a desperate endeavor to escape, had allowed this part of his command to approach beyond a hill, while he, with the remaining men and negroes, after crossing the Rowanty, turned to the right and fled along the by-roads skirting that stream. Three of our squadrons were thrown out on the left of the road on the lookout for the approach of other bodies of the enemy, and one squadron was detailed as a provost guard to hold the prisoners. General Hampton ordered the writer, with the remaining squadron, to follow Spear, who was now a mile or two ahead of us. After going about three miles as rapidly as we could gallop the rear of the fugitives was seen in the distance, raising volumes of dust as they fled. Our men with the fleetest horses were now borne far ahead of the others. Some of the enemy's horses fell in the road from exhaustion. Many groups of cavalrymen and negroes were overtaken. The little party of our men in the lead dashed across a field where the road formed an angle, and, striking the enemy's column near the front, brought it to a sudden halt. The enemy began to throw down their arms, and there were signs of a general surrender. Quickly, however, the obscuring clouds of dust were lifted, and the smallness of our party was discovered. The Federals rallied at once and began to fire their pistols. Our men were forced to withdraw speedily, and Private William Jett, of Company C, was severely wounded. The approach of darkness now ended the chase. A number of the enemy were killed, and several hundred prisoners taken. The author, returning, reached the bridge after dark. Separated from the command and alone, he led his jaded horse to a grassy bottom and laid down and slept.

Hampton, with our command, was at Stony Creek, and when the author rode into camp early next morning the regiment was mounting for the march again. He secured a captured horse from the brigade quartermaster, and moved out with the regiment in pursuit of Wilson. We were too late, however, having struck the line of his march six hours after he had passed.

Some Henry rifles (sixteen-shooters) were taken on the day previous, and one, captured by Lieutenant Washington, was presented to the Colonel of the regiment. All of our men not previously supplied were now furnished with good McClellan saddles and Colt revolvers.

The two brigades comprising Major-General W. H. F. Lee's division–Barringer's North Carolinians and Chambliss' Virginians—were now united and camped on Hatcher's and Gravely runs, in Dinwiddie county. We remained doing picket duty and comparatively inactive until about the middle of August, except that in the last days of July we made a rapid march to the north side of the James, and were engaged in a spirited action with the enemy on the classic field at Malvern Hill. We had ten or fifteen men wounded and some horses. The Colonel of the regiment was temporarily absent on leave.

We were recalled to that side of the river again on the 14th of August, and after covering the retreat of a North Carolina infantry regiment on the 15th, bivouacked near White's Tavern, on the Charles City road. The Thirteenth Regiment held the picket line some two miles in our front, along Fisher's Run. Early on the morning of the 16th General Chambliss and staff moved out, after giving orders that the Ninth and Tenth regiments should follow. The necessity of going a long distance for water had drawn a good many of our men away from the camp, and, unaware of any need of haste, the regiment was leisurely forming. The Tenth had moved forward, when a courier brought an order for us to move up at a trot. We had not gone over a mile, when our attention was arrested by a sharp volley of musketry in the woods to our right. The regiment was immediately dismounted and formed in line at right angles with the road, on the margin of a bottom densely covered with undergrowth and huckleberry bushes. The enemy opened fire on us at once, and it was returned as fast as we could load. This was continued until a man on our left was seen to fall as if shot from the rear. The author then galloped to the road, and found a body of dismounted cavalry beyond the road, and in our rear. The men were now faced about, and, keeping well under cover of the woods, were moved back. In this movement the flank of the regiment farthest from the road drew a volley from a body of the enemy who had advanced unperceived on that side. We were ordered to double-quick for a few hundred yards, and as soon as an open field was passed, we were halted and ordered to make a barricade.

While engaged in making the barricade a courier from Colonel J. Lucius Davis rode up with an order for us to continue to fall back. He further informed us that General Chambliss' horse had come in, and that he had been either killed or captured. It was intensely hot, and we moved slowly back through the woods, and over a bottom of dense undergrowth and briers, to the crest of the hill beyond, in an open body of large trees. Here we were halted under the direction of Major-General Lee, and remained unmolested and quietly resting for over an hour.

The enemy, availing themselves of the dense cover in front, moved quietly into the bottom below, and opened fire upon us suddenly and rapidly. The first volley killed four or five of our men, among them Lieutenant John T. Stewart, of Company C, who, after being badly wounded, received a second bullet as his comrades were bearing him off to his horse. Sheltering ourselves behind the trees, and using the carbine vigorously, we checked the enemy's further advance, and successfully repelled an effort to turn our right flank.

We were now directed by an order from General W. H. F. Lee, delivered by Captain John Lee, of the division staff, to throw out a line of videttes to connect with General Gary on our right. While this was being done, General Gary rode up and joined the author, who had ridden forward in the woods to direct the posting of the videttes. The General, wishing to know the exact position of our regiment, rode back with us to where it had been left in line. The line was not to be seen. It had been ordered forward to charge, and a yell, followed by a sharp fire in front of the position which they had left, told us where they were. We then rode forward as rapidly as possible through the thick woods and tangled underbrush, and soon heard a volley in the rear. Major Swann soon appeared with a horse wounded, and four men had also been wounded in Company B by a volley from a mounted squadron of Gary's command, and our right squadron was found in confusion. Major Swann was directed to reform and bring this part of the line up. The other squadrons were pushed forward, and gained an open piece of country, where, on the opposite side of the field, could be seen a body of our men in confused order. Colonel Phillips was found at this point, and our line was reformed. We then advanced across a little ravine, and over a narrow plateau covered with bushes. When half way over this a heavy fire of musketry was opened on us from the slope of the hill which bounded the bottom in our front. Our line hastily ran back to the ravine about fifty yards behind us, and the troops in the rear mistook the movement for a panic. Halting at the ravine, the enemy's fire was returned, and, seeing that their position could be easily turned, Colonel Phillips was sent around to the right. He opened fire on the enemy's flank, which held a small barricade of rails, and we at the same time charged over the plateau in front. They broke and ran, and we occupied the barricade which they had abandoned. We were using it as a shield from the fire of some dismounted cavalry on the left of the road, and now became a target for our friends in rear of us. The author had to ride back to tell them to withhold their fire.

The conduct of the regiment, which created a momentary apprehension of a panic, called forth bitter denunciation from our Major-General.

We afterwards learned that our brigade had been formed and assigned position on the right of the road, and Barringer's on the left; that the Tenth Regiment was next to the road on the left, the Ninth in the centre, and the Thirteenth on the right. It appeared, also, that after driving the infantry, which occupied our side of the road throughout the fight, out of the woods, two of our lieutenants—Christian and Washington—seeing a body of mounted Federals on the road which they could approach, ran with their men across the front of the Tenth, not yet out of the woods, and the greater part of the Ninth and Thirteenth regiments, supposing these were the line of battle, ran over and joined them.

When the barricade of rails was reached our men were much exhausted, and very short of ammunition, and they were ordered to lie down and rest. Raising his head above the logs to watch the enemy's movements, Captain William Oliver, of Company F, received a ball in his left temple and survived only a few hours. He had faced the last great enemy on many fields, and was now the second captain of that gallant company to fall on the verge nearest the foe.

The loss inflicted upon the enemy was heavy in killed and prisoners. The day was the most trying our regiment had ever experienced. Not one drop of water could be had; the heat was intense, and the wood was dense and tangled. A large force of infantry was in our front with a support of cavalry, itself superior, numerically, to our own. Our Brigadier-General, the accomplished, gallant, and loved Chambliss, had fallen under the volley which led us to dismount and form line on foot in the morning. His body, recognized by the Union General Gregg, an old West Point schoolmate and friend, was sent within our lines under flag of truce for burial, with a letter to the wife of the fallen General that was kind and magnanimous.