Private William E. Fredenburg, Co. K, 89th New York, reported in one of his letters home that some of the men in his regiment cut buttons off of the dead and dying Confederates’ uniforms. Apparently they had company: Richard H. Jackson. Jackson, a private in the 9th New York regiment, received a letter from a friend in New York City thanking him for sending “the shinplaster and button” taken off one of the dead Confederates at South Mills. (A shinplaster is slang for a monetary bill of low denomination.) Jackson noted in one of his letters that intestines were hanging out of the wound of one of the three dead Confederate soldiers he observed and apparently robbed.
In his battle report on South Mills, General Huger described the Confederate preparations to meet the Federals that were landing below the Camden Court House at Chantilly:
On Friday, the 18th, Colonel Wright occupied South Mills with three companies of his regiment (160 strong) and the drafted North Carolina Militia, two companies at the intrenchments at Richardson’s Mills (125 effectives) and five companies (about 300 men) and McComas’ battery of artillery at Elizabeth City.
On Friday evening, anticipating the enemy’s advance and in compliance with my instructions to concentrate his forces at or near South Mills, he ordered the companies at Elizabeth City to retire 9 miles to Richardson’s Mills From some cause not yet explained these companies did not leave Elizabeth City until after daylight on Saturday morning.
The cavalry company from Camden Court House reported at 8:30 o’clock.
On the 19th, the enemy approaching, having then passed the Court House, Colonel Wright moved forward with his three companies, and at 9:30 o’clock was met by Colonel McComas with his battery. After advancing three miles from South Mills the road emerged from the woods, and the field on the right and left extended 100 to 180 yards to thick woods and swamp. On the edge of the woods, on both sides of the road and perpendicular to it, was a small ditch, the earth from which was thrown up on the south side in a ridge, upon which was a heavy rail fence. From this point the road led through a narrow lane for 1 mile, with cleared land on both sides of it. Here he determined to make his stand.
About 300 yards from the woods ran a deep, wide ditch parallel with the one first mentioned and extending to the woods on either side of the road, and a short distance beyond it were dwellings and outhouses which could give cover for the enemy. Colonel Wright therefore ordered them burned. The large ditch in his front he filled with fence rails and set them on fire, his object being to have this ditch so hot by the time the enemy came up they could not occupy it.
Two pieces of artillery (the road was too narrow for more) were placed in the road just where it emerged from the woods, which commanded the road – the range of the guns. He also threw down the fences for 300 yards on each side of the road for 300 yards in front of the guns, and tossed the rails into the road to destroy the effect of the enemy’s ricochet firing and to deprive him of the cover of the fences. The fences on the sides of the woods were taken down and laid in heaps on the embankment in front of his men.
All these arraignments were made, and it was 11 o’clock before he was joined by Lieutenant-Colonel Reid and the seven companies from below. Two of these, under Major Lee, were placed at River Bridge, with one piece of McComas’ artillery, with directions to destroy it and stop the enemy there if he should attempt to get into our rear by coming up the west side of the river. Lieutenant-Colonel Reid and three companies of the Third Georgia (and by Colonel Ferebee’s report the North Carolina Militia) were placed about a mile in the rear at the meeting of an old road, to protect the passage and serve as a reserve. The remaining five companies were deployed in open order across the road on the right and left of the artillery, protected by the ditch and fence rails on the banks.
A third cannon from the McComas battery was placed in Sawyer’s Lane, to the right of the two stationed in the county road leading to the Camden Court House. It stood approximately 50 yards west of the other two.
The entrenchments mentioned at Richardson’s Mill were dug in February 1862 to protect the main route to Norfolk, a response to the defeat of Flag Officer Lynch’s North Carolina Squadron at the Battle of Elizabeth City by Rowan’s Union flotilla on 10 February 1862.
The Southampton Cavalry performed vidette duty prior to the battle, keeping Colonel Wright informed as to the progress of the advancing Federal forces. During the battle they were posted on the left flank as a screen near an old road that ran parallel to the county road, east of the battlefield.
In an account published in “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,” Volume 1, page 655, Col. Rush Hawkins reports, “A light mulatto man for a guide came to me from one of the gunboats, and by, so that we marched 30 miles out of the way to get at the rebel position, instead of sixteen by the by the direct road.” In a footnote, Hawkins writes, “When it was discovered that the guide had led my brigade ten miles out of the way, , he was quietly taken to a wood out of sight of the troops and shot. A few days later, we heard that he had been sent to us by the enemy for the purpose of leading our troops astray.”
I wonder what the corpse had to say?
In a letter to Gen. Robert E. Lee dated April 26, 1862, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Huger reports, “I conversed yesterday with one of the North Carolina Militia (Stephen Williams), who was captured by the enemy near Elizabeth City some two weeks since (with 72 others), and has been on Roanoke Island. He was forced to act as guide to the expedition, and landed them at 12 at night 2 miles below Elizabeth City. In the dark and during the confusion of landing he made his escape. He states he was in the cabin with General Reno and Colonel Hawkins and other officers, and they spoke openly of their intention of seizing the south end and destroying the lock of the canal so we could not pass iron-clad boats into the sound, and that they would fortify and hold the position and re-enforce it to any amount and threaten Norfolk in the rear, while McClellan attacked it in front.” Stephen Williams was an overseer at Bayside Plantation south of Elizabeth City.
Someone was lying!
The McComas battery, Company B of the Wise Artillery, put three guns in action at Sawyer’s Lane: two smoothbore bronze 6-pounders and a rifled gun. Their fourth gun, another 6-pounder, guarded the bridges crossing the Turner Cut of the Dismal Swamp Canal and the Pasquotank River. Two of the guns stood astride the county road leading from the court house at Jonesboro to South Mills, commanding the approach followed by the Federal forces for over a mile. The third stood to the right of these two in Sawyer’s Lane, fifty yards west of its intersection with the county road.
The battery’s three bronze smoothbore 6-pounders saw action in what is now West Virginia in 1861. They were the old hands of the battery. The newcomer, an iron rifled six-pounder, joined the battery shortly after the McComas battery’s arrival in Norfolk in late January 1862, just in time to be sent southward to the defense of Roanoke Island. Due to transportation issues, the battery, sporting six guns, ended up in Elizabeth City instead and was there during the Battle of Elizabeth City. Two 6-pounder iron guns were subsequently split off as a section under Company D of the Wise Artillery, later forming the core of the Goochland-Turner Battery.
The iron rifled gun arrived in the battery sans caisson, so she lacked the normal compliment of three ammunition boxes that the 6-pounders boasted. Her gun crew came to know her affectionately as “Old Kate” even though she was the youngest gun in the battery. Colonel Henningsen, commander of the Wise Artillery’s four companies, described her as an “iron 6-pounder” when she was added. Six-pounder indeed!
No run-of-the-mill six-pounder, “Old Kate” was rifled, giving her more range and accuracy than the older smoothbores. No mention of her bore appears in the records, but the evidence points to her being a 3-inch rifled cannon and, since she was already in service in January of 1862, she probably had twelve rifling bands. Three-inch rifled guns of later manufacture used six or seven bands.
How do we know she had a 3-inch bore? She left evidence behind: a 3-inch Archer bolt and a 2.9-inch Read-pattern Parrott shell, both recovered from the section of the battlefield that was wooded at the time of the battle. Contemporary maps in New York City newspapers labeled this area as “woods heavily shelled.” A third piece of ordinance probably fired by “Old Kate” passed through four walls in the Earl Meiggs house, used as Reno’s headquarters during the battle and a hospital afterwards. This conical piece of ordinance disappeared from its display case in front of the Dream House on Old Swamp Road sometime in the 1980s or 1990s. Also, David A. French, commander of the battery after McComas’ death at South Mills, ordered 140 rounds of “3-inch shell” and charges on a requisition on 10 June 1862, indicating the battery had a 3-inch gun.
Was she a 3-inch ordinance rifle? A Parrott gun? Or a 6-pounder casting drilled with a 3-inch bore? 3-inch ordinance rifles were not readily available in January 1862 and 10-pounder Parrott rifles still had a 2.91-inch bore, too small to have fired the Archer bolt. Tredegar Foundry in Richmond started turning out 6-pounder castings drilled with a 3-inch bore in 1861. Colonel Josiah Gorgas, Chief of Ordinance of the Confederate States, wrote to Tredegar on 26 December 1861: “All 6-pounder guns are to be bored and rifled 3-inch.” Given the transportation connections of the day, this seems the most likely scenario.
“After leaving the cornfield and had just entered the woods a cannon ball came directly for me and as we all had dodged about 40 or 50 while in the cornfield; I dodged that one and it passed over my back within 2 inches of me and struck Dick Martin who did not go down as I did. I was No. 1 Dick No. 2. He marched at my right side and as he went down the ball struck on the back of and near the top of his right shoulder knocking him over on his right side. Bruising him considerable and at first stunning him some little. Had it hit him square it would have killed, no doubt of it at all. In an hour’s time Dick was with us again all right excepting his left arm hung listlessly by his side.”
Sergeant Thomas Parker shared this story in a letter written April 27, 1862. Parker became Captain of Co. I, 51st Pennsylvania Volunteers, later in the war.
In the post “Artillery Duel“, the following story appeared:
The Confederates fired a number of ricochet shots down the road, one of which bounded over General Reno. According to Private Edwin R. W. Seckel, “a shell struck my marker flag and cut off about a foot off the end and was about 5 or 6 in. from taking off my right leg….” Seckel belonged to Co. A, 51st Pennsylvania Volunteers, and was part of the advance guard.
Now for the rest of the story. Captain Linn of the 51st Pennsylvania related this:
“Morris had scarcely passed when a gun fired behind the smoke, a round ball, a six-pounder, struck in the middle of the road, ricocheted over the General’s head, bounding away into the field on our left. Then one struck in our midst, hitting the marker’s staff mid-way, toppling him into the ditch at the roadside. He came out of it dripping, holding the flag in one hand and the ferule in the other, with a dazed foolish expression in his face.
And that’s the rest of the story.
Curtis Flankers was the first member of the 6th New Hampshire killed during the war. He marched in the No. 2 position in the front rank. No. 2 in the rear rank, directly behind Flanders, reported:
“I saw the ball strike in the sand ahead of us and fell flat on the ground, but he stood and took the ball, and as he fell, came down over me.”
The McComas Battery gunners seem to have fired many ricochet shots. They fired a number down the road to start the fight and fired many more as the 51st Pennsylvania crossed the open field during their flanking move. Apparently there were no spherical explosive shells in the 6-pdr. limber chests, so the two bronze 6-pdrs. made do with solid shot. Flanders was the first (and only) man killed by solid spherical shot in the battle.
Hosea Towne also wrote a description of Flanders’ death in a letter home:
“They fired a 6-pdr. at the colors which took effect mortally wounding C. Flanders of Co. I. The shot struck him in the thigh near the body. He died that night.”
George E. Upton’s letter to his wife echoes the one written by Hosea Towne:
“When our Colors came in sight of them, they aimed their cannon upon us, and for a few minutes the way the ball, shell, and grape-shot came was not slow. One shell hit a man in the thigh not but a few feet from me, giving him a mortal wound – name Curtis Flanders.”
Upton’s letter clears up one question: Why was Martin Van Buren Davis listed as missing? Upton relates:
“We had one man in our Co. give out, and he was put upstairs in the hospital and went to sleep. Owing to our coming away in such a hurry he was forgotten, and so we suppose he is now a prisoner. His name is M. V. B. Davis.”
It appears Davis returned to the ships with the group Rev. Conway of the 9th NY gathered up the day after the battle. He is listed in the regimental history as “gained from missing,” meaning he showed up later.