Still looking after 155 years

I know that the 11 bodies buried in a row described by members of the 3rd Georgian regiment were exhumed and moved to Roanoke Island on 28 June 1862. (Actually, 10 were dug up. The eleventh, Adjutant Gadsden of the 9th NY, was shipped back to New York City soon after the battle.) But where were they originally buried?

Billie Forehand (long-time Camden County Historian) may have given me the answer. He mentions a conversation he had with John Sawyer concerning the burial plot. (Sawyer was in his eighties at the time, placing the conversation in the late fifties or early sixties.) He told the story of a plot of 200 square feet where his father wouldn’t let the boys gather pine straw or cut the pines because it was the burial plot of the Yankees.

A second story collected by Forehand places the burial plot near the Nash house. John Nash lived on the west side of NC 343 opposite a farm path that was in existence at the time of the battle. A contemporary map of the battlefield places one of the Union field hospitals at the intersection of this lane with the woods that stood on the east side of the battlefield at the time of the battle.

The lane runs  about 300 yards north of the house used as Reno’s headquarters during the battle and as a hospital afterwards. The most seriously wounded from the field hospitals of the various regiments were consolidated there when the Union forces began their withdrawal under the cover of darkness. The Union stragglers drafted into burying the dead complained about the distance they had to lug the bodies. The intersection of the lane and NC 343 is about 1000 yards from both the field hospitals and the location of Hawkins’ charge, the event that led to the most casualties.

So they buried the bodies at the intersection of the three paths leading to where dead bodies had collected. That explanation makes sense.


Zouaves charged in column?

This from the Macon Telegraph of April 30, 1862:

Finding they were getting the worst of it with artillery, the 9th NY Fire Zouaves were ordered to charge our battery, and foolishly enough, the regiment in four ranks advanced up the narrow lane to the charge, until within seventy-five or eighty yards, when a round from the artillery and a well-directed volley from the infantry cut a lane from one end of their line to the other, sending them back in confusion.

See Column by divisions for another description of their charge.

Arrival of prisoners

From the Norfolk Day Book of April 23d:

Arrival of Prisoners – Eight prisoners, captured at South Mills, arrived early yesterday morning and were placed in safe keeping. They were brought to the city in the steamer Currituck.

One of them, an Irishman, was so eager to escape that he entered a negro hut and gave his own clothes and an Enfield rifle for the negroes clothes. He put them on and thus disguised endeavored to elude the vigilance of our men. In this, however, he failed, and we rather think that now he is safe in our hands, he regrets the exchange of garments, and wishes he could make a little better show than he does.

Retreat, friendly fire

Captain James W. Hendon, commander of Co. L, the Clarke County Rifles, wrote this account of his company’s actions at the beginning of the Battle of South Mills:

The first platoon of my company, in command of Lieutenant McRee, were thrown out on the extreme left to act as skirmishers and prevent our being flanked in that direction. This heroic little band, in their eagerness to find the enemy, which they did, and succeeded in killing and wounding a number of them, were cut off, and after many hair-breadth escapes, being fired upon by some of our own force, and wading almost impenetrable morasses, finally succeeded in rejoining the company, “all safe.”

Captain Hendon’s platoon, stationed on the far left flank, was cut off from the rest of the regiment during the retreat to the entrenchments at Joy’s Creek. As they emerged from the trees and began crossing an open field en route to the entrenchments at Joy’s Creek, they came under “friendly fire” due to the blue overcoats they were wearing. (The coats were captured from the 20th Indiana regiment during the “Chicamicomico Races” the previous October.)

Two companies (the Athens Guards and the Young Guards) and one cannon from the McComas battery under the command of Major Lee were left to guard the approaches to the River Bridge and Canal Bridge during the battle. During the retreat, they moved northward up the canal towards South Mills to cover the retreat. A member of the Athens Guards reported the following to the Southern Watchman newspaper:

After several hours of artillery fighting, and about one hour musket firing the noise suddenly ceased. Just as the sound died away, a shout ensued, and all noise died away. Then it was that we were ordered up to join the other companies. We were falling back in good order, but the Yankees did not follow. We took a stand while the other companies fell back, still to the rear, and seeing  a detachment of Captain Hendon’s company out skirmishing in front of us, we mistook them for Yankees, and Major Lee ordered the cannon which we had kept with our two companies to open upon them. Our boys were so anxious to shoot that they also fired their Enfields, and we had almost destroyed them before they could get out of the way. We did not, however (thank God) hurt any of them.

Charles McDonald found a 6-pdr. cannonball a short way north of the intersection of Old Swamp Road and Nosay Road in the vicinity of where they crossed.


Another button thief

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.

Battle preparations

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.



Did Maj. Gen. Huger see a ghost?

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!