NEW BERN, N.C., WEDNESDAY, APRIL 29,
The following Historical Sketch of his company, regiment and brigade was written by Lieut. Charles R. Jones during the winter and spring of 1865, from notes taken at different periods.
FIFTY-FIFTH N.C. TROOPS, DAVIS’ BRIGADE.
The next morning June 12th, we pushed across the creek, to find only a few scattering cavalry. It appeared afterwards that Gen. Grant was at this time transferring his army from the north to the south side of the James River, having indefinitely postponed his extravagant boast to “fight it out on this line” –the line of the Rapidan, Mattaponi and Pamunky rivers—“if it took all summer” which satisfactorily accounted for the absence of his forces in our front. Our Generals, were not however, quick to believe that Gen. Grant was prepared to abandon his idea of capturing Richmond from the north side of the James, and accordingly it was assigned to Heth’s Division to find our if that was an enemy, besides the lurking cavalry we had seen by. The Division was ordered to cross the line of breastworks for the purpose. A line of battle was formed about a mile in advance of the position we had held and ordered to advance. Then commenced a series of incidental evolutions not laid down in tactics. We expected to come upon a secreted and well posted foe every moment, and the boys started a kind of half-way charge with their usual manner yelling and shouting, though it was afterwards proved their was not an enemy near, the few scattering Yankee cavalry deciding that “discretion was the better part of valor,” had taken to their heels. After advancing some three or four miles in the manner described, we halted and rested, and towards night were marched back close to our position near White Oak Swamp and bivouacked for the night. Here we constructed another line of breastworks and remained in position in an open cornfield under a scorching sun for several days. It appearing to the satisfaction of the commanding General of the Confederate forces, that Gen. Grant was actually transferring the larger portion of the army to the south side of the James, there to inaugurate a new campaign, the greater portion of the Army of Northern Virginia was immediately sent across the river at Drewry’s Bluff, on pontoon bridges, in the direction of -----. While Heth’s division was ordered into position between White Tavern and the river on the north side, to which any demonstration on the part of the enemy to again advance towards Richmond from this side. The enemy soon found out our whereabouts, and not being strong enough to attack us in force they contented themselves by throwing amongst us a number of shells of the largest calibre of ordnance. These shells were so enormously large that they were called “lamp-posts” “chorus” “wash pots” &c. These in the main, did but little damage, as the banks of the river prevented the enemy from throwing them exactly into our position, most of them going over or stopping short. I have never seen anything more grand than a night shelling especially when the spectator is out of danger, to watch the flying shells from the enemy’s gunboats, during the night, describing their beautiful arches with comet-like appearance when on their was their destinations, and their explosions in mid air is something that may be witnessed but hardly described.
Here we remained in an open field, in a state of lethargy, enduring the burning rays of the sun, while the air resembled somewhat the description given by travelers of the simools of India and North Africa, until the morning of June 19th when we took up the line of march in the direction of Petersburg, crossing the James River just above Drewry’s Bluff, with pontoons. Soon after crossing we came into the turnpike or McAdamized road which leads from Richmond to Petersburg. We marched on until about six miles from Petersburg when Davis’ Brigade was ordered to leave the road and take position in rear of Pickett’s Division as a reserve in case of attack, while the rest of the division marched further down the road in the direction of Petersburg. Late at night we went into the front line of works and remained three days, nothing of interest transpiring. At the end of this time we recrossed the James just above Drury’s Bluff and again took position on the north side of the river, and under fire of the Yankee gunboats. Nothing of interest occurred until July 3rd, 1864, when in consequence of some transposition of the enemy’s troops it again became necessary to transfer Davis’ Brigade to the south side of the river. Early on this morning we were out on the long, hot, dusty road, after a weary march of more than twenty miles. On arriving within one mile of Petersburg, the command being very much fatigued it was ordered into an open field near Dunn’s Hill, where we bivouacked for the night, in full view of the shells, as they were poured from the Yankee mortars into the devoted city.
Before day on the fourth of July we were on the march. It had been currently reported and believed that this day had been set apart by the Federal commander, to batter down the city of Petersburg, and it was desirable that we should get into position before the battle commenced. At length day broke and revealed to us large numbers of the inhabitants of Petersburg, who had been driven by the relentless shell of a cruel enemy from their homes, many of them leaving all they had behind them, and as they had no where to go were forced to take shelter in the woods, where we found them on either side of the road, some in rude huts, some in tents, and many without either. Old men, women, little children, who had been reared in the lap of luxury, who never knew a wish ungratified, were here exposed to the inclemencies of the weather, and this too on the 4th of July. Could those devoted men who assembled in Independence Hall in Philadelphia just eighty years before, and gave utterance to their feelings and thoughts in the Declaration of Independence, so full of patriotism and liberty and which has since resounded in all countries as a death knell in the ears of kings, princes, potentates, and powers, except true democratic republicanism—I say, if those devoted patriots could have been transmitted through the dim vista of a little more than a lifetime, to behold the scenes of this anniversary of their Declaration of Independence, what alas! Would have been their feelings? They would have disowned their descendants. They would have cried in dismay, is this the American people, led on by the base elements of fanaticism, demagogueism and sectional hallucination who now butcher each other? Was it to entail sufferings before unheard of in the annals of warfare that we pledged “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” to love, honor and defend our country? Are these the fruits of the suffering and hardships of that man “who was first in peace, first in war, and first in the hearts of his countrymen? Are the memories of the bloody battles fought by the barefoot, ragged and starving men of the American Revolution no longer revered? Had ye listened to the warning voice of a Washington, a Madison, a Jefferson, a Patrick Henry, Andrew Jackson, or of a John C. Calhoun such scenes of bloodshed, anarchy and suffering might have been avoided. Alas! it was too true, there were descendants of those worthy sires, why fought and bled for that liberty now (arrayed in open hostility, the) one section against the other. The envenomed dart of sectional ambition was even now reeking with the gore of fratricidal hearts. The goddess of Liberty, with eyes streaming with tears of anguish, has thrown down her garlands to weep over her fallen heroes. The ploughshare and the pruning hook have been moulded into the sword and spear, and everything portends war, irrevocable war, and war to the knife.
As to the various causes which seemed to bring on such a terrible state of affairs, they are too familiar to every school boy for me to dwell on them. There was cold, cruel, grim-visaged, relentless war in the land and the hour was at hand when the true patriot should be known. If we were base enough to desire it, it was now too late to retire from the contest. There was no retreat but in submission and the consequent evils of subjugation. Too true! alas! too true, or chains and manacles were even then being forged; their clanking might almost be heard in the workshops of New England. Could it be supposed that those men who had seen so much of war and its horrors, would shrink from the contest in that hour? In the day of their country’s peril? No! No!! No!!! Filled with such thoughts as those we marched through the streets of Petersburg. There was now of the 55th N.C. Troops only about a hundred for duty. Two years previous we marched through the same streets nearly eight hundred strong. Where were the others seven hundred of the regiment now? Go to the battle-fields of Gettysburg, Wilderness and many others and ask them to give up their dead and our ranks would again be full.
Ragged, dirty, fatigued and almost barefoot we marched along filled with there sad reflections, calling up the happy hours we had spent with our honored dead, looking back with sadness to the past, and endeavoring to penetrate, with the eye of hope, the future, all at once the regimental band struck up the Southern Marseilles and we saw a beautiful young lady, waving to the morning breeze a white handkerchief, in approbation of our decision to rescue liberty or to perish in an honored grave, and as if by magic the two events infused new life into all, and with light, quick, buoyant steps we marched on to the first line of breastworks and took position in full view of the enemy. We were necessarily exposed to rains and a hot July sun, but with assistance of our yankee tents most of us constructed shelters which afforded some protection. We were liable at any moment to be called into line to resist attack, or perhaps to assault the enemy’s position, but we made ourselves as comfortable as possible under the circumstances.
About the 25th, owing to the transportation of troops on the part of Gen. Grant we were again summoned to the north side of James river. We took up the line of march at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and reaching Dunlap Station on the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, we took the outside of a box car for Watkins’ turn-out where we disembarked and during the night marched about twelve miles and took up a position between White Tavern and the James river, not far from our old position, and in full range of our old enemies, the yankee gunboats.
On the 28th during a heavy shelling the gubernatorial election of the 55th North Carolina Troops passed off quietly. It was a sublime sight to see the boys choose between honorable war and dishonorable peace ond submission, which was the issue presented in the election of the candidates. Late in the evening the enemy’s guns became quiet.
Early on the morning of the 30th July, a distant rumbling sound was heard in the direction of Petersburg. The noise resembled the low, turbulent convulsions of an earthquake, but as we had long since regarded the days of signs and wonders as passed, the subject did not receive a second thought. It proved to be the explosion of a huge mine, constructed by the Federals under the line of works erected by the Confederates, hoping thereby to capture the position held by the Confederate troops in front of Petersburg. In this they were not successful, and history will record the heroism and daring valor displayed by the Confederate troops on this occasion. The Federals being defeated at all points in front of Petersburg, General Grant immediately crossed over to the south side of the James, all the troops he had artfully thrown to the north side a few days before, with the intention, it is believed, of hurling them with impetuosity, and regardless of the cost or sacrifice, against the decimated but devoted legions who were defending the beleaguered city, but he found that instead of taking the profound strategist, Gen. Lee, by surprise, he too transferred what troops were necessary from the north side of the James to enable him to cope successfully with his adversary.
[10. “Historical Sketch.” Our Living and Our Dead (Newbern, NC). April 29, 1874, p. 1 col. 2-4]
SOPO Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Jack Phend.
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