The Fifth Alabama Battalion
A Short History

The North Sumter Rifles was recruited in Sumter County, AL in the spring of 1861, prior to the bombardment on Fort Sumter. After training approximately two months they boarded trains and were transferred to Virginia. They were present at the Battle of First Manassas (Bull Run) as an artillery unit; however, they were not engaged. This unit became Co. "A" of the Fifth Alabama Battalion.

Alabama Map Showing Fifth Alabama CountiesOn the 10th of August 1861, Confederate Captain Thomas B. Bush was sent home from Virginia to Jacksonville, AL, to recruit and organize a new company. This company became Co. "B" (Calhoun Sharpshooters; a.k.a., Bush Sharpshooters) of the Fifth Alabama Battalion. This company also traveled by rail to Virginia.

The two units listed above were combined with a third company, The Whites Plains Rangers (Co. "C") from Calhoun County, AL, near Dumfries, VA on December 2nd, 1861 and were designated the "Eighth Infantry Battalion"

On February 8th, 1862, a fourth company (Co. "D") was added, The Daniel Boone Rifles from Mobile County, AL (formerly Co. K, First Confederate [Tennessee] Infantry Regiment, Provisional Army). This company was disbanded on May 22nd, 1863 and its members were transferred to the other three companies of the battalion.

Two more companies were temporarily attached in April and May, 1862 to the Fifth Alabama Battalion, Co. "E" a Florida unit and Co. "F" an artillery unit. On June 10th, 1862 these companies were transferred and became Co. "L" and "M" of the Fifty-fifth Virginia Infantry Regiment, respectively.

The official date of the re-designation of the Eighth Infantry Battalion to the Fifth Alabama Infantry Battalion, occurred October 22nd, 1862. However, the first reference to the Fifth Alabama Battalion appears much earlier in the Official Records on January 14th, 1862 as a part of Wigfall's Brigade, "Forces Near Dumfries", Brig. General W. H. C. Whiting commanding. (O. R., Vol. V, p. 529-530)

The "Fifth" was formed under the command of a Lt. Colonel F. B. Shepherd and was subsequently commanded by a Lt. Colonel Henry H. Walker; however, both of these assignments were temporary. Major Abram Sebastian ("Bass" or "Sab") Van de Graaff (formerly Captain of Company "A") was the commander for the majority of the great battles, in which the battalion fought. Others who commanded the battalion were Captain Thomas Bush, who assumed command after the wounding of Major Van de Graaff and Captain S. D. Stewart at Mechanicsville. Bush led the "Fifth" at Cedar Mountain and Second Manassas, where he was killed. Lieutenant (later Captain) Charles M. Hooper assumed command at Second Manassas and continued as the commander of the battalion at Harper's Ferry and during the Antietam Campaign. He was relieved at the return of Major Van de Graaff. Captain S. D. Stewart assumed command at Fredericksburg after Major Van de Graaff was wounded and retained command at Chancellorsville. Stewart was killed at Chancellorsville and Captain A. N. Porter then took command. Van de Graaff reassumed command after Chancellorsville and led the battalion at Gettysburg, Bristoe and Mine Run. Captain Wade Ritter is first shown as the commander of the battalion January 31, 1865 and appears to have led the command through the Appomattox Campaign to its surrender.

The War Record of the Fifth Alabama Battalion truly begins with a savage attack and repulse at Gaines' Mill, June 27th, 1862 during the Seven Days battles. The battalion had participated "in some of the heaviest of the fighting" the day before at Mechanicsville; however, the loss at Gaines' Mill (1st Cold Harbor) was much higher. W. F. Fulton, Jr., in "Family Record and War Reminiscences" states that his company (Co. "A") suffered over forty casualties out of an effective force of approximately seventy men. The battalion losses were reported by General Archer as nineteen dead and seventy-nine wounded out of slightly over two-hundred engaged. Both its commander, A. S. Van de Graaff and second in command, Captain S. D. Stewart were wounded in this engagement. Van de Graaff, so grievously, that he was originally reported as dead.

At Cedar Mountain the "Fifth" again participated in heavy fighting and suffered a loss of one killed and eight wounded.

At Second Manassas the battalion lost another commander, Captain Thomas Bush and nineteen killed and wounded.

No losses are reported for the "Fifth" during the Harper's Ferry and Antietam Campaigns. They participated in the siege of Harper's Ferry and after it's surrender were assigned to the guarding of Union prisoners. The balance of Archer's Brigade participated in the famous late-afternoon arrival of A. P. Hill's "Light Division" at Antietam (Sharpsburg) which is credited with saving Lee's army.

Fredericksburg is best known for the suicidal assaults made by the Union Army against the fortified Confederates on Marye's Heights. The most serious threat to the Confederate Army; however, occurred on the Confederate right, where a temporary breakthrough of George Gordon Meade's Division occurred. A gap had opened in the Confederate line on the left of Archer's Brigade. This was the point where Meade's spearhead struck. The left regiments of the brigade were thrown into confusion and retreated. The "Fifth", on the extreme right of the brigade was led by Archer himself, with support from two Virginia regiments, and rushed into this breach against overwhelming odds. The time gained by this heroic counterattack allowed "Stonewall" Jackson to bring up D. H. Hill's Division and stabilize the Confederate line. The reported loss of the battalion was three killed and eighteen wounded. Jackson, A. P. Hill and Archer all highly praised the "Fifth" for their heroism in this action. Major Van de Graaff was again wounded and Captain S. D. Stewart assumed command.

At Chancellorsville, Archer's Brigade participated in the heavy assaults against Daniel Sickle's Corps at Hazel Grove, finally driving them off of this prominence. Captain S. D. Stewart was killed in these attacks and was superseded by Captain A. N. Porter. Including Stewart's death the battalion suffered thirty-six casualties out of approximately one hundred and fifty men engaged.

Gettysburg was a devastating battle for the "Fifth". Relieved from Provost Guard duty and acting as skirmishers for Archer's Brigade, they were the first unit to make contact with John Buford's defending Union cavalry. After driving the Union cavalry "for three miles" they were overtaken by Archer's main line of infantry and crossed Willoughby Run to enter Herbst's Woods. There they collided with the famed "Iron Brigade" who had just arrived on the field. Archer's Brigade fought desperately but was forced to retreat across a field to a line of trees on Herr Ridge. During this retreat, two hundred of the men of Archer's Brigade were captured including General Archer, himself. Later in the day after the arrival of the balance of Heth's Division and Ewell's Corps, the battalion participated in the attack which finally drove the First and Eleventh Corps of the Army of the Potomac through Gettysburg and onto the heights beyond. Archer's Brigade and the Fifth Alabama Battalion were on the extreme right of the attacking Confederate line.

The losses in Heth's Division, of which Archer's Brigade was a part, were heavy. On the second day at Gettysburg, Heth's division was held in reserve. Heth had been wounded and Brig. General James J. Pettigrew assumed command of the division.

On the third day, Pettigrew's (Heth's) and Pickett's Divisions plus two brigades from Pender's Division under General Isaac Trimble were given the task of driving the Union Army off of Cemetery Ridge. Archer's Brigade, now commanded by Col. B. D. Frye of the Thirteenth Alabama, was the rightmost brigade of Pettigrew's Division. They were instructed to "guide" on Garnett's Brigade, the leftmost of Pickett's brigades and to converge on the "Clump of Trees" and low stonewall at the center of Cemetery Ridge. The Yankees opened fired on the "Fifth" as they attempted to climb over the fences on each side of the Emmittsburg Pike. They reached "the Angle" in the low stone wall and some members of the battalion actually climbed over; however, what was left was only a remnant. According to Major Van de Graaff in a letter written to his wife he wrote "My loss in this battle (Pickett's Charge) was 43 out of 98 men. Some are prisoners & unhurt." Van de Graaff had earlier reported seven casualties on the first day of the battle. If Van de Graff's numbers are accurate, the Fifth Alabama Battalion started the battle of Gettysburg with one-hundred and five men and suffered fifty casualties, a loss of 48%.

Eleven days later, the battalion was in the middle of the rearguard action at Falling Waters. It was in this engagement that General Pettigrew, commanding Heth's division, was killed.

After Gettysburg, in August of 1863, the remainder of the Fifth Alabama Battalion was detached from Archer's brigade and made the Provost Guard of the III Corps, Army of Northern Virginia and assigned to Lt. General A. P. Hill's headquarters. In this role they participated in the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and the Siege of Petersburg.

At the battle of the Wilderness, with the duty of rounding up stragglers and guarding captured Union prisoners, the "Fifth" was called on again to perform a heroic and seemingly hopeless act. A. P. Hill's III corps was being pushed hard by General Hancock's driving Federals. Near dusk on May 5th, Hill's line, stretched to it's limit, with no reserve and exhausted, was being approached by a fresh division of troops meaning to break through the opening between Hill's corps and Ewell's. Quickly looking around for anyone to "throw into the breach" Hill noticed his provost guard, the 5th Alabama Battalion guarding large numbers of Union prisoners. Staff officers, "walking wounded" and others were collected to watch the prisoners and the little battalion was formed to resist this overwhelming blue tide. Using more "bravado" than judgement and in the near darkness, the "5th" charged the menacing blue line "yelling like demons". The Union troops startled by this onrush of men and unable to determine their number, fell back to a defensive position and waited for the battle on the morrow. Once again this tiny group of men played a major role in a great battle.

At Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and in the Siege of Petersburg the battalion fulfilled its role as Provost Guard for the III Corps many times coming under fire and moving to the front line at points of danger.

In a final noteworthy incident, members of the "Fifth" were in the immediate vicinity and discovered the body of Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill after he was killed April 2nd, 1865 as the Confederates began the evacuation of Petersburg.

The battalion marched with the rest of Lee's army and participated in several rearguard actions during the Appomattox Campaign, finally surrendering with the rest of the army on April 9th, 1865.

There is a small cemetery at Appomattox, Virginia with burials of the final casualties in Lee's army. Included in this number, is a member of the Fifth Alabama Battalion. After the parole of Lee's army, the majority of the battalion walked in small groups back to their homes in Alabama.

The Fifth Alabama Battalion; or parts thereof participated in the following engagements:

In Wigfall's Brigade:

1st Bull Run, Virginia - (July 21, 1861)

In Archer's Brigade, Army of Northern Virginia:

Union occupation of Fredericksburg, Virginia (April 19, 1862)

Seven Days Battles (June 25-July 1, 1862)

Mechanicsville (June 26, 1862)

Gaines' Mill (June 27, 1862)

Cedar Mountain (August 9, 1862)

2nd Bull Run (August 28-30, 1862)

Harpers Ferry (September 12-15, 1862)

Shepherdstown Ford (September 20, 1862)

Fredericksburg (December 13, 1862)

Chancellorsville (May 1-4, 1863)

Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863)

Falling Waters (July 14, 1863)

As Provost Guard, III Corps, Army of Northern Virginia:

Bristoe Campaign (October 1863)

Mine Run Campaign (November-December 1863)

The Wilderness (May 5-6, 1864)

Spotsylvania Court House (May 8-2 1, 1864)

North Anna (May 23-26, 1864)

Cold Harbor (June 1-3, 1864)

Petersburg Siege (June 1864-April 1865)

Appomattox Court House (April 9, 1865)


Copyright 2000 - James W. Martin