J. B. (Joseph Benjamin) Polley.

Hood's Texas brigade, its marches, its battles, its achievements online

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visible evidence of the great mine exploded July 30, 1864 —
its right resting on a rather wide branch which, in its passage
eastward through the breastworks, left a gap in them. The
Federal line of intrenchments was in the thinly timbered hol-
low at the foot of the ridge, and in front of the brigade, and
for a mile to its left was scarcely two hundred yards from that
of the Confederates.

Here for tliirty long, weary days the Texas Brigade stayed
on guard, under a hot, almost blistering sun, and with only
the shade made by blankets and tent-cloths, stretched across
such rails and planks as could be brought long distances on
the shoulders of its men through an incessant storm of bul-
lets, to protect them from its heat and glare. There was lit-
tle breeze, scant rain, and much dust. The opposing lines
too close together to permit either side to send pickets to the
front, the watching of each other and the guarding against
surprise was done in and from the main lines, and lest the
vigilance exercised there prove insufficient, each side main-
tained a rifle fire, which, although in the day time somewhat
scattering and perfunctory, was at night an unceasing volley.
Through this storm of bullets had to come on the shoulders


of commissary sergeants and such men as ^yere detailed to
assist them, the rations on which soul and body were barely kept
together. The corn-bread, a pound a day to the man, was
cooked by details far in the rear; the bacon, a scant fourth
of a pound per diem to the man, or the same quantity of
tough, lean beef, was brought, uncooked, on the same shoul-
ders, as were also, but only at long interv^als, the small sup-
plies of beans, peas, rice and sugar then procurable. Coffee
— not more than thirty beans to the man — was a rarity.

The water that satisfied thirst, and in which such provisions
as the men dared waste by cooking, were boiled, had to be
brought in canteens from a spring on the far side of the branch
which made a gap in the breastworks, and to cross that branch,
by night or by day, was to risk life and limb — the Federals
guarding the gap as they did no other point on the line, and
keeping it hot and sizzling with death-dealing bullets. After
one man was mortally wounded, and two or three others, se-
riously, the risk was minimized, and at the same time equitably
distributed, by sending, in regular turn, two men of a com-
pany, with all its canteens, after water. One of these, carry-
ing all the canteens, would spring across the gap, and if he ar-
rived safe, toss them as they were filled, back across it to his

To stay in the trenches alive, was to suffer with heat,
smother with dust, keep heads below the top of the breast-
works, and half-starved, long the more for a " square meal "
because there was little else to occupy one's mind. Thor-
oughly inured to danger as were the Texans and Arkansans,
they accepted its presence as inevitable, and now that it stayed
by them so constantly, it grew monotonous and ceased to be
worthy of more attention than could be given it mechanically
and subconsciously. Their experiences of hardship and peril
were neither singular nor uncommon. Not a brigade of Lee's
army that did duty in the trenches east of Petersburg as
long on a single stretch as did the Texas Brigade, but suf-
fered and endured as much during those excessively wami, sul-
try months of June and July, 1864. Nevertheless, the same
Texans and Arkansans welcomed, with unfeigned gratitude,
the arrival, on the morning of the 20th of July, of the brigade
that relieved them. Up to about that date it had been im-


possible without great exposure of life, to move troops held
in reserve into the trenches — now, it was made easy and safe
by long traverses leading from the trenches to points beyond
the range of the enemy's rifles.

Gathering up their belongings and shouldering their guns,
the members of the Texas Brigade bade what proved to be a
final farewell to the scene of thirty days and nights of dis-
comfort, ever-present danger and continuous noise, and their
steps quickened by the fear that the tons of powder it was
known the Federals were placing under ground somewhere
along that part of the Confederate line, would be exploded
before they could get beyond reach of its terrors, filed into the
long traverse and marched to a point a mile southeast of the
city. There, under the shade of trees, near a little stream of
clear, running water, and sufficiently far from the firing line
to dull the roar of guns, big and little, the brigade rested,
held in reserve, nine days that were all the more pleasant be-
cause absolutely uneventful. At 3 a. m. of the 28th, how-
ever, it marched, without beating of drum or blowing of bugle,
to the extreme left of the Confederate line, where, taking
refuge in a hollow that ran up into wooded hills, it awaited
further orders. An effort to capture one of the enemy's forts
was in contemplation, and the brigade had been selected to
lead the assault. Some Confederate officer blundered, and
surmising Lee's intention. Grant not only reinforced that part
of his line, but turned loose his artillery, and for more than
two hours the brigade lay under a stonu of shells and round-
shot which, notwithstanding its ineffectiveness, was far from

The project abandoned by Lee, and the artillery fire having
ceased, the brigade marched back into Petersburg, and thence,
crossing the Appomattox, proceeded to Dunlap's Station, the
then terminus of the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad.
There it boarded a train and rode to Rice's turnout, whence,
leaving the train, it marched across James River, and came
to a halt, an hour before sunset, some distance in rear of
breastworks, on the heights overlooking that portion of the
valley of the James known as Deep Bottom, which were then
occupied by Kershaw's division. On the 27th, it seems. Grant
had sent a large force to the north, side, and to meet it and


compel its return, Lee had sent over Field's and Kershaw's di-
visions. But there was only a little skirmishing done, and a
reconnoissance made after sunset developed the fact that the
Federals had withdrawn to the protection of their gunboats
on the river. That night, Kershaw's division returned to Pe-
tersburg, leaving Field's division to guard against another
advance of the enemy. Next morning, between daylight and
sunrise, such members of the Texas Brigade as were then
awake, heard the roar of the explosion of the long-talked-of
mine at Petersburg. Confident as they were that the mining
had been done under that part of the breastworks so long oc-
cupied by the brigade, it is small wonder that they and all
their comrades heartily congratulated themselves on their
timely removal from the vicinity. Bill Calhoun voiced the sen-
timent of all when he said: "Well, boys, hit's a d — d sight
more comfortabler ter be stannin' here on good ole Virginny
terror firmer than ter be danglin', heels up an' heads down,
over that cussed mine, not knowin' whether you'd strike soft
or hard groun' when you lit."


Charles City Road, Darbytown Road, Chaffin's Farm,
Williamsburg Road

Thenceforward, until the curtain rose on the last act of
the tragedy that culminated at Appomattox Court House, the
Texas Brigade remained on the north side of James River. A
few days after the affair of July 30 General Grant withdrew
from that side the bulk of the troops sent there, and Ander-
son's, Law's and Jenkins' brigades returned to Petersburg —
only the Texas and Benning's brigades of infantry, and
Gary's, of cavalry, being left on the north side to protect the
Confederacy's capital from attack and capture. General
John Gregg was assigned to the command of these.

Peace and quiet reigned until August 13, and in shaded
camp and with nothing to disturb its rest, the Texas com-
mand felt that its lines were cast in pleasant places. Vege-
tables were to be had in abundance from the Portuguese, negro
and " poor white " truck-farmers of the section, and having
been recently paid off, the men fared as sumptuously as their
wretchedly small allowance of bread and meat permitted. On
the 13th, though, their rest was broken by two Federal army
corps, which,, advancing from Deep Bottom, at daylight of
the 14th, assailed the Confederate left with a strong line of
skirmishers. Their force fully twice that of the Confederates,
the latter, in order to cover their front, formed in single
line, the men standing six feet apart. As was characteristic
of the Federal generals ©f that day, those in command lost
the advantage of their superior numbers by excess of caution
and slowness of advance. Not until convinced they had
double the strength of the Confederates did they order an at-
tack in force on Gary's cavalry, then holding the Confederate

The cavalry was driven from its position, but at that junc-
ture Law's and Anderson's brigades arrived and by a desperate



charge regained the line lost. Then came darkness, and with
it a rain that lasted until morning, and the conflict ceased.
About 10 p. M. the brigades of Wright and Sanders rein-
forced the Confederates. An hour later the Texas Brigade
was ordered to the left to assist the cavalry to check the
steady movement of the enemy in that direction, and until
nearly sunset of the 16th it played a game of " hide and seek,"
— the hiders being the two brigades of Union cavalry, which
crossing White Oak swamp on the Charles City Road, were
moving around the Confederate left toward Richmond — the
seekers, the Texas Brigade.

The sky was cloudless, the sun had a full head of steam on;
not a breath of air was astir in the dense woodlands through
which the infantry brigade marched and countermarched, and
water was not to be had except at the slow-flowing wells of
the few denizens of the section. Still, the hiding and seeking
went merrily and diligently on until, about the middle of the
afternoon, the Federal troopers learned that Texas and Ar-
kansas infantry were doing the latter, and decided to quit the
game. Leaving a regiment to act as rear-guard, their main
body beat a hasty and safe retreat. The rear-guard was not
so fortunate. Cornered by the Texas Brigade, about sunset,
on Eraser's farm, and cut off from the corduroy on which only
was the passage of White Oak swamp feasible, a couple of
hundred of them were killed, wounded and captured, and half
as many more rode their steeds into the swamp, hoping by
some miracle to escape its bogs. The remainder, more daring
and sensible, faced the bullets long enough to gain the cor-
duroy road, and go clattering down it, followed by a rifle
fire that emptied many saddles before their occupants were out
of range. Of those who plunged into the swamp, a few es-
caped capture, but none a submersion, head and ears, in the
foul-smelling ooze into which they and their steeds sank.
Quite a number of the men and ten or fifteen horses were pulled
out of the mire by the Confederates, but many valuable ani-
mals had to be left to die of starvation.

While the Texas Brigade was thus engaged, severe fighting
was done on that part of the line it had left the night before.
Grant had reinforced his north side contingent until the
enemy outnumbered the Confederates three to one, and to hold


their lines at all, the latter were driven to fight in single rank.
All day long seven brigades of infantry and three of cavalry
— all the troops Lee could spare from the south side, num-
bering at the outside, about 10,000 — contested the field
against 35,000 Federals ; and although at one time they were
driven out of their intrenchments, at another, in the late after-
noon, they retook these works by a gallant charge in which
they inflicted on the enemy a loss of 2500. The total loss
of the Union troops during the day was about 6000, and of
these, the larger part were negroes. The Texas Brigade lost
none killed, and very few wounded — its heaviest loss being
occasioned by sunstroke. One of the negroes captured, who
was interviewed by a Texan, said: " Yassir, Marster, I use
ter lib down dar on de Eas'ern Shoah, an' de Yankees day come
erlong an' tole me ter jine de ahmy an' fight fur de brack
man's freedom. Dar wahnt no way outer jinin', but fo' God,
Marster, dis chile wouldn't nebbah un chawged you white
folkses breas' wuks lack we did, eff der Yankkees hadn't er
tole us day'd shoot us efF we didn't. Hit war defF eeder way,
fur all de Yankees war er talkin' de same way, an' er stannin'
right dar behin' us, wid dar guns in dar ban's."

Returning to its old position on New Market Heights on
the night of the 16th, the Texas Brigade spent the 17th in de-
sultory, long-distance sharpshooting. The enemy appeared
content with the defeat of the day before, and so made no
movement forward, or to right or left. On the 18th the fore-
noon passed without incident ; in the afternoon there was a
cavalry engagement on the Confederate left, and some artillery
firing and much sharpshooting at New Market Heights ; and
that night, despairing of reaching Richmond from the north,
General Grant recalled the bulk of his troops to the south side,
leaving only two or three negro brigades to guard his pontoon
bridge at Deep Bottom. The Confederate commander also
ordered all his brigades, save the Texas, Benning's, Bushrod
Johnson's and Gary's, back to Petersburg.

On the 21st the Texas Brigade was assigned position at the
Phillips house — its duty, to watch the movements of the negro
brigades in Deep Bottom, and give notice of any attempt to
reinforce them. It remained there five weeks. But they were
not idle weeks, for the maintenance of a line of pickets that


would cover the whole front of the negro brigades required
the daily detail of one-third of its men. But for all that, life
at the Phillips house was not unen joy able. Many vegetables
and fruits were in season, and high-priced as they were, they
were bought as long as the last two months' pay lasted.
Moreover, not only were the Richmond papers brought daily
to camp, but the New York Herald and other Northern jour-
nals were easily to be had from negro pickets, in exchange for
the tobacco with which Commodore Dunn, our sutler, kept
the brigade so well supplied.

Along toward the last days of September General Grant
believed the time ripe for renewed activity on the north side;
wherefore, he started 40,000 men in that direction, under Gen-
eral Ord, with instructions to proceed without delay into
Richmond. On the 27th these crossed the James River at
Deep Bottom, got well into position on the 28th, and at day-
light of the 29th, with negro troops in the van and covering
their entire front, moved forward against the 3000 Confeder-
ates, all told, then between them and their goal. Of this 3000,
Johnson's brigade was on the river above Drury's Bluff — Ben-
ning's, at New Market Heights — Gary's, guarding the Charles
City Road — and the Texas, at the Phillips house, between
Benning's and Johnson's, two miles to the right of the one and
three to the left of the other. Half way between the Texas
and Johnson's commands, was Fort Harrison, then occupied
by a small force of Confederate artillery. On the inner hne
of intrenchments around the city, a mile and a half in rear
of the Texas Brigade, and a like distance in rear of Fort Har-
rison, was Fort Gilmer, which was defended by a few heavy
siege guns, under the management of a few trained artiller-
ists and the City Battalion, composed of old men and boys,
and such clerks in governmental departments as were able to
bear arms. The line to be defended against the 40,000 Fed-
eral soldiers extended from Drury's Bluff down the river about
eight miles.

With daylight came a dense, obscuring fog, and through
it was heard a roar that sounded like the bellowing of ten
thousand wild bulls ; it was the shout of the negroes as they
valorously charged the picket line in their front. A minute
later it was learned that the first attack would be up a narrow


creek valley across which ran the Confederate line, and thither
the Texas Brigade hastened. In this little valley the fog was
so thick as to render large objects, a hundred feet distant, in-
distinguishable. Forming in single line, six feet apart, the
Texans and Arkansans awaited the onset of the enemy. They
could distinctly hear the Federal officers, as in loud tones they
gave such commands as were needed to keep their men moving
in line, but until the line approached within a hundred feet,
could see nothing; even then, only a wavering dark line was
visible. As it became so, and as was usual in those days, with-
out waiting for orders, the Confederates sprang to the top of
the low breastworks, and commenced firing — " shooting at
shadows," one of them said.

About the same instant a Federal officer shouted in sten-
torian voice, " Charge, men — ^Charge ! " But only by the
negroes immediately in front of the First Texas was the order
obeyed by a rush forward that carried a regiment of the poor
wretches up to, and in one or more places, across the breast-
works, and right in among the First Texans. The latter, since
Spottsylvania Court House well-provided with bayonets, were
experts in the use of them, defensively and offensively, and in
less than three minutes one-half of the assailants were shot
down or bayoneted, and the other half, prisoners. In front
of the other regiments the darkey charge lasted but a second
or two, and covered not more than five paces. It was, in fact,
simply a spasmodic response to the order. Then the black
line halted, and for a moment stood motionless, obviously de-
liberating whether the more danger was to be apprehended
from the Southern men in front, or the Northern men in rear.
Apparently, they decided on a compromise, for the half of
those that survived the terrible fire poured into their ranks,
threw down their guns, and wheeling, fled to the rear, and the
other half dropped flat on the ground, and lay there until
they were led away as captives.

In eff^ect, it was a massacre. Not a dozen shots in all were
fired by the blacks, not a man in the Texas Brigade received
a wound, and save in the First Texas, not a man was for a
second in danger. The firing lasted not exceeding five min-
utes, but in that short space of time, if the New York Herald
be good authority, a Confederate brigade numbering scant 800


men, killed 194 ncfrroes and 23 of their white officers. Es-
timating the killed as one-fifth of the total loss, it will appear
that about 1000 of the colored defenders of the Union were
shot out of service in that five minutes. Of the many negroes
who dropped to the ground unhurt, quite a number preferred
to serve their individual captors as slaves, to confinement in
Southern prisons, and did so serve them until the close of the

The firing had hardly ceased when word came that Gary's
cavalry and Benning's brigade had been driven from their
positions, and were in rapid retreat to the inner line of in-
trenchmcnts on which stood Fort Gilmer, and that if the-
Texas Brigade did not " get a move on," and a fast one at
that, it would be cut off from Richmond and its comrade
commands on the north side. Immediately following that in-
formation, came a courier from General Gregg with the more
alarming intelligence that Fort Harrison had been captured
by the enemy, and with an order that the Texas Brigade re-
port as quickly as possible to Gregg at that point. The
capture of the fort, as every man knew, placed the brigade in a
critical position, and within a minute it was double-quicking up
the outer line of intrenchments it had so long guarded — the
broad, level ditch affording not only the shortest route, but
as well, the best footing for rapid travel. It had not gone a
mile, though, before it was a long, straggling line of panting,
perspiring and almost exhausted men.

But no halt was made until Fort Harrison came in view, and
General Gregg met it. Having waited a quarter of an hour,
perhaps, for the men to close up, he led them around in rear
of the fort, intending to order a charge upon it. Before they
gained a desirable position, however, Gregg learned that the
Federals on the left were rapidly nearing the inner line of
intrenchments, and knowing that with these in their posses-
sion Richmond was at their mercjs he ordered the men to
make the best speed possible to that inner line. It was a race
with them and the enemy which would get there first, but they
won, lining up in the undefended works to the right of Fort
Gilmer, in the nick of time to prevent their seizure by the
Federals. It was the " last ditch " between the Union forces
and Richmond, and had they won it then, or at any time within


the next eight hours, as by one determined attack on its few
defenders — a mere corporal's guard as compared with their
40,000 — they might unquestionably have done, Appomattox
would have been anticipated by fully six months.

But they made no determined attack ; such advances as were
made were by unsupported brigades, but to meet even these,
and repel them, the Confederates were compelled to hurry from
one to another widely separated point, and there fight in single
rank and far apart. The Texas Brigade alone defended a
line of breastworks a mile and a half long, and to do that each
of its men had to be practically ubiquitous. How long they
could have held out was not fairly tested, for at 3 p. m. rein-
forcements from the south side came to their aid and at sight
of them the 40,000 Federals abandoned a contest in which,
up to that hour, they had held all the winning cards, and fell
back to the shelter and concealment of the forests.

The defense of Richmond against odds of more than thir-
teen to one by the four little brigades that fought so gallantly
and obstinately until three o'clock that day, deserves a tribute
of praise that has never been awarded them. Excepting as
they obeyed the general directions of their officers, the fight
was made by the privates alone, each man his own general —
the officers, figureheads. The loss of the Federals was about
2300— that of the Confederates, about 100. But for the
pluck, the uncommanded pluck of the heavy artillerists and of
privates of the Texas and Benning's brigades. Fort Gilmer,
the one place where the attack of the Federals seemed most
determined, must have fallen, and had it, Richmond would
have been in the grasp of the Union army. It was here that
Caw'pul Dick, a burly black corporal, met his death. The
incident is related in the letter of a Texan, as follows :

" A brigade of negroes, supported — or, rather, urged for-
ward — by white troops, made an assault on Fort Gilmer, but
the artillerists there were game, and, by the help of half a
hundred Georgia and Texas infantry, easily repelled the at-
tack. Death in their rear as surely as in their front, — the
prisoners taken declared that they would have been fired upon
by their supports had they refused to advance — the poor dar-
keys came on, for a while, with a steadiness which betokened
disaster to the Confederates. But suddenly the line began to


waver and twist, and then there was a positive halt by all,
except perhaps a hundred, who rushed forward and, miracu-
lously escaping death, tumbled head-long and pell-mell into
the wide and deep ditch surrounding the fort.

" ' Surrender, 3^ou black scoundrels ! ' shouted the com-
mander of the fort.

" ' S'rendah yo'sefF, sah ! ' came the reply in a stentorian
voice. ' Jess wait'll we'uns git in dah, efF yer wanter.' Then
they began lifting each other up to the top of the parapet, but
no sooner did a head appear above it than its owner was killed
by a shot from the rifles of the infantry.

" ' Less lifF Caw'pul Dick up,' one of them suggested ; ' he'll
git in dah, suah ; ' and the corporal was accordingly hoisted,
only to fall back lifeless, with a bullet through his head.

" ' Dah now ! ' loudly exclaimed another of his companions ;
* Caw'pul Dick done dead! What I done bin tole yer? '

" Yet, notwithstanding the loss of Corporal Dick, it was
not until the inmates of the fort threw lighted shells over into
the ditch that the darkeys came to terms and crawled, one
after another, through an opening at the end of the ditch,

Online LibraryJ. B. (Joseph Benjamin) PolleyHood's Texas brigade, its marches, its battles, its achievements → online text (page 23 of 32)