Tuesday morning, May 6, 1862
“Battle of Sawyer’s Lane”
Under the date of South Mills, Monday, 4 o’clock, P.M., April 21st, 1862, Adjutant W. W. Turner writes a long letter, giving an account of the battle of Sawyer’s Lane, fought near South Mills, N. C., on Saturday, 19th April, 1862, between a portion of the 3rd Georgia Regiment under Col. A. R. Wright, and six regiments of Yankees under Gen. Reno – The letter is as follows:
“You will hear before this reaches you, of the battle we had on Saturday, the 19th just. I take my pen to write you something about it. I am in the midst of terrible confusion; so you must not expect a very intelligible or minute account. I will try, however, not to misstate facts, although I may fail to tell you of many things that would interest you, and that are necessary to a full understanding of the affair. Although it may appear egotistical – (but I hope it will not)- I must narrate the events that occurred around me, and of which I was an eyewitness. Of course, the impression made upon the mind of a man in battle, arises from events near him, and while certain things strike his mind, other events will strike the minds of others, who are on a different part of the field.
Tuesday morning, April 22 – After writing the above, I had to go to work at something else, and have had no opportunity of resuming until this morning, and I now write with a pencil. I must go on by telling what occurred around me, though my post was an obscure one. Yet I tried to do my duty.
On Saturday morning, we received certain information that the enemy was landing troops at two points, and that two columns were approaching us: one from towards Elizabeth City, and one on the Camden Court-house road. Col. Wright supposed – correctly – that the movement from towards Elizabeth City was a feint, and he had all the companies brought up from that neighborhood, Maj. Lee was below, and Lt. Col. Reid had also ridden down on Friday night.
Saturday morning, at South Mills, the long roll was beaten, and the two companies here got quickly under arms. As Col. Wright mounted his horse, he told me that these two companies – Dawson Greys and Home Guard – must march out to the entrenchment on the Camden Road, and if they met the enemy, fight as long as possible, and fall back. We went on, and met the Colonel at the entrenchment. He had galloped round, and thus met us. The enemy was approaching. He (Col. W.) ordered me to go back, and make arrangements to destroy the small bridges just below South Mills, but that they must not be touched until further orders. Then I was to ride to meet the boys coming up from Elizabeth City.
About the time I met them, Capt. Carswell – volunteer aide – came with another order. The Young Guard, and the Athens Guard, were left at the canal bridge, under Maj. Lee. Capt. Hughes, Commissary, was to destroy the river bridge, as soon as all of us were over. Lt. Col. Reid, with several companies, was stationed at a fork of the roads on the Camden road. Col. Wrigth, with Capt. McComas’s artillery, supported by the Home Guard, Dawson Greys, Clarke Rifles, and Burke Guard, went on, and took an admirable position, about 3 miles from South Mills, in the edge of a wood. Beyond were small fields, skirted on both sides by an extension of the wood. Some houses were in the way, and these were burned. The rails on each side of the road were thrown down into the road, to obstruct a march – the drawing of artillery, or the ricocheting of balls. A ditch which ran across the open space, at right angles with the road, was filled with rails, and these burned, so as to make it too hot to hold Yankees – [It could not be made as hot as the place that will hold them, unless that place, with commendable self-repect, insists on having the Yankees and their corrupting influences kept out of it. – Countryman.] – Never was ground better chosen, or prepared, in so short a time.
I had to go back once more, to see if the arrangements for destroying the bridges were really complete. I was then riding back by South Mills, and as it was growing quite late, I almost began to conclude that no enemy was coming: but as I proceeded towards our position, I heard artillery, and struck a gallop.
As I neared the fork, where the Confederate Light Guards, Governor’s Guard, and Wilkinson Rifles were stationed, a full mile this side of our advance position, the cannon balls commenced falling in the fields around. I went on, and found our artillery planted in the road, in full blast, the supporting companies deployed in the wood on each side, and the artillery of the enemy replying. This was between 11 and 12 o’clock. Col. Wright looked for reinforcements by 2 o’clock, and expected to hold his position until then. There were 6 regiments of the enemy, as we now know. We were only one regiment, jaded and thinned out to the last degree. – The artillery kept the enemy at bay, for several hours.
I forgot to say that the Southampton Cavalry was occupying a position behind us. All this time the enemy was preparing to out-flank us. Finally, he began to approach our left, through he wood, near enough, and a musket shot rang out. Then another, and another. They became more frequent, and finally a perfect storm burst forth. The sound of the firing you can easily imagine, but the sound of the balls striking the hard beech trees, was more like the falling of hail-stones on the roof of a house, than any thing else I ever heard. As Charley Lucas says, “it was heavy.”
Very soon after the musketry commenced, Capt. McComas of the artillery fell, pierced through the body by a ball. A braver and cooler commander never fought. A panic seized the artillery, but they were rallied and fought well. – More of our companies were ordered up, as the battle grew hotter and hotter. Several sickly attempts at a charge were made by the enemy, and the grape shot drove him back.
In the mean time he was pressing our left, and turning our right. On the left, where the Brown Rifles were stationed – (there were other companies there, but I mention the Brown Rifles because they are from our county) – On the left the fire was hottest; and never did men behave better than our brave boys did. – Some time before, the wounded had commenced limping off to the rear. – When I was not carrying an order, I was in the road near the artillery, except for a little while when I was on the right close to the wood.
At last the order was given for us to fall back to our entrenchment. The battle had raged about 5 hours – to about two hours later than at which we expected reinforcements. None had come, and no assurance was had that any would come. We had not quite 400 men in action, and the enemy had 6 regiments. The order came at the right time. In 10 minutes more, we would have been completely surrounded. The artillery had left the field, and in obedience to orders, our brave soldiers commenced falling back in good order, and with great reluctance. They were not at all whipped, but fell back only in obedience to orders.
I was directly interested in the last volley fired by the enemy. It happened in this way: As I was walking down the road to my horse, the Yankees came up to the position that had been occupied by our artillery. After I had mounted, I heard someone calling to me, and looking round, saw a wounded man trying to make his way off the field. I could not resist the appeal, and turned back. As I was trying to get him up, the scoundrels took deliberate aim at us, and although the distance was considerable, their long-range guns sent the balls whistling and skipping about us in a manner that was any thing but pleasant. In the early part of the day, before the battle commenced, I had sprained my right foot, trying to mount a restive horse, and it was with great difficulty I could get the wounded man up behind me. Despite the dangers the scene was rather ludicrous, and I have laughed at it several times since it is all over.
The enemy seemed satisfied, for the nonce, with occupying the battle-field, and we retired without further molestation, to our entrenchments. Two companies were sent back to watch the approaches from Elizabeth City, two were sent to one entrenchment, two companies that had not been in action were thrown in advance, and the rest at the other entrenchment. That night, a little over 200 of a North Carolina battalion came down. We all bivouacked, and after supper a council of war was held. The cavalry had been sent back to reconnoiter, and reported the enemy as still occupying the battle-field. The commander of each company was called upon to state how many men he could bring into an engagement next day, and on a careful estimate, we made out nearly 900 fighting men in all – including cavalry, artillery, North Carolina militia, that were in the vicinity of South Mills. We had ammunition for not more than two hours, and a line of over 3 miles to defend, which involved a scattering of our forces. We heard that reinforcements for the enemy were landing, and we knew they already had nearly 5 to one: so a large majority voted to fall back, and at 2 o’clock that night, we started, leaving the cavalry to watch the movements of the enemy – knowing that he had no cavalry, and that ours would be in no danger.
Col. Wright expected to fall back above the road by which the enemy might intercept our retreat to Norfolk, and there make a stand. But it had been raining 6 or 8 hours and the road was a mud puddle; the canal was on our left and the Dismal Swamp on our right. – I had been in the saddle nearly 24 hours – for I was carrying orders all night. – It was thought best to go on until we could at least get wood to kindle fires so we went 12 miles, and then stopped. – About noon on Sunday, the 1st Louisiana Regiment came, and then part of the 22nd Georgia, and the North Carolina Battalion. Gen. Blanchard and staff had come before.
Capt. Gillette, commanding the Southampton Cavalry, had been ordered to send a dispatch to Col. Wright, but we had heard nothing from him. – In the afternoon, we heard from reliable citizens, that our cavalry had gone one way – through Gates County – up to Suffolk – and the enemy another – to their gun-boats. Late Sunday afternoon, part of our forces started back to this point. I rode down after night. Yesterday and last night, the rest followed.
Oh! If we only – if we only could, have had the forces in the engagement that we have here now, although they would have been only about one-third the number of the enemy, we would have won the most glorious victory this continent ever saw! Such a chance! Such a pity that we did not have the reinforcements, or at least know that they were coming. Why one cavalry company – the Southampton for instance – could have killed or captured a thousand men.
But these regrets are all in vain now. We did as the affair stood, make one of the best fights the world ever saw. In an order published by Brig. Gen. Blanchard, yesterday, he says:
“If the enemy is met, the General is sure that this command will emulate the gallant conduct of Col. Wright’s command in the desperate action of the 19th inst., when 400 men fought and defeated 4,000 of the enemy.
Let us ask God’s help again.”
Maj. Gen. Huger writes: “The Georgians have covered themselves in glory.”
The Brown Rifles, as I have already said, were in the hottest part of the engagement:
“They fought like brave men, long and well,
They piled the ground with Yankee slain.”
They were on the left, and it was not my fate to fight with them. I longed to be a private instead of Adjutant, so that I could take a musket and fight with them; but of course I had to perform the duties that belong to my office, and they kept me near the center, towards which, while the artillery stood, was directed a galling fire.
But it is time for me to give you a list of casualties. The Brown Rifles have lost Irby Mallory, killed by a shot in the right breast. He fills a soldier’s grave and he died bravely fighting for his country. He never faltered, but battled manfully for the South. Let the people of Putnam county respect his memory. Sergt. J. J. Nicholson was wounded in the hip and thigh – both flesh wounds; B. B. Adams was wounded in the thigh, and I think his is a flesh wound. All the wounded were sent up to Portsmouth, and I have not seen Ben and Johnny, since I saw them going off the field. Jas. Y. Baynes is missing, but I presume he is safe.
Burke Guard, 2 wounded, 1 missing, none killed: Home Guard, 3 wounded, 3 missing, none killed: Dawson Greys, 3 wounded, 1 taken prisoner: Wilkinson Rifles, none wounded, 1 killed: Clarke County Rifles, 3 wounded, 1 missing, 1 killed: Confederate Light Guards, 3 wounded, 4 missing, 2 killed.
Some put down as missing, it is presumed are safe, and will come up all right. Some of them were on picket guard, and of course were not withdrawn during the engagement. We think they went off up to Suffolk.
A surgeon that the Yankees left in a house with some of their wounded, admits that they lost, in killed and wounded over a hundred.. We are confident their loss amounts to two hundred. Among the killed is the Adjutant of the 9th New York – the Zouaves who have been so anxious to meet the 3rd Georgia. A good many officers were wounded – among them Col. Carl. Rush Hawkins, commanding one of the two brigades that came against us. He was in command at Hatteras. Gen. Reno was in command of the whole enemy’s force against us on Saturday.
Cavalry scoured the country between here and Camden Court-House, on yesterday, and last night the 1st Louisiana marched in that direction. Whether we will have another engagement or not, I can’t judge. At present the enemy has retired to his gun-boats. – Our fight is called the battle of Sawyer’s Lane.
We feel great disappointment that we did not receive reinforcements in time to win a decisive victory, and kill or capture the whole of the enemy’s troops. – But never mind all that.
Descending from great things to small, so far as my poor life is concerned, I am safe, dear mother. God has preserved me. To his name be praise and thanksgiving.
It has been with infinite difficulty, and in the midst of constant interruption, that I have written this letter.”