Southern Watchman – 30 April 1862
“The Third Georgia at South Mills”
We are indebted to a friend for the following extract of a letter from an officer of the Athens Guards, giving an account of the late fight at South Mills:
Bank of the Dismal Swamp Canal, N.C.
April 21st, 1862
Just after sunrise on Saturday morning last, the men who had not awaked were aroused by the keen report of cannons. This was continued for 20 or 30 minutes, when the companies in advance of us passed by the church at which we were stationed, and we received orders to fall back with them 4 miles to an entrenchment. Halting them for a moment, Col. Wright sent an order from South Mills to fall back there instantly, that was 5 miles farther. We had insufficient transportation even for our sick, and had to lug our baggage or lose it.
We were ordered, with the Young Guards, to remain at a bridge, under command of Col. Lee, and burn it, and thus protect the approach from E. City, while the balance of our forces were to engage the enemy then advancing up the other side of the river from Camden C. H. The firing soon commenced and we could hear it distinctly. You cannot imagine the impatience our boys felt to leave their posts and pitch in, for there was no appearance of an enemy where we were. But we had positive orders, and therefore dare not leave.
After several hours 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 to join the other companies. We met the 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 Capt. 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 upon them with 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. But this firing and the sight of our two companies strewn out as we were when we brought up our reinforcements together with the tremendous resistance our men had made in the fight, determined the Yankees to fall back also; this they did at night, but knowing they had five thousand men and could be largely reinforced before day, and not knowing they had any idea of retreating, Colonel Wright called a counsel of war, and finding that we had less than one thousand men, and but little more ammunition, none for one of our cannon, the counsel desired him to fall back to a safer place and await reinforcements in as much as our position could there be turned with ease by so large a force as the Yankees had.
We fell back several miles that night and received a force yesterday so large as to make us eager to return to the contest. But just as we were about to move forward, a dispatch was received by flag of truce from the Yankees, asking permission to bury their dead, &c. – We do not know certainly how many Yankees were killed. But it is thought by those who were in the fight that at least 500 were made to “bite the dust.” I suspect this is a large estimate, but our men did certainly fight like devils. We lost only about 10 or 12 killed and as many more wounded. Lieut. Wilson, from Bairdstown, was wounded and taken prisoner; a Mr. Jernigan, who refused to leave him, was also taken. Doc Elder, of Capt. Hendon’s company, was, we fear, taken prisoner. He has not come it. None of his men killed, unless Elder was. All Capt. Billup’ boys are safe, of course, as none of them were engaged but Buck Vincent. He fought with Capt. Hendon’s men. Capt. Beall and Capt. Griffin’s men were not in the fight, but in reserve. We did not have more than three hundred men in the fight, besides Capt. Comas’ Artillery company. We had three pieces of artillery and the Yankees three. Capt. Comas was killed. I have lost all my clothes. Many of our boys had to throw away knapsacks in the rapid march; but we are all eager to meet the Yankees in anything like equal combat. Gen. Blanchard, Col. Wright, and a thousand troops have gone to the battle field – went last night. Major Lee and the balance of the forces are awaiting here above South Mills for orders.
After the foregoing was received, and too late for this issue, two letters from the “Clarke County Rifles” were received. This company not only participated but bore a distinguished part in the engagement. We regret that we have no room for these letters. The following extract from the Captain’s letter gives a list of the casualties in that company: “Wm. Loving killed; Wm. C. Wright, severely wounded in the face; James M. Leeroy, slightly wounded in the spine by concussion; Walden Wise, slightly, in the hand; Wm. C. Nunnally was grazed on the face; Lieut. Chenshaw had his cap knocked off and his sword bent by a ball – he took his place in the ditch and fired 27 rounds. Dr. E. Elder is missing.” We learn by another letter that Mr. Elder is a prisoner in the hands of the enemy.
There is no doubt but that our Clarke boys acquitted themselves with great credit.
South Mills, N. C., April 22, 1862
Friend Christy: - To relieve the anxiety of our numerous friends, and especially those who have husbands, sons and brothers in the Clarke Rifles, I send you, for publication, the following account of the casualties and the part we bore in the late engagement near this place.
Early in the morning of the 19th inst., heavy cannonading was heard in the direction of Elizabeth City, and about 8 o’clock we learned that the enemy had landed a large force about 12 o’clock the preceding night, and were advancing on South Mills by the Camden Road, with the evident intention of cutting off the seven companies of our regiment stationed on the E. City road and avoiding the entrenchments in that direction. Immediately knapsacks were packed, arms inspected and everything in waiting for orders to march. About 9 o’clock our company was ordered to move forward and take position about two miles Southeast of the Mills, on the Camden road. Being a little nearer, we were the first to arrive on the ground. I deployed on the left of the road, with a large plantation in front, surrounded by a ditch 2 feet wide and 1 ½ deep, with a fence on the inside and a heavy growth of young pines in the rear. The fence was pulled down and piled up on the bank of the ditch, which afforded a pretty good protection against musketry. Shortly afterwards, Col. Wright, with two pieces of Capt. McComas’ Artillery, arrived and took position in the road in the edge of the field. The Dawson Greys and Home Guards soon came up and were deployed on the right. Col. Wright, with the eye of a veteran and a true soldier, immediately made his dispositions for the approaching conflict. Some houses in the way, on either side of the road, were burned. The ditches crossing the plantation were filled with rails and fired, to prevent the enemy from occupying them. The Brown Rifles and Burke Guards, who had been stationed at the entrenchments, came up and were deployed on our left. Two companies, under Col. Read, were held as a reserve, and the Athens Guards and Young Guards, under Maj. Lee, were left to burn Pasquotank bridge and defend the approach from E. City. The 1st platoon of my company, in command of Lieut. McRee, were thrown out on the extreme left to act as skirmishers and prevent our being flanked in that direction. This heroic 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 wading almost impenetrable morasses, finally succeeded in rejoining the company, “all safe.”
Thus arranged, with only four and a half companies and two pieces of artillery in line of battle, we calmly awaited the approach of the enemy, 6,000 strong, resolved to give him battle. We were not long kept in suspense, for soon the head of their column came in sight, advancing along the road. The ball was opened at the distance of 500 yards, by one of our guns, which immediately stopped their advance. They were doubtless surprised to find us there. We lay down, expecting a shell in reply; and sure enough, here it came, whizzing through the air. This was the first we ever heard; it passed high over our heads, however, and fell in the woods far beyond. I passed along the lines to see how our boys took it. They were laughing and cracking jokes, as though they were going into a game of town ball. For three hours we lay thus exposed to his fire – the balls singing over our heads, tearing off the limbs and occasionally exploding near us. Our Artillery did splendid shooting; the third ball struck immediately in their front, knocking the dust in their faces, and then went crocheting down their lines, driving them back and doubtless causing great destruction. One of their shells bursted exactly where the Artillery was stationed, disabling one gun, wounding one man and a piece struck a tree through the bark in Capt. McComas’ face. Later in the day he was struck by a Minnie ball, and died instantly. A braver and cooler man never lived. The Old Dominion may well be proud of such a son.
While the cannonading was going on, I walked along the lines where our noble boys were lying, and wondered to myself how many of that gallant little band would answer to roll call that night, and involuntarily uttered a prayer that God would turn aside the enemy’s balls, and spare them for their country, their families and their friends.
Knowing the enemy would try to flank us, Lieut. Crenshaw, who had come on the field with an Enfield rifle, was sent forward into the ditch to watch the movements of the enemy, and soon reported them advancing along the fence side, on our left. I looked, and sure enough there they were. One came over the fence – he fired on him and he fell, and was consequently the first man who fired a musket. The order was given to advance into the ditch, and with a yell the boys pitched into it, and then commenced the work in good earnest. The enemy stood our fire about 10 minutes, and poured into our lines a perfect hail of Minnie balls. I shouted to them to keep cool, take good aim and throw away no lead; but it was unnecessary, for never did old and tried veterans fight with more coolness and deliberation. As they turned to load, I looked in their faces to see how they stood it – not a man flinched, not a countenance blanched nor a hand trembled. But they would spring on the bank of the ditch, and shout to each other, “Now boys, see me flirt him,” and amidst the roar of cannon, the crash of small arms and the whiz of bullets, you might hear them cheering each other, and laughing when the balls would knock the splinters and dust in their faces. The 9th N. Y. Zouaves once attempted to charge our line, and came within 80 to 100 yards of us; but our fire was too sure, and they flanked off into the woods, leaving a field officer dead on the field, and nearly one-third of the men killed and wounded. They were three times repulsed and driven back. Our force actually engaged was only 368, opposed to 5 regiments, with 1,000 in reserve. With this immense odds, at least 10 to 1, we held our position 4 ½ hours, in an open field fight, and never left our position till the Artillery was out of ammunition, and we were completely flanked on our left, and received a fire in our rear, and even then retreating in good order. There is no destruction – all fought gallantly. Col. Wright acted with the utmost coolness, walking along the lines in the hottest of the fight, cheering the boys, while the balls were whistling around him thick as hail stones. He was still Col. Wright. We fell back that night as far as the Mills, feeling unable to hold our position, which was now a line of at least 5 miles, along which they could flank us at almost any point, with but one regiment opposed to 6,000, our artillery out of ammunition, and uncertain when reinforcements would arrive. At 2 o’clock the next morning we fell back 12 miles further, to prevent them from falling in our rear, by roads leading from their position.
It appears that about the same time they left the battle field in great haste, leaving a great number of their dead and wounded on the battle field. A thousand or twelve hundred pounds of powder, some two hundred stand of small arms, knapsacks, blankets, overcoats, canteens, &c.; and in their precipitate retreat, pressing horses, carts, wagons, tearing up bridges and carrying off with them about 60 negroes. At daylight next morning the foremost had reached their boats, 14 miles distant, while the balance were scattered along the road.
Could we have known how badly we had whipped them, or had we a cavalry force to have pursued them, we could have taken a great many prisoners and munitions of war. Meeting the 1st Louisiana coming to reinforce us, we returned and reoccupied our position that evening.
Our loss, compared to the immense odds and the time we were engaged, was very small – 6 killed, 15 wounded, 10 or 12 missing. Their loss, by the admission of their own men taken prisoners, is three hundred killed and wounded, including 19 officers. We have captured between 75 and 100 prisoners. They think, and you cannot make them believe but that they were fighting 7,000 men. I think they have got such a taste of the 3d Georgia that they will not want to try us agin soon. While we were rejoicing over our success and the gallant stand we made, our hearts are saddened by the memory of the gallant boys lost, who were decently buried this evening with military honors. Peace to their ashes! The casualties in the company are, Wm. Loving, killed; Wm. C. Wright, severely wounded in the face; Jas. M. Leeroy, slightly wounded in the spine by concussion; Walden Wise, slightly in the hand; Wm. C. Nunnally was grazed on the face; Lieut. Crenshaw had his cap knocked off and his sword bent by a ball – he took his place in the ditch and fired 27 rounds. Doctor E. Elder is missing. He was sent out before the engagement, with H. Franks and Jas. Graves, who was reported missing, but has since come in, on a reconnoitering expedition, and has not been heard of since the battle. He is either killed or taken prisoner – I think the latter.
Never did men stand fire better than our boys; and I think I may safely say, our friends at home need not be ashamed of us. And I will add, as an act of justice to the whole company, that we were the first upon the ground, first in the ditch, in the hottest of the fire, and the last to leave it.
Your friend truly,
J. W. Hendon
Southern Watchman – 7 May 1862
“Our Army Correspondence”
3d Georgia Regiment,
South Mills, N.C., April 23d, 1862.
Dear Watchman: - After a delay of four days, I write you for the purpose of giving your readers as correct details of the battle fought between 360 Confederates and six regiments of Yankees, on the 19th inst., as can be ascertained. On Saturday morning about 9 o’clock, five companies of the Third Georgia Regiment were ordered to march down the Camden road for the purpose of meeting the enemy, the remainder being at that time at Elizabeth City. After marching about two miles and a half from South Mills, we were halted and were ordered to prepare for the contest which was soon to commence. Our brave and active Colonel Wright soon arranged things to suit him, and then patiently awaited the advance of the scoundrels. About 11½ o’clock, A.M., the “stars and stripes” were seen in the distance, and no sooner seen than they were cut down by our artillery. Our artillery killed a great many of them with the first four or five shots from our guns. We confused, surprised, and scattered the enemy. Our boys fought gallantly for nearly five hours against fearful odds. We not only fought six regiments with about 300 infantry and three pieces of artillery, but fought New York Zouaves who had been so exceedingly anxious to fight the “bloody third” for so long a time. The 9th regiment New York Zouaves attempted to charge us – did charge about 50 yards – and were repulsed with heavy loss. Our boys were cool and deliberate and made every cartridge tell in the enemies ranks. Although our boys had never heard the “music” of so many leaden balls, yet they were undaunted. I know men never received a charge more bravely and deliberately than our boys did. Capt. McComas’ artillery boys fought bravely. The prisoners which we took from the 9th New York, and the wounded they left on the field, admit they lost 19 officers in the charge – among them Col. Hawkins, Adjutant Gadsden, and others whose names I could not ascertain. They acknowledge 40 killed by the second shot from our artillery. The people along the road say the Yanks pressed a great many wagons into service for the purpose of hauling off their dead and wounded. They buried many a one in the woods near the battle field on Saturday night, and left a great many of their wounded in some old houses near by the road. In giving the casualties on their side, we can only take their own admissions and the reports of the citizens along the road, together with the graves and pits found near the fighting ground. They say they lost a great many – some of them say about 350. The citizens say they carried off their dead and wounded by the wagons full. They were burying them all along the road. Many graves and large pits were found on the field. It is generally believed we killed and wounded between five and six hundred. Besides the killed and wounded, we have taken about 40 prisoners, and about 1300 pounds of powder. We took a great many small arms – rifles and muskets, and disabled two of their pieces of artillery which they buried somewhere below the field of conflict.
With about 360 men fighting six regiments, well armed and equipped, for nearly five hours, we only lost six men killed, 20 wounded, and one taken prisoner and two missing. The companies engaged on our side were the following: “Burke Guards,” “Brown Rifles,” “Home Guards,” “Clarke County Rifles,” and “Confederate Light Guard.” Neither of these companies were full – averaged not more than 50 men. Col. Wright said to Capt. Hendon, “Captain, I must compliment you and your company – you fought gallantly.” The Clarke County Rifles did fight bravely – men never fought more desperately. Our brave captain was where the balls came thickest, and proved himself to be a gallant leader, while our boys showed they were not afraid of Lincoln’s hordes. All the officers and men of our company, as well as the other companies, in the language of Gen. Huger, “covered themselves with glory.”
William Loving of our company was killed, W.C. Wright was badly wounded in the face, and LeCroy, Nunnally and Wise were slightly wounded. Dr. E. Elder is missing.
I do not know the names of the killed and wounded in other companies, except Lieut. Wilson, of the “Dawson Grays,” who was severely wounded in the leg, and young Deese who was killed.
We should all feel profoundly grateful to the God of all blessings for His goodness in preserving our lives. To him we give all the glory for our safety and success. We now occupy a position near South Mills, and feel prepared to meet any number of the scoundrels. I cannot write you more at present. Hoping we may make Burnside’s next expedition through the Dismal Swamp more disagreeable and unprofitable than the first, I subscribe myself
P.S. – I have just heard that Dr. E. Elder was taken prisoner. We have been largely reinforced, and now feel able to fight any number Lincoln can send to meet us. Hoping that we may have a chance to meet them again soon, and after my love to all the friends of your company, I remain,