By Austin Williams, 5th VA Co. A
A scorching sun beat down on the men of the Stonewall Brigade as they made their way along the dusty roads towards Spotsylvania Court House on May 8th, 1864. They had spent the previous three days fighting in the tangled undergrowth of the Wilderness, as the Army of Northern Virginia challenged the opening moves of Grant’s spring offensive. After several days of bloodletting, Grant’s columns pulled back from their breastworks late in the day of May 7th and set off on a night march to the east and south, aiming to seize the key crossroads at Spotsylvania Court House. Lee, however, quickly learned of the move and rushed his men to intercept Grant and foil the effort to turn the Confederate flank.
The roughly 900 men of the Stonewall Brigade pressed steadily on throughout the day, their step quickened by the booming guns of the Confederate and Union advance guards clashing in the distance.1 Sergeant Joseph McMurran of the Fourth Virginia would later write in his diary that “The weather was very hot, water scarce & the road thro’ the Wilderness thick set with undergrowth which had been set on fire & was so warm that the troops almost suffocated.”2 The exhausted troops pushed on until, late in the afternoon, they approached the rear of the Confederate positions at Laurel Hill, just to the west of the Court House. As more and more Federal troops arrived, they threatened to overlap and turn the Confederate right flank. Confederate Lieutenant General Richard Ewell rushed the newly arrived troops of his Second Corps to extend the Confederate line.
Ewell rode up to Brigadier General James A. Walker, the current commander of the celebrated Stonewall Brigade, and ordered him to advance his command at the double quick step. Although Walker’s men had already been on a grueling, rapid march for 16-18 hours, they responded to the orders with a yell and surged forward. Amidst exploding shells and the whine of minie balls, the Stonewall Brigade moved quickly into line on the right of the North Carolinians of Brigadier General Stephen D. Ramseur’s brigade. Behind and to the right of the Stonewall Brigade, the rest of the brigades of Johnson’s Division moved into position, checking the Federal advance as darkness brought an end to the day’s fighting.3
Worked Like Beavers
With the sound of muskets and cannons fading away in the dusk, Walker surveyed his position and disliked what he found. On the left of his line, the Second, Twenty-Seventh, and Thirty-Third Virginia regiments were on top of a dry, chalky hill, while the Fourth and Fifth Virginia were in line at the bottom of this ridge in an angle-deep swamp. On his own initiative Walker, just before midnight, ordered his men to adjust their lines to take advantage of better terrain. While Walker endured a sharp rebuke from Ewell for moving without orders, the Stonewall Brigade began to entrench in a more defensible position.4
Walker’s line was anchored on its left by the Second Virginia, under the command of Major Charles H. Stewart, which formed the junction between Johnson’s Division and Rodes’ Division to their left. Both the Second Virginia and the Thirty-Third Virginia, led by Lieutenant Colonel George W. Huston, were posted in the middle of an open field, without natural cover but with open fields of fire to their front up until dense second growth pines some distance away. To their right, the Fifth and Twenty-Seventh Virginia, under Colonel John H. S. Funk and Lieutenant Colonel Charles L. Haynes respectively, were posted at the edge of a stand of oaks. They also had open fields in front of them, while the distant pines to their front began to thin and were farther from the Brigade’s lines. The Fourth Virginia, led by Colonel William B. Terry, held the right flank of the Brigade and, like the Second and Thirty-Third, were in line on open ground.5
Beyond the right flank of the Stonewall Brigade, the remainder of Johnson’s Division curved northeast before turning to the southeast, forming a salient which would become forever known as the Mule Shoe. While not an ideal tactical position, Ewell judged such exposed lines were necessary so that he could occupy high ground at the tip of the salient which, if left unoccupied, would have allowed Federal artillery to command his lines.6 The Louisianans of Brigadier General Harry T. Hays’ command lay to the right of the Stonewall Brigade, incorporating both Hays’ own brigade and the men of Stafford’s Brigade, whose commander had been killed on May 5th. Next in line was Jones’ Brigade, led by Colonel William Witcher since Brigadier General J. M. Jones had also fallen at the Wilderness. The division’s lines bent back at a sharp angle near the right of Jones’ Brigade, where the right flank of the division was held by Brigadier General George H. Steuart’s brigade. The pines that ran along the Stonewall Brigade’s front fell away in front of Hays’ position, leaving a broad, open plateau of 600-800 yards in front of Hays’ and Jones’ Brigades.7
Despite their long day of marching, the men of the Stonewall Brigade got little rest that first night at Spotsylvania. Axes, picks, and shovels were sent for and, “Profiting by their experience of the last few days in the Wilderness, the men went to work with great alacrity (in spite of their broken-down condition),” wrote Lieutenant J. S. Doyle of the Thirty-Third Virginia.8 Walker would later describe how his men, “Worked like beavers, and the crash of falling trees, the ring of axes, and the sound of the spade and shovel were heard.”9Only when the work was complete did the men finally collapse, with Doyle writing that, “By daylight [the men] were sleeping comfortably behind a strong breast-work of rails and earth”10
With Great Swiftness and Determination
Thankfully for the exhausted men, May 9th was largely quiet as the two armies jockeyed for position and the men of both sides improved their fortifications. The Stonewall Brigade’s skirmishers remained positioned in the pines at the brigade’s front to limit the harassing fire of Federal skirmishers. Despite this precaution, by the afternoon of May 10th Union skirmishers in front and to the left of the Stonewall Brigade became increasingly active.11 These included Federal sharpshooters “whose practice was so excellent as to render it a very hazardous undertaking to go for a canteen of water without availing oneself of the shelter of the woods which extended to the rear of some portion of the line,” according to a member of the Thirty-Third Virginia.12
Suddenly and with little warning, at around six in the evening, a dense column of Union infantry erupted from the pines in front of Doles’ Brigade of Georgians immediately to the left of the Stonewall Brigade. In an innovative tactic, Union Colonel Emory Upton led the attack of twelve regiments in a tight mass forward in a rush at the Confederate breastworks without pausing to fire, gambling that the defenders could only get off a few shots before the attack was upon them.
Watching from the Stonewall Brigade’s lines, Lieutenant Doyle described how Upton’s men, “advanced with great swiftness and determination… coming on at a double-quick in excellent order, with their muskets at the trail they ran over [the Confederate] skirmishers in their pits and surging over the main line, found… men sitting along the works, many with their accouterments off, and all totally unprepared for resistance.”13 One of the Stonewall Brigade’s staff officers recounted how the Federal attack overran the Georgians so quickly that many of the defenders were still seated around their cook fires when they were captured.14 Although some of Doles’ men managed a volley, the attack was on top of them before they could reload and, after a brief melee, Upton’s force drove back the shattered defenders with a cheer.15
Just to the left of the attack, the Second and Thirty-Third Virginia had fired obliquely into the left flank of Upton’s dense attacking column. With Federal troops now overrunning the Confederate defenses and threatening to sweep down the line, the two regiments hurriedly fell back in disorder into the woods behind their sister regiments. General Walker rode into the midst of the fleeing men and rallied them, preventing a full rout. With the line reformed at a right angle to their original position, these elements of the Stonewall Brigade poured what Walker characterized as a “murderous fire” across the open field into Upton’s flank.16
With his lines breached, Ewell rushed additional troops to contain and repel the attack. With the Stonewall Brigade hitting Upton’s left flank, Steuart’s Brigade and Battle’s Brigade hit the Federal incursion head on and R. D. Johnston’s Brigade, along with rallied remnants of Doles’ Brigade and the right portion of Daniel’s Brigade, struck Upton’s right flank. With Confederates swarming at them from three directions, after about fifteen minutes Upton’s men began to give ground. They pulled back to Doles’ earthworks and held the position until an hour after dark. As the Federals retreated across the field and back into the safety of the pine forest, Confederate troops poured fire into their rear from the newly recaptured entrenchments.17
Beating back the attack had cost the Confederates around 650 men, including 350 men of Doles’ Brigade taken prisoner. Among those who fell mortally wounded was Private Thomas J. Campbell of the Fifth Virginia, Company E. His comrade William F. Brand wrote soon after the battle, “poor fellow I went and talked to him & tryed to cheer him, He said oh Bill I can not be cheerfull my wound is to painfull he was soon moved of & I couldnt get to say much to him.” Campbell would be dead before the next day dawned.18 Roughly 100 Union soldiers lay dead within the Confederate works.19 The attack had shown a potential vulnerability to the Confederate position, as Upton’s rapid attack without stopping to fire in the advance had prevented the defenders from massing their fire. To help counter such an attack, after nightfall on the 10th, members of the Thirty-Third Virginia volunteered to go forward in the darkness and chop down pine trees to create an abatis to slow any future attack.20
Waiting and Wishing for the Enemy
May 11th dawned dark and dreary, with a hard rain which continued throughout the day. At around mid-morning, Federal troops launched a minor probing attack on Johnson’s lines. With the help of their new abatis, the Stonewall Brigade assisted in easily repelling the attack. At the height of the firing, General Walker turned to Colonel Terry of the Fourth Virginia and triumphantly proclaimed, “If this be war, may it be eternal!”21 The attack repelled, Walker set his men to work digging a line of rifle pits between the brigade’s line and the McCoull House to their rear.22 Should an attack breach their entrenchments as Upton’s attack had done to Doles’ men the previous day, the Stonewall Brigade would have a strong position upon which to retire and hold the enemy until reinforcements could be brought up.
With the completion of the rifle pits, the Stonewall Brigade’s fortifications were complete, with Walker describing them as, “One of the very best lines of temporary ﬁeld works I ever saw. It was apparently impregnable”.23 The finished position was roughly 100 yards long and had ten traverses to prevent a Federal force that breached a portion of the line from firing down its length.24 The abatis in front of the line would slow any attack to allow the men additional time to fire. Behind the main entrenchments the secondary line of rifle pits provided a fallback position in case the enemy seized the main fortifications. Lieutenant Doyle later wrote how, once their line was complete, the men of the Stonewall Brigade “lay waiting and wishing for the enemy.”25
The day’s steady rain “continued all night making the trenches a most uncomfortable place,” wrote Lieutenant Doyle, “but thanks to the excellent tent-flies so abundantly supplied by the 6th Federal Corps in the Wilderness, the men were able to keep tolerably dry.”26 A third of the men were permitted to get some sleep, resting on their arms while the remainder remained at the breastworks.27
From the darkness, however, came ominous sounds. The metallic jingling of canteens and the sound of tramping feet suggested movement along the front of Johnson’s Division. Colonel Terry reported hearing the talk of massed Union troops and one Confederate staff officer claimed the noises from the darkness sounded like “distant falling water or machinery”.28 Soon after midnight on May 12th, Major General Edward Johnson sent word back to General Ewell that enemy forces were massing on his front for an attack. Preparations were quickly made to rush the Second Corps’ artillery, which had been withdrawn that evening in anticipation of potential movements by Grant, back into its positions supporting the infantry in their breastworks.29
The Wrecks of their Commands
A bit after four in the morning, the steady rain slowed to a light drizzle and then a heavy mist. Dense fog coated the battlefield, limiting visibility as the earliest dawn began to creep over the horizon.30 While still too dark to firmly make out objects, the sound of rapid shots suddenly burst from the woods where Johnson’s skirmishers were posted. In an instant the skirmishers quickly fell back to the fortifications, shooting as they retired and yelling out warnings that a heavy column of Federal troops was advancing. Chasing quickly on their heels came the heavy tramping sound of a large body of infantry and the sharp words of shouted commands for unseen battle lines to advance.31 Stonewall Brigade staff officer Captain Randolph Barton was sleeping when a courier sprinted up to Walker’s headquarters breathlessly shouting “General! They are coming!” A half-clothed General Walker ran from his tent yelling for his men to fall in and man the works.32
Walker rushed to the right flank of his brigade where the Fourth Virginia was posted. From the breastworks looking down the lines of Hays’ and Jones’ Brigades, he saw through a sudden break in the fog the 15,000 Federal soldiers of Major General Winfield S. Hancock’s II Corps, aligned in columns of brigades. The Federals were already a third of the distance across the open field. Seeing the impressive Confederate fortifications through the heavy mist for the first time, the blue-clad mass hesitated 400-500 yards from the Confederate lines.
Walker heard the officers of Hays’ Brigade call for their men to aim and then the order to fire rang down the line. However, “the searching damp had disarmed them,” reported Walker, “and instead of the leaping line of ﬁre and the sharp crack of the muskets came the pop! pop! pop! of exploding caps as the hammer fell upon them.”33 Sparred the deadly volley they had feared, Hancock’s ranks surged forward, tearing their way through the abatis and falling upon Hays’ men. To their right, the men of Jones’ Brigade managed a series of volleys, briefly checking the Federal advance on their position. But as Hays’ command melted away, the surging Union troops took Jones’ Brigade in the flank and rear. In the span of just minutes, the salient of Johnson’s position had melted away.34
The Stonewall Brigade quickly opened fire, directing their muskets at an oblique angle to fire into Hancock’s advance. Captain Barton described how, “A heavy mist overhung everything and through it we could hardly see one hundred yards. But succeeding the cheers, we, little by little perceived the advancing line, rather a broken line, but still an ugly rush. Our men opened a vigorous fire, and all along the line from our left and centre up to the right, where the fatal salient stood, some three hundred yards distant, the crack of musketry kept up.”35
While the Stonewall Brigade stood its ground, the roar of fire to their right intensified and began to work its way around towards the brigade’s rear. Lieutenant Doyle described how, “The noise and tumult of battle came nearer and nearer and balls commenced coming into the works…. The atmosphere was obscured by a thick fog which was increased in density by the smoke of the battle that, in the absence of any breeze, hung in heavy masses in the wood. The scene was terrible. The figures of the men seen dimly through the smoke and fog seemed almost gigantic, while the woods were lighted by the flashing of the guns and the sparkling of the musketry. The din was tremendous and increasing every instant. Men in crowds with bleeding limbs, and pale, pain-stricken faces, were hurrying to the rear, and, mingled with these could be seen many unwounded who had escaped from the wrecks of their commands.”36
Terrific Beyond Any Description
With the trenches to their right in enemy hands, Colonel Terry quickly ordered his regiment to reposition itself at a right angle to protect the brigade’s flank. As Hancock’s battle lines came surging forward, the Fourth Virginia opened fire. General Walker, on horseback, rode up and down behind his men, rallying them and urging them to keep up their fire. He paused for a moment on the traverse beside the right-most gun of Carrington’s Battery, where he could observe both his only lines and the advancing Federals. As Walker spoke with Captain Carrington, a minie ball smashed into Walker’s left arm, completely shattering his elbow and knocking him from his horse. Incapacitated by the wound, Walker was taken from the field.37
The men of the Stonewall Brigade fought on despite the loss of their general as their position became increasingly desperate. Private James McCown had joined the Fifth Virginia just over a month before the battle, having previously served as a provost guard in Staunton. “We were ordered to reserve our fire until near enough to tell on them with effect,” he later wrote, “then how warmly we gave it to them… It was terrific beyond any description. Every twig seemed cut down.”38 A member of the Fifth Virginia described how, “No sooner would a flag fall than another carrier who picked it up would be shot or bayoneted. Men were so close their heads were at the end of gun muzzles as they shot each other. When ammunition ran out or got wet they crushed each other’s skulls with gun butts.”39
Lieutenant Oliver H. Kite of the Thirty-Third Virginia, Company H claimed the mud-soaked fighting in the dense fog was the “most desperate of the war.”40 Private James Gaither of the Thirty-Third Virginia was struck in the eye by a ball and immediately fell dead among his comrades.41 Colonel Terry was wounded twice as his regiment tried to prevent the blue masses from sweeping down the line of the brigade.42 Lieutenant Doyle wrote how each traverse became “an Aceldema [field of blood], and the heaps of the Enemy’s dead told how stubborn had been the resistance to this fierce attack…. All that human courage and endurance would effect was done by these men on this frightful morning, but all was to no avail.”43
The flood was too much for the Stonewall Brigade to stem and the best they could do was buy precious time for the rest of Lee’s army to respond. Soon waves of Federals were striking the brigade’s front, right, and rear. In the melee, Major J. W. Welch of the 19th Maine Volunteers seized hold of the Thirty-Third Virginia’s battle flag and carried it from the field, despite being severely wounded himself.44 The Fifth Virginia was soon overrun. “We continued desperately,” recounted Private McCown, “not dreaming of capture until we were completely surrounded by overwhelming odds. The color bearer said they should not have our colors, so he tore it off and stuffed it in his bosom. As we were brought to the rear [as prisoners] we walked over their dead. They lie so thick in our front.”45
With large numbers of the brigade falling into enemy hands, the shattered remnants of the brigade began streaming for the rear. One member of the Thirty-Third Virginia recounted that all those who escaped at Spotsylvania “had to run for it” to survive.46 Much of the Fourth, Fifth, Twenty-Seventh, and Thirty-Third Virginia were trapped, while those who could fled with the Second Virginia.47
“Colonel Funk then told us if we did not get out of thare we would be all captured,” wrote William Brand in a letter penned to his future wife a few days after the battle. “Then we commenced retreating to our second line of works. & while I was crossing the field I was wounded [in the shoulder] I am very thankfull to the great & good God that I came out so well the air seemed filled with the laden mesangers of death.” Brand made his way to a field hospital to have his wound dressed. A few hours later he and the other wounded men were ordered to withdraw to Louisa Court House some thirty miles away. “I beged them to let me stay until the fight was [over] but they said I could be of no use & would just be in the way.”48
Not Worth a Cent
With the shattered remnants of the Stonewall Brigade and Johnson’s Division streaming for the rear, Lee rushed reinforcements in to seal off the breach and beat back the Federal tide. Confederate troops fought desperately to regain and hold the Mule Shoe entrenchments. Desperate combat raged throughout the day while Confederate engineers franticly constructed a new line of entrenchments across the base of the salient. Just after midnight on May 13th, the fighting mercifully ceased. The battered Confederate forces withdrew to their new line. The Union attackers had lost 9,000 men, while Confederate casualties were around 8,000 men killed, wounded, or captured. Fighting around Spotsylvania Courthouse would continue through May 19th, but the battle’s climax had passed. Grant’s attack had failed and Lee’s army was battered, bruised, but still defiant.
No part of Lee’s command was more battered than Johnson’s Division. Just a few weeks prior, the division had numbered over six thousand men. Over a third of the command were now prisoners of war and the division’s leadership was so devastated that Lee’s headquarters struggled to identify the ranking officer to assume command of the unit.49 “Our division has lost heavily in prisoners & wounded,” wrote Private Brand of the shattered command, “When we commenced fighting we had four Brigadeer Generals & one Maj Gen. now we have none able to command.”50 Johnson and Steuart had fallen into enemy hands early in the fighting, while Stafford and Jones were both killed, and Walker was badly wounded.
Walker’s command was just as decimated as the rest of the division. The brigade had numbered 3,000 strong at its peak several years prior. Of the roughly 900 men who marched to Spotsylvania Court House on May 8th, on May 13th only somewhere only around 200 were present to answer roll call.51 Of the brigade’s five regimental commanders, only Colonel Funk of the Fifth Virginia, who took command of the remnants of the brigade, and Major Stewart of the Second Virginia escaped unscathed. Colonel Terry of the Fourth and Lieutenant Colonel Huston of the Thirty-Third were both wounded, while the Twenty-Seventh Virginia’s Lieutenant Colonel Haynes was a Union prisoner.52
William Brand recounted the grim impact of the battle on his own Fifth Virginia, Company E: James Trusler and William Gardner had both been killed, Privates Newton Bare and Thomas Campbell had both died of their wounds, John Pilson had had his leg amputated above the knee, Private Samuel Lighter was wounded in the right hand, Private James Mays had been hit in the left side, Private Henry Hight had been shot in the right shoulder, Private William Abney had had his left ear shot away, Corporal James Trotter took a ball in the left thigh, and Corporal David Greaver had a painful wound in the foot. Another half dozen men were also wounded, while Sergeant James Vines, Private George Kelley, and a soldier named Sayton had fallen into enemy hands. Twenty-three members of his company were missing and likely prisoners. “The Yanks have fought with more desperation than they ever fought before,” he wrote, “Sometimes I can but cry. oh Lord, what demon has taken possession of the people that they are so thirsty for blood. Lord ease thare apatites.”53
A significant portion of the brigade were now prisoners of war. In Hancock’s official report of his corps’ attack he claimed that “the celebrated Stonewall Brigade was captured nearly entire.”54 Three months after the battle, the remnants of the Stonewall Brigade could muster just barely 300 men present, but over 1,900 remained on their rolls – large numbers of these missing men were in Federal prison camps after Spotsylvania Court House.55 Lieutenant Doyle was among those captured. He would later write of being marched from the trenches to a hollow a half mile to the rear. There, officers were separated from the enlisted men. The Confederate prisoners were guarded by a regiment of dismounted cavalry from Vermont, backed up by an artillery battery pointed directly at the prisoners. The Confederates were informed the cannons were double-shotted with canister, which “had a most wonderful effect in reconciling them to their miserable condition.”56 The captives would soon be marched farther to the rear and sent to northern prison camps, where most would remain for the rest of the war.
Two days after the disaster of May 12th, Lee’s headquarters issued Special Orders No. 126, officially consolidating the remnants of the Stonewall Brigade, Jones’ Brigade, and the Tenth, Twenty-Third, and Thirty-Seventh Virginia of Steuart’s Brigade into a single command.57 The new brigade numbered roughly 600 men, even after men who had been detailed as musicians, wagoneers, and pioneers were returned to the ranks.58 On May 21st, William Terry, still hampered by his wounds from the fierce fighting in the Mule Shoe, was promoted to brigadier general and placed in command of the unified brigade, which was assigned to the division led by Brigadier General John B. Gordon.59 Colonel Funk remained in command of the remnants of the Stonewall Brigade, which operated as one of three de facto regiments in Terry’s Brigade for the remainder of the war.
As the tattered remnants of the Stonewall Brigade marched away from Spotsylvania Court House, they passed a Georgian soldier who passed judgement on the once proud brigade; “The Stonewall Brigade is played out – not worth a cent.”60 The men of the command would fight on for almost another full year but, as General Walker later wrote, “On the 12th of May, 1864, in the Bloody Angle, the old brigade was annihilated, and its name faded from the rolls of the Army of Northern Virginia, but it will ever live on the rolls of fame, and history will record its deeds of glory.”61