One hundred and fifty years ago this morning, on a cloudy Thursday, the Army of Northern Virginia fought its last battle.
It was little more than a skirmish, actually, though it extinguished Humphreys’ Mississippi Brigade and most of the 13th Regiment. Then, it was forgotten by almost everyone, in favor of Lee’s famous surrender at Appomattox three days later. Historians ever after generally dismissed Saylor’s Creek with a few sentences, and most of them continue to do so.
It was worth a lot more than that to the survivors.
It began when all but a handful of the few score remaining soldiers of the 13th Regiment, among thousands more from the rest of Lee’s army, were pinned on a hillside across a marshy stream by Union cavalry commanded by Gen. George Armstrong Custer.
They had gotten into the box in a roundabout way, through a series of delays brought on by their half-starved condition and much straggling and its consequent disorganization.
The 13th, and the rest of Kershaw’s division was still nominally a part of Longstreet’s Corps, but Longstreet had taken Field’s division to Petersburg and retreated with it west from there. Farther north, Kershaw’s division of three greatly-diminished Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina brigades, had retreated through Richmond and joined up with Ewell’s Corps, mainly reservists, artillerymen-turned-infantry, and sailors and marines from the scuttled James River fleet. They had all trudged west together through a steady rain. Both the north and south wings of the army of about 35,000 soldiers converged on Amelia Courthouse on Wednesday, April 5.
It was less marching than a kind of semi-organized straggling. Historian Joseph T. Glatthaar: “Their physical deterioration from poor conditioning prevented thousands from keeping up…Thousands dropped out of the retreat march, some falling into Yankee hands and others working their way toward home.”
“We stopped at Amelia all the morning,” recalled artillery commander Porter Alexander, “reorganizing commands & waiting for the rear to close up.”
A planned prepositioning of rations, much anticipated by men retreating on empty stomachs, was nowhere to be found. The troops spent most of the rest of the day hunting for food for themselves and forage for their horses and mules but without much success in a country stripped bare after four years of invasion and war.
Kershaw’s division was at the rear of the retreat. When they approached the Appomattox River, which was in flood stage from spring rains, no pontoon bridges were available and, Glatthaar reports, they “had to trudge southward and plank the Richmond & Danville Railroad bridge to cross.”
All the delays gave Union Cavalry General Phillip Sheridan plenty of time to get jis troopers ahead of Lee’s retreating army and flank and funnel all of it eastward.
“The march was resumed soon after dark and kept up all night,” wrote
13th21st Mississippi Regiment memoirist J.S. McNeilly in 1913. “But delayed by transportation trains, artillery, and the attempts of the Federal cavalry to break in on them, daylight found the command only a few miles from Amelia Courthouse.
“The morning of the fateful 6th of April found the retreating troops in pretty bad shape—tired, sleepy, and oh! so hungry! In such condition the straggling was bad, and would have been worse but for the proximity of the Union cavalry and the apprehension of Northern prisons.”
The dawn skies were cloudy and threatening more rain, when they reached marshy Saylor’s Creek. There was an extended halt which lasted for several hours.
Historian Robert K. Krick: “Federal cavalry were in front with the road blocked.”
Before they could decide how to proceed, Glattner summarized, “a combination of Union infantry, artillery and cavalry enveloped both Confederate flanks and utterly crushed them. [Generals] Anderson, Pickett and Bushrod Johnson escaped. Ewell stayed behind trying to rally his whipped men, and fell into Union hands.”
But as McNeilly remembered it for the Mississippi Historical Society, the crushing came after the cornered troops put up a stiff fight, killing and wounding scores of Yankees. He said a defense line was thrown out on the south side of the creek, across the Deatonsville Road.
Kershaw stationed the Mississippi Brigade “now of less than four hundred men, commanded by Lieut. Col. Fitzgerald , on some high ground north of the creek, to check the enemy’s advance as long as possible.
“This rear guard was assailed immediately and vigorously in front and on both flanks….When the brigade was forced back, Col. Fitzgerald took another position, where, with a few men, he held back the advance until surrounded and captured, that the brigade might withdraw across the creek without disorder or disaster.”
Which could have been pretty hard, such a withdrawal, because as he goes on to say, the marshy creek was then waist deep and had steep banks.
“The conflict was so close that a Federal officer rushing to the front to seize the colors of the 21st Mississippi, fell as he was shot, at the feet of the slayer.”
Another Union officer on horseback was more successful, until his horse was killed and the flag recovered. “…[T]he colors were recovered by color bearer Trescott,” McNeilly wrote,“and burned by him that night, as were the colors of the 13th.”
There were other versions of what happened to the 13th Regiment’s last of several battle flags, in addition to McNeilly’s assertion that it was destroyed. One is that of Corporal Charles Derille Eastland of the Winston Guards. He offered his story of what happened to the flag in a letter to Confederate Veteran magazine long after the war.
“‘If the Federal soldier who captured the flag of the 13th Mississippi Regiment April 6, 1865, in the battle of Harper’s Farm or Sailor’s Creek will write to me,” Eastland wrote, “I shall be glad to tell him who shot him through the right shoulder as he ran off with the flag.”
A third version is that the banner was taken from its staff, folded and secreted under the shirt of a 13th Regiment soldier at Saylor’s Creek and survived the war with him. That one makes the most sense, because a tattered 13th Regiment battle flag was preserved at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson. Independent historian Jess McLean photographed it for the cover of his history of the regiment. And a portion of the photograph forms the top of the home page of this blog.
According to McNeilly the deadly capture-the-flag business soon ended and “Maj. Costan, of Gen. Kershaw’s staff, rode up and called for the firing to cease, as all were surrounded and had been surrendered.”
McNeilly goes on to say that the 13th’s Captain Hugh D. Cameron, originally a private in the Alamutcha Infantry, who was “the only one of the four regimental commanders unwounded, commanded the brigade when it was finally rounded up.” He said Lieut. Col. Fitzgerald was severely wounded, which apparently was why Cameron had assumed command. They both survived the war.
Among the captured soldiers of the 13th Regiment, for whom McLean was able to find records, were Captain Slyvanus Jackson Quinn of the Secessionists, the regimental brass band’s original drum major; Privates William Henry Hailey and Wilson West of the Kemper Legion; Private Charles Wesley Kendall of the Spartan Band; and 2nd Lieutenant Marcet R. Watkins of the Newton Rifles. But there must have been a few score others for whom records no longer exist.
Glatthaar concludes: “The Saylor’s Creek disaster marked the beginning of the very end for Lee’s army. Not only did it lose 8,000 men and large numbers of guns and wagons, but the battle was emblematic of the collapse of the army’s fighting prowess.”
McNeilly admitted as much: “…the sole ray of light that relieved the gloom of being prisoners of war, was that we were also ‘prisoners of hope’—the hope of a square meal. But that hope was dissolved in disappointment and a rainy night.”