Blackford at Seven Pines

by Fred Ray on August 24, 2016 · 0 comments

Johnston continued to retreat until he was literally under the spires of Richmond. On May 31 he finally made his move at Seven Pines. The flooded Chickahominy River had split the Union army, leaving two corps isolated south of the river, which Johnston planned to strike with nearly his entire force. While the plan was a good one, it was poorly executed. There was confusion in orders from the top down, unclear command relationships, and vague objectives. These problems, coupled with muddy roads and poor weather, led to a series of powerful but disjointed Confederate attacks.

Hill’s division drew the task of assaulting Casey’s Redoubt, the fortified lair of Maj. Gen. Silas Casey’s 6,000-man division. Through a confusion of orders Hill’s division attacked alone, with Rodes’s brigade  leading the attack over flooded fields and swamps. Hill’s other brigades were slow to support him. The attack was extremely bloody one, but ultimately Rodes and the two supporting brigades routed Casey’s men – the most inexperienced in the Union army – and took a battery of artillery inside the redoubt. They pushed through the camp put came up against a second Union line, where they were pinned down. Robert Rodes was wounded during the attack, and his men were left exposed to enemy fire for hours before Hill finally allowed them to withdraw. Confederate attacks continued all day in other areas of the battlefield, generating heavy casualties but accomplishing little.

After being on the periphery of First Manassas and Williamsburg, Rodes’ brigade had ended up in the thick of things at Seven Pines. On the afternoon of June 1 Blackford somehow manged to telegraph his family:

My dear Mother,

By a most wonderful providence I am thus far preserved. 22 out of 56 of my men taken into the battle yesterday were shot down. 18 were shot within 3 quarters of an hour, leaving but a few alive around me. I did my duty, and so did every man I have. I had not one straggler a thing unprecedented in war, all stood by me to the last.

Eugene

209 of our Regt. killed & wounded, 88 missing. I had 3 bullets thro’ my clothes, & one cut off my haversack –

The next day he followed up with a letter with the details.

…. at 11 A.M. we moved forward, and at 1 P.M. came upon the enemy’s works by a flank movement made thro’ a swamp 1½ miles broad, the water & mud of which was knee deep. The Yankees were unprepared for an attack here and the surprise was complete. As soon as we emerged from the swamp 1/2 of a mile in front of the Redoubt & camp they opened on us with canister & grape which caused us to lie down for a while. Here I took a prisoner a picket I suppose. I made him give his Enfield rifle & accoutrements to one of my men, and then started him at double quick for the rear, telling him that I would blow out his brains if he swerved an inch to the right or left. He was very grateful and soon entered our lines. I lost four men wounded here by shell.

Presently the word to charge came, and charge we did, thro’ the abatis  and thro’ mud, when within 100 yds. of the works the enemy ran and we entered their camp & fort & immediately turned their guns upon them. While passing thro’ the heavy timber of the abatis, our whole left wing & 2 companies of the right became separated from us by some distance. I took command of the rest & led them up I formed them on the fort where soon afterwards the whole battalion joined us, the color was then in the hands of the fourth corpl. of the guard 3 had been shot down in the charge.

After staying in the redoubt about ½ an hour we formed outside & were again ordered to charge and here the great blunder was made. The enemy had good cover, from wh. they could not be driven nor was it desirable to do so. We went forward at the run & lay down within 30 yards of the Yankee line who opened a murderous fire upon us, which we were unable to return with good effect as they were behind logs & we were in an open field – while lying so a regt. of ours made a flank movement and occupied the edge of the cover in front so as to mask all the companies of the regiment except mine (the right) and the next on the left we were there exposed to a tremendous fire for nearly an hour, which killed and wounded 15 of the 47 men I then had by me. I could have put my hand on half a dozen as I lay who were killed or wounded. If one raised his hand even he received a ball so continuous was the discharge that the hiss of the balls over our heads was continuous the poor fellows when hit, would call on me, and upon receiving encouragement from me became perfectly quiet.

Not one man flinched under the terrible trial, save once, when a bullet having struck my haversack where the straps joins a man exclaimed The Capt. wounded? and a movement was commenced, but I called out and all became quiet again. I was perfectly calm under the fire, and prayed to God to avert the storm from me & my men. I had the utmost confidence that he would & I was preserved tho’ the collar of my coat received three bullets my haversack another. Finally the men on our left began to fall back, bidding my men be quiet I told them to wait until I heard the order, all said they wd. stand by me. To my joy I saw the Col. signal me, and off we started. We soon rallied behind the redoubt again. I left 10 wounded severely & 5 killed where we had lain! In the charge with enemy I obtained a fine sword, the blade is a beauty also the most complete haversack I ever saw tis the admiration of all.

Rodes’s brigade had performed well in its first real combat, but at enormous cost, losing 1100 of its 2200 men. The 6th Alabama was hardest hit with a staggering 60% loss with the 12th not far behind with 50%, including their colonel, Robert T. Jones. The 5th Alabama, while far from unscathed, was relatively lucky to lose only a third of its men—30 killed and 195 wounded (sixteen of whom died of their wounds). Of the regiment’s company commanders, only Blackford and two others remained unhurt.

It was a sobering introduction to the realities of war. Blackford closed his letter thusly:

I shall draw a veil forever over the events of Saturday—its horrors will be ever before me I fear. Much nonsense is written about battles and their excitement. I should not say it but our Regt has covered itself with glory. […] is due us. I saw none […] so well. Loss killed & wounded 209, missing 28. 550 only carried into battle.

 

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Retreat from Williamsburg

by Fred Ray on July 29, 2016 · 0 comments

McClellan continued to bring up his heavy siege guns to the Yorktown line, and on the night of May 3, 1862, Johnston withdrew toward Richmond rather than risk a battle. Blackford wrote his mother:

At 8 o’clock the whole Army moved quickly out of the works. I, with my company, was left to support the pickets when they should come in. I was there left behind, our whole Army keeping perfect silence. I soon became aware that the enemy were apprised of our movements, and were already deployed in the field opposite our works, waiting to come in. After an interval of about 2½ hours our advanced pickets fell back & formed on me, and cautioning the men as to silence we moved off with rear, each man holding his canteen to prevent its rattling. After moving slowly about ½ a mile our aid met me with orders to double quick, whereupon we struck the run and soon left Yorktown far in the rear.

The retreat, as was so often case in those early days, was marred by poor planning and staff work.

No halt was made until 12 o’clk the next day when we bivouacked 2 miles beyond Williamsburg. The Artillery and wagon trains delayed us constantly, some times we would not move ½ mile an hour tho’ on our feet the whole time. At 2 AM Monday morning we were on the road and after standing under arms until 8 o’clock in a hard rain we were ordered to stack and await orders.

Finally, just outside of Williamsburg, the Confederates turned to fight a rear guard action.

So we stood until 2 pm—when the battle of Wmsburg became general, and we were ordered up. Just before entering the town we all piled knapsacks & overcoats, and thus lightly equipped we passed thro’ the town into the battle. Have you ever heard the expression ‘the light of battle,’ this was plainly visible upon the face of every man as the ladies would wave their handkerchiefs & address encouraging words to the men. I never saw such a scene & never expect to see such another. Some women were upon their knees, some waving handkerchiefs, while most of them were giving water to the poor wounded fellows who were coming from the fight.

Much to their chagrin, however, the 5th Alabama and Rodes’ brigade were once more simply spectators to the battle. To add to their woes they were simply left where they stood, then marched off without an rest whatsoever.

There we were forced to stand in ankle deep mud until 3 AM Tuesday morning, being unable to sit at all and exposed all the while to a cold wind & rain. You can scarcely realize how we suffered. I can’t now recall it—tis strange that some things should be in the midst of civilization, if we could have lain or sat down it would have been a great relief but it was impossible owing to the depth of the mud. At 3 we moved off & continued the march without any thing to eat until 5 in the evening-we were off again at day and marched until 2 o’clock the next morning, again up at day and marched until after dark. The extra ordinary depth of the mud caused us to move so slowly that 2 miles an hour was our best speed. No true account of the battle has reached you—tis a far great loss on both sides than at Manassas, and will not fall short of 2,000, the enemy’s 4000. Our men never fought so well—tis the great regret of my life that I was unable to go in. I have always been willing but was never so disappointed in my life before. The scene in Wmsburg stirred up strange & novel emotions within me. I had 90 men with me, and I would not have hesitated to charge & rout any one Yankee regiment.

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Sir Joseph Whitworth and His Deadly Rifles

by Fred Ray July 3, 2016

My article about Joseph Whitworth and his rifles is up on the Shock Troops web site. It originally appeared in the December 2010 issue of Civil War Times. In 1854, at the request of the British Board of Ordnance, Whitworth turned his attention to firearms, specifically the Enfield P53 .577 caliber service rifle, which he […]

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Blackford at Yorktown

by Fred Ray June 16, 2016

Johnston’s army arrived on the Virginia Peninsula and established a line at the Warwick River to block McClellan’s advance. Blackford and his men scrambled to adjust to the novelty of a continuous contact with the Federals. On April 22nd Blackford wrote his parents from “Curtain to Redoubt No. ‘4’ near Yorktown, Va.”, first apologizing for […]

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The Army Moves South

by Fred Ray June 9, 2016

After an uneventful winter on the Potomac front the Confederates abruptly pulled back to the line of the Rappahannock on March 9, which completely unhinged McClellan’s strategy of landing at Urbanna to outflank them. Blackford describes the move, which makes it clear that the Confederates had much to learn about moving an army. His company […]

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Blackford Takes a Look at His Superiors

by Fred Ray May 8, 2016

Blackford’s pithy observations were not limited to the generals. He also was not shy about criticizing his immediate superiors, such as the recently elected Colonel Jones (who was in fact 49 years old) or the other Colonel Jones of the 12th Alabama. This letter to his mother, written on February 20th, 1862, also details the […]

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Lincoln at Fort Stevens—Could A Rifle Have Hit Him?

by Fred Ray May 3, 2016

British shooter Michael Yardley participated in a Discovery Channel special for their Unsolved History series, “The Plots to Kill Lincoln.” One of these plots was the shot taken at him by a Confederate sharpshooter at Fort Stevens on July 11 or 12, 1864 during Jubal Early’s raid. The question was if it was realistic to […]

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