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Diary of S.D. Ramseur's chief of staff

(Chief of Staff, Ramseur's Brigade)

On the 2nd of May, 1864 the Brigade to which I am attached, (As Chief of Staff, then commanded by Brig. Gen. S.D. Ramseur, broke up winter quarters near Orange C.H. and moved down the Rapid Anna, a stream dividing the counties of Orange and Culpepper, either side of which had been respectively picketed by the two armies during the entire winter. On that day, the quiet which had so long and agreeably prevailed was unbroken.

May 3rd - Evidences of uneasiness upon the park of the enemy were apparent early in the morning, and during the day immense wagon trains were visible from the eminences moving circuitously to our right, a sure prognostic that Grant, who had been elevated to the extraordinary rank of Lieut. General and assigned to the command of the Army of the Potomac, was on the eve of inaugurating that great campaign upon which the yankee press and public, with blatant exultation were building such extravagant expectations of success.

May 4th - Further evidences, such as the smoke of distant fires indicating the burning of winter quarters, etc. and the reduction of the picket lines in our front, increase the certainty that the enemy is on the move for some of the lower fords of the river with a view of crossing. Gen. Lee with that wonderful military prescience which enables him to anticipate the designs of his adversary has already put the army in motion in that direction, but our brigade is ordered to remain and guard Morton's Ford in order to prevent the possibility of a demonstration in our rear.

May 5th - The enemy being found this morning to have entirely disappeared from our front, the brigade proceeded at once in the wake of the rest of the army. En route, the sullen booming of artillery and the rattle of musketry in the distance announced that the enemy had really effected a crossing at Germana Ford in overwhelming force (which subsequent lights justify us in estimating at nearly 200,000 men of all arms of service) and that hostilities had finally commenced -- that the carnival of blood had again set in, and that the passions and excitement and horrors of strife, which had slept through many months of quiet within the bosoms of our rude winter homes were again to burst forth in all their demoniac fury. On reaching a point in what is known as the Wilderness and Spottsylvania - classic and bloody ground since those and the days of Chancellorsville -- some 6 miles beyond Locust Grove, the partial scene of Meade's abortive Mine Run operations of the preceding year, the first signs of conflict began to meet our gaze. Many of our own wounded and large numbers of the wounded and captives of the enemy were being brought to the rear and the mangled dead were profusely scattered around. The enemy pressing forward confident of surprise and success had been met and brilliantly repulsed by A.P. Hill's and a portion of Ewell's corps, thanks to the wondrous military genius and intuition of our consummate leader, and the dauntless intrepidity of our gallant troops. The enemy's loss in this engagement was tremendous and fearful, and the victorious first fruits of the campaign were lavishly poured by Providence into the laps of Confederate prowess. Gen. Lee is described as having led a charge in person this memorable day, awakening the intensest ardor and enthusiasm among his troops. Of course, we arrived too late to participate in this engagement. In a part of the field fell this day my friend and connection Walker Anderson, Ordnance officer of Cooke's brigade, slain while at the front with ammunition for the command. He lived and died a Christian gentleman. . .

May 6 - We lay in line of battle this day in momentary anticipation of a renewal of the conflict but naught but severe skirmishing on our part of the line ensued until a late hour of the night when the brigade made a dash against the position held by Burnside's 9th Corps, driving it pell-mell to the utter abandonment of arms, knapsacks, blankets and other spoils. In this Corps were several companies of Indians from Michigan (such are the heterogeneous elements of which the Yankee armies are composed, embracing as many nationalities as congregated in Jerusalem at the time of the showering of the Pentecostal fire) who left behind them some of the peculiar trophies of their tribe, from the wampum belt to the beaded moccasin.

May 7 - Grant abandons his dead and wounded and retreats to his extended lines between the Wilderness and Higg's Mills, nearly co-incident with the Brock road leading from the former to Spottsylvania C.H.

May 8 - Skirmishing and Grant retreats towards Fredericksburg. Anderson commanding Longstreet's corps attacks the 5th Corps and Warren's cavalry near Spottsylvania C.H., inflicting heavy punishment and loss; and, later in the day, our division (Rodes) arriving on the ground, make a gallant charge, rapidly driving the enemy, and confirming the general success of the day. Our own losses were but slight..

May 9 - Both sides employed in entrenching and fortifying lines. Considerable skirmishing prevailed.

May 10 - We were attacked in our entrenchments by the enemy who were ultimately repulsed with immense slaughter, their dead strewing the ground for acres. At one time their heavily massed columns succeeded in breaking through a salient on the right of the position held by our brigade and occupied by Daniel's and Doles' brigades, and rushing through the breach thus made with an impetuous onset for a few moments poured a dreadful fire into the rear and flank of those brigades. It was a crisis of dreadful suspense and for a brief interval the worst fears prevailed. The excellent practice of our artillery, however, and the prompt arrival of this brigade and other troops at the point of danger soon turned the tide, and the briefly jubilant foe, inflamed with momentary success and whiskey were hurled as by a thunderbolt back to their own lines with a fearful penalty upon their temerity. Maj. James Iredell, my fellow townsman and college classmate was killed in this affair and the same night by the light of a torch and beneath the silence of the stars, I assisted in committing his body to a soldier's rude grave, marking the spot for the future identification of his relatives and friends.

May 10 [11]- Heavy skirmishing.

May 12 - Great battle of Spottsylvania C.H. At a very early hour of the morning, long ere

The heavenly harnessed team

Began his yellow progress in the East

Grant attacks our lines with densely massed columns, frequently five and six lines deep, at first owing to the thickness of the fog and suddenness of the onset, breaking over a part, capturing several thousand men of Johnson's division, and communicating a temporary panic to other portions of the field. Confidence, however, was soon restored, officers and men alike appreciating the necessity of retaking the captured lines to prevent general disaster. I shall never forget the scene of confusion that immediately succeeded this abrupt success of the enemy's demonstration. The scattered fugitives, the mingled shouts of enquiry and of apprehension, the multitudinous voices of command and entreaty, the faces of anxiety and dismay, the cries of the wounded, and the perpetual fusillades of musketry, made up a tour ensemble of the wildest character, which the obscuring mists of morning tended to intensify and exaggerate. Now it was that this brigade was called upon to lead a charge, which was made with a decision and an elan that has immortalized it in the Army of Northern Virginia, and which has even been celebrated in European correspondent's accounts of the doing and deeds of daring of this fearful day. Rising as one man with bayonets in charge and with a yell that rent the very conclave the lines rushed forward. Thro' the lifting fog the stars and stripes were seen waving over the captured works and the glittering steel of the foemen in serried phalanx arrayed. Heedless of the deep gaps made in their ranks as they were plowed by the merciless missiles of death, and deaf as it were to the shrieks of dying and wounded comrades as thick and fast they fell, onward pressed that gallant line of heroes -- onward and over all intervening obstacles -- onward thro' hissing shot and screaming shell -- onward towards the already wavering enemy -- onward after their now broken columns -- onward into the regained intrenchments -- onward to victory and then, with shout after shout which distant friends watching the result with intensest eagerness, repeated and the hills and valleys re-echoed, once again the battle cross of stars was planted on the ramparts! Several abortive efforts were made by the enemy subsequently during the day to retake the position, but they were each time easily and effectively repulsed. All along the lines the engagement was general throughout the long long day, but I can only pretend to describe the part enacted by my own brigade in the terrible and bloody drama. Its losses were heavy and conspicuous and many of its best and bravest spirits fell that day to rise no more until the trumpet of the Resurrection morn shall summon them before the great Captain! Nor shall I essay to paint the sanguinary horrors of the field, the scenes of wild, tumultuous, diabolic strife. This I have attempted in previous description and in its general incidents and concomitants, one great battle is like every other. I shall only say that the enemy was repulsed at all points, and that while our own loss was severe, that of the yankees was from the very nature of the conflict immeasurably greater; and that night most welcome visitant found us with our lines entire and intact in every particular. I amy here remark that Grant whose brutal recklessness and indifference to human life has won for him the damning soubriquet of the "butcher" is estimated up to this night to have lost at least 40,00 of his grand army!

I must record an effecting incident of the day. Private Disdale Stepp, company F, 14th N.C.V. (my old regiment) in that memorable charge was conspicuous for his gallantry. Advancing with the line, undaunted by the perils that environed him and inspired by a lofty patriotism, he was chanting the "Bonnie Blue Flag" above the roar of musketry. Still singing and firing as he went, a death shot felled him in the midst of the lofty refrain, and let us trust that the National Lyric as it died on his lips was converted into one of the swelling anthems of Redemption.

Much rain had fallen throughout the day, and during the weary and sleepless hours of the night, exhausted and shivering we lay in the muddy and bloody trenches while the air was rent with moans of the wounded. The sharpshooters of the enemy (to add to the discomfort) had attained a position from which they were enabled to enfilade our position of the line, and all night they kept up a continuous stream of fire over our heads so that it was hazardous in the extreme to raise up even for the purpose of shifting our uneasy position.

- Our Living & Our Dead

Feb. 4, 1874

p. 2 col. 2-4

May 13 - We were relieved from our position in the trenches just before day. The removal was attended with some great loss. We were transferred to our interior line and had a day of comparative rest, but it still rained. The terribly crippled enemy evinced no inclination to renew the assault.

May 14 - Grant moved his lines by the left flank, taking position nearer the Richmond and Fredericksburg R.R. Brig. Gen. Daniel, who was wounded on the 12th, died to day. He was my first regimental commander and my ancient schoolmate.

May 15 - A comparative degree of quite appearing -- the Sabbath. Divine Services were commenced in the brigade but they were interrupted by an order to go forward for the purpose of making a reconnaissance. The advance was made over a good portion of the battlefield of the 12th and the spectacle which presented itself was enough to appall the most --- heart and shock the stoutest nerves. The unsepulcured and blackened corpses -- the dead and distended bodies, the scattered paraphernalia of battle, the intolerable stench -- were

As an evidence of the fearful nature of the enfilade fire which the enemy's sharpshooters had on our lines n the night of the 12th, large trees were found to be cut down

May 16 - The brigade moved to the right some distance, near the scene of Anderson's engagement with the enemy on the 8th and 12th. Their dead were mostly unburied and the stench beggared description. Heavy rain fell.

May 17 - Quiet during the day, but just before night the brigade was ordered to make another reconnaissance. We found the enemy strongly entrenched in our front and partially engaged them, but under the circumstances, it was deemed prudent to retire, which we did with very slight loss.

May 18 - Grant attempted an assault, under cover of a terrific cannonading, on Ewell's line but was easily repulsed. His loss was considerable. I do not remember to have seen more shocking mutilation than the dead along our front exhibited from the effects of our well directed artillery.

May 19 - Ewell's corps (this brigade, of course, included) advanced some two miles to ascertain the whereabouts of the enemy, who were reported to have drawn off from our front. We encountered and engaged them, in force, near the river Ni, (one of the four confluents that make up the Mataponi) and a brisk and spirited battle ensued, which lasted through several hours. We drove the yankees very handsomely for some distance, killing and wounding a large number, but reinforcements reaching them our further progress was stayed. Our loss was not heavy, considering the animated and hotly contested nature of the engagement. At night we quietly retired under cover of an Egyptian darkness, regaining our original lines, wet and exhausted, about midnight, when we threw ourselves on the cold, damp ground and slept until morning.

May 20 - This day, the anniversary of the secession of North Carolina, and the succeeding one, (May 21) wore away in agreeable quiet.

May 22 - Grant again moves by the left flank, via Guinea Station, etc. towards Hanover Junction, and Gen. Lee, at once appreciating his designs, promptly moves his army by the right flank in the same direction.

May 23 - Reached the vicinity of the Junction and took position on the North Anna river, near Dodwell's Farm. In the afternoon, the enemy (whose route had been a longer and more circuitous one) appeared in sight, and a lively artillery duel at once ensued. Some of the enemy's shell were thrown with a remarkable accuracy and precision.

May 24 - After but little sleep moved and took position in reserve near the railroad, which was again changed for the front in the afternoon. Heavy cannonading through the day, and our new position where we had thrown up breastworks, was subjected to another galling and annoying enfilade fire. At times our sharpshooters did remarkably good execution among the enemy. Rain at intervals through the day and night, and, being without shelter or blankets, the hours wore off wearily and uncomfortably. It is wonderful how much the human constitution can stand when once enured to hardship.

May 25 - Comparative quiet, with some skirmishing.

May 26 - Heavy and continuous rains beating pitilessly upon our unprotected heads and inundating the trenches. A brisk skirmish just before night commenced by the yankees indicated the probability of an attack the next morning, but early on

May 27 - it was ascertained that they had disappeared during the night -- Grant having moved by the inevitable left flank after realizing that the Hanover Junction route was full as likely to provide a "hard road to travel" as the one through the Wilderness and via Spottsylvania. Enjoyed an elegant breakfast of fresh beef, abandoned by the yankees, roasted on the coals -- elegant because for weeks we had eaten nothing but salt meat. Gen. Lee at once penetrated that Grant's design was to make for the Pamunkey and the Peninsula and took prompt and immediate steps to thwart and countermet him as usual. About 10 o'clock we took up the line of march through Taylorsville on the Richmond and Fredericksburg R.R., crossing the Little and South Anna rivers, passing near Hanover C.H. and Ashland and on to a point within 12 miles of Richmond where we bivouacked for the night.

May 28 - Resumed march at 3 o'clock a.m. Gen. Ewell, on account of failing health, having relinquished the command of the corps, Gen. Early was assigned it and Gen. Ramseur to the command of Early's division so that the command of the brigade devolved upon Col. R.T. Bennett, 14th N.C.T. Halted about mid-day for position at the junction of the roads leading to Old Church on the Pamunkey and Mechancsville, remaining there through the day and night.

May 29 - Changed position slightly by extending some distance to the right. The enemy again appear in force.

May 30 - Skirmishing along the lines thro the morning. In the afternoon the division executed a flank movement, striking the enemy in the vicinity of Bethesda Church, where a hot engagement ensued in which the brigade, as usual, bore a gallant and conspicuous part, suffering quite severely. It moved forward under a destructive fire from a woody crest in which the enemy were posted, with a -- that were admirable to behold and that elicited the highest encounters from the General officers on the field. And I may take occasion to say here, once for all, after more than three years experience in the army and a close observation of its material, that no better brigade is to be found in the armies of the Confederacy, whether regard be made to its fighting qualities, its invaluable reliability, good discipline. or the general intelligence of the noble fellows who compose it, or rather, perhaps, I should say, have composed it, for most of its original members have either been killed or disabled for service. Let those who have fallen live in our most cherished memories, and let the survivors receive the homage of our admiration, and the tribute of their country's gratitude.

The yankees were driven very handsomely, to a point where there was an open field commanded and swept by their artillery, across which it was deemed unadvisable to advance. A considerable number of prisoners were taken. At dark we fell back. It devolved upon me to withdraw our line of skirmishers, which I did with great necessary silence and caution, under cover of the blackest darkness about midnight.

May 31 - Enjoyed a day of grateful rest under the shade of an oak in a family burying ground in the immediate rear of our lines. At dark, however, we were again ordered to shift position, involving another sleepless night.

June 1 - Skirmishing in our front, while Hoke was hotly and successfully engaged on our right.

June 2 - We execute another flank movement and have another severe fight, coming upon the enemy in their entrenchments and driving them out with considerable loss. We occupied their lines, but were subjected to one of the worst cannonadings I ever experienced, except the memorable one at Gettysburg. Solid shot, shell, grape, canister, spherical case -- every conceivable projectile of death that can be hurled from the satanic throats of the monstrous engines of war -- were mercilessly showered around us, and the works being imperfect and defective, a number of casualties resulted.

I have never so forcibly and palpably realized the power and mercy of God -- my preservation as on this day. A huge shell exploded in the midst of a group in which I was sitting, wounding several, killing two outright (one of them a nice little fellow, a former orderly of mine, Hancock by name) scattering brains and blood over my person with no other injury to myself than a momentary deafness and the concussion and confusion from the shock. Rain all night and again but little sleep. Indeed, aside from the discomforts of the weather, the situation was rather too critical ????

- Our Living and Our Dead

Feb. 11, 1874

p. 3 col. 1-3

June 3 - A bad rainy morning, and the enemy (5th and 9th corps) still but a few hundred yards in front. Continuous skirmishing. Col. Bennett being wounded by a chance shot, the command of the brigade devolved upon Col. Cox, 2nd N.C.T. Gen. Doles, a gallant and skillful officer was killed this day.

I record here an incident which I witnessed, which illustrates the callousness to scenes of death which characterizes the soldier, accustomed almost hourly to such experiences. A group were standing shivering around the fire and engaged in warming their rations upon the coals. A chance ball from the enemy's sharpshooters struck one in the back of the head, killing him instantly, and he fell backward. The occupation of the rest was not interrupted! Several were picked off in this manner during the day by these solidary insidious bullets, whose isolated screech as they cut the air is so unerring. There is something inspiring in loud sounds, in the combined volleys of musketry, the clash of sabres, or the roar of artillery, but the low rushing whir of a single bullet is so disproportionate to the fatal certainty of the death it carries that it resembles in effect the cautious tread of the midnight murderer.

At night we fell back to our original lines. On various portions of the field fighting had been progressing throughout the day and the result in every quarter were reported to us as having been very satisfactory.

June 4 - A day of quiet of which I availed myself to communicate with my dear ones at home.

June 5- Raining all through the previous night. Col. Cox received certification of his promotion to a Brigadier Generalcy. (I take this occasion to say that my official and personal intercourse with this gentleman was always of the most pleasant character. A brave and high toned officer, and a chivalrous gentleman he merited his promotion and adorned his rank.

The exposures and excitement of the last month are beginning to tell upon me, and there being every indication of quiet, I went to the rear, feeling unwell for medicine and repose.

June 6 - The enemy disappeared from our immediate front, supposed to be again moving by the left. We go forward for a couple of miles to reconnoitre, but developing nothing, return and encamp in a body of woods on the Mechanicsville pike.

June 7 - the first time in thirty two days that we have been out of line of battle or without skirmishers deployed. Went to the division hospital sick.

June 8 - A tranquil one for the army and a sick one for me.

June 9 - Reported for duty, learning that the brigade was going to move, which it did for two or three miles to the right, and in the neighborhood of Gaines' Mill without however going into line of battle.

June 10, 11, 12- the brigade remained quiet en bivouac and a greater portion of the time I sojourned at the hospital, returning to camp on the last mentioned day, somewhat improved.

June 13 - Roused at 2 o'clock a.m. and the entire corps put in motion. . .

Our Living and Our Dead

Feb. 18, 1874

p. 2 col. 5-6

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