Company H during the War Between the States
Following the bombardment and capture of Fort Sumter on April 12-13, 1861, young men in the North and South flocked to the forming ranks of their new armies. Virginia adopted an ordinance of secession on April 17. This was soon followed on May 3 by a call for volunteers by Governor John Letcher.
In King William County, northeast of Richmond, the original members of the Mattaponi Guards organized. On July 26 at West Point, the company officially enlisted for one year of service, under the leadership of their first captain, William George Pollard. He would hold this post until his death over a year later, from wounds received at Sharpsburg. Before becoming Company H, the Mattaponi Guards were Company D of Harrison Ball Tomlin's Battalion. Tomlin spent much of 1861 drilling and organizing his command in preparation for what looked to be a long war, after the Confederate victory at Manassas(Bull Run) in late July did not end the conflict, as some expected or hoped.
The 53rd Virginia was organized in November and December of 1861, when Tomlin's Battalion merged with Captain George Waddill's Company, the Charles City Southern Guards, and with Major Edgar B. Montague's Battalion. This latter organization took part in the first major land action of the war at Big Bethel on June 10. Although the size of a skirmish compared to later battles, these men were able to claim a victory in the first real fight of the war.
On December 1, the 53rd's organization was complete, with Tomlin as colonel, Montague the lieutenant colonel, and Waddill major. The regiment, organized as companies A-I, were made up of men primarily from King William, Charles City, Halifax, Pittsylvania, Prince Edward, and New Kent counties. They remained under the overall command of John B. Magruder, standing guard on the Virginia Peninsula.
As 1862 dawned, the newly organized 53rd Virginia found itself fragmented. For the first few months of the year, it was spread out along different positions of the Confederate defensive line near Yorktown, across the Virginia Peninsula. In early March, the Regiment was finally consolidated.
Around this same time, the 53rd was included in a secretive order by the War Department for 5,000 troops to move into Suffolk. The 53rd boarded boats at King's Mill Wharf, near Jamestown, and took the trip to City Point. From there, the unit moved by rail to Suffolk. They would remain in the Southeastern Virginia/Northeastern North Carolina region from March 9 to about May 23. During this period, the Regiment mainly performed picket duty and some small scale raids, including the bombardment of the railroad bridge over the Blackwater River at Zuni. Also during this time, officer elections were held. Of note, Colonel Tomlin was elected to stay on as the leader of the Regiment.
While the 53rd marched in circles near Suffolk during April and early May, McClellan's Army of the Potomac landed at Fort Monroe and slowly began moving up the Virginia Peninsula. Magruder's forces held him up at the Yorktown defenses for a month until finally falling back. During the retreat, the inconclusive but vicious Battle of Williamsburg took place on May 5. At this point, most of General Joseph Johnston's army was arriving in the Richmond area, while other units were being called to concentrate there as well. The 53rd was part of that concentration. Moving by rail for the most part, the majority of the 53rd was concentrated near Richmond by May 29, including Company K, which had remained behind on duty along the defenses near Yorktown. Of note, some of the companies, including Company H, encamped near Washington's statue at Capitol Square in Richmond on the 28th.
As McClellan advanced closer to Richmond, Johnston saw an opportunity to strike his opponent's divided forces near Seven Pines/Fair Oaks. The 53rd Virginia, as part of Ben Huger's Division, took part in this attack. During the Battle of Seven Pines, which took place on May 31-June 1, 1862, the 53rd's role was mainly as a reserve on the right of the Confederate attacking force. They were involved in some skirmishing, but it appears that a large portion of their casualties were inflicted by friendly fire. It was at this battle that the Regiment became a part of Louis Armistead's Brigade, of which it would remain for the rest of the conflict.
Brigadier General Lewis Addison Armistead
Though the attack at Seven Pines had great promise; poor coordination, weather, and a lack of experience kept the Confederate's from achieving a major success. They succeeded in driving back Union forces on the first day. With the arrival of reinforcements on the Union side, and Joseph Johnston being wounded, the attack came to a stop. G.W. Smith took temporary command and continued the attack on June 1, but with little success. The battle ended up as a draw. Robert E. Lee took over command on June 1, beginning a new era for the soon to be named Army of Northern Virginia. In the meantime, the Confederates fell back to their original line of defense and reorganized, as McClellan began plans to continue his advance.
Lee did not wait long to strike the slow McClellan. The Seven Days Battles, which actually started on June 25 with an attack by McClellan at Oak Grove, would end the partial siege of Richmond and cause the Union army to retreat back down the Peninsula toward the James River. Armistead's Brigade, with the 53rd, took part in the first days fight at Oak Grove, but would be in a reserve role for most of the fighting that raged. As part of Magruder's forces on July 1, Armistead's Brigade played a big role in the attack against the Union position at Malvern Hill. After McClellan was able to hold off Lee at Malvern Hill, he continued to retreat to Harrison's Landing, where he would fortify. This basically ended the Peninsula Campaign.
The 53rd was ordered back to the Richmond area soon after the battle. On the way, they would camp on the Carter property near Shirley Plantation, across from City Point. They ended up making their encampment at Falling Creek, where the unit rested and recuperated until mid-August.
On August 16, as part of an overall movement to respond to the threat posed by Union General John Pope's Army of Virginia, the 53rd marched to Richmond and boarded trains. They were taken to Louisa Courthouse, where they would remain until the 19th. Lee's army, with Stonewall Jackson's Corps in the lead, were in the process of outflanking Pope's position on the Rappahannock River. The 53rd was of course part of this general maneuver, although being part of Richard Anderson's Division, they found themselves toward the rear of the marching column. All of this culminated in the Second Battle of Manassas, which took place between August 28-30. The 53rd arrived on the battlefield early on the 30th. During this days fight, the 53rd was initially put into a general reserve role, but would be a part of Longstreet's final attack that secured the victory.
Lee decided soon after this battle that he needed to take the war north of the Potomac. So the hard marching Army of Northern Virginia, reduced greatly in numbers from casualties and desertion, crossed into Maryland during the first week of September. The 53rd crossed near Leesburg on the 6th. Also on this day, the 5th Virginia Battalion merged with the 53rd, adding a number of troops to their ranks.
Capture of Harper's Ferry
It was during this bloody but short campaign that the 53rd helped in the capture of Harper's Ferry and it's 11,000 man garrison. Then the 53rd quickly marched north to Sharpsburg, where the bloddiest one day battle was about to take place. The 53rd would arrive on the field on the 17th, after the battle had been raging for many hours. They would once again be placed in reserve during a major battle, although they were under heavy fire for the remainder of the day. As September 17 came to a close, the bloodiest single day of the war also closed. Within a couple of days, Lee had decided to end his Maryland Campaign and crossed back into Virginia.
Armistead's Brigade was used as a rearguard unit during this movement. They would be handled roughly at Boteler's Ford while supporting Pendleton's Artillery, which was covering the Potomac crossings. Armistead was actually not present during this action, having been slightly wounded earlier. Nevertheless, the campaign ended somewhat badly for the 53rd, although overall their casualties were very light throughout.
The Army of Northern Virginia, including the 53rd, licked it's wounds and strengthened itself over the next couple of months. The time was mainly spent in camp in the Martinsburg/Winchester vicinity. By the end of October, Lee began moving his forces in a south-easterly direction. The 53rd Virginia, with the rest of the army, marched from Winchester to Fredericksburg over the course of November. Armistead's Brigade would be transferred to Pickett's Division during this time, on November 6.
This movement by Lee countered that of the Union Army of the Potomac, now under Ambrose Burnside. As a result, Burnside's ill-fated attack against Lee's fortifications at Fredericksburg took place on December 13. Being in the center of the defensive line, south of Marye's Heights and north of Jackson's positions, the 53rd only faced light skirmishing while on picket duty. From their position though, they were able to witness the great repulse of the Union attacks.
After the victory at Fredericksburg, the 53rd closed out 1862 going into winter shelters a few miles north of Guinea Station. The eventful year of 1862 was over. For the 53rd, their worst enemy up to this time had been sickness, sore feet, and the cold. 1863 would have more of the same, but the Union bullet would also claim many victims.
This year began with a change in command for the 53rd Virginia. On January 7, Colonel Tomlin resigned from command of the regiment. John Grammer, Jr. was promoted to Colonel and made commander to take Tomlin's place.
In response to the movement of the Union IX Corps, which was being carried by boat toward the Hampton Roads area, Pickett's Division was dispatched south on February 15. It would soon be followed by Hood's Division, with General Longstreet also coming along to command the whole force. Their mission was first to protect the capital at Richmond. Secondary missions, although very important ones, were to collect as many supplies as possible in the southeastern region of Virginia; and to threaten and hopefully capture Suffolk and other Union posts.
Pickett's Division marched south in the harsh cold for the next two months, passing through Richmond, Chester Station, Petersburg, Fort Powhatan on the James, Ivor, and Franklin. During this time, on March 5, Colonel Grammer resigned. William R. Aylett was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and command of the regiment on March 5. He would be promoted to the proper command of Colonel on March 10.
By April 13, Longstreet's command was in front of Suffolk. Although there may have been a possibility of taking the position during the first few days of contact, Longstreet did not push the issue. Instead, heavy skirmishing took place, with some small scale assaults made by both sides. The 53rd was on picket duty to the south of the city until May 3, when Longstreet decided to pull back. His main objectives had been met. To add to that fact, the Army of Northern Virginia was in the middle of countering General Hooker's flanking movement at Chancellorsville, far to the north.
Longstreet's force would of course be of no help during the Chancellorsville Campaign. Lee and Jackson, through brilliant maneuvering and relentless attacks, managed to defeat the numerically superior Union army and push them back across the Rappahannock River. Unfortunately for the South, Stonewall Jackson was wounded accidentally by his own troops. He would die of pneumonia, brought on by the wounds, on May 10.
Pickett's Division made the long march back to the Richmond area, taking the same general path back that it had come just the previous couple of months. They arrived at Hanover Junction (present-day Doswell) on May 17, and remained there for over two weeks. On May 29, Armistead's brigade was reviewed by General Pickett. Besides that, the men spent their time in camp routine.
The regiment began the long march north on June 8, leaving the Hanover Junction area and heading in a general north-western direction toward the Shenandoah Valley. From June 8-19, the regiment passed through Hanover Courthouse, crossed the Rapidan River at Somerville Ford, camped near Culpeper, and finally arrived at Snicker's Gap, crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains. On the 20th, the regiment crossed the Shenandoah River at Cattleman's Ferry and continued the march. On the 25th, these men crossed over into Maryland, fording the Potomac River at Williamsport. By the 26th, the 53rd was in Pennsylvania, to the rear of most of the rest of the army. By the last day of the month, the regiment could be found near Chambersburg, receiving their hard earned but small pay.
A few miles to the east, on July 1, the Battle of Gettysburg began. All units were called to concentrate on that point. Pickett's division, still being stationed near Chambersburg, began moving according to orders. They began their 28 mile march about 2a.m. on the 2nd, and arrived near Gettysburg around 5p.m. They halted about three miles short of the town, near Marsh Creek, being very worn down from the forced march. Meanwhile, close by, the second day of fighting was still raging. Places such as Little Round Top, the Peach Orchard, and Devil's Den were becoming infamous sites of destruction and death.
After what would be the final night of many men's lives, Pickett's division was ordered early on the 3rd to the center of the Confederate line, located on Seminary Ridge. The 53rd was posted along a tree line, part of Spangler's Woods, somewhat protected from the rising temperature of the day. A little over a mile from there was the Union line, located along Cemetery Ridge.
General Lee had chosen Pickett's division, the freshest available, along with the divisions of Pettigrew and Trimble, to assault the center of the Federal line. Those divisions, numbering between 10-12 thousand men, were to break the Union line, concentrating on the now-famous copse of trees as the target point.
Preceding the attack, Lee had Colonel Porter Alexander unleash a huge bombardment by more than 120 cannons against the Union center. This began at 1 p.m. Union artillery responded as best as possible. During this barrage, Colonel Aylett was wounded and taken from the field. He would not take part in the coming attack, but he would fight another day. Lt. Colonel Rawley Martin would lead the 53rd in the coming attack.
About 2:30 p.m., Alexander observed Union artillery pulling back, falsely believing the Union batteries were being driven off. After Pickett received Longstreet's infamous half-hearted, wordless approval, the order was given to move forward. Pickett's division stepped off about 3 p.m. The two brigades of Garnett to the left and Kemper to the right led the way. Armistead's brigade, the largest of the three, followed behind Garnett and the left of Kemper. The 53rd was posted in the middle of the five regiments with the colors.
A terrible storm of artillery fire fell on the advancing Confederates. Pickett's division, while being under this heavy fire, had to perform a series of left obliques to align themselves with Pettigrew's divison. By the time Garnett and Kemper reached the Emmitsburg Road, musket fire from the Federals also started to claim casualties. The rail fences along the road slowed the Confederate advance and also caused more organizational disintegration. As the first line moved beyond the road, Union troops to the north and south began pouring fire on the flanks, narrowing the Confederate advance. Garnett was soon dead and Kemper seriously wounded. Armistead's brigade had managed to keep its formation, being the second line. As the two brigades began to disintegrate in front of him, and his own brigade beginning to receive heavier fire, Armistead decided to push forward and attempt to go over the Federal line. With his black hat on the end of his sword and Lt. Colonel Martin next to him, Armistead lead an inspired advance.
It was about 3:30 p.m. The Confederates had advanced a mile in open ground, under heavy fire nearly the whole time. With Armistead a few steps ahead, between 150-500 Confederates managed to go over the stone wall which marked the Union line, near the copse of trees. Although the initial line of Federals were routed, other units quickly poured in. Desperate hand to hand fighting took place. Both Armistead and Martin were wounded, the former mortally. He fell next to one of the temporarily captured guns of Cushing's Battery. Fighting continued for a few minutes more, but Union forces gained the upper hand. The remains of the divisions of Pickett, Pettigrew and Trimble began the retreat, under fire the whole way once again. This attack marked the "High Water Mark of the Confederacy". The flag of the 53rd made it the farthest, being captured near Armistead. The other regiments colors, of the 9th, 14th, 57th and 38th Va, were also captured. Pickett lost half of his 6,500 men that day, and never forgave General Lee. Out of 466 effectives, the 53rd had 213 killed, wounded and captured.
After this failed attack, Lee knew he had to return to Virginia. The withdrawal began on July 4, with Pickett's shattered division assigned to escort the 3,400 Union prisoners south. After tense moments during the retreat, and having to deal with a rain swollen Potomac, the 53rd crossed over on July 13th. By July 24th the regiment was at Culpeper.
Lee's army slowly moved south and crossed to the south of the Rapidan River by August. The 53rd camped near Somerville Ford through the rest of August, pelted by heavy rains during much of the time. On September 8, Longstreet's corps, including Pickett's division, marched toward Richmond. Longstreet and his other two divisions would board trains and head to Tennessee, eventually arriving in time to turn the tide in the Battle of Chickamauga. Pickett and his division were detached and gladly stayed east.
Pickett was soon appointed commander of the Department of North Carolina, which included southeastern Virginia. The 53rd and its brother regiments also gained a new brigade commander in General Seth Barton, a veteran from the Western Theater. The 53rd spent much of the remainder of the year on trains, going back and forth between Petersburg and Kinston, N.C., and points on the way. At the close of 1863, the 53rd could be found near Kinston.
Brigadier General Seth Maxwell Barton
It did not take long for the 53rd to find itself in active operations against the enemy once 1864 began. On January 30, the 53rd Virginia, along with the rest of Pickett's division, began moving from Kinston toward the Union occupied town of New Bern. General Lee wanted Pickett to command his and other units in an effort to recapture the coastal North Carolina town, thus opening another port and providing some needed morale for the South.
Unfortunately success would not meet the Confederates on this occasion. Upon arrival at New Bern on January 31, General Barton took command of Pickett's division, south of town. Pickett commanded the overall force, which also consisted of Hoke's brigade and other units, mainly posted north of town. During the attack that took place on February 1, some positions were captured in the northern sector. To the south, Barton decided that an attack would not succeed, with a wide creek in their front in the face of the enemy. Somewhat due to this decision, the Confederate forces had to fall back during the coming days. Pickett would blame Barton for the failure to capture New Bern, which only consisted of 3,000 Union troops at the time.
The 53rd was back in Kinston by February 4. They, along with the rest of the brigade, would only remain until the 13th, when they boarded trains and headed north to Richmond. Barton's brigade would remain there, becoming part of the Department of Richmond by the end of March. Although most of their time was spent in winter quarters in New Kent County, the men were on alert against cavalry raids often.
On May 2, the men marched to Hanover Junction. From there on May 6, they traveled by train to Richmond, and then by steamer to Drewry's Bluff, south of the city on the James River. The 53rd and Barton's brigade continued five miles beyond to the vicinity of Chester Station. Barton's brigade was now under the overall command of General Robert Ransom, with General P.G. T. Beauregard in operational control of the Department. Pickett had to relinquish command of his Department during this time due to excessive stress.
General P.G.T. Beauregard
Pickett's stress, and the movements of the 53rd and many other units to the Richmond-Petersburg area, were brought on by the appearance of General Benjamin Butler's Army of the James at Bermuda Hundred. Butler's army landed on the Bermuda Hundred peninsula on May 5, and immediately began movements to cut off Richmond from Petersburg and points south.
On May 10, Barton's brigade, along with Gracie's, moved south along the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike to reconnoiter the enemy positions. What they found was a strong enemy position along the Turnpike. The Confederate's advanced against this position, Barton to the west of the road, Gracie to the east. Some ground was taken, but the densely wooded area was hard to maneuver in, with fires catching in many places. The Confederate's were forced to give back the ground they gained, but were not driven from the field. This fight, which came to be known as the Battle of Chester Station, ended in stalemate.
General Ransom believed Barton was responsible for the failure to drive the enemy from their positions, although most who were present believed otherwise. Ransom relieved Barton of his command, and appointed Birkett D. Fry to lead the brigade. A petition was sent to Richmond pleading Barton's case, but to no avail. Barton would never regain his command.
Meanwhile, Barton's brigade and the 53rd moved by boat from Drewry's Bluff to Richmond on May 12. They would stay in the northern Richmond area for the next few days in anticipation of Sheridan's cavalry. After this attack failed to materialize, the brigade moved back to Drewry's Bluff on May 15. The unit arrived just in time to take part in the Battle of Drewry's Bluff.
Beauregard hoped to attack Butler's army with his combined forces, and cut him off from his base of supply at Bermuda Hundred. Butler's command sat just to the south of the Drewry's Bluff fortifications, along the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike. The Confederate attack commenced early on May 16, in a very dense fog. This fog may have helped Butler from destruction. Beauregard's attack was planned well, but not executed according to that plan. Despite the dense fog and heavy Union fire along some parts of the line, the Confederates managed to batter Butler's army and push it back. The 53rd took part in the attack on the Union right flank during this action, taking many casualties. Although Beauregard failed to destroy Butler, the Union forces did have to fall back to their defenses on the Bermuda Hundred Peninsula. Beauregard followed, and built parallel defenses, sealing the Union army on the peninsula and isolating them from further threat. This line of defense became known as the "Howlett Line", named after a nearby house.
The 53rd would spend much of the rest of the war along this line. Before that, the brigade was transferred north on May 18, in the direction of the Army of Northern Virginia. General Lee's army was then engaged near Spotyslvania Courthouse against U.S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac. By the time the 53rd got to the area, Lee was falling back. Still, Barton's brigade, still under Fry's command, reunited with the rest of Pickett's division around this time. The division would be with Lee at the Battle of Cold Harbor, though luckily would not suffer many casualties.
On June 17, Grant had managed to slip away and crossed the James River, threatening Petersburg. This was the opening chapter of the Siege of Petersburg. The 53rd soon found itself back along the Howlett Line, although they first had to drive out Union troops who had moved in. From this point until early in 1865, the 53rd could be found in the Howlett Line entrenchments, although they did participate in the attempt to recapture Fort Harrison.
The Siege of Petersburg had begun. The clock was running out for the Confederacy. Unfortunately for the men of the 53rd Virginia, they were to live in trenches under constant fire and suffering for many months to come. In September, the brigade did get a new commander in Brigadier General George "Maryland" Steuart. He would spend the last Christmas of the Confederacy with the 53rd Virginia and the rest of the brigade, less than a few hundred yards from the enemy. With the future very uncertain, 1864 came to a close.
The men of Company H, and the rest of the 53rd Virginia of Armistead's old brigade, continued to suffer through the cold weather, constant fire, absence of much food and warm clothing. January and February came and went, with desertions being a constant problem. Finally on March 4, Pickett's division was relieved out of the trenches by Mahone's division.
After some initial brigade and division reviews, the next couple of weeks found the 53rd and the rest of the Pickett's command either marching or on trains. They were sent in the direction of Burkeville to the southwest, then back to the north of Richmond. Both times in search of Sheridan's cavalry. By the 26th of the month, Pickett and his division had moved south again, passing through the city of Petersburg and stopping at Battery 45, on the Boydton Plank Road.
The long anticipated meeting with Sheridan's cavalry was about to take place. General Phil Sheridan and his large cavalry force was maneuvering around the Confederate right flank, trying to cut off Lee's last rail line of supply, the Southside Railroad. Pickett was dispatched, with Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry, to stop this movement. The 53rd passed through Sutherland Station on March 29, moving with the rest of the division in the direction of Dinwiddie Courthouse and the enemy.
Major General George Pickett
Initial contact on March 31 was a success for the Confederates, as Sheridan was pushed back toward Dinwiddie Courthouse with some loss. Union infantry reinforcements arrived during that evening, causing Pickett to fall back to Five Forks, a crossroads a few miles north of the Union position. This set up the battle of April 1.
The superior firepower of the Union forces turned the Battle of Five Forks into a one-sided affair. While Sheridan kept Pickett's forces busy in front, the infantry of Warren's V Corps attacked the left flank of the Confederates. The 53rd and the rest of Steuart's brigade found themselves outflanked when the two units to their left disintegrated. Soon, the whole Confederate line collapsed, streaming to the north. Several thousand prisoners were taken. Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee, who had been attending the infamous shad bake in the rear, made their way north with the rest of their fleeing commands.
By April 2, Lee was evacuating Petersburg and Richmond due to the defeat at Five Forks, and then the subsequent attacks by Grant along the whole line. Pickett got his command to the north of the Appomattox by April 3, and joined in the overall retreat. For most of the 53rd Virginia, their date with destiny was not April 9 at Appomattox Courthouse. For most of them it was April 6, during the Battle of Sayler's Creek. Although the Confederates fought bravely in a desperate situation, they were eventually overwhelmed. Most of the 53rd were captured there, including Colonel William Aylett and Lieutenant Colonel John Timberlake.
The survivors of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, including the remnant of the 53rd Virginia, trudged along for another three days. Finally, Lee was forced to surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, basically ending the War Between the States. Only 8 officers and 78 enlisted were left to surrender of the 53rd Virginia.
The war had finally come to a close. The men were able to return to their homes and attempt to regain some sort of normal lives. Members of the 53rd Virginia were present from the first battle at
Big Bethel, to the bitter end during Lee's Retreat. Very few units were able to claim such a proud honor.
1861 Unit details mostly derived from "A Brief History of the 53rd Virginia" by Michael S. Blevins. 1862-1865 information referenced from "53rd Virginia Infantry and 5th
Battalion Virginia Infantry" by G. Howard Gregory.