SERGEANT ROBERT RHEA
A PRIVATE’S STORY OF THE WAR
TO APPOMATTOX WITH LEE
EXPERIENCE OF A HIGH PRIVATE
From the papers of the late, Dr. Robert M. Rhea,
The Tennessee Volunteers, Company F., 63rd Regiment,
Army of Northern Virginia
INDEX (NOT APPEARING IN ORIGINAL DOCUMENT, WEB ONLY)
CATCHING THE WAR FEVER
THE FEVER SPREADS
REALITIES OF WAR
A SOLDIER'S LIFE
THE SANDERS RAID
BURNSIDES' ADVANCE INTO EAST TENNESSEE
"HOME, SWEET HOME" FOR THE SICK
IN THE RANKS AGAIN
ON TO VIRGINIA
ON THE LINE
A PEEP INTO THE HAVERSACK
TO SAVE PETERSBURG
BEAUREGARD, THE ENGINEER
LIFE ON THE PICKET LINE
ON THE SKIRMISH LINE
TRIAL OF THE NORTH SIDE
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
AN INSIDE VIEW FROM THE RANKS
THE LAST STRUGGLE
AN EMBARRASSING SITUATION
Catching the War-Fever.
“Well, young man, we don’t want any more such foolish ideas as those in this College: And the next time, we will know beforehand what you are to declaim.” There was anger in the voice of the Professor, and much feeling in his tones, as he confronted me, on leaving the platform of the usual Friday afternoon rhetoricals, where I had lust declaimed, with all the force at my command, a part of one of Col. Wm. L. Yancey’s fire-eating pleas for the establishment of a Southern Confederacy.
It may well be imagined that I myself was somewhat disturbed. For I did not know but what my fiery selection for a speech was going to fire me out of Maryville College. It proved otherwise; but I always felt that only Dr. R---- (Dr. John J. Robinson), the beloved president of the Institution, whose sympathies were decidedly Southern, saved me from expulsion.
The incident recalls the state of feeling among the young men and boys in 1860. In this particular College, in Tennessee, the question of the hour had been followed, with a high degree of interest, by the students. But soon, as many of these were from the States farther South and from Middle and West Tennessee, they became deeply affected by the writings and speeches of Mr. Yancey and other orators of his school, and it was but a little while before a military company was organized, and was drilling on the village green, in anticipation of war. It was in this way, certainly, that I caught the war-fever. I had received a paper containing a portion of one of these passionate appeals, and caught fire at once. Naturally, the next thing was to memorize and speak it, with the results already described.
Events culminated rapidly, and soon, under similar teachings, most of the students and a great many of the boys of the town, joined in the nightly drill. Statistics having since shown that ninety-two percent of the students entered the army on one side or the other. I could name many of that Company on the green at Maryville who gained distinction in various arms of the service and on widely separate fields and many, alas, who were to lay down their lives for their cause. One, with handsome face and soldiery bearings, as Major of the 37th Tennessee, was to give up his life at Murfreesboro, another at Resaca, Ga., another at Petersburg, and yet others at places scattered over the great war-map. But the veil of the future was not yet lifted when the College closed and that Company, so full of life and enthusiasm, was dispersed among the members’ homes.
The Fever Spreads.
On the way to Blountville I found Knoxville, our East Tennessee metropolis, seething with excitement. Everyone was talking of the war, and there was great activity in raising troops. At home I found the war spirit even more intense, as Virginia and local orators were firing the public heart. Two Companies were being organized in the county, to become Companies C and G of the 19th Tennessee, under Col. David Cumings, a brave soldier of the Mexican War. Two of my brothers* were already enrolled in Co. G, one of them to become First Lieutenant and, afterward, Lieut. Colonel of the 60th Tennessee.
Such a state of things in my home town was serious enough. Indeed, war always savors the tragic, and yet, there was here a comic side which interested me. The various districts of the country raised their respective quotes of six, or eight, or ten men. When the day for muster arrived, these different squads came into town looking like anything else than soldiers. Some had on long coats, some short coats, or jackets, some with no coats at all. To look military, they had put stripes on their trousers, but all of different colors. For a weapon, each flourished something in the form of a knife or dirk. But the most striking sight was the banner, or flag, carried by the squad. Each had its own motto, or device, such as, “Come, boys, lets meet them,” “Don’t tread on us,” “Let us alone” and other high spirited legends. But while this might seem over-valorous for the occasion the brave men, who bore these little flags, were soon to find real war, under their respective regimental banners.
The little town thrilled with enthusiastic interest. There were public devotional services in the churches and an inspiring flag presentation, by the beauty and elite of Blountville. Then the two Companies marched away, amid waving handkerchiefs and tearful farewells of a great crowd of friends.
Realities of War.
Soon after this, an opportunity presented itself for me to get busy. Captain B. (Jonathan Waverly Bechman, who was later Rev. J. W. B. of Chattanooga), a cousin of mine, happened to pass through Blountville, under orders to buy cattle in the Trans-Mississippi Department for the army. He offered me a position and I was sent to Gainesville, Alabama to wait for further orders.
During my stay there I witnessed for the first time, the effects of real war. From the bloody field of Shiloh, sick and wounded soldiers were being conveyed South, and as they passed slowly through the town, in long and dreary processions, I must confess, a good deal of the tinsel was brushed off my conception of a soldier’s life. There were, also, troops of cavalry, followed by the tramp, tramp of marching infantry, the heavy rumble of artillery, and
* John Lynn Rhea was the eldest brother.
James A. Rhea became Lieut. Colonel of the 60th Tenn.
the rattle of many wagons, with munitions of war and supplies, - the mules laboring with the heavy loads, and being urged on with whip and voice.
After waiting a few days, I was notified that the Trans-Mississippi expedition had been abandoned, and consequently, there was nothing for me to do but to return home.
My route home, taking me through Montgomery, Alabama, -- at that time, the Capital of the Confederacy, -- I thought it a good piece of good fortune that I was permitted to look upon the working of machinery at the seat of government. And it was with great interest that I watched the hurry of General and Staff, the rush of messengers, the gathering of Senators and Representatives, and all the varied activities connected with the War, Navy, Commissary and Quartermaster’s Departments of a Government. But here also, the same side of war was made evident; sick and wounded, from the army, were everywhere. They filled the hospitals and the homes, and all trains and steamboats were crowded with them.
What I had witnessed, however, did not swerve me from my purpose to enlist. Soon after reaching home, I packed my little oil cloth bag, and started for Strawberry Plains, a station on the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railroad, an important link in the railway communications of the Southern armies. There I became a member of Company F, 63rd Tennessee Regiment that Company having been recruited at my home. They were doing guard duty at the railway bridge, which here crossed the Holston River.
A Soldier’s Life.
At this point, as a new recruit, I began to see what the trials of a soldier were, - drill, guard-mounting, picket duty, raids into the country in pursuit of bushwhackers, and similar assignments. But that was not all. Here I first witnessed soldiers undergoing punishment for disobedience of orders, and my sympathies were deeply stirred. One day, I approached a poor fellow, who was serving out an extra duty by digging up a large black oak stump, and offered to help him in his task. The guard, speaking with a soldier’s bluntness, and with forcible tones, ordered me off, and informed me I would have ample opportunity of doing my own digging, later on, in the war. I discovered afterwards, that he was perfectly correct in his statement. I also discovered that a stump-digging was a very light penalty and that often brave fellows, for some offence, were bucked and gagged and strapped to a caisson. In one case, I even witnessed the shooting of a soldier on account of desertion.
Another novelty to me was the necessity of obtaining a pass, in order to go outside the guard lines. This sense of being shut in, - restrained in ones liberty to go and come, - But it is soon lost sight of in the great mass of disagreeable things, trails and hardships which are inseparable from a soldier’s life.
As I take one of these passes from between the leaves of an old memorandum book, which was my vade mecum through the war, I find the signature of Lieut. J. P. MacCollum, Commanding the Post, and am reminded that it was with conspicuous gallantry and ability that he as Captain, afterwards led the Company, in its many engagements, up to the time of his capture at Petersburg. I replace the faded scrap of paper and as I close the little note-book, I close it upon the first chapter of my experience in the actual service.
The Sanders Raid.
Soon I was ordered by Gen. Donelson, commanding the Department of East Tennessee, to report at once to Knoxville, to the Quartermaster of the Department, where I served in his office until the evacuation of Knoxville in August, 1863, in the anticipation of the immediate occupation of East Tennessee by Gen. Burnside’s army. Only one incident of any great importance occurred during that time, to break the monotony, and that threw the whole town into a fever of excitement. In June, General Burnside had ordered Col. Wm. P. Sanders to advance from Kentucky into East Tennessee, with a cavalry force of fifteen hundred men, and a section of artillery, and deal a blow at the rail-road, already mentioned. This was in anticipation of the advance, later, of the entire Army of the Ohio. On the morning of June 19th, (1863), we heard that this force had reached Lenoir’s, about twenty-four miles southwest. That evening they drove in the pickets of our little force to within a mile of Knoxville. Well do I remember that day. All was bustle and excitement in the city. Hurried preparations were made for defense. Every man who would do so was called to shoulder a gun. Even one or two of the preachers took their place in line. Desperate efforts were made to place the small military force and artillery, available, at points of advantage. Bales of cotton were seized and hastily drawn out and placed for service as breast-works. That night, by the driving in of our pickets, one after another by the enemy, we felt him moving around the town, on the north, with at least a part of his force. Word was soon received that he had cut the rail-road, east of us, doubtless to preclude the sending of reinforcements to the troops guarding the important bridges farther on. It was not until the next morning that he made a demonstration against the city itself, and then apparently, only with the forces in his rear-guard. A serious attack, under the circumstances, would have been very foolish, but we received some damage in the few shots which were exchanged:-notably, in the loss of Captain Pleas. McClung, the genial and brave commander of the Battery on Summit Hill. He was a universal favorite, and his death was greatly lamented. He unfortunately exposed himself outside the line of cotton bales, and a shell took off both feet. (Capt. Pleasant Miller McClung died June 20, 1863.) Strange to say, the same shell in its further progress, struck down two others and was almost the only shell, of all which were fired, which precluded any casualties.
Burnsides’ Advance into East Tennessee.
When the scare was over, we went back to our work, but only to be thrown into still greater excitement and activity by the announcement that quickly followed, that General Burnside’s army would soon occupy East Tennessee. There was nothing for us to do but get out as quickly as possible. Orders flew thick and fast for preparations for a speedy evacuation. Papers were hastily boxed, valuables placed in safes, supplies gathered together, and all loaded rapidly on the cars, for Virginia; for connection by rail-road had once more been established since the raid. General Buckner, who had been in command of the department, moved westward with the main body of his forces, burning the bridge across the Tennessee River behind him. As I had in charge the entire office outfit of the Quartermaster, I moved out as expeditiously as possible, to establish new headquarters at Salem, Virginia. – And none too soon.
General Burnside’s vanguard entered Knoxville on the second of September, and on the next day, he occupied the place in force, surprising and capturing a few Confederate stragglers who still lingered there. Neither was I permitted to remain long at Salem, for General Averill, with his column of mounted “Blue Coats”, was very soon reported to be headed for that place on one of his many whirlwind dashes, and I was ordered away with all haste. I had time only to load some of my stores on the car and get out, when General Averill galloped in.
The house which I had occupied as headquarters, near the depot, was burned, with all the supplies which I had been unable to remove. This matter of raids certainly was becoming disagreeably monotonous.
“Home, Sweet Home” for the Sick.
For a change, I was for a few weeks placed in charge of the Transportation Department, under Captain Wheeless, of Nashville. Longstreet and his Corps, after their movement against Knoxville, in November, were at this time in upper East Tennessee, and all his sick were being furloughed and sent to their homes in Georgia, Alabama and other Southern States, by way of Richmond and Petersburg. It was a long roundabout journey for them, but all who could were anxious to try it, not-withstanding the fact that the cars and accommodations available for them were anything but luxurious. It was my office to write the necessary transportation for these poor fellows, - a duty of mingled sadness and pleasure.
In the Ranks Again.
As the winter wore away, Longstreet moved to Virginia, with his corps, and all men on detached service were ordered to their respective commands, to be ready for the final struggle of ’64 and ’65. My old Regiment, the 63rd Tennessee, was quartered at Zollicoffer (later, Bluff City), in upper East Tennessee. As soon as I came into camp, I was sadly impressed with the change which two years of service had wrought in the condition of the men. Half starved, half paid, many without shoes, clad in old, patched uniforms, and with little chance to wash even the few clothes they had on; their appearance was far from inviting, to an old comrade, and to re-entry to the ranks. In numbers, that once splendid regiment had been cut down to on-third its strength. As I looked about me, I wondered to myself, whether I must come to that condition and, if so, could I attend it?– and stand it with a fortitude and patience equal to theirs? It required only a very few weeks for me to learn by hard experience. No one lot could remain more favored than the rest. It must be said, however, that when we had “Black Horse” or regimental drill, the regiment made a fine and soldierly appearance.
On to Virginia.
After a few weeks rest, and cleaning up, and patching up, we resumed the march once more, feeling the swirl of that great maelstrom, whose center was now in Richmond. Taking Bristol on our way, we pitched our tents at nightfall about Abingdon, Virginia. About three o’clock the next morning, a detail of one hundred men was called for to go, as we understood, to guard the bridge at New River. There had been much talk of peace, so that I rather foolishly feared that the war might be over before I had seen any active duty in the field, I therefore, asked and obtained permission to take the place of another in this expedition, who had some serious misgivings about the peace question. We took the train at Abingdon, that same morning, but soon found that, instead of New River Bridge, Richmond was the destination. Therefore, I was not so anxious to substitute for another on uncertain expeditions. Richmond was reached on the 5th, where we were speedily joined by the other sections of our Regiment, and Brigade, and in fact, the entire Division, with Gen. Bushrod Johnson commanding. The secret of this hasty move on our part became apparent when we learned that Gen. B. F. Butler had just landed twenty thousand Federal soldiers at Bermuda Hundred, and was anxious to try that route to Richmond. It was up to us to put a block in his way. He was possibly, one of those whom President Lincoln had in mind when a Massachusetts citizen called at the White House and asked for a pass to Richmond. “Why, my dear Sir,” Mr. Lincoln replied, “a pass from me won’t do you any good. I gave General McClellan and a great many men passes to Richmond, more than a year ago; but there are a lot of fellows down there, who either cannot read my writing, or will not pay any attention to my pass.” At any rate there was sterner work for us than the light guard=duty, which we had anticipated as about to fall to our lot in this Capitol City.
After a rest of only one night in Richmond, we marched out to Drury’s Bluff, on the South bank of the James River. But that same night we were aroused from sleep by the news that the enemy, in strong forces, were trying to cut the Petersburg & Lynchburg Railroad. We hustled out of our fortifications and quickstepped it on the Turnpike towards Petersburg, determined to head him off if we could. We marched seventeen miles to Walthall Junction, within five miles of Petersburg, and waited for reinforcements. Next day, we engaged the enemy on our left, with the help of a South Carolina Brigade, which had moved to our support during the night. The affair was of slight importance, but the enemy’s course was diverted toward the South, as if he would attack Petersburg. We pursued and halted him before he gained that point, and then started him back in the direction of the Bluff, which we had left the day before. Here was a march, for us of twenty miles, back to our fortifications, which we reached in a day and a half, being obligated to halt on the road, every few miles, to form a line of battle. We had been under shot and shell, practically all the time, since we struck Walthall Junction. The enemy now advanced, and engaged us in very heavy picket fighting till the 16th, when the two armies joined battle in the terrible contest of Drury’s Bluff. We finally forced General Butler back to his base at Bermuda Hundred, and as General Grant said, in one of his reports, “bottled him up there.”
The loss on both sides, in this battle, was very heavy, - in our case, mainly in killed and wounded. On the other side there was a further loss of three thousand captured, and five gun. Our own Regiment suffered terribly, its casualties numbering one hundred and fifty, of who forty were killed. Our brave Lieut. Col. John Alferd Aiken, Captain Rutledge and Lieut. Bottles were among these. Lieut. John L. Wilson was severely wounded and had to suffer the loss of a foot, - but he was enabled, afterwards, to make it the subject of a facetious remark, that he was living “with one foot in the grave.”
My friend and comrade in arms, F. A. Moses, the gallant standard bearer and Ensign of our Regiment, was also wounded, and was ordered to hand the colors over to his color-sergeant, and go to the rear. But he pluckily stuck to his post and bore aloft the flag until the battle was over, and the enemy in full retreat. Then he consented to retire to the Field Hospital for treatment.
How a soldier feels, at such a time, may be seen from some extracts which I venture to make from a letter to my mother, hurriedly penciled May 17th, the second day of the battle.
“I thank God that I am thus far spared, and am able to write you a few lines. We have passed through fiery storm, so far, but with very heavy loss to our Regiment and Brigade. Our Company suffered heavily; lost about twenty-five men out of forty. George Doane, Nath. Galloway, Billy Cox, Billy Gray were all killed or mortally wounded, while charging the enemy’s breastworks.
“We were expecting to have another fight in the morning, unless the enemy seeks shelter in their gunboats, which is rather doubtful. I pray God that such bloody scenes may never come to my sight again, as I witnessed yesterday. We whipped the enemy, as you can see from the papers, but they are still on the river, and we have been following them up, and will perhaps, fight again in the morning.”
“I will wait until tomorrow to finish my letter, if I am spared through the day. I can only put my trust in a stronger Arm than Jeff Davis’, or Beauregard’s, and await results. I have been kindly spared and protected thus far. I was struck by three balls, yesterday – one on the neck, right shoulder, and canteen. None affected me.”
On the Line.
After this affair, we moved out of our fortifications, and formed in line of battle along the James River, through the position was exposed to the fire of the Federal gunboats. The shells seemed as large as flour-barrels, and were called such by the boys, but did little damage farther than to cover up a few of the fellows at times, so deep that they had to be dug out.
On May 25th, I wrote my brother: - “Everything moves on as before, plenty of picketing and work to do. Our lines are being fortified from our bank of the James River, near the Bluff, to the Appomattox River, near Walthall Junction, making our lines similar to half-moon, circling seven miles from left to right. Beauregard is a great fellow to fortify.”
At that time, with a great many others, I was feeling heartily tired of the war, and yet realized that there was nothing else to do but to continue the fight. The labor with pick and spade, throwing up earth-works, had been almost continuous from the time reduced to the monotonous menu of cornmeal and bacon, and tobacco. Half the time the meat was eaten raw, and I found that I could eat as fat a piece of “middling” as anybody.
A Peep into the Haversack.
About this time my oldest brother and Capt. J.W.B……(John Lynn Rhea and Capt. Jonathan W. Bachman) were sent by our County Court, in Tennessee, to inquire into the conditions of the two companies in our Regiment, which had been recruited from that County. My brother came out of the lines, and his half hour with me was like a ray of light, dispersing the gloom of home-sickness. As he was leaving I accompanied him to the railroad, at Chester Station. While walking along the road I asked him if he did not want something to eat. He assented, so I felt in my haversack, and handed him half of a corn-dodger which I had there. He bit off a small portion, and threw the remainder into the bushes, saying, “Bob, I don’t think that is much eating. I can get better than that anywhere.” It was the best I could get, so I picked it up and placed it carefully in my haversack again.
To Save Petersburg.
On the fifteenth of June 1864, we were thrown into great excitement by the news of an attempt, on the part of General Grant, to surprise and capture Petersburg. Smith’s, Hancock’s, and Burnside’s Corps had been rapidly landed at City Point, and Petersburg was to be attacked the next day. The city, at that time, had few troops and only a long line of poorly constructed earthworks for its defense. Gen. Beauregard was in command. At once he ordered our Division, under Gen. Bushrod Johnson, to abandon the works in front of Bermuda Hundred, and hurry forward to save the city. Our boys occupied the entrenchments on the east side of the city, and met the advance of the enemy’s three lines of battle. They held their positions all that day, in the night, the welcome news came that A. P. Hill, with his glorious old Corps, had crossed the river and was hastening to the relief of our worn out troops. The next morning at early daylight, the enemy made another assault. During the confusion, attendant upon the placing of Hill’s Corps in the trenches in the relief of Johnson, the enemy broke our lines at an unguarded point, and swept along our works killing and capturing many of our Regiment. Our noble Col. Fulkerson was among the latter, as were other officers. Also, to our great grief, even our Regimental Colors were captured; the return of which after the war, through a kindness and cooperation of the Governors of New Hampshire and Georgia, of itself makes an interesting story. Fred Ault, the idol of the Regiment, and for whom the Fred Ault Bivouac, of Knoxville, is named, was among the killed. Nevertheless, Johnson’s Division did its part in holding Petersburg.
Our Company was now reduced to twenty-two men, with myself, as Orderly Sergeant, in command. Our Captain Millard was over the Regiment, which mustered only ninety. We had only about three hundred in the Brigade, having lost about eight hundred men and nine field officers, since coming to Virginia.
Beauregard, the Engineer.
After Hill’s Corps occupied the lines, Beauregard decided to shorten and strengthen them by an inner line, which he did. The troops fell back on the night of the 17th, and by the morning of the 18th had partially constructed strong lines of entrenchments around the city. Commencing on the left at the Appomattox River, these extended, eventually, to our right as far as Hatchers Run, Five Forks, and Dinwiddie Court House. These earthworks, commenced so hastily and completed under such trying circumstances, were and are today a monument to the skill of that great engineer, General Beauregard. By direct assault, even when half manned, the enemy never captured them. Fort Mahone, or “Fort Hell”, as the Federal soldiers called it, still stands as a crowing menace to Fort Sedwick, or “Fort Damnation”, the enemy’s strongest fort, just opposite.
Life on the Picket Line.
It was near these two forts, in the latter part of the contest, that a Confederate soldier saw, on the opposite picket post, a new recruit in his fresh blue uniform. He called out to him, “Hey, what are you doing over there?” The blue-coat yelled back, “Working for thirteen dollars a month and my rations, be-dad, - and I guess you are working for eleven dollars a month and boarding yourself.” He was correct, except that the Confederate did not get the eleven dollars a month.
Talking on picket was contrary to orders, although it was a frequent occurrence, and much more than that. For instance, a Federal picket asked one of ours, one day, for a spade with which to dig a vedette post. Our man told him he could have it, so he came over and helped himself, went back, dug the hole to stand in, returned the spade, and then went back to the post, ready to shoot our man, if he advanced. Such is war. Sometimes we had no shooting for several days and again the pickets would be constantly firing at each other.
One day, I had succeeded, as I thought, in building a very secure port-hole on top of our breastworks, through which to watch the movements of the enemy’s pickets immediately in our front. I had secured eight or ten large corn-sacks and filled them with sand. With great difficulty I arranged them on top of the breastworks in such a fashion that I could stand on the banquette, or bench, of our works, and have an unobstructed view of the field in front. Just as I was getting ready to take my position at the port-hole, Jack Godsey of our Company, came up and said, “Bob, let me have the first shot from that port-hole.” He ran his eyes over the field in front and reported, “I see a fellow in the nearest vedette post and I think I can get him.” He, however, did not observe another picket, beyond the one he was expecting to fire at. After a while he fired, but before the smoke from his gun cleared away he was struck and wounded in three places by a shot from the distant picket, who had secured the exact range of the port-hole. Godsey’s wounds were not serious, but meant a sixty days furlough for him. I very quickly tore down that port-hole, not withstanding the pride I had taken in its construction.
On the Skirmish Line.
Also, similar instances of individual daring and risk were seen. To go back to the day before the battle of Drury’s Bluff:- Our Company, with a Company from each of the other Regiments of our Brigade, was on a skirmish line in an open field, some three hundred yards in front of our fortifications. Just beyond were heavy woods. The enemy’s skirmish line was some distance back in the woods. Our orders were to advance and try to drive them back into the woods. We were to rally on the right, or left, or center – wherever might be found the weakest point in the enemy’s line. We succeeded in driving them out, but only to forced back, in our turn, when they rallied and pushed us back again into the open field. Here we protected ourselves, as well as we could, behind stumps and rocks or anything that would even partially conceal the body. The enemy did not come outside the wood, but annoyed us very much by their firing. Hidden behind a small stump, John Denton of our Company said to me, “I see a fellow up in a tree, in our front. Watch and see if I don’t get him.” While edging around the stump, to get a better view, he himself was wounded in the head by one of the enemy, whom he had not noticed, farther to his right. His wound was severe, and he made it known by the most terrific yells. The litter bearers, back in our trenches, perceived his condition and two of them immediately surmounted the breastworks and advanced to carry him off the field. The moment they were seen and recognized by the enemy, as in discharge of their humane office, the latter ceased firing and did not resume hostilities until Denton had been safely carried over our breastworks.
Every day in the trenches of Petersburg, some brave fellows lost their lives at the hands of sharpshooters. The opposing lines were close to each other, and a hat or a hand was instantly struck, the moment it came into view. Many most excellent officers, as well as men, suffered in this way, through an unguarded moment of exposure. I might mention the brave General Gracie, commanding the Alabama Brigade of our Division; also Col. Fulton, of the 44th Tennessee, in command of our own Brigade; and Col. Keebler, of the 17th Tennessee. At Walthall Junction, we had been obliged to live almost constantly in bombproofs, and to make our exit from the trenches, to the rear, through underground passages, on account of the constant bombing of mortar shells from Gen. Butler’s lines.
Trial of the North Side.
Early in July, 1864, we were transferred to the North side of the James to serve under Lieut. Gen. Ewell, for a while. I found some relief in the change, for I was temporarily detailed to duty in the Commissary Department. This game me, at least, and improvement in fare, and relief for the time, from picket duty. This latter service, however, had its compensations. At times, the boys would go down into the Deep Bottom, and during a short suspension of hostilities, meet some of the Federal boys and gather corn, for roasting, out of the same field, and exchange papers, sugar and tobacco. We all suffered the usual fate of the soldier, at that period of the war. The daily requisitions that went up to the different Departments, at Richmond, were for rations, clothing, money and ammunition. Ammunition we received always, while rations and clothing came occasionally.
Wile we were at Chaffin’s Farm we lost many men, in the frequent sharp encounters with the enemy, but the confinement was not so constant and dangerous, as it had been at Petersburg.
The Beginning of the End.
Early in January, 1865, we found ourselves back in the trenches at Petersburg, preparing for the last stage in this great struggle. Our diminished Brigade was consolidated with another, to give it a strength of about eight hundred men, and we were assigned to Heath’s Division, of A. P. Hill’s Corps. Our position was on the extreme right, about half way between Petersburg and Hatcher’s Run. Our duties now became more hazardous than ever. Our Corps Commander was one of the most rigid men in the army, and very stern in the administration of discipline. There was constant duty on picket or in the trenches, shifting on short notice, to the right or left, in order to meet assaults by the most active an aggressive enemy, who had orders to “feel our lines” every day. Each day rolled its sad list of killed and wounded.
An Inside View From the Ranks.
A familiar letter to my brother, written at this time, may also convey a more intimate idea of the situation as it appeared in the ranks:- “Jan. 10, 1865. The old year has just gone by and a new one takes its place, but still the war and all its horrors remain unchanged. There was a time when Christmas and New Years were hailed with delight, as bearers of happiness, at least for a time. But now there is only one unceasing duty, and that is to keep back the Yankees from Richmond and Petersburg. We are now encamped near the extreme right of our lines, about six miles from Petersburg, toward the Stony Creek road. The boys seem pretty well satisfied, but preferred the north side of the river, with old Ewell. We may be run in upon at any moment, as the Yankees are great fellows to flank. But I don’t think we will have a fight until the weather improves. The Army is very hard to understand now. So many want any kind of peace that the Confederate Congress is greatly bothered to know what to do. One thing is certain, and that is, - the people are the worst sort, out down and whipped, and the soldiers but little better. As far as I am concerned individually, I say, quit as honorably as we can. If we can’t quit honorably, then we have to fight for our very existence. Babcock, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, told Mr. McDonough, the surgeon of our Regiment, that a bill would pass through Congress, to send a Delegate from each State to Washington, with propositions of peace. That we would go back into the Union as free and equal States, without slavery, but all of our rights must be guaranteed. Such a view came from the Speaker. He also said that something had to be done, and that at once. Mr. Colyer, of Tennessee, told Mr. Blanton, in the Commissary Department of our Brigade, the same thing. Also, that the soldiers, from every part, were sending in applications asking that some terms might be offered to make peace. That they were willing to fight as long as they thought there was hope, but that they now were losing their lives for nothing. Such and such is the talk. Everybody is for peace, but I don’t think Mr. Lincoln will agree to anything of the sort. So, we may just expect to fight it out. I am anxious to go home, and see what the Yanks have done for you.”
(Note: The Yanks had destroyed and burned the residence of Samuel Rhea during the battle of Blountville in 1863.)
General Gordon had planned his great assault on Fort Steadman, one of the enemy’s strongest works, on the night of the twenty-fourth of March and we were ordered to double-quick into and through Petersburg, to our extreme left, in order to be ready to assist him. Gen. Pickett, with his Division, was to be near and if Gen. Gordon succeeded in taking Fort Steadman, Pickett was to immediately follow, and capture and occupy a small fort in the rear of Steadman, thus protecting Gordon. General Gordon captured Fort Steadman, and turned its guns on its former defenders, in one of the most gallant fights of the war, leading the charge in person. But Pickett, for some unaccountable reason, failed to arrive in time, and Gordon had to retreat with severe loss. The failure of Gen. Pickett, with whom we were to co-operate, to come up on time had the effect to prevent our command from going into this fight.
The Last Struggle.
This charge of Gordon’s aroused the enemy to the most strenuous activity. They at once began a continuous series of assaults and flanking movements, with their entire force, all along the lines from above Richmond, around by Chaffin’s Farm and Bermuda Hundred, to our extreme right, as far as forty miles long, which General Lee had to defend with only four thousand effective troops. After a two-days battle at Hatcher’s Run, Five Forks, and Dinwiddie Court House, with constant additions to Grant’s forces, and a loss to Lee of twelve thousand men in killed, wounded and captured, the enemy assaulted and pierced our lines on Sunday morning, the second of April.
All that day was spent by Gen. Lee in getting his army together, and moving them safely across the Appomattox River. Then commenced that memorable retreat, of that once invincible army, - reduced to the strength of a single Division, men without officers or commands, with few guns, and little ammunition, barefooted and in rags, no rations except a few grains of parched corn, fighting by day and retreating by night, till at last, at the end of seven dreadful days, we reached Appomattox Court House.
On the morning of the ninth of April, Gen. Gordon was in line of battle, trying to force his way through the lines of Union troops, who had headed us off, and closed the way to Lynchburg, our objective point. The remnants of our Corps, now attached to that of Gen. Longstreet, since the death of Gen. A. P. Hill on that fateful second of April, stood ready to support Gordon. But after a fierce assault, he found the enemy too strong for him. As soon as that fact was reported to Gen. Lee, a surrender was at once agreed to. The particulars are well known, - how Gen. Lee rode quickly, under a flag of truce, to the McLean House, in Appomattox, and there met Gen. Grant, and they together arranged the details of the capitulation. The terms accorded by Gen. Grant were so magnanimous and considerate, as to enshrine him forever in the hearts of the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Of our Regiment, only seventy-five men, with thirty-seven guns were left. The field officers had all been killed, wounded or captured. There was only one line officer present with us, a Lieutenant who was sick and unable for duty. Before our lines were broken on the second of April, I was in command, though only a Sergeant, and on the ninth of April I surrendered all that was left of the 63rd Tennessee. Lieut. Etter signed the paroles on the next day, as the signature of a commissioned officer was required. Then, goodbyes were said and we turned our faces toward home, --- leaving in squads of four to ten men. But how different in appearance, in condition and in prospects, from what we were at the beginning of the war.
At that time, I suppose I was the most ragged soldier in the Army of Northern Virginia. What little clothing I had, when our lines were broken at Petersburg, had been captured. The constant march, on our retreat, for seven days and nights, through brush and woods, and swollen streams, very quickly reduced to rags the poor pair of trousers I wore. I was also barefooted. When I appeared to the surgeon, of our Regiment, he said, “Why Rhea, you are in a bad fix. Let me see if I can do anything for you.” In a little while, he brought out a pair of his trousers. I looked them over, and decided they were better than none. The truth was that his duties had required him to be in the saddle, the greater part of the time, and the trousers had suffered correspondingly. I put them on, only to discover that my jacket failed to cover the worn places. However, I donned my long-skirted overcoat, and with it closely buttoned, felt fairly well protected. Then, while still without shoes, I started on my way home. In this way, I managed to reach Lynchburg. I applied at once, at the office of the Quartermaster, for a pair of shoes. But alas, new conditions had arisen, everything in his department was gone, he had just surrendered. However, out of pity and in view of the poor condition of my feet, he took me around to a little shop, and handed me a pair of boots, which the cobbler had just repaired, and said, “You are welcome to these, if you can wear them.” They were immense, having been made for a man weighing three hundred pounds. They looked like number twelves, while I wore a number six. When I put one on, my foot was practically lost in it. I can scarcely remember, to this day, whether I carried those boots, or whether they carried me. One thing I clearly remember. At every stream we crossed, I jerked them off and carefully bathed the many sore and bruised places, when had occasioned on my feet.
An Embarrassing Situation.
After a long and weary tramp, in company with the surgeon of the 37th Virginia, I reached Marion, where I knew I should be among friends. An invitation to dinner was soon forthcoming, from the hospitable home of Judge J. W. S. -- Judge James White Sheffey, whose daughter, Ellen White Sheffey, married Joseph Brainard Rhea, brother of Robert – where there were five lovely ladies. This, in my situation, was attended with some embarrassment. As we entered, these fair ones were the first to greet us, and at once begged me to take off my overcoat. I made the best excuse in my power, -- the coat was not heavy, - the weather was cool, - and I was afraid of catching cold if I took it off. I finally passed that ordeal. But presently Mrs. Sheffey, the dear, kind old lady, came in and was very solicitous for my comforts. She, at once, insisted that I should take off that heavy overcoat, and make myself more comfortable. She had no idea how uncomfortable I should have been, if I had complied with her demand. With some excuse, I contrived to pass ordeal number two. I was beginning to feel somewhat reassured and more at ease, when Judge himself came in and announced dinner. He came up to me, shook my hand very cordially, seized my overcoat, and with true Virginia hospitality, wanted to assist me in taking it off. Again I set my wits to work for excuses, - did not wish to catch cold, etc., and finally made my entrance to the dining room. But I did not take off that overcoat.
It was but a few days later, in the loving welcome of dear ones in my own home, in Blountville, that I was pleased to let the nightmare of these dark years pass into bright-hued dreams of Peace.
NOTE: - It is not known who edited the foregoing but it is suspected that it was done by Miss Lucy F. Rhea, the daughter of Dr. Robert M. Rhea, as she had access to all of her father’s papers. The whereabouts of these is not well known. The footnotes and bracketed notes were added when this copy was made by Robert R. Van Deventer, his grandson.