The Sixth South Carolina at Seven Pines.
The following address was delivered by General John Bratton on the battlefield of Seven Pines, Virginia, 20 years after the war had ended. It was presented on the 6th of August, 1885 to the Survivors of the Sixth Regiment, South Carolina Volunteers.
About the 26th May, 1862 we moved up to camp nearer Richmond, not far from where
the Confederate Cemetery is located. At daybreak on the 31st we moved out in
accordance with orders to the Williamsburg Road, were halted near a farm or
fruit-nursery, (name of owner forgotten). It was here that I learned that the Yankees
were a short distance down the road, and we were expected to attack in a few minutes.
We waited there, however, for hours, and it was certainly as late as one o'clock P. M.
when we moved on slowly through the mud and slush, and soon evidences of conflict
were apparent. We were told that ‘D. H. Hill was driving them down the road,’ and
ordered to push on. This we did as briskly as the condition of the road would allow,
passing for some distance through a thickly-wooded section of scrubby growth, when
we reached a field of considerable extent on the left of the road. When the head of the
Sixth, the rear regiment of Anderson's Brigade, reached the opening, I was ordered to
form ‘on right by file into line’ on the left of the road and follow the regiments of the
brigade which preceded me. While my regiment was forming, a glance at the field
showed a line of works on the other side of it, extending across the road and across
the field into the woods on the left. The view on the right was limited, being shut off by
the woods, which continued on the right of the road farther down and nearer to the
works. The regiments of our brigade were moving down one after the other to this line,
which was evidently occupied by our troops. There was a redoubt near the road, from
which artillery was slowly firing. I was told that D. H. Hill had taken that line and was
himself at that moment in the redoubt. As we moved down on the track of the regiments
preceding us, they, apparently in close column of regiments near the works, moved by
the left flank along the line towards where it passed through the woods. On
approaching the woods they received a volley, which was undoubtedly a surprise, and for the moment created some confusion in the heads of these columns. I at once ordered a change of direction to the left. (It was there that the memorable amendment to Hardee's version was made, which seemed ever to be remembered against me and doubtless many now present can recall—‘Big left wheel.’) We were in the act of changing direction sufficiently to present a direct front to the fire of the enemy when I received an order from General Anderson ‘to sweep the enemy out of those woods.’ Without halting, the order was given to fix bayonets, and we moved on to an abattis that was made of slashings in the edge of the woods. As we were about to enter the abattis, I halted the line for a moment to investigate a line of men with white rags on their hats, found lying down on our side of the abattis to the left of where we were going in. They proved to be the Twenty-seventh Georgia Regiment (Colonel Zachry), of D. H. Hill's command. I told the colonel what my orders were, and he proposed to join us. Replying that we would be glad to have him do so, we were about to advance when he informed me that a regiment of our friends (South Carolinians, he thought,) were coming up on his left, and requested us to wait for them. I at first acceded to this request, but after waiting for a few minutes, told the commander of the Georgians that I was afraid my orders would not justify me in waiting. I would, therefore, continue my advance, feeling strengthened by the assurance of his support, and at once ordered the regiment forward. As we entered the abattis the enemy poured in their volley, but our line moved on without halt or check and drove them through the woods, into and through a large camp; so large that the regiment did not cover half of it, and were pressing them routed and in full flight, beyond, when a fire on my right and rear from this portion of the camp, untouched by us in the advance, admonished me to halt long enough to take our bearings, and at least see if it was necessary to turn upon those still in camp before proceeding farther. On looking back I saw a regiment coming up from the rear, and finding it to be the Fifth South Carolina (Colonel Giles), directed its charge through the portion of the camp still occupied by the enemy. Without using any superlatives in regard to this noble regiment, I need only say to you comrades of the Sixth, who were associated with them on so many battlefields, that they put in this their first work, under my eye in that not merely gallant but effective style which characterized their conduct throughout the war. They made a clean sweep of the camp and pressed on, coming up on our right in good order. We were in the act of moving on after the flying enemy when I received an order from Colonel Jenkins to halt until he could join us with his regiment, the Palmetto Sharpshooters. On looking back I saw the regiment coming up from the rear, on the left of the camp through which I had passed and towards my left. Anxious to press forward so as to pass through a formidable abattis immediately in our front as nearly as possible with the routed enemy, and thus prevent their formation on the other side, I sent him a request urging him to move up as we were losing precious time, and posted myself between my regiment and the Fifth, that I might give the signal to Giles to advance as soon as Jenkins arrived on our line. He halted, however, thirty or forty paces in rear of our line and sent an order to align ourselves on his right. His front was directed considerably to the left of ours, while ours fronted on the direct line of the flight of the enemy. Just then General Anderson rode up and, conducting him a few paces to the front, I pointed out the situation; the abattis or slashings on slightly declining ground much wider and more formidable than the first, with thick growth of scrubby trees on the other edge, screening completely what might be there. By this time not an enemy was in sight, not a gun was being fired in my front. General Anderson quietly said, ‘Move your regiment across the abattis and take position on that crest beyond,’ pointing towards it, and added, ‘unless you jump the game on the way.’ Feeling sure that it would be jumped on the other edge of the slashings, I asked, ‘What then?’ He answered, ‘Press them.’ I told him that embarrassment as to my flank and rear had prevented me from crossing the abattis pretty much with them, at least in close pursuit, and asked if I should succeed again, will you look to flanks and rear? His answer was, ‘press them.’ We at once entered the abattis, the Fifth regiment, Colonel Giles, moving with us on our right. I did not see where the sharpshooters went. When about half way across a grand volley was poured upon us from the thicket beyond, and although nobody cried ‘Lie down,’ the entire regiment squatted involuntarily in the brush. As the crash of the volley died away I shouted ‘Forward,’ but none seemed to hear it save our color-bearer, and before it could be repeated the roar and rattle of the regular battle-fire opened upon us and drowned human utterances. He advanced on and over the obstructions, as he could not move under even the highest without lowering his colors, alone, with a stride unnaturally steady, considering the character of his footing. None who saw it can ever forget the splendid picture presented by our glorious and handsome boy, John Rabb, on this occasion. Never were colors borne with a loftier devotion to duty or a quieter disdain of danger. He advanced thus alone, nearly halfway to the enemy, and it looked as though our colors would be handed over to them, when our entire regiment seemed simultaneously to take in the situation and made a desperate rush to overtake them. Our line poured like a wave over and under and through the obstructions, and coming up with the colors, continued the impetuous advance until we swept over theirs.
They retired hastily beyond the crest not far distant. We consequently did not kill many of them here, but captured a few prisoners. Emerging from the thicket from which they were driven, and hastily readjusting our ranks, we pushed on towards the crest, and soon encountered the most formidable line, and became engaged in the fiercest fight of the day. The ground over which we passed was thinly studded with sapling pine growth, affording no obstruction to speak of either to the bullets or to the view of either side, and it was the same, though apparently more broken, for a long distance to our right; to our left, woods of thick growth seemed not more than a hundred yards or so distant. As we approached the crest, their line could be seen extending from the woods on our left across our front and to the right for several hundred yards, as far as I could see on both sides. They opened upon us a terrific fire, direct from the front and oblique from both sides, but we continued steadily to advance until within thirty or forty yards of them, when our line was staggered, checked, and finally borne down by the weight of this converging fire. The men, checked though they were, and borne down by force when they wished to proceed, were nevertheless unhacked, and opened a fierce and rapid fire on the enemy in front. Not knowing at the time why the Fifth had not come out of the abattis with us (their gallant Colonel was killed by the volley we met there, and they were embarrassed and delayed by his fall), I looked anxiously for them to come up and relieve us from a portion of the fire, but neither they nor any other help were in sight. I was unwilling to undertake a retreat over such ground as was in our rear, and determined to make another effort to break through the enemy's line. Amid the roar of that fierce storm no human voice could have been heard by even a company, and to secure that unity of action which the emergency demanded, it was necessary to convey to the commanders of companies instructions to notify their men and have them prepared to rise up at a concerted signal, and push through the line in front. This consumed time, and held our men under this destructive fire longer than was desirable, but it could not be helped. As soon as possible the signal was given. All, except the dead and dying (who, unhappily for us, were numerous enough to mark our line from one end to the other, after we left it), rose and moved, though crouching as they breasted the pelting storm, steadily and unfalteringly forward without firing a gun, until the enemy gave way, when we poured in our volley of buck and ball at close range and with telling effect.
Although their lines were broken and shattered, they yielded the ground with great reluctance. They for some time made strenuous efforts to reform close in our front, and repeatedly gathered in groups about their colors and around their officers, who made heroic efforts to rally them, only to be piled in heaps by the shot and ball belched from our old smooth bores. These efforts they stubbornly continued until there seemed not a standard left, not an officer to rally them. While we were pressing this, the most valiant foe that we had yet met, being apprehensive of attack from the enemy on either the right or left of the point of their line penetrated by us, or on both, which, promptly made, would certainly and easily have crushed us before our supports could come up, I was anxiously looking to both, and it was with much satisfaction that I saw on our right five columns with five stands of colors double-quicking to the rear in beautiful order. They disappeared across the Williamsburg road in the direction of White Oak Swamp. I could not see for the woods what those on the left were doing, but the regiments on the right, acting evidently under the impression that the Confederates were in force on their right flank, suggested the idea that those on the left were under a similar impression as to their left flank.
It was with a great sense of relief that I again gave my entire attention to the brief but explicit and satisfactory order of our General, ‘Press them.’ When, however, the gallant foemen in our front gave up all hope, ceased their stubborn futile efforts at resistance, and incontinently fled, the regiment for the first time that day lost its order, and the men broke away in a wild chase after them. Unable to stop the foremost, the only way to keep them at all together was by urging the hindmost forward. We struck the Williamsburg road obliquely, our right touching it near Seven Pines House, when a regiment posted in the edge of a pine thicket on the other side of the road, their line being parallel to the road, opened fire on our right flank. About two companies on our right were stopped by it, and forming in the road engaged this new enemy. The balance of the regiment rushed on in pursuit into the woods, down the road, making a wide interval between them and the companies on their right. I sent Sergeant-Major Beverly Means, who was at hand, to catch our wild boys on the left, and order them to form on the two companies in the road, and urged dispatch, as I feared that the enemy might charge us in that condition. To prevent this, our men who stopped near the house were formed in the road and ordered to keep up as brisk a fire as possible. My brave men, individually, as they got the orders, ran promptly back up the road, into and under fire at less than one hundred yards, formed as it were by file on our men fighting there, and thus by their individual pluck and devotion to duty enabled us to meet the emergency and avert the danger in the shortest and of course the best way. If we had taken the usual course under such circumstances, and fallen back to reform, we would have lost ground, lost time, and have effected less at a perhaps greater cost of life.
While this formation in the very front of the battle and in the teeth of the enemy was going on, I was looking with anxiety for the Fifth regiment to come up, still not knowing the cause of its delay— the fall of its heroic Colonel—when I saw a regiment moving up from the rear and directly towards the gap in my line. I sent an urgent request that it move up promptly. It proved to be the Palmetto Sharpshooters, and Colonel Jenkins replied that he would be with me in a moment. When in about two hundred yards of the road, however, he changed front forward on the twelfth company, and although the balls fired at us, forming and fighting on the road, dipped into them with destructive effect, it was done in a style rarely equalled on the drill field. This was followed by a change of front on the first company, executed in the same admirable manner in view and under fire of the enemy, which brought them in position to form on our left. Before these two evolutions were completed, our Sergeant-Major reported that all of our men were in line on the road, but some of them were not in their proper places, or even in their companies, and wanted to know if that would do. Glancing along the line I saw every man who was out of place looking back towards me, and answered their question by a motion of my hand, waving them down where they were, saying, although they could not hear me, ‘We are all right now, lie down where you are.’ Our Sergeant-Major exclaimed with suppressed enthusiasm, ‘Isn't that glorious! The old regiment is surely more than filling her measure to-day.’ His countenance was all aglow with that peculiar light often seen in the faces of brave men in battle, and which is so inspiring to the beholder. I ordered him to lie down behind the line, as I wanted everybody as much under shelter as possible, while we were waiting for Jenkins to come up on our left. A moment afterwards the fatal bullet pierced his breast. It was thus that Beverly Means, who, in peace, was as gentle and modest as a woman, met death. It was about this time that I found that the shells and cannon balls that had been whirling over us and plunging amongst us during our disorderly pursuit, and now enfilading our line on the road, were coming from the direction of the battery taken by D. H. Hill. I sent a messenger to stop its fire on us, but he probably never reached it, as it continued to fire as long as I remained on the field.
As soon as Colonel Jenkins arrived on the line with his regiment he gave me the order, ‘Advance your regiment and I will support you.’ Remembering that I had been notified before we reached the battlefield that he was in command of the brigade I promptly obeyed his order. Looking along my battered line, now about half its original length, with half of its captains knocked out, I had reason to be anxious lest some irregularity of movement might place the regiment at disadvantage. To prevent this and ensure unity and order in their advance I walked across the road to the front and waving my cap to attract the attention of all, officers and men, ordered the line forward. Rising from the road in which they had been lying they advanced deliberately, steadily and firmly, closing gaps promptly until the enemy broke, when they poured in their volley and rushed on them, sweeping them from the field. This was perhaps the fairest fight we had that day; there was no great disparity of numbers between their regiment and ours; they seemed to be about equal; but we had the advantage of the immediate presence of the Sharpshooters. Our disadvantages were our battered condition, loss of officers and men in previous fights, our lying so long under their fire, a part of the time not returning it, that they recovered from the excitement of the first onset and directed their fire with a better aim. Most of their balls were on a line with us, fewer of them passed over our heads than in any previous attack. We met this line of fire when we rose up in the road, and it continued without abatement, aided by the shot and shell plunging into and about us from the battery on the right, until we were within twenty-five yards of them, when I was shot. So steady was their fire and unshaken their line that the result even then was doubtful; and those near me, who naturally came to my assistance, were peremptorily ordered to the front where every bayonet was needed. My eyesight failed, a premonition of the fainting that followed, and I could not see you my comrades, but I heard the volley which you delivered as you passed over me, and the ‘yell,’ receding from me as you advanced, relieved the anxiety which was intensified by my condition, and gave assurance that you had again swept the field. When my sight returned you were seen in line with the Sharpshooters in the edge of the woods on the left, fronting down the road. When last seen by me the whole line seemed to be moving by the left flank across the road. And here the story of your movements and conduct on this field, as seen and known by me, necessarily ends. I learn from others that the regiment, led by its Lieutenant-Colonel, the truly good and brave Steadman, had still another engagement with the enemy before the battle closed, with the result to which it was now becoming accustomed, and, crippled and torn as it was, added new laurels to those already won that day. (continued p2)
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