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Botched Battle at Bristoe.

The Attack Was Made.

The 27th Regiment, North Carolina Troops at Bristoe Station.

By David Hunter of the North State Rifles

On the afternoon of October 14, 1863, two brigades of North Carolinians attacked a force of over four brigades of the Federal II Corps at a railroad crossing in northern Virginia called Bristoe Station. Despite the bravery and determination of those Tar Heels in Cooke’s and Kirkland’s brigades, the attack was repulsed with heavy losses. The attack of A.P Hill’s Third Corps at Bristoe Station was one of the two worst operations conducted by Hill during the Civil War, exceeded in tragedy only by Hill’s lapse in judgment after the first day of fighting at the Wilderness in 1864. This battle was particularly hard for Kirkland’s regiments, as they had endured heavy losses at on both July 1 and July 3 at Gettysburg three months earlier. Cooke’s brigade, composed of the 15th, 27th, 46th and 48th NC Regiments had just returned to the Army of Northern Virginia, but were no strangers to hard fighting after Sharpsburg and Fredericksburg.

The 27th Regiment, North Carolina Troops, September 1861- October 1863

After several earlier attempts to form a regiment from volunteer companies on duty in the eastern part of the state, the 27th Regiment was finally organized on September 28, 1861.1 At that time, several companies were on duty as part of the garrison of Fort Macon, while the remainder was stationed at Camp Gatlin, near New Bern. The regiment mustered into the “North Carolina Army” with the ten companies listed below:

CompanyHome CountyNickname
AWayne“Goldsboro Rifles”
BGuilford“Guilford Grays”
CLenoir“North Carolina Guards”
DLenoir“Tuckahoe Braves”
EPitt“Marlboro Guards”
FPerquimans“Perquimans Beauregards”
GOrange“Orange Guards”
HPitt“Pitt Volunteers”
IJones“Southern Rights Infantry”
KWayne“Saulston Volunteers”

In February 1862, the detached companies at Fort Macon were recalled to New Bern and the 27th NC was assigned to the North Carolina forces there under L.O’B Branch. At the Battle of New Bern, the 27th NC was positioned on the left of the Confederate line near Fort Thompson, and were only lightly engaged. A detachment of the regiment had been trained as artillery and fought as part of Latham’s Battery. The regiment withdrew to Kinston with the remainder of the force, and was refitted while in camp there. The regiment was reorganized “for the war” in April and John R. Cooke, a Virginian, was elected Colonel.

In June 1862 the regiment moved to Virginia for the defense of Richmond, where it was assigned to Walker’s Brigade. The 27th NC saw little action during the Seven Days’ battles. The regiment moved north with the brigade in September as part of the army’s rear guard, collecting up stragglers during the move into Maryland. The 27th NC fought its most notable action of the war at Sharpsburg. The regiment had arrived on 16 September and moved to the right of the Confederate line. Around mid-morning on 17 September, the 27th helped force the Federals from the West Woods, then reformed along the Hagerstown Pike. Just as the Confederate defense of the Bloody Lane began to collapse, Longstreet ordered Cooke to take the 27th NC and the 3rd Arkansas and attack into the Federals threatening to break through his line south of the Dunker Church. The two regiments stormed across the Hagerstown Pike under intense fire from artillery and infantry, driving into the right of the Federal brigades south of the Mumma farm. This slowed the Federal advance long enough for Longstreet to shore up his thin line. Once their ammunition was expended, Cooke’s men withdrew back to the turnpike in good order and held their position there for two hours with only bayonets and determination. The regiment’s conduct was favorably noted and it marked Cooke as an officer worthy of higher command. After the regiment returned to Virginia Col. Cooke was promoted in November and given a brigade command, which in turn elevated John Gilmer to the command of the 27th NC.

The regiment fought at Fredericksburg in December. In January 1863 the 27th NCT was sent with the brigade to Charleston to reinforce the garrison there, stationed most of that time near Coosawhatchie. In April the brigade returned briefly to North Carolina and was then recalled to Virginia as part of the reorganization of the Lee’s army after Chancellorsville. While passing through Richmond in early June, Cooke’s Brigade was diverted to protect the capital as the remainder of the ANV marched to Pennsylvania. The 27th NC was involved in a few engagements east of Richmond, but fought no major actions. After the return of the army to Virginia, Cooke’s Brigade was once again assigned to the army, this time to stay.

The 27th NC at Bristoe Station2

The brigade moved into the camps of Lee’s army in the first week of October 1863 and was assigned to Heth’s Division of the Third Corps. The Army of the Potomac had moved into Virginia after Lee’s retreat from Pennsylvania and had occupied a line along the Rapidan and Rappahannock as far west as Culpeper Court House. When two corps were detached from the Army of the Potomac to reinforce Rosecrans in Chattanooga, General Lee sensed an opportunity to turn Meade’s right and attack into the rear of the Federal positions. By this point, Longstreet’s First Corps had left for Tennessee, leaving only two corps available – Ewell’s Second and A.P. Hill’s Third.

Both corps moved on October 9, screened by Stuart’s cavalry. Meade soon detected Lee’s movements and responded by withdrawing his extended force back towards Manassas Junction. Hill’s force moved through Culpeper Court House and camped just west of Warrenton on the evening of October 13. The line of march was taken up again early on the morning of October 14 and the corps arrived at Greenwich at 10am, overrunning hastily abandoned Federal camps. Lieutenant James Graham of Company G, 27th NC recalled the scene: “Throwing out skirmishers some 200 yards ahead we proceeded at a rapid pace, about double-quick, in pursuit of the foe. Guns, knapsacks, blankets, etc. strewn along the road showed that the enemy was moving in rapid retreat.”3 Clearly the Federals were withdrawing rapidly back towards Manassas, following the line of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. The thought in the ranks was that a pursuit was in progress, with the likely result another Federal defeat.

The leading elements of Hill’s Corps appeared on the heights overlooking Bristoe Station later on October 14. Hill observed the Federal II Corps crossing the Broad Run, north of the station. Large numbers of Federal rear guard were halted near the bridge, offering Hill an opportunity to destroy them in a surprise attack. Hill’s focus was on the Federals at Broad Run and he failed to determine that there was a larger force south of the railroad embankment waiting to cross the creek, mainly four brigades from the II Corps divisions of Hays and Webb. This embankment was between six to eight feet high here, effectively screening these Gettysburg veterans from observation by the Confederates. Three batteries of artillery occupied wooded hills south of the railroad and had clear fields of fire to the north.4

Hill hurried Heth’s Division forward, with Cooke’s and Kirkland’s North Carolinians leading the advance. Cooke’s men were south of the road leading to Bristoe Station, while Kirkland was north of it. The lead brigades moved down the hill oriented on Broad Run, while the following brigades were still deploying. As the Confederates moved to the attack, they were subjected to severe artillery fire. It quickly became apparent the Federals were in strength behind the railroad and on the hills to the south, and were moving north to attack the right of Cooke’s Brigade. This was quickly reported to Hill, who just as quickly - and peremptorily - ordered Cooke forward, saying that H.H.Walker’s Brigade would move to the right to block the Federals on the threatened flank. Despite the appearance of this significant Federal force, the attack went forward with both brigades reorienting their advance toward the railroad.

Cooke deployed his four regiments in a single line, with the left regiment on the road. The brigade line of battle from right to left consisted of the 46-15-27-48 NC regiments. Kirkland’s Brigade was to the left of this line, with the 44th NC just to the north of the road.

Cooke’s Brigade advanced “about 400-500 yards through a dense forest”, halting in clearing near a branch. They remained in this area about “1/4 hour” then continued forward. The brigade crested a small hill, passing through a cluster of pines at the top. Here the Confederates got a clear view of the railroad and Broad Run nearly 800 yards below. John Sloan, one of the “Guilford Greys” of Company B, remembered that they were within “full view of the enemy” and the Federals, “…secure behind the bank had only to lie down on the slope, rest their muskets on the track of the railroad and sweep the open field as we attacked. He grimly added that “The attack was made.”5

Federal artillery fire intensified as they crossed the hill and five Confederate guns in the road opened on the Union batteries as the North Carolinians advanced down the long slope. The Federal infantry near the railroad maneuvered against the right of Cooke’s Brigade adding their musketry to the incessant artillery fire battering the Confederates. The 46th NC changed front to the right to resist this Federal move. Cooke was wounded in the leg as he passed behind the 27th Regiment and Col. Edward Hall of the 46th NC assumed command. Col. John Gilmer was struck shortly after Brig. Gen Cooke. The brigade was firing as it advanced. Lt. Col. George Whitfield, now leading the 27th, encountered Hall moving to the center of the brigade, telling him that “…the brigade must either retreat or charge.”6 Hall quickly decided to charge. The regiments advanced, with the 27th NC, “always trained at the quick step”, leading the attack. The regiment double-quicked down the hill with men “falling at every step.”7 The 48th Regiment has faltered briefly under the heavy fire, causing it to drop back during the attack. The other three regiments closed to within 40 yards of the embankment, enduring a literal storm of musket fire. John Sloan recalled that as they reached the embankment “…the enemy rose up from behind the embankment and poured a volley into our ranks which almost swept the remnant of us out of existence.”8 After two color bearers, Sgt. William Summer and Cpl. Edwin Barrett, were shot down, Pvt. William Story of Company B retrieved the fallen colors and bore them the rest of the day.9 Lt. Col. Whitfield was wounded during the charge, placing Maj. Joseph Webb in command. The regiment’s sergeant major, Robert Weatherly, was mortally wounded in the charge. The brigade’s attack stalled, forcing Col. Hall to order a retreat. He reported that the 46th and 15th Regiments withdrew in good order, but that the 27th fell back in “honorable confusion” as the regiment had been in a “…far more exposed position than the other two regiments and having gone farther.” Col McRae of the 15th NC coolly withdrew his regiment by alternate companies, keeping up a steady fire on the Federals and slowing their pursuit of the disorganized Confederates.10 The 48th Regiment had advanced only about halfway down the hill and now followed the remainder of the brigade back up the slope.

The support promised by Hill did not arrive in time. Walker’s Brigade did not advance promptly as Hill intended, becoming lost in the heavy woods. The failure of Walker’s troops to arrive quickly permitted Federals skirmishers to move up in force on the right of Cooke’s Brigade. During the attack, Hill ordered up guns from McIntosh’s Battalion to support Cooke and Kirkland, but their fires were of little help to the infantry and the crews suffered from the counterbattery fire. As the infantry retreated, calls for help from the batteries for infantry support went unanswered and Walker’s men were too far off to assist. The batteries had lost so many men that they could not move the guns off the hill in time to avoid capture. Federal skirmishers overran the position and captured two guns.

The attack, which had promised so much, ended in failure an hour and a half later. Hill’s haste in launching the attack and his failure to move his troops more quickly to support the leading brigades against the well-positioned Federals resulted in heavy losses to his force with no real damage to the Federals. The Confederates launched no further attacks that day. It was clear to the North Carolinians that Hill, and perhaps Heth, had blundered. Hill would bear the burden of blame for the repulse, but the Tar Heels of Cooke’s and Kirkland’s brigades would pay the price for Hill’s mistake. The 27th NC took 416 men into the fight, losing 30 men killed in action and another 174 wounded. Of the 36 officers in the attack, 33 were hit. The number of captured was not listed, but Companies B, C, and G reported men taken prisoner. The brigade lost 60 killed and 429 wounded. Despite this heavy loss in the regiment, James Graham wrote to his father on October 17: “ I never saw troops fight better than our own regiment did.”11 Still, the defeat weighed heavy in the mind of the army’s commander. Hill took General Lee over the field and explained the course of the fight. It was clear that Lee was greatly disappointed with Hill’s conduct of the battle and told him to “…bury these poor men and let us say no more about it.”

1This overview of the regiment to October 1863 is summarized from information in James Graham, “Twenty Seventh Regiment” in Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War, 1861-65, ed. Walter Clark, (Goldsboro, NC: Nash Brothers, 1901) volume II, pp 422-446. Cited hereafter as NC Regts.

2Unless otherwise noted, the summary of the battle is based on information in Douglas S. Freeman, Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1945), Vol III, pp 239-247; NC Regts, II, pp 440-444 and Col E.D. Hall’s report in United States War Department, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1900) Series 1, Volume 29, Part 1,434-436. Also see Maj. David McIntosh’s report on pp 436-438 for the actions of his artillery battalion. The brigade casualty returns are listed on page 413.

3NC Regts, II, p 440.

4See map of the battlefield in G. B. Davis, et al, Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1891-1895, Reprinted 1983), Map XLV, No. 7.

5John A. Sloan, Reminiscences of the Guilford Greys, Co. B 27th N.C. Regiment (Washington, D.C.: R.O.Polkinhorn, 1883, reprinted 1999), p.69.

6Sloan, p 70

7Sloan, p 70

8Sloan, p 70

9NC Regts, II, pp 442-443.

10N.B. Kearney, “Fifteenth Regiment”, NC Regts, I, p 743.

11H.M. Wagstaff, ed., “The James A. Graham Papers, 1861-1884” in The James Sprunt Historical Studies, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1928), Vol. 20, No. 2 , p 162.

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August 23, 2008