By all accounts there was still plenty of fight and morale left in the ” butternut scarecrows” in the the Army Of Northern Virginia during the last days before its surrender. After the long hellish never ending march in mud that was “axle deep” on the wagons that carried what little supplies they had left, the Army made its way to Sayler’s creek. Grant himself said ” there was as much gallantry displayed by some of the Confederates in these little engagements as was displayed at any time during the war.
Finally free of the earth works around Petersburg and the responsibility of defending Richmond, the rebels were free to maneuver. Something Bobby Lee excelled at. They were ready to fight. They got that fight as they came to a fork in a little known road beside a stream called Saylor’s Creek.
The battle that would start that day began early and only grew in intensity as the sun came up. At Hillsman House, a confederate Matron frantically passed out ashcakes to starving CSA soldiers until Fedreal troops over ran her home. The battle began in earnest at the start of the afternoon when two gaps opened in Lee’s line in the middle and near the front. Federal cavalry rushed in through the holes. Soon three Union corps had cut off a quarter of Lee’s army. A row of artillery batteries followed, smashing into Confederates who had been caught in the muddy swale. ” I had seldom seen a fire more accurate nor one that had been more deadly” one rebel noted. Off balance from exhaustion , lack of food, the rebels were stunned.
Sheridan did not waste time in taking advantage of the moment. ” Go through them! They’re demoralized as hell!” Well, not quite. At the sight of the yankees they rallied. Rebel batteries got into position, anchored theur lines and trained their barres on the advancing federals, while infantry got down in position and got their muskets working at the enemy. It was the start to fighting that would go above and beyond the worst savagery of earlier in the war.
One Union soldier said ” The bullets began to fall as hailstones around us. The bullets fell thicker and faster, the leaden missiles were as thick as mosquitoes.” Then “came the horror of stepping on the wounded.” And then. ” When I felt a dull blow in the neighborhood o my left hip. I realized I was shot.”
The slopes quickly filled with the thick smell of powder and smoke and the sound of cries of terror. After the rebel order of “Fire!” the line of advancing bluecoats withered and broke. The crisis was apparently over. Then things got worse as the violence escalated to an unheard of degree as the fighting degenerated and “insensate killing began”.
The famous rebel discipline vanished and the starving confederates sprang to their feet with empty rifles and started after the retreating federals. Catching up to the bluecoats, they became entangled in the in vicious hand to hand combat. ” Men struck one another with bayonets, flogged one another with the butts of their guns, ad flailed at one another with feet.” “I remember the yell of demonic triumph with which that simple country lad clubbed his musket and whirled savagely upon another vivtim” observed one commander. That was just the start.
Grabbing one another, they rolled on the ground like beasts, biting one another’s throats and ears and noses with their teeth. Blood flowed and rose and so did the tempters. Even the officers lost their cool and tossed aside their guns and began fighting with swords and when the swords dulled or broke, going to fists and feet and teeth worked up into a blood rage. The battle worked into such a blood thirsty affair that the point of the fight no longer had anything to do with taking ground or some tactical advantage. It became killing for killing or as for Battalion colors.
For the next five hours other parts of the line joined in with similar acts of blood thirst. “They clubbed their muskets, fired pistols at eash other’s faces and used the bayonet savagely.” noted one Federal officer. Another noted ,” One Berkshire man was stabbed in the chest by a bayonet and pinned to the ground as it came out near his spine. He reloaded his gun and killed the confederate who fell across him.” As the insane melee grew, men accidentally killed their own. “I saw a young fellow of one of my companies jam the muzzle of his musket against the back of the head of his most intimate frien, clad in a yankee overcoat, and blow his brains out,” remembered a surviving Confederate.
“I never before got into a fight like that”.
The yankees kept coming and the rebels assault became more disorganized. They could not maintain the ferocity and eventually the weight of the federal army started to gain advantage. The reverse came came quickly. BY the end of the day they were overwhelmedand the dead lay so close thick that the dead had to be dragged away so a single horse could pass.
“My God!” General Lee cried out as his men came back to the rear, ” Has the army been dissolved?”
General Mahone, riding at his side responded.” No general, here are troops ready to do their duty.”
Mahone had his men draw into aline to hold back the Federals. Lee’s temper flares as he was drawn tot he fight. He leaned forward and snatched up a battle flag to rally the fresh troops and retreating men. Riding past troops, he held the flag staff high in one hand. He came to a rise and stopped and waited. A wind caught the flag causing it to flap and snap around him, draping him in confederate red. “Mahone’s men fell deathly silent, and then this collective hush was punctuated by a scattered spontaneous cry emanating from the frenzied survivors stumbling back.”
“Where is the man who won’t follow Uncle Robert!”