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Battle of the Wilderness
Southern Historical Society Papers

Headquarters McGowan's Brigade,
In lines near Petersburg,
September 1st, 1864.

Major; -- In obedience to orders from division headquarters, July 15th, 1864, I have the honor to submit the following report of the engagements of this campaign in which my brigade participated under my command.



          About noon of Wednesday, 4th May, under the orders of Major General Wilcox, my brigade left their winter quarters on the Rapidan and marched through Orange Courthouse, following General Heth's division down the Plank road towards Fredericksburg. That night we bivouacked near Vediersville. The next morning took up the line of march in the same order; heard skirmishing in front, and about 2 o'clock P.M. reached the point in the Wilderness where the column had halted in the presence of the enemy. Poague's battalion of artillery was in position on an eminence in a little old field on the left of the road. Heavy firing at some distance to our left and front indicated an engagement of General Ewell, who had marched down the turnpike parallel with and between the Plank road and the river. In order, as I supposed, to cooperate with General Ewell, our division left the Plank road at Poague's artillery, and, filing square to the left, advanced about half a mile, and reaching open fields, formed line of battle looking towards the right of General Ewell, then in sight. The brigades of Generals Lane and Thomas advanced some distance. My brigade was formed perpendicular to the line of advance to support it Whilst in this position a heavy fire of musketry was opened on our right at the Plank road upon the division of General Heth. An officer of Lieutenant General Hill's staff in a few minutes galloped up, and in the absence of General Wilcox (who was with Generals Lane and Thomas) ordered me to return at once to the Plank road. As the fire was very heavy, I did return hastily without waiting for the orders of Major General Wilcox. As I approached the point of fire, I met General Lee, who directed me to proceed down the Plank road and report to General Heth, who was conducting the fight. I did so, and was directed by him to deploy my brigade on both sides of the Plank road, and, if possible, drive the enemy down towards the Brock road. I was instructed to put three regiments on the left and two on the right of the road; but as the formation was made under fire. I soon perceived that the enemy pressed heaviest on the right of the road and I therefore took the liberty to place three regiments on that side. The Twelfth (Colonel J.L. Miller) on the extreme right; on his left the Rifles (Lieutenant Colonel McDuffie Miller); on the left of the road the Thirteenth (Colonel Brockman); and the Fourteenth (Colonel Brown) on the extreme left. In this order we pressed through the dense undergrowth, and, passing over the line of General Heth, which was lying down, charged the enemy and drove him some distance -- four or five hundred yards -- the whole extent of our front. A battery in the road fired two or three rounds of grape after the charge commenced but as we approached the guns (two) were hastily removed (leaving one caisson) down the road by hand, and were not used again. We passed over the dead and wounded of the enemy, and through his lines, until our left struck and crossed a marsh and there was no firing in our front, except a little on our extreme right. The firing on both flanks and to our rear still continuing very heavy, I halted the brigade, and as the firing seemed closing in behind us, information of our position was given to General Wilcox, who directed the brigade to be withdrawn through the gap made. On our return, the enemy was so near the road on both sides that their balls crossed each other. They pressed so close to the road on the left that I sent a part of the brigade in to drive them back, where they found General Thomas -- engaging them. It was now sundown, and this portion of the brigade remained with General Thomas all night. The remaining portion was massed on the road to the left of General Thomas. Night closed in and the firing ceased, both sides retaining the ground on which they had fought.

          In this charge the brigade behaved extremely well. They drove the enemy at ail points and captured some prisoners. If our force had been sufficient to drive the enemy in the same way along the whole front, the bloodshed of the next day might possibly have been prevented.

          The night of the 5th was an anxious one. The troops stood to their arms all night in the same broken order in which they were at the close of the fight; the line, if any, was something like an irregular horse -- shoe -- no two brigades touching each other. They had made a good march in the forenoon of that day, and then had fought until after dark. Hungry, thirsty and fatigued, they had to pass a sleepless night, during the long hours of which the enemy could be distinctly heard in the thick covert of the Wilderness making arrangements to envelop them. It was expected that we would be relieved about daylight by General Longstreet's corps, and hence, I suppose, the line was not re-adjusted; but as the day began to dawn without any appearance of relief, and as I believed from many indications that the enemy would attack us as soon as they could see, I sent for the portion of the brigade left with General Thomas and formed line of battle at an angle with the Plank road and facing the enemy on that (the left) side of the road. As soon as it was light enough, the enemy could be seen moving on our front, rear and right, completely enveloping us, except up the Plank road in the direction from which they had come. At the request of General Thomas, who was to my right and already nearly cut off, I advanced my brigade to shove the enemy farther from the road and prevent him from being entirely surrounded. Whilst I was advancing and driving the enemy's skirmishers, I saw a brigade retiring in haste and confusion up the road in my rear. A moment after, I saw Thomas rolling up from the right and also passing in my rear, pressed by the enemy coming up the road. My brigade, fighting the enemy in front, and being thus uncovered upon the right and rear, seeing all the other troops retiring and themselves in danger of being surrounded and captured, also began to roll up from the right and fell back a short distance in confusion. It was mortifying, but under the circumstances could not be helped. The left regiment, the Rifles, remained unbroken and came off in good order. The brigade was not demoralized or panic stricken, but acted from necessity. They reformed at once in rear of Poague's artillery, which opened upon and checked the advancing enemy. At this moment the enemy had even flanked the eminence where the artillery stood -- their balls reaching that position from the south side of the road, and Lieutenant General Hill directed me to cross the road and drive them back. I obeyed at once, and in crossing the road came for the first time in contact with General Longstreet's forces, then just coming up. Soon after, I was directed to recross the road and proceed to the left and endeavor to open communication with the right of General Ewell. We drove the enemy's sharpshooters from a house and had a sharp skirmish, but in a short time succeeded in connecting with the right of General Ewell. We here threw up breastworks and lay upon our arms the remainder of the day.

          In these operations I am grieved to have to report that our loss was heavy, being an aggregate of 481 killed and wounded, including 43 missing. A full statement of casualties has already been rendered. Colonel John L. Miller, Lieutenant J.R. McKnight and Lieutenant J.A. Garvin, of the Twelfth; Lieutenant S.L. Wier, of the Thirteenth; Lieutenant B.J. Watkins and Lieutenant J.H. Tolar, of the Rifles, were killed; and Lieutenant Colonel E.F. Bookter, Lieutenant J.A. Watson, of the Twelfth; Lieutenant B.S. Howard, Lieutenant H.H. Heise, Captain Josiah Cox, Captain John G. Barnwell, Lieutenant L.G. Bellot and Captain W.A. Kelly, of the First; Lieutenant J.A. Beard, of the Thirteenth; Major H.H. Harper and Captain J.W. McCarly, of the Fourteenth, and Lieutenant J.H. Robins, Captain R. Junkin, Lieutenant J.R. Saddle, Lieutenant T.B. Means, of the Rifles, were wounded.

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