Crutchfield’s Last Stand at Sailor’s Creek

CrutchfieldBrigade-FinalMomentsThe column that made up Gen. Richard Ewell’s Reserve Corps of Richmond defenders was a colorful lot: the veterans of Gen. Joseph Kershaw’s division (formerly McLaws’); the sailors and marines of Capt. John Tucker’s Naval Battalion; and Col. Stapleton Crutchfield’s Heavy Artillery Battalions serving as Infantry, along with Loyal Defense Troops that made up part of Gen. Custis Lee’s Division. On the drizzly morning of April 6, 1865, they trudged their way along muddy roads as part of the rapidly fading hopes of the Confederacy. At the time, Ewell and Gen. Richard Anderson made the fateful decision to make a stand against the Union Cavalry nipping at their heels.

The delay, however, allowed Union Infantry to come in range, and Ewell and Anderson found themselves nearly surrounded along the muddy slopes along the rain-swollen banks of Sailor’s Creek.

Soon after the war, Custis Lee would describe the fight of Crutchfield’s Artillerymen:

About 10 or 11 o’clock on the morning of the 6th the enemy being discovered in close proximity, the brigade was formed in line of battle faced to the left. I presumed to cover the passage of the trains. But the enemy contented himself with shelling the trains and the road by which the troops passed. But no one was hurt.

After crossing Sailor’s Creek, and while halted near the crest of the hill beyond it, the enemy was discovered advancing in heavy force towards our left and rear. His artillery came up rapidly and took position on the summit of the hill we had recently passed over, on the other side of the creek, near the houses of Hillsmans’ farm., and not more than 350 and 400 yards from us, as I have ascertained by a subsequent careful examination of the ground.

The division immediately formed line, facing to the rear, about one-third of the distance down the hill, Crutchfield’s Brigade on the right. But before the line was formed, and while the greater part of the troops were yet moving to their position, the enemy opened fire with case, shells, and canister.

The 18th Georgia was on the extreme right of the brigade; next stood the Chaffin’s Bluff troops, Major Robert Stiles. In consequence of the transfer of Major Gibbes on the day previous, to Hardaway’s Battalion of Artillery, the command of these two battalion had devolved on myself. The conformation of the ground was such that I could see distinctly only these two battalions after getting into position. Consequently, whatever I have to state further relates to them alone.

The different battalions moved up successively from right to left. No sooner were the colors of the 18th Georgia and Chaffin’s Bluff troops established, than the enemy directed his fire upon those commands with great rapidity and accuracy. But both battalions dressed up to their colors with as much steadiness and formality as if on parade. I observed particularly the Chaffin’s Bluff companies, as I was told they had never before been engaged. There was something surprising in their perfect steadiness and order. By this time many casualties having occurred, and the enemy’s fire becoming remarkably accurate and severe, the troops were directed to lie down in their places. But notwithstanding this precaution, many of Major Stiles’ command were killed and wounded. The 18th Georgia suffered not at all, as they lay in a slight depression of the ground. I do not think I had a man hurt by artillery during the engagement.

Covered by his artillery the enemy moved up his infantry in three lines of battle, preceded by skirmishers. As soon as our own skirmishers had retired, they were received with a general discharge from our whole line, which speedily threw their first line into confusion, killing and wounding considerable numbers.

Unable to face our fire, that line fell back in disorder, which, as I was afterwards told, they communicated to their second line. Such was the eagerness of Major Stiles’ men, that upon perceiving the enemy’s hesitation, they sprang up from their recumbent attitude and rushed upon them, fixing bayonets as they advanced; and it was with difficulty that Major Stiles and I could check them and restore the line. I was also afterwards informed, by other officers of the brigade that the enemy’s second line was broken in a similar manner by our fire, and that his third line was met by ours in a general advance with the bayonet, and driven back beyond the creek, when the flag of truce appeared announcing the surrender of the whole corps by General Ewell.

I communicate information received from others of what did not fall under my own observation, for the sake of the corroboration it may give to statements from other quarters. After the restoration of our line, broken, as just state, by the precipitate charge of Major Stiles’ command, my attention was confined to what took place on our extreme right, and I saw no more of the general engagement. [ missing text] adequate to praise them as they deserve. But while I have an opportunity to speak, the living must not lose, through my silence, their claim to the gratitude of their country, nor the dead that honorable mention which belongs to the soldier who falls in a righteous cause.

I have before stated that my battalion was on the extreme right of the brigade. Its right rested on the road by which we had marched after crossing the creek. On the other side of the road was a dense pine thicket, which concealed all beyond from view. Perhaps you will recollect passing the command early in the engagement, and telling me I might feel secure about my flank, as Kershaw’s Division was beyond the thicket; as I understood matters, with his extreme left covering our flank, his line being at right angles to ours.

After re-establishing Major Stiles’ Battalion, I passed up to our right. I had scarcely got there, when I perceived a large body of the enemy advancing through the thicket diagonally upon our flank, and already with in about forty yards. They could not have been seen at a greater distance, so close were the trees. I had but eighty-five men, but I could not leave the spot, nor was there a moment to spare. I changed front instantly (receiving, as the movement was made, a volley which proved fatal to several), and took position in a wide and shallow gully at the road-side. Perceiving that the superior numbers of the enemy would enable him to destroy us by his fire, I ordered bayonets fixed and attacked.

Through the extraordinary gallantry of the men, the attack was entirely successful. Many of the enemy were killed with the bayonet, and the rest were driven off in disorder, after a desperate struggle, distinguished by many acts of individual heroism. Lieutenant G. M. Turner, though previously wounded on the skirmish line, joined in the charge, and was shot down in the act of saving the life of a comrade. Lieutenant W. D. Grant took a regimental flag from the hands of its bearer, and was prostrated by mortal wounds immediately after delivering it to me. Sergeant George James is reported to have taken another, and fell shortly after. Captain G. C. Rice was over powered by an officer of the enemy of greatly superior size and strength, in Confederate uniform, and was shot by him on the ground, after he had surrendered. Lieutenant W. H. King revenged him and was himself killed on the instant. Sergeant C. B. Postal, [ missing text ] F. Tupper, pursuing too far, fell mortally wounded on the bank of the creek, about 300 yards from our position.

I hope I did not commit an error in taking this course. The safety of the brigade was at stake. If my brave fellows had flinched or given way, the enemy would have thrown himself on our flank, and the general loss must have been much greater than it was.

I had scarcely reassembled the remnant of the battalion in its original position, with but one officer unwounded besides myself, when you passed by and reassured me as to my apprehensions of further molestation from that quarter by the information that other troops had been sent to guard that approach. They probably never reached their destination; for in a very few minutes another but smaller body of the enemy came on over the same ground. Supposing them to be some of our own troops giving way, I took my men out to rally them and discovered that they were enemies only when within a few paces. I attempted, as our only recourse, to repeat the attack which has just terminated so well; but over powered by superior numbers, though fighting to the last, all the rest of the command were killed, wounded or taken. Sergeants R. Millen and S. Morton stood to the last before their colors, keeping at bay a party of about fifty men, and were the last to fall.

Seeing then but one officer and the non-commissioned staff remaining, I displayed my handkerchief in token of surrender. As I did so, the enemy, hitherto sheltering themselves behind the trees, rushed into the road, and fired upon my wounded who lay in the gully before mentioned. It was with the greatest difficulty they could be induced to cease from this barbarity I mention this closing incident as one more of the numerous atrocities which indicated the relentless spirit in which the war was waged against us.

The loss in the 18th Georgia Battalion was thirty killed, including those who subsequently died of their wounds, and twenty-two wounded; in all sixty-one per cent. of the number engaged.

Major Stiles conjectured the loss in his command to have been about 100 killed and wounded. I do not know of any attempt to estimate the loss in the rest of the brigade.

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3 Responses to Crutchfield’s Last Stand at Sailor’s Creek

  1. David Corbett says:

    Interesting article. Firing on the wounded ? Thanks for bringing this to light.

  2. Great post! Do you have any information on the death of Colonel Crutchfield? I know he was killed during the Appomattox Campaign, but I don’t have any other details.
    Also, I agree with David Corbett – very tragic that they were firing on the wounded. The war was ending; why did they need to kill men who might have had a chance to live? So sad…

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