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The regiment’s core, known as the Petersburg Battalion, included five infantry companies: the Petersburg City Guard; the Petersburg Old or ‘A’ Grays; the Petersburg New or ‘B’ Grays; the Lafayette Guards; and the Petersburg Riflemen. Only the Old Grays and the City Guard had drilled regularly before John Brown’s October 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Organized as the Petersburg Grays in 1828, the Old Grays served in the Mexican War. The City Guard formed in 1852. The Grays and the City Guard served in the security detail at Charles Town, Virginia, for Brown’s hanging on December 2, 1859.
In response to Brown’s raid, active militia companies multiplied throughout the South. Before the end of 1859, three more began drilling regularly in Petersburg: a second company of the Petersburg Grays, called the New or ‘B’ Grays as the first company became the Old or ‘A’ Grays; the Lafayette Guards, and the Petersburg Riflemen.
George Smith Bernard joined the Riflemen as a private on December 1, 1859. Born in Orange County and educated at the University of Virginia, he practiced law in Petersburg. “Let another such attempt as John Brown’s be made, and the question will be settled at the point of the bayonet,” Bernard recorded.
By April 19, 1861, Virginia’s convention had voted in favor of secession. Responding to Governor John Letcher, the Petersburg Battalion assembled. Its soldiers enlisted for one year in the state army. Many other Petersburg men joined that day. Some of them had come from afar. For example, William Crawford Smith had moved to Nashville, Tennessee, but returned to Petersburg to enlist as a private in the Old Grays.
After the Petersburg Battalion’s arrival at Portsmouth, Virginia on April 20, it became part of the Norfolk garrison. Petersburg men continued to join the battalion’s ranks. Alexander Whitworth Archer was working as a store clerk in New York City at the war’s outbreak. The sight of Yankee troops marching down Broadway on the way to fight his people inspired him to return to Virginia, where he enlisted as a private in the Old Grays. “York” became his nickname. Other men joined as well. Westwood Todd, a Norfolk lawyer educated at Norfolk Academy and the College of William and Mary, enlisted as a private in the City Guard and later transferred to the Riflemen, which he considered the flower of Petersburg. The Riflemen had more college graduates in their ranks and produced more officers than any other of the 12th’s companies, including Todd, who would become a second lieutenant and brigade ordnance officer.
Orders assigned the Petersburg Battalion to the 12th Regiment Virginia Volunteers in the Virginia State Forces. Soldiers referred to the command as “the Petersburg Regiment.” The commandant at Norfolk attached infantry companies to the 12th from the same part of the state as Petersburg, including the Archer Rifles, Lee’s Life Guard, the Hargrave Blues, the Huger Grays and the Richmond Grays. The Archer Rifles’ Cpl. George Douglas Chappell, a bartender, said the company had representatives of nearly every class of men, “from a Methodist preacher down to a horse thief.” The Rifles formed in Petersburg in May. Lee’s Life Guard was also recruited in Petersburg in May. The Blues in were recruited in Dinwiddie County adjacent to Petersburg in June. The Grays were raised in Greensville and Brunswick Counties during June.
Detached from the 1st Virginia in April and dispatched to Norfolk, the Richmond Grays had formed in 1844. The Grays, remembered Pvt. Miles Turpin Phillips of that company, a paper hanger and upholsterer, “were considered the best drilled and equipped of any company in the state.” This company, like the Petersburg Old Grays, had served in the Mexican War. Like the City Guard and Old Grays, the Richmond Grays had served in the security detail for John Brown’s hanging. James Eldred Phillips, a master tinsmith, enlisted as a private in the Richmond Grays just before their departure for Norfolk. He recalled:
Honor is all that convinced me in the war. If I had not belonged to a soldier Co., Richmond Grays, I don’t know whether I would have gone in at all or not, as I had nothing to fight for. Did not own anything, not even a negro’s toe nail. Was not mad with anyone. Did not want war like very many others of the best men. Was opposed to secession.
Petersburg men continued to come from afar to join the regiment. The son of a Petersburg cotton broker, William Evelyn Cameron left in 1858 to attend the Military Institute in Hillsboro, North Carolina, and then St. Louis’ Washington College in 1859. In 1860, he studied for West Point entry. Though admitted, he did not attend because of the war. Instead, he joined the Missouri State Guard as a drillmaster. On May 9, 1861, he fell into enemy hands. Released soon afterward, he returned to Petersburg and on June 4 enlisted as a private in the City Guard.
On July 12, the Norfolk commandant designated the companies that would constitute the 12th Regiment Virginia Infantry in Confederate service. The Petersburg Battalion furnished the first five companies. The City Guard became Company A, the Old Grays B, the New Grays C, the Lafayette Guards D and the Riflemen E. The Huger Grays formed Company F. The Richmond Grays became Company G.
A company that had not belonged to the 12th in state service joined the regiment, becoming Company H. Formed in 1802, the Norfolk Juniors constituted the oldest militia company in Norfolk.
The Hargrave Blues became Company I, the Archer Rifles, Company K.
Lee’s Life Guard did not join the regiment in Confederate service but became Company K, 16th Regiment Virginia Infantry.
Within two months, Private Bernard became ill and received a medical discharge. This led to the most detailed description of a company’s recruitment by anyone in the 12th.
Reinforcements continued reaching Norfolk through April 1862. They included Bernard. Recovered from his illness, he had started teaching school in Greensville County, a few miles north of Belfield in January 1862. Within two weeks, teaching became oppressive. News of the Confederate disasters at Roanoke Island and Forts Henry and Donelson convinced Bernard that he belonged with the army. “Like all ex-privates desiring to return to the service I of course desired to go back in the best capacity possible,” he wrote. He found two appealing opportunities–a sergeancy in the Meherrin Grays, “a very good company” to be organized in Belfield, and a lieutenancy in a Petersburg company with “certain little things objectionable in their character which perhaps will make me hesitate to accept even a very good position….”
On February 22, he took the sergeancy in the Meherrin Grays, who like the Huger Grays came from Brunswick and Greensville Counties. Bernard remembered the rank and file as a “heterogeneous collection of rough country men” recruited by, among others, First Lt. Joseph Richard Manson, a Brunswick County farmer educated at Randolph-Macon College. Manson was a kinsman of Bernard, who became third sergeant. The War Department assigned the Grays to the 12th.
Reaching Norfolk on April 19, the Grays replaced the Hargrave Blues as the 12th’s Company I. The 12th’s other soldiers nicknamed the Meherrin Grays “the Herrings.” They arrived while about seventy-five disgruntled militiamen conscripted from Patrick County in southwest Virginia were assigned to the under-recruited Lafayette Guards. At least twenty-two of these militiamen would die of disease during the war, a death rate exceeding that of any other group in the regiment.
Except for individuals and a group of conscripts in 1864, the recruitment of the regiment was complete.
The 12th had a predominantly urban character. It contained a high proportion of educated men. At least forty soldiers had attended institutions of higher learning. Many others had attended private secondary schools. The regiment had only fifty-seven illiterates, twenty-nine of them rural men. Of the regiment’s 1,538 soldiers, 134 served as commissioned officers. Seven others served as surgeons or assistant surgeons. Three more served as chaplains.
The skills possessed by soldiers who lacked college and postgraduate degrees appeared in the details, detachments and special discharges their possessors received. At least 332 men went on details or detached service. More than 100 of them probably never returned to the 12th from such duty. A dozen others had such important skills that they received special discharges.
One hundred and sixty-two of the regiment’s men listed clerk as their occupation when enlisting. Their administrative and clerical skills made them indispensible for rear echelon work. Other soldiers had mechanical skills making them too valuable to risk on the battlefield.
Urban troops benefited from exposure to disease. In a war in which deaths from disease outnumbered battle fatalities, the reverse prevailed in the 12th and most of the deaths from disease occurred among its rural soldiers.
For notes and bibliography, see The Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War: A History of the 12th Virginia Infantry from John Brown’s Hanging to Appomattox, 1859-1865 (Savas Beatie, 2019), winner of the 2019 Army Historical Foundation Distinguished Writing Award for unit history.