As Confederate General Cullen A. Battle walked among his regiments during the battle of The Wilderness, he saw the mental strain of war on his men. Unlike other generals who had no patience with so-called shirkers, Battle responded with remarkable compassion:
As the 61st was a new regiment I went in with it – and the only thing I said to them during the fight was: “steady, not so fast.” After the fight I, accompanied by my gallant aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Henry R. Shorter (as was my custom) walked over the battleground, to some extent. Soon I saw one of Swanson’s men – a perfect giant – lying flat on the ground and breathing heavily. I approached and touched him. He bounced up and tragically said, “Bless your Soul, General, they are all killed but us.”
A little further on was a boy, not more than 16, standing at a tree, as if he was glued to it. Then this passed between us: “Move on and get with your command.”
“Why can’t you?”
“I don’t know, Sir, but I feel like I am going to fall all to pieces.”
“All right – go back to the hospital and tell Dr. Whitfield I sent you there. Don’t pretend that you are sick or wounded; and when you get so you don’t feel like you are going to fall to pieces come back to your regiment.” That boy made a first rate soldier – rough treatment would have ruined him; kindness made a man of him.[i]
Born on June 1, 1829, Cullen Andrews Battle grew up in Georgia and Alabama. By age twenty-two, he had graduated from Alabama’s state university and was practicing law. Known for his oratory skills, Battle was actively involved in politics and even served as an elector in the Electoral College for John C. Breckinridge in the 1860 presidential election. With Breckinridge’s political loss, Battle went on a speaking tour, urging secession, and then volunteered for military service, beginning as the 3rd Alabama Infantry’s lieutenant colonel. He and his regiment fought during the Seven Days’ Battles, at Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg before approaching the 1864 Overland Campaign. Battle promoted to colonel after the fight at Seven Pines in June 1862 and to brigadier general in August 1863.[ii] Historian Ezra J. Warner notes in Battle’s biographical sketch in Generals in Gray that some sources claim Battle promoted to major general, but that he did not find reliable sourcing for this claim.
During the battle of The Wilderness, Battle commanded a brigade of Alabamians in Rode’s Division of the Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia. The 3rd, 5th, 6th, 12th, and 61st** Alabama formed along the Orange Turnpike on May 5, 1864, acting in support of Jones’s Virginia brigade which held the high points at the west end of Saunders Field. Union General Warren pressed along the road, trying to clear the Confederates from their position on the high ground overlooking Saunders Field. A decisive Union attack coordinated and led by General Joseph Bartlett broke Jones’s Confederate line, and Union victory looked probable on that portion of the field.
However, on the next rise of ground, General Battle had his brigade in line of battle. Seeing and hearing the combat ahead of him, he put his brigade into action, swinging them like a door from his rise of high ground, along the turnpike, and up into the breakthrough fight. Battle went into the combat with his “green regiment” – the 61st Alabama. Jones’s retreating men caused some temporarily confusion in the Alabama ranks, and at one point the 3rd and 5th regiments started to fall back, acting on an erroneous error from a Virginia officer to retreat to Mine Run. Battle and his officers corrected the error. Battle’s counterattack halted Bartlett’s advance, forcing the Union troops back across Saunders Field and allowing the Confederate line along the Orange Turnpike to hold and eventually receive more reinforcements.[iii]
The Alabamians continued to fight over Saunders Field as the combat raged, eventually making another decisive charge and capturing two Union cannon[iv]; however, North Carolinians of Steuart’s brigade claimed they had captured the guns, and a mini civil war within a Civil War erupted until the rest of Steuart’s brigade arrived and at least by intimidation set straight the historical record for that moment. (In his memoir, Battle credits the 61st Alabama with capturing the guns.)
Battle’s self-recorded moments of compassion toward his soldiers who were likely experiencing some form of “soldier’s heart” (traumatic stress) evidenced his leadership skills and care for those in his command. Later in the Overland Campaign, he penned a letter — semi-report, semi-protest—in the middle of the battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Again, pieces of evidence for Battle’s leadership and attention to his troops are seen throughout.
Written on May 9, 1864, the document protests “an unjust opinion” regarding “the conduct of this brigade in the action of yesterday.” Clearly, Battle wasted no time correcting bad rumors. The problem had started when “staff officers at higher headquarters” claimed that “Battle’s brigade would not advance.” The general followed quickly with his thesis statement: “The simple truth is that in obedience to your order I advanced, passing a line of our troops then engaging the enemy on our front; charged the enemy and drove him rapidly for about 600 yards.” After giving more details of his advance and the other Confederates troops around him, Battle clarified: “All Confederate troops in that vicinity retired together by your order. There is not a particle of truth in the report that this brigade was drive back…. These are plain facts. If they justify censure let it be given, but I protest against staff officers speaking without the card.”[v]
In his report about his brigade’s charge on May 8th at Spotsylvania, Battle said:
“I attempted to lead forward all the troops at that point. To accomplish this purpose, I took the colors of the Third Alabama in my hand, went forward, and asked the men to follow. I regret to say that the result did not correspond with my high hopes and confident expectations, a result no doubt greatly attributable to physical exhaustion from long marching, constant labor, and their rapid advance.” [emphasis added][vi]
Again, in a postscript to his protest report, Battle acknowledged the condition of his troops: “The men are still much exhausted…but if service requires it, and the honor of my command requires it, we are ready for action.”[vii]
Many of the troops in Battle’s brigade seemed fond of their commander. During the battle of Spotsylvania Court House where “trenches ran blood and trees were cut down by musket balls[,] Battle’s brigade was in the thickest of the fight.” Under these circumstances, Battle’s soldiers tried to share food with him.
“There was a lull in the storm, and, for some reason, I was standing out in open view of the enemy. The soldiers called to me to come down in the trenches. One of them—I think it was one of the Ely boys of Bullock County—said to me, “General, please come here. I have got some ham and biscuits Mother sent me, and it will do her lots of good to know that you ate some of her ham and biscuits.” [presumably the general delayed] “You won’t come?” [presumably another delay] “Then I will go to you.” He sprang to my side, and just as I took the ham and biscuit his mother had sent him, a ball struck him, and he fell dead at my feet. Some time during the day Lieutenant Shorter, my ever faithful aide-de-camp, took a seat by me on a log, and said, “Brig, don’t you want a biscuit?” he handed me one, but before I could take it from his fingers a ball knocked it from his hand. Always calm and collected, he smiled, and looking towards the Federal line said, “Stop your snatching; if I had known you wanted it I would have sent it to you.”[viii]
Despite the close calls, General Battle survived the Overland Campaign relatively unscathed, though he did reference a foot injury in his May 9th protest report. The commander and his brigade of Alabamians later transferred to the Shenandoah Valley, fighting prominently at Third Winchester and Cedar Creek. On October 19, 1864, during the morning flank attack at Cedar Creek, Battle was seriously wounded. He survived but did not return to active field command. After the war, he returned to Alabama, practiced law, got elected to Congress (but was prevented from serving due to the Reconstruction politics), edited a newspaper in North Carolina, and eventually became mayor of New Bern, North Carolina. He wrote his war memoirs which were not published during his lifetime. Cullen Battle died on April 8, 1905, and he is buried in Petersburg, Virginia.[ix]
Perhaps a fitting conclusion to General Battle’s leadership toward his soldiers, especially during the early battles of the Overland Campaign, is found in reflecting his own words. “Kindness made a man of him.”
**Some order of battle lists include the 26th Alabama and not the 61st Alabama in Battle’s brigade. The two regiments switched places, with the 26th departing to guard prisoners. According to Battle’s post-war writings and battle report for Spotsylvania which is included in the Official Records, the 61st was with his brigade at the time of The Wilderness.
[i] Cullen A. Battle, edited by Brandon H. Beck, Third Alabama! The Civil War Memoir of of Brigadier General Cullen Andrews Battle, CSA (Tuscaloosa, The University of Alabama Press, 2000). Page 107.
[ii] Ezra J. Warner, Generals in Gray (Baton Rogue, Louisiana State University Press, 1959). Page 20.
[iii] Gordon C. Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864 (Baton Rogue, Louisiana Statue University Press, 1994). Pages 154, 159.
[iv] Official Report 284, Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell. Official Records, Series I, Volume 36, Part 1, Reports.
[v] Official Report 290, Brig. Gen. Cullen A. Battle. Official Records, Series I, Volume 36, Part 1, Reports.
[viii] Cullen A. Battle, edited by Brandon H. Beck, Third Alabama! The Civil War Memoir of of Brigadier General Cullen Andrews Battle, CSA (Tuscaloosa, The University of Alabama Press, 2000). Page 111.
[ix] Ezra J. Warner, Generals in Gray (Baton Rogue, Louisiana State University Press, 1959). Page 20.