Without a doubt, the most famous Confederate army was the Army of Northern Virginia, the principal eastern army of the Confederacy. The reason for this fame is simple: under the leadership of General Robert E. Lee, this army won numerous victories over its larger and better equipped opponent, the Army of the Potomac.
Although the Army of Northern Virginia wasn’t officially organized until 1862, it had its origins in the armies created around Richmond, Virginia, in 1861 for the defense of the Confederate capitol. Among the troops that flocked to Richmond at this time were a number of Mississippi infantry regiments. These units were the first from the state to see combat against the Yankees.
The Mississippians first “Saw the Elephant” during the battle of First Manassas, July 21, 1861. In the fight Confederate forces under Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard combined with those of Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston to repulse the Union advance from Washington, D.C. The combined Confederate army that won the battle was initially known as the Army of the Potomac, which can be quite confusing as the main Union army they were facing was known as the Army of the Potomac.
In the battle of First Manassas, five Mississippi units were engaged: the 2nd, 11th, 13th, 17th, and 18th Mississippi infantry regiments. They suffered combined casualties of 84 men killed or wounded during the course of the fighting.
Private Abner O. South of the 2nd Mississippi Infantry gave this interesting, it somewhat poorly spelled, description of the battle: “The fight was for 8 or to miles up and down Bull Run and back from it some two miles on our side about 3/4 on there side. Bumbs shells, and mortars buzing and flying in evey direction all over the field and when faling bursting and spreading destruction all around. The fight commenced about 6 oClock in the morning and lasted until dark even in the night. They commenced retreating about 4 o Clock from where we were in the utmost confussion the first running over those behind…it was the most complete rout ever known in history.”
In addition to the five regiments that fought at First Manassas, by the end of 1861 there were five more Mississippi units serving in Virginia: the 12th, 16th, 19th, and 21st infantry regiments and the 2nd Mississippi Infantry Battalion. They were joined in the summer of 1862 by the 42nd Mississippi Infantry, and the last Mississippi regiment to reach Virginia was the 26th Mississippi Infantry that was transferred to the east in 1864.
The artillery and cavalry branches of service were also had Mississippi units that served in the Army of Northern Virginia. There were two batteries of artillery: the Madison Light Artillery and the Confederate Guards Artillery. There was also one cavalry unit: the Jeff Davis Legion of Cavalry.
All told, between the infantry, artillery, and cavalry units from Mississippi that served in the Army of Northern Virginia during the war amounted to approximately 16,000 men.
The next Mississippians to see combat in Virginia were the soldiers of the 13th, 17th, and
18th infantry regiments who helped rout the Union forces at the battle of Ball’s Bluff on October 21, 1861. Leading the men from the Magnolia State was Colonel Winfield Scott Featherston of the 17th Mississippi Infantry who urged his men forward while shouting, “Charge Mississippians, Charge! Drive them into the Potomac or into eternity!”
After Ball’s Bluff, the Mississippians in Virginia had a relatively tranquil time in northern Virginia until the spring of 1862, when General Joseph E. Johnston began withdrawing south to block Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac that had traveled by water and landed on the Virginia peninsula southeast of Richmond, placing the Confederate capitol in grave peril of being captured.
Johnston moved his Rebels to the peninsula to oppose the Federal move on Richmond, but the Confederates had only 60,000 men to confront over 112,000 Yankees. On May 4, 1862, McClellan began his advance, and the Confederates were forced to fall back in the face of the much larger enemy army. In rear guard fighting at Williamsburg, Virginia, the 19th Mississippi Infantry and the 2nd Mississippi Battalion were both heavily engaged, with total casualties of 141 men killed or wounded. Johnson continued to retreat, leading his army into the defenses surrounding Richmond.
While the main armies were contending on the peninsula, Major General Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson was operating in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with a small army as a diversionary force. His mission was to draw Federal troops away from Richmond. Marching with Jackson was the 16th Mississippi Infantry, the only unit from the state to serve in his command during the war.
In the battle of Seven Pines, fought from May 31 – June 1, 1862, Johnston attempted to take the initiative away from the Federals by attacking an exposed portion of the Union army as it approached Richmond. Only two Mississippi units were heavily engaged at Seven Pines: the 12th Mississippi Infantry and the 2nd Mississippi Battalion. They suffered combined casualties of 280 men. The fight ended as a bloody draw, but it had one very important result – Johnston was wounded, and had to be replaced as army commander by General Robert E. Lee.
On taking command of the army, Lee officially changed its name to the Army of Northern Virginia. To deal with the Federal army threatening Richmond, he launched a series of attacks known as the Seven Days Battles because they lasted a full week, from June 25 – July 1, 1862. During this week the Mississippi units in the Army of Northern Virginia saw heavy combat, many for the first time, and casualties were high.
At the battle of Gaines’s Mill on June 27, the 2nd Mississippi Infantry and the 11th Mississippi Infantry had combined casualties of 55 men killed and 272 wounded. The Mississippi brigade of Brigadier General Winfield S. Featherston consisting of the 12th, 19th, and 2nd Battalion were also engaged at Gaines’s Mill, and three days later they were shot up again at the battle of Frayser’s Farm, suffering 666 casualties in the two engagements.
The Mississippi brigade of Brigadier General Richard Griffith consisting of the 13th, 17th,
18th, and 21st Mississippi infantry regiments did not see any serious action until June 29, when they fought at the battle of Savage Station. Casualties were light, but General Griffith was among the slain, and Colonel William Barksdale of the 13th Mississippi took over command of the brigade.
The final engagement of the Seven Days was Malvern Hill, fought on July 1, 1862. In this battle General Lee made one final attempt to destroy the Army of the Potomac. The Yankees were massed on Malvern Hill with plenty of artillery support, and the Confederates were slaughtered as they advanced into a maelstrom of fire. The Mississippi brigade commanded by Colonel Barksdale was shot to pieces in the battle. Barksdale later wrote that his men “Advanced upon the enemy under a terrible fire of shell, grape, canister, and minie balls…The entire command, although one-third of its number fell upon the field, maintained its ground with undaunted courage, and dealt bravely terrible blows upon the ranks of the enemy.”
Although the attack at Malvern Hill was a bloody failure, the Union army did retreat after the fight, ending the threat to Richmond. Lee had driven the enemy away from the Confederate capitol, so the campaign was a success, but it came at an extremely high cost. The Army of Northern Virginia had nearly 20,000 casualties, over 1,500 of them being Mississippians.
After the beating it had taken during the Seven Days, General McClellan was content to remain safely entrenched at Harrison’s Landing on the Virginia peninsula during July and August 1862. In the meanwhile, another Union army moved into Northern Virginia under the command of Major General John Pope. The Union high command eventually ordered McClellan to withdraw from the peninsula and join his force to Pope’s and then strike the Army of Northern Virginia with overwhelming force. Lee also saw the threat of the combined Union armies, and decided to strike Pope before the junction was effected. This move brought about the battle of Second Manassas on August 29-30, 1862. In the battle Lee split his forces and struck the Union army on the second day with a devastating attack on their flank that routed the Federals from the field. Casualties among the Mississippi units engaged in the battle were light, only 41 killed and 295 wounded.
After the smashing victory at Second Manassas, Lee wanted to press his advantage by taking the war to the north by invading Maryland. Unfortunately a copy of his plans for the campaign fell into the hands of General McClellan, and he used this information to move with greater speed than normal to attack Lee.
The Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia met at the battle of Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862. Lee’s army was badly outnumbered; with only 45,000 men facing McClellan’s 75,000. McClellan wasted much of this advantage in numbers, however, committing his troops piecemeal in a series of uncoordinated attacks, allowing Lee to move men around the battlefield to concentrate against each assault. In the bloodiest single day of the war, the two sides fought to a costly draw along the banks of Antietam Creek.
The carnage at Sharpsburg was almost unimaginable in scale: 2,100 Yankees and nearly 2,000 Confederates dead, and approximately 9,000 wounded on each side. The Mississippi regiments who fought in the battle suffered casualties of 852 men killed or wounded.
After the fighting had ended, Private Edward M. Burruss of the 21st Mississippi Infantry walked the ground where his regiment had fought, and he later wrote: “I had an opportunity of going over the battle field – in fact we were immediately on one of the very bloodiest parts of it. It is no figure of speech, metaphor or anything but a simple fact to say that there were frequently places where for 50 or 60 yards you could step from one dead Yank to another & walk all over the ground without once touching it with your foot. On one little knoll about 25 or 30 yds. square I myself counted 189 dead Yankees & they were no thicker there than in many other places.”
After the losses he suffered at Sharpsburg, Lee had to retreat back into Virginia to reorganize his worn out and depleted army. The Yankees aided Lee by not making a serious move until mid-November 1862 when the Army of the Potomac, by this time under the command of Major General Ambrose Burnside, marched on Fredericksburg, Virginia. But before Burnside could cross the Rappahannock River with his 122,000 men, Lee was able to concentrate his army, now back up to 78,500, at the town.
On December 11, 1862, the Federals began constructing pontoon bridges to cross the Rappahannock and take Fredericksburg. The assault was opposed by Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade, who fired on the Yankees from buildings along the waterfront. The Mississippians put up a stout defense, delaying the Union crossing until late in the day. Once the Federals managed to cross the river in force, Barksdale’s men contested the advance block by block as they withdrew to the main Confederate line of defense on the heights outside of Fredericksburg.
On December 13, Burnside attacked the entrenched Confederates, and the Union troops were mowed down by waves of Confederate musketry and artillery. The Yankees suffered 12,000 casualties before the attack was finally called off. Southern casualties were less than 5,000. Losses among the Mississippi troops engaged were negligible.
After the battle of Fredericksburg the Army of Northern Virginia went into winter quarters. They would not see any significant combat until late April 1863 when the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, Major General Joseph Hooker, surprised Lee by flanking the Confederate army at Fredericksburg and concentrating his men at a crossroads known as Chancellorsville. Hooker had 70,000 men in Lee’s rear, having left 40,000 men in front of Fredericksburg. Lee only had 60,000 men in the Army of Northern Virginia to oppose this massive Union force arrayed against him.
In the battle of Chancellorsville, May 1-4, 1863, Lee made a very bold move: leaving 10,000 men to hold his position at Fredericksburg, he took the remainder and went out to confront Hooker. On May 2, Lee divided his army again and sent Stonewall Jackson with 28,000 men to make a surprise attack on Hooker’s flank. Lee remained in front of the Union host with only 18,000 men. It was a gamble, but it paid rich dividends when Jackson smashed the unprepared Union flank. Hooker withdrew his army, battered but intact, and Lee could claim another victory. The cost, however, was high, as Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot by his own men and eventually died of his wounds. Mississippi losses in the battle were light: only 438 men killed or wounded out of a total of 13,000 casualties in the Army of Northern Virginia.
The Mississippi brigade commanded by Brigadier General Carnot Posey particularly
distinguished itself in the battle of Chancellorsville, and their division commander, Major General Richard H. Anderson later wrote in his official report on the battle: “Where all performed their duty with so much zeal and courage it is almost impossible to make a distinction: but Brigadier General Posey and his brave, untiring, persevering Mississippians seem to me to deserve special notice. Their steadiness at the furnace on Saturday evening, when pressed by greatly superior numbers, saved our army from great peril, while their chivalrous charge upon the trenches on Sunday contributed largely to the successes of that day.”
While the main battle was playing out, Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade had to fight their own private little war at Fredericksburg. Left behind to guard the city, the small band of Mississippians was attacked on May 3, 1863, by over 25,000 Federals. Fighting like demons, the Rebels repulsed two attacks on Marye’s Heights, but were overwhelmed in the third assault, and the Mississippians were forced to retire from the field. Losses in the 18th Mississippi and 21st Mississippi that defended Marye’s Heights, were heavy. After defeating Hooker’s main army Lee sent reinforcements back to Fredericksburg, and the Union forces withdrew from the city and returned to their starting point on the opposite side of the Rappahannock River.
The Army of Northern Virginia was at the height of its glory after the victory at Chancellorsville, and Lee felt it was time to take the war back to the north. This move culminated in the battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 1-3, 1863. In the battle Lee’s 75,000 men engaged 88,289 Federals from the Army of the Potomac, now commanded by General George G. Meade. On July 1, the Rebels routed the Yankees north and west of Gettysburg, pushing them through town to the heights beyond. The Mississippi brigade of
Brigadier General Joseph Davis (nephew of Jefferson Davis) was heavily engaged on the first day, fighting at the railroad cut west of town.
On July 2, 1863, Lee attacked both flanks of the Union army at Gettysburg, his troops nearly broke the Federal line. In the fighting that day Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade smashed the Union forces defending the Peach Orchard and kept advancing the face of heavy fire. Union reinforcements eventually forced them back, and Barksdale was mortally wounded and captured by the enemy. The Mississippians had advanced farther than any other unit, but it had come at an extremely high cost: out of the 1,590 men in the brigade, 569 were killed at the Peach Orchard. Among the casualties was Captain Isaac Davis Stamps of the 21st Mississippi Infantry, the nephew of Jefferson Davis.
On July 3, Lee decided to make a massive assault on the Union center in an attack that came to be known as Pickett’s Charge. At about 3 p.m. approximately 12,500 Confederates stepped off and marched toward the Union position. The neat Confederate lines were shredded by artillery and musket fire, but a few stalwart men penetrated the Union center before they were driven back with heavy casualties. In the charge Joseph Davis’ Mississippi brigade consisting of the 2nd, 11th, and 42nd Mississippi regiments plus the 55th North Carolina were especially hard hit and suffered numerous casualties.
One of the Mississippians killed in Pickett’s Charge was Corporal Jeremiah Gage of the 11th Mississippi Infantry. Mortally wounded by a shell while waiting for the advance to start, Gage wrote his mother one last letter, telling her, “This is the last you may ever hear from me. I have time to tell you that I died like a man. Bear my loss as best you can. Remember that I am true to my country and my greatest regret at dying is that she is not free and you and my sister are robbed of my worth whatever that may be…This letter is stained with my blood.”
On July 4, 1863, General Lee began the retreat from Gettysburg. The loss in this battle, combined with the surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the same day marked one of the great turning points of the war. Rebel casualties at Gettysburg were 3,903 killed, 18,735 wounded, and 5,425 missing. The battle cost the eleven Mississippi infantry regiments engaged at least 1,361 killed or wounded.
In August 1863, Lee detached the 1st Corps of his army under the command of Lieutenant General James Longstreet to reinforce the Army of Tennessee, and this force included Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade, now commanded by Brigadier General Benjamin G.
Humphreys. The Mississippians fought with the Army of Tennessee at the battle of Chickamauga, Georgia, on September 19-20, 1863, and at the battle of Knoxville, Tennessee, on November 29, 1863.
The Army of Northern Virginia saw no further major battles for the remainder of 1863, but the spring of 1864 brought some of the bloodiest fighting of the entire war. In March 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to General of the Union armies and made his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac. His goal was simple: destroy the Army of Northern Virginia.
Before the 1864 spring campaign started, General Lee sent a special order to the Mississippi units in his army. In this document he spelled out exactly what they were fighting for. He told them: “Soldiers of Mississippi! It is with great gratification that the Commanding General announces to you the joint resolutions of thanks passed by the Legislature of your state. It is a just tribute to that conduct which in every campaign and on every battle field of the Army of Northern Virginia, has won for you his highest admiration. He mourns with you your gallant leaders and brave comrades who have fallen. May you cherish their memories and emulate their deeds. From her wasted fields and desecrated homes, Mississippi calls upon you to vindicate her honor and achieve her independence.”
In early May 1864, Grant began his spring offensive to eradicate the Army of Northern Virginia, unleashing his mighty host of 108,000 men. To meet this force Lee could muster only 62,000 soldiers. Between May – June 1864, the two armies mauled each other in a series of bloody battles: the Wilderness on May 5-7, Spotsylvania Court House on May 7-20, North Anna River from May 23-27, and Cold Harbor, May 31-June 12, 1864. During these battles Grant attempted to flank Lee, only to have the wily Confederate commander block every thrust. But with each move, Grant advanced closer to Richmond, and the loss of lives was more than the Confederacy could sustain. In the spring campaign the Mississippi regiments in the army had at least 1,400 casualties.
By mid-June 1864, Grant had pinned the Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg, Virginia. Both armies dug in, and for the next nine months Yank and Reb engaged in a bloody form of trench warfare very similar to that seen on the Western Front in Europe during World War I.
In July 1864, Humphrey’s Mississippi brigade was sent to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia to reinforce the troops already operating there under the command of Lieutenant General Jubal Early. The brigade took part in the battle of Cedar Creek on October 19, which started well for the Confederates, but ended in a Union victory. The brigade returned to Richmond in December 1864, having less than 800 men left in the ranks that were fit for service.
On April 2, 1865, Grant broke through the Petersburg defenses and Lee had to retreat, forcing the evacuation of Richmond. In brutal rear-guard fighting approximately 500 men were left behind to slow the Union advance enough to let the remainder of the army escape. Most of these men were from Brigadier General Nathaniel Harris’ Mississippi
brigade. These troops manned two forts: Fort Gregg, and Fort Whitworth, which they had to defend against thousands of Union troops. The Mississippians in Fort Gregg repulsed three Union attacks before they were finally overwhelmed, buying precious time for the retreating Confederate army. The men stationed in Fort Whitworth supplied a heavy supporting fire during the attack, and then received an order to retreat at the last minute, thus avoiding the same fate that befell their comrades in Fort Gregg.
On April 8, 1865, Lee’s small army was surrounded near Appomattox Court House, Virginia. He tried to break out the next day, but when this attack failed, Lee had no choice but to surrender or face the immediate annihilation of his army. On April 12, 1865, the 698 Mississippi soldiers still with the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered at Appomattox.
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