Gallant Sons of Mississippi: The 21st Mississippi Infantry at the Battle of Savage Station, Virginia

As the sun dipped low in the Virginia sky and the shadows lengthened over the Savage Station battlefield, the 21st Mississippi Infantry quickened their pace and raced the dying light, desperate to make contact with their enemies in blue before darkness ended the killing that day.

The Mississippians were spoiling for a fight – the regiment had been organized in the summer of 1861, and during their year of service the men had yet to be engaged in combat against the Union army.[1]

Any thoughts the men might have had that darkness was about to rob them of another chance to see the elephant abruptly ended as a regiment of blue-clad soldiers emerged from a pine thicket and “formed a line as accurately as though done with a tape line.”[2]

Although lacking combat experience, the 21st was well trained, and an expertly directed volley lit the twilight and sent a wave of lead missiles slamming into the Yankee   line.  The Federals responded in kind, filling the air with “…a terrible shower of shell & musket shots” that ripped through the ranks of the 21st with destructive effect.[3]

Darkness quickly ended the engagement, but the brief outburst of violence left it’s mark on the 21st Mississippi – in the action at Savage Station, July 29, 1862, the regiment had fifteen men killed and sixteen wounded.[4]

The Battle of Savage Station - Library of Congress

The losses at Savage Station, as bad as they were, turned out to be a bloody foreshadowing of things to come. For the 21st Mississippi, the future held for them, just two days hence, the bloodiest battle of the entire war; Malvern Hill.

The individual companies that comprised the 21st Mississippi Infantry were organized in the spring of 1861, and they traveled individually to Richmond after tendering their services to Jefferson Davis.  They were formed into a regiment by mid-September, and in the unit election the men chose Captain Benjamin G. Humphreys of Company I to be their Colonel.[5]

Although a pre-war Whig and opponent of secession, Humphreys cast his lot with

Benjamin Grubb Humphreys - Library of Congress

hisnative state saying, “All I held dear on earth family, friends and property welded me to that soil by the strongest cement of nature.[6]  Very popular with his men, Humphreys only military experience was a one year stint at the United States Military Academy.  Admitted in 1825, he was expelled the next year for participating in a Christmas Eve cadet riot.[7]

Soon after the completion of their regimental organization, the 21st Mississippi was ordered to join a brigade consisting of the 13th, 17th and 18th Mississippi Infantry regiments, commanded by Brigadier General Richard Griffith.[8]  The brigade of Mississippians was ordered to Leesburg, Virginia, on November 19, 1861, and the 21st Mississippi remained there with the brigade until March 1862.  Colonel Humphreys said that the regiment’s time at Leesburg was spent “…in the drudgery of building forts, rifle pits, and picketing the Potomac with the Fed. Army in sight.”[9]

"A Camp in the Woods Near Leesburg" - Library of Congress

The boredom of garrison life ended abruptly when Major General George B. McClellan launched the Peninsular Campaign to capture Richmond.  Griffith’s Brigade was ordered south to help defend the beleaguered city, and the 21st Mississippi was set on the course that would take them to Malvern Hill.[10]

The Union operation to take Richmond began on March 17, 1862, when McClellan began

Fort Monroe, Virginia - Library of Congress

to ferry his troops to the Virginia peninsula between the York and James Rivers at Fort Monroe.[11]  In anticipation of a Yankee advance General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, began pulling his troops stationed in advanced positions near Washington back towards Richmond.[12]  The 21st Mississippi, with their brigade evacuated Leesburg on March 9, and began a retreat south to the Rapidan River.[13]

The Union army began their advance from Fort Monroe on April 4, and three days later General Griffith was ordered to take his Mississippians to the peninsula to man

Brigadier General Richard Griffith commanded the brigade to which the 21st Mississippi belonged. He was killed during the Battle of Savage Station. - Library of Congress

fortifications near Yorktown.[14]  By the time the regiment reached Yorktown, they found the Yankee advance stalled in front of the Rebel fortifications along the Warwick River.[15]

The standoff along the Warwick lasted nearly a month, and during the long delay the 21st spent much of their time on picket duty, trading shots with the Yankees.  Private James Downs of Company D told his parents of one incident in which the regiment’s skirmishers made contact with their blue-clad counterparts:

…and then we had some fun, it was look out rebel for yankee and yankee look out for rebel and it was everybody’s business to protect himself with a tree in order to evade the balls of the enemy.[16]

Routine skirmish duty at Yorktown continued until the night of May 3, 1862, when General Johnston ordered his army of 56,600 men to evacuate and retire to the outskirts of Richmond.  McClellan finally had his heavy artillery emplaced and ready to blast the Confederate fortifications, making the Warwick River line untenable.[17]

The Union pursuit was sluggish, taking fifteen days to reach the Chickahominy River near the entrenched Rebel army.  McClellans command, numbering some 105,000 men, was substantially larger than the Confederate army defending Richmond, but in making his dispositions he placed two corps of his army on the south side of the Chickahominy, isolated and vulnerable to attack.  Johnston took advantage of this opportunity and attacked the exposed Union position at Seven Pines on May 31.[18]

The Battle of Seven Pines - Library of Congress

Once again the 21st Mississippi was fated to miss the action, arriving on the battlefield just as darkness put an end to the fighting.[19]  Private James T. Downs of Company D later wrote his mother a tongue in cheek letter asking her:

I wonder if you don’t pray that I may never get into a fight?  For I have been through every stage of a battle except a regular engagement – perhaps my time may come yet though when I can strike for my country.[20]

It was just as well that the 21st missed the battle, for Johnston’s plan went awry and in the end all the Confederates had to show for the battle was a heavy butcher’s bill – over 5,000 casualties, including General Johnston himself, who was seriously wounded.  The only positive result of the battle was that General Robert E. Lee was chosen as Johnston’s replacement.[21]

Reinforcements soon swelled Lee’s ranks to 92,400 – the largest force he commanded for the entire war, and the aggressive general planned to use his men to strike McClellan and seize the initiative in the campaign.[22]  McClellan actually beat him to the punch attacking at Oak Grove on June 25, 1862, starting the Seven Days Battles for Richmond.  Unruffled by this development, Lee fired back, hitting the Union army at Mechanicsville on June 26 and Gaines’s Mill on June 27-28.[23]

While Lee had most of his army attacking north of the Chickahominy River, Major

Major General John B. Magruder - Library of Congress

General John B. Magruder’s Division, of which the 21st Mississippi was a part, were south of the river, responsible for holding in place the 60,000 federal troops opposite them.  To keep them occupied, Magruder had with his division and other attached troops 25,000 men.[24]  While combat raged to the north, the 21st spent a relatively quiet time occupying an advanced picket line on the Nine Mile road, only 500 yards from the federals.[25]

Although Lee failed to inflict a mortal blow at Mechanicsville or Gaines’s Mill, McClellan decided on the night of June 27th his army had had enough and ordered a retreat to his new base on the James River.[26]  From their picket posts on the Nine Mile road, the 21st could clearly hear the sounds of an army in retreat; Colonel Humphreys later described the commotion saying,

The great noise, bustle, and apparent confusion within their lines on the evening during the night of the 28th June satisfied me that they were ‘skiddaddling’.  I reported the fact to Genl. Magruder between 8 & 9 Oclk.[27]

On June 29th when he was sure of McClellan’s direction of march, Lee ordered his army to begin the pursuit.  Magruder was ordered to advance to the east and maintain pressure on the enemy rear, these orders leading to the 21st’s baptism of fire at Savage Station.[28]

Compared to most of the actions the regiment was engaged in over the next three years, Savage Station could hardly be rated more that a sharp skirmish, but the fight there did have one important result: early in the day their brigade commander Richard Griffith, was hit by a stray shell fragment and killed.  The brigade’s senior colonel, William

Colonel William Barksdale took command of Griffith's Brigade after the general's death at Savage Station. - Library of Congress

Barksdale – a man of whom much would be heard before his own untimely death at Gettysburg, replaced him.  The 21st lost not only their brigade commander that day, but their Colonel as well, although in a less dramatic fashion.  Stricken with the flux, Benjamin Humphreys relinquished command to Lieutenant Colonel William L. Brandon.[29]

A large plantation owner with over 300 slaves, Brandon had no military experience prior to the war.  In the twilight years of his life at 62 years old, with three grown sons serving in the regiment beside him, his military skill was an unknown, but at least he looked the part of a soldier, standing 6’2 and weighing 200 pounds.[30]

McClellan’s army was in full flight for the James River, spread thin along the route of retreat.  Lee recognized any excellent opportunity to destroy the Yankees in detail and planned to concentrate 44,800 men and attack the crossroads of Glendale.  If successful, the Union line of retreat would be cut and the army ripe for destruction.  Under Lee’s plan, Magruder’s men were to serve as reserves for the battle, so the 21st would sit out another battle.[31]

Lee sent his gray columns forward to attack Glendale on June 30, 1862, but he was unable to get all of his troops into the battle.  His men were repulsed with heavy casualties, and the Army of the Potomac’s line of retreat was secure.[32]

The Battle of Glendale - Library of Congress

The 21st Mississippi marched to Glendale after dark, and slept on their arms amidst the dead and dying.  In line of battle before daylight, they advanced to find the enemy gone, but the respite was only temporary – the Mississippians had a date with destiny a few miles up the road at Malvern Hill where many a young and promising life would be extinguished in the blink of an eye.


[1] Rowland, Dunbar.  Military History of Mississippi 1803 – 1898 (Spartanburg, SC: The Reprint Company, 1978), 108-113.  Hereafter cited as Military History.

[2] Brandon, William L.  “Military Reminiscences of William L. Brandon.”  J. F. H. Claiborne Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC.

[3] Humphreys, Benjamin G.  Letter to Richard T. Archer, 29 July 1862.  Catalog # Mss 1 Ar 247 a219, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, VA.

[4] Compiled Service Records Of Confederate Soldiers Who Served in Organizations From the State Of Mississippi;  21st Infantry;  Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Record Group 9, Microfilm Rolls 293-301.

[5] Rowland, Military History, 108-112.

[6] Rainwater, Percy Lee.  ed.  “The Autobiography of Benjamin Grubb Humphreys.”  Mississippi Valley Historical Review.  Volume 20  (September 1934): 244-245.

[7] Warner, Ezra J.  Generals in Gray.  (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1959), 145.

[8] Rowland, Military History.  112.

[9] Humphreys, Benjamin Grubb.  “Account of the Sunflower Guards.”  J. F. H. Claiborne Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Esposito, Vincent J., ed., The West Point Atlas of American Wars Volume 1 1689-1900 (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1959), 39.  Cited hereafter as West Point Atlas.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Rowland, Military History, 112.

[14] Esposito, West Point Atlas, 39; Rowland, Military History, 112.

[15] Sears, Stephen W.  To the Gates of Richmond (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1992), 36.

[16] Downs, James T.  Letter to Sarah Downs, 22 April 1862.  Located in the James Tickell Downs and Family Papers, Z 2099.000, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, MS.

[17] Sears, Stephen W.  To The Gates of Richmond  (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1992), 59-60.

[18] West Point Atlas, 43.

[19] Humphreys, Benjamin Grubb.  “Account of the Sunflower Guards.”  J. F. H. Claiborne Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC.

[20] Downs, James T.  Letter to mother, 9 June 1862.  Located in the James Tickell Downs and Family Papers, Z 2099.000, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, MS.  Cited hereafter as Downs Family Papers.

[21] Sears, To the Gates of Richmond, 138-139; 145.

[22] Ibid, 151-156.

[23] Boatner, Mark Mayo III.  The Civil War Dictionary (David McKay Company, 1959), 321 & 540-541.

[24] Ibid, 541.

[25] Humphreys, Benjamin G.  Letter to Richard T. Archer, 29 July 1862.  Catalog # Mss 1 Ar 247 a219, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, VA.

[26] West Point Atlas, 46.

[27] Humphreys, Benjamin G.  Letter to Richard T. Archer, 29 July 1862.  Catalog # Mss 1 Ar 247 a219, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, VA.

[28] West Point Atlas, 46.

[29] Humphreys, Benjamin Grubb.  “Account of the Sunflower Guards.”  J. F. H. Claiborne Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC.

[30] Humphreys, Benjamin Grubb.  “Account of the Sunflower Guards.”  J. F. H. Claiborne Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC.  Brandon, Robert L.  Letter to Mr. Perry, 2 June 1896.  Catalog # Z 1600, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, MS.

[31] Sears, To the Gates of Richmond, 278-279.

[32] Boatner, Civil War Dictionary, 914-916.

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One thought on “Gallant Sons of Mississippi: The 21st Mississippi Infantry at the Battle of Savage Station, Virginia

  1. C. Dean Burchfield

    Great job Jeff, wonderful writting. Have not found those pictures you inquired about, said person must have the originals. Will keep looking.

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