Almost Certain Death: Harris’ Mississippi Brigade during the 1864 Overland Campaign

I wanted to share this little gem that I found as I don’t believe it has ever been published in  its entirety before. On October 29, 1865, The Vicksburg Herald published the report of Brigadier General Nathaniel Harris on the operations of his brigade at the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. This report did not make it into the Official Records, and as far as I can determine only select quotes from it have ever been published. I transcribed the entire report as Harris’ Mississippians did some of their best fighting of the war at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, and they deserve to be remembered for it:

Report of Gen. N.H. Harris, commanding the Mississippi Brigade, composed of the 12th, 16th, 19th and 48th Regiments of Mississippi Volunteers.

Headquarters, Harris’ Brig., August 8, 1865 [1864]

Major: – I have the honor to submit the following report of the part taken by this

This photograph of Nathaniel Harris was taken when he was colonel of the 19th Mississippi Infantry – Old Court House Museum Collection

command, in the various battles, skirmishes and marches of this campaign, which report is necessarily incomplete and chronological, – events following each other in such rapid succession, that no detailed account could be kept.

On the morning of the 5th of May, while in winter quarters on the Rapidan, orders were received to hold the command in readiness to move at a moment’s warning, and at 12 M., with other Brigades of the Division, commenced moving on the Pisgah Church road in the direction of Chancellorsville, bivouacking at night near Verdiersville. At 3 A.M., on the 6th, the march was resumed, moving down the [Orange] plank road, and arriving at the scene of conflict in the Wilderness, about 12 M.: reported to Major General Anderson, was ordered to form line of battle at right angles with, and north of the plank road: in which position, remaining but a short time, moved farther to the left, and formed on the right of Wright’s Brigade, in rear of Heth’s Division.

Map of the Wilderness Battlefield Illustrating the route taken by Harris’ Mississippi Brigade – National Park Service

This line was only occupied about one hour, when orders were received to return to the

Major General Richard H. Anderson commanded the division to which Harris’ Mississippi Brigade belonged during the fighting at the Wilderness and Spottslvania.

plank road, down which we moved one mile, halted and remained quiet until 3 P.M., when Major General Anderson ordered me to move forward on the left and parallel with the plank road, and drive the enemy. Advancing in the direction indicated, encountered the enemy moving in two columns by the flank to the rear of the Brigades of Davis, Perry and Law, with the evident intention of capturing them. Then enemy were thrown into confusion by the impetuous and unexpected charge of this Brigade, and were driven in handsome style some distance, into a strongly entrenched position.

Forming a junction with the Brigades of Davis, Perry and Law, desperate and repeated efforts were made by the enemy to dislodge us, but they were repulsed with heavy loss, and this position was maintained, until after dark, when in obedience to orders, the command was withdrawn to the plank road. In this action, the enemy suffered heavily, several officers, including one colonel, and many men, being left dead on the field, besides many wounded: and in addition, over one hundred and fifty (150) prisoners, including one colonel, were captured. For casualties, I respectfully refer to lists already forwarded.

On the 7th, two (2) new positions were taken up, but after entrenching, were abandoned, and at night moved by the right flank across the plank road and the unfinished railroad, when a new line was formed, and some incomplete works finished. On the 8th, orders were received to advance the skirmishers and feel the position of the enemy: when Capt. W.H. Stone, who was in command of the line, advanced, and encountering the enemy’s cavalry, captured about eighty (80) prisoners, one hundred and seven (107) horses and equipments, and two guidons.

On the afternoon of this day, moved by the right flank in the direction of Spottsylvania Court House, and about 6 P.M., the enemy making a demonstration on the head of the column, this command was ordered to the support of Mahone’s Brigade, which became hotly engaged; but the enemy being repulsed, halted for the night and commenced fortifying.

On the 9th, resumed the march, and arrived at Spottsylvania Court House, where, after a short rest, were ordered back to the bridge across the Po River, where the enemy were making a demonstration. Here two regiments were thrown forward to the bridge, and brisk skirmishing ensued.

Spottsylvania Court House – Library of Congress

On the 10th, the enemy, attempting to turn our left flank, two regiments of this Brigade were engaged with other portions of the Division under command of General Mahone, in repulsing this movement, which was done in the most successful manner. In the afternoon of this day, moved with the Division under command of General Mahone across the Potomac river, and formed line of battle in support of Heth’s Division.

Map by Hal Jespersen showing the disposition of Union and Confederate forces on May 10, 1864, during the fighting at Spotsylvania.

On the 11th, moved by the right flank a short distance, and entrenched. On the morning of the 12th, orders were received about five (5) o’clock, to move by the right flank, and at “double quick,” across the Po river in the direction of Spottsylvania Court House. Halting near the Court House a few minutes, orders were received from General Lee, through

Lt. Col. Charles S. Venable was an officer on the staff of General Robert E. Lee

Lieut. Col. Venable, of his staff, to move by the flank, on a road leading in the direction of the works lost by the Division of General Ed Johnson. The command was soon under a most galling fire of grape and canister from the enemy’s batteries, through which the men moved at a “double quick,” displaying the coolness and steadiness under fire, indicative of the veteran soldier.

Arriving near the last works, Major General Rodes, of the second corps, informed me that my command was expected to form on the right of Ramsour’s Brigade, of his Division, and recapture the works. General Rodes gave me as a guide, a staff officer, whose name I have as yet been unable to ascertain. Guided by this officer, I moved by the right flank on a road which I afterward discovered ran at right angles with the line of works, and was soon exposed to a heavy musketry as well as artillery fire. At this point, the “staff officer” before alluded to deserted me in the most shameful and disgraceful manner; and I was thus left in total ignorance of our own lines as well as those of the enemy, and was unable to discover anything through the smoke and fog.

One of my couriers, A.W. Hancock, galloped after this officer, but was unable to overtake him. At this moment, a gallant private of the 10th Alabama regiment, whose name I regret not to know, informed me of the position of Ramseur’s right, and of the enemy. Having advanced thus far by the right flank, when I should have advanced in “line of battle,” with my left resting on the road mentioned, no alternative remained but to file my command rapidly to the right, and try to gain sufficient distance for my left to rest on said road.

Map by Hal Jespersen showing the disposition of Union and Confederate forces during the fighting at Spotsylvania on May 12.

Moving with this view, the two (2) right regiments had filed had filed out of the road and were moving by the right flank, parallel with the lost works, when the enemy, discovering the movement, opened a most terrific fire of musketry and artillery, and finding that I could move no farther to the right without sacrificing the larger portion of the command, I at once ordered the two right regiments to front, charge up to the works, and drive the enemy from them, which they did in the most gallant manner, capturing between two and three hundred prisoners.

In the meanwhile the two left regiments formed in line, in obedience to orders, and wheeling to the right, pressed up to the works, and joined the left of the two (2) right regiments, a portion of the extreme left regiment overlapping Ramseur’s right. The whole command afterwards gained sufficient front by moving to the right and driving the  enemy from the works as they moved, but my force was not sufficient to regain the entire line, and a small portion was left in the occupancy of the enemy, from which was poured a terrible enfilade fire, and this in connection with the repeated assaults in front, had it not bee for some traverses in the works, would have rendered the position wholly untenable, one third of my command being already killed or wounded.

At 11 A.M. McGowan’s Brigade, of Wilcox’s Division, arrived on the field, for the purpose of recovering the works on my right, but being equally as unfortunate as this command, in being directed correctly as to the locality of the lines, gained no ground to the right, but halted in rear of my left and Ramseur’s right. Gen. McGowan being badly wounded, soon after arriving on the field, and unable to find his successor in command, I could make no arrangement by which the Brigade could be moved to my right, and press the enemy from the works.

In this state and position this command remained until 3:30 A.M. on the 13th, repulsing desperate and repeated efforts of the enemy to dislodge them. At 6 P.M. I received a dispatch from Lieut. Gen. Ewell, informing me “if my position could be held until sun-down, all would be well.” Thus from 7 A.M. of the 12th, to 3 A.M. of the 13th, twenty (20) hours, the men were exposed to a constant and murderous musketry fire, both from front and flank, and during the hours of day, to a heavy artillery fire: in which mortars were used by the enemy.

Illustration depicting the struggle for the Bloody Salient, at Spotsylvania – Library of Congress

A cold, drenching rain was falling during the greater part of the day and night, and the trenches were filled with water. Great difficulty was experienced in procuring supplies of ammunition, man after man being shot down while bringing it in. And here I cannot refrain from mentioning the gallant conduct of courier A.W. Hancock and Private F. Dolan, of the 48th Miss., who repeatedly brought in ammunition under this dreadful fire. As an instance of the terrible nature of the fire, a tree twenty-two (22) inches in diameter, was hewn to splinters and felled by the musketry. At 2 A.M. of the 13th, I received orders from Maj. General Rodes, to withdraw my command and the Brigade of McGowan, as soon as the troops on my right and left had evacuated their positions, and at 3:30 A.M., learning that this movement had been accomplished, I withdrew with small loss, and moving to

This 22-inch around oak tree was felled by small arms fire near the position held by Harris’ Mississippi Brigade during the fighting at the Mule Shoe Salient at Spotsylvania – National Park Service

Spottsylvania Court House, rejoined the Division.

In this action, the command suffered heavily; losing many of the most valuable officers; among them the the gallant Col. S.E. Baker, Lieut. Col. A.M. Feltus, Adjt. D.B.L. Lowe and Ensign Nixon, of the 16th Miss.; Col. T.J. Hardin and Adjutant A.L. Peel, of the 19th Miss.; Capts. McAffee, Davis and Reinhardt, of the 48th Miss.; Lieut. Bew, of the 12th Miss.; besides many other heroic officers and men, who all fell while nobly discharging their duties.

I would mention for conspicuous gallantry on this field, Major (now Colonel) E.C. Council, Capt. Harry Smith, and Private Ed Perault, of the 16th Miss. Reg’t.; Lieut. Col. S. B. Thomas, of the 12th Miss., and courier Charles Well: the latter of whom, deserves great credit for the coolness and intelligence with which he conveyed orders; but where all acted so well, I am sure there were many other instances of conspicuous gallantry, but those mentioned, were particularly observed. For casualties, I respectfully refer to the list already forwarded.

On the 13th, the command rested; and on the 14th, by direction of Gen. Mahone, were ordered to the support of Wright’s Brigade in a reconnaissance of the enemy’s position, in which the skirmishers only became engaged, with slight loss. From the 14th to the 22nd, were changing position, entrenching and occasionally skirmishing. At 1 A.M. of the 22nd, moved towards Hanover Junction, and arriving in that vicinity on the 23d, formed line near the North Anna river, and entrenched. At 3 A.M. of the 24th, moved back one mile, to prepare for and await the advance of the enemy, who had effected a crossing of the river.

In the afternoon, the enemy advanced; and being met by the skirmishers of this command, and two (2) regiments of the Alabama Brigade, were driven back with considerable loss in killed, wounded and prisoners; after which, nothing of importance occurred until the 27th, when we commenced moving towards Richmond; and on the 29th, took up position with the rest of the Division, on Totopotomoi [Totopotomoy] creek, and constructed works, where we remained util the 2nd of June; when, finding the enemy gone from our front, were ordered to Cold Harbor and placed in support of Colquitt’s Georgia Brigade, in which position, remained until the night of the 3d, when we were ordered to relieve a Brigade of Breckinridge’s Division, in the trenches on Turkey Ridge.

Civil War Sketch of Totopotomoy Creek, Virginia – Library of Congress

On the 4th and 5th skirmishing and cannonading was continuous. On the 6th, received an order to advance a body of picked men and feel the enemy’s position; which was done, his skirmishers being forced back into his main line, where he was found in heavy force. Over half the force engaged in this reconnaissance were either killed or wounded, including the gallant Lieut. Neil Dawson, of the 48th Miss., killed. On the 7th the enemy requested “truce” to bury his dead, which was granted between the hours of 6 and 8 P.M.

From the 8th to the 12th there was a continual fire of sharpshooters, and a good portion of the time artillery and mortar firing, our loss being from ten to fifteen men killed or wounded each day. The brave Capt. E. Slay and Lieut. Harry Lewis, of the 16th Miss., were killed here. On the morning of the 13th, the enemy were found to have disappeared from our front, and being followed a short distance by our skirmishers, a few prisoners were captured. At 12 M of the same day, commenced moving toward Malvern Hill, and on the 14th and 15th were in line of battle and fortifying near Riddle’s Shop, on the Charles City road.

The enemy not advancing in this direction, received orders on the 16th to march to Camp Holly, near Chafin’s farm, and encamp. Here we remained until the 18th, the men enjoying a good rest, and having an opportunity to wash for the first time since the beginning of the campaign; but at 2:30 A.M. of the same day, received orders to march, and crossing the Chafin’s Bluff, moved towards Petersburg, where, arriving at 3 P.M., after a severe march through the heat and dust, we took position in the trenches on the right of the line. On the 19th and 20th no enemy was in our immediate front, but on the 21st he appeared in force, advancing skirmishers and proceeded to construction of works. About 4 P.M. on the 22d, received orders from Gen. Mahone to go to the support of Mahone’s, Wright’s, and Saunders’ brigades, who were making an attack upon the left flank of the enemy.

The command left the trenches under a heavy fire from the enemy’s guns, and proceeding quickly to the scene of action – after some maneuvering, formed line on the right of those brigades. Our skirmishers were slightly engaged. At 2 P.M. returned to the original position in the trenches. On the 23rd, about 4 A.M., were directed by General Mahone to occupy and hold the works captured from the enemy the preceding evening. On arriving near the works, the enemy was found occupying a portion of them, but I occupied that portion not held by him, and was making preparations to dislodge him from the remainder, when he was discovered to be moving in force on my front and flanks, and I deemed it best to withdraw, which was done in good order, but with some loss. Had the order been received in time, it might have been executed with little trouble.

My command was returned to its original position, and in the afternoon was relieved by a brigade of Wilcox’s division, and ordered to move down the W.R.R., near the nine mile house, and form line of battle on the Turley road. This done, skirmishers were advanced, and meeting the enemy, drove his skirmishers into their entrenched line, and held them there until they were flanked and captured by Perry’s brigade.

Our loss was heavy for the time and force engaged. Late at night returned to the trenches. On the 24th was directed to move down the W.R.R., to the Yellow House, and observe the movements of the enemy; nothing of importance occurring, returned to the trenches at night and remained quiet until the 27th, when I received orders to move down the W.R.R., to the Yellow House, and guard the roads approaching the railroad from the east and near the Yellow and the Davis houses. Nothing of importance occurring, returned to the trenches late at night, and remained quiet until 2 A.M., on the 1st July, when we moved with the other brigades of the division down the W.R.R. to the Davis house, and diverging to the right moved several miles [on] a road running parallel with the W.R.R., when, finding the enemy had disappeared in that direction, returned to the trenches. On the evening of the 2d, moved to the left, and relieved a brigade of Wilcox’s division, occupying the same line on the 23d June.

Up to the 30th of July nothing of importance occurred on the front of this command. There has been occasional artillery firing on both sides, and in two or three instances the pickets have fired on working parties of the enemy. On the 30th the brigade was exposed to a heavy fire of artillery and mortars, consequent upon the explosion of a mine on the front of Johnston’s division. A few casualties occurred from this shelling.

Thus, during this arduous campaign of near ninety days, upon the field of battle and on the march, often using the pick and spade during the night, and the rifle all day, the men of this command have displayed these high qualities of courage, heroism, and endurance, that are the only sure indices of the tried and veteran soldier. I take great pleasure in mentioning the valuable assistance rendered me by each of the members of my staff, on the field and on the march, while in the proper discharge of their official duties.

I beg leave to call your attention to the accompanying reports of regimental commanders. For casualties, I refer to the lists already forwarded.

Respectfully submitted,

N.H Harris, Brig. General

Major R.P. Duncan, A.A.G.

Included with the article was a letter sent by Lieutenant General Richard Ewell to General Harris, commending him for the performance of his brigade during the fighting at Spottsylvania:

Letter from Gen. Ewell to Gen. Harris

Gen. N.H. Harris, Commanding Brigade:

General: – I have omitted to acknowledge the valuable services rendered by your brigade

Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell – Library of Congress

on the 12th May last, at Spottsylvania, not from any want of appreciation, but because I wish my thanks to rest upon the solid foundation of official reports.

The manner in which your brigade charged over the hill to recapture our works was witnessed by me with intense admiration, for men who could advance so calmly, to what seemed and proved almost certain death. I have never seen troops under a hotter fire than was endured on this day by your brigade and some others.

Maj. Gen. Ed Johnson, since his exchange, has assured me that the whole strength of the enemy’s army was poured into the gap caused by the capture of his command. He estimates the force engaged at this place on their side at forty thousand, besides Birney’s command of perfectly fresh troops. Prisoners from all of their three corps were taken by us. Two divisions of my corps, your brigade and two others (one of which was scarcely engaged), confronted successfully this immense host, and not only won from them nearly all the ground they had gained, but so shattered their army that they were unable again to make a serious attack, until they received fresh troops. I have not forgotten the conduct of the 16th Miss. regiment while under my command from Front Royal to Malvern Hill. I am glad to see from a trial more severe than any it experienced while in my division, that the regiment is in a brigade of which it may well be proud.

Very Respectfully, Your obedient servant,

R.S. Ewell, Lieut. General

In doing some additional research I found that The Vicksburg Herald published an article in the November 1, 1865 edition, related to General Harris’ report:

We published on Sunday the report of Gen. N.H. Harris of the operations of his brigade, from the commencement of the memorable campaign of 1864, to the date of his report, the 8th of August. It is a valuable addition to the history of the war, and particularly of the part which Mississippi bore in the struggle. This report was forwarded a few days days after its date, to Gen. Lee, and subsequently, with the report of the entire army, was forwarded by Gen. Lee to Richmond, with his report. Those papers, we suppose, are now in the “Bureau of Rebel Archives,” at Washington.

The copy in our possession was furnished by Gen. Harris to a member of his staff, who was engaged in getting up and preserving the records of the Brigade. Nearly all of those records, however, with the exception of this report, were lost or captured on the evacuation of Petersburg, or between that place and Appomattox Court House.

It is proper to add, as a preface to the report, that at the opening of this campaign, the Brigade of Gen. Harris, consisted of about 1200 muskets. The regiments were, the 12th, Col. M.B. Harris; the 16th, Col. Sam’l. E. Baker, the 19th, Col. Thos. J. Hardin, and the 48th, Lt. Col. T.B. Manlove. (Col. Jayne being absent on leave). Before the report was made out, Col. Harris received a severe wound, leaving the 12th in command of Lt. Col. S. B. Thomas, Col. Baker and his Lt. Col. A.M. Feltus, were both killed at Spottsylvania Court House, the Major, E.C. Council, succeeding to the Colonelcy. Col. Hardin, of the 19th, also fell at Spottsylvania, and the Lt. Col., R.W. Phipps, became Colonel. Lt. Col. Manlove was wounded in the Wilderness, and the 48th was commanded successively by Capt. J.P. Rogers and Capt. L.C. Moore, until Col. J.M. Jayne, who was on leave of absence, returned, which was early in the campaign.

The reports of the commanders of the regiments, referred to by Gen. H. in his report, we shall publish as soon as we can find space for them.

As a postscript, I want to add the casualties suffered by the regiments of Harris’ brigade from May 6 – 12, 1864. These figures came from Dunbar Rowland’s Military History of Mississippi, 1803 – 1898:

12th Mississippi Infantry – 13 killed, 32 wounded, 13 missing

16th Mississippi Infantry – 36 killed, 84 wounded, 31 missing

19th Mississippi Infantry – 22 killed, 55 wounded, 45 missing

48th Mississippi Infantry – 9 killed, 29 wounded, 33 missing

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2 thoughts on “Almost Certain Death: Harris’ Mississippi Brigade during the 1864 Overland Campaign

  1. Robert Myers

    Jeff, we haven’t spoken in quite a while but keep up the blog. Very informative and look forward to reading every new post.

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