On March 10, 1862, companies of Georgians from Henry, Jasper, Clarke, Spalding, Clayton, Putnam, Fayette, Pike, Morgan, Henry and Greene counties all assembled at Camp Stephens, outside Griffin. Responding to Governor Joseph Brown’s mandate to raise forces from each county, the companies were hastily mustered in as the 44th Georgia Regiment Volunteers.
On April 4, the new regiment was ordered to Goldsboro, N.C. For some soldiers, it would be the first leg of a three-year sojourn; for many others, it would be the first step toward eternity.
The 44th was soon allied with the 3rd Arkansas, the 1st North Carolina and the 3rd North Carolina to form a brigade under Brig. Gen. John G. Walker, in the division of Maj. Gen. Theophilus H. Holmes. On May 27, the brigade was ordered to Richmond to counter Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s advance up the Virginia Peninsula. The Battle of Seven Pines was just over when the brigade arrived on June 1, and the men assumed picket duty, with some skirmishing, until the Seven Days’ campaign began later that month. During the lull, the 48th Georgia was added to the brigade to replace the 3rd Arkansas. Also, Brig. Gen. Roswell Ripley succeeded Walker at the helm, and Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill assumed command of the division.
The 44th Georgia ‘washed its spears’ at the June 26 Battle of Mechanicsville. The Union left lay along a ridge on the east bank of Beaver Dam Creek, strongly entrenched and supported by superb artillery–a position of great natural strength. Ripley’s brigade faced the enemy line at Ellison’s Mill. To close with the enemy, the Confederates had to descend a high hill, cross a high-banked creek, struggle through abatis, and endure a maelstrom of lead and iron. In the forlorn attack, the 44th lost 335 out of 514 effectives, including Colonel Robert A. Smith, who was mortally wounded leading the charge. A member of Company C wrote his wife afterward: ‘Nine of my company…now lie under the cold ground. Our regiment tried to take that battery but could not do it.’
At Malvern Hill on July 1, the regiment was again under heavy fire and lost substantially–13 dead and 16 wounded. Ultimately, the Seven Days’ campaign successfully and bloodily concluded, and Ripley’s brigade moved to Richmond, where it stayed until the middle of August.
On September 5, the brigade crossed the Potomac into Maryland. At the Battle of Antietam on the 17th, the brigade was posted on the left of Hill’s line, halfway between the Mumma Farm and Dunkard Church. Early that morning Ripley set fire to the Mumma buildings, crossed the Smoketown road and engaged the Union troops in Miller’s Cornfield. There, the brigade helped drive back the onrushing Federals and rescue Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood’s beleaguered Texas Brigade. Ripley was wounded at the Cornfield and was replaced by Colonel George Doles of the 4th Georgia, who led the countercharge that forced the enemy backward.
Out of ammunition from constant firing, the brigade was then moved into the West Woods near Dunkard Church to replenish their cartridge boxes and enjoy their rations. They remained there the rest of the day, harassed by intense artillery fire. In the battle, the 44th Georgia lost 17 killed, 65 wounded and 4 missing, out of 162 effectives.
The brigade retreated to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where the men rested from the rigors of the Maryland campaign. Colonel Doles was promoted to brigadier general in November and remained in charge of the brigade. John B. Estes replaced him as colonel. At the beginning of December, the men of the 44th Georgia moved to Port Royal, Va., where they remained until urgently requested to move toward Fredericksburg.
The next day the brigade marched to Hamilton’s Crossing, on General Robert E. Lee’s right, which was under the command of Lt. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson. They were placed in reserve. The division, having been in the front line of the fighting at Antietam, was put in the third line of battle at Fredericksburg, and lost only one killed, three wounded and one missing.
The winter of 1862-63 was spent near Port Royal. Except for picket duty, all was quiet in the 44th. When Lee reorganized the army in January, the 12th and 21st Georgia regiments joined the brigade in place of the North Carolina units, making it an all-Georgia brigade. It was then moved to the division of Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes, in Stonewall Jackson’s storied II Corps.
On April 29, 1863, the brigade was ordered back to Fredericksburg in response to Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s feint toward the old battlefield of the previous December. On May 1, the men moved to the Orange Plank road near Chancellorsville. That night, Lee and Jackson planned their famous flank attack to destroy the Federal right wing. The next day, the 44th Georgia, with the rest of the brigade, started at sunrise in a northern direction, then turned left toward the west, in order to circle the unsuspecting enemy.
Rodes’ division, which had led the flanking maneuver, was assigned the first line of battle, stretching for a half-mile on each side of the Plank Road and squarely on the exposed Federal right.
The next day, May 3, the brigade assaulted enemy entrenchments near the Chancellor House and drove the enemy away, but at a heavy loss. The 44th Georgia lost 13 killed and 64 wounded. Company I was down to 36 men. The regiment as a whole numbered 348 men and 35 officers.
On July 1, the brigade quick-marched to the sound of the guns at Gettysburg, going into line on the extreme left. When the entire Union XI Corps appeared in front of the brigade, the situation became grim. The enemy occupied Oak Hill in front of the Georgians, and immediately began a flanking movement to the left. Doles’ men fought on the defensive for an hour until Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon’s brigade of Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s division came up on the left, linked up with Doles’ regiments and attacked.
The Federals fought valiantly but soon were flanked and had to retreat. With Doles and Gordon pressing home their assault, the retreat became a rout and compelled the entire Federal defense north of Gettysburg to give way. During the pursuit of the routed enemy, Doles’ men came under fire from an unexpected source. Doles reported later, ‘My line was subjected to and did receive a severe fire from one of our own batteries, from which fire I lost several men killed and wounded.’ The offending battery was not identified.
The brigade was drawn up in line of battle on July 2 to support Early’s attack on Cemetery Hill. For whatever reason, Rodes did not order the advance, and the men, except for heavy skirmishing, remained where they were until the 5th, when the Confederate army retreated. In the action at Gettysburg, the 44th Georgia lost 10 killed, 49 wounded and 9 missing. A survivor summed up the matter: ‘There was an awful fight for three days. I don’t think we gained anything there.’
Following the Mine Run campaign, the brigade went into winter camp near Orange Court House and, except for a bitter winter march in February, rested until May 4, 1864. The Wilderness campaign began for Doles’ brigade on May 5, when it went into line of battle in the right rear of Brig. Gen. John M. Jones’ brigade of Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson’s division. The Federals attacked before Jones had his men deployed and routed the Confederates already in place, exposing Doles’ left, held by the 4th Georgia. The regiment wheeled left to meet the flank attack while the 44th Georgia and 12th Georgia engaged on their front, buying precious moments for Lee’s army. A timely counterattack by Gordon’s men relieved the Union pressure and restored the Confederate line. On the 6th, the 44th and its sister regiments participated in a night attack on the Union right flank, which, had not darkness intervened, might have forced the entire Federal line out of position. Losses in the hard-fighting 44th Georgia for the two days of combat in the Wilderness were 14 killed, 29 wounded and 2 captured.
Three days later, the brigade was in line at Spotsylvania, occupying the center of the western side of a large bulge in the line known as ‘the Mule Shoe.’ The 44th Georgia was at the center of the brigade. The entrenchments were a scant 200 yards from a pine forest that concealed enemy movements. On the evening of May 10, the Federals bombarded Doles’ sector, then launched an overwhelming attack. Doles’ men fought obstinately against 5-to-1 odds. Union Colonel Emory Upton paid tribute: ‘The enemy sitting in their pits with pieces upright, loaded, and with bayonets fixed, ready to impale the first who should leap over, absolutely refused to yield the ground.’
Nevertheless, the Georgians eventually were forced to yield after heavy losses. The Federals poured through the breach, but once again, a Gordon counterattack, aided by Doles’ remnant, restored the Confederate line. Losses in the 44th Georgia, which had borne the initial shock of the breakthrough, were horrendous–26 killed, 28 wounded and 182 captured. Company I lost 38 men out of 63.
The regiment, now reduced to a few squads, participated in the rest of the Spotsylvania campaign, but never regained true fighting strength. It stayed with the brigade until the end, suffering a steady hemorrhage of casualties throughout Early’s Shenandoah Valley campaign in the autumn of 1864. It was present at Fort Steadman on March 25, 1865, and in the final assault at Appomattox Court House, where a flag of truce halted further hostilities on April 9, 1865.
Two days later, when the remnants of the Army of Northern Virginia stacked arms, 62 survivors of the 44th Georgia were present for duty, out of the original 1,115 who had left home in 1862. As Captain John Harris remembered years later, ‘The impartial historian, when he collects up the facts and figures, will show that the 44th Georgia Regiment suffered a greater casualty in killed and wounded, in proportion to the number carried into action, than any other regiment on the Southern side.’
After struggling over the fence along the road, the men of the 35th Massachusetts wheezed and crawled part way up the hill toward the crest. Climbing over a split-rail fence on the hilltop east of Otto’s Farm, the regiment continued to advance to the right, in full view of Sharpsburg.
A shellburst from a Confederate battery in the field beyond plowed into the regiment, killing two. The regiment halted momentarily, then started to withdraw. At the same time, a Rebel battery on the heights along Boonsboro Pike also fired. Hudson, once again on an errand for Ferrero, sauntered across the bridge with an order for Hartranft when a shell exploded and sent fragments whizzing along the steep hill in front of him. Two more shells burst nearby.
The barrage caught Bell about 50 yards from the bridge. He had just slapped Private Hugh Brown on the shoulder as he passed, exclaiming, ‘We did it this time, my boy!’ Barely two steps away, a ball from the second case shot glanced off his left temple. The impact whirled Bell around in a circle and slammed him on his side. Men rushed to his aid as he rolled down the creek bank into the regiment’s stacked muskets. Concerned, they asked if he was badly hurt.
Bell, the left side of his face quickly reddening with blood, put his hand to his temple and calmly replied, ‘I don’t think it is dangerous.’ He paused. ‘Boys, never say die,’ he added.
Hudson found the left wing of the 51st Pennsylvania sprawled along the creek bottom. He asked, ‘Where is your lieutenant colonel?’
‘There he is, sir, wounded.’
Hudson’s gaze fell on a stretcher being borne toward the bridge. The officer being carried stared fixedly in Hudson’s direction as he was carried south. His dimming glance hurt Hudson badly. An ugly blue bruise was on Bell’s left temple. Bell, a newly made friend, was dying.
Hudson abruptly turned to meet Hartranft, who was coming down the road. Hudson asked why he had not advanced to support the 35th Massachusetts. ‘I’ve no ammunition,’ Hartranft snapped.
The two frustrated officers stood there in the road, at a loss for words. They both had to answer to the moody Ferrero. Eventually, Hudson ventured, ‘Shall I tell the colonel so?’
‘If you please,’ said Hartranft.
Hudson jogged toward the bridge. He saw three men from his old company struggling with a very heavy man on a blanket. A quick glance at the hat and the way the men tried to tenderly treat the officer told him that the fellow was Lieutenant James Baldwin.
‘You must excuse me,’ Hudson called out. ‘I’ve got something to do across the bridge.’ With that, he hurried to deliver his latest message to Ferrero.
Lieutenant Colonel Joshua K. Sigfried of the 48th Pennsylvania, upon crossing the bridge, immediately detached Captain Wren and his B Company as skirmishers, with orders to cover the quarry and the ridge to the right. The plucky captain and a couple of his people detoured slightly to check on the Confederate that Wren had shot. They found a dead man lying beside the same tree. ‘Captain,’ one of the men chimed in, ‘that is your man.’
Wren’s men fanned out and began to scramble up the hill. As the ground widened, the captain sent back for more skirmishers. Brigadier General Sturgis personally sent more men to assist.
The skirmishers scrounged the far hillside for souvenirs as they proceeded. They discovered the remains of the 2nd Georgia in a slight entrenchment near the top of the hill. Over 40 Rebels had fallen as a unit in near-perfect formation. Lieutenant Colonel Holmes lay five paces behind his color guard, riddled with bullets.
Union soldiers set upon the colonel’s beautiful dress uniform; one stole Holme’s expensive gold watch, others cut the gilt buttons off his tunic. Captain Joseph A. Gilmour claimed a shoulder knot. Two men pulled the polished boots off his feet, then callously flipped a coin to see who would have the matched pair.
Corporal Dye Davis of Company B happened upon a dead Confederate whose haversack bulged with johnny cakes. Dye coldly jerked the haversack free from the dead man and poured its contents into his own sack. He started to munch a chunk of the captured cornbread as the company moved out. A friend reprimanded him, commenting that he could not eat anything that came from a corpse.
‘Damn ’em, man,’ Dye retorted through a mouthful of bread. ‘The Johnny is dead, but the johnny cakes is no dead.’ He kept eating away.
The Federal regiments down by the creek, on the other hand, acted like vanquished troops. The stubborn Georgians, besides holding the entire corps at bay, inflicting severe casualties and causing the frustrated Yankees to needlessly expend an inordinate amount of ammunition upon inferior numbers, had scored an emotional victory. General Burnside had won his bridge–ever after to bear his name–but the crossing had been so delayed as to render his victory meaningless.
This article was written by Gerald J. Smith and originally appeared in America’s Civil War magazine.
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