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Eyewitness Account: A Tar Heel at Gettysburg

Originally published by America's Civil War magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Lawrence Decatur Davis was born on June 22, 1833, in Halifax County, Virginia, and attended Hampden-Sydney College, but ran away to find adventure in Texas. According to family lore, he came back to Virginia so handsomely dressed in buckskin that Mildred Eldridge, a neighbor, immediately fell in love with him. They were married in 1857.

Lawrence enlisted in the Confederate Army on March 27, 1864, joining the 1st Battalion, Virginia Light Artillery. That unit had begun its service as an infantry company organized on April 24, 1861, by Dr. Edward K. Young. Young's company soldiered in the 14th Virginia Infantry before transferring to the 1st Battalion, Virginia Light Artillery, on May 1, 1862. Lawrence's brother, Robert B. Davis, was a first lieutenant in the battery.

Davis and his fellow artillerymen were posted in Battery No. 5 in the Dimmock Line, a series of earthworks protecting Petersburg. That stronghold became a focal point of the Union attacks on June 15, 1864, launched by portions of the Army of the Potomac and Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler's Army of the James, including some regiments of U.S. Colored Troops. Union commander Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant hoped that the Federal assaults would capture the city while it was lightly defended, but after initial success, the Federal drive bogged down, leading to months of siege warfare. The following material, previously unpublished, is part of a history Lawrence Davis wrote in 1907 for his family, drawing from his memories of his part in the June 15 fighting. Paragraph breaks have been added for ease in reading.

…The battle at the Jordan House known as Battery No. 5, 5 miles east of Petersburg on the south side of the Appomattox River, fought on June 15, 1864.

This battery from Halifax Co., Va., had gone through the war, had never been in an engagement up to the summer of 1864. The officers & men actually had the blues, thinking the war would close without their having the 'fun of fight but little did they know what was in store for them. On the day previous to the fight Lieut. Ferguson…who had charge of the only rifled piece belonging to the Battery, was ordered from battery No. 9 to Battery No. 5, which place we reached in the evening. Next morning just as we sat down to a breakfast of ham & eggs on a grassy plot in the northeast corner of Jordan's yard, the roar of small arms commenced in the woods east of the house. We were all excited & very much exhilarated but this exalted feeling did not last long for soon our pickets were seen coming slowly over the hill & the yankee infantry was seen spreading out over the river bottom, & taking the ditches in single file. Then the stern reality burst upon us & a stern sense of duty dispelled the illusory rapture.

The battle continued all day, waxing fierce as the evening came on. And altho one of the hottest days ever experienced I heard no man speak of water or wanting anything to eat. About 10 o'clock in the morning there came a yankee staff emerging from the woods & galloping in all the pride & circumstance of war into Beasley's house just a mile down the river. Capt. Sturdivant who was in command of the light guns ordered my Lieut. Ferguson to put a ball right into that Staff and as soon as the smoke cleared up we all stood out to see the effect of the shot. If any were killed we could not tell but such scampering into Beasley's house you never saw.

Then Sturdivant says to Ferguson Put a ball through Beasley's house. How far is it? Just a measured mile was the response. So we cut our fuse for that distance but the house being so completely shut in by a grove we could not see the effects of the shot. But that evening during a Lull in the fighting, Col. Jones who had command north of the river came over to see how we were holding out, and asked Capt. Sturdivant what gun it was, that put the ball through Beasley's house? When told that it was Lt. Ferguson's but that soon after he was shot down. He remarked that it was the most beautiful shot he had ever seen; That the ball passed right through the house & exploded in the back yard where the Yankees had been congregated all the morning. Lt. Ferguson was shot by a sharpshooter from a treetop. Capt. Sturdivant & myself were standing by him when shot & though of a ruddy complexion weighing 220 lb when struck he instantly turned deathly pale & commenced falling backward, when we caught him in our arms & eased him down. Our ambulances being sheltered under the hill, we carried him down & placed him in one and just at starting, he begged me to go with him to the hospital, as we were warm friends. But having no orders from my Capt. I had to deny him. Poor fellow, I afterwards heard that he died the third day, then the South lost one of its truest & best.

When reaching the top of the hill on my return to the Battery the bullets were flying so thick & fast that I jumped behind a big yellow pine. I stayed there until a pause came in the shooting. Finally I summoned up courage & ran facing the minnies from 70 or 80 yards all along the Battery. That was a time to try the soul. I have often thought since that if I knew the owner, I would say to him Spare that tree.

The fighting intensified as the shades of night drew on until just at dusk, the yankees brought up 16 pieces of artillery to the hill east of us, and about 300 yards from our works. There was sublime grandeur for a short time with bomb bursting overhead–like myriad of lightning. They had our distance exactly, but were a little high, otherwise there would have been none left. Capt. Sturdivant, in the voice of a Stentorian says, Men, save yourself, we are charged by negroes…. our works are carried, I shall stand my ground. We leaped to the gun & with a file & sledge hammer drove it into the torch hole, putting it out of order. I, along with others wanted to get back to the main Commands so off we darted. A young man by the name of Strange, who was a neighbor boy preceded me by a few steps. I happened to be looking at him when he was struck by a minnie & he began wriggling along like a bird shot in the back when down he came. I kept on a short distance & ran just a few yards farther, when a dark skin, powder-besmirched, white man ran up & said Surrender.

I replied, I surrender seeing no possible avenue of escape, as the Enemy was forming in front of me. I should have made the man take me in charge but he kept right on down the hill to the bottom & I stopped, still thinking as a matter of course that I was safe, having surrendered. In a minute however a big yellow negro ran up to me & demanded my surrender. I told him I had already surrendered. He said, Dam you, I will kill you anyway, you have killed a heap of our good men today. At that he held his gun & I was feeling for the ball, I could see the cap shining on his musket but I suppose it was only half cocked. Anyhow he couldn't get it off & when he lunged at me with his bayonet, but the hill being very precipitous he kept right on down. I omitted to say the negroes were liquored just sufficient to make demons of them. The whole atmosphere was impregnated with the scent of it. I knew it would never do to remain there so I ran back to the Battery & there they had about 30 of our men surrounded by a cordon of negroes eight or ten deep. Coming up (in darkness) behind them they didn't seem to notice me, so I took my hands & parted them right & left. In this by some good chance were four or five officers & one of them in particular saved our lives. He cut at the negroes to kill & said Damn you, you shall not kill these prisoners.

The other officers only used their swords in a half-hearted manner. To one alone did we owe our lives. When he swung at them to kill, the negroes would jump back. He said & repeated ever time he would cut with his sword, Damn your souls, you shan't kill these prisoners. As soon as quietude was restored I witnessed a most beautiful incident. A young officer, unknown to me, drew a beautiful gold-hilted sword that fairly glittered in the starlight & going up to the officer who had saved our lives said Captain I wish to present you this sword, as a token of our gratitude for having saved our lives. The response was, I will accept it, but I did nothing more than my duty. (You can be sure he was a graduate of West Point or heavily affected by a graduate–Duty, Honor, Country.) Though apparently formal it was genuine. The whole thing, bowing & scraping, would grace a ballroom. We prisoners were conducted that night 20 miles across the country to City Point on the James.

About the first thing I recollect hearing when reaching there was from an intelligent looking negro, who said that Gen. Grant had told them that all he wanted was 3 days start on Lee & from the noise of the trains running into Petersburg the live-long night, which we could plainly hear, we were afraid he had stole the march on Lee. That morning we prisoners were carried to General Butler's headquarters, who was bivouaced nearby. We were held in about 30 yards of his tent, which seemed to be made of silk.

We sent one of our men who was caught in a bomb-proof, supposed from that fact, & consequently would gladly tell all he knew. The General was mistaken, however, as he was a man good & true. he told us when he returned what passed between them & amongst other things he said to Gen. Butler. General, I don't think you ought to fight the negroes against us. We of the South regard them as 'non combatants' & we don't fight them against you. Why, he replied, I would arm a regiment of mules to kick your damned brains out.

As Gen. Butler had been accused of tantalizing prisoners I will tell you how he treated us. His ten[t], some 30 yards away, was on an elevation. He had a galvanized rebel [a Confederate who had changed his allegiance to the Union] darting in & out of his tent, dressed in all sorts of gay & flaring colors & he would dance & sing ribald songs also for our benefit. I guessed he was the vilest man engendered by the war. That evening the General dressed up in a fine suit of broadcloth & mounted a fine horse, rode slowly around us, gazing at us with eyes of hate. As a military man on horseback, big & fat as he was, he was a parody.

We were carried from there & placed on a boat just above Grant's pontoons. They had three of them, two for his men & artillery & one for beef cattle. There were 3 days & nights in crossing. It was a grand pageant, an unending stream of blue. The pontoons were lifted at last & we were sent down the river to Point Lookout.

Lawrence Davis was transferred from the prison at Point Lookout, Md., at the tip of the peninsula formed by the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay to the larger holding pen at Elmira, N.Y., on July 25, 1864. He was paroled March 10, 1865, and sent back to Virginia. He moved with his wife and family to North Carolina and later to Brenham, Texas. From there they moved to Oklahoma Territory, where Lawrence taught school in Erick. He died in Oklahoma in 1911.



This article was written by Faye Royster Tuck and originally appeared in the July 2005 issue of America's Civil War magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America's Civil War magazine today!

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