Some Civil War fighting units, like the famous Confederate Stonewall Brigade or the Union’s Irish Brigade, made a name for themselves from the very beginning of their service. Other regimental groupings hit their stride only after they had acquired some combat experience. Such was the case with the Virginians of the Old Dominion Brigade. Its story begins on April 17, 1861, when Virginia seceded from the Union. By July thousands of Virginian volunteers had been organized into infantry, cavalry and artillery units accepted for service by the new Confederate States of America government.
In October of that year, the Department of Norfolk was created under the command of Maj. Gen. Benjamin Huger. Among the units stationed in the Norfolk region were the 6th, 12th, 16th and 41st Virginia Volunteer Infantry regiments. Many from the Norfolk area had joined the 6th, which was led by Colonel William Mahone. The 12th Virginia’s soldiery primarily came from the cities of Richmond, Petersburg and Norfolk, and the regiment’s commander was 42-year-old Colonel David A. Weisiger.
Colonel Raleigh E. Colston helped to organize and initially led the 16th, which was composed of 11 companies instead of the usual 10. Seven were heavily recruited from Nansemond, Norfolk, Isle of Wight, Sussex and Chesterfield counties. The members of the 41st for the most part hailed from those same areas, along with two companies raised from Petersburg. John R. Chambliss was the 16th’s first colonel.
General Huger organized his infantry regiments into an army division of several brigades on October 15, 1861, and in doing so brigaded the 6th, 12th, 16th and 41st together under the command of Mahone, who was commissioned a brigadier general in November. The grouping, which came to be called the Old Dominion Brigade as the war progressed, was fortunate in that three of its first regimental colonels had military educations. Mahone and Colston graduated from the Virginia Military Institute, while Chambliss was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy. Additionally, Weisiger was a veteran of the Mexican War. The regimental leaders did much to instill needed discipline and training while the brigade was at Norfolk for the first seven months of the Civil War.
In May 1862, Norfolk was evacuated and Mahone’s Virginians were transferred to the Virginia Peninsula to help defend Richmond. The 12th and 41st participated in and did well at the Battle of Seven Pines, but during the Seven Days’ fighting the brigade’s actions were lackluster at best. Throughout the Second Manassas campaign in August, the Old Dominion regiments performed adequately as part of Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson’s Division of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s wing of the Army of Northern Virginia.
During the battle at Manassas, Mahone was seriously wounded in the chest. The slight general, who weighed less than 100 pounds, had been nicknamed ‘Little Billy’ by his men. As Mahone’s health was delicate, it seemed likely that any wound might be serious. When his wife was told of his injury, an attempt was made to soften the blow by describing it as a ‘flesh wound.’ His wife knew better — ‘The General hasn’t any flesh,’ she exclaimed. Mahone proved tougher than anticipated, however, and was back with his men by December.
In November 1862, just before the Battle of Fredericksburg, the 61st Virginia joined the brigade. The regiment was raised mostly from Norfolk and Greenville counties. Virginius D. Groner, its colonel for most of the war, graduated from the Norfolk Military Academy.
Mahone’s men were only lightly engaged at Fredericksburg, but Anderson and army commander General Robert E. Lee commented favorably on the brigade’s conduct at Chancellorsville.
The brigade’s reputation was badly tarnished, however, after it failed to properly support other units in Anderson’s Division, by then part of Maj. Gen. A.P Hill’s Third Corps, in a July 2 charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. But the Virginians’ reputation as fighters would take a dramatic turn for the better in the bloody battles fought in the spring of 1864.
Mahone’s men spent the 1863-64 winter along the Rapidan River in Virginia, not far from Orange Court House. Every regiment in the brigade reenlisted for the duration of the war during a brief ceremony on February 4, 1864.
On February 7, the regiments marched to the Rapidan in anticipation of a Federal raid that never materialized. On the 29th, the Virginians piled onto railroad cars and headed to the Rivanna River Bridge in Albemarle County to forestall Federal cavalry raiders from threatening that structure. The Yankees withdrew before any shots were exchanged, and the graycoats rode the rails back to Orange Court House on March 2.
Beginning in mid-April, a continuous stream of rumors and reports of an imminent advance by the Army of the Potomac reached brigade headquarters. On April 18, and then on the 22nd, the brigade turned out to repel advances reported in the offing by Union deserters, but nothing happened on either occasion.
Things changed quickly, however, on May 4 when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River, beginning a movement designed to turn the Southern army’s right flank. Union commander Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant hoped that no general engagement would be brought on until the Union host passed through the Wilderness, a 70-square-mile area thick with stunted trees, carpeted by tangled undergrowth and traversed only on constricted roadways.
Once open country was reached, the Union force of 118,000 men, almost twice as strong as its opponent, would then proceed to crush the Army of Northern Virginia. The attempt failed, however, when the Rebel army raced east from its encampments to intercept the blue columns while they trudged through the dark and gloomy Wilderness.
May 5 was consumed by fighting over bramble-covered clearings and barely visible gullies. Nightfall brought a halt to most of the carnage, as the two antagonists faced one another on a north-south line running from just below the Rapidan River, across the Orange Turnpike, to the south of the Orange Plank Road.
Grant believed that the Confederates had been badly battered by the intense fighting, and wanted to exploit a gap that existed between Lee’s Second Corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, which fronted the Union right, and the Third Corps under Hill, facing the Union left. Grant ordered the struggle to resume on Friday, May 6.
The previous day, Hill’s troops had barely survived being overrun by the Federal attacks. By the 6th, Hill’s position on the Orange Plank Road was disordered and without close friendly support. Shortly after 5 a.m., a converging attack from the east by Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s Union II Corps augmented by a VI and a V corps division smashed into Hill’s unprepared and outnumbered defenders. Hancock’s push was soon driving hundreds of Third Corps Confederates in disorder down the Orange Plank Road.
Mahone’s men were not part of the melee. Anderson’s Division had been held back at Madison Run on May 3 to watch the army’s baggage train. On the 5th, as fighting raged in the Wilderness, the division was ordered to march toward Willis Ford on the Rapidan River. After crossing in the early evening, around 7 p.m., they started tramping eastward on the Orange Plank Road. At about 5:30 a.m. on May 6, Anderson and his command were some three miles from the battlefield waiting for the wagon trains of Hill’s corps to be pushed off the road and for two divisions of Longstreet’s corps to move out.
Anderson’s men arrived just behind the Southern battle line at the Widow Tapp’s farm around 6:30. Mahone’s Brigade remained in reserve while their sister brigades of Anderson’s Division were committed to the Rebel defensive line. Lee’s headquarters was at the Widow Tapp’s, and from there the army commander and Longstreet sought a way to turn back the enemy onslaught. Soon they had their answer. Lee’s chief of engineers, Brig. Gen. Martin L. Smith, accompanied by Longstreet’s aide Lt. Col. Moxley Sorrel, had discovered an unfinished railway cut that ran east and west and parallel to and south of the Orange Plank Road. It appeared to be a perfect route by which to hit the Federal II Corps’ exposed left flank.
Lee and Longstreet quickly cobbled together an assault force made up of four brigades. From the Third Corps came Mahone’s and Colonel John M. Stone’s brigades. Brigadier Generals William T. Wofford’s and G.T. Anderson’s First Corps brigades rounded out the force. Mahone was the senior brigadier and had overall command of the grouping. Sorrel guided the strike force to a point almost directly below Hancock’s left flank. The jump-off line was reached about noon, and Sorrel and Mahone positioned the soldiers.
Wofford held down the left, with Stone’s Brigade behind him acting as a general reserve. Mahone placed his men in the center, with G.T. Anderson guarding the right. Lt. Col. Everard Feild’s sharpshooter battalion was out in front as skirmishers. Mahone then turned over immediate control of his brigade to the commander of the 12th Virginia, Colonel Weisiger. From left to right, and facing to the northwest, the 6th, 16th, 61st, 41st and 12th prepared for the attack. Little Billy was about to drive his ad hoc division, including his brigade, right at the Federal host.
By 10 a.m. a lull had settled over the southern portion of the battlefield. Hancock’s men were bringing their coffee to a boil when Mahone gave the order to charge, and the gray hurricane burst through thickets and up ravines at the Union left ‘like an army of ghosts rising out of the earth,’ said one bluecoat. The Federal flank began to give way, and Longstreet stepped up the pressure by initiating a frontal attack against Hancock’s position.
Mahone drove his men, paying particular attention to his brigade. When the 6th Virginia slowed its pace, he rode up and expressed his displeasure at finding the’splendidly drilled regiment…in this condition….’ The troops got moving again. Mahone’s Brigade hurtled to the Orange Plank Road, where the regiments intermingled and the onslaught bogged down. To correct the disorder, Mahone halted his units. The 12th Virginia, however, failed to hear the order and continued forward for another 50 yards beyond the road, then veered to the right to avoid some brushfires. The regiment’s temporary commander, Lt. Col. Joseph P. Minetree, suddenly realized his isolated position, about-faced the 12th and started moving it back.
To their misfortune, General Longstreet and a group of officers then rode down the Orange Plank Road between the stationary 41st Virginia and the approaching 12th. In the thick smoke caused by small-arms discharges and burning timber, the men of the 41st and 61st thought that the 12th and Longstreet’s mounted group were enemy infantry led by horsemen, and let loose a volley.
Longstreet was seriously wounded, and Brig. Gen. Micah Jenkins, a promising young commander accompanying Longstreet, fell with a mortal head wound. Several other staff officers and members of the 12th Virginia were killed or injured. Later in the day, soldiers in the 6th Virginia fatally shot Union Brig. Gen. James S. Wadsworth as he rallied his wavering troops. The general’s horse bolted into Southern lines, and a Mini ball hit Wadsworth in the back of the head. He died a few hours later.
Longstreet’s wounding disrupted Rebel attacks on Hancock’s line, and by 9 p.m. the fighting at the south end of the battlefield petered out. Mahone’s Brigade had done its work and spent the remainder of May 6 behind breastworks at the intersection of the Orange Plank and Brock roads facing Hancock’s men sheltering behind their own earthworks. Mahone was justly proud of his men and reported their attack ‘complete as it was brilliant.’ He also noted the ‘long lines of [Union] dead and wounded which lay in the wake of our swoop.’
Due to Longstreet’s wounding, Anderson took control of the First Corps and Mahone assumed command of Anderson’s Division. Weisiger maintained control of the Old Dominion Brigade and was given the temporary rank of brigadier general.
Back in the smoking Wilderness, around 7 p.m. on May 7, Grant sent his army toward Spotsylvania Court House. Anticipating such a threat, Lee ordered Anderson’s corps to head for the same area. Weisiger’s Brigade headed south on the 8th with the rest of Mahone’s Division, and the brigade joined in a scrape that cleared the Catharpin Road, which entered Shady Grove Church Road on the way to Spotsylvania, for Confederate use.
By May 9, the Virginians were erecting fortifications near Spotsylvania. Their labor was interrupted at about 8 p.m. by an urgent request from Lee to move three miles west of Spotsylvania to counter a threat by three infantry divisions of Hancock’s II Corps that had crossed to the south side of the Po River.
Weisiger set his men in motion on the Shady Grove Church Road leading Mahone’s Division toward the army’s left. By 3 a.m. on the 10th they came to within 1,000 yards of the Yankee position at Block House Bridge spanning the Po. Another division was sent to support Mahone, and the two detachments advanced and pushed the II Corps back across the river.
The Old Dominion Brigade spent the 11th and the early part of the 12th at Block House Bridge, but rushed back to the main Confederate line at first light on the 12th after Hancock’s and Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps Federals broke through at a section of the Rebel line known as the Mule Shoe. Weisiger’s Brigade, with two others, stepped off at 1 p.m. to strike Burnside’s left flank. Weisiger led his regiments under the concealment of woods south of the Fredericksburg Road, then swung north and hit the flank of Union Maj. Gen. Orlando B. Willcox’s division. Willcox fended off the Rebels, though the unexpected Confederate attack took the steam out of Burnside’s effort.
From the 13th to the 19th, except for a small action that pushed Union forces back across the Ny River, Mahone’s old brigade did little fighting. But on May 20 Grant slipped south toward Richmond. Lee followed suit and beat Grant to the North Anna River, crossed to its south shore and awaited the Federals. That same day Grant hurled his V and VI corps over the North Anna near Jericho Ford, but A.P. Hill failed to concentrate his troops and throw the Yankees back across the river.
With Union forces lodged south of the North Anna, Lee built a V-shaped trench system with the point of the V near Ox Ford. The Union V and IX corps made a surprise thrust a mile below the ford on May 24 that the Old Dominion troops, concealed in thick woods, thwarted with effective rifle fire.
The next 10 days saw the antagonists maneuver from the North Anna to the York River to Totopotomy Creek and finally to a road junction east of the Confederate capital called Cold Harbor. On June 3, Weisiger’s command came to the aid of Maj. Gen. John Breckinridge’s Division as it was pressed hard by Hancock’s corps.
Grant soon opted to cross the James River and seize Petersburg, hoping control of that vital link in the Confederate supply chain would ultimately starve Lee’s army into submission. Lee followed but could not prevent the Union force from crossing to the south bank of the James and moving to threaten Petersburg. On June 15, the XVIII Corps, of the Army of the James, made the first Union assault on the city’s defenses. In response, much of Lee’s army, including Weisiger’s Virginians, rushed to Petersburg, reaching the city on the 18th.
On June 20, Federal forces moved south and west of the city to secure control of the Jerusalem Plank Road. From there Grant planned to seize the Weldon Railroad, Lee’s main supply line to North Carolina. That move started on the 22nd. Maneuvering in thick woods without guides or good maps, the II and VI corps quickly lost contact with each other after crossing the Jerusalem Plank Road. Seeing an opportunity, Mahone pushed three of his brigades — Weisiger’s and those of Brig. Gens. John C.C. Sanders and Ambrose R. Wright — through heavy foliage to drive the two Union divisions back beyond the Federal entrenchments on the Jerusalem Plank Road. Mahone’s troops took more than 1,700 prisoners, eight standards and four cannons.
The next day, in another attempt to reach the railroad, Maj. Gen. Marcus Wright’s VI Corps marched west and south three miles below the Southern trenches and reached the Weldon Railroad. Mahone reacted to Wright’s maneuvering by marching 10 miles of circuitous routes to link with another division. The divisions attacked, striking the VI Corps and sending the Yankees back to their lines on the Jerusalem Plank Road.
The greatest drama Weisiger’s men were to face at Petersburg, however, was yet to unfold. About a mile northwest of the intersection of the Norfolk & Petersburg Railroad and the Baxter Road, the Union and Confederate trench lines, occupied respectively by Burnside’s IX Corps and the infantry of Maj. Gen. Bushrod Johnson’s Confederate division, were only 100 yards apart.
In an attempt to end the siege of Petersburg, the Federals developed a plan whereby they would use an underground mine to blow a hole through Johnson’s line. The operation called for 8,000 pounds of black powder to be placed under the Confederate trenches by way of a 511-foot-long tunnel. After the mine was exploded, a concentrated Union artillery bombardment, followed by a massive assault by 15,000 Federal troops, was planned to help secure a breakthrough.
Union miners completed the tunnel on July 23, and in order to draw defenders away from the point of attack, Hancock’s II Corps and part of the Union Cavalry Corps were sent across the James River at Deep Bottom to menace Richmond. Lee fell for the ruse and sent all but three of his infantry divisions north of the James. Mahone’s Division was one of those that remained behind, holding the Confederate right.
The Union mine had been dug under Elliot’s Salient, where Lt. Col. William J. Pegram’s artillery battery was supported by Brig. Gen. Stephen Elliott’s South Carolina Brigade. The Federals hoped to swarm past the ruptured stronghold and capture the high ground behind it where Blandford Church Cemetery was located. The date for the detonation was set for Saturday, July 30.
At 4:43 a.m. on the 30th, a fearsome explosion evaporated Elliot’s Salient. Colonel George T. Rogers of the 6th Virginia recalled years later that ‘just as the day began to dawn came that low, deep, quivering, ominous sound’ that made him jump to his feet. Three miles away, members of the 16th Virginia sat up in their dugouts and exchanged questioning looks as a sound they had never experienced in three years of war washed over their camps. South of Petersburg, near the Wilcox house, the entire 12th Virginia was also awakened by the blast.
The Crater, as the hole in the ground resulting from the blast would forever be called, was 170 feet long, 60 feet wide and 30 feet deep. The smoking pit had entombed half of Pegram’s guns and crews and entire companies of Elliott’s command, some 278 men. The stunned survivors were ill-prepared to resist the oncoming Federal assault.
It took a full half-hour for the defenders to start to reorganize and put up any type of effective defense. Fortunately for the Rebels, the Union onslaught slowed as Yanks stared in awe at the destruction.
Instead of moving around the hole and heading for the high ground, Federal foot soldiers stumbled into the reeking abyss, marveling at half-buried corpses and huge boulders that had been flung about like marbles. By the time Union officers tried to get their men moving forward, portions of Confederate regiments had surrounded the Crater’s rim.
Lee rushed to the scene from the Gee house, 500 yards from the Crater on the Jerusalem Plank Road. At 6 a.m. he sent for the nearest troops at hand: Mahone’s Division. At 6:30, Weisiger’s men moved out, followed by Wright’s Brigade. The Rebels raced east and then north on the Jerusalem Plank Road. Once on the road the men came under heavy artillery fire. To speed their progress they dropped their blanket rolls and haversacks. The men left the Plank Road until they reached the bottom of a ravine; they then followed the gulley to a point opposite the Crater.
Weisiger’s infantry led the way as the two brigades climbed the east side of the ravine, reaching the Jerusalem Plank Road south of the Blandford Cemetery and north of the Crater. Mahone met them there and sent his old brigade in column east through a covered way across the road.
Fifty yards east of the road the men moved south and entered another ravine that ran parallel to the Crater and Confederate trench lines then held by the Federals. The Old Dominion boys had advanced unseen to within 200 yards of their foes.
Mahone wanted to bring Wright’s Brigade into line, but realized he could not wait as the Union troops were about to surge out of the Crater. He therefore ordered Weisiger to lead his brigade in an unsupported charge.
Before the men of the 12th Virginia moved off, they received a somber address from Captain Richard Jones, who was leading the regiment: ‘Men you are called upon to charge and recapture our works, now in the hands of the enemy. They are 100 yards distant. The enemy can fire only one volley before their works are reached. Rise and move forward at the command at double quick and yell. Everybody is expected to do their duty in this crisis.’ It was approximately 9 a.m.
Weisiger readied his men. The 6th Virginia was on the right, the 12th Virginia on the left flank, with the 16th, 41st and 61st Virginia in the center. Company officers passed the word to fix bayonets. At 9:30 a.m. Mahone ordered Weisiger to start the attack. The troops sprung to their feet, and the 200-yard-long, 20-foot-deep Southern line went screaming toward the Crater.
‘The [Union] battle flags seemed almost thick as cornstalks in a row,’ remembered a stunned private in the 12th. ‘The whole face of the earth, including the ditch which our men formerly occupied, fairly teemed with the enemy.’
Heavy Union gunfire forced the attackers to veer away, and the Southerners first struck the enemy-held trenches north of the Crater. For an hour the Virginians fought alone in furious hand-to-hand combat and gradually cleared the Union troops from the trenches. By 10:30 a.m., Wright’s Brigade of Georgia regiments had joined the fray. Also deflected by the rifle fire coming from the Crater, they too found themselves huddled in the ditches north of the Crater with Weisiger’s men. The Confederates then slowly pushed their way to the rim of the Crater and got into a severe firefight with Burnside’s IX Corps soldiers, including United States Colored Troops. Racial hatred flared, and some of Weisiger’s men shouted ‘No quarter!’ when they saw their USCT opponents.
The Crater became a fury of smoke and deafening noise from rifle discharges and artillery shells hurled by hand. Bayonet-tipped muskets were thrown as spears. Portable Coehorn mortars were brought up by the Rebels to rain bombs onto the struggling Yankees. Yet the Union mass in the Crater held on, the black and white troops resisting every Rebel effort to push them out of their manmade hole.
Mahone needed more men to win the fight, and he rushed up Brig. Gen. Sanders’ Alabama regiments. The new arrivals launched a spirited attack that ended enemy resistance. The Confederates took full possession of the Crater and the field works surrounding it by 1 p.m.
The Battle of the Crater cost Mahone’s old regiments more lives than had any other major battle fought since Grant crossed the Rapidan River on May 4. Out of about 1,500 total Confederate casualties — 361 killed, 727 wounded and 403 missing — Weisiger’s Brigade sustained 84 killed, 117 wounded and 14 captured. David Weisiger was one of the injured, though he would recover. His temporary rank of brigadier general was made permanent from the date of the battle, and in some circles he was known as the ‘Hero of the Crater.’ On the other side of the ledger, the Federals sustained 504 dead, 1,881 wounded and 1,413 captured or missing.
Mahone’s victory at the Crater helped the siege of Petersburg to drag on for eight more bloody months. During that time the regiments of the Old Dominion Brigade added more battle honors to their banners, but their courage could only delay the eventual Federal breakthrough at Petersburg in early April 1865.
The Virginians then moved east in the woeful retreat to Appomattox Court House. During the flight, Mahone’s former regiments continued to exhibit the degree of skill and courage they had shown from the Wilderness to the Crater, but it all ended when Lee surrendered on April 9. Though their bravery could not stave off defeat for the Confederacy, the members of the Old Dominion Brigade could go home comfortable in the knowledge they had done all they could to defend their namesake state.
This article was written by Arnold Blumberg and originally appeared in the July 2004 issue of America’s Civil War. For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of America’s Civil War.