The hard-fighting 44th Georgia suffered some of the heaviest losses of any regiment in the Civil War.
By Gerald J. Smith
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.”