The 37th North Carolina Infantry Regiment had a tempestuous beginning. Shortly after it was mustered into state service in November 1861, the regiment was issued flintlock muskets and blocks of lead for its members to melt down for their bullets. From private to regimental Colonel Charles C. Lee, the men protested the outdated weaponry. One of the newly elected officers wrote home, ‘We have Recd flint Lock Muskets but Lee says he will not Leed his Men in to battle without Number One arms.
Sixty percent of the regiment’s troops came from the mountain counties of North Carolina; the other 40 percent came from the counties around Charlotte. Most of the men already realized that the concept of a six-month’s war was an illusion. When the regiment was mustered into Confederate service in January 1862, it was for three years or the duration of war.Colonel Charles Lee was a native North Carolinian who, like his father, Colonel Stephen Lee of the 16th North Carolina, and a cousin, General Stephen Dill Lee, graduated from West Point (class of ’56). Charles had pre-viously served with future generals Daniel Harvey Hill and James H. Lane in the 1st North Carolina Volunteers, which had earned the nickname the Bethel Regiment for its role in the June 10, 1861, Battle of Big Bethel.
Unfortunately, the .69-caliber arms that replaced the flintlocks were no great improvement. Originally flintlocks, they had been converted to percussion, probably comprising some of the 37,000 stands of antiquated muskets, some dating back to the War of 1812, that had been captured with the Federal arsenal in Fayetteville.
The 37th carried those arms in its first battle, at New Berne, N.C., on March 14, 1862. Colonel Lee had been placed in command of a demi-brigade, and Lt. Col. William M. Barbour, a Wilkesboro lawyer, commanded the regiment at New Berne. The defenders lost the battle, however, due mostly to factors all too common for the Confederacy. Their overall commander, Brig. Gen. Lawrence O’Bryan Branch, was given a large area to defend with too few troops, and the Federals he faced were still flush from victory at Roanoke Island.
Soon after the battle, the 2nd North Carolina Brigade was created and General Branch was made its commander. The brigade was composed of the 7th, 18th, 28th, 33rd and 37th North Carolina Infantry regiments. The nephew of Governor John Branch, the brigadier had recently represented North Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives. Throughout his tenure in the Confederate Army, Branch would carry a grudge against the service’s prewar Regular Army officers, often disdainfully referring in private correspondences to fellow generals and commanders as West Point Lieuts. Although Branch was controversial, few observers questioned the mettle of the fighting men in his brigade. By May 1, 1862, the brigade was on its way to central Virginia as part of the plan to increase the size of the Confederate forces in that state. Not long after its arrival, two companies of the 37th traded in their smoothbore muskets for British-made Enfield rifle-muskets. By late May, Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac had pushed Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s army to the eastern outskirts of Richmond. Branch’s brigade, which had been augmented with a battery of artillery, cavalry and two more infantry regiments, was deployed to guard the Virginia Centtral Railroad about a dozen miles north of Richmond. In response to a report of a large Confederate concentration at Hanover Court House, a couple of miles north of Branch’s position, McClellan sent Brig. Gen. Fitz-John Porter’s V Corps to investigate on the morning of May 27.
The previous night, Companies D and E of the 37th had been sent out to picket the Pamunkey River, to the east. In the morning, the Federals cut off the two companies, along with the 28th North Carolina, from the rest of Branch’s force. While the 28th managed to fight its way out, most of the men in the two 37th companies were captured. Wagons were sent out to pick up the exhausted men who did escape.
The 37th was further weakened when Company B was detailed to guard an ammunition wagon and ambulance. Colonel Lee was once again placed in charge of two regiments, his diminished 37th and the 18th. Advancing through some woods, the 37th encountered the Federals, according to a 37th officer, concealed behind logs, trees and in the cut of the road way which [was] bordered by a fence…. The Federal force was vastly superior to the 37th, but the same officer recalled that Coln Lees men stood like victorious officers & men stood as firm as rocks within 15 or 20 paces of the Yankee line. Volley after volley of grape from their cannon & Minie Balls from there Infantry Mowed Down our men…. After a vicious fight, the bulk of Porter’s corps arrived and the Confederates retreated, leaving many of their dead and wounded. The 37th suffered 26 killed, 61 wounded and 167 captured, about one in three men engaged that day.
Even while the battle raged north of Richmond, Branch’s brigade was being assigned to a newly created division under the leadership of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Powell Hill. In a letter to Branch, A.P. Hill described his command as the Light Division, and the 37th would spend the rest of the war as a member of that famous organization.
The regiment rendered good service during the Seven Days’ battles. At Mechanicsville, it acted as a liaison betweenthe newly named Army of Northern Virginia, under General Robert E. Lee, and the tardy Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Stonewall Jackson. At Gaines’ Mill, the regiment charged the Federal works several times before the Yankees retreated from their position. On June 30 at Frayser’s Farm, the 37th was once again engaged. As Colonel Lee yelled On, my brave boys! he was mortally wounded by an artillery shell. When told of his death, the men of the 37th wept. William Barbour assumed command of the regiment and was promoted to full colonel on July 1.
The 37th next fought in the August Battles of Cedar Mountain and Second Manassas. After participating in the capture of Harpers Ferry, the regiment and the rest of Hill’s Light Division made the exhausting and critical march from there to the Sharpsburg battlefield. The 37th then took part in Hill’s famous counterattack that stopped the Federal IX Corps’ drive toward the rear of Lee’s army. Toward the end of the fighting, Branch was raising his field glasses to his eyes when a Federal bullet ended his life. Colonel James H. Lane of the 28th then assumed command of the brigade and was promoted to brigadier general.
At the Battle of Fredericksburg, the 37th was on the left of a gap in the line created by a swamp at the base of Prospect Hill when the Federals were able to push through the gap. Colonel Barbour reacted by refusing his three right companies and fighting fiercely until his troops ran out of ammunition and were forced to retreat.
On May 2, 1863, the 37th participated in Jackson’s famous flank march at Chancellorsville. The regiment was at the front that evening as Jackson reconnoitered the Federal position beyond the lines. And the 37th would fire the first shots of the infamous volley that rippled down the line to its left and mortally wounded Jackson. The next day, the 37th suffered the most casualties of any regiment engaged in the battle when its troops assaulted Federal entrenchments west of the Chancellor house. Barbour later called it the bloodiest battle that I have ever witnessed.
The rest of the regiment would soon trade their smoothbores for Enfield and Springfield rifle-muskets. The 37th’s troops put their new weapons to good use in the Gettysburg campaign. They drove elements of the Federal cavalry off the field on July 1, and fought again on July 3 in support of Brig. Gen. James J. Pettigrew’s division during the grand assault commonly known as Pickett’s Charge. After Gettysburg, the 37th fell back to Virginia, later fighting at Kelly’s Ford and Mine Run.
Spring 1864 brought a new campaign launched by the Army of the Potomac.
Although not heavily engaged in the Wilderness, the 37th suffered high casualties in the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. During that fight, on the morning of May 12, the brigade helped seal the breach in the Confederate lines caused by a Union assault against the notorious Mule Shoe.
That afternoon, General Lee personally ordered a detachment of Lane’s sharpshooters, commanded by a captain in the 37th, to reconnoiter a Yankee battery that was enfilading the Confederate position. When the sharpshooters reported back that the battery was unsupported, Lee ordered two brigades, including Lane’s, to capture it. The 37th emerged from the woods just as a division from Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps passed on the opposite side of the cannons. The 37th captured the battery, then slammed into the flank of the 17th Michigan and 51st Pennsylvania. A brief melee ensued, with Lane’s brigade capturing three Federal flags, two by members of the 37th. But the Federals fought valiantly, earning three Medals of Honor during the fight and capturing Colonel Barbour.
Due to a lack of support, the Tar Heels were unable to continue the fight. Nevertheless, the force of their attack had halted Burnside’s advance. The troops of the 37th could proudly say that they had saved the Confederate lines in the Mule Shoe.
After his capture, Colonel Barbour was taken to Old Capital prison in Washington. On June 15, he and 49 other Confederate officers were sent to Charleston, S.C., to be used as human shields by the Federal Army. Earlier, the Confederates had housed 50 Union officers in Charleston where, along with civilians, they came under fire from Federal artillery. After three tense weeks, an exchange agreement was made and the 50 Confederate officers managed to avoid being used as shields. Barbour was back with the 37th by the first week of August.
As the summer of 1864 wore on, the 37th was seriously engaged along the North Anna River, but not at Cold Harbor. On August 16, Colonel Barbour was wounded in the left leg and submitted his resignation, but returned to his regiment before it was accepted. On September 30, at the Battle of Jones Farm, near Petersburg, he was again wounded, this time in the right hip. He was taken to Petersburg, where he died on October 1. Command devolved to Major Jackson L. Bost, a doctor from Union County. Bost would lead the regiment for the rest of the Petersburg campaign.
On March 24, 1865, Lane’s brigade went into position as a reserve for Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon’s attack on Fort Stedman. The attack failed, and the 37th went back into the trenches near its winter quarters. On March 29, the 37th’s troops were forced to extend their intervals due to the redeployment of other brigades. The soldiers were spread so thin, according to Maj. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox, that they were 10 feet apart from each other.
A Federal attack on the morning of April 2 overwhelmed the 37th’s thinned ranks, and during the short fight a member of the 37th Massachusetts captured its flag. The North Carolinians scattered, some falling into the works at Fort Gregg, where they helped halt the Federal advance and provide time for Lt. Gen. James Longstreet to arrive from Richmond.The war was all but over for members of the 37th. Many had been captured on April 2; many others started to work their way home. On April 12, when the 37th stacked its rifle-muskets, only 115 officers and men were left to surrender out of the 2,000 that had served with the regiment.
This article was written by Michael C. Hardy and originally appeared in the May 2003 issue of America’s Civil War.
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