When the Civil War began, Virginius Pettey was a 25-year-old bachelor practicing law in Brenham, Texas. His office was on the second floor of a building near the county courthouse. He lived in a small nearby settlement called Hog’s Branch, along with his brother Tom, a doctor, and his mother and sister.
During the summer of 1861, he and about 20 others from the Brenham vicinity volunteered to fight for the South. On August 18, 1861, Pettey wrote the first of 23 wartime letters that he sent to his mother, Mary, and his sister, Mattie Pettey Souter, in Brenham. A little over a year later, he was killed in combat at Second Manassas. Mattie carefully preserved the letters and passed them down through the family. I received them from my mother, Katharine McKenna Terrell, in their original form, written in pen and ink (with some portions written in pencil) and unseen by the public eye for more than 140 years. The following excerpts are presented without corrections or additions.
By mid-July, Virginius and his comrades began to gather at Camp Van Doren in Harrisburg, Texas (just outside Houston). He describes the proceedings there in a letter to Mattie:
Six Companies marched through Houston, that about five hundred soldiers, quite a grand display of the military. After getting through the city, Capt Rogers permitted me to return to the city, where I wrote the letter to Ma. I walked to Camp that night, 1l⁄2 miles. The boys were full of spirit—all night, and but little sleeping was done. Next morning we left there during a rain, in open cars, not very pleasant. But on reaching Liberty—38 miles, we found the hospitable citizens of that place had prepared a feast for the occasion of our coming which was greeted with shouts of applause & eat with a relish that well bespoke to health & hunger. We reached Beaumont 45 miles further, about night when in the dark & mud & water we had to remove ourselves & our baggage from the cars to the steamboat on the deck of which we slept or lay down on, for we got but little sleep, the soldiers or some of them were walking over us all night….
Traveling by rail and steamboat, the boys eventually found themselves encamped on the Sabine River, where the fishing was good. “We caught some fish this evening & will have a good supper to night,” Pettey wrote. “I caught one that would weigh 40 lbs., a little whole, had lots of fun in getting him out, one hundred men shouting all the while. Bob Hargrove is the best fellow to travel with in the world. He dreads the trip we have to walk from here to New Iberia 140 miles. . ..”
From New Iberia, they went by rail to Richmond, and then north to the Potomac. On October 1, 1861, the company was designated Company E, 5th Texas Infantry Regiment, and became part of John Bell Hood’s famous Texas Brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia. They spent the next six months in winter quarters—watching to see if the Yankees would cross the Potomac. Pettey was assigned to night picket duty. If he saw Federal movement, he was to hoot like an owl: “I was selected to stand picket guard. I liked it better than any duty I ever performed. Col’ Robisson posted us way up the river & the signal of alarm was the hoot of an owl. Nothing though occured of importance. It was a lovely moonlight night. I set & watched the whole night. Hardships agree with me, & I like excitement….”
The boys climbed trees to get a better view of Federal gunboats firing into Confederate territory:
…some of us however Indian like, took to trees and looked on at their grand sport which was no less exciting to us. I have the benefit of a small hickory tree that I stood just on a knoll apart from the rest where I could see their every move. Could see the smoke of the gun some five or ten seconds before we would hear the report and the whistle of the ball. From the time of seeing the smoke, there is plenty of time to lay flat down in order to protect you from the bursting of the shells which is always done. From where I was I could see their every move. See them load, touch the match & see the smoke, then down I would go, then hear the missle of death soaring (mostly shells) I could hear them strike and see them burst which makes a noise almost as loud as a cannon with a quick volcanic smoke that went drifting over the hills like thin clouds of vapor (looking very pretty indeed)….
Disease and lice were rampant. At one time, the 5th Texas had only 25 men fit for duty. But Pettey did not complain: “I have had less sickness than any other man in the company. Blessed with an excellant appetite all the time, & enjoy eating o’ hugely, especially when we have something good & if I don’t keep fat, it will not be for the want of eating, unless they run me down this Spring fighting the Yanks, or trying to get to fight them….”
Sometimes when duties were slack, the boys sought out adventure: “Not infrequently here, I buckle on my good knife & pistols & with one or two friends sallie forth from camp to see what & whom I can greet.…Lieut. Harper (a brave & noble fellow) & I took a round in the country yesterday of a few miles, found hospitality where we found anything. Got something good to eat & drink & returned all safe….”
Even amid the tedium of camp life and the chaos of war, Pettey and his comrades tried to keep their spirits up: “Well, I…join in boisterous laughter at some passing jest upon the war, & the present perilous conditions of this country. You would think this was no subject of laughter, yet everything is turned to merriment here, when we are most hardly pressed we are most jovial. This seems strange, yet tis true….”
The Great Ruse
By April 1862, Maj. Gen. George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac had arrived near Yorktown, 70 miles southeast of Richmond. The Peninsula campaign had begun. The 5th Texas quit its post near the Potomac, traveled by rail south, and then 80 miles on foot to Yorktown. The Confederates were out flanked by Union gunboats on the James and York rivers. There was no choice but to retreat up the peninsula. The 5th Texas defended the retreat as part of the rear guard.
By June 13, Pettey was back in Richmond and having a sip of “nerve reviver” with two lieutenants:
In our room are two large nice beds. What a luxury for a soldier: in the Columbian Hotel at one large window this lovely evening while at the other sits Lts. Harper & Wallace (of Co. C) laughing & talking of the recent past—about killing Yankees etc., with their feet propped up against each side of the window caseing enjoying a good evening cigar…not withstanding the Marshall Law about Brandy & whiskey etc., if you are a close observer, you would see a black bottle, a glass sugar dish & the etcetera. Guess then whether or not I am in good humor situated as I am in a comfortable room, having plenty of good to eat, that which is done & what I don’t have to cook myself, surrounded by two warm friends & with a “nerve reviver” close by.
Later in June, something peculiar took place. Although McClellan was in force 20 miles east of Richmond, the Texas Brigade was yanked up, put on rail cars, and sent 200 miles west to Staunton:
…We went up in that lovely country thro’ the Blue Mountains up to Staunton by way of Lynchburg in the cars. This movement of ours was a ruse to fool the enemy which has been done most perfectly. We no sooner reached Staunton & got the news of our movement wide spread then we turned right back & came most of the way to Ashland on the cars by way of Charlottesville & Gordonsville. This movement brought the whole of Gen. Jackson’s army, now including us, in a position to move in the rear of the enemy on the east side of the Chickahominy….
Pettey’s view of grand strategy was usually off target—such as when he predicted a big fight near Washington that never took place. But here he got it right. In fact, the trip to Staunton was a ruse to fool the enemy. The move was reported to Washington: “Beware, Jackson’s army in the Shenandoah is being reinforced.” President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and others in the Union brass willingly took the bait. Concerns for the safety of Washington had caused Lincoln and Stanton to withhold Irwin McDowell’s large corps from McClellan’s march up the Peninsula, and the reports of Jackson’s activities in the Valley only seemed to confirm their fears. Much to McClellan’s dismay, McDowell never was released to him.
Robert E. Lee quickly moved Jackson’s army to just east of Richmond. So the ruse was double barreled, in that 30,000 troops were withheld from McClellan while the Confederates opposing him were greatly strengthened. Lee’s ploy may very well have saved Richmond.
Lee decided that the best way to defend Richmond was to go on the offensive, destroy the Army of the Potomac and end the war. The Federals had retreated to an entrenched position of imposing strength—three successive infantry lines dug into the side of a hill topped by Federal artillery.
By June 27, Jackson’s army was in position, and Lee was ready to deliver the blow. But day-long Confederate assaults produced nothing but casualties. The Texas Brigade came up near sundown, and Lee asked Hood if he could break the Union line. Hood said he was willing to try. Pettey detailed what happened:
Before we fired at all we stopped, fired a few rounds & wisely charged the enemy. Had we remained there long we, like other regiments, would have been cut to pieces, our men killed & wounded without doing but very little good. Here is where Bob Pearson fell, instantly killed. General Ewell, who commands a division under Jackson, gave us the word to charge. I shall never forget how he looked. He rode up to us, raised himself in the saddle, both palms open & extended toward the enemy, cried out at the top of his voice, “Charge them, boys, charge ‘em,” repeating it three times. At the time the noise & tumult of the battle were so great that a command had to be given very loud to hear it at all. Nothing but one terrible clash & roar of thunder could be heard. A single bullet that you can hear whistling through the air two or three hundred yards you couldn’t now hear at all nor know of its near approach except as it struck something close to you or brushed your clothes, your hair or your face, which was repeatedly the case & you couldn’t see thirty yards to save you for the smoke. We couldn’t see the enemy. Our forces, which had been fighting there so long, aimed only by the flash of the enemy guns & by guess….
Instantly the sound of arms close to us was hushed & in its stead one tremendous Texian yell was raised, mingled with the sounds of “Charge, charge, charge.” Another minute & we were down on them. They couldn’t stand us but fled before us & fell in piles as they ran, we pursuing them at every step. If I ever was bloodthirsty it was then. No bloodhound ever pursued his prey more eagerly than I did those terrified Yankees. They fled for their batteries, thinking they would protect but of course that was impossible. The panic had taken possession of them & spread like lightening & we made the batteries an easy capture. We chased the enemy near a mile & there were but few left I think, where we were, from killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, to tell the tale. I fired 16 shots in the chase—with what effect you may guess. I tell you the victor gloats over the defeated enemy, especially an enemy so hated as ours, one that we had labored so hard to meet & desired so much to whip, to vanquish. Having just seen, too, one of his dearest friends fall dead, whose noble blood cried out for vengeance. I felt like wiping the last one from the face of existence.
We drove them out of the woods I have mentioned into a very large field across which we chased them to the top of a high hill where their last battery was placed. When we reached there I looked back & around. I saw our flag floating on their deserted batteries, their own flag, over which they keep so much noise, trailing in the dust, saw their dismantled batteries, their dead horses & men lying around with lumps of prisoners here & there, in their terror continuing to hold up their hands for fear of being shot. I enjoyed all the feelings of a victor. I never felt prouder or happier than I did that evening as I gazed over that bloody plain & turned my eye to the western sun which seemed to be setting in a sea of blood for it was redder than I ever saw it before….
I got some water & for the first time had time to observe one of the richest & best supplied camps I ever saw. Everything lay around in confused profusion—bushels of ground coffee, barrels of meat, boxes of crackers, rice, sugar, molasses—besides many preserved fruits & other delicasies such as we had not tasted for a great while. Some of the boys found some boxes of cigars & after we had eaten as much as we wanted everyone had a cigar in his mouth. Here were a great many excellent haversacks. I got one as I had thrown mine away as I did everything else I had upon going into the fight—besides thousands of the very best knapsacks full of good clothing. Most of the boys put on new clothes—dressed up.
Pettey described another friend, Walter Norwood, who was saved by a Bible:
You asked me if I had not received a little Bible from Miss Amanda McIntyre sent me by Mr. Fulkerson. I never have & was only apprised of such a worthy gift in your last letter to me written in April. God bless her for her kind, good intention, but I know God will be certain to do that. Give my love to Miss Amanda. I am so sorry that it never reached me. I would have worn it on my left breast nearest my heart & it might in some future battle save my life as Walter Norwood did in the great fight before Richmond. A minnie ball pierced his Bible which was in his breast coat pocket & lodged at the 10th Psalm, mashed perfectly flat it knocked him down. But his life was saved & in a few hours he was recovered, unhurt….
At Gaines’ Mill, the Army of Northern Virginia had won its first victory. Two thousand prisoners and 22 cannons were taken. The South lost 8,700 soldiers. The Union lost 6,800. Richmond was saved— but the Army of the Potomac was not destroyed.
As at Gaines’ Mill, the Texas Brigade was in the vanguard of a late afternoon assault on August 30 when the opposing armies battled again at Manassas. The charge on the Federals’ left flank resulted in a Southern victory. Seven thousand prisoners were captured. The 5th Texas sustained the heaviest casualties of any regiment in the brigade, and Pettey was one of many who were killed. A letter from a Sergeant McAllister to Mattie Pettey’s husband, M.A. Souter, relayed the tragic news:
Richmond, Va. Sept. 22nd. 1862
- A. Souter
It is my painful duty to inform you of the intelligence of the death of your brother in law Mr. V. E. Pettey. He was wounded in the Battle of Manassas on the 30th. Aug. and died the 2nd. of Sept. He was shot through the bowels. He suffered a great deal before he died. His last injunction was to tell his friends that he died in a good cause and that he was perfectly willing to die for he had served his country faithfully. He was Orderly Sergeant of the Company. Virginius was beloved by every member of the Company and we regret his loss very much. I can truly sympathize with you in the loss of so valuable a friend. He was my messmate and always found him pleasant and agreeable. You will find enclosed a lock of his hair which I sent to Mrs. S. at the time of his death. He had no money on his person. The only article of value he had was his watch and this is broken. Mr. Evens has that. The government owes him about $100.00 which his friends will have to administer on his estate before they can draw it. The Texas Brigade has been in six big Battles and has won undying laurels for the State we Represent. There are but very few of us left now. Our loss in the Battle of Manassas was 257 killed and wounded out of 500 men. In the Battles around Richmond 134. In Maryland at the Battle of Sharpsburg our loss has not been correctly ascertained. The last fight was in Maryland and it was the hardest fighting we have had. It was a draw fight. Our forces engaged them from 3 o’clock in the morning until nine o’clock at night. We bantered them for fight in the next day and they refused to Battle with us and the next day we retreated across the Potomac. It was the hardest contested fight we have ever had. Our trip into Maryland was not very encouraging. I suppose there was a thousand that rallied to our standard. We was scofed at by most of the women although they say we was in the strongest union section of the state. I do not believe she will ever come with us. Tobe Wallace and myself are all that is left of the Brenham boys in this Regt. I suppose you have heard of the death of R. W. Pearson. He was killed at the Battle of Gaines Mills. There is nothing here of any importance to write. We are situated at present near the Potomac River. Write to me on receipt of this and give me all the news. Tender my highest regards to Mrs. Souter and all inquiring friends.
I am very respectfully yours
Please excuse all errors as writing utensils are very scarce. We very frequently have to write with a stick. Martin, the Texas boys have a hard time of it here certain….
The boys from Brenham and the rest of the 5th Texas would fight in many more battles, and take many more losses. But for Virginius Pettey, the war was over.
Tom Terrell, who writes from Kerrville, Texas, is the author of the upcoming book The Boys From Brenham.
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.