My Confederate ancestor and triple-great grandfather, Sampson, was born in 1828. According to his pension records he began his service in the Southern army in October 1861. So he was 33 years old when he volunteered, not a young man by the standards of his day. He married in 1850 and had five children over the course of the next eight years. Why he volunteered for military service at that age with children ranging from 10 years down to the age of 3 is a mystery.
I have little information to go on other than eventually he became part of Company D of the Charleston Battalion. Patrick Brennan indicates that the Battalion was formed in April 1862 (page 20) from various independent companies of troops in the Charleston area. Company D was formed from a unit known as the Sumter Guards. So, it is possible Sampson was part of the regular rotation of troops to garrison Fort Sumter in the early months of the war. But, for reasons given below, I tend to think he was not a native of Charleston and joined (or was assigned to) the Battalion later. If he was not a part of the Sumter Guards in 1861 then I have no idea where he enlisted in October of that year. Immediately after the war he lived in the area Spartanburg, SC. Perhaps he volunteered there. All that is certain it is that it was somewhere in South Carolina. (Sampson moved to the property now in my dad's name a few years after the war. He built the house that became my grandparents house, probably in the 1880's.)
Regardless, Sampson was part of the Battalion by the time it was ordered to James Island to assume the section of Charleston's defenses there. After weeks of picket duty the Battalion saw its first action at Sol Legare Island on June 3, 1862, when it engaged in heavy skirmishing with Union troops who were probing the island's defenses. On June 16 the Battalion was involved in repulsing a concerted Federal attack on the Tower Battery near Secessionville. A member of the Battalion's Company C wrote of this encounter: “On Monday morning early they attempted to take our battery by storm, three times they rushed upon us, and at one time actually made a lodgment in our battery but we drove him back at the point of bayonet.” (Brennan, page 272)
But war is mostly monotony for a soldier; months of picket duty, guarding prisoners, policing docks, roads, fortifications, one lousy army meal after another. The next battle my ancestor took part in was at Battery Wagner on July 18, 1863, more than a year after Secessionville. This, however, started out as a different sort of attack. The mass of the Union navy, in its highest concentration ever up to that point, hammered the battery for days, saving its most concentrated bombardment for this date. My ancestor got to experience thousands of explosions from large naval guns in just a few hours, apparently recklessly.
“The bombardment demolished the wooden quarters on the parade ground, driving all except the Charleston Battalion and the gun detachments into the bombproof. Some of the Charleston Battalion found refuge in rice caskets sunk into the sand outside the battery, which provided some safety from the shower of shells. Part of the battalion remained in the work along with the artillerymen, crouched behind the parapet. At first, the artillerymen attempted to return fire, but the shelling's intensity soon forced them to cover their cannons with sandbags. The only reply against the land batteries came from the garrison's lone mortar, which fired one round every hour.” (Wise, page 95)
“Words fail to convey an adequate idea of the fury of this bombardment. It transcended all exhibitions of like character encountered during the war. It seemed impossible that anything could withstand it. More than one hundred guns of the heaviest caliber were roaring, flashing and thundering together. Before the Federal batteries had gotten the exact range of the work, the smoke of the bursting shells, brightened by the sun, was converted into smoke wreathes and spirals which curved and eddyed in every direction; then as the fire was delivered with greater precision, the scene was appalling and awe inspiring beyond expression, and the spectacle to the lookers on was one of surpassing sublimity and grandeur. In the language of Gen. Gilmore, 'the whole island smoked like a furnace and shook from an earthquake.' For eleven long hours the air was filled with every description of shot and shell that the magazines could supply. The light of day was almost obscured by the now darkening and sulphurous smoke which hung over the island like a funeral pall. Still later in the afternoon as the darkness gathered and deepened did the lightnings of war increase in the vividness of their lurid and intolerable crimson which flashed through the rolling clouds of smoke and illumined the Fort from bastion to bastion with a scorching glare; clouds of sand were constantly blown into the air from bursting shells; the waters of the sea were lashed into white foam and thrown upwards in glistening columns by exploding bombs, while white sheets of spray inundated the parapet, and 'Wagner.' dripping with salt wayer, shook like a ship in the grasp of a storm.” (Twiggs, North & South Magazine, Issue #4, April 1998, page 51) Imagine Sampson being there and experiencing this horrific moment!
Then, as the day ended, the navy stopped firing. What happened next would become the climax of the film Glory. About 6,000 Union soldiers worked their way toward the Battery which was garrisoned by about 1,300 Confederates counting Sampson. As darkness fell, the 54th Massachusetts [Colored] Infantry attacked the Battery's fortified walls in a historic moment. The black troops were repulsed losing half their men. Yet the Battery suffered other attacks from regular Union infantry regiments, some managing to actually enter the fort before finally being defeated. The attack on Battery Wagner cost the Federals about 1,500 casualties. This was, by far, the bloodiest day thus far in my ancestor's life. But things would get worse as the war wore on, and one of his pension records mentions a “gunshot wound in both legs.” From the intensity of the fighting that might have happened at Battery Wagner – or it might have happened in any of his future battles. Or perhaps he was wounded twice, once in each leg, in separate battles. There is no way of knowing for sure.
|"...and served 3 years in Company D of 27th Regiment of S.C. Vols; that his physical condition is as follows: Gun shot wound in Both Leggs."|
After the battle at Battery Wagner the Charleston Battalion was ordered to encamp near the city for rest and recuperation. In mid-1863 Charleston was only about three-quarters of its size in 1860. Only recently, the lower quarter of the city toward the harbor and the sea began to be shelled daily to the maximum range of the biggest Union guns at sea. (It would be shelled for 545 continuous days, an unheard of travesty today - shelling civilians. Everyone was evacuated, of course, and, while there was great destruction, almost no one died as a result of the naval guns, only homes and churches and businesses were burned out. Much of it had also burned in The Great Charleston Fire, which Sampson almost certainly knew about.)
Upper Charleston, however, remained a vibrant city with as robust an Antebellum life as could be found anywhere in the south. I'm sure Sampson enjoyed these weeks during his service. It strikes me as interesting that he could not write home because he did not know how. I doubt his wife could have read what was written either. Perhaps, given the fact that he knew the Battalion would be stationed in Charleston, his wife and children were somewhere nearby and could visit him off duty. I can only be conjectural about his family life during the war.
By September the Battalion was on garrison duty again, this time at Fort Sumter itself, usually rotating companies of troops for a week or two in the fort. The Union soon attacked my ancestor's position again, this time with a daring sea invasion, for which the entire Battalion was moved into Sumter. “Admiral Dahlgren assembled 500 sailors and marines of the fleet. On the night of September 8-9, 1863, they were put in small boats, towed within 400 yards of the fort, and cast loose. They rowed toward Sumter, unaware that they were under constant surveillance. Instead of only a 'corporal's guard' opposing them, they were soon to find Major Elliott and the Charleston Battalion, 320 strong and anxious for a fight.
“The point of the landing was to be on the southeastern and southern face. There was some confusion among a few of the boats, but the rest came in as planned. Major Elliott ordered that fire be withheld until the boats were only a few yards away, when they were met with by a withering blast. Continuing gallantly on, the sailors affected a landing and sought entrance to the fort. When they stepped ashore, they were met by a deluge of hand grenades, fireballs, brickbats and other objects, in addition to increasingly heavy fire. The gunboat Chicora, anchored nearby, opened up on them, as did the guns from Moultrie and Johnson, which had been sighted in for just such an occurrence. Finding it impossible to scale the walls, the sailors took shelter in its recesses, but even the select men of Admiral Dahlgren's fleet could not hold out under such devastating fire....The garrison sustained no casualties, but the assaulting forces suffered a loss of 127 in killed, wounded, and prisoners, according to Elliott's report.” (Burton, pp. 195-196)
|Conrad Wise Chapman was stationed in Charleston, SC at the same time as my ancestor. He completed this famous war painting on October 23, 1863, during the time the Charleston Battalion was maintaining the garrison. So, there is literally about a 1 in 300 chance that the sentry in this painting is Sampson. I have stood on Fort Sumter myself and been amazed how much this perspective remains unchanged today. In the distance you can see the blockading ships and gunboats of the US Navy. Whether it is Sampson or not is not really what's interesting. For me, the most interesting part of this is that I am seeing what Sampson must have seen on several occasions throughout 1862-1863. The Confederate flag is the Second National which was flown beginning in May 1863.|
Going into 1864, the 27th South Carolina and the other regiments and battalions that made up Hagood's Brigade were withdrawn from front line duty and encamped on James Island. There they were reequipped with Enfield rifles, issued new uniforms and drilled constantly. In this manner the brigade, most of its components already experienced in battle behind fortifications, became a fully dressed and trained infantry unit, mastering all the expected maneuvers of linear combat formations on a field of battle. This affords us an opportunity to follow Sampson and the 27th South Carolina through the eyes of General Johnson Hagood, as revealed in his memoirs.
Hagood refers to the 27th as "especially claimed by Charlestonians are their regiment" and indicates that all officers of the regiment were citizens of Charleston. He also characterizes the regiment as being more literate and educated than typical Confederate regiments, reflecting the fact that the people of Charleston were more sophisticated in general than most of the southern population. According to Hagood, this made the regiment more difficult to handle compared with others due to the reasoned independence of the men. Commanders of great prowess and respect were necessary to lead it. Such a commander was Colonel P. C. Gaillard, who had managed the Charleston Battalion from the beginning.
This makes my ancestor's involvement with this regiment even more puzzling. Since he was uneducated and illiterate, how did he come to be part of this educated and cultured unit? Some clue is found when Hagood mentions that "...it received recruits from the country..." Which leads me believe that, while Sampson was uneducated, he possessed some particular qualities admirable to the commanders of the Battalion. Perhaps he was especially competent in drill. Or maybe he was a superior shot. He could have been a tradesman, able to repair the Battalion's arms and equipment. (His son, my great-great-grandfather, worked leather and made plows as indicated on some old ledgers from his business that I have in my possession. It is very possible that Sampson taught him these things.) It seems that something must have distinguished him; which is a more likely explanation than assuming he was ever in the Sumter Guard.
In late 1863, Confederate troops began shipping out of Charleston by rail to Wilmington, NC and then on to Petersburg and Richmond, VA to reinforce General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, which was hard-pressed by General U.S. Grant's Overland Campaign. Hagood's troops remained in Charleston until April 28, 1864 when they began the same rail trip northward.
As fate would have it, just as the entire brigade was assembled at Petersburg, Virginia on May 7, it was immediately thrown into action at Walthall Junction against General Benjamin Butler who was attempting to strike out of Bermuda Hundred and cut the rail lines supplying Lee's army. According to Hagood, my ancestor's regiment led the way forward and soon the entire brigade was engulfed in an attack against Butler's superior numbers – 2,600 against about 8,000, though Butler had 22,000 more men at his disposal. The vigorous attack surprised Butler and, although Union troops succeeded in temporarily capturing a stretch of railroad, they were driven back fearing that the Confederate force was much larger than it really was. Hagood's casualties were surprisingly light considering he was the aggressor, reflecting great timidity on the part of Butler's troops.
This was a small battle compared with the massive clashes Lee fought during this same time at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, but the implications were nevertheless large. Lee's rail lines were secured and, more importantly, Petersburg itself was saved. A week later Sampson found himself entrenched near Petersburg at Fort Stevens, where he was involved in repelling probing attacks. His endless drill practice the previous autumn came in handy as Hagood's brigade was involved in some complex maneuvers to adjust to Union efforts to reach beyond the extent of the Confederate defenses and hit the southerners in their flank.
Hagood was attached to General Robert Hoke's Division:
"Hagood merely spoke with Hoke of the tactical execution of the order and proceeded to obey it. He kept the Twenty-fifth and Twenty-first regiments, which were nearest the pike, in position, to give a fire down it, and, pivoting on the right company of the Seventh battalion, moved out the Seventh battalion and the Eleventh and Twenty-seventh regiments. This was done in line, and each regiment swung round by the movement technically known as 'change direction,' thus advancing en echelon to their new position. The distance between our outer line now reoccupied by us and the enemy's line of breastworks, on the edge of the woods, was not over two hundred yards.
"The Eleventh regiment, advancing firing, was steadily approaching its position on the new line, and the Twenty-seventh, coming on upon the extreme left, struck the breastworks on the edge of the woods and drove the enemy from them at the point of impact, notwithstanding the rush of its charge was impeded by wire Entanglements just in front of the works. The increased fierceness of the enemy's fire brought the movement to a halt, the enemy assaying to charge, and failing. The position was obstinately held for a short time to permit relief by Ransom's approach, when General Hagood, standing behind the Seventh battalion, saw the Twenty-seventh regiment coming back, and ordered the Eleventh regiment and Seventh battalion back behind the outer entrenchments." Hagood, Johnson. Johnson Hagood's Memoirs of the War of Secession (Kindle Locations 4340-4355). Kindle Edition.
Hagood reported his brigade of 2,235 troops lost 433 casualties in this fight. So, Sampson saw a great deal of fighting and bloodshed in his first week of action in Virginia. Things quieted down over the next two weeks and my ancestor, if he was not among the wounded, remained in the trenches around Petersburg. On May 31, Hagood was ordered out of the trenches, north to Richmond, as Grant was pressing the Confederate capital in a bid to end the war. Here Sampson participated in the Battle of Cold Harbor, the largest battle of his military career.
Hagood's portion of the Confederate line was probed but not seriously attacked. Only heavy skirmishing occurred there. Still the brigade suffered about 120 casualties. This was minuscule compared to the main attack that took place practically within a stone's throw north of my ancestor's position. It was there that nearly 7,000 Federal troops were gunned down in 10 minutes in what was, given the brief time frame in which it happened, the bloodiest single assault of the Civil War. The remarkable thing is that, although this happened close to Sampson's position, he was likely unaware of magnitude of it at the time.
"This was the battle of Cold Harbor, and it may sound incredible, but it is nevertheless strictly true, that the writer of these Memoirs, situated near the center of the line along which this murderous repulse was given, and awake and vigilant of the progress of events, was not aware at the time of any serious assault having been given. As before mentioned, the firing of skirmishers in front of Hunton and Hagood had not intermitted during the night; there was no line of battle assault upon their immediate front, simply an increased pressure of skirmishers, and the roar of musketry on his right and left was so quickly over, and apparently so little commensurate with such slaughter, that it is difficult even now for him to realize that it was all done in so short a time. The explanation lies in the characteristics of a direct assault upon earthworks, defended by men who have confidence in themselves, the silent rush of the assailing party, and the rapid but deliberate and deadly fire from the assailed." Hagood, Johnson. Johnson Hagood's Memoirs of the War of Secession (Kindle Locations 4567-4574). Kindle Edition.
There was no rest for the brigade following Cold Harbor. A new threat was posed to Petersburg. Hagood's brigade force marched back to the trenches of that city. Another large Union force soon assailed the trenches on June 18th and was repulsed by my ancestor's unit with a loss of 220 more men. By now the brigade was down to about half its strength, so it is very possible that Sampson's "gunshot wound in both legs" occurred during his first weeks in Virginia. But, again, this is purely conjectural.
At this point things settled down to simple trench warfare, a premonition of what World War One would be like, making the American Civil War the world's first "modern" war. This went on for weeks throughout the heat of August. Hagood describes the conditions in detail: "The trenches themselves were filthy, and though policing was rigidly enforced, yet it was almost impossible to keep down the constant accumulation. Vermin abounded, and diseases of various kinds showed themselves. The digestive organs of the men became impaired by the rations issued and the manner in which they were prepared. Diarrhea and dysentery were universal; the legs and feet of the men swelled until they could not wear their shoes; the filth of their persons from the scarcity of water was terrible; and they presented the appearance rather of inmates of a miserably conducted poor house than of soldiers of an army. But all of this was endured; and although among the meaner class desertions occurred and even self-mutilation was resorted to in order to escape this horrid nightmare that brooded upon spirits not highly enough tempered to endure it, yet the great majority of the men stood all their sufferings with unflinching endurance, and never yielded 'till disease drove them to the field infirmary." Hagood, Johnson. Johnson Hagood's Memoirs of the War of Secession (Kindle Locations 5050-5057). Kindle Edition.
It is doubtful that Sampson escaped this time in Virginia without wound or illness. When the brigade emerged from the trenches to participate in the Battle of Weldon Road it numbered only 700 men. Perhaps my ancestor was in an infirmary by this time. Or perhaps he had recovered and participated in this action. Either way, these were difficult days for him and his suffering and witness of greater suffering all around him was likely only surpassed by his bravery. 300 of the 700 who went into battle that day were killed or wounded, reflecting intense and desperate fighting.
In September the brigade was again pulled out of the line for recuperation. Soon after, the unit was reviewed by General Lee. Although Lee inspected the fortifications at Charleston in 1861, it is doubtful Sampson would have seen or have known who Lee was since all of his fame resided in the future at that time. By 1864 every Confederate soldier knew Lee and glorified him. If my ancestor was healthy he would have been present at this moment described by General Hagood:
"About the 15th of September, the other brigades of Hoke's division were relieved from the trenches and placed in reserve on the Petersburg side of the Appomattox. And on the 26th, General Lee reviewed the division, which was concentrated for the purpose for that evening. This was the only review or other military display witnessed by the writer during the campaign of '64. It was made a gala occasion by the citizens of the beleaguered town, large numbers attending. The ladies were out in full force, and many were on horseback. General A. P. Hill rode on the staff of the commanding general upon a very graceful and beautiful silver grey; and horse and rider showed gallantly. General Lee reviewed the troops rapidly and seemed bored by the ceremonial and glad to be through with it. He was in full uniform, with a quantity of yellow sash around his waist, and did not look like himself. Even his horse looked as if he thought it was all foolishness." Hagood, Johnson. Johnson Hagood's Memoirs of the War of Secession (Kindle Locations 5314-5321). Kindle Edition.
Soon after this, Hagood again marched his men northward to Richmond and saw trench duty there. But they participated in no major battles at this time. If he was sick or wounded my ancestor would have recovered by December 1864, for this is when Hagood's brigade boarded a rickety Confederate train to travel south again. This time they were ordered to Wilmington, North Carolina where the intent was for them to reinforce the garrison at Fort Fisher which protected the Confederacy's last remaining port city. Without Wilmington the blockade runners would have no port left in the South with which to bring in badly needed equipment and supplies.
It was not an easy journey for my weary Confederate ancestor. "The troops were saturated with the freezing rain on the march to Richmond, and they were loaded on freight cars without seats or fires—the men so crowded as to preclude individual motion. The rain began to be accompanied by a high wind, and lying motionless in their wet garments, the men were whistled along on the train the balance of the day and all night. At daylight, we arrived at Danville. The suffering was intense." Hagood, Johnson. Johnson Hagood's Memoirs of the War of Secession (Kindle Locations 5484-5486). Kindle Edition.
By January 4, 1865, Sampson was encamped outside Wilmington, awaiting orders. Ten days later all of Hagood's brigade except for the 27th South Carolina boarded transports to reinforce Fort Fisher. My ancestor got a reprieve and remained in camp. Meanwhile, three transports attempted to land four regiments of Confederate troops at Fort Fisher. Two of the craft ran aground and only one vessel was able to land a regiment, return, depart again with another regiment. Those two regiments were added to garrison which was soon subjected to a tremendous Union naval bombardment of about 50,000 rounds, far surpassing the shelling of Battery Wagner almost two years previously.
Fort Fisher fell and the remains of those two regiments were captured along with the rest of the garrison. Being in camp above Wilmington, 15 miles away or so, Sampson did not experience any of this beyond the distant rumble of the naval guns. Perhaps he found the sound foreboding. Perhaps it bothered him little after all he had been through and witnessed. It sounded like a lot of guns, but for him it was far away.
The fall of Fort Fisher created an calamity for Wilmington and the Southern Confederacy as a whole. Strategically speaking, the long effort by the Union to completely blockade the south was complete. No blockade runners could now enter any southern port. But more operationally speaking, the Confederates needed to implement new plans for the defense of Wilmington and the interior of the south while Lee's army continued trench warfare around Petersburg.
Fort Anderson was the next major work up the Cape Fear River from Fort Fisher. At some point in January 1865, Sampson's regiment was ordered to man the fort, make it ready for siege operations and to fire the fort's artillery upon any Union naval vessels that ventured up the river toward Wilmington. My ancestor spent a month at the fort in relative quiet, preparing the works and scouting. It was not until mid-February that Federal forces began to cautiously advance toward the port city, infantry and gunboats working in conjunction.
General Hagood personally commanded at Fort Anderson, turning the remains of his brigade over to Colonel Charles H. Simonton. With the loss of two regiments at Fort Fisher only 925 men were left in Sampson's brigade. Reinforcements from units elsewhere around Wilmington, brought Hagood's effective force up to about 2,300. But this was still no match for the 6,000 or so Union troops supported by a large number of gunboats from the river. Ultimately, however, there was little fighting at Fort Anderson except for the Federal gunboats bombarding the fort and the fort's guns firing back as best they could. With a superior number of infantry the Federals simply outflanked the fort, forcing the Confederates to retreat toward Wilmington.
“A quick reconnaissance convinced Hagood that Cox had managed to outflank him again, just as he had at Fort Anderson. The Federals were now in control of the mouth of Town Creek and, with naval support, could fling their entire force across the stream at any time....Hagood redeployed the 27th South Carolina to the left of Cowan's Road and personally lead the 11th South Carolina back to the Telegraph Road, positioning it slightly south of the intersection with Cowan's. After establishing this new line, Hagood returned to Simonton's position, where that officer was trying to keep his small force of some 450 soldiers from disintegrating under the mounting pressure of the oncoming Union tide.” (page 403)
Sampson held his ground until ordered to retreat again, as Simonton attempted to offer resistance in stages without being completely surrounded. But now some 3,000 Federal troops bore down upon his small command, capturing many of the Confederate skirmishers. “Even so, Simonton's men stood their ground until overpowered in hand-to-hand combat with Cox's veteran troops. 'There was no running in these rebels,' one Union soldier marveled, 'they held their ragged works until the guns were snatched out of their hands.' ...Despite the close quarter fighting, most of the Confederates survived the battle and were taken prisoner. In all, Cox's troops captured 375 officers and men, including Colonel Simonton, who personally surrendered his command to General Cox.” (page 409)
In all likelihood, as confirmed by the statement given in his Pension records, Sampson was among these 375 ragged and war weary prisoners. It was February 20, 1865 and the war was over for my ancestor. He remained imprisoned until May 1, 1865. How he got back to South Carolina was the same way as with most paroled Confederate soldiers. There were no trains, there were no coaches, or wagons, the South was devastated beyond recognition. He walked. Most likely the Union troops, with bountiful provisions, gave him some rations to tide him over and he walked back to his wife and children in South Carolina.
As this post attests, Sampson had some incredible experiences during the war even though most of his fighting took place as a sideshow to the major military campaigns in Virginia, along the Mississippi, in Tennessee and Georgia. The fantastic attack on Battery Wagner, his service on Fort Sumter during its marine assault, the timely attack at Walthall Junction that initially saved Petersburg, and his presence at the bloodbath of Cold Harbor all followed him until his death in 1910. He was lucky to have survived it all without being killed. He was illiterate, undoubtedly bigoted, and most likely of shallow cultural capacity, yet it is with no small pride that I offer what I have been able to determine about his service in what remains this nation's bloodiest war.
|Sampson's "x" marks his signature. He was uneducated. He made this mark in 1906. It is my only source of direct connection with him.|
|Sampson's headstone in a local cemetery about 3 miles from my house. He died in 1910.|
|Still faintly evident, though fading with time, is the United Daughters of the Confederacy symbol above his name on the marker. Obviously engraved there because of Sampson's military service to the South in the War Between the States.|
|Finally, this is a United Daughters of the Confederacy medal probably worn during appropriate commemorations by Sampson's daughter, my great-great-grandmother. At the bottom the medal reads "To the U.C.V." which stands for United Confederate Veterans. The medal matches the faded symbol on the headstone. I found this years ago in the bottom of my great-grandmother's trunk in her bedroom.|