“The 7th Tennessee reached the end of the line on the muddy banks of Hatcher’s Run” — America’s Civil War : 1999

Posted on Monday, October 4th, 2010

In the predawn hours of April 2, 1865, the veterans of the 7th Tennessee knew that the Federals were going to attack. Nearly everyone in the regiment had been awake all night. The homesick and weary Confederates peered into the darkness, their bellies pinched from meager rations. Few believed that the upcoming attack could be resisted. One defender wrote, “We all knew that when the campaign opened up in the spring, General Lee would be compelled to surrender… [and we] did not care to be killed for no purpose.”

The 7th Tennessee’s commander, 35-year-old Lt. Col. Sam Sheppard was troubled by his regiment’s poor condition. His soldiers’ usual daily rations were not much more than a pint of corn meal and an ounce or two of meat. Besides hunger, Sheppard’s troops were bothered by short supplies, pitiful clothing, paltry stocks of firewood, and the ever-present knowledge that the Union Army was gaining strength daily. The Tennesseans also had heard about the failure of their government’s peace commission at the end of January 1865. Furthermore, they were aware that the Confederate Congress had authorized the raising of black troops, an act, one soldier stated, that “created considerable despondency by showing us how little hope of success was entertained by the Confederate authorities.”

The 7th Tennessee was organized in Lebanon, Tenn., and mustered into the Confederate Army on May 26, 1861. Its first colonel, Robert Hatton, had been killed at the Battle of Seven Pines shortly after being promoted to brigadier general. The regiment’s second commander had resigned, and the third colonel, John Fite, was captured during Pickett’s Charge. Sheppard had assumed leadership of the regiment following Gettysburg and had led the unit ever since. The 7th Tennessee had a long history of courage and determination, as evidenced by its participation in every major battle in which the Army of Northern Virginia fought. The unit suffered 32 casualties at Gaines’ Mill, 46 at Cedar Run, 39 at Second Manassas, 33 at Sharpsburg, 23 at Fredericksburg, 34 at Chancellorsville, 152 during the Gettysburg campaign and 81 throughout 1864. The winter in the Petersburg trenches reduced the Tennessee unit by another 39. By April 2, 1865, only 134 survivors remained in the regiment.

The 7th Tennessee was part of the brigade led by Brig. Gen. William McComb. The general was new to brigade command, having assumed leadership of the unit in late January 1865, a few months after the death of Brig. Gen. James Archer. McComb’s brigade contained survivors from nine different units: the 2nd Maryland Battalion and the 1st, 7th, 14th, 17th, 23rd, 25th, 44th and 63rd Tennessee. On April 1, 1865, the brigade totaled 860 men and 87 officers.

McComb’s brigade was in Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s division, which was part of Lt. Gen. Ambrose P. Hill’s III Corps. Heth’s division, consisting of four brigades, had been given the task of holding four miles of defensive trenches. Each of the brigades was allocated nearly a mile of front to defend. The defenders usually had about half of their men on the line at all times. It was a formidable duty from which there was no relief. One soldier wrote, “The men were required to keep on their accouterments and remain in the pits all the time. There was little rest to be had.”

As Sheppard and his Tennesseans waited for the Northerners’ onslaught on April 2, 1865, the Union masses were just 500 yards away. The Federals had nearly 14,000 men, commanded by Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright. Union artillery had been shelling the Confederate lines for most of the night. The Tennesseans could do little but remain vigilant. As one Confederate observed, “the men listened … and, although they said little, seemed to feel that the end was drawing near.”

At about 4:30 a.m., the troops in the Union VI Corps charged forward. Wright’s three divisions trampled over the thin screen of Confederate pickets, scrambled through the abatis and climbed onto the Southerners’ fortifications. The blue waves surged into the trenches and crashed into the brigades of Brig. Gens. William MacRae and Joseph Davis. Fierce hand-to-hand fighting erupted. MacRae’s Tar Heels and Davis’ Mississippians struggled with Yankees from Vermont, Pennsylvania and New York. The outcome was never in doubt. The Southern defenders were greatly outnumbered and quickly crushed.

The Union troops were exuberant; in little more than a quarter of an hour, they had captured nearly two miles of Confederate trenches and destroyed two brigades. MacRae’s brigade was forced out of the trenches after suffering the loss of 500 men. Davis’ brigade was not as fortunate. The Mississippians were trapped by the Federal attack and could not escape. Almost the entire brigade was lost.

By 5:00 a.m., there was enough light to see the severity of the situation. McComb’s brigade had been missed by the smallest of margins. Only the brigade’s left flank had been affected, and there the 17th and the 23rd Tennessee had fallen back 200 yards. Sheppard’s men could see the invaders in the Confederate trenches a half-mile away and the survivors of MacRae’s broken brigade retreating.

The resolute Tennesseans realized that the Union breakthrough had cut them off from the main Confederate army. To make matters worse, they learned that three other brigades were pulling out of the line and retreating to the northwest. That left only the small Tennessee brigade.

McComb ordered his men to face toward the northeast and attack. By this time the Union troops were sweeping through the Confederate trenches, capturing everything in their path. Sheppard called to the 7th Tennessee. His regiment, howling fiercely, charged the mob of advancing Federals. A Tennessee rifleman remembered, “We were immediately formed in order of battle, and although our brigade at that time did not number more than six hundred, we were ordered to charge and retake the works.”

The men in McComb’s brigade rushed forward, the veterans of each tiny regiment clustering around their leaders. They struck the Federal with their usual fury and stunned the bluecoats. The Union soldiers recoiled and quickly fell back several hundred yards. Sheppard’s men crept forward, firing as they moved. The Tennesseans stopped when they reached the artillery position called Fort Archer, dropping down within its earthen walls. Their sudden attack had been successful. The Union advance had been stopped. Among the 7th Tennessee casualties were Sergeant Hal Manson, who was hit and severely wounded in the leg, and Lieutenant Andrew Miller, with a wound to the chest. Miller’s injury could have been worse. He was saved from death by the fact that his folded blanket stopped much of the force of the bullet.

The embattled Confederates were facing three brigades of Brig. Gen. George Getty’s division, some 4,000 veterans. By 5:30 a.m., Getty was pushing a brigade against the Tennesseans and, at the same time, moved a second brigade to flank their position. The Confederate riflemen, aided by the artillery within Fort Archer, halted the Union brigade coming toward them. The Federals dropped to the ground, pinned there by McComb’s veterans. Getty later wrote, “The enemy resisted stoutly from a fort a few hundred yards in front of our left and fired several rounds of canister.”

But Sheppard’s men could do nothing to stop the flanking brigade. The Tennesseans knew that they would soon be surrounded. Many of the veterans slipped out of Fort Archer and fled to the west. However, about half of the men could not get away and were captured. One of the Tennesseans who could go no farther was Captain Marcus Walsh, who had been injured by a shell fragment. Another officer in the 7th Tennessee, 1st Lt. Tom Clemens, had been shot in the abdomen and was captured.

The survivors retreated about 200 yards, where Sheppard rallied the regiment. A quick count revealed that more than 30 of his precious veterans had been lost. Once the Confederates were organized, the troops fanned out in a thin skirmish line and prepared to engage the approaching Federals. The two sides began shooting at each other when the Union lines came within range. McComb, seeing that his tiny force had no chance against the massive assault, ordered the brigade to retreat to the safety of its trenches.

The Southerners maintained their line, forcing the bluecoats to approach cautiously. But within minutes, their retreat was stopped. Union brigades from Brig. Gen. Regis de Trobriand’s division had captured the Confederate trenches behind them and were now closing in on McComb’s men. The battered Tennessee Brigade was now pressed from both front and rear.

There was only one avenue of escape, a quick dash to the west and then across the bridge spanning Hatcher’s Run. This getaway might be accomplished if the Union II Corps could be halted long enough for the Southerners to break contact and flee. Twenty-five-year-old Captain Fergus Harris volunteered to lead his company of brigade sharpshooters against Trobriand’s men. The spunky Harris, a member of Company H, called to his sharpshooters, and they responded with a Rebel yell. The little band rushed at the wary Northerners, who halted, took cover and then opened fire. Most of the attackers were either shot down or captured, including Harris, who was wounded in the right leg.

Harris’ brave assault gave McComb’s survivors time to extract themselves from the tightening trap and hurry toward Hatcher’s Run. Unfortunately, the sacrifice was wasted. Union troops had already captured the bridge. The Federals swarmed across the bridge and fired at the Rebels, pushing them to the north. A veteran recalled, “We hastily withdrew, expecting to cross Hatcher’s Run, but we soon found the enemy had taken possession of the only bridge across the stream.” The Southerners scurried along the east bank of Hatcher’s Run, searching for a place to cross. They were dismayed to find that the river widened into a mill pond, several hundred yards in width. There was no place to go, so the determined veterans halted, put their backs to Hatcher’s Run and prepared to make a final stand.

There were now fewer than 100 men left in the 7th Tennessee. They huddled together, close to Sheppard and their treasured battle flag. As thousands of Federals closed in, resistance began to crumble. Aggressive Yankees darted among the Confederates and snatched away their colors. During these last confusing moments, many Southerners pitched their weapons and gear into the water and swam to the other side of the mill pond. Angry Federals raced to the water’s edge and shot at the escaping Confederates.

Those remaining on the river’s edge resisted for a few more minutes. Then it was over. The gallant 7th Tennessee surrendered, as did the men from the other regiments in McComb’s brigade. The Federals rounded up 40 of Sheppard’s men, including Captains John Sloan and Archibald Norris. On the muddy banks of the Hatcher’s Run the 7th Tennessee had fired its last shots of the war. Although Sheppard and several dozen followers staggered on to Appomattox, few of them had weapons or equipment. They honored their regiment by participating in the official surrender, but the survivors had pitifully few arms to lie down. The regiment’s true end had occurred a week earlier at Hatcher’s Run.

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““The 7th Tennessee reached the end of the line on the muddy banks of Hatcher’s Run” — America’s Civil War : 1999”

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