53rd North Carolina Infantry Regiment

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53rd North Carolina Infantry Regiment History

53rd North Carolina Infantry

by James T. Morehead

North Carolina Civil War Battle Map
North Carolina Civil War Battle History Map.gif
North Carolina Civil War Battle History Map

 

The duty assigned to me to write a sketch-not a history- of the Fifty-third North Carolina Infantry, I undertook to discharge, with pleasure, but I did not realize until I began how great the difficulty would be, with no records and the conflicting recollections of surviving comrades as to events and persons. It may be and no doubt it is true, that I have not been accurate as to the personnel of the officers of the regiment, as to the dates of commissions, death and wounds, and if any injustice by omission or commission is done, I assure my living comrades and friends of such as have crossed over the river, that no one regrets, more than I, the lack of reliable data to rectify any mistakes.

 

The limited length of this sketch of course, forbids my entering into the details of casualties among over one thousand men who at different dates composed the rank and file.

 

The characteristics of this regiment were common to North Carolina troops. Obedience to and reverence for law and authority, for which the State has been so long known, in my opinion, constitute the basis of soldierly qualities for which her soldiers will be famous in history.

 

This regiment was like other North Carolina regiments; it was never known to shirk a duty; never refused to advance when ordered; never known to retire without command. In June, after its organization, it was ordered to Richmond and during the seven days contest it was on duty on the south side of the James. The greater part of its first year of service was spent in Eastern North Carolina and it received its first baptism of fire as a regiment at Washington, N. C., in Gen. D. H. Hill's winter campaign of 1862 and 1863. A few days after the Battle of Chancellorsville, it became a part of the Army of Northern Virginia, and as a part of Daniel's Brigade, was attached to the Second Corps, with which it marched and fought from Fredericksburg to Appomattox, and participated in more than twenty general engagements, including Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Washington City, Kernstown, Snicker's Ford, Winchester, Fisher's Hill, Cedar Creek, Hare's Hill, Petersburg, and in numerous combats and smaller affairs, in some of which the conflict was more hotly contested than in the greater battles. Daniel's Brigade was composed of the Thirty-second, Forty-third, Forty-fifth and Fifty-third North Carolina Regiments, and Second North Carolina Battalion. After General Daniel's death, General Bryan Grimes became Brigadier General. The histories of the other regiments in the brigade necessarily outline the chief incidents in the career of the Fifty-third and make it unnecessary to give its battles and marches in detail.

 

I select two special instances of its coolness and discipline: One was on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. This regiment had hastened from Carlisle, Pa., its steps quickened by the report of big guns on the morning of 1 July. Immediately upon its arrival at Gettysburg, it was thrown into line and advanced to the assault with the brigade. Soon it was ascertained that there was not room between the brigade on the left and the one on the right, and this regiment was dropped out of the line, which closed up in its front and for some time it had to stand under shot and shell in an open field without being able to return the fire until the brigade on the left, having given away, it moved to the left, took its place and drove the enemy into the town.

 

In this trying situation, and there could have been none more trying, except a retreat under fire, the regiment manoenvered as upon parade and drill, and its behavior on this occasion was greatly commended by the brigade and division commanders.

 

Another instance: At the battle of Winchester, 19 September, 1864, after hours of desperate fighting, when all the troops on the right and left had abandoned the contest and retired from the field, this regiment, alone, continued to fight the foe until ordered to retreat) which it did, across an open field for several hundred yards (the enemy advancing ten to one in numbers) in perfect order, and at intervals, when ordered, halting, facing about and delivering its fire almost in the faces of the pursuers. Not a man broke ranks or quickened his steps. As is well known to every soldier, a retreat under fire is the severest test of discipline and courage.

 

At the battle of Winchester, to prevent the enemy from discovering the gap on the left, I had deployed the greater part of my regiment as skirmishers, and this thin line successfully held five times its numbers at bay, until the failure of promised support to arrive, and all of Early's army on our left had been driven from the field. It was known to every man in the regiment that the enemy was getting rapidly in our rear, and that there was imminent danger that we would be cut off and surrounded, but until ordered so to do, not a man left his position, and the regiment then retreated across the field in the manner above told.

 

Experience and observation have taught that one of the results of organization and discipline is, that when soldiers retire or retreat in face of the enemy by order, they will halt, but if they "break" without order, it is difficult to rally and reform them. An incident of this battle illustrates this. The temporary works of the enemy above referred to were constructed just beneath the brow of the hill or slope up which the regiment was charging at a run and was not observed until we were within a few feet of them. When the men had reached nearly the top of the slope, to their astonishment they saw behind the work a third line of the enemy and such of the other two lines as could be prevailed on to stop, outnumbering us four or five to one Our men immediately faced about and started for the shelter of a wooded hill from and through which they had just driven the enemy. Seeing the condition and thinking of the fact above stated, I at once ordered a retreat, had the officers to repeat the order, semingly so superfluous, and directed the regiment to halt as soon as the woods were reached. When I reached the woods, I had the satisfaction of seeing the regiment reformed and "ready for business" as if nothing had happened to dampen their ardor. I select these out of many instances, which particularly distinguished this regiment, because of the trying situations.

 

After the regiment was assigned to Daniel's Brigade, it participated in the battles' of Gettysburg, three days, and at Mine Run and fought more or less from 5 May, 1864, to 30 May at the Wilderness under fire every day. It was in the famous Horse Shoe at Spotsylvania Court House, during terrible days of 9, 10, 11 and 12 May, losing its Major, James Johnston Iredell, killed, Col. Owens wounded, several of its Captains and Lieutenants and scores of its men killed and wounded. It was brought out of the Horse Shoe to straighten the lines after the assault of the 12th under command of a captain, its only remaining field officer, its Lieutenant Colonel being in command of the brigade, the Brigadier-General (Daniel) and every other officer in the brigade senior in commission, having been killed or wounded. On 30 May it was engaged in the battle at Bethesda church, and on the next day was withdrawn from the front preparatory to its march to the Valley of Virginia.

On 5 or 6 May, 1864, the sharpshooters of this regiment were much annoyed by one of the Federal sharpshooters who had a long range rifle and who had climbed up a tall tree from which he could pick off our men, though sheltered by stump and stones, himself out of range of our guns. Private Leon, of Company B (Mecklenburg), concluded that "this thing had to be stopped," and taking advantage of every knoll, hollow and stump, he crawled near enough for his rifle to reach, took a "pop" at this disturber of the peace and he came tumbling down. Upon running up to his victim, Leon discovered him to be a Canadian Indian, and clutching his scalp-lock, dragged him to our line of sharpshooters.

 

The regiment was at Lynchburg when the pursuit of Hunter began, marched with General Early to Washington, D.C., was one of the regiments left to support the picket line under the walls of Washington, while the rest of the corps made good its retreat to the valley-the Nineteenth and Sixth Corps of the Federal army having been poured into the city for its defense. While supporting the pickets, this regiment became involved in one of the hottest conflicts in its experience, but succeeded in holding its position, repulsing and driving the enemy back to the earthworks, which defended the city. At midnight it received orders to retire in perfect silence, and to the surprise of all when we reached the position on the hills near the city, where we had left the corps, it was ascertained that the corps had left the night before, twenty-four hours---and we marched the whole night and a greater part of the next day before we caught up with the rear guards. Early's ruse, as usual, had succeeded in deceiving the enemy.

 

This regiment participated in all of the battles in the Valley in 1864, and in numerous combats and skirmishes. In this Valley Campaign the regiment lost its gallant Colonel Owens, who was killed at Snicker's Ford, near Snicker's Gap, in August, 1864. He had been absent since 10 May, disabled by wounds at Spotsylvania Court House; had returned just as the regiment was eating dinner, and almost while we were congratulating him on his safe return, we received notice that the enemy bad crossed the river at Snicker's Ford. The order to "fall in" was given, we marched to the river, and drove the enemy across, after a short, but severe conflict. The firing had ceased, excepting now and then a dropping shot, when Colonel Owens was killed by one of these stray shots. He was a good officer, brave, humane, social, popular with both men and officers. He was succeeded by the writer as Colonel. At Winchester, on 19 September, 1864, Adjutant Osborne was killed. Two years ago Color Sergeant Taylor, of Company E, Surry County, who has resided in Utah since 1866, visited me. He received a ball in his hip from which wound he still limps and in talking about his own wound, he told me as we were charging the third Federal line at Winchester, having broken the first two, and when near the temporary breastwork of the enemy, he received the shot which disabled him for life, and that as he fell, young Osborne picked up the flag waving it, ran forward, cheering on the men an was killed within 20 feet of the Color Sergeant. He was an efficient officer and daring soldier, I suppose not older than 20 years. Lieutenant W. H. Murray, of Company A, than whom there was not a better officer or braver soldier in the "Old Guard" of Napoleon, acted as Adjutant after the death of Osborne till the surrender at Appomattox.

 

As stated before, Major Iredell, a true gentleman and brave soldier, was killed at Spotsylvania Court House. Captain John W. Rierson succeeded him. At Winchester, finding that there was a gap of two or three hundred yards between my left and the troops on the left, and that the enemy had discovered and were preparing to take advantage of it, I directed Major Rierson to find General Grimes on the right of the division, (General Rodes bad been killed in the beginning of the action), and apprise him of the situation. After some time he returned, saluted and reported, the fighting being very heavy all the time, when I discovered that Major Rierson was shot through the neck, which wound was received before he found General Grimes, but he nevertheless performed the duty, returned and reported, and did not then go to the rear until I directed him to do so. This gallant officer was killed when the enemy broke over our lines at Petersburg, a few days before Appomattox. He was entitled to his commission as Lieutenant-Colonel from the date of the battle of Snicker's Ford, but I do not know that he received it.

 

This was a volunteer regiment, enlisted in the latter part of the winter and first part of the spring of 1862, and was organized at Camp Mangum, near Raleigh, the first week in May, 1862, and assigned to Daniel's Brigade, (Rodes' Division). William A. Owens, of Mecklenburg County, was elected Colonel; James T. Morehead, Jr., of Guilford county, Lieutenant-Colonel, and James Johnston Iredell, of Wake county, Major.

 

Colonel Owens had already been in the service more than one year, having served as Captain in the First (Bethel) Regiment, and at the time of his election was Lieutenant-Colonel of the Eleventh Regiment.

 

Lieutenant-Colonel Morehead had also been in the service the preceding year, having entered the same in April, 1861, as Lieutenant of the "Guilford Grays," (afterwards Company B, of the Twenty-seventh Regiment), and at the time of his election was a Captain in the Forty-fifth Regiment.

 

William B. Osborne, of Mecklenburg County, was appointed Adjutant and John M. Springs, of Mecklenburg, was appointed Captain and Assistant Quartermaster. He resigned in the fall of 1862 and was succeded by Captain John B. Burwell. J. F. Long was appointed Surgeon; Lauriston H. Hill, of Stokes county, Assistant Surgeon, and promoted Surgeon in 1863. William Hill, of Mecklenburg, was appointed Captain, A. C. S. In 1863 Charles Gresham, of Virginia, was assigned to duty with this regiment as Assistant Surgeon. James H. Colton, of Randolph county, was appointed Chaplain; J. H. Owens, Sergeant Major (promoted Second Lieutenant of Company I and killed); R. B. Burwell, Quartermaster Sergeant; J. C. Palmer, Commissary Sergeant; R. S. Baruett, Ordnance Sergeant Upon the promotion of J. H. Owens, Aaron Katz, of Company B, succeeded him as Sergeant-Major, and upon his being captured, Robert A. Fleming, of Company A, was Sergeant Major.

 

COMPANY A was from Guilford County. A. P. McDaniel was its first Captain, commissioned 25 February, 1862, and upon his retirement in 1863, Lieutenant J. M. Sutton was promoted Captain and wounded at Bethesda Church and on 21 September, 1864, in the Valley, and captured at Petersburg; P. W. Haterick (killed at Gettysburg), First Lieutenant; J. M. Sutton, Second Lieutenant; W. L. Fleming, promoted from Sergeant to Second Lieutenant in August, 1868; William R. Murray, promoted from ranks to Second and First Lieutenant in 1863; J. W. Scott, promoted Second Lieutenant from Sergeant (chief of regimental corps of sharpshooters).

 

COMPANY B was from Mecklenburg County and its first Captain was J. Harvey White, commissioned 1 March, 1862, killed at Spotsylvania Court House in May, 1864. Samuel F. Belk, First Lieutenant; John M. Springs, Second Lieutenant, promoted Assistant Quartermaster; William M. Matthews, Second Lieutenant, promoted from First Sergeant M. E. Alexander, promoted Second Lieutenant from Second Sergeant. Lieutenants Belk, Matthews and Alexander were wounded at Gettysburg.

 

COMPANY C was from Johnston, Chatham and Wake, mostly from Johnston. Its first Captain was John Leach commissioned 28 February, 1862; was succeeded as Captain by J. C. Richardson (wounded at Petersburg), commissioned 17 April, 1863, beth from Johnston county; George T. Leach, of Chatham, commissioned First Lieutenant 7 March, 1862; John H. Tomlinson, of Johnston county, commissioned Second Lieutenant in April, 1862, resigned and succeeded by E. Tomlinson in 1862; S. R. Horn, of Johnston county, was commissioned Second Lieutenant 21 July, 1862.

 

COMPANY D was from Guilford, Cumberland, Forsyth, Stokes, Bladen and Surry. David Scott, Jr., of Guilford county, was commissioned Captain 1 March, 1862, resigned and was succeeded 15 May, 1863, by Alexander Ray, of Cumberland county, promoted from First Lieutenant and killed at Petersburg, April 1865. Alexander Ray was commissioned First Lieutenant 1 March, 1862; Madison L. Efland, of Guilford County, commissioned Second Lieutenant 1 March, 1862, promoted First Lieutenant 15 May, 1863, and wounded; A. H. Weatmoreland, of Stokes County, was promoted from Sergeant to Second Lieutenant; W. N. Westmoreland, Stokes County, was promoted from the ranks to Second Lieutenant in 1863.

 

COMPANY E was from Surry county. J. C. Norman was commissioned Captain on 8 March, 1862, resigned the following December and was succeeded by First Lieutenant Robert A. Hill, killed in 1864, succeeded in turn as Captain by First Lieutenant B. W. Minter; Samuel Walker was commissioned Second Lieutenant 8 March, 1862, promoted to First Lieutenant December, 1862, and resigned; B. W. Minter, Second Lieutenant, promoted First Lieutenant and Captain; Henry Hines, Second Lieutenant, in 1862; Logan Bemer, promoted from Corporal to Second Lieutenant, wounded and captured in 1864; James A. Hill, Second Lieutenant, captured in 1864.

 

COMPANY F was from Alamance and Chatham. G. M. G. Albright was commissioned Captain 5 May, 1862, killed July, 1863, at Gettysburg, and was succeeded by A. G. Albright, promoted from First Lieutenant (wounded at Fisher's Hill, 1864); Jesse M. Holt, First Lieutenant, 16 July, 1863, promoted from Second Lieutenant, (killed at Winchester, 1864); Branson Lambe, commissioned in 1864, promoted from Second Lieutenant; John J. Webster, commissioned Second Lieutenant May, 1862, and resigned; S. J. Aibright, commissioned Second Lieutenant in 1862 and killed at Spottsylvania Court House in 1864.

 

COMPANY F [should read COMPANY G] was from Stokes. G. W. Clarke was commissioned Captain on 20 March, 1862, and resigned May, 1862; was succeeded by John W. Rierson, promoted from Second Lieutenant and who was in 1863 promoted to Major; wounded at Winchester and killed at Petersburg, April, 1865. He was in time succeeded as Captain by H. H. Campbell, promoted from First Lieutenant and killed at Winchester. G. B. Moore was commissioned First Lieutenant in March, 1862, resigned in June; John W. Rierson, commissioned Second Lieutenant March, 1862; W. H. MeKinney was promoted from the ranks in May, 1862, to second Lieutenant, and wounded at Winchester; C. F. H all, promoted from ranks to Second Lieutenant, mortally wounded at Gettysburg; W. F. Campbell, promoted First Lieutenant and wounded at Washington, D. C.

 

COMPANY H was from Stokes County. Captain Spottswood B. Taylor was commissioned on 20 March, 1862, resigned on account of health in November, 1863, and was succeeded by John E. Miller, promoted from Second Lieutenant, who was wounded at Snicker's Ford and captured September, 1864; Thomas S. Burnett, commissioned First Lieutenant 20 March, 1862, and killed in 1863; Charles A. MeGehee, First Lieutenant, November, 1862, wounded at Gettysburg 3 July, 1863, and captured; Alexander M. King, Second Lieutenant, March, 1862; J. Henry Owens, promoted Second Lieutenant from Sergeant-Major, December, 1862, and killed; Alexander Boyles, promoted First Lieutenant.

 

COMPANY I was from Union County. E. A. Jerome commissioned Captain 20 March, 1862, and resigned in June following, and was succeeded by Thomas F. Ashcraft, promoted from First Lieutenant; John D. Cuthbertson, commissioned Second Lieutenant 20 March, 1862, promoted First Lieutenant; Joshua Lee, commissioned Second Lieutenant 20 March, 1862; James F. Green, promoted from the ranks Second Lieutenant 24 June, 1862; A. T. Marsh, promoted from Sergeant to Second Lieutenant 19 May, 1864.

 

COMPANY K was from Wilkes County. William J. Miller was commissioned Captain 20 March, 1862, killed at Gettysburg 1 July, 1863, and was succeeded by Jesse F. Eller, promoted from Second Lieutenant; Thomas C. Miller, promoted from Second Lieutenant to First Lieutenant 1 July, 1863; Thomas C. Miller, commissioned Second Lieutenant in August, 1862.

 

This regiment lost in killed its first Colonel, who was twice wounded; both of its Majors, one of them, Rierson, several times wounded and its Adjutant. Its surviving Colonel was wounded three times, at Gettysburg, Fisher's Hill and in the assault upon the Federal lines at Hare's Hill on 25 March, 1865, in which last engagement he was captured within the enemy's works.

 

As it is, I have only the approximately correct report of the losses of one of the companies of the regiment, and that only in one battle, but I think the losses of the other companies may be fairly estimated from the losses of this one. Company B lost at Gettysburg out of about 65 men, 8 killed and 22 wounded, and of the four officers, three were wounded.

 

I meet many of these scarred and now grizzly veterans of the companies from Alamance, Guilford, Stokes and Surry at my courts in these counties, and hear sometimes from those from the other counties, and with very few exceptions they have shown themselves to be as good citizens as they were gallant soldiers. They illustrate that "peace bath her victories no less renowned than war."

 

The regiment reduced to a handful of men shared the fortunes of the historic retreat and surrendered at Appomattox, being then commanded by Captain Thomas E. Ashcraft, the brigade being commanded by Colonel David G. Cowand. General Grimes having been made a Major-General, commanded the division.

 

I cannot close this sketch without acknowledging my indebtedness to Captain Sutton and Private J. Montgomery, of Company A; L. Leon, of Company B, who kindly furnished me with copy of a diary kept by him from organization of the regiment up to 5 May, 1864, when he was captured; Captain Albright, of Company F; Captain S. B. Taylor, of Company H, and Lieutenant W. F. Campbell, of Company G, for valuable information; and I hope that the publication of the sketches of the North Carolina regiments will excite interest enough among the old soldiers to give us further dates and incidents. I wish I could write a history of my regiment which would do the officers and men full credit for their patriotism and services.

 

The patriotism and heroism of these soldiers were illustrated by the patient and uncomplaining endurance of the forced march, the short rations, the hardships of winter camps and campaigns as much as by their fighting qualities. Posterity will hesitate to decide which is most worthy of admiration.

                                                                                 

                                                                                  JAMES T. MOREHEAD

 

GREENSBORO, N.C.,

9 APRIL, 1901.

Source: Walter Clark, Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-1865, Vol. III, pp. 255-265 

 

Recommended Reading: Confederate Military History Of North Carolina: North Carolina In The Civil War, 1861-1865. Description: The author, Prof. D. H. Hill, Jr., was the son of Lieutenant General Daniel Harvey Hill (North Carolina produced only two lieutenant generals and it was the second highest rank in the army) and his mother was the sister to General “Stonewall” Jackson’s wife. In Confederate Military History Of North Carolina, Hill discusses North Carolina’s massive task of preparing and mobilizing for the conflict; the many regiments and battalions recruited from the Old North State; as well as the state's numerous contributions during the war. Continued below...

During Hill's Tar Heel State study, the reader begins with interesting and thought-provoking statistical data regarding the 125,000 "Old North State" soldiers that fought during the course of the war and the 40,000 that perished. Hill advances with the Tar Heels to the first battle at Bethel, through numerous bloody campaigns and battles--including North Carolina’s contributions at the "High Watermark" at Gettysburg--and concludes with Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

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Recommended Reading: Shades of Blue and Gray: An Introductory Military History of the Civil War (Hardcover: 281 pages) (University of Missouri Press). Description: Herman Hattaway analyzes the Civil War with an emphasis on contemporary advances in military technology and their effects on behavior in the field. Ulysses Grant was speaking nearly literally when he wrote, "the iron gauntlet must be used more than the silken glove to destroy the Confederacy." Continued below...

In the end, Hattaway demonstrates that it was superior iron and steel that won the Union cause. He examines the development and use of submarines, mines, automatic weapons, balloons, and especially rifles and artillery, which became so accurate that contending armies took to trench warfare. Battle by battle, Hattaway retraces the grim course of the war, yielding a helpful introduction to its history, complete with abundant notes and suggested readings.

 

Recommended Reading: The Civil War in North Carolina. Description: Numerous battles and skirmishes were fought in North Carolina during the Civil War, and the campaigns and battles themselves were crucial in the grand strategy of the conflict and involved some of the most famous generals of the war. John Barrett presents the complete story of military engagements across the state, including the classical pitched battle of Bentonville--involving Generals Joe Johnston and William Sherman--the siege of Fort Fisher, the amphibious campaigns on the coast, and cavalry sweeps such as General George Stoneman's Raid. Also available in hardcover: The Civil War in North Carolina.

 
Recommended Viewing: The Civil War - A Film by Ken Burns. Review: The Civil War - A Film by Ken Burns is the most successful public-television miniseries in American history. The 11-hour Civil War didn't just captivate a nation, reteaching to us our history in narrative terms; it actually also invented a new film language taken from its creator. When people describe documentaries using the "Ken Burns approach," its style is understood: voice-over narrators reading letters and documents dramatically and stating the writer's name at their conclusion, fresh live footage of places juxtaposed with still images (photographs, paintings, maps, prints), anecdotal interviews, and romantic musical scores taken from the era he depicts. Continued below...
The Civil War uses all of these devices to evoke atmosphere and resurrect an event that many knew only from stale history books. While Burns is a historian, a researcher, and a documentarian, he's above all a gifted storyteller, and it's his narrative powers that give this chronicle its beauty, overwhelming emotion, and devastating horror. Using the words of old letters, eloquently read by a variety of celebrities, the stories of historians like Shelby Foote and rare, stained photos, Burns allows us not only to relearn and finally understand our history, but also to feel and experience it. "Hailed as a film masterpiece and landmark in historical storytelling." "[S]hould be a requirement for every student."
 

Recommended Reading: Hardtack & Coffee or The Unwritten Story of Army Life. Description: Most histories of the Civil War focus on battles and top brass. Hardtack and Coffee is one of the few to give a vivid, detailed picture of what ordinary soldiers endured every day—in camp, on the march, at the edge of a booming, smoking hell. John D. Billings of Massachusetts enlisted in the Army of the Potomac and survived the hellish conditions as a “common foot soldier” of the American Civil War. "Billings describes an insightful account of the conflict – the experiences of every day life as a common foot-soldier – and a view of the war that is sure to score with every buff." The authenticity of his book is heightened by the many drawings that a comrade, Charles W. Reed, made while in the field. This is the story of how the Civil War soldier was recruited, provisioned, and disciplined. Continued below...

Described here are the types of men found in any outfit; their not very uniform uniforms; crowded tents and makeshift shelters; difficulties in keeping clean, warm, and dry; their pleasure in a cup of coffee; food rations, dominated by salt pork and the versatile cracker or hardtack; their brave pastimes in the face of death; punishments for various offenses; treatment in sick bay; firearms and signals and modes of transportation. Comprehensive and anecdotal, Hardtack and Coffee is striking for the pulse of life that runs through it.

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