20 February 2008
The sad story of the officers and men of the 12th Virginia Infantry Regiment of late 1862 is typical for a number of the tattered units of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia (ANV) who were at Sharpsburg that September.
The Crater (c. 1866, J. Elder)
The Fourth Battalion as it left Petersburg on the 20th of April, 1861, was made up of the flower of the manhood of the Cockade City. After four years of service it had been so decimated by disease, by death, by promotion, and by transfer that it showed scarcely more than a skeleton of the original body. It was the nucleus upon which was formed the famous Twelfth Virginia Regiment, whose banner bore the device of almost every field on which the Army of Northern Virginia grappled with the enemy, from Seven Pines to Appomattox, and whose flag, stained with the smoke of battle and shredded by ball and shell, was never surrendered, but torn into slips and buried in the bosoms, right over the hearts, of the veteran survivors.
That original Battalion was organized from standing militia companies at Petersburg in January 1861, Major D.A. Weisiger, commanding. Once built to a full regiment, Weisiger became Colonel, and they were brigaded with the 6th, 16th, and 41st Virginia regiments under General William Mahone, late of the 6th. These proud units would serve together for the duration of the War.
In August 1862, by then veteran of Seven Pines and Malvern Hill, the 12th was ordered up from duty at Richmond, taking the cars on the Virginia Central RR on 17 August to re-join the ANV. They were in time for furious combat at Second Manassas.
General Mahone was wounded there, as was Colonel Weisiger–severely–after taking command of the brigade in relief of Mahone. On the same day, 30 August, at least 8 of the 10 Captains commanding companies in the 12th were killed or wounded, Major John May was mortally wounded, and Lieutenant Colonel Fielding Taylor was seriously ill. The senior leadership were all down.
There weren’t many soldiers left to answer to the colors, either. From full strength near 1,000 officers and men in 1861, the Regiment was at about 800 present for duty on 1 June 1862, but only 150 on the first of September just before the Army crossed the Potomac.
Mahone’s Brigade entered Maryland across White’s Ford above Leesburg, Virginia, on 6 September in the charge of Colonel William Parham of the 41st Virginia Infantry with something between 400 and 500 troops. The 12th Virginia was under the nominal command of Captain Richard Jones of Company I, senior officer present. He shared leadership with Captain Everard Feild, Company F, to 13 September.
The Brigade was rear-guard of the McLaws-Anderson force which departed Frederick, Maryland on 10 September and closed on Harpers Ferry from the east by way of Middletown, Burkittsville, Pleasant Valley and the Maryland Heights. On the 14th, Colonel Parham rushed his men back to Crampton’s Gap on South Mountain to help hold off the approaching Federals of Franklin’s Corps. JEB Stuart later summarized the Brigade’s action there:
Colonel Parham, commanding Mahone’s brigade, soon after arrived with the Sixth and Twelfth [and 16th] Virginia Infantry, scarcely numbering in all 300 men, and this small force for at least three hours maintained their position and held the enemy in check…
The event was of considerably more significance to the men of the 12th Virginia, as described later by then-Sergeant George Bernard of Company I:
Upon the tattered battle-flags of three of the regiments of Mahone’s old brigade, the Sixth, Twelfth and Sixteenth, there was inscribed a name to which their ragged followers were wont to point with pride, as representing one of its most glorious achievements. Although overwhelmed by numbers at Crampton’s Gap, on the 14th day of September, 1862, and compelled to retreat, the participants in that action were characterized as ‘a band of heroes’ who had accomplished all and more than was expected of them. Their defence of the pass contributed in great degree to the capture of Harper’s Ferry, a prize which richly repaid all it had cost.
On that day Col. Munford with about two hundred cavalry, who was picketing the Gap and the village of Birkettsville [sic], beyond, gave notice of the approach of the enemy. Under the impression that the advancing force was merely a body of cavalry, Mahone’s old brigade, commanded by Col. [Wm] Allen Parham, of the Forty-First, then bivouacked near Braunsvllle [sic], in Pleasant Valley, was dispatched to the Gap to hold them in check. With his accustomed daring, as soon as he arrived on the spot. Col. Parham deployed his men, numbering 520 [?] all told, behind an old worm fence at the foot of the mountain, with a narrow field in front of them. The attenuated line was supported by two sections of Grimes’ battery, of Portsmouth, posted on the mountain in the rear, which during the battle did most effective execution.
The line had scarcely been formed when the enemy advanced, and instead of a small force of cavalry, it was found that an entire corps (Slocum’s) of the Federal army was present. Franklin’s division was pushed forward and made several fruitless attempts to cross the narrow plateau, which was swept by a destructive fire. For two hours and forty minutes did the little band sustain the shock, but their ammunition becoming exhausted their fire slackened, and a final advance, made by the whole corps of the enemy, was successful in driving the Confederates from their indefensible position, and gaining possession of the entrance to the Gap, Cobb’s Legion, of Georgia, which had been sent forward as a reinforcement, made its appearance at this time, fired one volley and scattered to the four winds, losing its battle-flag and a large number of prisoners…
Leading the 12th in that action was Captain John R. Lewellen of Company K, who had only just returned to duty that day having been injured at Manassas. Sergeant Bernard noted …
… the gallant bearing of Capt. Lewellen at the time when our regiment formed its line of battle on the slope of the mountain and began to descend to the road and fence at its foot was conspicuous. Drawing his sword, and I think waving it over his head, he placed himself a few paces to the front and right of the regiment, and in this position went forward with it …
The Regiment paid heavily in its defense of the Gap that day. Lieutenant Colonel Taylor, though too ill to command, was with his men and was mortally wounded. Captain Llewellyn was seriously wounded and carried from the field. Our narrator, George Bernard, was also wounded and left behind to be captured. Of just over 100 men of the Twelfth present at Crampton’s Gap, some 60 were casualties: killed, wounded or made prisoner.
Following the surrender of the Federal garrison on 15 September, the 12th Virginia and the rest of Anderson’s Division passed through Harpers Ferry on the 16th , and marched to Sharpsburg early on 17 September. Arriving between 8 and 9 o’clock, they were sent to the aid of General DH Hill’s troops in the Sunken Road, but–with the other defenders of the Confederate Center–were soon driven back. Private Joseph Spotswood of Company G later described how few of the soldiers were left:
Our brigade, under the command of Colonel Parham, went into battle at Sharpsburg with only seventy men rank and file, of whom twenty-three belonged to the 12th Va. regiment … This was the result of the hard marching and fighting through which the brigade had been, and of much straggling due to so many being bare-footed.
The remnants returned to Virginia on the night of 18-19 September. Like the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia, the 12th Virginia Infantry gathered its stragglers, rested, recuperated from wounds, and regained strength to fight another day.
General Mahone, Colonel Weisiger, Surgeon Claiborne, Captain Lewellen, and many of the Twelfth are buried in Blandford Church graveyard and cemetery, Petersburg. Among about 30,000 other Confederate soldiers. By the Civil War this already elderly church building had been abandoned and gutted, as can be seen in this 1865 photograph.
Restored around the turn of the 20th Century, the building is today a shrine to the States of the Confederacy with magnificent stained glass windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany (c. 1909).
dramatis personae of the Twelfth Regiment, in order of appearance
Surgeon John Herbert Claiborne (1829-1905)
Educated at Randolph-Macon, the University of Virginia, and Jefferson (Philadelphia) Medical College, he had moved to Petersburg in 1851. He had a pre-War career in politics in the state House of Delegates and Senate as an “avid secessionist” before enlisting as Surgeon of the 12th Infantry in April 1861. He resigned his commission briefly and took a seat in the State Senate 12/1861 – 2/1862, but returned to service as Surgeon, CSA, and had charge of Petersburg military hospitals for the duration. He returned to medicine afterward, and was prominent in professional associations and frequent contributor to the journals.
Colonel David Addison Weisiger (1818-1899)
… served in the Mexican War and was officer of the day at the execution of abolitionist John Brown before entering the Confederate Army after Virginia seceded. He fought at Seven Pines and in the Seven Days’ and Second Bull Run campaigns where he was seriously injured at the latter. After almost a year recuperation, he commanded again at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. He was wounded again at the Battle of the Crater where he received a promotion to brigadier general for his performance. At Appomattox, he was wounded three times and had two horses shot from under him before surrendering. After the war, he worked as a bank cashier in Petersburg, Virginia, and later moved to Richmond. (Bio sketch from the Alexandria, Virginia library accompanying a copy of the CDV like the one above)
Major John Pegram May (1829 – 1862)
One of five May brothers in the Twelfth, all sons of wealthy Petersburg lawyer David May, John was himself a well-situated attorney with 6 children by 1861. He enlisted on 19 April of that year as Captain, Company A, and was promoted Major of the Regiment in May 1862. He was buried in an unmarked grave where he fell on the battlefield at Manassas.
Lieutenant Colonel Fielding Lewis Taylor (1825-1862)
He had attended Washington (now Washington & Lee) College, and was commissioned a Lieutenant Colonel in the Virginia State forces in April 1861. He was assigned at that rank to the Twelfth Regiment in June. Wounded at Crampton’s Gap on 14 September, he died at Charles Town, Virginia (now W. Va.) on 3 October, and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond. His wife, the former Elizabeth Farley Fauntleroy (b. 1825) also died in 1862. His son Fielding, Junior (1849-1923), was a Virginia Military Institute cadet by May 1864–class of 1868–and may have fought at Newmarket.
Captain Richard Watson Jones, Jr (1837-1914)
Born into landowning privilege, he was thoroughly educated in mathematics and sciences at Randolph-Macon and Virginia by 1861. He enlisted as Captain of Company I in February 1862, and was promoted Major in July 1864. He was in command of the Regiment as senior officer present at Appomattox in April 1865. He had a considerable academic career after the War with stints as professor or administrator at Randolph-Macon, Petersburg Female College , University of Mississippi, MS College, MS Industrial Institute, and Emory and Henry. A later portrait–reminiscent of the image above–is posted online, and a bio sketch of Jones appeared in History of Education in Mississippi (1899, US Bureau of Education).
Captain Everard Meade Feild (1831-1915)
Feild was a grocer in his native Greensville County, Virginia before he married a Pennsylvania woman in 1852, at which time he took up farming. In that year he also joined the Petersburg City Guard–a local militia unit–and was Captain by 1855. He enlisted in June 1861 as Captain of Company F of the Twelfth. He was promoted to Major immediately after Sharpsburg (to date from May’s death in August) and Lieutenant Colonel in October. He was thereafter in command of the Regiment at many of its most significant engagements including Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Spottsylvania (May 1864) where he received the severe thigh wound that effectively ended his military career. After the War he farmed for another five years, then worked for the Atlantic Mississippi & Ohio and Norfolk & Western railroads, was Deputy US Collector of Internal Revenue, and a lumber inspector.
Sergeant George S Bernard (1837-1912)
A student at the University of Virginia, teacher in Essex County, and lawyer before the War, Bernard enlisted as Sergeant in Company I in February 1862. After capture at Crampton’s Gap, he was treated at the US Second Corps hospital in Burkittsville and at Fort McHenry, Baltimore, before he was exchanged through Fort Monroe sometime after 14 October 1862. After recovering, he transferred to Company E–voluntarily reduced to Private–for full duty by September 1863. He was again wounded at Hatcher’s Run (Va) in February 1865. After the War he worked for the Petersburg Daily Express, married ex-Governor John Rutherford’s daughter Fannie, and held elected office on the school board, in the House of Delegates, and as Commonwealth Attorney.
Captain John Richard Lewellen (1822-1886)
A Mexican War veteran, he was running a religious newspaper, The Conductor, at Petersburg before the War. He entered service in Company K–formerly the (F.W.) Archer Rifles–on 4 May 1861 as First Lieutenant, and was promoted Captain on 1 July. Llewellyn was in hospitals recovering from his wound for most of the remainder of 1862, and on light duty, detached on conscription service for all of 1863. He was promoted Major 3 October 1862. He rejoined his unit in the field in January 1864, commanded it in combat that year, and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in February 1865 (to rank from July ’64). He spent the last two months of the War sick in hospital. After the War he was a farmer and politician, and was editor of the Danville Register. His name is sometimes spelled Llewellyn in the records, as it is on his headstone.
Private Joseph Edwin Spottswood (1829-1907)
A clerk in a Petersburg lumber dealer before the War, he enlisted in Company B in April 1861 and transferred soon after to Company E. He was wounded at Sharpsburg, one of only three men present at that battle from his company. From December 1862 through July 1863 he was “detached to enroll conscripts” – presumably on light duty due to his wound, but he returned to be promoted Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant in September 1863. He was among those who surrendered at Appomattox. His stone, too, is at Blandford Cemetery.
Though George Bernard touts Crampton’s Gap as representing one of [the Regiment's] most glorious achievements, his volume of War Talks is probably far better known today as a reference to the Battle of the Crater, fought near the Regiment’s hometown of Petersburg on 30 July 1864.
Some background on the Crater painting at the top of this post is offered by Barbara Crookshanks, Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star:
Elder was a member of Caskie’s Battery of Artillery at the Battle of the Crater before Petersburg. And the next day he made sketches of the topography and military positions of the scene.
The large painting Elder made from these sketches was on display at Woodhouse & Parham Bookstore in Richmond, but was destroyed by the fire which swept the city in 1865. Also destroyed was the first copy of his Scout’s Prize. Elder repeated both on larger canvases. They were purchased on the easel by Confederate General William Mahone and have a permanent home in the Commonwealth Club in Richmond.
It apparently shows the counter-attack of Mahone’s Brigade, possibly the 12th Virginia in particular. See also Kevin Levin’s thoughts about it from November 2005.
The quote about the the “flower of the manhood of the Cockade City” is from Dr. J.H. Claiborne, late Surgeon of the Regiment from Seventy-five Years in Old Virginia (1904), available online courtesy GoogleBooks.
G.S. Bernard’s seminal contribution to history on the regiment and the Battle of the Crater is his compiled War Talks of Confederate Veterans (1892), being addresses “delivered before A.P.Hill Camp of Confederate Veterans, of Petersburg, Va., with addenda giving statements of participants, eyewitnesses and others, in respect to campaigns, battles, prison life and other war experiences.” It’s also online. GoogleBooks yet again.
Sharp-eyed readers will notice some factual problems with brother Bernard’s narratives quoted here, notably confusion between Federal Corps and Divisions, but these hardly detract.
A good general reference for the Regiment is W. D. Henderson’s 12th Virginia Infantry (Lynchburg: H.E. Howard, 1982). It’s particularly valuable for its exhaustive roster and biographical detail. It’s also the source for the picture of Major May used here.
Information for Fielding Lewis Taylor, Jr. and more on his father is to be found in Merrow Egerton Sorley’s Lewis of Warner Hall (1934, pp. 105-6, excepts online from Google Books) – Mr. Sorley’s a little weak on the War, however.