“And All About Were Men Crying…”

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On the other side of the siege lines lay the nearly beaten Confederates, for whom Petersburg and Appomattox were a sad climax to four years of gallant effort. Something of their spirit is preserved in the following excerpts from the memoirs of Berry Benson, a young sharpshooter who with his brother, Blackwood, served in General Samuel McGowan’s First South Carolina Brigade. Edited by his daughter-in-law, Susan Williams Benson, the memoirs will soon be published by the University of Georgia Press as Berry Benson’s Civil War Book. —Ed.

 

 

On Sunday, April 2, 1865 … we learned that five miles to our left, at the very point held by McGowan’s Brigade all winter, the enemy had stormed and carried the defenses of Petersburg. Our corps commander, General A. P. Hill, had been killed. After stubborn resistance, Fort Gregg had fallen. Petersburg and Richmond were being evacuated; the whole army was in retreat. …

Pretty soon, the enemy coming in hot pursuit, we began sharpshooting. Making a stand at any favorable point, we fought the advance skirmishers until they would begin to flank us, then hastily retreated to take up another stand. …

In the middle of a large cornfield, we overtook [our] three Brigades, heading now for the Appomattox River, with the intention of crossing to its north side to escape our pursuers and join the army retreating from Richmond. We reached the river in the late afternoon, finding one small boat which would carry perhaps four men, as our only means of crossing. …

A few men now chose to remain behind, hoping to avail themselves of this means of escape. The rest of us (probably not more than 1,000 to 1,200 men) turned our faces up the stream and in Indian file followed a footpath along its banks, hoping every minute to reach some bridge or ferry. In single file the Brigades stretched out, reaching far up and down the river. At length (about full dark) there was a halt, and the troops collected in a little hollow. We all lay down on the wet leaves in the wood, tired and hungry, and awaited orders.

Hundreds of questions were asked and doubts freely raised of our ever getting out of this scrape. Here we were, 3 Brigades, cut off from the rest of the army, a swollen river in front, and Grant’s army pressing on behind! …

After trying in vain to learn something of our plans and prospects … I called on the Sharpshooters—all who wished —to follow me that I was going to find Lee’s army. …

I started off with 15 men besides myself, one of them, a young fellow, barefoot. And a hard march we made. … At daybreak Monday, April 3rd, we … learned from some soldiers that our Brigade was organizing at Goode’s Bridge on the Appomattox, and we headed for it. …

Next morning, April 4th, we started early. Being now pretty well rested, we made as good time as possible amongst the straggling troops [Longstreet’s men] that now thronged the road. … Amid this helter-skelter, dejected crowd, we marched in order, with arms at the “right shoulder.” As we passed the weary, exhausted groups, they stared in amazement to see our little band of sixteen, still preserving discipline and—still better—cheerfulness. … [We] marched in order, as neatly as on drill, keeping step to the song that Reuben Ruff sang in a clear, ringing voice, one of the best voices in our camp. The song was “Jubilo,” a negro song first sung by the Yankees, later becoming a favorite amongst the Confederates. Like schoolboys on a holiday, we joined in Ruffs chorus at the top of our lungs, so that the woods and hills along our march fairly rang with shouts of “Jubilo.” … At Goode’s Bridge we found [that] of our whole Battallion of Sharpshooters —three companies—only forty were left, of which we made 16. …

From Goode’s Bridge on, our march was one of unremitting fatigue, hunger, trouble, and disaster. … Every hour brought news of the capture or burning of portions of our wagon train, while wagons, broken down horses, pieces of artillery, stragglers, and all kinds of munitions of war were being abandoned to fall into the hands of our pursuers. …

Straggling became the rule rather than the exception. From sheer weakness and lack of sustenance, many a brave man lagged then behind his command who had never lagged before. The 8,000 who drew up before Appomattox were not 8,000 bodies; it was 8,000 souls which still dragged along with them their unwilling bodies, whether or no. …

April 9, 1865 we reached the neighborhood of Appomattox and came to a halt and were drawn up in line. … Then I saw a Federal officer come galloping in carrying aloft a white handkerchief. …

Presently the whisper began to pass from mouth to mouth that it was a flag of truce, and that General Lee was about to surrender. … The idea was simply preposterous and I hooted it. There had been surrenders and there would be surrenders, but Gen. Lee’s army surrender? Never!

The firing had all ceased, and we saw Confederate regiments returning from the field of battle. And now the whole army—and a small one it was—gathered together on a low hill over against Appomattox. And along the ridge of hills opposite were stretched the long dark lines of the enemy. They lay directly in our front, blocking our further retreat. We were drawn up in column of regiments, I believe, and ordered to stack arms. And then the rumor grew louder and more assured that we were indeed about to surrender.…