Analysis: Swift Creek, May 9, 1864

Introduction

In a recent post (“What Really Happened at Swift Creek“), I debunk a Petersburg Express article claiming that two companies of the 51st North Carolina routed a New Hampshire Regiment at Swift Creek. The 51st was probably engaged in skirmishing that night (May 9, 1864), but there’s no direct evidence that the regiment saw any action. Following are the sources of information I reviewed before concluding that the Fifty-First might or might not have clashed with New Hampshire infantry.

Weekly Standard May 25, 1864

The Situation

Benjamin Butler’s army left their encampments at Bermuda Hundred at dawn on May 9 and marched toward Petersburg. They encountered part of Hagood’s South Carolina brigade north of Swift Creek. After a heated fight, the Confederates withdrew to the opposite side of the stream. Generals Gillmore and Smith, commanding X Corps and XVIII Corps respectively, considered the enemy defenses too strong to continue the attack. The two sides settled in for the evening.

General Bushrod Johnson’s Tennesse brigade held the right of the Confederate lines. His regiments picketed the south bank of the stream from the railroad eastward to Lovell’s Ford. The 51st North Carolina had been assigned to guard the railroad bridge, but earlier in the day, Johnson had relieved the Tar Heels with the 63rd Tennessee.

General Johnson Hagood’s South Carolinians manned the left of the Confederate defenses. Hagood’s men stretched from the railroad westward to Brander’s Bridge, with the bulk of the brigade positioned near the Turnpike. The 7th South Carolina Battalion, supported by an artillery battery, held the far left of Hagood’s line.

The Union lines on the north side of the creek were composed primarily of the XVIII Corps’ two divisions. General Brooks’ First Division was on the left, with General Hiram Burnham’s brigade positioned between the turnpike and Lovell’s Ford. Second Division extended the Federal lines westward for several miles. The 3rd New Hampshire Regiment, of X Corps, was sent to picket Brander’s Bridge, about two miles from the far right of the Union lines.

Troop Dispositions Night of May 9, 1864

Union Accounts

Union reports of the skirmishing at Swift Creek on the night of May 9, 1864 indicate that the action occurred near the railroad bridge. Confederate infantry drove Federal pickets back from the bank of the creek two or three times during the night. Each time, the Rebels were stopped when they reached the main Union lines. A brief skirmish near Brander’s Bridge forced the 3rd New Hampshire to withdraw, but the withdrawal was hardly a rout that continued for two miles. One post-war account supports the narrative in the reports.

From General William Brooks’ report [O. R. 36/2, p. 126]: “During the night the enemy appeared three times in some force in front of General Burnham’s pickets, driving them back until the Tenth New Hampshire, Lieutenant-Colonel Coughlin, moved forward to their support and soon dispersed the enemy.”

From General Hiram Burnham’s report [O. R. 36/2, pp. 133-134]: “Subsequently I advanced my line nearly up to the Ship-pen house and sent forward one regiment, the Tenth New Hampshire, Lieut. Col. J. Coughlin, to support Hunt’s battery, which moved into position between that house and the railroad, and shelled the enemy’s bridges across the creek. My brigade now connected with General Marston’s on my right, while my skirmishers extended well around toward General Martindale’s command on the left. Being considerably annoyed by the enemy’s sharpshooters on the opposite side of the creek to the left of the Shippen house, I strengthened my skirmish line with the two flank companies of the Eighth Connecticut Volunteers, armed with Sharps rifles, and ordered them to drive the enemy out or silence their fire, which they soon did. Just at night I modified my line, by order of General Brooks, by placing the Eighth Connecticut, Lieutenant-Colonel Smith, on the right of the road, to fill a space between General Marston’s brigade and my own. At about 11 o’clock at night the enemy in some force charged upon my pickets in front of the Shippen house, forcing them back some distance, when Lieutenant-Colonel Coughlin at the head of his regiment charged in turn upon the enemy, drove them back in confusion, and re-established the picket-line in its original position. At a later hour the enemy again attacked and drove in my skirmishers, when he was again met by Lieutenant-Colonel Coughlin and driven back, after a spirited skirmish.”

From Colonel Aaron Stevens’ (13th New Hampshire) report [O. R. 36/2, p. 138]: “The enemy having been driven by the skirmishers across the creek, my regiment took position in the brigade line in rear of Shippen’s house. This position was maintained until the next day about noon, when we retired under orders. At night my skirmishers were relieved by Companies F and G of my regiment, under command of Captain Stoodley. About 8 o’clock that night the pickets of the Tenth New Hampshire, in advance of the line, were driven in upon their supports by a charge of the enemy, but he was repulsed and driven back promptly by the Tenth. We remained in support of the Tenth during the night, firing being renewed from time to time by the enemy.”

From Colonel Josiah Plimpton’s (3rd New Hampshire) report [O. R. 36/2, page 67]: “We left camp about 7 o’clock on the morning of the 9th, marched with the brigade to Chester Station, on Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, arriving about 12 m. Marched thence down the railroad to Port Walthall Junction, arriving about 2 p.m.; thence to Richmond turnpike, where the regiment was ordered to report to Briga-dier-General Terry, and by him posted at Brandon Bridge, on a road from Richmond to Petersburg, 2½ miles from Petersburg, where we arrived about an hour after dark, with instructions to hold the position and allow no troops to advance across the bridge; to reconnoiter the position of the enemy; the condition of the bridge; the enemy’s batteries; the depth of water in the river, &c. I marched the column to within about 700 yards of the bridge, formed a line of battle, and advanced with a line of skirmishers to within about 150 yards of the bridge, where I met the enemy advancing. (I was afterward informed by a man living near by that the enemy numbered 200, and were advancing to capture a cavalry patrol that had previously looked the ground over.) The enemy opened fire, which was returned, when he opened with grape and canister from a work on the opposite side of the river. The firing lasted but a few minutes. It being quite dark and knowing very little of the position of the enemy or the ground, I did not try to push the enemy back, but posted my pickets for the night.”

Captain D. Eldredge, in The Third New Hampshire and All About It, writes that one soldier’s diary stated that on the night of May 9, the regiment “had quite a fight and drove the rebels.” [p. 463]

In The Thirteenth Regiment of New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865: A Diary Covering Three Years and a Day, S. Millet Thompson writes that “the battle continues all day, and until after midnight; chiefly between the skirmishers, though at times the firing, from both artillery and lines of battle, is very severe. There is no quiet until near morning.” Thompson goes on to describe several charges the Confederates made against the Union lines near the railroad during the night. [p. 265+]

Confederate Accounts

Few Confederate accounts of the fighting at Swift Creek on May 9, 1864 exist. The Official Records only contain the reports of General Bushrod Johnson and Colonel Abraham Fulkerson (63rd Tennessee of Johnson’s brigade). Both accounts describe only one charge on the Union lines, against the sharpshooters that were so annoying. In addition to the O.R. reports and the newspaper account of the action, a correspondent to the Wilmington Journal stated that Companies E and F of the 51st North Carolina fought a Yankee regiment “off and on during one whole night.” [Wilmington Journal, 2 Jun. 1864]

From Bushrod Johnson’s report [O. R. 36/2, p. 234]: “The enemy’s sharpshooters were now pressed forward, especially in the vicinity of the railroad bridge. They reached a fence in the open field, within some 500 or 600 yards of the Dunlap house, and very much annoyed our main line. With the first design of making a determined attack upon the enemy, the Fifty-first North Carolina Regiment had been replaced at this point by a part of the Sixty-third Tennessee Regiment. Capt. J. W. Robertson, of the latter regiment, was now directed to take two companies and drive the enemy’s skirmishers back. This was handsomely done by a charge. Somewhat later, in the darkness of the night, the enemy’s reserve–about a regiment–made a demonstration, fired a volley on our skirmishers, raised a shout, and made an effort to charge them, but Captain Robertson’s command held its position until a late hour at night, when it was relieved by two companies of the Fifty-first North Carolina Regiment.”

From Colonel Fulkerson’s report [O. R. 36/2, p. 250]: “Late in the evening of the 9th the enemy’s line of skirmishers was advanced to a fence within 500 or 600 yards of Dunlap’s house. From this position their sharpshooters were enabled to annoy our line considerably. About dusk General Johnson, through Captain Blakemore, requested me to drive the line back. Companies A and K, under Capt. J. W. Robertson, were detached and directed to cross the creek near the left of the enemy’s line and to attack it in flank. It was subsequently found impracticable to attack in flank. The companies were then deployed in front, and a charge ordered and executed satisfactorily. The line fell back in confusion, with a loss of 2 killed. The enemy’s reserve, supposed to be a brigade, fired a volley into our line and made an effort to charge it, but to no purpose. Captain Robertson held the line until a late hour at night, when he was relieved by two companies from a North Carolina regiment.”

Conclusion

It’s hard to gauge the reliability of the newspaper account of the 51st North Carolina’s actions on May 9, 1864. It seems unlikely that the Fifty-First marched two miles to Brander’s Bridge to attack the 3rd New Hampshire. Companies E and F probably relieved the 63rd Tennessee at the railroad bridge and then engaged in intermittent skirmishing throughout the night. Without more information, it’s impossible to know for sure what really happened.

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