There was one fight during the War of the States of which I have never seen any record. Perhaps it was deemed too insignificant in results, in the numbers engaged, or in the casualties incident thereto to merit any notice; but inasmuch as it practically closed the career of a Mississippi regiment - obliterated it, in fact - I have thought that a short account of it might not be devoid of interest.
The last days of March, 1865, found F. M. Cockrell, of Missouri, in command of the remnant of French’s Division of the Army of Tennessee and some other troops besides on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, guarding the approaches of the Gulf City. Ector's Texas and North Carolina, Gibson's Louisiana, and one regiment of Sears's Mississippi Brigade were besieged in Spanish Fort. Cockrell's Missourians and the other regiments of Sears' Mississippians were at Blakely, a few miles north, where some breastworks had been hastily thrown up.
My own regiment, the 46th Mississippi, numbering about one hundred effective men, under the command of Capt. J. B. Hart, of Yazoo County, Miss., was about four miles east of Blakely on the Stockton road, doing picket duty. During the forenoon of Saturday, April 1, the scouts brought us word that the enemy was approaching. Using the rails of a little field around a deserted cabin, we hastily constructed a flimsy breastwork, behind which we awaited the attack. It was nearly noon when the head of the column came in sight over the brow of a little hill, and before it was near enough to suffer greatly, our firing began. A few riderless horses in the hastily retreating column showed that somebody had been hit or badly scared. Before a second volley could be fired there was not a Yankee in sight.
For an hour or more we waited for the enemy to make a second advance. While thus waiting two men came to us from the swamp in our rear, stating that they were from the small picket detail of Missourians posted on another road; that they had heard the firing and had come to see what it meant and to ascertain what troops were engaged. I suspected at the time, and have often thought since, that they were spies.
It was during this lull in the fighting that the following is said to have occurred: A courier came from General Cockrell directing Captain Hart to bring in the regiment. Elated at the success already achieved, and perhaps overrating his own ability and resources, the Captain begged to be allowed to remain where he was, assuring the General that he could hold the enemy in check for an indefinite period. The courier promised to deliver the message and rode away.
Now, be it understood that we were in the open pine woods, where, on three sides at least, there was little or nothing to impede the movements of a body of cavalry, and when we next saw the enemy they were far more numerous than at first; and instead of being simply the head of a column on a single road, there were long lines on our front and left flanks. Judged by the number of flags in sight, there were three or four regiments bearing down on our little handful of men. Then began a running fight.
We formed two sides of a square. On the east and north were the lines of blue-coated horsemen, westward was the road to Blakely, while on the south, our left as we retreated, was a creek or a series of branches with undergrowth along the hillsides. We loaded our guns as we "double-quicked", stopped, aimed hastily and fired, and scampered off again. We kept this up for about two miles, when the enemy, having gained the road ahead of us, advanced at a gallop.
In a moment more they were among us, slashing with their sabers and with oaths and opprobrious epithets were calling on us to "halt" and to "surrender". A number of us refused to halt. Instead we dashed from among the rearing horses and shouting men and made for the cover of the friendly thicket close at hand. A storm of bullets was sent after us; but we were not pursued, and I, who purposely kept in the rear, did not see a single man who was struck.
In a minute, perhaps, the firing ceased, and after going about one hundred yards farther some of us stopped to get our breath. After resting for a time, four of us, Sergt. Robert Leachman, of Company F, a good soldier, but afterwards a prominent Republican and postmaster at Meridian, Miss., Sergt. Willis Pickering and Private W. C. Robertson, of my own company and I, started to make our way into the lines at Blakely.
We were in a gall berry thicket, and we followed it towards the declining sun ‘till the waters of the bay were in sight. Then we emerged from the friendly cover to find ourselves in the rear of a Federal line of battle, distant about seventy-five yards, occupying the ridge between us and the ditches we sought. Making no effort whatever to dislodge the enemy or even to apprise them of our proximity, we again sought the cover and sadly retraced our steps. Arriving at the point where we first stopped to breathe, we sat down among the trees. Sergeant Pickering, going in quest of water, soon returned with Captains Barwick and Pace and two or three lieutenants. They had come to hold a "council of war".
I explained the impracticability of reaching the rest of the brigade by a direct route, and after some discussion they all agreed that the plan I suggested was the most feasible. It was this: to remain quiet ‘till nightfall and then pass to the rear of the advancing Federal army. The word was passed to the hidden boys, some of whom were said to be in water to their necks, and at deep dusk we came together, a forlorn looking set. There were forty-seven all told, eleven of whom were commissioned officers and about the same
number noncommissioned. J. A. Barwick, of Company D, was the senior captain. Hart, being mounted, as we afterwards learned, escaped to the lines at Blakely, and Captain Heslip, of Company G, the next in seniority, was among the 11 missing. Lieut. R. N. Rea, acting adjutant, was known to have been wounded, but it was hoped that he had reached the Confederate lines. Only one of my company failed to show up. This was John W. Keyes, who, being detailed to carry ammunition, made his escape.
The order of march was quickly made. The men were to march in single file about five feet apart and were to move in perfect silence. A command was to be passed from man to man in a whisper, and at certain signals all were to fall flat to the ground. I was unanimously chosen to bring up the rear.
Taking our course from a star which shone in the eastern sky, we started on the most unique march I ever made. The moon was at our backs and gave but a feeble light. On the ridges in the open woods the dogwood trees were clad in ghostly white, and in the brakes and bays millions of frogs piped forth their endless songs. Among it all nearly half a hundred men silently strode along with eyes and ears alert to every sight and sound.
The depressions between the hills had branches in them, with tangles of bamboo briers, shaky tussocks, rotten roots, and sullen pools. And to this good day I think we crossed some of these branches lengthwise. Sometimes when a comrade would fall in the water and mud almost to his waist, it was hard to keep from laughing, especially if he indulged in any grunts or groans or smothered imprecations.
Once when a timid deer started up in our path we fell as dead men and scarcely breathed till the danger was passed. The cry of a night bird thrilled us with a nameless sensation; it might have been fear. But there was real danger on the march, for soon after starting we passed within a short distance of the Federals as they tore out the floor of a mill house to cover a bridge that had been partly destroyed a day or two before.
Before daylight on Sunday, April 2, we halted in a swamp to rest and reconnoiter. In the earlv morning I was seized with a chill which soon developed into a burning fever, and I was delirious all day. I can but dimly recall the fact that the whole command, except one man left with me, came and bade me good-by in the late afternoon and left us, so far as we could tell, miles away from any human habitation, for we had seen no sign of house or farm the night before.
I suppose it was thought unlikely that I would leave the spot where I lay; for when, nearly twelve months later, as I rode horseback through Rankin County and stopped one night with a Mr. Dent and the family learned after supper that I was the sick man left in the swamp to die, they all crowded around me to congratulate me on my recovery. The son and brother, who happened not to be at home, had often spoken of the sick man they had left.
Thus ended the career of the 46th Mississippi Regiment. When I and my companion ultimately reached Meridian, where the remnant of the Mobile garrison had gone, we found only one of Company B besides ourselves and about twenty-five of the regiment. All had gone home, for the end of the Confederacy was already at hand. And thus it came about that Privates John R. Powers, W. C. Robertson, and I were all of Company B at the final surrender.