“Pop, Pop, Pop,” those words were written by Brig. Gen. James Walker, commander of the Stonewall Brigade in May of 1864. What the General was evidently attempting to explain at least partly explain the ineffectiveness of the Confederate defense the morning of May 12, 1864. To do so he was describing the sound that he had heard during the moments, perhaps minutes, before the Federal troops poured over the Confederate earthworks in the Salient. The distinctive sound was made by the misfiring of the muskets of the Confederate infantry. This was supposedly due to the dampness of the weather that had persisted throughout the night and into the morning. As a result of this dampness despite the primer cap exploding it failed to ignite the black powder behind the ball. Therefore the weather had such an effect on the weapons that it supposedly virtually disarmed the men and left them powerless to repel the overwhelming numbers of Federals approaching then coming over the works.
Those words then became the basis for one of the most enduring stories regarding the events of the morning of May 12, 1864. The events of that day made up what was at the same time one of the darkest, and most glorious days of Robert E. Lee’s army. And since it is such an enduring story lets take a look at it.
Gen. Walker’s actually statement was: ” Then the moment for the Confederate fire had come, and the men, rising to their full height, leveled their trusty muskets deliberately at the halting column, with a practiced aim which would have carried havoc into their ranks. But the searching damp had disarmed them, and instead of the leaping line of fire and the sharp crack of the muskets came the pop! pop! pop! of exploding caps as the hammer fell upon them. Their powder was damp, and with their muzzle-loading muskets their was no help for them. A few, very few, pieces fired clear; but fresh caps on most of them only produced another failure. A muzzle-loading musket with damp powder behind the ball is as useless to a soldier in an emergency like that as a walking cane. (1)
While Gen. Walker’s account is the most widely known he did have at least some support from others who were in the Salient that morning. Lieutenant W.S. Archer of the 48th Virginia, Witcher’s Brigade was out on the picket line that morning. While not directly in the path of Hancock’s advance his regiment saw that the picket line near the Landrum House had been quickly overwhelmed. Seeing the odds against them, Col. Witcher, (2) led Archer along with most of his regiment on a circuitous route back to the salient. Entering somewhere to the east of the East angle he led his men back up the interior of the salient toward the regiments original position. (3) Looking back on the experience Lieutenant Archer wrote: “The fire of Steuart’s men in line of battle did not have the force of a hotly contested skirmish. The penetrating mist which had been falling all night had wet the powder in the tubes, and the guns could not be fired.” (4)
Later in Gen. Walker’s account where he lamented the Stonewall Brigades malfunctioning weapons he said: “This statement as to of the failure of the muskets of our men to fire is true as to that portion of our line between the Stonewall Brigade and the salient, which was as far as my vision extended, but I have been informed by officers of Jones Brigade that the right of that brigade had been more careful or more fortunate, and their muskets were in good order, and that the enemy was repulsed in front of that portion of our lines with great loss, and that they held their position, until the enemy’s troops, who had crossed to their left, had swung round in the rear and came up behind our lines.” (5)
In the 3rd North Carolina of Steuart’s Brigade, one of the company commanders took the precaution of having his men disassemble and clean their weapons while waiting for the suspected attack.
Perhaps such difficulties extended beyond the infantry. In a letter to his former battalion commander, Wilfred Cutshaw, Samuel H. Hawes wrote: ” They were within about 15 or 20 steps of us, when I ordered our Parrott gun turned upon them (inside our works) and gave them canister in their faces at head of column. The smoke from the gun fell and obscured everything! Before it fairly lifted they were upon us and we were prisoners. We only had time for one shot from that gun! I called upon the infantry lying in the trenches to “get up and shoot”, which they refused to do! Lieut D. at the gun on our right, fired a shot from his gun at another body of the enemy, but in trying for another his gun was choked”. (6)
While these officers told a story of helplessness and frustration they were far from being the majority. In fact when reading accounts of the battle remarkably few if any of the rest of the participants mentioned any difficulties with the weapons. A small sample of the accounts are given below.
Lieutenant Thomas Doyle of Co. E, 33rd Va. wrote in his memoirs that: ” About 12 P.M. it commenced to rain and continued all night making the trenches a most uncomfortable place, but thanks to the excellent tent-flies so abundantly supplied by the 6th Federal Corps in the Wilderness, the men were ably to keep tolerably dry. Orders were given during the night to all the company officers to be on the alert and in the event of an attack……”
Robert Barton, a staff officer in the Stonewall Brigade, wrote that he and Gen. Walker slept side by side the night of the 11th/12th. He added: “A heavy mist overhung everything and through it we could hardly see one hundred yards. But succeeding the cheers, we, little by little perceived the advancing line, rather a broken line, but still an ugly rush. Our men opened a vigorous fire, and all along the line from our left and centre up to the right, where the fatal salient stood, some three hundred yards distant, the crack of musketry kept up.”
James L. McCown , 5th Virginia Infantry, Stonewall Brigade wrote : “We were ordered to reserve our fire until near enough to tell on them with effect. Then how warmly we gave it to them.”..
Pvt. William P. Snakenburg, of Co. K, 14th Louisiana Inf which was between the Stonewall and the East Angle wrote : “About the time we were ready to start for the skirmish line, those on the line commenced firing very fast and soon came running into the works, saying that the enemy was advancing. We went into the works but on account of the very heavy fog we could not for some time see anything, but waited until all the skirmish line had got in our works and the enemy had come near enough to be seen , we commenced firing on them.” (7)
Snakenberg added: ” I was on the parapit and fired a number of times, as those of my company behind me kept loading and passing up their guns.”
Part of the reason for the unevenness of the fire of Steuart’s Brigade may rest with Steuart himself. He mistook the advancing Federals for his skirmishers returning. As a result he actually ordered the artillery of Reese’s battery to cease-fire. How much this effected the infantry is unknown.
Equally telling is the deafening silence about the matter from the Union side. The men of Hancock’s strike force had first to endure a miserable march from the right of the line to the assembly area around the Brown House. Then the lay out in the woods and fields without fires for hours awaiting the orders to fall in and step off to the attack. Certainly they had time to prepare but even so they were at least as exposed to the elements as the Confederates, probably more so. Yet, in none of their accounts is there a mention of malfunctioning firearms.
So were the firearms the factor that Gen. Walker claimed? Given the number of Confederates captured that morning perhaps we don’t have a good sample of the participants. Or, perhaps once a soldier was able to fire the first shot it was no longer a issue. Therefore would be forgotten, lost in the events of the day. Yet there would seem to be major reason to doubt that the weapons were a major problem. However if not then what was the source of the sound that Gen. Walker describes? Almost certainly it was the firing of primers only. Why primers only?
First lets ask what would be the standard practice for troops in a defensive position with a picket line well out, 800 yards in this case, in front. They were probably not in the trenches during the hours of darkness as there was no threat from sharpshooters. We know, for example,that the Stonewall was relatively dry, sleeping in tents captured at the Wilderness. Others, veterans of sleeping in the open would have fashioned means of keeping dry. The trenches of course would have slowly become mud holes a very uncomfortable pace to be. Would the men’s weapons even have been loaded? With a picket line out front there was no immediate danger. And loaded weapons always increase the likelihood of accidents. So perhaps the weapons weren’t loaded during the night.
If the weapons hadn’t been loaded overnight than what about the sound? A standard practice for clearing a musket of the time would be to place a cap on the nipple and pull the trigger. The flash from the exploding primer would travel through the nipple into and up the barrel. The heat and force would dry and expel any moisture or residue in the barrel. The soldier could then load and fire the weapon as normal. Since the standard of performance was 3 rounds per minute for a trained soldier this was obviously no great effort. In 20 seconds an approaching enemy would not travel more than about 50 yards.
It is perhaps worth pointing out that the General did not say that HIS men had a problem. Rather it was down towards the East Angle, where the Louisianians and Witcher’s left should have been. Also it is worth remembering that Gen. Walker was severely wounded in the arm relatively early that morning and left the field.
So, is it possible that an abnormal number of weapons did misfire that morning. Certainly it is possible, but I leave it to the reader to decide whether it was the issue that it has been made out to be.
(1) SHSP vol 22 page 235: Brig. Gen. Walker has taken up a position on a traverse beside the right hand gun of Carrington’s Battery. From there he could see not only down the line toward the East Angle but observe the advancing Federals as well. Walker was wounded shortly afterward as he was talking to Capt. Carrington. The gunshot wound in his arm incapacitated him and he was taken from the field.
(2) Col. William Witcher was commander of the 48th Va. of Jones Brigade. However when Col. John C. Higginbotham, of the 25th Va., was killed during Upton’s attack on the 10th as senior regimental commander Witcher assumed command. It seems odd that a Brigade commander, even an acting one, would be on the picket line rather than in the trenches. Did this absence prevent the remaining Virginians from spreading out along the line that morning? There is no evidence either way, other than comments about gaps in the line near the east Angle.
(3) Archer and the 48th Virginia were out on the picket line that morning. He and most of the regiment were able to make, by a circuitous route, back into the salient. How far along the eastern face is uncertain. Some writers place them as coming back through Heth’s line. Perhaps some of them did. However for Archer to have time to get back almost to the regiments original position before the Federals poured over the works make this appear doubtful. Coming back up the salient got allegedly within about 70 yards of the regiments former position in the line. So he had already seen the size of the Federal force.
(4) The initial engagement appears to be between the right of Jones/Witcher and Steuart’s brigades and the extreme left of Barlow’s Federals. These men had missed the apex of the salient and passed across the Confederate front. They were met by both musketry and artillery.
(5) Lieutenants Hawes and Deas commanded the two 3 inch rifles of Fry’s battery that returned to the salient that morning. The other two guns and Captain Fry had been detached as escorts of a wagon train. Lt. Deas was shot and severely wounded that morning. The letter from Hawes to Maj. Cutshaw was written Oct. 7, 1905.
(6) Memoirs of W.P. Snakenberg, Wilson, North Carolina Private, Louisiana Tigers”. The 14th La. had been part of Stafford’s Brigade until his death at the Wilderness. They were consolidated with Hay’s Brigade en route to Spotsylvania. On the 11th Hay’s original Brigade was moved to Dole’s Salient. Evidently the gap was not filled until the remaining Louisianan’s were ordered to spread out while the Federals were advancing on the Salient. Whether they, or for that matter Witcher’s men on the other side of the East Angle, actually did so is not known. With the movement of Haye’s/Monaghan’s Brigade to Doles Salient the previous day, at least one of Stafford/York’s Louisiana regiments on picket, three of Witcher’s regiments out of the line plus the artillery there were precious few Confederates in the trenches that morning.