By the middle 1850’s, the general recognition that the United States was drifting toward armed conflict was shifting from suspicion to rumored certainty. In response to the public consensus that all men should prepare to defend their homes, the Norfolk newspaper Argus published during the spring of 1856 a notice that read: “VOLUNTEERS, three companies being formed in Norfolk County, all interested parties please advise.” Men from Portsmouth and the surrounding county answered the call and by mid-1857, the 3d Regiment of Virginia Volunteers was comprised of:
The Portsmouth Rifle Company
The Old Dominion Rifles
The National Greys
The Marion Rifles
The Union Guard
The Dismal Swamp Rangers
The Portsmouth Light Artillery
During these early years, the Regiment did little more than muster; turn out for parades, ceremonies and commemorations; and drill, for which the Portsmouth militiamen became widely known and celebrated. But in November 1859, Governor Henry Wise ordered the National Greys to Charles Town, Virginia in order to support the military presence there during the trial and hanging of John Brown and his fellow conspirators.
After Virginia passed the Ordinance of Secession, the 3d Regiment under Colonel James Hodges was called out when Major General William Taliaferro arrived to take command of the troops in the Norfolk area. On 20 April, the companies mustered at the Portsmouth courthouse and were ordered the following morning to take control of the Gosport Navy Yard (where the USS Merrimack was captured, refitted and eventually rechristened as the CSS ironclad Virginia) that the evacuating Federals had set afire the previous evening and save as much of the remaining equipment and supplies as possible. During the next few months, the regiment took part in building and manning artillery emplacements and infantry encampments at the Naval Hospital and along the banks of the James and Nansemond Rivers and as far west as Smithfield. On 7 June, 1861, the 3d Virginia moved to Burwell’s Bay and then to Smithfield for encampment. On 7 July, the Regiment was reorganized, with Colonel Hodges placed in command of the Fourteenth Virginia Infantry, and Lieutenant Colonel Roger Pryor promoted to Colonel and given command of the Regiment. By mid-July, the 3d Virginia Volunteers had been restructured into ten companies, mustered into Confederate service, and was comprised of:
Co. A, Dismal Swamp Rangers (Norfolk Cty, Deep Creek)
Co. B, Virginia Rifles ((Portsmouth)Co. C
Dinwiddie Greys (Dinwiddie Cty)Co. D
Southampton Greys (Southampton Cty)Co. E
Cockade Rifles (Petersburg)Co. F
Nansemond Rangers (Nansemond Cty)Co. G
Rough and Ready Guards (Southampton Cty)Co. H
National Greys (Portsmouth)Co. I
Surry Light Artillery (Surry Cty)Co. K
James River Artillery (Isle of Wight Cty)
The balance of 1861 and early winter of 1862 was spent in various encampments in and around the Smithfield area where the men drilled, trained, manned the forts and batteries and continued preparations for war and battlefield action.
In March, 1862, the 3d Virginia crossed the James River to reinforce General John Bankhead Magruder’s force on the Virginia Peninsula at Yorktown. There the regiment, as part of General Rahleigh Colston’s Brigade, saw their first action in a small battle- more significant than a skirmish but not quite large enough to qualify as a substantial battle- at Dam No. 2 in Newport News on 6 April, where the regiment defeated a Federal expedition that had marched out from Fortress Monroe. Shortly thereafter, Colston’s Brigade was assigned to General James Longstreet’s Division and reorganization saw the departure of the Surry Light Artillery and the addition of the Halifax Rifles. Colonel Pryor was promoted to Brigadier General and given his own brigade and Joseph Mayo was elected as the Regiment’s new colonel.
The Union strategy, by which it hoped to bring the war to a quick conclusion, sent General George B. McClellan’s forces toward Richmond up the Virginia Peninsula. The two armies confronted each other at Yorktown, but no significant engagements occurred. Dissatisfied with the defenses on the Lower Peninsula and in an effort to entice McClellan into the open, General Joseph E. Johnston abandoned Yorktown and pulled his troops back towards Richmond. General McClellan followed, allowing himself to be drawn out, and on 5 May, 1862, they met at the Battle of Williamsburg, the first major action in which the 3d Virginia participated. Although they were not put into the line until late in the day and fought what amounted to a rear guard action, their action was crucial in saving Johnston’s army from possible disaster.
The Seven Days Battles around Richmond
After Williamsburg, the army continued it’s withdrawal up the peninsula towards Richmond in order to defend the capital from advancing Union forces. From 31 May through the end of June, 1862, The Confederate Army, including Longstreets’s Division and the 3d Virginia fought five battles in quick succession: Seven Pines, Mechanicsville, Gaine’s Farm, Cold Harbor (First) and Frasier’s Farm. During this period, General Robert E. Lee assumed command of the army after General Johnston was wounded and Colston’s Brigade was broken up with the 3d being transferred to General Pryor’s Brigade. At Frasier’s Farm, the 3d Virginia suffered their first heavy casualties: out of 65 combat troops in the Dismal Swamp Rangers, for example, the company saw ten killed and twelve wounded. In fact, Longstreet’s entire Division was so badly mauled in the first battles that they were held in reserve during the last of the Seven Days Battles at Malvern Hill.
In mid-August, the army departed the Richmond area and proceeded towards Gordonsville via the Virginia Central Railroad in order to meet Federal Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia. Longstreet moved his men into Thoroughfare Gap where, on 29 August, they defeated the Union forces assigned to keep them from joining Stonewall Jackson’s Corps at Manassas and moved forward towards Groveton.
On the following day, 30 August, the armies of Jackson, Lee and Longstreet converged on Pope’s Union forces. As the brigade moved into position, the ranks passed through a patch of woods and became misaligned. While they paused to straighten the lines, Brigade commander General Pryor retired from the field and passed command to the 3d Virginia’s commander Colonel Mayo, leaving Major Urquhurt to lead the Regiment. During the realignment, the 3d became separated from the rest of its brigade. Seeing General William Pender’s Brigade coming up on its left, Urquhurt obtained permission to join Pender in the charge. As the companies moved out of the woods, they came under heavy fire from the nearby Union artillery batteries. Despite the losses, the 3d pressed forward and captured the Federal guns. John Yost of Company H, serving as regimental color bearer, was the first Confederate to reach the Union battery that day. After securing the guns, the 3d Virginia turned the battery over to Pender’s men and rejoined their own brigade. Harpers Ferry and Sharpsburg (Antietam) During General Lee’s first invasion of the North, the 3d Virginia moved north with Longstreet’s Corps as part of Pryor’s Brigade in General Richard H. Anderson’s division. After moving through Frederick and Hagerstown, Maryland, the brigade was detached as part of a force under General Anderson to march on Harper’s Ferry and was posted atop Maryland Heights across the Potomac River from the town. The Federal position having been made untenable by the troops of Jackson and Longstreet, their forces surrendered on 15 September. Anderson’s division marched for Sharpsburg during the early hours of the 17th and arrived on the field near midmorning. The division was moved to the center of the Confederate lines in order to support those men already placed in the Sunken Road. As the midday Federal assaults on the Confederate lines continued, the men of the 3d went forward into battle near the center of the line until compelled to retire to the higher ground to the rear as confusion and miscommunication caused the rebel lines in the road to retreat.
After recrossing the Potomac River into Virginia, the army made its way through Martinsburg, Winchester, Front Royal, and Culpepper Court House. On 10 November, 1862, a reorganization of Longstreet’s command reassigned the 3d Virginia to Brigadier General James Kemper’s Brigade in Major General George Pickett’s Division. In December, the newly-formed division moved to Fredericksburg. Held in reserve, they saw action at the end of the battle when they were sent to relieve the weary 24th North Carolina at the stone wall in front of Marye’s Heights, where they had been positioned for forty-eight hours. Shortly after the 3d Virginia had taken its place along the wall, Union General Ambrose Burnside ordered the final Federal charge on the heights on 13 December. The fresh troops threw them back and the battle ended in a resounding Union defeat with heavy casualties. Following the battle, Kemper’s Brigade went into winter quarters near Guinea Station. In mid-February they headed south for Richmond and had the odd opportunity to engage in a brigade-sized snowball fight with the men of Micah Jenkins’ South Carolina Brigade. In March, the brigade broke camp and headed for Petersburg, entrained for Goldsboro and Kinston, North Carolina and encamped along the Neuse River on 23 March. In April, the Regiment entrained for Franklin Station, Virginia and marched to join Longstreet’s forces in the investment of Suffolk on 13 April. Upon hearing that 12,000 Confederate troops were moving into his area, Union General John Peck wired General Joseph Hooker for reinforcements. The action sent frontline Union troops to Suffolk to prepare defensive positions, weakening the Federal numbers in Northern Virginia. During their expedition south, Confederate forces succeeded in capturing Union supply trains before being called back to join the Army of Northern Virginia in late April. Longstreet’s men marched north via South Quay, Jerusalem, Littleton, Petersburg, Chester Station, and Taylorsville, with a brief excursion towards Tappahannock, before reaching Lee’s army at Culpepper Court House on 11 June. On the 15th, the march resumed through Winchester, Paris, and Snicker’s Gap, crossing the Shenandoah River at Quicken’s Ferry, through Martinsburg and to Williamsport, where they crossed the Potomac on 25 June. The next day the Regiment marched through Hagerstown and into Pennsylvania near Middleton, bivouacking near Greencastle. They encamped just beyond Chambersburg on the 27th.
That summer, 1863, Lee’s army struck north toward Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania. Advancing through unfamiliar territory without reconnaissance from General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry, the Confederate army, quite by accident, stumbled into Union forces near Gettysburg.
After two days of fighting, during which the Confederate army failed to dislodge General George Meade’s Federal troops from their fortified positions, General Lee decided to make a full frontal assault on the center of the Union line. Pickett’s Division, including the 3d Virginia, had not been part of the battle during the first two days of fighting, having come up during the night after the second day’s fighting. His division was chosen to lead the day’s assault since his men had only just arrived and were less fatigued than the divisions that had already been in action. Late in the morning, the division advanced up the road leading to Spangler’s Farm and out into the fields just in advance of the wood line.
After a cannonade that lasted between ninety minutes and two hours- and proved to be the largest artillery exchange in history to that date- the Confederate forces advanced across a mile of open field, exposed to Federal artillery fire from Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top at all times. Confederate artillery stopped firing their barrages out of fear of firing short and hitting their own men, but the Union batteries continued throughout the Confederate advance. After the battle and even years afterward, witnesses, especially those on the Union side, remarked how orderly the advance was made, with special praise reserved for Pickett’s Division, including the 3d Virginia. The Confederate forces never broke ranks and ran, but paused now and then under constant fire to reform their lines. Kemper’s Brigade, being on the right of the advance with the 3d on the brigade’s left, had to oblique hard to the left in order to maintain contact with the brigade of General Richard Garnett, with General Armistead’s Brigade coming up behind Garnett.
Company A of the 3d Virginia, under command of Captain Tom Hodges, was deployed as skirmishers ahead of Pickett’s Division, moving about a hundred yards in front of the advancing troops. When the division paused for the last time before the final assault at the Emmitsburg Road, Company A had pushed back the Union skirmish line and rejoined the regiment. At that point, the division was within range of Union muskets. The Confederates reformed their lines, returned fire once, and continued forward in the face of withering fire through the Codori Farm.
By the time Pickett’s Division reached the Federal position at the stone wall, all semblance of military order was gone. In the Confederate mob, companies were intermingled and command structure had broken down as many of the officers fell dead or wounded. Vicious fighting continued as the 3d Virginia fought hand-to-hand with the 71st Pennsylvania. In the midst of the fighting, a Union officer in a splendid blue uniform rode down the field behind the Federal line. As a soldier from Company A raised his rifle to fire on the exposed officer, Colonel Mayo stopped him, since he was not part of the fighting and it would have been an unworthy act. Later, 3d Virginia survivors learned that they had spared Union General Winfield Scott Hancock.
Pickett’s Division advanced about fifteen yards past the Union line at the stone wall and captured three of the four guns in a Union artillery battery inside the “Angle” near the Copse of Trees. They moved steadily forward until the fourth gun, loaded with double canister, blasted directly into their ranks and stopped the advance. Still, the troops held on for fifteen or twenty minutes, but in the face of Union reinforcements and with no relief from their own lines, the Confederates were compelled to retire. Colonel Mayo of the 3d Virginia had been wounded in the fighting. He passed command to Captain Hodges, saying, “Tom, get what men you can back.” Having ordered Hodges to organize the 3d Virginia’s retreat from the field, he began to leave, but was stopped by General Kemper’s orderly with the news that Kemper had been captured and Generals Garnett and Armistead killed, leaving Colonel Mayo the only ranking officer on the field for the brigade. Despite his wounds, Colonel Mayo returned to the fight, took over brigade command, and led the troops back across the field. During the hand-to-hand fighting with the 71st Pennsylvania, the 3d Virginia lost its battle flag to the Federals, the only time it ever lost a flag in battle. Seven color-bearers were lost in the advance that day and the 3d lost nearly half of its men at Gettysburg, although, remarkably, Company A survived with no fatalities.
Eastern Carolina and Late War Action
After Gettysburg, the 3d Virginia was never the same. Many of the soldiers who survived the battle but were captured died in the prison camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. The remnants of Pickett’s Division returned to the area around Richmond. Kemper’s Brigade was briefly stationed east of the city at Chaffin’s Farm before entraining for Taylorsville in late September. The regiment remained there for the remainder of the fall. Company D was detached and spent much of the remainder of the war near Danville guarding prisoners until they returned to the regiment in December 1864.
In January, 1864, Kemper’s Brigade departed by train to join the rest of Pickett’s division, recently returned from duty with General Braxton Bragg’s army in Tennessee, in an expedition against New Bern, North Carolina. They traveled via the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad to join Pickett at Kinston. Though there were some successes, the assault was discontinued and the division withdrew, marching for Goldsboro, then Kinston. In early March, Kemper’s Brigade again entrained, this time for Wilmington and a steamer to Smithville, where after a short stay they were ordered back to Goldsboro.
Early April saw the Regiment move again, this time to Tarboro in order to join with General Robert Hoke’s Brigade in the expedition against Plymouth, North Carolina, arriving near there on 17 April. Kemper’s Brigade was sent to assist in the attack on Fort Wessells, located just outside the town on the 18th and the assault against Fort Williams on the 20th when the city fell to the Confederate troops. Following Plymouth, the 3d marched through Jamesville towards Washington on the Pamlico River, which they occupied after the Federal evacuation on 1 May. The Regiment left Washington for Tarboro on 10 May and then on to Weldon in order to rejoin the brigade. Prior to reaching them, the 3d was detained in the vicinity of Belfield and Hicksford (near Emporia) for a few days to guard against Federal cavalry raids.
Missing the engagement at Drewry’s Bluff, the 3d did rejoin the brigade in time for the Battle of Cold Harbor where General Ulysses S. Grant made his costly assault on 3 June. Soon after, Colonel William Terry of the 24th Virginia was promoted to brigadier general and assumed command of Kemper’s Brigade, a position he had been filling anyway since Kemper’s wounding at Gettysburg. With Grant’s movement south, Longstreet’s corps, under General Anderson, marched in the direction of Petersburg and the 3d found itself in the prepared works of the Howlett line. Pickett’s division, including Terry’s Brigade and the 3d, carried the Federal works at the Clay Farm on 17 June in an attack that was called off by General Lee, but the communication never reached Pickett. During June, 2nd Lieutenant Charles Fraetus of Company E was captured and during his imprisonment became one of the “Immortal 600” at Morris Island off of Charleston, South Carolina, joining two other members of the 3d, 2nd Lieutenant Samuel Gary of Company A and William Hood, formerly of the captain of Company D, captured at Gettysburg and Petersburg respectively.
During the period in the entrenchments around Petersburg, the 3d numbered approximately 20 officers and 200 men, about the strength of two companies at the beginning of the war. Although their discipline remained good, they suffered from shortages in clothing and equipment. The balance of 1864 was spent largely improving the various entrenchments and earthworks along the line and serving in picket duties, before relocating south in December nearer to Swift Creek. In January, 1865, Terry’s Brigade moved to the end of the Howlett Line. Rations were becoming shorter and the men engaged in games whenever the foul weather abated. By this time, Company D had returned, increasing the regiment’s strength to near 300 men. Pickett’s division was relieved on the Howlett Line in early March by Mahone’s division and moved to Chester Station, then on to Richmond and Ashland in order to bolster defenses against General Phil Sheridan’s cavalry. General Longstreet reviewed the division for the last time at the Fairfield Race Course east of Richmond on 23 March before the division was sent to the far right of the line around Petersburg near Sutherland on 29 March, then marching to Five Forks on the 30th and on towards Dinwiddie CH on the 31st.
On 31 March, 1865, on the far right of the extended Confederate line, Pickett’s Division skirmished with General Sheridan’s cavalry. General Terry was disabled and command of the brigade fell to the 3d’s Colonel Mayo and Captain Hodges of Company A assumed command of the Regiment. The next day, at Five Forks, and with Pickett away from his command, the entire division was surrounded and nearly annihilated. The now certain loss of the Southside Railroad made Lee’s position untenable and Lee’s army evacuated the works around Petersburg and Richmond.
The survivors of the engagement, including survivors from the 3d Virginia, withdrew to the west towards Amelia Court House. Skirmishing was nearly constant, broken by engagements at Saylor’s Creek and Farmville until Lee was compelled to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia on 9 April at Appomattox Court House. Of the original 1,010 men of the Third Virginia, only 62 enlisted men and 3 officers were present, with Captain Tom Hodges of Company A commanding.
Dam No. 2
Second Cold Harbor
* An interesting side note: During the defense of Yorktown, the Confederate forces rebuilt many of the earthworks that were first constructed by General George Washington’s forces during the Revolutionary War 80 years earlier. It is these earthworks that visitors will see at the Yorktown Battlefield Park.