150 years ago today, my great great uncle Eppa Hunton’s 8th Virginia Infantry - part of Picket’s Division of Longstreet’s 1st Corps in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, had just crossed the Potomac River through Maryland heading towards Gettysburg.
They were tired, having marched up and down Virginia for the past two years, battling the various generals that Lincoln had thrown at them. Eppa and his 8th Virginians fought from the first battle of Manasas, where they captured The Henry House under General P.G.T. Beauregard’s orders and routed the remnants of McDowell’s army.
Then Uncle Eppa and the 8th moved onto guarding the Confederate States of America border on the Potomac in Loudon County as part of PGT Beauregard’s Division culminating in The Battle of Ball’s Bluff where the 8th Virginia partnered with the 17th Mississippi to drive the federals into the river. Then a forced march down state to the Battle of Yorktown, Battle of Williamsburg, Battle of Seven Pines, Battle of Mechanicsville and to the Battle of Gaines Mill in June of 1862. From Uncle Eppa’s journal…
“After carrying the three lines we came upon this large body of artillery in the open field beyond the woods. Its fire had been very destructive to us. My regiment was a little in advance of the other regiments of the brigade, and I halted it a moment until they came up. We then resumed the charge, captured the artillery, and just after that, Jackson’s men who had been fighting on our left, came up somewhat obliquely on our left. We were met by a charge of cavalry. I have never seen saddles emptied so fast in my life, and we soon dispersed the cavalry in our front, and the fight ended.
When the fighting was over I marched the brigade back beyond this ravine which separated the two armies, where we rested for the night. The losses on both sides were very heavy.
This was a great victory, and I think one of the hardest fights I was in, except Gettysburg. It reflected as much credit upon Pickett’s Brigade as any fight of the war, except Gettysburg.”
They continued on, in the James River campaign, protecting Richmond’s flank from McClellan’s Army including the Battle of Frazier’s Farm (Uncle Eppa: “The best planned battle of the war.”) From his journal:
"It was a marvelous campaign. General McClellan, with a large army – much larger than General Lee’s - had marched up within a few miles of Richmond, creating the greatest alarm in that city, and causing a very decided sentiment to remove the capitol from Richmond. In seven days General Lee had routed the besieging army, driving it many miles from the city, restored the confidence of the inhabitants, and then rested his army for sometime. It is difficult to find in military history the parallel of this short campaign."
"I suffered dreadfully from pain and physical exhaustion in these fights and more than once fell from exhaustion on the battlefield. General Longstreet, who was always kind and considerate of me, was apprised of my condition and voluntarily gave me sick-leave to repair to my family in Lynchburg and remain till I was fit for duty. I found my dear wife and dear son well but very unhappy about me. I remained some time in Lynchburg and returned in better physical condition to my command, then encamped at Roper’s Mill, below Richmond. It was very trying to part from my wife and son. They did not know how soon I would die from disease, or fall on the battlefield. “
He returned to his command of the 8th, and they continued on to the Battle of Culpeper Courthouse and the Battle of Slaughter Mountain. Again, from the journal
"When we reached Thoroughfare Gap, we found it was held by the enemy. Fortunately for us, the heavy forces had been withdrawn to aid in the capture of Jackson, and there was left only a brigade to defend it. General Lee not knowing the force that held the Gap directed me to take the brigade which I was still commanding, out of the line of march, and go through Lamber’s Gap (the next gap south of Thoroughfare), and flank the enemy out of the gap. I was selected for this duty because I was born and raised near Lambert’s Gap and knew the country. I had gotten my brigade nearly out of the line when General Lee countermanded the order and directed us to march directly upon the gap. Before I reached the gap another brigade had filed in before me, and a sharp fight ensued between the Federal forces holding the gap, and this brigade. The enemy was finally driven away. One brigade could not hold Thoroughfare Gap; it required at least a division. I slept in the gap that night and early the next morning we resumed our march to Gainesville."
And then the challenges of command presented themselves to old Uncle Eppa at the Second Battle of Manasas where General George Pickett was promoted to Major General and given a Division command and Uncle Eppa took command of Picket”s old Brigade…
Lee ordered Longstreet to reinforce Jackson. In galloping to the front, Longstreet got a view of the battlefield and instead of sending troops to Jackson, he moved out his whoe corps and attacked Pope somewhat in the flank.
The effect of this attack upon Pope was instantaneous. The fighting occurred upon very much the same ground where the first battle of Manassas was fought, and when Longstreet ordered his charge Pickett’s Brigade under my command, was posted on the right of Hood. In our charge we repulsed the enemy in my front very promptly and were in pursuit. Hood met with more resistance on my left from the Zouaves of the Federal Army, and after I had dispersed the enemy in my front, he was still fighting in the same position. There was a most admirable place there for a change of front of my brigade, and to attack the enemy a little in the flank and a little in the rear. I had reached a ravine down which flowed a little stream of water from the Chinn House. I was thoroughly protected from the fire and the view of the enemy. I determined I would change front and make an attack to relieve Hood. I gave the command in a very loud voice, which was heard by the Colonels of the extreme regiments, right and left. To be satisfied that all knew of my design, I sent a message to each Colonel and told him what I was going to do. Colonel R. C. Allen, of the 28th Regiment, said that “if Colonel Hunton wanted him to obey an order he must send it in writing,” and refused to obey the order. Supposing that the brigade had changed its marching order I placed myself at the head of the 56th Regiment, which was the directing regiment in the change of the front, and when I got to the point where we would front and charge over the hill right upon the enemy, I looked around and found that no other regiment was following. Colonel Allen, being next to the 56th, refused to follow, and the other regiments could not.
This broke up my plan of attack. I thought then, and think now, that if my orders had been carried out we would have captured most of the troops that were fighting Hood, and it would have been the most brilliant effort in my military career. I was humiliated and deeply mortified at the failure. My regimental commanders did not understand it and blamed me, but three days afterward they came to me in a body (except Allen) and said that while they had blamed me for the failure of that movement they had learned the facts and had come to apologize to me and to express their appreciation of the movement that I was trying to make.”
They continued fighting and marching, marching and fighting up and down Virginia against McClellan for the rest of 1862 and early 1863, through the Second Battle of Manasas, back up to a quick invasion of Maryland (and the Battle of Boonsborough), and then another march down to the Battle of Fredericksburg where Lee with 60k men took on Burnside with 100k men.
Which brought Uncle Eppa, exhausted, ragged, and battle-weary, to 150 years ago today, crossing the Potomac River. Headed north toward Gettysburg, following his commander George Pickett and and his commanders Longstreet and Lee.