A newpaper article relating the events of the Civil War Military Units from Powhatan, Va
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. To commemorate this milestone, the Powhatan Today will run a monthly article detailing what is happening in Powhatan, with the two Powhatan units fighting with the Confederate Army or the nation as a whole in the same month 150 years ago. In addition, since most units went into winter quarters and limited fighting occurred the winter, some articles will deal with items like Confederate Prisoners of War held in Union prisons or the medical and sanitary conditions in the field.
The articles will be written as if a reporter is living and experiencing the events first hand, in real time, and as if the correspondent knows nothing of the future. The articles will be called “Dispatches from the Front.” The soldiers mentioned and quotes provided, in the articles, are real. Some of the soldiers have descendants living in Powhatan. The first article will deal with the Powhatan Calvary Troop and the Powhatan Rifles experiencing their first tastes of combat at the Battles of Manassas and the Battle of Rich Mountain.
Since the contagion of secession fever started working North, Powhatan Today has informed you of all the major happenings: Lincoln’s election; South Carolina’s secession; Fort Sumter’s surrender and Virginia’s decision to secede. With Virginians flocking to the Confederacy’s colors and Richmond’s selection as our new national capital, Virginia will become the battleground for the coming war.
Powhatan has answered the call to arms and forwarded an artillery unit, a cavalry troop and infantry company to serve in our new army. These levies are designated to defend Virginia against a Northern invasion. The cavalry troop and artillery unit were assigned to General P.G.T. Beauregard, the hero of Ft. Sumter, at Manassas and the infantry company was marched to western Virginia. The cavalry troop was assigned various independent duties upon reporting to Manassas. The artillery unit was assigned to the artillery reserve battery in Manassas, because its field pieces are so antiquated. The Powhatan Rifles were designated company D of the 20th Virginia Volunteer Infantry Regiment upon arrival out west.
The troopers saw their first concentrated action at the Battle of Manassas on July 21st. Yankee forces under Brigadier General Irvin McDowell attacked General Beauregard’s Army of the Potomac encamped along Bull Run. With reinforcements from General Joseph Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah arriving by train and immediately deploying to the battlefield, Confederate forces defeated the bluecoats staring an uncontrollable retreat to the gates of Washington.
Captain John F. Lay, commander of the Powhatan Troop, and his men started the day as the personal bodyguard and couriers for General Beauregard. The men also helped rally Confederate infantry who broke under the onslaught of a Yankee charge. Elements of the unit even directed Brigadier General Thomas Jackson’s brigade to its position on Henry House Hill where Jackson obtained his nickname “Stonewall”. After the Federal retreat began, Lay led his company in pursuit of the defeated Yankees going as far as Centreville. The Powhatan unit returned to camp at 5 a.m. on July 22nd with most of the men exhausted after having been under fire and in the saddle for almost 24 hours straight.
Things, however, have gone differently for the Powhatan Rifles. They completed their training, and were shipped out west to Randolph, Virginia (now W.Va.) near the Ohio border where they engaged in the Battle of Rich Mountain.
The 20th Va. became part of the Army of the Northwest, under the command of Brigadier General Robert Garnett. Lt. Col. John Pegram commanded the 20th Va., and Pegram acted as a brigade commander directing three other regiments and an artillery battery.
Major General George McClellan, from his base in Clarksburg, Virginia (now W.Va.) ordered three brigades from his Department of the Ohio to attack Lt. Col. Pegram with the goal of capturing the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, thereby cutting off Pegram’s escape route and hopefully capturing his brigade.
On July 11th, McClellan’s forces commanded by Br. Gen. William Rosecrans engaged Lt. Col. Pegram’s brigade. After two hours of intensive fighting, Pegram’s force was split in two with half escaping back to the Shenandoah Valley and the other half being taken prisoner. Several local men, including Charles Utley, were captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp called Camp Chase in Ohio.
Lt John Skipwith, of Powhatan, was killed during the fight. He is the first person from Powhatan and the the first Confederate officer killed during the war. His body was returned by special train to Richmond where he laid in state at St. John’s Church and was eulogized by President Davis. Skipwith’s last words were a call to his men to “Don’t turn your back to the enemy!”
Pegram’s defeat forced Br. Gen. Garnett’s entire force to retreat. Union forces followed and two days later Garnett was shot and killed while fording a river with his troops. Garnett was the first general officer killer during the war. President Jefferson Davis has sent General Robert E. Lee to assumed command of the Army of the Northwest.
The 20th Va. was devastated and demoralized by the defeat. Efforts are being made to reconstitute the regiment in some new form as soon as possible, but only two companies and parts of the other eight remain from the original 20th Va.
McClellan’s victory over our boys, however, has catapulted him to great fame. The New York Times called McClellan the Napoleon of the West. Two weeks after the battle, President Lincoln ordered McClellan to Washington where McClellan is expected to take command of all forces in and around the federal city.