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History of the 55th Virginian Infantry

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55th Virginia Infantry History

The 55th Virginia Infantry was assembled from local militias from Middlesex and Essex County. These counties are located in the Tidewater area of Virginia along the Rappahannock River. Several companies had come into existence in response to John Browns raid on Harpers Ferry in October 1859. These citizen soldiers took part in the imprisonment and trial of John Brown. Subsequent to the initial formation of the regiment, additional companies were attached including soldiers from Lancaster, Spotsylvania and Westmoreland counties. The rank and file of the regiment held few slaves; they enlisted to protect their homes from invasion. The people instrumental in the formation of the regiment included: Major (Reverend) William N. Ward, Major Thomas M. Burke (KIA at Fraysers Farm 6/30/1862), and Colonel (Dr.) William S. Christian (WIA numerous times). Allen C. Redwood a member of company C, wrote many articles about his experience, which included being wounded several times, and as a POW. Many of his stories about life in the Confederate Army can be found in Harpers, Century and Scribners Monthly. In addition, Allen C. Redwoods Type III Richmond Depot uniform has been preserved at the Museum of the Confederacy.

The 55th Virginia Infantry served the Confederate States of America with distinction. Among the battles they fought were: Leading rolls in the battles for Richmond in June 1862 including Gaines Mill, Mechanicsville and Fraysers Farm; Cedar Mountain, August 1862; 2nd Manassas, August 1862; Harpers Ferry, September 1862, Sharpsburg, September 1862; Fredericksburg, December 1862; Chancellorsville, May 1863; Gettysburg, July 1863; Wilderness, May 1864; Spotsylvania Court House, May 1864; North Ana River, May 1864; The defense of Richmond/Petersburg: Weldon Railroad, August 1864; The Retreat to Appomattox: Saylers Creek, April 1865 and Appomattox Court House, April 1865.

The regiment served under a veritable whos who of the Confederate Army. In general, the 55th Virginia Infantry served in the Army of Northern Virginia. In the initial stages of the war, the regiment served under General George E. Picket in defense of the Lower Rappahannock River. Under Charles Field, they were organized into a brigade consisting of the 40th, 47th and 55th Virginia Infantry Regiments. The Brigade was assigned to General A.P. Hills famous Light Division during the June 1862 Peninsular Campaign. After the Peninsular Campaign, Hills Division was assigned to the command of General "Stonewall" Jackson. After General "Stonewall" Jacksons death in May 1863, the division command was assigned to General Henry Heth. The brigade started the battle of Gettysburg while attempting to search for shoes. In the defense of Petersburg, the 55th was assigned to General Richard Ewell, then to General Seth Barton and finally to General G.W. Custis Lee. The regiment ceased to exist as an organized force after Saylers Creek (April, 1865) however about 22 men were able to escape and joined the rest of the army in the retreat and surrender a few days later at Appomattox Court House.

Among the 1181 soldiers who served in the 55th Virginia Infantry, at the end of the war 375 of the men were still serving, 26% of the original men were dead, 20% had left the service for reasons of wounds, health or transfers and 17% of the men had deserted. While the end of the war brought poverty to their area of Virginia, the men knew that they had helped make the reputation of a great army and few men could have done more.

 

Early in the war, the 55th Virginia served as a home guard for the Tidewater area along the lower Rappahannock River. Based primarily at Urbanna and Fort Lowry, they served to guard the river ports from attack by the Union gunboats. With the regiment's reorganization in 1862, the 55th left its home base, 950 strong, to join the brigade of General Charles Field defending Fredericksburg from the advancing Union army. They would not return until the end of the war.

The 55th was to spend most of the period from April through June reorganizing and training. Elections were held and capable leaders were ousted including Major William Ward. In April 1862, the Federal commander, General George McClellan, planned to march the Army of the Potomac up the Peninsula and attack Richmond. To counter this threat, the Confederate commander, General Joseph E. Johnston, decided to concentrate the Confederate Army of the Potomac for the defense of Richmond. Field's brigade was combined along with four others to form a new division under the command of General A.P. Hill - the soon to be famous Light Division.

On June 25, 1862, Johnston decided to strike against the Federal forces near Richmond. The ensuing action at Seven Pines (Oak Grove) was a confused and minor affair, except for two important consequences. First, Johnston was wounded and replaced as commander by General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate force was christened the Army of Northern Virginia. Second, the battle of Seven Pines marked the end of McClellan's creeping advance on Richmond and the opening of the campaign known today as the Seven Days' Battles (June 25 - July 1, 1862). It was this campaign that marked the first engagement for the 55th Virginia.

The opening action for the 55th occurred as they marched through the town of Mechanicsville to assault the Union batteries behind Beaver Dam Creek (June 26). They became bogged down in the woods and swamp to their front while suffering from a severe cannonading. The 55th, along with Hill's entire division, had been caught in a trap and had no chance of reaching their target. At Gaines' Mill (June 27) the 55th participated bravely in the final charge that broke the Union lines. At Frayser's Farm (June 29) the 55th captured an enemy artillery battery but suffered heavy casualties in the process. The 55th was spared the devastation of Malvern Hill (June 30) as it arrived on the field too late in the day to participate. The Seven Days' Battles were over and the 55th was covered in glory, Colonel Mallory being praised by Hill for his conspicuous gallantry, but the regiment had suffered severe casualties, especially among the officers. With the close of this campaign, the Light Division, now six brigades strong, was transferred to "Stonewall" Jackson's corps. This was a result of a feud between General A.P. Hill and General James Longstreet.

 

With the failure of McClellan's Peninsula campaign, Washington brought General John Pope from out west and created a new army to send south against Richmond. Jacksons Corps fought an engagement at Cedar Mountain, where the Corp routed the Federals. However, the enemy regrouped and moved forward. As the Union army advanced, Jackson moved with incredible speed - marching over 56 miles in as many hours - to put himself in Pope's path at the old battlefield of Manassas (Bull Run). In the battle known as Second Manassas, the 55th was not engaged during the fighting at nearby Groveton (August 28), but was heavily engaged the next day along the railway cut where Jackson had deployed his forces. General Field was seriously wounded and replaced by Colonel John M. Brockenbrough of the 40th Virginia. On the 30th, further Union attacks were driven off, but Starke's Louisiana Brigade on the right ran into difficulty when it ran out of ammunition. Brockenbrough's Brigade, led by the 55th, charged into the Union forces to save the day. Ammunition was scarce and for a time the regiment threw rocks at the Federals. Meanwhile, Longstreet's corps struck the southern flank of Pope's army and routed it. The regiment went into battle with a strength of 82 members. It suffered 3 killed, 22 wounded and 5 missing in action. The Confederates pursued to Ox Hill (Chantilly) where, on Sept. 1, the 55th was engaged in heavy fighting against the Federals. During the early evening, General Phil Kearny, the Union commander, was killed by skirmishers of the 55th Virginia.

Following Second Manassas (Second Bull Run), the Army of Northern Virginia proceeded to move northwards and invade Maryland. The troops were exhausted and up to 20,000 men had left the army and gone home (the 55th had at most 200 men), but the army move into Maryland to find fresh supplies and search for new recruits. The Army of Northern Virginia split in two, with Lee heading north and Jackson heading for the Federal depot at Harpers Ferry. There on September 13 to 15, Jackson pulled off one of the greatest coups of the war: for the loss of hardly a man he captured 11,000 infantry, 13,000 rifles and 73 pieces of artillery. The depot was ransacked as the hungry Confederates searched for food and supplies. Jackson then hurried off to help Lee, who battled McClellan at Sharpsburg (Antietam) on September 17. The 55th was near the rear of the column and arrived around 3:00 PM and was used to cover the extreme right flank of the army. Hill's division formed the rearguard to cover the retreat south after the battle.

 

The 55th was a shadow of its former self, much like the rest of the army, with fewer than 150 men in the ranks. Luckily, McClellan gave the Army of Northern Virginia a much-needed rest in which it could recuperate. Within three months the 55th would number almost 400 effectives. In December, the Army of the Potomac, under yet another commander, General Ambrose E. Burnside, advanced on Fredericksburg. There on December 13 he proceeded to assault the Confederates entrenched just outside of the city. The 55th Virginia manned the far right of the Confederate Army. The Union forces were decisively defeated in front of Marye's Heights, but they were more successful downstream however. The Federals broke through the first Confederate line and were only stopped by a vigorous Southern counterattack in which the 55th participated (55th position highlighted on photograph). After Burnsides aborted "Mud March," both sides then settled in for the winter.

 

The new year of 1863 dawned with the 55th engaged in rather colorless picket duty along the Rappahannock River. With the coming of summer however, and another new commander for the Army of the Potomac in the person of General Joseph 'Fighting Joe' Hooker, things began to heat up quickly. Feinting at Fredericksburg, Hooker marched the bulk of his army behind Lee into an area of Spotsylvania County (home of the 55th Virginias Company M) known as the Wilderness and camped around Chancellorsville (April 29). Lee turned to face Hooker and dividing his army in two on May 2, sent General Jackson around the Union right flank. The 55th was at the forefront of Jackson's sweeping assault that destroyed two Union corps that evening. During the Confederate assault on May 3, Colonel Brockenbrough, previously of the 40th Virginia and no brigade commander, failed to exercise proper control over his brigade, leaving the 55th Virginia to attack the Union lines single-handed. The regiment was decimated. The regiment had performed admirably during the battle but suffered devastating losses including around 60% of its officers, among them the colonel, lieutenant colonel and every company commander. Benjamin Warner Pritchett, great great grandfather of the ACWAs 55th Virginia, David Engel was severely wounded in the resulting fire from Brockenbroughs error and T.J. "Stonewall" Jacksons foray between the lines.

 

 

Two momentous events occurred in the presence of the 55th on May 2. The first was the celebrated final meeting between Lee and Jackson. The 55th marched by Lee and Jackson as they met for what turned out to be their last meeting. The second was the shooting of General Jackson by his own men later that night. Members of the 18th North Carolina, in formation adjacent to the 55th Virginia fired on Jackson and A.P. Hill during their reconnaissance between the lines. It was Benjamin Wright, Assistant Surgeon of the 55th, who first attended to the mortally wounded Jackson.

 

As a result of severe losses and the death of General Jackson (May 10), Lee reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia. Hill was promoted to command the new III Corps, with his old division, which included the 55th Virginia, being commanded by Henry Heth.

The Confederates invaded Pennsylvania in June and collided with the Army of the Potomac, under its next commander General George G. Meade, at Gettysburg (July 1). General Lee had ordered that there to be no general engagement, but Heths Division attempted to march into Gettysburg in an effort to acquisition shoes. Lee reconsidered and gave battle. The 55th gave an excellent account of itself on the first day, helping to sweep the Union forces off Herr's Ridge following the rout of Archer's Brigade. They captured the colors of the 149th Penn. and as well as many prisoners. As a result of the division commander, General Henry Heth suffering a head wound and the regiments heavy losses it did not participate in the battle on July 2.

During Pickett's Charge (July 3) the regiment was on the far-left side of the Confederate advance. The brigade was subject to a surprise enfilading fire and failed to keep up with the rest of the division, a further result of Colonel Brockenbrough's incompetence, and went to ground in a hollow when it became apparent that the charge was a failure. They suffered only seven casualties that day. Hill's corps provided the rearguard for the Confederate army as it retreated southwards. As punishment for its poor performance on July 3, Brockenbrough's brigade was the rearguard of Hill's corps.

 

 

At Falling Waters (July 14), the Union cavalry was not recognized and fell upon the rearguard and routed it, capturing 650 Southern troops, among them 74 members of the 55th and its colors. Sgt. Charles M. Holton of the 7th Michigan Cavalry captured the units battle flag. This flag is currently held by the Museum of the Confederacy. On May 1, the 55th had numbered around 480 effectives, now all that remained was about 130 men - the regiment was shattered. As usual, the Union army gave the Army of Northern Virginia a chance to recuperate so that they, and the 55th, would be a well organized foe come the next summer. Brockenbrough was replaced by a new brigade commander, Henry H. Walker, who was to successfully rally and revitalize the brigade.

Throughout the rest of July until the end of November, the two armies would feel one another out as Meade probed Lee's lines. In November Meade made an attempt to turn the Confederate flank at Mine Run but was stopped cold by Walker's brigade and the excellent defensive position of the Army of Northern Virginia. After Mine Run, most of the Army of Northern Virginia went into winter quarters. However, the 55th Virginia continued fighting. From December until the end of February the next year, the 55th served in the Shenandoah Valley defending against Union cavalry raids.

1864 saw the 55th struggling to survive alongside what remained of the Confederacy. While the situation was worsening, the troops morale was high. The Army of Northern Virginia knew it had repulsed every Union foray into Virginia. Furthermore, in the spring of 1864, Lincolns reelection considered unlikely. The Union armies were now under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant's plan was simple: march south, pin the Army of Northern Virginia in place and wear it down through attrition, while advancing on Richmond. The 55th was to face some of the toughest fighting in the war.

Grant began marching south in May. On May 5, the two armies collided in the dense woods of the Wilderness. For the next month, the armies would be fighting in Spotsylvania County, home to the men of the 55ths Company M. The men would literally defend their homes from the enemy. Heth's division was leading the III Corps advance with Walker's brigade on the right flank (he formed the extreme right flank of the entire army). The 55th was initially pushed back, losing its colors in the process. But the regiment rallied and inflicted severe losses on the enemy. The Federals broke through on May 6, routing much of the III Corps, but the timely arrival of Longstreet's corps saved the day. The Army of the Potomac marched out of its trenches and headed south on May 8.

The two armies again collided at Spotsylvania Court House (May 9) where for the next three days they hammered away at each other. Heths Division and the 55th was picked by Lee for his lone offensive operations. The division turned the Union right flank and met a Union attempt to turn the Confederate left flank. In this engagement, on May 10, the 55th exacted revenge for its defeat at Falling Waters, inflicting tremendous casualties while suffering little themselves. General Walker was wounded however and replaced by Colonel Mayo of the 47th Virginia. The brigade was to suffer from six changes of command within nine months, a situation that contributed greatly to sagging morale. The 55th was deployed in a salient on the east face of the "Muleshoe Salient" occupied by the main army. This portion of the Spotsylvania battlefield is known as "Heths Salient." There the 55th decisively defeated the Federal attacks on May 12. Heths Salient was named the "Dead Angle" by the Yankee troops. On May 20/21 both armies moved out of their trenches to continue the race south.

The 55th played minor roles in the Battle of the North Ana River. In the Battle of Cold Harbor, the 55th played a supporting role and was not seriously engaged. The brigade had to rush south to save Petersburg in June when the Union army appeared outside the city. The 55th was not engaged in the famous "Battle of the Crater" (July 30), but was deployed in the defenses to the right of the "Crater" just after the failure of the Union assault. Throughout the rest of the year, the Union forces attempted to move around the south flank of the Confederate lines at Petersburg trying to stretch Lee's lines and cut the railway links south. When the Union forces struck at the Weldon Railroad (Aug. 18-21) outside of Petersburg, the 55th and its brigade were at the forefront of the Confederate counterattack. After fierce fighting, in which the 55th distinguished itself, the Union advance stalled, but they had managed to cut the railway line. This left the South Side Railroad was the only supply line for the city. It was along this line that the 55th would defend for the rest of 1864.

 

The Yankees struck at the South Side Railroad on Sept. 30. At Pegram Farm (Sept. 30 - Oct. 1) the 55th was heavily engaged trying to drive away the Union troops, again distinguishing itself. While the attacks failed, the Union drive was stalled and the railroad was saved. For the rest of the year the 55th was deployed in the trenches along the Boydton Plank Road south of the railway.

With the coming of the new year of 1865, the 55th Virginia, along with the rest of its brigade, was transferred to General Ewell's Richmond Defense Force. The troops began to suffer from the virtual collapse of the Confederate supply system, showing the physical effects of starvation and reduced to wearing shabby uniforms or captured Union equipment.

" . . . in their pinched and withered faces . . . something indescribable which does not belong to youth or old age, but resembles some miserable travesty of the latter. It is a look which once seen is not easily forgotten; - which characterizes a strong man in whose experience the aging influences properly belonging to a lifetime have been compressed within the compass of a few years. Their hair and beards are dry and harsh; their skins of the peculiar reddish-gray which comes of the combined effects of exposure and insufficient nutrition, and a feverish light in their sunken eyes tells more eloquently still of daily hunger which is never quite appeased."

an unknown visitor to Company C, 55th Virginia in January, 1865.

Following the failure of the peace talks at Hampton Roads in March, desertion became rampant as many saw the cause as hopeless and gave up. Up to one-fifth of the regiment's manpower disappeared overnight. The Confederates had to abandon Richmond on April 3 following the Union breakthrough at Five Forks (April 1), south of Petersburg. During the disastrous retreat the rearguard of Lee's army, of which the 55th was a part, was overrun at Sayler's Creek. At Saylers Creek, the brigade was down to five hundred members due to straggling and desertion. The brigade crossed the Creek at 3 o'clock p.m. on April 6,1865. They marched up the slope beyond the creek to erect breastworks and watched as the enemy closed upon their position. After a brief skirmish, General George Pickett became heavily engaged. The 55th Virginia Infantry and her sister units were posted in the center of Pickett's line with Crutchfield's cannonless artillerymen, and the Naval brigade to their right. Confident of their superior numbers, the Federals attacked only to be beaten back by the determined Southerners. The Southerners counterattacked. The Federals rallied, however and launched another assault which crushed the Confederate line. The day ended as a disaster for the brigade with most of it killed or captured. Over 7000 Confederate soldiers surrendered including Corps commander General Ewell, several generals and numerous colonels. Twenty-two survivors of the 55th, including Benjamin W. Pritchett, rallied to the main army only to surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9.

The regiment, like its country, had fought to the bitter end. The veterans would now return home to rebuild their shattered world.

We have gathered the sacred dust, of warriors tried and true.

Who bore the flag of our nations trust, and fell in the cause.

Tho lost, still just, and died for me and you.

-Monument inscription at the Confederate Cemetery, Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia (May 12, 1918).

 

History of the 55th Virginia Infantry compiled by David Engel