Confederate soldier’s letter describing his unit’s fight against Birney’s Colored Brigade at the Battle of Fussel’s Mill
Brazzell Hill, Virginia: 1864. Envelope or Cover. This two-page letter measures 7” x 8.5”. It is from William J. Kirkland of the 33rd North Carolina Infantry and datelined “Brazzell Hill, Va. Aug. 19th. 1864.” (Perhaps “Brazzell Hill” was a mistaken understanding of “Fussel’s Mill.”) The letter is enclosed in its original mailing envelope addressed to his wife at University Station, North Carolina and franked with blue Confederate 10-cent Jefferson Davis stamp (Scott #12). The letter reads in part:
The letter reads in part:
“Had one of the hardest sort of fights on the 16th. . .. Our men killed a great many Yankees and negroes to. They had one Brigade of negroes in our front so we had them to fight. They left a great [d]eal of plunder at our works when they fell back. Our men got any amount of knapsacks blanket oil cloths &c. in fact every man has got as much or more than he can carry. You never saw the like in your life to see so many dead men and things piled up together to see negroes lying dead on a white man. . ..". Very good. Item #009913
Kirkland’s letter matches published accounts of the Battle of Fussell’s Mill (also known as the Second Battle of Deep Bottom). As Confederate forces concentrated to defend Petersburg, General Ulysses Grant and his corps commanders eagerly anticipated the possibility of their 29,000-man force overwhelming a mere seven miles of trenchwork at Fussell’s Mill defended by fewer than 8,000 Confederates which was all that stood between it and Richmond. Either Richmond would soon be occupied, or, to prevent that, the Confederates would pull reinforcements from the defense of Petersburg, and it would fall. Seemingly, the North could not lose, but it did.
Kirkland’s regiment, as part of Lane’s North Carolina Brigade, faced off against part of the Colored Brigade, commanded by Brigadier General William Birney, which consisted of the 29th Connecticut Colored Infantry Regiment and the 7th, 8th, and 9th Regiments of Colored Troops. Perhaps if Birney’s Brigade had arrived at Fussel’s Mill early in morning on August 15th as planned, it would have met with success. Unfortunately for the Union, the Colored Brigade’s advance was exceptionally slow, due in part to extremely hot weather, an exceptional number of stragglers, and confusion resulting from its soldiers mistakenly firing upon themselves. Instead, it arrived after 7 pm, and Birney, recognizing that it was then incapable of launching a night attack assault, was forced to delay his assault until the next day, allowing the Confederates to improve their defensive positions. The Colored Brigade attacked on the 16th, and after its initial success which dislodged the first line of defenders, the advance soon stalled. When the Confederates counter-attacked, the Colored Brigade abandoned its just-won position along with much personal equipment, and the Union abandoned hope for a quick fall of either Richmond or Petersburg.
(For more information, see Suderow’s “’Nothing but a Miracle Could Save Us’: Second Battle of Deep Bottom, Virginia, August 14-20, 1864” in North & South – The Official Magazine of the Civil War Society Vol 4 No 9 available online, “U.S. Colored Troops: Deep Bottom, Virginia, August 13-20, 1864” at the American Abolitionists and Antislavery Activists website, and Maxfield and Brady’s Roster and Statistical Record of Company D, of the Eleventh Regiment Maine Infantry Volunteers, available online.).