Account of the battle at Saylor’s Creek April 6 1865


The description of the battle, which follows, was taken from the book “18th and 20th Battalions of Heavy Artillery” by Chernault and Weaver. It was written by Captain Thomas Blake Ballard for the Richmond Dispatch May 2 1897. I have added the paragraph headings


Lee retreats from Richmond:

On the afternoon of Sunday, April 2d, 1865, rumors reached our lines of important movements pending. That night we received our marching orders, and were underway by midnight. As our supplies of every description were exceedingly scant we were strictly in "light marching order." Our daily ration for some time past had been one pound of corn meal and a quarter of a pound of bacon. The bacon was alternated with a pound of fresh beef. Both the bacon and the beef were occasionally substituted by a gill of sorghum. So we started on the march with empty haversacks. We moved towards James River, crossing on a pontoon bridge above Drury's Bluff. The explosions of the magazines at Chaffin’s and Drury’s Bluff and at Richmond could be plainly heard.


The march west to Saylor’s Creek:

Early Monday morning we learned that Richmond was burning. We were then moving in the direction of Burkeville Junction. It was a forced march, halting only to rest on our arms. To add to other discomforts, a cold rain set in. Footsore, almost starved and well nigh exhausted we continued the march. There being no commissary stores from which to draw, no rations had been issued since leaving the lines, and, as before stated, we started with empty haversacks. The resources of the country through which we were passing had been almost exhausted, and we had to gather up and eat the grains of corn left on the ground where the horses had fed, whenever we could find any. We were, moreover, constantly annoyed by the enemy's cavalry, which hung on our rear. Thus the retreat continued until the afternoon of Thursday, April 6th. More than half of our men had straggled or fallen by the wayside from sheer exhaustion, but those whose endurance and grit had brought them thus far were ready to face any foe.


Taking up positions at Saylor’s Creek:

Between 2 and 3 o'clock in the afternoon of the 6th we arrived at Sailor's Creek. The stream had been swollen by the rains of the past few days and the waters overflowed the banks. We waded across this stream and took position on the rising ground about 100 yards beyond. The ground was covered with a growth of broom straw and a few small bushes mostly pine. Our line of battle was long drawn out—exceedingly thin. Very soon after taking our position, the enemy opened a brisk fire on us from a battery posted on the opposite ridge, about 300 yards away. We had no artillery to return fire. This fire did but little damage to my immediate command, but our brigade suffered severely further to the right.


The enemy advances to face a rebel charge with a rebel yell:

Their infantry then appeared in solid line. They moved steadily forward, reached the creek, which we had so recently crossed, waded through as we had done, dressed up their line, and continued their advance to within thirty or forty paces of our line. The order was given to charge. In a moment we were on our feet yelling like demons and rushing upon their line.


The enemy retreats:

It has always been a mystery to me why they did not then and there wipe our little band from the face of the earth. It may be that the very audacity of our charge bewildered and demoralized them. At any rate they broke and fled just before we reached them. But a portion of the line engaged in a hand-to-hand fight. We followed them to the edge of the stream into which they plunged, our men keeping up a deadly fire on them as they crossed. It was during this charge that my company suffered most severely. One-third were either killed or wounded, more or less seriously. Crutchfield was killed. And Adjutant Wilson shot through the leg, which had to be amputated. I received a slight wound in the shoulder, which however did not incapacitate me.


The enemy advances again forcing surrender:

After the enemy had retreated across the creek we gathered up our handful of men and fell back to our original position. While Captain Barlow of Company A. was endeavoring to reform his men on my company, which was the color company, he was shot through the head and instantly killed. A young cavalry officer riding in among us begged us to surrender, telling us that we were entirely surrounded, and that further resistance was useless. It was so gallant an act no one attempted to molest him. In the mean while the infantry, which had been driven across the creek, had reformed and were advancing in force. Our men then threw down their arms and we were prisoners of war. I remember that in the hot blood of youth I broke my sword over a sapling rather than surrender it.


Those taken POW were marched off to prison:

When the infantry, which we had so recently repulsed, came up to us again it was with smiling faces. They commenced opening their haversacks offering to share their "hard tack" with us, which in our famished condition we most eagerly and gratefully accepted. They moreover complemented us on the gallant fight we had made. In this connection, I will add that we were always treated with every consideration by the veterans at the front. It was only when we fell into the hands of the provost guard that any harshness was shown. About dusk that evening we were taken back across Sailor's Creek, and camped that night in an old field. The next morning, we started on our long march to Petersburg and City Point, en route to northern prisons.


G-Grandfather John D Stepp and brother Nathan were taken prisoner the day of the battle at Saylor’s Creek. They may have been in the battle, or they may have “…straggled or fallen by the wayside from sheer exhaustion” before the army got to Saylor’s Creek.


STEPP, JOHN D.: Co. A. Pvt. Res. of Campbell Co. ht. 5'10. fair comp., brown hair, light hazel eyes. Enl. 7/3/63 in Richmond. Pres. thru 12/3 1/64. Taken POW 4/6/65 at Burkeville, sent to Point Lookout, MD 4/14/65, took oath and released 6/19/65.


STEPP, NATHAN L. Co. A. Pvt., Res. of Campbell Co., ht. 5'10. fair comp., dark hair, blue eyes. Enl. 6/3/61 at Appomattox C.H. in 44th VA Inf. Trans. to 20th VA Battn. H.A., abs. in Hosp., Staunton. Charged $ 1.20 for .1 gun sling lost. 8/31/64. Pres. thru 12/31/64. Taken POW 4/6/65 at Farmville, sent to Newport News, took oath and released 7/1/65.