Lieutenant's Lore

By Jeff Douthit

Chapter 2. Saylor’s Creek

     Saylor’s Creek (a.k.a. Sayler’s, Sailor’s) could probably be considered the home field of Longstreet’s Corps.   After all, it was fought around the ancestral home of our commander, Chuck Hillsman.  His Great-great-grandmother waited out the battle in the basement, baking hoecakes for the Mississippians outside.  Reenactments have been held there for about twenty years.
     Long before the “hardcores” came into existence in the world of Civil War reenacting, Saylor’s Creek was a campaign style event.  When I first went there twelve years ago, we slept out on the ground in the woods behind the final stand hill. Any tents or gear had to be hiked in a good ways.  No civilians were allowed to stay in the camps.  Only half a dozen sutlers would be there, and the local fire company sold biscuits and coffee. But practically every Yankee was there since it was about the only battle reenactment they got to win during the year.
     The event was always one of the largest during the year, with over 5000 participants at the 125th anniversary, which was tied into a surrender ceremony at Appomattox.  After that, attendance started tailing off, affected by the politics of reenactor groups and sponsors, conflicting events, and troubles securing the off park land that had been used before.  It stayed decent sized for a couple of years, but the last few have been basically a Longstreet’s Corps event with less than half their numbers in Yankees.  Hopefully, this year's anniversary will bring out a big turnout again.
     The most notable part of Sayler’s Creek was the “Death March”.  This was an all day march of about seven miles, included a mix of running skirmishes and stand up battles recreating Lee's retreat.  The marched lead into the spectator portion of the battle, beginning at the Hillsman House, crossing the creek and up the last hill.
     The Saturday battles had some good action and interesting experiences for the members of the unit.  Like the time Hillsman put us on the rearguard and marched away.  The only way to slow the Yankees down was to have some of the locals driving by to block the road with their cars.  A little further down the road, Joe Ferguson of the 1st Texas bummed a smoke from some good ol’ boy standing in his yard and let him take a potshot at the Yanks while Joe lit up.   Then there was the time Corporal Nathan Shoemake and the rest of the lap-babies got separated from the rest of us during a retreat across the creek.  Some cavalry Colonel came riding up and commanded them to form a line and hold the position.  Nathan politely told him to go to hell and hustled out of there.  The old fart got so upset he even went to Hillsman about it.  And, one time several years ago when the company was sent out as skirmishers, Ken Eskew ran up to Captain Weber and said, “If we go down that path we can cut the Yankees off!”  Frank replied that we only had about fifteen guys.  Ken said, “So?  If we hurry we can still get ‘em.”  To which Frank pointed out that it was the whole Union army they would be facing.
     One of the most intense tacticals was at the 125th anniversary.  Basically, we fought the battle in reverse, crossing the creek and retreating towards the Hillsman House.  The Reb army was lined up to defend the creek bottom crossings with the 47th on the right flank of the Corps’ line.  The Yankees never really liked to get their feet wet, so the bulk of the forces crossed over the road bridge and advanced along the creek.  Hillsman saw this and wheeled the Corps to face them.  There is a patch of pinewoods that runs along the road uphill from the creek, cut by a path from the road to the field we were in.  Most of the Yanks were moving left, down the creek, and our line held check on those coming straight up the path.  Several of us spotted the enemy moving to the right into strip of woods.  Along the edge, downed trees and dirt had been pushed back out of the field to create an accidental line of breastworks.  Realizing the importance of the position, Captain Weber ran us over to the tree line.  We just beat the Yanks and started pouring fire over the top to hold them back. It was better than being on the line at Spotsylvania or Atlanta.  More Yankees moved into the woods, trying to flank us.  We moved into a single rank and then extended intervals to keep them in check.
     About this time, Johnny came up behind us and yelled at us to abandon our position.  Jerry Medlock asked, “What the hell for?  We are holding them just fine!”  Johnny just said, “Look left.”  The Yankees had finally pushed the rest of the Corps back and were filling the field to our rear.  So we ran out of there, back to rest of the line that was now in full retreat.  The Yankees sensed it too, and were pressing as hard as they could.  The gray line seemed to bend back on either side of the Corps, with the soldiers of the 47th fighting at its point.  Much of the action was hand-to-hand, and we were nearly cut off several times.  If a soldier stood still to reload his weapon, he was captured.  After running most of the way back up the hill, the Corps was down to about twenty-five men.  We were about out of rounds and too tired to go on.  Frank was the only officer left. So he ordered the colors to run. (Which the boy did the whole way back to camp.)  Then, we did a suicide charge at the Yankees.
     Speaking about the 125th, it was a unique event in many ways.  The battles were held on Friday and Saturday, with everybody going to Appomattox on Sunday for the surrender ceremony.  We were camped on a farm about two miles away from the Hillsman House.  When we set up camp Thursday, the temperature was in the seventies.  Friday was sunny, but the breeze was colder.  Soon after we got back to camp from the tactical, it started to rain heavily.  Later during the night snow and sleet mixed in.  I think about half the reenactors spent the night in their cars by the number of motors I could hear running when I didn't have my heat turned on.  The skies cleared early Saturday morning, but the day stayed wet, muddy, and cold. The temperature dipped to twenty that night, with a wind blowing through the tent.  Sunday at Appomattox warmed back up into the mid forties.  We said afterwards that we had been through all four seasons in one weekend.
     Ken Eskew provided several of the lighter moments in camp that weekend.  Hillsman had to go to a staff meeting Thursday afternoon and asked Kenny to watch his horse, Knucklehead II.  As soon as Chuck left the horse went nuts and slipped loose of the picket line.  When Hillsman returned he angrily asked Kenny why he hadn't watched his horse.  “I did.”, said Kenny, never looking up from his beer.  He pointed towards the sutlers and said, “He went that away”.  Friday night he had a bit much to drink before he crawled into his sleeping bag.  He could hear the storm outside the tent and couldn't get to sleep because of the cold.  He discovered in the morning that he was cold and uncomfortable because he had spread his sleeping bag out over a bag of ice he had thrown in his tent earlier.  The storm had been a rough night for others, also.  Ken Haack had pitched his tent along side a tall tree.  The rain ran down the trunk and right into his tent.  Jerry Medlock had a big wine jug in his tent that we had helped him drink earlier.  It was too nasty out for him to make a spyvey run in the middle of the night so he filled the jug back up and set it outside the tent.  Next morning, it was missing.  No one in the camp admitted taking it, but I guess someone got a big surprise!
     As I've said, Saturday was a miserable day.  In the morning we practiced the stacking of arms for Appomattox.  The historians argued up to the last minute over which formation we would use to stack arms out of.  The powers-to-be decided that we should use a clearing in the woods beside our camp to form up in.  The path into it soon was churned into soupy mud that we all ended up marching through twice. The sponsors had cut a narrow trail through the woods as a shortcut to the Hillsman house, but it had too many steep slopes on it to be passable.  So for the battle, we marched around the road a couple of miles.  Along the way, Miles Kelly led us in singing ‘When the Roll is Called Up Yonder I’ll Be There’.  The battle started behind the house, with Yankee skirmishers moving down hill towards our lines.  They were doing some of the best work I have seen, laying down to fire and rolling on their backs to reload.  The main lines soon formed behind them and the battle intensified.  (It was in about this place during my previous trip to Sayler’s Creek that I discovered something really neat.  If you don’t tear a cartridge very good as you load it, it will just kind of phizz out the barrel and make a little fire ball as the air hits it.  I had a round do this on me.  Unfortunately, the wind caught the fireball and carried it over into the middle of the nutter-butters.  They scattered as if they had taken a canister hit.)  We retreated down towards the creek bottom.  The Yanks took moved with more speed than normal and managed to cut off the old Stonewall Brigade from the crossing.  General Dave Seay, our overall commander went berserk.  He rode around yelling orders through a brass megaphone that made them unintelligible.  Finally, he got everyone to cease-fire and allow the Stonewalls to escape from their predicament.  That left the Yankees free to concentrate on Longstreet’s Corps.
     Our battalion was forced back toward the creek.  Being first company, the 47th was following right behind Col. Hillsman when he started to ride across the stream.  I was already starting to slide down the muddy bank when I noticed the tail of Chuck’s horse was floating.  Normally, Sayler’s Creek is just deep enough to fill your brogans and takes about three leaping steps to cross.  I’ve been there a couple of times when the temperatures rose to near 80 and guys were intentionally taking diving hits into the water to cool off.  However, the overnight rains had swollen the creek with cold, muddy, rushing currents.  The water was mid-thigh deep on me.  I tried to hurry across, but I started pushing up a bow wave dangerously high, so I slowly walked to the other side.  The far bank was slick and almost impossible to climb.  Capt. Weber had us face about and form a line to meet the Yankees.  I sat down and raised my feet up to let the water run out of my shoes.  Our NCOs showed back up.  They had snuck off to find a log to cross on.
     By this time, I was pretty much exhausted.  But we still had to retreat back through brush and cross the highway.  We straggled up the hill without even trying to keep formation.  Now the plan was for the troops to rally at the top of the hill, face about and start digging in with their bayonets, cups, and plates.  Some units went whole hog into digging but the 47th just made a stab at it.  Sgt. Johnny Broaddus, now at his second event, was moving down the line trying to get us to dig more.  He said something to Tom O’Donnell about getting dug in before the Yanks attacked.  Tom was watching the enemy forming at the foot of the hill, and without turning to Johnny said, “The Yankees can just kiss my ass.”
     Once the Yankees get all formed up, the soldiers in the line start waving their white hankies at us, calling for our surrender.  So, we reply with a volley that knocks their front rank down.  Then, they begin their advance up the hill towards our lines.  As they closed in, what was left of the Corps made a suicide charge to slow them down some.  The only problem with charging down hill is that you build up more speed and momentum than you want, so when we hit the yanks, it kind looked like a scene out of ‘Braveheart’.  Barry Davis, in particular, had a big gash on his hand from the front sight of somebody’s musket.   Whoever isn’t killed gets captured and the battle is over.
     The commanders each year try to rotate which battalions do what, so sometimes the Corps makes it to the last stand and sometimes we are wiped out back by the creek.  Either way, it is still a great battle.  And, it is made more special by being on the actual ground.  The camps have changed considerably over the years, though.  At first, we bivouacked in the woods.  After the 125th, the move was made to allow civilians to register and camp out.  The campsite then moved around several times, and lately has been across the road from the final stand.

AFTERWORD: Why I don’t want to do Appomattox

     Last year, there were plans to do 135th anniversary recreation of the surrender at Appomattox.  Many of us old timers didn’t want to go through the experience again.  It started after the last battle at Saylor’s Creek.  That night in camp, Captain Weber read to us Lee’s farewell to the army.  We took our battle flag and cut it up, giving each man there a piece of it.  Many men were crying.  The next morning we broke camp and drove to Appomattox.  Longstreet’s Corps formed up, and Colonel Hillsman read us Lee’s orders again.  He came down the ranks, shaking each mans hand and issuing him a parole slip.  All down the line, men were crying.  The Corps moved to a hillside field where the entire Confederate Army was massed.  General Seay read Lee’s orders to the whole army.  Then, a soldier stood in the middle of the formation, playing an accordion and singing a slow, mournful version of “Dixie”.   By now, everybody was crying.  It was the saddest time I have ever felt reenacting.  Then the soldier sang, “I’m A Good Ole Rebel”. (Yes, I know it is a post war song)  The effect was tremendous.  Everyone was clapping and shouting and singing along.  You could sense the attitude changing from sadness to downright defiance.  We weren’t surrendering; we were just tired of playing with them and going home.  We marched into the village along the same path as Lee’s soldiers.  I don’t remember seeing much. I was staring straight ahead at the back of the man’s head in front of me.  We halted at the corner of the McLean house yard.  There was total silence, even among the spectators in front of us.  Finally the order was given to stack arms.  Our muskets were stacked, and then, we took off our accouterments and furled the colors.  Then we marched on out of the village.  It was the strangest feeling to march away without my musket in my hands.  Afterwards, as we marched back to retrieve our gear, many of the Yankees stepped out to shake hands with our troops.  Some even offered apples or pieces of hardtack to us, as they had done back then.  We went back through the village, and I looked around for the first time. A large crowd was there, lining the fences and even sitting in trees.  I hadn’t realized how far we had marched down the street either.  We were applauded the whole way back out of the village.
     Like I said, many reenactors don’t want to go through this emotional experience again.  I think I could, but the way this last ceremony was supposed to be, with a limited number of participants, would not give that feeling of finality that the first one gave to us.  So, until the Park Service gets its head out of its butt and allows all reenactors to participate, I don’t want to go back.