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The Bloody 18th: ‘Where have all the young men gone’

By Scott Bigelow


The relocation of the Confederate monument from the Robeson County Courthouse to a veteran’s memorial park is a reminder of several things. In this edition of Robeson Remembers, the focus is on the sacrifice of local men during the Civil War.


There is no better way to remember that sacrifice than to recall the 18th Confederate Regiment and how Robeson volunteers were part of the Bloody 18th. They came by the name courageously, honorably and in the most tragic way.


The 18th is also remembered for playing an unfortunate role in one of the most disastrous turning points of the Civil War. First, how did they earn the title?


Sources for this article include “Away Down Home” by Maude Thomas; a memoir of the Bloody 18th by Pvt. Thomas H. Sutton (1901); Vol. 6, North Carolina Troops, 1861-65, NC Archives & History; and internet sites.


Sutton’s account was reprinted in the "Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-'65 - Volume II," by Walter Clark. All three books are in the library of the Robeson County History Museum.


Robesonians, rich and poor, were eager to fight, and the first wave of volunteers formed The Robeson Rifles, Company D of the 1,100-strong 8th North Carolina Regiment (later renumbered 18th). With men from Bladen, Columbus, Richmond, New Hanover and other counties, they trained at Camp Wyatt near Wilmington with a mission to defend Southern ports.


After contributing to the construction of Fort Fisher to protect Wilmington, they marched south to defend Port Royal, SC, and then north to defend New Bern. Frustrated, they arrived too late for both battles.


In early May 1862, the regiment broke camp and traveled to Virginia to join the Army of Northern Virginia, the South’s major fighting force under Gen. Robert E. Lee and the brilliant and daring Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. There, the 18th would quickly receive its baptism under fire.


As they marched to war, Sutton recalled: “Every foot moved with a light and steady step and the expression of satisfaction was on the countenance of all.”


On May 27, 1862, Gen. Lawrence O. Branch led the 18th and three other regiments into the Battle of Hanover Court House (also known as the Battle of Slash Church). With a force of 4,000, they engaged a Union force of 12,000.


The 18th made a “splendid attack” on a Union line and drove it back 100 yards to the Mechanicsville Road, where a ditch gave protection. Union canon fire ripped through the 18th, and they were forced to relocate to nearby woods. The fight continued.


The battle, like many, was fought on poor intelligence on both sides. The Union Army of the Potomac believed a very large Confederate force intended to sever its reinforcement and supply line at the Courthouse. It turned out the road was not of strategic importance, and the Confederates were not aware of the size of the Union force.


The 18th lost a quarter of its fighting force and many of its companies suffered 50 percent killed or wounded. The title Bloody 18th was earned on their first day of fighting.


Gen. Branch reported: "Colonel Cowan with the Eighteenth made the charge most gallantly, but the enemy's force was much larger than had been supposed, and strongly posted, and the gallant Eighteenth was compelled to seek shelter. It continued to pour heavy volleys from the edge of the woods and must have done great execution. The steadiness with which this desperate charge was made reflects the highest credit on officers and men. The combined volley from the Eighteenth and Thirty-seventh compelled the enemy to leave his battery for a time, and take shelter behind a ditch bank."


Gen. Branch was criticized by Richmond newspapers and some of his officers for not continuing the hopeless battle. Gen. Robert E. Lee settled the matter in a letter:


Headquarters

Army of Northern Virginia

June 3, 1862


Brigadier General L. O'B. Branch, Commanding, Etc.,


The report of your recent engagement with the enemy at Slash Church has been forwarded by Major General Hill. I take great pleasure in expressing my approval of the manner in which you have discharged the duties of the position in which you were placed, and of the gallant manner in which your troops opposed a very superior force of the enemy. I beg you will signify to the troops of your command, which were engaged on that occasion, my hearty approval of their conduct, and hope that on future occasions they will evince a like heroism and patriotic devotion.


I am very respectfully your obedient servant,


Robert E. Lee


It was a bitter winter with rain and sleet, and many of the men were without shoes and adequate clothing, but “they had the stuff of heroes in them,” Sutton noted.


In the spring, a major campaign centered around Chancellorsville. The Confederates won the battle, but on the night of May 2, 1863, disaster struck.


Gen. Stonewall Jackson, with staff and couriers, had scouted enemy positions in front of sentries, something that was never satisfactorily explained. They did not retrace their steps, and as they returned through the woods, the call went out that enemy was attacking. The 18th responded with a brutal volley.


Gen. Jackson was struck three times and several of his party were killed. “None regretted the occurrence more than we did, and the army did not blame us for the manner or measure of our discharge of our duty, though others did,” Sutton wrote.


Historians have concluded that it was Company D, the Robeson Rifles, who fired the fatal shots. Stonewall Jackson, a most outstanding Confederate general and Gen. Lee’s “right arm”, died eight days later.


The 18th NC Regiment had 10 companies, some with more than 100 men. After the devasting battle at Hanover Courthouse, the 18th continued to fight in more than 30 major engagements and many skirmishes leading up to the surrender at Appomattox.


Their ranks were whittled down conflict after conflict, with the Seven Days Battle, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg being the deadliest after Hanover Courthouse. Gen. Branch, who began the war as a private, was killed by a sniper’s bullet.


Pvt. Sutton wrote: “Our regiment was now reduced to a mere skeleton or handful of its former strength. Starting out with 1,100 men, we were now reduced to 100 or less. The death of every comrade was now indeed a serious loss.”


One source noted that 12 officers and 81 enlisted men of the 18th witnessed the surrender at Appomattox. Sutton was among them.


“Twenty-eight thousand bleeding, half- starved and foot-sore soldiers stood there on that eventful April 9th, 1865, with folded arms, as General Robert E. Lee rode down our lines and bade us adieu forever."


“North Carolina Troops” lists 171 men in Company D over the course of the war, 111 from Robeson. Forty-six Robesonians died in combat or from wounds or disease.


Fifty-two men were captured and 10 of those died in captivity. Thirty-five deserted and some deserted twice. One was shot for desertion, while it may be assumed others needed to return to farms and families.


Twenty-three men were discharged, many for illness and wounds, and four for being underage and two for overage. The names and outcomes of Robesonians in Company D and in other regiments are available at the History Museum.


The next time you look up at the Confederate soldier, remember many things. Among them, remember the Bloody 18th.





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