Pittsylvanians Play Key Roles In Three Great Battles

By Henry H. Mitchell

Recent D-Day commemorations bring to mind the incomprehensible bravery and sacrifices of Pittsylvanians during America's most brutal and dangerous conflicts.

Up through World War II the organization of Army units was based on the local militia, and as a result historians can single out the contributions of groups of men from specific localities during particular military actions. Following are notes of three major battles from three centuries, in all of which Pittsylvania soldiers played crucial roles.

The Mauling of Cornwallis

In her book An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County and in a separate summarizing article, local author Frances Hallam Hurt details the desperate Race to the Dan during the late winter of 1781 in which General Nathanael Greene decoyed and dodged northward across the Carolinas to save his ragtag American army from British General Cornwallis and his well-trained, well-supplied troops.

Escaping in an armada of small boats in the nick of time across the obstructive Dan River into our neighboring Halifax County, Greene rested, retrained, resupplied and recruited his army to a strength sufficient to deal Cornwallis a mauling blow at Guilford Courthouse on March 15.

In her History of Pittsylvania County, the late historian Maud Carter Clement asserts that “…every able man in [Pittsylvania] County who could possess a gun was present” at the battle of Guilford Courthouse. There with other Virginia militia they formed the second line between the front line of North Carolina militia and the rear line of Greene's Continentals.

Both the North Carolina and Virginia militia were largely raw recruits, but the Virginia soldiers were commanded by veteran officers. The main body of British troops swept through the front line and smashed into the Virginia militia, including the Pittsylvanians, who fought well before falling back in a relatively orderly fashion. By the time the British hit the third line, the contest became so fierce that Cornwallis ordered guns turned on the mass of troops, British and American alike, apparently to prevent a British retreat. Greene withdrew to save his army further destruction, so Cornwallis claimed the victory even though a fourth of his army was gone. A member of the British parliament stated that another such victory would be the ruin of the British army.

After Guilford Courthouse, Cornwallis moved east and north, eventually seeking refuge in the supposedly safe shadow of the British naval might — at Yorktown. There, as the trap was sprung by Washington and the French, four companies of Pittsylvania militia were again present.

But Yorktown and the surrender could not have happened without the set-up punch delivered — to a significant extent by Pittsylvanians — at Guilford Courthouse.

Pickett's High Water Mark

A number of articles in Maude Carter Clement's War Recollections of the Confederate Veterans of Pittsylvania County (also reprinted as part of the Writings of Maude Carter Clement) describe the role of Pittsylvania units at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. There the 42 regiments and 15,000 men, including hundreds of Pittsylvanians, of Pickett's Division moved at parade step off the slope of Seminary Ridge across the valley. The brigades of Generals Kemper and Garnett formed the first line, with that of General Armistead following. When Kemper's men attempted to storm the stone wall atop the hill, Armistead ordered his brigade, 75 yards from the wall, to double quick, which broke into a run and then a full charge.

According to Color Corporal James Carter Jr. of Chatham, “When the brigade reached the wall there were very few left and Armistead, turning to Lt. Col. R.W. Martin [also of Chatham] said, ‘Colonel, we can't stay here.’ Col. Martin replied, ‘Then we'll go forward!’” Martin later wrote, “Armistead himself, with his hat on the point of his sword that his men might see it through the smoke of battle, rushed forward, scaled the wall and cried, ‘Boys, give them the cold steel!’”

Pittsylvanian J.W. Whitehead Sr., wrote, “We had driven the Yankees from behind the stone wall, captured all artillery in front of Armistead's Brigade, and the victory up to this point was complete. But reinforcements arriving for the enemy and none for ourselves, that was the end of our dearly bought victory.”

Approximately two-thirds of Pickett's Division were casualties, including Gen. Armistead (mortally wounded as he manned a captured artillery piece) and Lt. Col. Martin (his left leg shattered). James Carter Jr. reported, “The flag of the 53rd Virginia Regiment had been carried to the farthest point in the enemy's lines that day. Of its ten guards, eight were killed outright — [Robert Tyler] Jones and myself severely wounded.” (Company I, 53rd Regiment, known as the Chatham Greys, carried the colors of the brigade.)

The Gettysburg ground temporarily taken by Armistead, Martin and the Chatham Greys is often referred to as “the high-water mark of the Confederacy.”

Breaking Through At Omaha Beach

The U.S. Army's 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division, and the 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Division managed to land on Omaha Beach, on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Maud Clement, in her The Turn of the Wheel, also reprinted in the Writings of Maud Carter Clement, notes that the 116th was composed of National Guard units from Virginia: Bedford (Co. A), Lynchburg (B), Harrisonburg (C), Roanoke (D), Chase City (E), South Boston (F), Farmville (G), Martinsville (H), Winchester (I), Charlottesville (K), Staunton (L), and Emporia (M). Numerous Pittsylvanians were found in these units.

Dr. Yale Kramer, in his article “Day at the Beach” (The American Spectator, August 1994) notes that the Omaha Beach battle plan devised by Allied generals utterly failed, but through astounding acts of individual ingenuity and heroism, the German defenses at Omaha were destroyed anyway.

The 116th's men had not seen combat before, were dumped by landing craft at the wrong location, lost their supporting artillery and armor in the rough seas, and were almost totally decimated by heavy fire from the cliffs — and by drowning under the weight of their packs — when they jumped off their landing craft into the water.

General Norman Cota, in a move reminiscent of Armistead and Martin (can't stay here — must go forward), rallied his seasick wounded remaining soldiers to attack the seemingly impregnable strongholds above them.

As Kramer says, “Individual men — a succession of individual men, on their own, or leading small groups of ten or twenty, not under orders or according to some master plan, but out of a sense of desperation, or responsibility to their comrades, or honor, or pride, or all of them mixed together — began driving vital wedges into the German defenses all along the Omaha front. By mid-afternoon the Americans had overrun even the strongest of the German positions on Omaha.”

What About Tomorrow?

It is impossible to list the many hundreds of Pittsylvania heroes involved in these three dramatic events of American and world history: the volunteers at Guilford, their great-grandsons at Gettysburg; and their great-grandsons at Omaha Beach.

Great-grandchildren of the Omaha Beach generation are being born right now. If they should be faced with dire challenges of the magnitude seen by their forebears, will they succeed? Will they exhibit the miraculous balance of loyalty yet individualism, subordination yet ingenuity, shown by these great men who went before them?

Will they have intelligence enough for great accomplishments in this life, yet wisdom enough to know that there are ideals which are worth the sacrifice of life itself? Will they be heavenly minded enough to have a strong sense of morality and justice, yet earthly-minded enough to carry it out?

Our hats are off to the heroes of yesterday. Our prayers go up for those generations of Pittsylvanians — and Americans — yet to come.


This webpage is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House, Chatham, Virginia.