Appomattox Quote of The Day: Tucker's Naval Battalion at Sailor's Creek

lelliott19

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During the fall of Richmond, during the early morning hours of April 3, 1865, the sailors in the battery below Drury's Bluff, under Captain John Randolph Tucker, received notice of the evacuation and were ordered to join GW Custis Lee's division. In the classic Four Years Under Marse Robert, author Maj. Robert Stiles recalled this amusing incident which occurred as Captain Tucker, Confederate States Navy, attempted to align his sailors, fighting as infantry, at the Battle of Sailor's Creek, April 6, 1865:

I remember, in all the discomfort and wretchedness of the retreat, we had been no little amused by the Naval Battalion, under that old hero, Admiral Tucker. The soldiers called them the "Aye, Ayes," because they responded "aye, aye" to every order, some times repeating the order itself, and adding, "Aye, aye, it is, sir!"​
As this battalion, which followed immediately after ours, was getting into position, and seaman's and landsman's jargon and movements were getting a good deal mixed in the orders and evolutions,--all being harmonized, however, and licked into shape by the "aye, aye,"--a young officer of the division staff rode up, saluted Admiral Tucker, and said: "Admiral, I may possibly be of assistance to you in getting your command into line."​
The Admiral replied: "Young man, I understand how to talk to my people;" and thereupon followed "a grand moral combination" of "right flank" and "left flank," "starboard" and "larboard," "aye, aye" and "aye, aye"--until the battalion gradually settled down into place.​
 

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Wonder how long they had been manning the batteries at Drewry's Bluff? Probably weren't many opportunities to watch troops drilling during the Richmond/Petersburg siege.
 

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The Naval/Marine brigade from Drewry's Bluff, under Flag Officer Tucker, joined the rear guard of the Confederate Army, and was attached to General Custis Lee's division of General Ewell's corps.

The column that made up Gen. Richard Ewell’s Reserve Corps of Richmond defenders was a colorful lot: the veterans of Gen. Joseph Kershaw’s division (formerly McLaws’); the sailors and marines of Capt. John Tucker’s Naval Battalion; and Col. Stapleton Crutchfield’s Heavy Artillery Battalions serving as Infantry, along with Loyal Defense Troops that made up part of Gen. Custis Lee’s Division. On the drizzly morning of April 6, 1865, they trudged their way along muddy roads as part of the rapidly fading hopes of the Confederacy. At the time, Ewell and Gen. Richard Anderson made the fateful decision to make a stand against the Union Cavalry nipping at their heels.

The delay, however, allowed Union Infantry to come in range, and Ewell and Anderson found themselves nearly surrounded along the muddy slopes along the rain-swollen banks of Sailor’s Creek (also known as Saylor's Creek).

Four hundred Confederate sailors and marines, their small arms loaded and ready, awaited their orders. Some men had their cutlasses within easy reach. Their commander, Navy Flag Officer John Randolph Tucker, watched as the enemy approached within pistol shot. Tucker, excited but confused, shouted, “Prepare to repel boarders!” One of the Yankees, surprised at seeing captives in naval uniforms, asked, “Good heavens! Have you got gunboats ‘way up here, too”?

These Rebel tars were in strange waters indeed. Far from the briny blue Atlantic, Tucker’s quarterdeck was a spot of high ground overlooking Sailor's Creek. Wading and splashing through the creek, the Federals’ boarding party was the vanguard of Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright’s VI Corps infantry.


During the battle, Tucker’s Brigade was the only Confederate unit that didn’t break under the first Federal charge. After repulsing the charge, the Brigade – numbering 300 to 400 men, was then surrounded by six Union divisions. Rather than surrender, Tucker counterattacked, smashing the 37th Massachusetts Infantry into fragments and tearing into the 2nd Rhode Island in hand to hand combat.

A Confederate private recounted, “Near the end the 37th Massachusetts had the fiercest literally savage encounter of the war with the remnants of Stile’s battalion and the Marines. I was next to those Marines and saw them fight. They clubbed muskets, fired pistols into each other’s face and used bayonets savagely.” Confederate Major Robert Stiles said, “quicker than I can tell it the battle degenerated into a butchery and a confused melee of brutal personal conflicts. I saw numbers of men kill each other with bayonets and the butts of muskets, and even bite each other’s throats and ears and noses, rolling on the ground like wild beasts. I saw one of my officers and a Federal officer fighting with swords over the battalion colors, which we had brought back with us, each having his left hand upon the staff. I could not get to them, but my man was a very athletic, powerful seaman, and soon I saw the Federal officer fall.” Morris Schaff, a reporter who sketched the scene from the Union side of the creek, described a portion of the confused battle. “One Berkshire man [37th Massachusetts] was stabbed in the chest by a bayonet and pinned to the ground as it came out near his spine. He reloaded his gun and killed the Confederate, who fell across him. The Massachusetts man threw him off, pulled out the bayonet, and despite the awful wound, walked to the rear.”


Withdrawing to a wooded pocket, the unit repulsed several more Federal attacks. A flag of truce was sent by the Federal General commanding at that point to inform Tucker that the Confederate troops on his right and left had surrendered, and that further resistance was useless and could only end in the destruction of the sailors. Tucker, believing that the battle had only commenced, refused to surrender, and held his position until reliable information, which he could not doubt, reached him of the surrender of General Ewell and his army corps. The performance of Tucker’s Brigade was so intense and the damage they inflicted so devastating, that the Federal generals estimated the "Marine Brigade" to number some 2,000 men.

Tucker was ultimately talked into surrendering towards the end of the day, Commodore Tucker, who fought stoutly in his first land battle, did not give up until the blue lines had overrun his band from every side. He was astonished: "I never before got into a fight like this. I thought everything was going on well."


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According to Brig. General Truman Seymour, commanding the Federal 3rd Div, 6th Corps, "The Confederate Marine Battalion fought with peculiar obstinacy, and our lines, somewhat disordered by crossing the creek, were repulsed in the first onset." A member of Phillip's Georgia Legion, which stood in line of battle just behind Tucker's brigade, later recalled, "Those marines fought like tigers and against odds of at least ten to one."


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General Ewell's men surrender at Sailor's Creek (Library of Congress)



Union General Joseph W. Keifer, opposing Tucker's men and accepting Tucker's sword of surrender, had nothing but praise of the Naval Brigade in his official after-battle report:

"The lines of the opposing forces came together. A number of men were bayoneted on both sides. The enemy had a heavy column massed in the rear of his center, with which he charged upon our troops. Owing to the fact that our troops could only be fought in one line, the enemy succeeded in breaking through the center and gaining a momentary success. The troops on the right and left continued the advance until the enemy's column in the center was enveloped and cut to pieces and captured. The enemy was soon routed at all points, and many general officers and many thousands of prisoners threw down their arms and surrendered. The rebel Marine Brigade fought with most extraordinary courage, but was finally cut off and captured. Commodore Tucker, Commander Hunter, Captain Semmes, and about twenty-five naval officers, with the brigade, surrendered to me."
 

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