17th Virginia Infantry Regiment
The Old Dominion Rifles
After the battle of Battle of Sharpsburg, the 17th crossed back into Virginia on the 18th of September, 1862 by Shepherdstown. After crossing the river, Major Herbert had received orders to follow Drayton's Brigade. Due to the darkness and confusion in crossing the ford, the 17th lost sight of it and began to hurry forward to catch it up.
Just as they were about to pass through a narrow ravine, only large enough to allow passage of one regiment, four abreast, at a time, they met the 5th North Carolina coming in the opposite direction. Major Herbert explained to the Major in command of the 5th that the 17th had to follow Drayton's Brigade, as he was ordered. The Major of the 5th paid this no heed and ordered his men forward. Herbert gave the order; "Forward Seventeenth", and the the two columns met in the mouth of the ravine.
The repeated orders of: "Forward Seventeenth;" "Forward Fifth;" and the order: "Forward men, follow the old Seventeenth, and don't let them get between you" - came from the rear from Mitchell commanding the 11th Virginia. The 5th was jammed against the sides of the steep rocky ravine, some climbed up the hill side and clung to roots as the 17th marched, triumphantly, past. The victory was announced to the midnight air with a shout from the boys and "Come along 5th?" was flung at the beaten North Carolinians.
Christmas at winter quarters, 1863, was at Ivor Station. It was described as cool, clear and bright and some of the men went out on a foraging expedition. J. J. Petty (Co. D) and Bob Coleman found one house where, Petty said, they sat down to the best breakfast of the war. They found fruit, pickles, a couple of turkeys and a "pretty little kid" goat.
Officers of the 17th Va., as well as others from other regiments in the area, held a tournament on December, 30th. From the accounts, it was a huge success. Each "knight" was tested by his ability to thrust a "lance" through a small ring, whilst riding at full speed. The incentive to perform was provided by the prize - the privilege of crowning the "Queen of Love and Beauty" at the ball to be held that evening in the railroad station. Captain William Barnes, Company D, was the victor, as he had taken the rings at every ride. Henry Bennett, Company K, wrote: "If I am to judge by the great noise of the late hour, Capt. Barleycorn was acting a conspicuous part among many."
Edgar Warfield recalled that the enlisted men held their own tournament. It was held at night, under the moonlight and the "knights" rode horses from the wagon yard, used fence rails for lances and barrel hoops for rings.
During the time of camping near the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, many of the regiment were without hats or had ragged ones in dire need of replacement. Someone came up with a novel idea on how to get new ones. As several passenger trains passed along each day, the men would gather large sticks and branches from nearby trees and station themselves next to the track. As a train went by, the soldiers in the camp would let out a massive cheer. Invariably, the passengers would put their heads out of the windows to see what the commotion was all about. As they did so, the men by the track would use their branches to relieve them of their hats. Edgar Warfield writes; "Many were the hats that fell as spoil to the operators of this ingenious stratagem."
When stationed on the Howlett Line in 1864, many were the tricks the Confederates played on the opposing Union lines. As both picket lines were so close a favourite trick was to suddenly let out a great cheering. The Federal troops would invariably as what the reason for this was to which the reply that " a great victory had been won, out West with the capture of a great number of prisoners and guns. It was great sport to hear them call out in the morning, 'Oh, you liars, you!'"
Another trick played on the Union troops was used on the Federal deserters who daily came into the 17th's lines at Bermuda Hundred to give themselves up. The men on the outer posts would bring them into the lines but, first would tell them that the ground was covered with hundreds of "torpedoes" (land mines to us). They were told that they were just under the surface and would explode under the slightest pressure on them. The only way to avoid them was to follow their guide and step exactly where he stepped, in his footsteps. The spectacle was seen of a line of Yankee soldiers following the leader across a field (sown with a single line of these torpedoes only) jumping from here to there in an attempt to avoid imaginary peril. Edgar Warfield writes; "I saw George Summers of Company E bring in ten or twelve in that manner one day. It was grand fun for the crowd of Johnnies who lined the works to see them come in."
As alcohol was not allowed in a military camp during the war, men came up with a variety of ways to smuggle it into camp. Bearing in mind that they couldn't just 'pop down' to the local off licence to acquire a few 'tinnies' they had to resort to more imaginative methods. Below are a couple of ways adopted by the more enterprising members of the 17th during the war.
"Once while I was talking to one of the camp sentries on duty, a soldier carrying a coffee pot came up on his way into camp. When the guard asked him what he had in the pot he said he had milk, at the same time tilting the pot enough to cause milk to flow from the spout. This satisfied the guard and the soldier passed on. Of course the pot was filled with whiskey. The owner had simply corked the lower end of the spout and filled the spout itself with whiskey."
And another example.
"At another time five men, fully equipped and apparently on duty, passed out of camp. Returning later, they were passed in. The guard did not know until several days had passed that each gun barrel was filled to the muzzle with liquor."
Whilst stationed at Fairfax Courthouse, an unnamed member of the 17th was found to be intoxicated and was arrested by the provost marshal and locked up in the court house building on the second floor which was used as a guardhouse.
He wasn't the only one so confined and made the mistake of charging around the room, making a bellowing noise and declaring; "I'm a bull! I'm a bull!" A Louisiana soldier rushed at him shouting; "I'm a tiger!" and, roaring like one, grabbed the Virginian around the waist, dragged him to the window and threw him out. The 17th soldier hit the ground and broke his leg. The moral of the story - pick a fiercer creature to impersonate when drunk!
NB The soldier in question survived the war and died at his home in Alexandria after never missing a fight that the Regiment was involved in.
Whilst on picket duty in July, 1861, members of Company H, 17th VA were close to the Federal lines. One morning, Edgar Warfield was on duty and listened to the Union roll call. It became apparent that the US unit was a Maryland regiment as many of the names were similar to their own. As each name was called off by the sergeant it was promptly answered "Here!" from the Confederate lines.
The Alexandria Riflemen was organised on March 10th, 1856. At the meeting it was decided to call the Company the "Alexandria Sharp Shooters". It was, further, decided that the company initials were to be painted onto their knapsacks. Once the meeting broke up and a few were hanging around the armoury it dawned on someone just what these initials would look like! Quickly, all the members were reassembled and the name changed to "Alexandria Riflemen" as "A.R." was preferable to the alternative!
Edgar Warfield told how his father, Abel D. Warfield (of the Alexandria Riflemen, Co. A), waved at him as they passed by the Old Dominion Rifles at Blackburn's Ford,1861, whilst crossing the stream. They were in pursuit of the 1st Massachusetts Regiment. As they came to close quarters, Abel Warfield, not having had the time to reload, found himself in a rough and tumble struggle with a Federal soldier. They rolled down to the stream and were so covered in mud it was difficult to tell one from the other. This was especially difficult as the Massachusetts Regiment were also wearing grey at this time. The Yankee soldier resisted but, Abel did manage to turn him over to General Longstreet.
The General is reported as saying: "Well done, old fellow; this is the first prisoner, go back and get another."
Abel remarked, later: "which command I respectfully declined, as things were waxing warm about that time."
Landon Mason was a witness to the epic struggle and said that the Yankee soldier had started down the hill to surrender but had changed his mind when he saw Abel Warfield advancing towards him with his right hand stretched out to "grab his prey". The Federal struck Warfield under the chin with his rifle butt and sent him rolling down the hill. "The Yankee was taken" Mason wrote, "but I don't think Warfield, after rising out of the dust & blood & perspiration a wiser & sadder man, ever undertook to capture any more prisoners with his hand."
J. Thomas Petty (Warren Rifles Co. B) was the last sentry to leave the old churchyard gate of the old brick church at Falls Church when the Regiment left there for Camp Harrison. He and his friend, John J. Johnston, left a note on the gate of the churchyard which read:
Having been resident denizens of Falls Church for some time, we to-day reluctantly evacuate, not because you intimidate by your presence, but only in obedience to military dictation.
We leave you a fire to cook potatoes, also to warm by, as the nights are now uncomfortable on account of their chilling influence. Mr. J. T. Petty, an inhabitant of Washington, but a "Secesh" in the rebel army, joins compliments with me upon this propitious occasion.
COMPANY B. 17th Reg. Va. Vols.
P.S. - We are members of the "bloody Seventeenth," - the well merited sobriequet [q.v.] of our regiment, gained in the battle of Bull Run."
This note was sent to Washington, with Johnston's letter, by one of the occupying troops:
Falls Church, October 5th, 1861
Editor, National Republican:
Inclosed I send you a correct copy of a letter found by me, pinned on gate near Falls Church. The letter is something of a curiousity; so I send it for publication. The direction on the outside is to "Yankee, care of "Luck".
W. H. G.
35th Regiment N. Y. S. V.
A severe storm hit the 17th's camp on the night of November 1st, 1861 and continued for the whole of the next day. All but 2 of the regiment's tents were flattened, laying in puddles of mud and water. Everything was blown down and scattered around by the gale force wind and the steady downpour soaked everything and everyone. George Wise saw Colonel Corse standing in his shirt sleeves beside the remains of his, once comfortable, tent and looking the picture of misery. Wise wrote that the colonel was grumbling to himself, as "if he had no friends," and "poor fellow, he looked like a Chinaman just from Hong Kong and in a strange country."
In 1863, General Corse had two horses; Bayonet and Bullet; and a Negro Hostler named Nimrod Taylor. This prompted the story, according to Peter Howard of Co. D in 1897, that the North Carolinians would ask what regiment he belonged to. The Virginians would say the 17th, to which the "Tar Heels" would say:
"That is a good fighting regiment, and it ought to be for General Corse has one horse named Bayonet, one named Bullet, and a n*****r named Ramrod!"
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Last updated - 28th November, 2003