HISTORY OF THE 8th VIRGINIA VOLUNTEER INFANTRY
By Dave Purschwitz
In early May of 1861, Eppa Hunton, an attorney from Prince William County, was commissioned by the Governor of Virginia, to be colonel of the new 8th Regiment, and ordered to Leesburg to recruit, organize and train the volunteers. He entered at once on this duty, and appropriated what was then the Fairgrounds just northwest of town as his camp. The 8th Regiment within the next few months would be composed of ten companies; six from Loudoun, two from Fauquier, one from Fairfax and one from Prince William. Many members were more or less green in the organization of a regiment, but it was soon apparent that the 8th, rank and file, was composed of the very best material in the state. Colonel Hunton was warmly supported by all the officers and soon had a regiment of splendid soldiers, commanded by intelligent and gallant officers of the line, some from prior Militia service.
The main duty of the regiment (aided by Capt. Shreve’s Company of cavalry and Capt. Rogers’ battery) was to guard along the upper Potomac, up to the first battle of Manassas which would be the bloody baptism of the regiment. Its behavior at Manassas was conspicuous for gallantry, and was especially mentioned and complimented by Gen. Beauregard in his report of that glorious battle. On the 23rd of July ’61 the regiment was ordered back to Leesburg to, once again, guard this grand old county from the ravages of the enemy. Soon, they were reinforced by three Mississippi regiments and several companies of cavalry, all under command of Gen. Evans.
In mid-October the enemy started an advance toward Loudoun County. The 8th was ordered to march about 6 miles to the Goose Creek Bridge to meet a body of the enemy advancing up the Leesburg pike. It was apparent that this was a reconnoitering party and did not mean an attack. In the meantime the enemy was in strong force under Col. Edward Baker and crossing at Harrison’s Island to Ball’s Bluff, opposite to and about three miles from Leesburg. Hunton was ordered to leave one company to guard the bridge and return at once to meet the enemy at Ball’s Bluff. The enemy force across the river was reported to be about ten thousand strong.
Confederate forces consisted of the 13th, 17th and 18th Mississippi and the 8th Virginia, some cavalry and two batteries of artillery. The artillery was not engaged and little fighting was done by the cavalry, so the fight fell largely on the 8th and the three Mississippi Regiments. The 8th had 400 men engaged and the total number with the Mississippians was about 1,700.
The 18th Mississippi was ambushed in the beginning of the fight and driven back with very heavy loss. The 8th took position in the edge of a woods. The enemy was posted across a small piece of open land also in a body of woods, with several pieces of artillery in the open field. The enemy charged several times, but each charge was gallantly repulsed by the 8th regiment. The fight lasted several hours. Col. Baker fell mortally wounded, possibly shot by Sgt. Clinton Hatcher. The Eighth’s ammunition was about exhausted and several efforts to secure more were ineffectual. Hunton determined to charge the enemy and by dividing up the cartridges, each man had one round. The charge, mainly with the bayonet, was as gallant as any made in the war. The 8th was a little later on reinforced by the 17th Mississippi. The enemy was completely routed and thoroughly demoralized. They were driven from the field and down the bluff to the banks of the Potomac. Darkness stopped the fight.
After the fighting had ceased and the enemy was thought to have retired across the river, Lieut. Chas. Berkeley was put in command of a group of seventeen men of the 8th to picket the battlefield. E.V. White (Scout for Hunton) was requested to remain with him. The Mississippi regiments had been sent back to their camps and the remainder of the 8th sent to Fort Evans. Lieut. Berkeley and White were succoring the wounded when they discovered some 1,500 Yankees under the bluff between the bank of the river who were crossing back to the island by two large boats and two smaller ones. White was dispatched to the 8th at Fort Evans for men to help capture this force. Forty-eight volunteers and three officers were conducted down to the Bluff with orders, at a given signal, to fire their guns in the air, while the main body, led by White, would descend and mix with the enemy below and call on them to surrender. This was accordingly carried out and effected entirely by White, and the officers and men of the 8th Virginia regiment.
In all, 710 prisoners, all the enemy artillery, and a large supply of arms and ammunition were captured, with but little loss to the 8th. The enemy’s loss in the battle was 1,300 killed, wounded and drowned. For the force engaged on each side, this was the most complete victory of the war. The Confederates had not more than 1,700 muskets in the fight. A Baltimore paper placed the Federal loss in killed, wounded and captured, at 2,250. They lost more men than we had muskets, a result unexampled in war.
A flank movement from the enemy by the Little River Turnpike was apprehended, and Hunton was ordered by General Evans to retreat to Sycolin creek. No pen can describe the feelings of the men of the gallant 8th, mostly citizens of Loudoun, as they marched through Leesburg and abandoned it to the enemy. Hunton felt dishonored, and was sure there was no need for this hasty retreat, but orders had to be obeyed. Fortunately, the enemy was too badly whipped to take advantage of their retreat, and Leesburg was at that time spared from the ravages of the foe.
Following the Battle of Ball’s Bluff the regiment was ordered to join the main army at Centreville, so it could be brigaded with other Virginia regiments. The gallant conduct of the 8th, and the complete victory at Ball’s Bluff, gave the regiment a splendid reputation which was increased in every battle it was in during the war. A public reception was given to the Eighth when they reached Centreville, and they were recognized everywhere as the heroes of Ball’s Bluff. Hunton said he should never forget the wonder excited at Centreville by their wagon train. It consisted of twenty-five wagons. When this train reached Centreville it drew out a large portion of Gen. Johnson’s army. No one would believe it belonged to just one regiment. The next day half of it was taken away. As the want of transportation became greater during the progress of the war, their transportation was still further reduced till they, who started with 25 wagons, were reduced to one, to carry the cooking utensils of the whole regiment.
It is impossible in a short address to follow the 8th Regiment through the whole war, and to describe its conduct in all the following battles: Seven Pines, 2nd Manassas, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Williamsburg, Gaines’ Mill, Frazier’s Farm, Gettysburg, Howlett Line, Gravelly Run, and Sailor’s Creek. These were their principal battles, but there were also other important duties as well. In early ’62 the regiment was chosen to go on an expedition into North Carolina to look for supplies. After a few weeks they returned empty handed and re-joined the Brigade near Suffolk.
One of the hardest of the Seven Days’ fights was at Gaines’ Mill. The day before, Mechanicsville had been fought which resulted in a victory for the Confederate arms, but with heavy loss. The enemy took up a very strong position at Gaines’ Mill. The enemy had three fortified lines. The first was in a ravine about five feet deep, the second about a hundred yards in rear of the first, and the third line another hundred yards posted behind temporary breast-works. These last two lines were on a hillside so that all three lines could fire on the advancing Confederate line. Brockenbrough’s brigade had charged this position and was repulsed. Pryor’s Brigade was put in and driven back.
Pickett’s Brigade, consisting of the 8th, 18th, 19th, 28th and 56th Virginia Regiments, was then ordered to charge this formidable position. They charged across the field and were exposed to the terrible fire of three well protected lines of the enemy. They carried all three lines in beautiful and splendid style, taking a large part of the artillery behind the third line. At this point they were joined by a portion of Jackson’s forces, which had come in obliquely on their left and then they met a charge of cavalry, which soon scattered. Their charge at Gaines’ Mill was the admiration of all who saw it, but was attended with a severe loss. This charge was alluded to because Pickett’s Brigade had, to this point, never behaved with more gallantry.
At Gettysburg, Pickett’s Brigade took position behind the artillery. The 8th had 205 men in its ranks. Its numbers had been greatly reduced by brilliant participation in the preceding battles. The enemy opened with its artillery and five men were killed in this opening enfilade. When the order to charge was given, two hundred heroes of the 8th regiment went into the charge, the most brilliant and heroic in the annals of the war. Col. Hunton was on horseback due to illness and was wounded near the Codori red barn, a little more than half-way into the charge. Brigade Commander Gen. Garnett, also mounted, was killed encouraging his men on. Rank and file were falling but the heroes of Pickett’s Division charged on and on with almost relentless fury, until they had driven the enemy from its first line behind a stone fence. By this time many had been killed or wounded, and the enemy seeing how small their numbers were, rallied, and with fresh troops, killed, wounded or captured more of the small remnant of this heroic band. The flag of the 8th lay on the ground, fallen with its final bearer, no one able to retrieve it. The 16th Vermont swooped in and picked it up as a prize of war. Thus ended the most brilliant charge of this or any other war. Of the two hundred men, as brave as ever carried a musket, who went into that charge, only ten returned unhurt. One hundred ninety lost in killed, wounded and captured. This was July 3. 1863, and is considered as the high tide of the Confederacy. Due to Garnett’s loss, Hunton was promoted to Brigadier General and Brigade command. Even though removed from immediate command of the regiment, the dear old 8th was still a part of his brigade and remained with him until war’s end.
Following Gettysburg, the regiment with the rest of the Brigade was ordered to Chaffin’s Farm below Richmond to rest and recruit. They rejoined the main army again at Hanover Junction in the spring of 1864 and participated in the memorable battles of that campaign, the most masterly ever conducted by Gen. Lee or any other Military Chieftain.
In the foregoing fights the Federal losses were greater than Gen. Lee’s whole army. But, the enemy’s losses were immediately resupplied and Gen. Lee’s could not be. Grant changed his base from the North to the South side of the James River. Beauregard had to abandon his fortified line below the Howlett House and hasten to the defense of Petersburg. This line embraced Drewry’s Bluff, and extended down the James towards its junction with the Appomattox. It was vital to the defense of Richmond. General Lee ordered Pickett’s Division to hasten to the defense of this important line.
The 8th had become familiar with all the cross roads and by-paths of the intervening country. For this reason Hunton was ordered to detach his Brigade from the rest of the Division, and make a forced march to save the abandoned line. No troops, not even the foot cavalry of the immortal Jackson, ever made better time. The enemy had occupied Beauregard’s line and turned it against them. Hunton was ordered to march down the Petersburg pike till he struck the enemy, and retake the line. The 8th was sent forward as a skirmish line and soon struck the enemy. The Brigade was ordered to left face and charge. What a magnificent charge it was. They drove the enemy into and beyond the abandoned line, which was re-established and greatly strengthened. The other Brigades of the Division, who had now come up, and also after a brilliant charge, took position in this line on their right and left.
This heroic conduct delighted their dear old commander, General Lee, and drew from him the only undignified order he ever issued. He said, after complimenting the officers and soldiers of Pickett’s Division, he believed Pickett’s men would take anything they were put against. Major Drewry witnessed this charge. He said, “When Hunton gave the order, ‘Left face, charge,’ I never saw anything so splendid and beautiful. Everyone in the brigade, from its commander to the last private, seemed to know exactly what to do and did it in a manner unequaled in the history of the war.” From this time on though, it became apparent that the fortunes of the Confederacy were on the wane. Victory had generally followed their banner under Lee, but their resources of men and supplies were growing less every day, while the enemy’s was increased. There was still the same gallantry of the men, but their little army could not fight the whole world. To illustrate this gallantry, Pickett with the rest of his division was fighting Sheridan at Five Forks, and advancing on Dinwiddie Courthouse, Lee ordered Hunton’s brigade (then reduced to less than 1,500 muskets), with two other brigades, fully as small, to form on the road leading from his main line to Five Forks.
They had hardly formed when a full division of Warren’s corps marched down upon them. These three little brigades, attacked that division and in the most gallant style drove it back more than a mile and a half to Gravelly Run. Hunton was ordered next day to reinforce Pickett, who had been routed, driven from Five Forks, with his command badly demoralized and scattered. Hunton was not able to find General Pickett, and was joined by two other brigades, all under command of Gen. Bushrod Johnson. Under him they commenced their mournful retreat. Hunton’s Brigade brought up the rear with Gen. Fitz Lee’s cavalry behind them.
This was a heart-sickening retreat. They all knew the end was not far off, and still the battle-scarred veterans of the 8th, were ready to do all in their power, and to die for the dear cause they loved so well. At one point on this retreat they had to cross a bridge over a deep stream. The duty was assigned Hunton to guard this bridge until the rest – infantry and cavalry – had crossed. When it came their turn to cross, they were fighting the enemy in strong force on three sides. They had flankers to the right and left and skirmishers in rear. But they crossed in safety and continued to bring up the rear till they united with the rest of Pickett’s Division. Their rations failed entirely so the brigade halted at a corn house by the roadside and ears of corn distributed as rations.
On the 6th of April, 1865, as the enemy attacked and captured Huger’s artillery
of Pickett’s Division, Hunton’s Brigade counter attacked and retook the artillery. The brigade was deployed in line of battle, attenuated to the last degree. With Terry’s brigade on the right, Corse and Stewart on the left, each effort to approach Sailor’s Creek and continue the retreat was met by a devastating charge from Custer’s cavalry. They were thus prevented from retreating and the Federal infantry was about to surround them. Not till then did Hunton, after slinging his sword into some brush, surrender himself along with some of the remaining heroes of his brigade. Some companies of the 8th had been sent to Terry to extend his line, many of them escaped capture. Thus ended the 8th Virginia’s fighting part of the war.
Seventy-two hours later, on the 9th of April, 1865, General Lee surrendered his army to Grant at Appomattox Court House amid the tears and groans of a dying Nation. Eleven men of the Eighth Virginia were granted paroles at Appomattox Court House. Of these eleven, two had volunteered in ‘61.
Reenacting History of the 8th Virginia Infantry
By Dave Purschwitz
In 1968, I was a member of the 17th Virginia Infantry, North-South Skirmish Association (N-SSA). Our “uniforms” consisted of dark blue J.C. Penny work pants, elastic suspenders, no jacket , correct pattern white shirt, kepi, shoe polish blackened desert boots, correct leather gear and .58 Cal. Zouave Musket. I and about 6 other members of the 17th were interested in reenacting. The N-SSA is a target shooting organization that dresses in the uniforms of Northern and Southern soldiers and they and the 17th frowned on reenactors. They thought it rather stupid for people to be leveling real guns at each other.
These men and I started holding meetings to organize a regiment. As a 17th Virginia soldier, my family and I attended a couple of reenactments, at one of which I met Buddy Bare and his wife, of the First Maryland Line. We met at a Barn Dance in Pennsylvania. I opened an invitation to Buddy to join us for our meetings. Because all the other men and I lived in Virginia, we were looking for a Virginia Regiment to represent. The 8th Virginia Infantry was chosen because the 8th was not active in the field at that time. One of the men worked at the National Archives and located a description of the uniform of Co. F. A brown paper pattern was made off an original uniform and a Shell Jacket was constructed so we could see what the new uniform would look like.
Even after going to all this effort the interest seemed to wane some and the group seemed to be falling apart. That is, except for Buddy and me. We picked up the pieces and decided that the yet to be formed Eighth Virginia should not be allowed to die. And die it has not. Many Shell Jackets were made using that original pattern, making adjustment for the variety of sizes of the individuals of the individuals we were able to gather. Buddy knew boys in Maryland and I had gathered some in Virginia to make up our membership.
The beginning of the 8th was small but the men trained hard, recruited and the membership started growing. Membership has been near 70 men at one point. Like all reenactment regiments, we have had our ups and downs.
Over the years the “Old Bloody Eighth” members have fought or participated on a multitude of battlefields, in Living History demonstrations and at ceremonies from Canada to Florida to Illinois to Great Britain. The regiment and its members have also been involved in School Educational demonstrations, holding Kids Camps, and participating in the making of major motion pictures, Gettysburg, Gods and Generals, the TV production, Andersonville and the PBS Mini- Series North & South, Book 2.
The 8th Virginia Volunteer Infantry is a non-profit educational Corporation registered in the State of Maryland. Elections for our Command positions, as per corporate regulations, are held every year or every other year depending on the position. These positions are filled by members that demonstrate leadership qualities and are nominated and voted in by the membership. The Eighth has always been a family regiment and will remain as such unless a majority of the membership decides otherwise.