A Magnificant Record 

Major John McMurray,
Editor of the Jeffersonian-Democrat,
of Brookville,
Led the Company Which had the Highest
Percentage of Loss in a Single Engagement
during the Civil War

Source:  The Brookville Republican, 9th July 1908 issue, page 7

Transcribed by Shirley Pierce

Under the caption, "Daring Deeds of the American Volunteers," the Philadelphia Public Ledger, in its issue of Sunday, June 28th, 1908, published an article from the pen of Brevet Major General St. Clair A. Mulholland, in which is paid a signal tribute to our veteran citizen, Major John McMurray. The article is of such historical value, aside from its local interest through the connection of a well known citizen with the narrative, that we give it place, believing that our readers will share with us the interest in the story. When we consider that our modest neighbor of the Jeffersonian is here given credit for leading the body of troops which lost the highest percentage of enlisted men in any single engagement of the Civil War, it brings home to us again the truth of the statement that "a prophet is not without honor save in his own country." An excellent picture of Major McMurray and other officers participating in the battle of Chapin's Farm was published by the Ledger in connection with the article. General Mulholland says:

The most astonishing thing connected with the history of the War of 1861 to 1865 was the heroism displayed by the American volunteer. We have reason to expect deeds of valor from the standing armies of the world, from men whose sole duty is to drill and spend their whole lives in preparation to fight; men trained to arms and supposed to be ever ready to die in defense of their country, but the records of all the bravery and self-sacrifice of all nations of the earth pale and become as nothing when compared with the heroism of the volunteer armies of 1861 to 1865. Not in the history of the world is there a record of any regiment or battery losing 50 percent in killed and wounded in a single battle until our War of the Rebellion, and we must remember this fact when recalling the gallantry of our own people. The armies of England did great deeds during the centuries past; the veterans of Napoleon left the memory of their splendid fighting on many gory fields, but the volunteers of America, both in individual heroism and the gallantry displayed by them as an organization, have excelled every army that ever marched on earth. The farmer, who, in 1861, left his plow in the furrow; the merchant who closed his store; the clerk who three down the pen; the workman who left the mill, and the schoolboy his books, forming regiments and batteries to go to the front, proved better, nobler and more heroic soldiers than any others known in history.

I have said that no command of any nation in any war ever lost 50 per cent. Killed and wounded in a single engagement, except our own army, and there we find dozens of regiments that suffered that loss and more.

While almost every State can claim to have had regiments in the field which fought until they had made the glorious record of more than 50 per cent, killed and wounded, our State was not behind in the wonderful fighting at Gettysburg:

The 141st Pa. Infantry lost 64 per cent.
The 20th Pa. Infantry lost 50 per cent.
The 149th Pa. Infantry lost 50 per cent.
The 150th Pa. Infantry lost 50 per cent.
The 151st Pa. Infantry lost 56 per cent.
The 75th Pa. Infantry lost 56 per cent.

New York has several regiments on this roll of honor at Gettysburg:

The 11th New York lost 71 per cent.
The 80th New York lost 50 per cent.
The 126th New York lost 55 per cent.
The 147th New York lost 60 per cent.
The 82d New York lost 50 per cent.

New Jersey at Gettysburg had the 11th Infantry with a loss of 54 per cent.
Michigan was there with the 24th Infantry, losing 64 per cent.
Indiana, with the 19th and 20th Infantry, losing 56 and 54 per cent., respectively.
Wisconsin, with the 2d Infantry, losing 59 per cent.
New Hampshire, with the Fifth Infantry, losing 50 per cent.
Massachusetts, with the 15th Infantry, losing 50 per cent.
Minnesota, with the First Infantry, losing 82 per cent.

Not alone at Gettysburg, but on other fields we find the same glorious record of heroism.

At Manassas the 101st New York lost 64.6 per cent.
58th Pennsylvania, at Fort Harrison, lost 56.5 per cent.
25th Massachusetts, at Cold Harbor, lost 61.9 per cent.
36th Wisconsin, at Bethesda Church, lost 53.3 per cent.
20th Massachusetts, at Fredericksburg, lost 68.4 per cent.
Eighth Vermont, at Cedar Creek, lost 53.2 per cent.
81st Pennsylvania, at Fredericksburg, lost 59.7 per cent.
12th Massachusetts, at Antietam, lost 64.1 per cent.
First Maine, at Petersburg, lost 63.6 per cent.
Ninth Louisiana (colored), at Milliken's Ridge, lost 64 per cent.
Fifth New Hampshire, at Fredericksburg, lost 57.2 per cent.
Ninth Illinois, at Shiloh, lost 62.4 per cent.
Ninth New York, at Antietam, lost 59.2 per cent.
15th New Jersey, at Spottsylvania, lost 54.2 per cent.
69th New York, at Antietam, lost 61.8 per cent.
51st Illinois, at Chickamauga, lost 52.6 per cent.
Fifth New York, at second Bull Run, lost 76 per cent.
93d New York, at Wilderness, lost 58.9 per cent.
15th Indiana, at Missionary Ridge, lost 59.5 per cent.
Seventh Ohio, at Cedar Mountain, lost 58.6 per cent.
62d New York, at Antietam, lost 58.7 per cent.
Third Wisconsin, at Antietam, lost 58.8 per cent.
141st New York, at Opequan, lost 58.7 per cent.
59th New York, at Antietam, lost 52.8 per cent.
Second Wisconsin, at Manassas, lost 52.1 per cent.
45th Pennsylvania, at Cold Harbor, lost 50.5 per cent.
Sixth United States (colored), at Chapin's Farm, lost 54.8 per cent.
15th Massachusetts, at Antietam, lost 52.8 per cent.
Fourth United States (colored), at Chapin's Farm, lost 56 per cent.
26th New York, at Fredericksburg, lost 53 per cent.
14th Indiana, at Antietam, lost 56.2 per cent.
12th New Hampshire, at Cold Harbor, lost 50.5 per cent.

What a tale of death and blood, heroism and valor, devotion and love of country, these figures tell!

Colonel Sidney Burbank's Brigade of United States Infantry at Gettysburg lost exactly 50 per cent of all the officers; the Seventh United States Infantry lost 51 per cent fighting over the wheatfield; 17th Infantry lost 53 per cent; 10th United States Infantry lost 52 per cent.

These are some of the commands that beat the world's record for heroic fighting, and these figures speak for the killed and wounded only. Many were the missing in each of these commands.

The 58th Pennsylvania Infantry made its great record at Fort Harrison, September 29, 1864. The regiment was compelled to march over open ground for full three-quarters of a mile before reaching the fort, every moment exposed to the fire of the enemy without an opportunity of returning it. By the time the 58th reached the ditch in front of the works, eight color bearers had fallen in succession, and nearly 50 per cent of the men, but, without a moment's hesitation, the others leaped into the open trench and began climbing the works. Captain Cecil Clay, of Company K, seizing the flag of the 188th Pennsylvania, drove his sword into the bank, and, placing his foot on the handle, used it as a step. One of his men, seizing him by the leg, threw him up on to the top of the works. As he reached the crest of the banquette two privates, Johnston and Copeland, got there at the same moment. Johnston fell wounded and Copeland fell dead. The right arm of Captain Clay was shot off, but he seized the colors in his left and waved them aloft. The men of the 58th crowded each other in their efforts to climb the works, and after a terrific hand-to-hand struggle the fort was taken.


The battle known by this name was fought at the same time as the successful assault on Fort Harrison, and was, in fact, but a part of the same action, being an extension of our line to the right. In this battle the colored troops sustained remarkable losses and performed a most conspicuous part. Their heroism was great and their fighting superb. The Fourth United Stated Colored Infantry lost 56 per cent., killed and wounded, and of the 12 of the color guard, 11 were killed and wounded, and Sergeant Major Christian A. Fleetwood gained a Congress medal of honor for saving the flag of his regiment. This gallant regiment was recruited at Baltimore, in July and August, 1863.

The Sixth United States (colored) made also a remarkable fight at New Market Heights, losing nearly 55 percent. Killed and wounded and not one missing or unaccounted for. Captain McMurray's company lost 87 per cent., the greatest of any organization during the whole war.

At my request one of the survivors writes me the following account of the day:

"To understand clearly the battle of September 29, 1864, at Chapin's Farm, Va., and the heavy losses sustained by the Sixth United States Colored Infantry in that action, it is necessary for us to understand something of the position of the two opposing forces and of the conditions under which the attack was delivered.

"The 18th Corps, consisting of three divisions of three brigades each, under Major General Birney, was massed on the north side of the James River, near Deep Bottom. The whole command was under orders to march at daybreak on the morning of the 29th for an attack on Fort Harrison. The command was to move by the left, which threw the Third Brigade of the Third Division in front.

"This brigade was made up of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Regiments of U. S. C. T., under command of Colonel Samuel A. Duncan, of the Fourth. Our formation was in brigade line of battle, with the Fourth on the right; then the Fifth and, of course, the Sixth on the Left, and in this formation we were to move.

Rushing to Death

"The first position of the enemy on the road toward Fort Harrison was some two miles from our camp, in a northwesterly direction, and consisted of earthworks strengthened by a good abattis, and further guarded by a sluggish stream, swampy in places, and about three or four yards wide, with slimy banks and cozy, sticky bottom. This stream ran nearly parallel to that side of the earthworks which we attacked and was some 60 to 80 yards distant from it. This face of the works formed one of the adjacent sides of a re-entrant angle, from the other side of which an enfilading fire could be poured over the entire inner bank of the stream and into this angle and against this abattis that it was the fate of the Sixth to charge.

"We formed line of battle, as stated above, in the earliest dawn of the 29th, and, according to order, as soon as we could see to take aim, we began our march. Captain Weinman, of the Sixth, in command of the brigade sharpshooters, covered our front and was followed by A and K companies of the Sixth, in command of Captain R. B. Beath, deployed as skirmishers.

"Our orders were that 'as soon as the enemy was found, to strike and drive him as rapidly as possible,' and we were assured that the whole command would be at our backs to sustain us.

Stormed with Bullets

"Our route was through a fairly open woods, up the slope of a hill; then along its crest, finally dipping gently toward cleared or partly cleared land. We had barely reached the crest of the hill when firing began between the sharpshooters and the enemy. In a few moments the firing was increased by volleys from their picket reserves, and then a scattering and receding fire told us that our men had them on the run. Striking a double quick, we followed down the slope and soon were in the thick of it ourselves and getting it hot. For the Sixth had come squarely on that re-entrant angle and upon that muddy stream, too wide to be jumped over and too miry to be waded through, but which, nevertheless, had to be passed over. To hesitate was to die on the outer side of the stream. So officers and men plunged in and struggled through as best they might and climbed the opposite bank. But they had no sooner gained their feet than they were swept off them again by a storm of bullets from the left, delivered with great accuracy and in terrific volume. The color guard went down to a man and York, Sheldon and Landon and Meyer - in fact, almost every line officer of the regiment went down before it, either in the stream or on this inner bank. Captain York fell while taking the regimental colors form the dying color bearer, and Lieutenant Meyer, in trying to carry them forward after York had fallen. The national flag went down time and again and finally reached the front in the hands of Sergeant Kelly, of Company F, who was fortunate enough to carry it and live. The regimental flag was taken from the dead hands of Lieutenant Meyer by the adjutant of the regiment, N. H. Edgerton, who started forward with it, but went down with two paces of Meyer, struck by a ball which shot his hand at the wrist and cut the staff of the flag in two; but, finding that only his hand was gone, he sheathed his sword, took the flag in his other hand and carried it to the front at the abattis. Colonel Ames, already wounded in the fleshy part of his leg, and less than a score of the rank and file were there, waiting to make a further advance if men enough could be got together to make it possible. But when he learned that all who had crossed the stream with were with him, he said: "Well, boys, we can't break through this line with half a dozen men. Fall back behind the stream."

"This was accomplished with little further loss, although some firing was still kept up, for the powder smoke was now so dense that it was impossible for the enemy to see us, and the firing was done at random.

Daring in the Superlative

Captain John McMurray, that splendid officer whose company lost the wonderful percentage of 87 killed and wounded, also tells me the story of the awful day:

"Those who are familiar with the movements of the troops under Grant during the siege of Petersburg will remember that on September 29, 1864, General Warren was pushed out on the extreme left of our line in an attempt to capture the Weldon Railroad, while at the same time the 10th Corps, under General Ord, were thrown against the defenses of Richmond, on our extreme right.

"In this movement we formed part of the 18th Corps. Early on the morning of September 29th we were astir, and before sunrise were on the march directly toward the Confederate entrenchments at the foot of Spring Hill, or New Market Heights.

"In contemplating now the results of that day I have been led to see the wisdom of God in concealing from man what is before him as I never saw it before. Had I known when I arose that morning what was in store for my company or my regiment within the next two or three hours I would have been entirely unfitted for the duties of the day. In mercy and kindness I was allowed to see only what each moment revealed, and, seeing that and that only, I went forward, trying to do the best I could and hoping for the best results.

Facing the Rifle Pits

"As I remember the distance now the line of Confederate works toward which we were moving was somewhat between a mile and a half and two miles from the river at the point where we left the streamer. About half of this distance we marched by the flank, or 'endwise,' as Isaac Tuller said. Then we formed in line of battle, our regiment on the left of the line and the Fourth next on our right. Soon after forming thus we emerged from a wood into an open field, on the top of a little hill. Just as we reached this field we could see the first rays of sunlight glinting from the treetops and a score or two of Confederates scampering across the field before us, turning once in a while to shoot back at us. They were the men who had been on the picket line, and were falling back before us to their line of entrenchments.

"The field through which we were passing was nearly 40 rods in width, as I remember it now. From the edge of the wood the ground descended slightly toward the Confederate rifle pits. Between the far edge of the field and this line of rifle pits had been a strip of woods 10 or 12 rods wide through which ran a little stream parallel with the works. All the timber in this piece of woods had been cut down, forming a slashing in front of their line, very difficult to pass through, the trunks and limbs of the trees impeding our progress at every step. Our brigade was marched across this open field and halted at the far side, just at the edge of the slashing. There we were formed in line with as much accuracy and care as though we had been on parade. Every man and every officer was in his place. Every captain or company commander was in the front rank, his first sergeant was directly behind him in the rear rank and the lieutenants and sergeants stood a step or two behind the rear ranks of their companies in their places as file closers. Back of these a few paces stood the field officers of each regiment, and still back of them were the brigade commander and his staff officers.

Forward as One Man

"During the time we were straightening and adjusting our line, and while we stood there after it was all arranged, not a Confederate bullet was fired at us. I have no doubt that the Confederates looked on with great interest, thinking no doubt what a lot of fools we were. I know there was a big lot of thinking done by us as we stood there. We knew there was a strong line of Confederates behind the rifle pits across the slashing from us. We knew that, as soon as we would move forward, they would open fire on us.

"We knew the order to go forward would soon be given. But beyond that, What? Would it be death, or wound, or capture? Would it be victory or defeat? How the scenes and deeds of the past came rushing in on the mind like a mighty flood! That was perhaps the most trying five minutes we endured in all our army life. It would take the pen of the brightest angel that ever stood before the throne of God to write the thoughts of the men who stood in that line that bright September morning. my heart almost stands still now as I write these lines and try to recall some of the thoughts that came to me then.

"Finally we heard the voice of Colonel Duncan, our brigade commander, saying 'Forward!' and as one man we plunged into the slashing. And I want to say for the honor of the regiment, and the whole brigade, that I believe not a man turned his back to the enemy.

"The point where we attacked the Confederate line was about a mile and a half to our right, and the Confederate left, of Fort Harrison. Why we were directed to attack there I do not think an officer in our brigade knew. And I think they were equally ignorant of what was taking place at other points. We learned afterward that near the time of our attack, perhaps a little later, General Ord with the larger portion of the 18th Corps assaulted Fort Harrison, on the Chapin farm, one of the outer defenses of Richmond, and our attack at New Market Heights was merely to prevent the Confederate troops there from being sent to strengthen the line at and near Fort Harrison.

Ranks Growing Thinner

"At the command 'Forward!' our line advanced immediately, plunging at once into the slashing I have already described. Just as the command was given Lieutenant Johnson, of my company, in an excited way, began to swing his sword over his head, describing with it a series of circles. He had not completed more than three or four of these when a Confederate bullet struck him on the wrist, and the sword, flying off at a tangent, struck the ground 18 or 20 feet away. He was taken to the rear and then to the hospital at Fort Monroe, and I did not see him again for several months.

"But the rest of us pressed on toward the Confederate line, picking our way through the slashing as best we could. It was slow work, and every step of our advance exposed us to the murderous fire of the enemy. We had little chance for firing and might almost as well have had no muskets. Sometimes and in some places they were absolute hindrance to us. As we urged our way onward we were utterly unable to protect ourselves in any way. As we advanced I noticed our ranks getting thinner and thinner and wondered what had become of the men. I saw fewer and fewer of my own men, and wondered if any of them had turned back. Then I passed my first sergeant, Miles Parker, shot through the leg. He was sitting down and greeted me cheerfully as I passed by saying, 'Never mind me, captain, I'll get along all right.' And as I pressed on as best I could, urging the men forward, I passed others of my company, some killed and some wounded. I saw that my company was suffering heavy losses, but thought of little else than pressing forward and keeping the men moving on. When about half way through the slashing I came to a large oak tree that had been felled. At the same moment three or four members of the color guard came to the same spot. We were close by the stump of the tree, and the way forward seemed to be through an opening between the trunk of the tree and its stump, less than three feet wide. Involuntarily, almost, I paused to let the colors go ahead of me, I followed close after and just when the last of the men carrying one of our flags (we had three) was right in the opening between the stump and the tree trunk he was shot through the breast and fell back against me, almost knocking me over. The loss of his life there absolutely saved mine.

"Going Back was Worse"

"We pressed on until we got through the slashing, into an open space before the Confederate rifle pit. Just then Colonel Ames and I happened to come together, the first time we had met in the fight. He was as cool, apparently, as though there was not a Confederate within miles of us. Our line seemed to be very thin. I noticed Lieutenant Meyer, of whom I wrote a while back, as he stood a rod or two in advance of us. As I looked at him he was shot through the body--I think through the heart. When hit he was standing directly in front of a brush pile, about two feet high and four or five feet across. When he turned he sprang right over this, falling dead on the other side.

"As we stood there, and just as Lieutenant Meyer was killed, Colonel Ames said: 'Captain, don't you think we had better fall back? We haven't force enough to take this line, and if we remain here we will probably all be killed,' I answered frankly that I thought the best thing we could do was to fall back. Then he said: 'Take the men back as quickly as you can, but keep them well in hand, and don't let them get demoralized.' And then we started back. And the going back was worse than the coming up, because to be shot at with your back to the enemy is always more annoying. You feel then as if utterly helpless.

"Finally we got through the slashing and back to the open field, passing on the way several dead and some wounded men. As soon as we reached the open field each officer began to gather his men together so as to reform the regiment. The very best I could do I could only find three of my company, and I wondered where all the others were. I had not yet learned what my loss was. When I learned it fully I admit I felt sick and discouraged.

"In the field, some 10 or 15 rods from the edge of the slashing, we came to where Colonel Royce was sitting or lying, seemingly exhausted. His feet were in a hole in the ground made by a Confederate shell. As he was going back, just as he reached that spot, a shell struck the ground under him, making quite a hole, into which he dropped. His first feeling was that both legs had been shot off, but we soon convinced him they were not. His legs were all right, and he walked back with us. He had been wounded earlier in the fight.

Great Company Loss

"We fell back until we passed a rise in the ground where we would be protected from Confederate shells. There we halted and formed what was left of our regiment. When we had gathered up all our men, and ascertained in one way or another who were killed and who were wounded, we found our loss to be nearly 55 per cent. And all the fighting was done with musketry. But very few shots were fired from the artillery, and none of them harmed us. And all this loss was in eight companies, save the two killed and three or four wounded in Company A. The loss in my company was 11 men killed, one officer and 15 men wounded and one man captured. I entered the fight with 30 enlisted men, one officer and myself--32 all told--and came out with three enlisted men and myself. My loss was seven out of eight, or 87 per cent. And I was the only officer left in three companies in the center of the regiment. Over one third of my men were killed and wounded."

For his part in this fight Capt. McMurray was brevetted Major of U. S. Volunteers and he was afterward promoted to major of his regiment.






U. S. C. T.

©  Alice J. Gayley, all rights reserved

Web Space provided by