I Thank You Sir. I Thank You
Bonham Daily Favorite, July 25, 1993
Several months ago, in this space, the story of Major Charles Grace's claim to Civil War fame was recounted. It will be remembered that Major Grace long claimed, and was supported to some degree, to have been the Confederate sniper who shot Union General John Sedgewick at the battle of Spottsylvania Courthouse.
Bonham also had another illustrious citizen whose claim to Civil War fame rested on his heroism in saving the life of General Robert E. Lee. Smith Lipscomb, South Carolina native was the Confederate soldier on the bulwarks during Grant's siege of Petersburg, Virginia. And his quick presence of mind saved General Lee from certain death.
Smith Lipscomb was born in Spartanburg District, South Carolina on February 26, 1840. He was educated in the schools of the district and was engaged in farming until the fateful spring of 1861 when he chanced to be in Charleston when the rebel guns were turned on Fort Sumter.
In the tumultuous days after, as Southerners began to rally behind their leaders, military organizations were springing up throughout the South to join those state militias already preparing for the coming war. When war was declared, young Lipscomb enlisted in the Eighteenth South Carolina Regiment. He later was appointed lieutenant and achieved the rank of Captain of his Company before the war's end.
Captain Lipscomb was not to achieve his fame and also to escape almost certain death until the final year of the war.
In the Spring of 1864, U.S. Grant launched a new campaign against Robert E. Lee. Gathering his forces, Grant was determined to force the Rebels from their entrenchments in Virginia, but he was faced with extremely high morale among the Confederate forces who had been convinced that one or two decisive victories over Union forces would result in the "Yankees" quitting the war in disgust.
Grant, however, was determined to cut off Lee from his source of supply and capture Richmond at the earliest. The first of these confrontations in the Virginia campaign came at the Wilderness in May of 1864. Three or four days of skirmishing resulted in indecisive results. On the fifth of the month both Grant and Lee raced toward Richmond by way of Spotsylvania Courthouse. Lee's troops arrived first. The fighting was sporadic until Grant's men succeeded in breaking through the Confederate lines with the most ferocious fighting taking place at a place called the Bloody Angle. It was during this particular confrontation that Union General Sedgwick was killed with a bullet fired from the gun of Bonham resident Charles Grace.
Both armies continued to circle to the south by-passing Richmond. Another battle was shaping up for Peterburg to the south of Richmond. In a deceiving tactic Grant ordered his troops in an apparent march toward Richmond, but then as quickly shifted toward the James River and Petersburg.
Petersburg was an important communication center for Confederate forces and Grant reasoned that if he could capture the town he would be able to cut all supply lines and force the surrender of Richmond much as Vicksburg had been taken a year before.
For once Lee's brilliant analytical mind failed him and he misread Grant's movement. Lee immediately ordered most of his troops to Richmond to repel the Union army. Instead of launching the expected attack, Grant had his engineers build a massive pontoon bridge across the James River and on June 12th the Army of the Potomac began to cross.
When the first Union troops reached Petersburg they found the town defended by less than 3,000 Confederates. An attack was launched and by nightfall the Union army seemed assured of victory. However, since the expected reinforcements for the Union army had failed to arrive by that time, Beauregard Smith ordered a withdrawal of the troops. The delay enabled the Confederates to dig in more firmly with the result that the ensuing Union attacks were effectively repelled prolonging the war for many more months .
For ten months both armies dug in constructing a maze of trenches and burrows. Both sides suffered extreme losses. It seemed that the war was stalemated.
Early in June General Lee, accompanied by General Gracie of Alabama, visited one of the sections of the fortification commanded by Colonel Elliott. Lee was anxious to inspect the enemy trenchworks and climbed upon the parapet. General Gracie realizing the danger that Lee had placed himself in immediately stepped in front of the commander to shield him from the anticipated sniper fire.
As the two men stood there, a young South Carolina officer stood immediately below them. Smith Lipscomb realized at once that both men were in peril and without warning, or ceremony grabbed each by the coattails and jerked them down into the fortification just as a hail of bullets swept over the spot where they had stood. Regaining his composure, Lee turned to Lipscomb, saluted and said, "I thank you sir, I thank you."
In later years as Lipscomb's bravery became known he received many tributes. Among the most widely read was written by John Featherstone of an Alabama Regiment which appeared in a number of Southern newspapers.
But Lipscomb's greatest trial was yet to come. At the time a number of Pennsylvania coalminers, under the command of General Ambrose Burnside, were digging a 500 foot tunnel under the Confederate lines. Undetected by the Confederates, Burnside had the tunnel packed with four tons of gunpowder. Among the Union troops Burnside's plot created a lot of talk and was generally considered to be a joke.
On July 30 at dawn, Burnside gave the order to light the fuse. Suddenly the earth erupted with an enormous roar. Dirt, debris, weapons, and flames shot into the air punctuated by bodies and pieces of bodies. As the smoke began to disperse a great crater 30 feet deep, 70 feet wide, and 250 feet long began to emerge.
Burnside ordered the union troops into the crater to storm the city of Petersburg and take control. Then everything in his plan fell apart. There was no way out of the crater; no ladders had been provided. As the Union troops milled in confusion, the Confederates, by now regrouped, began to fire on them like so many sitting ducks. By afternoon the survivors all surrendered.
Of all the hundreds of Confederate troops who were atop the massive explosion, only Smith Lipscomb and three or four others survived.
Fannin County Museum of History
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