Letters of Capt. James G. Birney IV
Son of Judge James M. & Amanda S. (Moulton) Birney, of Bay City, Mich.
Added August, 2005.
Capt. James G. Birney IV and his father, Judge James Birney III, are descendants of James G. Birney II, a prominent leader in the abolistionist movement, and twice a presidential candidate, and one of the founders of Bay City.
Besides his grandson, the senior Birney had four sons that participated in the Civil War. Three died in service; Gen. David B, Birney, Lieut. Dieon Birney, and Major Fitzhugh Birney. Only Capt. Birney and Gen. William Birney survived the war.
Letter published in The Gateway, Vol. III, August 1904.
Michigan Cavalry Brigade at Gettysburg.
By William O. Lee _______
Captain Burney, in writing to his father of the battle says:
“On the day of the great Battle of Gettysburg (Friday) we had a very sharp fight with General Stuart on the right. The Seventh Michigan Cavalry charged gallantly and drove them back, when Hampton's entire brigade charged us and we were obliged to fall back. My horse was shot twice and finally killed; a bullet went through the pommel of my saddle, two through my overcoat and on through my saber strap, and I was struck on the heel with a spent one. The regiment began to fall back and just then the color-sergeant (Church, of Bay City) was killed by a pistol shot. I secured the colors and was charged on by a large number of rebels, and I can assure you the bullets whistled merrily for a while, but miracuously none touched me.”
Note: Battle of Gettysburg was fought July 1-3, 1863.
Letter published in local newspaper.
The Bay City Journal -- Thursday, April 13, 1865.
The follow extracts are from a private letter from Capt. J. G. Birney, recived by his father, Judge Birney, a few days ago:
Camp 7th Mich. Cav., Near City Point, March 28th, 1865.
“Since our return from the raid up the Shenandoah, we have been kept so busy reorganizing, as to have scarcely time to eat; and we have been in so miserable camp that I had no convenience for writing. It was decidedly the hardest raid on men and horses, that the cavalry ever made. We started with 12,000 men, and reached White House with about 7,000 mounted men, and 2,000 of these had unserviceable horses. I set off with 150 men in my battalion and reached here with only forty sabras.
We lived on the top shelf, however. Flour, hams, bacon, butter, eggs, chickens and corn were abundant, and we took with us fifteen day’s rations of coffee and sugar. My health is excellent. Felt a little unwell at White House, but have recovered.
I went to City Point to day to buy a clean shirt, as I had not put one on for four weeks.
We moved to-morrow morning at day-light in conjunction with the 2nd, 5th, and 6th corps of Army of the Potomac, and the 24th and 25th Corps of the Army of the James, towards the left. Like Job’s war horse, I snuff the battle from afar, but can not say that I paw the ground in anticipation thereof.
It is said here that the decisive battle of the war will be fought in less than forty-eight hours . A great fight is certainly imminent.
I whipped Early at Louisa Court House. To be sure he had only 30 men and I had 200, but then he is a Lieut. Gen., C. S. A., and I am only a Captain of the U. S. V.
I write this with a pencil, there being only one ink bottle in the regiment. That we use for directing.”
Capt. Birney's Subsequent Activities Following The Letter. -- Contributed by Gerald Pergande, August 25, 2005.
Regarding James Birney's letter to his father:
Young Captain Birney did have a busy next couple of weeks, although the decisive battle of the Civil War occurred one day later than he predicted. (It was delayed by heavy rain and Confederate interference.)
It was the Battle of Five Forks, Virginia, fought on April 1, 1865 and often called the "Waterloo of the Confederacy". While Birney's cavalry brigade struck the center of the Confederate line, the Union 5th Corp, of which Bay County's Colonel Benjamin Partridge's 16th Michigan Infantry was part, assaulted their left flank.
The Rebels were routed allowing the Yankees to capture the adjacent Southside Railway, Richmond's last supply link. That loss caused Robert E. Lee to abandon the Confederate capital the next day and start his army's escape toward Appomattox.
On the two days before and while on the way to Five Forks, however, he was in a sharp little fight called Dinwiddie Court House. After Five Forks, his unit pursued the escaping Rebels and fought engagements of varying sizes at Scott's Cross Roads, Tabernacle Church, Sailor's Creek, and Appomattox Station, where the Union cavalry moved to cut off Lee's retreat. On the next day, April 9th, Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House with both Birney's and Partridge's units present.
The Battle of Sailor's Creek is of some note as 166 Union soldiers were killed and about a thousand wounded, all more than at Five Forks. Birney's brigade there was commanded by Colonel Peter Stagg of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, of which a staff officer of Major General Phillip Sheridan, the overall Union cavalry corp commander, wrote:
"Stagg's men moved out gallantly for a mounted charge, and, as seen from a knoll where General Sheridan was, there never was a prettier panorama of war in miniature than when this brave brigade trotted across the valley and began to go up the slope on which the enemy's infantry was then entrenched. A heavy fire met them, but they pressed on boldly, as if they had an army at their back, and the piff! paff! of their carbines echoed the sputtering fire from the enemy's hillside."
Early, Lt. Gen.
Lee, Robert E., Gen.
Partridge, Benj., Col.
Sheridan, Phillip, Maj.Gen.
Stagg, Peter, Col.
1st Mich. Cav.
16th Mich. Inf.
Appomattox Court House
Army of James
Army of Potomac
Battle of Five Forks
Dinwiddle Court House
Job's war horse
Louisa Court House
Scott's Cross Roads
Shenandoah Union 5th Corp
Other News On Same Page
On Left Of The Army,
N. W. Dinwiddie, C. H. – April 2d.
- Have just heard there would be an opportunity to mail a note, and as we have been sharply engaged for the last three days, I will send a line.
- We had a terrible fight yesterday, and gave the Johnnies a complete whipping, capturing nearly the whole of the pickets and part of the Johnson’s Division. It is reported that we have the South Side R. R. - My division was in the fight dismounted with the 5th Army Corps. Excuse me from any more infantry fighting. The day before, March 31, we were badly whipped, and I gave myself up as gone. I shall not forget that day, as long as I live. I will give you the details some time. I was cut off with eight companies, and at one time were half a mine in rear of the rebel line. We were dismounted, and when we reach our lines were completely “played out.” I was reported wounded, captured, killed and every thing else; but was merely badly demoralized. The infantry are now hard at it on the right, and I would not be surprised, if we had another brush before noon.
- Peace negotiations are a humbug. The fight just as hard as they ever did. This is written on rebel paper with a rebel pencil. We have nothing now except what we capture.
Gen. Grant. – The results of this spring’s campaign, the taking of Richmond, capture of Lee’s army, and causing the rebel government to crumble to pieces, are all owing to the well-planned and splendidly executed schemes of Gen. Grant. Yet, in the face of these facts, which stamp him as the greatest military genius of the age, we find the Detroit Free Press says - “We pronounced Grant a humbug. We see nothing in the recent campaign to change our opinion of Gen. Grant. His combinations have failed.”
- The Free Press, which invariably does its utmost to belittle every Union victory, and whose sympathy for rebels peeps out on every opportunity, must have a high opinion of the intelligence of its readers, when it thinks it can by such absurdities blind them to the abilities and brilliant achievements of the Lieutenant General.
Major W. M. C. Sherman, paymaster of volunteers, who recently resigned, did so because the death of his wife’s father leave her a fortune of $400,000. Major Sherman is a native of Rhode Island.