When one looks at the roster of Civil War generals and soldiers alike, there’s a fair amount of war veterans or West Point graduates. However, what I find the most interesting are the soldiers who work up through the ranks with little or absolutely no battle experience prior to the start of the war between the states. Alfred Colquitt is one such soldier.
In my research for my historical fiction novel, The Soldier, I heard Colquitt’s name thrown around a few times when I read about troops from Georgia. It wasn’t until I delved deeper into the Battle of Olustee that I realized the role he played as a commander and brigadier general.
Born April 20th, 1824 in Monroe Georgia, Alfred had some big shoes to fill. His father, Walter Colquitt, became a beloved Methodist preacher when Alfred was just three years old. A year prior to that, he was elected judge in Walton County, Georgia. Lawyer and circuit-riding preacher, he was known for his stand on states’ rights. It’s likely that Alfred would have grown up hearing his father’s speeches and adopted many of his views. But Walter wore three hats, one of which he hadn’t necessarily worn often, but is still attached to his biography. Before Alfred was born, Walter was made a brigadier general for the state militia at the age of 21.
Two sisters were born to Alfred in 1830, Elizabeth and Emily. Peyton Colquitt, another would-be Civil War soldier, was born in 1831 when Alfred was seven years old. Three years later, their father finally stepped further into the political ring and became a member of the Georgia Senate in 1834 and 1837. Most likely cared for by his mother, Nancy, in Monroe, Alfred and Peyton might not have seen much of their father, especially when he took to the House of Representatives with the Whig party in 1839 as one of the ten representatives for the 26th Congress.
In the meantime, Alfred followed in his father’s footsteps and attended Princeton College, studying law just as his father had, and graduated in 1844. While he was in school, his mother died, his father remarried – twice – and switched to the Democratic party in 1843. Despite all of this domestic upheaval, he passed his bar exam in 1846, the same year many noted Civil War generals were graduating from West Point (George McClellan and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson just to name two).
He practiced law in his hometown of Monroe, until he served as paymaster during the Mexican-American War under General Zachary Taylor. He rose to the rank of major before the war would end. While he was off to war, his father who held a higher military rank than he did, was in Washington opposing the Wilmot Proviso. This proposal stated that any new lands acquired upon the success of the Mexican-American War, would be deemed free territory, meaning no slavery. This, among many other congressional debates and laws, was another factor that added to the political conflicts that led up to the Civil War. The Wilmot Proviso failed.
After serving his country for a short stretch, Alfred returned to Georgia, married Dorothy Tarver, and moved onto a plantation that his wife had inherited in Baker County. Together, before her death in April of 1855, he had three daughters, Ann (1849), Elizabeth (1852), and Laura (1854). He remarried his brother-in-law’s widow, Sarah (Bunn) Tarver, and fathered Dorothy (most likely named after their mutual loss). After the war, Harriet (1866) and Walter Terry Colquitt II (1874) were also born to Sarah.
He began his political career the same year his first daughter was born, as assistant secretary of the Georgia Senate. In 1853, Alfred was elected into the Thirty-third Congress as a Democrat. Though his father, Walter, had retired from politics about five years prior to Alfred’s stepping into office, there were undoubtedly members who saw young Colquitt as a mimic of his father, taking on a similar platform.
He served as a representative until 1855, when his wife’s health took a turn for the worse and he was forced to step back from politics for a time. That same year, his father died on a trip from Columbus to Macon Georgia, adding to his grief.
After her death and marrying Sarah, he stepped up to represent Bake County in the Georgia House of Representatives in 1859, again as a Democrat who was pro-secession. In January of 1861 at the height of tensions between the north and the south, he attended the Georgia Secession Convention. His father had taken a similar stand with the Nashville Convention in 1850, where delegates from nine slave holding states met to consider a possible course of action if the United States Congress decided to ban slavery in the new territories. Alfred’s name was one of the many that appear on the Ordinance of Secession that was signed, officially declaring that Georgia was breaking away from the Union.
Alfred, Peyton, and their half brother John, all heeded the call for men to defend the newly formed Confederacy. The eldest of the Colquitts was given command as captain over the 6th Georgia Infantry out of Macon in April of 1861. This regiment would follow Colquitt throughout the war from Virginia to the Carolinas and all the way south to Florida.
Peyton might have been the most prepared out of the family, having gone to West Point’s Military Academy until 1853. Unfortunately, he had dropped out and became the editor of the Columbus Sentinel. He fought at the second battle of the war at the Battle of Sewell’s Point, as captain of the Columbus City Light Guard, a Georgia unit. He was later promoted to colonel, just as Alfred was, with the 46th Georgia Infantry. At the Battle of Chickamauga, September 20th, 1863, he took command of the brigade under States Rights Gist (yes, that was his name). Their brigade lost 170 men in 45 minutes when they had to plug a hole in the line of Major General John C. Breckinridge. One of these men lost was Peyton, mortally wounded and dying of his wounds two days later. A memorial was erected where he fell on the battlefield, a massive pyramid of cannonballs tucked away in the woods behind the long row of Georgia monuments along the Confederate Line.
John Colquitt, though a half-brother by their step-mother, also became a colonel with the 1st Arkansas Infantry, serving in several major battles like Manassas, Shiloh, and Chickamauga. At Chickamauga, he distinguished himself for being part of McNair’s brigade with Johnston’s army to repel Rosecrans’ center from the field of battle. “We poured a continued and terrific fire upon them,” reported Colonel Colquitt, “once or twice causing their fire to become very weak…. [The] enemy appearing to waver, we rushed with a shout to the charge and drove him from his fortified position. [We] again moved forward and drove the enemy in utmost confusion from this second stronghold. Many of them came running toward us in order to surrender before our galling fire should cut them down.” Toward the end of the war, he surrendered with Joseph Johnston in North Carolina on April 26, 1865.
While his two brothers were busy in the western theater, Alfred Colquitt had his hands full in Virginia. He distinguished himself at the Battle of Seven Pines (also known as the Battle of Fair Oaks or Fair Oaks Station) which took place on May 31 and June 1, 1862, in Henrico County, Virginia. As part of the Peninsula Campaign, Union forces under George McClellan were working their way toward Richmond, the capitol of the Confederacy. The Confederate Army at this time was led by Joseph Johnston. Though the battle was inconclusive, with the Union unable to win their objective and the Confederates losing Johnston to a war wound, this became a defining moment for Colquitt. Brigadier General Gabriel Rains was also wounded and taken from his command over his brigade under Daniel Harvey Hill (D.H Hill). Colquitt stepped up and led the 13th Alabama, 26th Alabama, 6th Georgia, and 23rd Georgia after Rains was taken from the field. He helped to play a part in the successful flanking maneuver that turned the tide of battle in favor of the Confederates.
After this battle, Johnston was removed from command and Robert E. Lee was put in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia. This led to one of the biggest turn-arounds in military history. The Federals wouldn’t get that close to Richmond again until the very end of the war. This led to the Seven Day’s Battle, where D. H Hill’s division, along with Colquitt’s Fourth Brigade, took part in some heavy fighting around Malvern Hill, Oak Grove, Beaver Dam Creek (Mechanicsville), Gaines’s Mill, Garnett’s & Golding’s Farm, Savage’s Station, and Glendale and White Oak Swamp. All in an effort to push back McClellan’s army to make way for Lee’s Maryland Campaign.
Once the army was in Maryland, Colquitt made a valiant stand again with his men at South Mountain on September 14th, 1862. Sent to reinforce J.E.B Stuart and his cavalry at Turner’s Gap, he held ground against the Union’s mighty Iron Brigade (comprised of regiments from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana). Despite losing Stuart’s forces as he turned further south to defend another gap, he and D.H Hill held the one pass to the Hagerstown Pike until reinforcements could arrive in the form of Rodes, Ripley, and Anderson who were guarding a possible Union retreat from Harper’s Ferry, which Longstreet was actively working to occupy.
This delay at South Mountain bought Lee time to regather his army and move to another future hotbed of battle, Sharpsburg. Known popularly as the Battle at Antietam, Colquitt once again was thrown into a veritable hornet’s nest. On the morning of September 17th, 1862, McClellan dispatched Joseph Hooker and his I Corps at daybreak. Some of the worst fighting took place in what was called The Cornfield. With their objective as the Dunker Church on the western side of Hagerstown Pike, they pressed forward and met resistance with Jackson’s division on the left flank of the Confederate line.
Colquitt’s brigade were sent from D.H Hill’s division around the Sunken Road to reinforce Jackson. In the very thick of the fighting at Miller’s Cornfield, Colquitt’s brigade went in with ten field officers, all of which were indisposed by the end of the battle. Four were fatalities, five were mortally wounded, and another was so stunned by a shell that he was unable to command. However, his brigade wasn’t retired from battle just yet. Toward noon, he was ordered back to D.H Hill’s line along the Sunken Road to cover the left flank. Supporting Rodes and G.B Anderson, Colquitt held the line until misgiven orders called for an apparent retreat.
At the end of the day, Antietam became the single bloodiest day in American history with over 22,720 casualties. When Lee returned to Virginia after surrendering the town of Sharpsburg to the Federals, promotions were issued. Though the initial list of promotions didn’t feature Colquitt’s name, the War Department in Richmond had awarded him the rank of Brigadier General to take charge over Gabriel Rain’s brigade after his decommission at Seven Pines. General Lee, however, was looking to promote John B. Gordon to this position. Gordon had also been at the Sunken Road, wounded five times, including once through the face. The colonel had fallen down face-first and while still alive, would have drowned in his own blood if it weren’t for the hole in his hat that had been collecting that blood. He had led the troops along what became known as “Bloody Lane”, despite the slight debacle in orders. It was likely that Colquitt was award command because of his acts at Seven Pines before Lee took command.
Still, more battles lay in Colquitt’s future as a brigadier general.
In December of that year, Colquitt would battle at what became known as the Slaughter Pen. To the southeast segment of the town, the Georgians fought against the Union’s left flank while Longstreet’s divisions battled in and immediately around Fredericksburg. The battle became one of the most noted urban battle scenarios of their time. Charging across the Richmond-Fredericksburg-Potomac Railroad, it was their job to make sure that a Union flank attack would be stopped at all costs. It was, and the battle became a bloody, but much needed victory after the retreat from Sharpsburg just a few months before.
Chancellorsville in May of the following year proved to be his undoing, however. Colquitt was part of Jackson’s division. The order was given for them to march ahead and attack the XI Corps flank along the Old Turnpike toward the town. Colquitt would battle alongside other familiar brigades like Iverson and Doles from Fredericksburg. The surprise attempt on Hooker’s army was to be a massive four column advance to completely crumble the Union right flank and push them north. The attack was successful and Chancellorsville became a Confederate victory at the cost of its most glorified general, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who was shot and wounded by his own men. However, there was a slight hiccup in the advance that might have ruined the whole thing.
The orders given by Jackson were to go forward, do not stop, do not pause. Colquitt, however, defied these orders momentarily. Thinking that there was a threat of cavalry on his right flank (being the extreme right of the Confederate advance), he stopped. Behind him, Dodson Ramseur became furious and upon finding no threat, barked at Colquitt to keep going. He did, but this caused a serious lag that would come back to haunt him.
As a result of his little blunder, it was deemed that Colquitt’s actions hampered the successfulness of Jackson’s plan, depriving him of much needed Georgian troops. They still won, but other generals were also chewed out for their certain failures over the three days. That May, D.H Hill exchanged Colquitt’s brigade for a brigade from North Carolina under Julius Daniel. Though large, the troops were untried due to their distance from the battlefield.
Thus began a stretch of relative inactivity for Colquitt and his men, until an opportunity for redemption came in February of 1864. A threat loomed over the southern region of the Confederacy as Union forces were making their way toward the Panhandle of Florida. The troops in existence there weren’t experienced in battle as Colquitt was, and upon the orders of P.G.T Beauregard, Colquitt came to General Joseph Finnegan’s aid at the Battle of Olustee. (For more about this battle, see my blog post: Olustee: Florida Plays its Part
After the victory in Florida, Colquitt was invited to rejoin Lee’s forces in Virginia. Until the end of the war, they would take part in many battles including Petersburg where his brigade defended the line against Birey’s II Corps on the left Confederate flank. They would then return to the south and serve with Hoke’s division at the battle of Bentonville, North Carolina in March of 1865. Through a serious of defeats and chases by Union General William Sherman, Colquitt and the rest of the southern army surrendered in April of 1865, ending his military career.
Life after the Civil War for Confederates would be tumultuous and frustrating. Thanks to President Abraham Lincoln, slavery has been abolished, and with that movement came a slew of economic challenges. This wasn’t made any easier by the Union’s Anaconda Plan to choke off supplies and goods to the Confederacy, as well as Sherman’s raid through George on his way to Savannah. Families that Colquitt would have been well acquainted with would have struggled to make ends meet and rebuild their lives.
Colquitt returned to his home in Baker County. Farther south and out of Sherman’s warpath, he would have still felt the pangs of the Reconstruction Era. Democrats, like him, were not looked upon favorably by the new Republican agenda that had swept through the former Confederate states. Federal soldier occupation of some towns became mandatory as unrest between southerners and newly freed slaves escalated.
However, a turnaround took pace in the 1870s. Colquitt defeated Republican candidate Jonathan Norcross for governor of Georgia in 1876, reclaiming the Georgia government for the Democratic party. The battle to keep that position, however, was an uphill climb. Rumors from embittered Republicans and even Democrats who felt ousted by Colquitt, spread rumors that the new governor had some illegal and underhanded dealings with the Northeastern Railroad. He wasn’t the only politician to be investigated for corruption, as John B. Gordon – whom he fought beside at Antietam – and Joseph E. Brown were put under the microscope. He was found clean and innocent by the legislative committee.
His platform against Reconstruction most likely had a hand in keeping himself in power. In 1880, he was reelected to serve another term, and the debt in the state was significantly reduced under his leadership. In 1883, over twenty years later, Colquitt was able to return to his place in the Senate as a Democratic Representative where he and his father had faithfully served their home state of Georgia.
Colquitt would serve two terms in the senate until 1892. At the age of 68, he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyze. He recovered and continued his political work until he suffered a second one in March of 1864, which rendered him completely incapacitated. He died two weeks after the stroke in Washington D.C, on March 26th.
The lawyer, politician, and Civil War soldier is now buried in Rose Hill cemetery in Macon, Georgia.
“Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study In Command” by Douglass Southall Freeman