Norfolk, Va., April 21, 1862.

I informed you by telegraph yesterday that the enemy had on the 19th instant attacked Colonel Wright in his position near South Mills, N.C. He reports they advanced on him in strong force (estimated by him at 5,000) and commenced the attack at 11.45 a.m. He had in a strong position, with an open space in front of some 600 yards over which they had to advance, some 400 men and four pieces of artillery. The enemy were held in check till 5 p.m.


At 4 p.m. Captain McComas who commanded the battery, was killed. Colonel Wright speaks of his gallantry and good conduct in high terms.


The ammunition in the limber-boxes was exhausted and the caissons not at hand. There was some confusion and the pieces went after the caissons, and at 5 p.m. Colonel Wright retired a mile or so.


Early yesterday morning he moved all his forces back to Northwest Lock (about half way on the Dismal Swamp Canal, at which point Brigadier-General Blanchard joined him yesterday with the Thirty-second North Carolina and First Louisiana Regiments.


Lieutenant Sloan, aide-de-camp, returned from Northwest Lock last night. Up to 3 p.m. they had heard of no movement of the enemy.


Colonel Wright reports his total loss of killed, wounded, and missing at 73. He does not give other numbers. I make out from the wounded who have arrived at the hospital that the number killed was 7 or 8; wounded, 20; only 10 severely enough to be sent to the hospital. Colonel Wright mentions that he' fears Lieutenant Wilson is killed. He was wounded and is missing.


Whether the enemy intend to occupy Elizabeth City and neighborhood or whether this was only an expedition to capture the troops there, I cannot yet tell.


Colonel Wright estimates the killed and wounded of the enemy as very large. At all events, he did not pursue our troops at all.


Since writing the above I have received the inclosed letter from General Blanchard, covering copy of one from Brigadier-General Reno, from which it appears it was Reno's brigade, of Burnside's army, which made the attack, and they were evidently severely handled and defeated.


I am, general, very respectfully, your most obedient servant,


 Major-General, Commanding.

 General R. E. LEE,

 Commanding General.

[Inclosure No. 1.]

SOUTH MILLS, N. C., April 20, 1862.

GENERAL: I inclose a copy of a letter from General Reno, U.S. Army, relative to wounded men, by which you will see that he recognizes defeat. It appears that the enemy were entirely defeated, and if our forces could have pursued them we could have made many prisoners. Two are sent with this dispatch. Our people are gathering many guns, &c., left on the field by the fleeing foe. A return will be made of the property captured.


I am in doubt what answer to make-about the wounded enemy (about 14), now in hospital, under charge of their surgeon. Please advise me without delay, as I am not sure it is not a plan to find out where we are. I shall send troops down the country toward Elizabeth City early tomorrow.


Respectfully, your obedient servant,


 Brig. Gen., Prov. Army C. S., Commanding Third Brigade.

 General B. HUGER,

 Commanding Department.


[Inclosure No. 2.]

April 20, 1862.

SIR: In the recent engagement near South Mills, owing to a lack of transportation, I was compelled to leave a few of my wounded under the charge of one of our surgeons. As it has been invariably our practice to release the wounded on parole, I confidently anticipate that you will pursue the same course, in which case you will please inform Commodore Rowan at what time and place they can be received. I also request permission to remove the body of Lieutenant Gadsden, of the Ninth New York. The surgeon will point out the place of his interment.


Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

 J. L. RENO,

 Brigadier-General, U. S. Army.


At Elizabeth City or at South Mills, N. C.


April 22, 1862.

GENERAL: I have heard but little from South Mills and Elizabeth City since my letter of yesterday. I have a dispatch from General Blanchard, from South Mills, dated yesterday. The enemy had returned to their boats and destroyed the bridges behind them on their retreat.


A small steamer came in last night and brought 1,100 pounds of powder, and I am informed we have collected a good many muskets and tools.


A diary and letter to his wife from one of the band were picked up on the field of battle. He belonged to a Massachusetts regiment, and left New Berne under orders for a short expedition, embarked on board the steamer Northerner, and was told by Colonel Clark they were to go via Roanoke Island to Elizabeth City and thence to blow up the locks to a canal from Norfolk, to prevent the rebels from coming down with their iron-clad steamers to destroy our fleet at New Berne. He said the rebels had two regiments and four cannon to guard the canal, and we would have five regiments and eight cannon to fight them, if they should fight. We have been lying here near Roanoke Island pretty much all day, and the report is after dark we have got to land and march from 12 to 20 miles. Dated April 18.


The captured powder, other reports, and this letter confirm the opinion that their intention was to capture the forces at South Mills and destroy the locks of the canal to prevent our use of it. When they retire I will withdraw our troops, keeping only a guard at South Mills, and make Deep Creek the position for the main body to re-enforce them.



General R. E. LEE,



Norfolk, Va., April 28, 1862.

GENERAL: I have received through Brigadier-General Blanchard, commanding Third Brigade, the reports of Cols. A. R. Wright and Ferebee, commanding the drafted North Carolina Militia, and Lieut. D. A. French, who succeeded to the command of the battery of artillery after the death of its gallant captain, McComas.


I would forward these reports to you at once, but there are some discrepancies and omissions in them which I desire first to have corrected, and will therefore try to make a brief statement from these reports, to give you and the War Department information concerning this severe and well-fought action, which was successful, inasmuch as the enemy failed to accomplish his object and was obliged to retire to his vessels with great loss.


I send herewith a sketch of the country between South Mills and Elizabeth City, showing the position of the battle.


All the forces under the command of Colonel Wright were the Third Regiment Georgia Volunteers, some drafted militia, under Colonel Ferebee, of North Carolina (Colonel F. omits to state in his report how many he had on duty), McComas' battery of artillery (one rifled piece and three bronze 6-pounders), and one company of cavalry, Captain Gillett's Southampton company.


On Friday, the 18th, I had ordered forward the Thirty-second North Carolina Regiment (Colonel Brabble's) and the First Louisiana Regiment (Colonel Vincent's ), but they did not arrive until after the battle.


On Friday, the 18th, Colonel Wright occupied South Mills with three companies of his regiment (160 strong) and the drafted North Carolina Militia, two companies at the intrenchments at Richardson's Mills (125 effectives) and five companies (about 300 men) and McComas' battery of artillery at Elizabeth City.


On Friday evening, anticipating the enemy's advance and in compliance with my instructions to concentrate his forces at or near South Mills, he ordered the companies at Elizabeth City to retire 9 miles to Richardson's Mills. From some cause not yet explained these companies did not leave Elizabeth City until after daylight on Saturday morning.


The cavalry company from Camden Court-House reported at 8.30 o'clock.


On the 19th, the enemy approaching, having then passed the CourtHouse, Colonel Wright moved forward with his three companies, and at 9.30 o'clock was met by Colonel McComas with his battery. After advancing 3 miles from South Mills the road emerged from the woods, and the field on the right and left extended 160 to 180 yards to thick woods and swamp. On the edge of the woods, on both sides of the road and perpendicular to it, was a small ditch, the earth from which was thrown up on the south side in a ridge, upon which was a heavy rail fence. From this point the road led through a narrow lane (Sawyer's) for 1 mile, with cleared land on both sides of it. Here he determined to make his stand.


About 300 yards from the woods ran a deep, wide ditch parallel with the one first mentioned and extending to the woods on either side of the road, and a short distance beyond it were dwellings and outhouses which would give cover for the enemy. Colonel Wright therefore ordered them burned. The large ditch in his front he filled with fence rails and set them on fire, his object being to have this ditch so hot by the time the enemy came up they could not occupy it. (This ditch is marked on sketch as "Roasted Ditch.")


Two pieces of artillery (the road was too narrow for more) were placed in the road just where it emerged from the woods, which commanded the road--the range of the guns. He also threw down the fences for 300 yards on each side of the road for 300 yards in front of the guns, and tossed the rails into the road to destroy the effect of the enemy's ricochet firing and to deprive him of the cover of the fences. The fences on the sides of the woods were taken down and laid in heaps on the embankment in front of his men.


All these arrangements were made, and it was 11 o'clock before he was joined by Lieutenant-Colonel Reid and the seven companies from below. Two of these, under Major Lee, were placed at River Bridge, with one piece of McComas' artillery, with directions to destroy it and stop the enemy there if he should attempt to get into our rear by coming up the west side of the river. Lieutenant-Colonel Reid and three companies of the Third Georgia (and by Colonel Ferebee's report the North Carolina Militia) were placed about a mile in the rear at the meeting of an old road, to protect that passage and serve as a reserve. The remaining five companies were deployed in open order across the road on the right and left of the artillery, protected by the ditch and fence rails on the banks.


The smoke from the burning buildings and fences was rolled toward the enemy, thus masking the position. At 11.45 a.m. the front of a heavy column of the enemy was seen passing through the smoke and Captain McComas opened a destructive fire upon it, which checked its advance for half an hour when it again approached under the fire of a 12-pounder, but soon retired entirely out of sight in considerable confusion. Up to 3 o'clock thrice had the heavy columns of the enemy been beaten back by the heavy fire of Captain McComas' artillery, and our only casualties were one man wounded and one wheel injured.


At 3.15 p.m. the enemy again advanced and deployed two regiments to their right, our left. These regiments, after advancing toward us, were driven back by the well directed fire of Captain McComas' artillery and Captains Nisbet's, and Musgrove's companies. Captain McWhorter's fire also caused the Zouaves on our right to retire, and this attack ceased by 3.35 p.m. Our loss up to this time was very slight, while that of the enemy was very severe, as we could plainly see them fall, and they had raised the hospital flag on a building in rear of their line.


They soon advanced again, two regiments skirting the woods on our left, and approached near enough to engage the skirmishers. One company from the right was moved over and Colonel Reid ordered to send one company from the reserve. The enemy deployed in the open field and bore down rapidly, but the heavy fire of musketry caused them to waver, and they fell back to the fence. Three regiments and a field piece were in the center and the Ninth New York Regiment on the right. The fire was now brisk from one end of the line to the other, and the enemy were held in check, when just at this moment Captain McComas was killed by a Minie ball, and his men, who for four hours had fought with most indomitable courage, became panic stricken and left the field, taking their pieces with them. Colonel Wright succeeded in rallying them and getting two pieces and a few men in position, and the enemy had advanced so close that canister was fired on them with effect and they again fell back. The ammunition in the limber-boxes was exhausted, and during the temporary absence of Colonel Wright the artillery left the field.


The enemy made a charge upon our line, but the steady fire at close distance (Colonel Wright estimates it at 50 yards) caused them to break in confusion and they fell back. Taking advantage of their confusion Colonel Wright now fell back in good order to the intrenchments on Joy's Creek, about 2 miles in his rear, and called in Lieutenant-Colonel Reid's and Major Lee's commands, and there awaited the enemy, who it appears were so badly injured that they made no advance, but at about 8 p.m. began to retreat to their boats. At this time I am informed that several companies of the Thirty-second North Carolina Regiment joined Colonel Wright, who during the night retired from this position to the Northwest Lock.


Colonel Wright states his loss at 6 killed, 19 wounded, and 3 taken prisoners. The enemy's loss he estimates as very large, as high as 300. Colonel Wright states that the regiments opposed to him were the Ninth, Twenty-first, and Eighty-ninth New York, and the Twenty-first Massachusetts, Sixth New Hampshire, and Fifty-first Pennsylvania Regiments (we have prisoners or wounded of five of these regiments), the whole commanded by Brigadier-General Reno. Among the killed he is grieved to announce the loss of Captain McComas, an estimable gentleman and brave and skillful officer, whose conduct throughout the action elicited the highest praise.


All the command engaged behaved in the most gallant manner, standing firmly against overwhelming odds until ordered to fall back to our intrenchments. They maintained their position over five hours, and killed and disabled more of the enemy than we had in action.


On returning to the field next day we recovered 1,100 pounds of powder, and the arms, accouterments, tools, &c., left by the enemy. I have already reported his leaving such wounded as he could not remove, and I have sent them to Fort Monroe on parole. Some 10 or 12 stragglers were taken on the 20th and held as prisoners of war. I will forward the original reports as soon as they are corrected, and meanwhile submit this as a summary.


Very respectfully, your obedient servant,


 Major-General, Commanding

General R. E. LEE,

Commanding, &c.



Richmond, Va., April 20, 1862.

 Maj. Gen. B. HUGER,  Comdg. Dept., Norfolk, Va.:

GENERAL: I have received this morning your telegram of the 19th instant, reporting the landing of the enemy at Elizabeth City and his attack upon the Third Georgia Regiment near South Mills. It is presumed this is but a feint or predatory excursion made from his reserve at Roanoke Island. Not knowing the advantages of the position at South Mills, it seems to me to be too far removed from your line of operations and calculated to invite an attack of the enemy, inasmuch as the strength of your party would be reported by the disaffected, and they would reasonably hope to cut it off. A corps of observation would seem only to be necessary for such an advanced point, and your force should be stationed nearer to you, at some strong point behind the Dismal Swamp, which could be more readily re-enforced. By pursuing this system on other points your troops could be more rapidly concentrated to strike a blow whenever the enemy showed himself within your reach.


I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

 R. E. LEE,



Richmond, Va., April 22, 1862.

Maj. Gen. B. HUGER,  Comdg., &c., Norfolk, Va.:

GENERAL: I am directed by General Lee to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 21st, with its inclosures, reporting the result of the attack by the enemy at South Mills and his subsequent action concerning his captured wounded, and to say in reply that he is much gratified at the determined resistance made by Colonel Wright to so largely superior force, but regrets the loss of Captain McComas, whom he knew to be a gallant officer. As regards the wounded prisoners of the enemy, he is under the impression that General Burnside has generally pursued the course indicated in the letter of Brigadier-General Reno, and sees no objection to releasing the wounded prisoners on their parole as an offset to some of our men liberated under similar circumstances.


I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,


 Assistant Adjutant-General.


Richmond, Va, April 24, 1862.

Maj. Gen. T. H. HOLMES,  Comdg., &c., Goldsborough, N. C.:

GENERAL: General Huger reports that Colonel Wright, with 400 men and four pieces of artillery, was attacked near South Mills by the enemy on the 19th instant. Colonel Wright estimates the enemy's force at about 5,000 men, and it appears from a letter received by Colonel Wright from Brigadier-General Reno, U.S. Army, asking permission to remove the body of an officer and that his wounded might be released on parole, that the attacking force was composed of the Second Brigade. A letter and diary written by a soldier, which were picked up on the field, show that his force consisted of five regiments and eight pieces of artillery, and that it left New Berne on a short expedition to destroy the locks of the canal. A quantity of powder and some tools captured by our forces seemed to confirm this account. The enemy were repulsed by Colonel Wright with considerable loss and retired to their boats, burning the bridges behind them in their retreat. This is probably the force reported by you as having left New Berne on the 16th and 18th instant.


I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

 R. E. LEE,



Richmond, Va., April 29, 1862.

Maj. Gen. B. HUGER,
Commanding, &c., Yorktown, Va.:

GENERAL: General Lee directs me to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 28th instant, together with the report of the brilliant affair at South Mills, which he has read with much interest and pleasure, and which reflects so creditably upon the officers and men engaged. As regards your request that additional troops be sent to Suffolk, which you represent as being particularly weak, he instructs me to say that the call for troops from every department is urgent, and it is impossible to re-enforce points more seriously threatened than Suffolk. He wishes it was in his power to meet your requisition, but had hoped that with the addition of the Militia (2,000 or 3,000 of which have been reported to him to be inactive and unassigned in your department) your command would be materially strengthened and the approaches to your rear rendered more secure, inasmuch as this acquisition to your force would enable you to increase the number of troops protecting Suffolk and vicinity.


I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Assistant Adjutant-General.