Biography of Lieutenant Colonel William Thomas Poague
William T. Poague, a Virginian by birth, was one of the Army of Northern Virginia's best and most effective battalion level commanders of artillery.
Born in 1835 in Virginia, Poague (a graduate of Washington College) was practicing law in Missouri when the Civil War began. He returned to his native state to offer his services, entering Confederate service as a second lieutenant in the famous Rockbridge Virginia Artillery
, rising to be that unit's captain by April 1862.
With the battery, Poague fought at First Manassas, Romeny, Kernstown, McDowell, and later with the Army of Northern Virginia in the Seven Days, Cedar Mountain and Second Manassas, Harper's Ferry, Sharpsburg, and Fredericksburg.
Poague was promoted to major on March 2, 1863. He served as an executive officer to David G. McIntosh at Chancellorsville, then was given his own battalion upon the formation of the Third Corps.
Poague commanded the battalion at Gettysburg, Mine Run, Bristoe, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, the North Anna, and at Cold Harbor. He was wounded twice at Cold Harbor. Poague later took part in the defense of Petersburg, finally surrendering at Appomattox.
Poague served gallantly in many battles, but his best service to the Confederacy probably occurred at the Wilderness. Poague's battalion was able to hold off Hancock's men on the morning of the second day, firing over the heads of wounded Confederates, long enough for Longstreet to arrive and "save the day." Hill had turned to the gallant Poague, firing double charges, because things were so desperate that it could not be even delayed to allow wounded Confederates to get out of the way.
A.P. Hill himself helped man Poague's guns.
After the War, Poague was a farmer, teacher, state legislator, and the treasurer of VMI from 1884 until his death. He wrote a set of excellent memoirs entitled "Gunner With Stonewall" and died in 1914. Poague's papers today are mainly collected at VMI.
From Jenning Wise's "The Boy Gunners"
Nothing could have been finer than a certain action of Col. W. T. Poague's, which the writer regards as one of unsurpassed heroism. The writer knew Col. Poague well, and served with him during the two years before his death as an officer of the Virginia Military Institute. As a man, his character was well known and appreciated by his fellow officers and contemporaries, who witnessed it grow fuller, and gentler, and sweeter with the passing of time. Often, as one conversed with this man, the delicacy of whose nature, the clearness of whose mind, the purity of whose life, and the stamina of whose character, were all exceptional, one could note a flash from his softening eye which seemed as a momentary reflection of the sun of other days. There was about him an air of quiet repose, too dignified to find its source in resignation, but springing from the peace and contentment of his noble soul. Occasionally there spread over his countenance an expression which close scrutiny centered in the light of his eye, an expression which appeared now and then as he recalled to mind the stirring events surrounding the military career of his youth. The meaning of that look was unknown to me until step by step I placed together the scattered record of his deeds and then I understood. Of one incident in his career alone I shall write, an incident which has never been presented in history in the fullness which it merits. It shall not be one of his many heroic deeds when as a lieutenant, and later as the commander, of the gallant "Rockbridge Artillery," he followed the fortunes of Jackson in the Valley, to Sharpsburg and to Chancellorsville. Nor will it be that unparalleled march through rain and mud and snow by which he brought his command to the field of Fredericksburg. These exploits were superb, but others vied with him in like service. It was in the sombre wilderness of Spotsylvania that Poagne loomed up pre-eminent against the sky of Southern chivalry.
When the battle of the 5th of May, 1864, closed, Ewell and Hill's Corps had already formed a junction at a point about half way between "Parker's Store" and the Orange Turnpike, and Poague's Battalion was well up on the firing line. Longstreet had been ordered to make a forced march during the night in order to arrive upon the field before dawn. All through the night Hill's advanced troops, who had maintained themselves so resolutely during the day against Hancock's six divisions, heard the enemy preparing to renew the attack in the morning, but, worn and much disorganized by the fighting of the previous day, and expecting Longstreet to relieve them during the night, the infantry failed to prepare for the impending blow. But not so with Poague's battalion on the ridge in the clearing.
At 5 A. M. Hancock's troops swept forward like an avalanche of blue, and by the sheer weight of superior numbers rolled Hill's line back past Poague's Battalion, which stood alone like a wall of flame across the Federal's path. Not until the great masses of the enemy came face to face with the Confederate guns did they cease to press forward, but no troops could pass through such a storm of fire as that which Poague then opened upon Hancock's men. Inspired by their commander the gunners plied their pieces with almost superhuman energy; the muzzles belched their withering blasts, the twelve guns blended their discharges in one continuous roar, and there among them, clinging to them as a shipwrecked sailor to a spar among the breakers, stood Lee himself, above whose head the smoke of the four lone batteries hovered like a spray in the teeth of the onrushing gale.
The great commander knew then full well that between him and disaster Poague's Battalion stood alone. What glory for a soldier! This single incident brought more of honor to the little colonel of artillery than has come to many men throughout ages of warfare. The light which I have seen in those soft, mild eyes was akin to that which must have shone from them as he stood among his guns in the battle line of May 6, 1864, the last bulwark of his country's defense, and in the very presence of his immortal commander.
For a while as General Lee stood among Poague's guns, his fortunes indeed hung in the balance. After sending a courier to hasten the advance of the First Corps and another to prepare the trains to be moved to the rear, he at last discerned the dust thrown up by the hurrying feet of Longstreet's men. In perfect order, with ranks well closed and no stragglers, the double column swung down the road at a trot, and regardless of the confusion which beset their path, the brave and eager infantry pressed on to the point of danger. In the van rode Longstreet at his best, ardent for the fray, as if but now he haft slipped the leash which held in check his straining columns.
On this occasion Longstreet was magnificent, but Poague was the greater of the two, for he, alone and unsupported, had denied the enemy a victory ere Longstreet arrived upon the scene. And yet his part in this critical affair is scarce referred to by the historian. We read that Poague's Battalion was present in the battle of the Wilderness. No more. Even Morris Schaff, whose writings are fraught with the noblest sentiments of appreciation, and whose studious work on the battle of the Wilderness is by far the best yet written, overlooks the heroism of Poague; though no more ready hand than his ever brought the pen to bear with sweeter touch for friend and foe alike.
But while Poague was overlooked by the contemporary historian, not so by Lee. One year after the Wilderness, when disaster again pressed close upon him, when dangers beset his army and all seemed lost, it was the gallant Poague that Lee called upon at Appomattox to lead the way for the remnant through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. And when the shrivelled host at last stood huddled together submissive to the hand of Fate, still another shot rang out defiant, another ring of smoke soared upward to the sky, where Poague with his dauntless battalion in the van chafed at the final decree. No. It was not a spirit of resignation which made those eyes so mild, so soft, for how often until the end, as at Appomattox, came that flash that made us feel no heroism could transcend the limits of his soul.