Tuesday, November 27, 2007

General Eppa Hunton: Another forgotten Civil War general

To some people Confederate General Eppa Hunton is just a footnote but he isn't on this blog! Hunton is one of the most important people in American History because he decided a presidential election. More on that later.
Eppa Hunton was born in Warrenton, Fauquier County, Va. on September 22, 1822. After his education at New Baltimore Academy ended, Hunton worked as a school teacher and as a lawyer. His rise to fame really began in 1843 when he was officially admitted to the bar. This allowed him to build his reputation; He was a very passionate man who wasn't good at public speaking. Hunton was able to overcome this by showing his emotions during any speech he gave. A contemporary said that Hunton "had none of the arts of the orator, except that of earnestness and candor, and a view of strong common sense in all that he said."
Just like other lawyers in the 19th Century this passion drove him to politics and as the Civil War loomed Hunton became a direct participant. He was a fierce secessionist and he showed his loyalty by joining the Virginia Militia and he immersed himself in state politics. As a slaveowner he began to worry about the political aims of the abolitionists. In 1861, he was elected to the Virginia Secession Convention as an “Immediate Secession Candidate”. The state had mixed feelings about leaving the Union but Hunton continually urged his fellow Virginias to vote for secession. Eager to fight, Hunton resigned his commission after Virginia succeeded and applied for a commission in the Confederate army. His reputation and hard work paid off by his immediate election as Colonel of the 8th Virginia Regiment. He would remain tied to this regiment for the rest of the war.
After the regiment officially organized at Leesburg it moved to and joined with rebel forces at Manassas, Virginia. On July 21, 1861 it helped end the Union assault on Henry House Hill. This decisive stand turned the tide of the battle and gave the Confederates their first major victory of the war. General P.G.T. Beauregard gave Hunton his highest praise of the war by noting in his report that Colonel Hunton “attracted by notice by their (his) soldierly ability, as with their (his) gallant commands, they restored the fortunes of the day at a time when the enemy by a last desperate onset with heavy odds had driven our forces from fiercely-contested ground around the Henry and Robinson Houses.” The Union army was subsequently routed.
Exactly three months later the Eighth Virginia and its colonel were a key part of another Southern victory. The Battle of Balls Bluff was the largest battle to take place in Loudoun County, Virginia. After the battle of First Manassas, Union General George McClellan was placed in command of the Northern army and he spent several months rebuilding its confidence. By mid-October politicians in Washington urged McClellan to attack the rebels. The ever-cautiaus McClellan, seeking to silence his critics, sent some men to capture Leesburg, Virginia. Part of this force was under the command of General Charles S. Stone. Hunton helped to check Stone’s advance and once again the Union army was routed before a Confederate army.
February 28, 1862 was an important day in the life of Eppa Hunton because both he and his famed regiment were placed within George Pickett’s Brigade. He served faithfully during McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. One of Hunton’s greatest moments came during the Battle of Gaines Mill when the 8th Virginia helped to break the Union lines after a fierce attack. It was during this contest that General Pickett was wounded and Eppa Hunton assumed command of the division. He served very well and ordered a key attack during the Battle of Glendale that helped defeat McClellan’s forces. Furthermore, he did another admirably job during the Second Battle of Manassas in August of 1862. As General Lee planned to invade the North he placed Brigade General Richard Garnett in command of the regiment despite Hunton’s good performances. General Lee wanted a person with more experience in command of Pickett’s old brigade. Meanwhile, Pickett was promoted and the 8th Virginia remained as part of Garnett’s brigade, Pickett’s division, James Longstreet Corps, Army of Northern Virginia.
Throughout his life, Hunton was plagued by illness but led his men into the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. Lee’s army was defeated but Hunton noted the bravery of his men within his battle report. “It gives me great pleasure to speak in terms of high commendation of the conduct of the regiment on these two occasions. It met my fullest approbation all, officers and men, behaved very handsomely.”
On July 3, 1863 Hunton and his men participated in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. A foot injury forced him to lead his regiment on horseback and this made him an easy target for Union troops. General Garnett was killed in the attack and Colonel Hunton didn’t come out of the battle unscathed. His horse was killed during the attack and he suffered a severe leg wound. Hunton avoided capture and was able to make his way back to Richmond during the Confederate retreat.
On August 9, 1863, Colonel Hunton became a brigadier general and was given command of Garnett’s brigade. This promotion must have been a source of pride for Hunton who had led his regiment decisively in a dozen battles despite reoccurring ill-health. As brigade commander, he continued to lead with discinction during the battles of Wilderness, Cold Harbor and Petersburg. On March 30, 1865 Hunton led one of Lee’s final attacks and one of his final victories. After a fierce struggle, Huntons men broke the Union lines during that Battle of White Oak Road. Hunton exposed himself to enemy fire and a exploding shell even bent his sword. Confederate Surgeon Mason Elizey decribed the scene: “Just then the brigade came in flushed with victory, and marching in proud array, that other grand man and war-seasoned soldier, Gen. Eppa Hunton riding at their head, the general's coat was ripped across the breast and shoulder by a fragment of shell and the scabbard of his sword bent nearly double by a minnie ball; the joy of battle lighting his noble countenance.”
The victory was short lived because on April 1, 1865 Hunton and the rest of the rebel army was defeated at the Battle of Five Forks. The brigade fought faithfully despite overwhelming odds and Hunton was again remembered for his “noble countenance” under fire. The brigade served as one of Lee’s rear guard during the Army of Northern Virginias desperate retreat. The brigade was overwhelmed on April 6, 1865, at Saylor’s Creek. Eppa was captured and spent several months as a prisoner at Fort Warren, in Boston Harbor. He was paroled in July 1865. Before he surrendered, Hunton threw away his sword so he wouldn’t have to surrender it to his captors.
After the war he resumed his law practice as if there had never been a Confederacy. The former secessionist served four terms as a member of the House of Representatives from 1873 through 1881. It was during this time that Hunton became involved in one of the most famous presidential elections. Hunton was the only southern member of the electoral commission that decided the disputed president election of 1876 between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden. Also, he fought hard for his fellow Southerners who attempted to rebuild the south after the war. The remainder of his political career was served in the U.S. Senate from 1891 through 1895. His appointment by the General Assembly was meant to fill the position vacated by Senator John Barour who had died in 1891.
In 1895 Hunton retired to private life but remained involved in political affairs in Virginia. He remained a “vigorous” old man until his death in 1908. In his obituary the NY Times reported that in his final days General Hunton was both blind and deaf. He was loved by his men and the politicians that he served with. General Hunton lived a full life in devotion to his native state and was buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. His autobiography was edited and published posthumously by his family.
A speech given by Rep. Hunton in 1875 is here:

Hunton, Eppa. The Autobiography of Eppa Hunton. Richmond: William Byrd Press, 1933


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