5/15/2014 - Captain John Potts – “He was the hope of an aged father and mother, but when the sacrifice was made, Abraham-like, their faith failed not.”

We are greatly indebted to Ms. Debra Pelaccio and her brother James Schlentz for the donation of Captain John Ralph Potts 7-day Memo Pad to the Spotsylvania County Museum.  It is through the kindness and generosity of citizens as these that John’s Memo Pad will be present for current and future generations to see.  More importantly, the story of his valor and sacrifice for the cause he believed in will never be forgotten.

The blood stained Memo Pad of Captain John R Potts.

John Ralph Potts was born on September 23, 1839, in Beaufort, NC, the son of Joseph (1796-1880) and Elizabeth Ann Potts.  He was one of four children.  Joseph was born in Northumberland County, England, and came to the United States at the age of thirteen years, settling at Washington, NC, where in the course of time he operated a line of sailing vessels to the West Indies. He was also a local merchant and was engaged in the turpentine business.  He was one of the founders of the First Presbyterian Church of Washington. After a long and eventful life, he passed away at the age of eighty-four years, three months and one day.

In the 1860 census for Washington, NC, John is listed as a clerk and undoubtedly worked for his father.

In January, 1862, by the indomitable energy of Alexander C. Latham, than whom there was no more brave, chivalrous, patriotic soldier enlisted in the cause, a company was formed in the town of New Berne.  It was commissioned by Governor John D. Ellis under the name of “Branch Artillery,” in honor of the lamented General L. O’Bryan Branch; it was originally a six-gun battery of light field pieces, and was officered by, Captain Alexander C. Latham and First Lieutenant Samuel W. Latham.   It was assigned to M.W. Henry’s and J.C. Haskell’s Battalion of Artillery and fought with the Army of Northern Virginia from Cedar Mountain to Cold Harbor. Later it was involved in the Petersburg siege and the Appomattox operations. This company was assigned to the 13th North Carolina Artillery Battalion on December 1, 1863, but never served with that command. It took about 110 men to Gettysburg and surrendered on April 9, 1865, with 3 officers and 24 men.

John early volunteered and was appointed as a Sergeant.  He was promoted First Lieutenant on 17 September 1862, and was wounded in action at Antietam, the same day.  He was wounded again at the battle of Fredericksburg, VA in December 1862.  In July of 1863, he was promoted to Captain.

Colonel John Cheeves Haskell
was Pott’s Battalion Commander.
Photographed early in the War, he
lost an arm at Gaines Mill, Va in
1862

Lt. Colonel John Cleves Haskell, the Battalion commander described the action at Spotsylvania in his memoirs
“After the Battle of the Wilderness, I was ordered to fall in the rear, to rest and pasture my horses. But on the morning of the 8th, while we halted on the side of the road to let the troops pass by, to get here we could hear firing beyond, young Pegram, of Baltimore, a courier of Stuart, came riding rapidly. He showed me an open dispatch from Stuart to either Lee or Longstreet, asking for artillery to be sent to him as he was hard pressed. Endorsing on it that I had gone, I went as fast as I could.  About a mile from Spotsylvania I met Stuart, who had formed his men so as to protect the road, and was urging on infantry to hold the line in the face of the heavy forces which were being thrown against him. Stuart took me down to the Block House, where the roads crossed, and placed my guns on a low range of hills, where we were very soon hotly engaged. He was obliged to move most of his men to the right, to meet the constantly extending line of the enemy, and left me only a line of skirmishers. As soon as Stuart went to the right, they went to their regiments, so I was left fighting infantry and artillery, without any protection.  But by placing my batteries in echelon and far apart, I was able to protect one partially by the crossfire of another.

The famous “Block House” was the home of Andrew Perry. It was locate at the intersection of Block House and Robert E. Lee Drive. It burned in 1970

The main point of the enemy attack was on Potts’ North Carolina Battery, and the fight was such as I never saw before. At one time the guns of the battery were firing in three different directions at infantry which was advancing to take them. The mortality was terrific, and when the company was relieved by the arrival of our infantry, over half the men were dead or wounded. There was no ammunition left except for a few rounds of solid shot. Strange as it may seem, this I was much more efficacious for breaking a charging line than shrapnel and canister, which while disabling twice as many did not make such a crashing noise. Among our dead was Captain Potts,  who had taken the company when badly demoralized and had brought it to so fine a standard that even when subjected to such a fire as artillery was seldom called on to stand, there was never a moment’s pause in the continuity of firing. It was kept up even when the guns were worked by the officers and orderlies as cannoneers.

On the pad for Wednesday,
John wrote “Mother I am come
home to die.”

The next morning Stuart rode some distance out of his way to see me and to ask after Potts, who had died in the night. When I told him that the company was utterly disabled by its casualties and that the others had suffered heavily, he wrote and sent to General Lee a request that incoming recruits should be sent to the battalion until it was filled up. At the same time he paid it a high compliment, and asked me to let him apply for me to be sent to him. Then we parted, with him going to meet the enemy and his death three days later at Yellow Tavern.

I was ordered to fall back to the reserve line to refit and numbers of recruits were sent to me, and I took no further part in the Spotsylvania fight until the day of the Bloody Angle. On that day the musketry fire never ceased its roar for over sixteen hours. At one point a tree over a foot in diameter was cut down by musket balls (a section of it is now in a government building in Washington).  In the fight Major Watson of the Second Corps artillery, who highly distinguished himself, was killed, and his artillery being partly disabled I was ordered to move in two batteries. As I marched in, there was a close rank of wounded and dying coming out. In less than two hundred yards I met two wounded brigadiers and one, an old North Carolina friend, General Daniel, who had been killed.  I was stopped before I got in, as the enemy had been checked, so that, while I was on duty, I was not actually engaged in the battle.

John Ralph Potts body was returned to Washington, NC where he rests today in the cemetery of the 1st Presbyterian Church located at 211 West 2nd St. His brother William named his son for him in 1868.  “He was the hope of an aged father and mother, but when the sacrifice was made, Abraham-like, their faith failed not.”  Perhaps someone will add a flower to his grave on May 12.